Liminal Spaces

“Liminal Space” is one of those concepts that literature majors like to bring up all the time so that we can sound profound, confuse the freshman in the class, or believe that we can tease deep philosophical meaning out of every mention of a doorway or a staircase in a book.  It is defined as a kind of no man’s land between two spaces, a place that has no definition in its own right.  In this, it differs from merely transitional spaces, like hallways.  If you’re in a hallway, you’re not in a room, but you most definitely are in a hallway.  A truly liminal space, however, cannot be described other than being between A and B.

The presence of a character in liminal space is supposed to suggest that the character feels adrift, does not fit in, or is undergoing a transition.  Usually this is construed as uncomfortable for the character.

But don’t we all exist in liminal space?  Or is it just those of us who grew up singing along with Rudolph and Herbie the elf on that Christmas special, wishing we too could find the Island of Misfit Toys?

Recently I’ve found myself saying quite often that I’m feeling stress/distress¹ because I feel like I’m existing in some liminal space.  I feel like I am the only one who is not A or B.  Or I feel like, if only I could be fully A or commit entirely to B, I could be happy, but being caught in between two phases of my life, two different options, or  two different paths leaves me feeling lost.  We all probably feel like this sometimes, because dichotomies are based on stereotypes.  Anything that tries to polarize people completely, into gay or straight, masculine or feminine, liberal or conservative, is going to miss some of the subtleties that make humans a gradation instead of a rainbow of diversity.  But sometimes I think we feel even more caught in the middle because society refuses to acknowledge that there even is a middle ground between two extremes.  There is no accepted way of being both A and B, and therefore our desire not to complete give in to either one, not to completely give up on either one is a constant tension in our lives.  The opposing options that pull us apart are different for each person, but here are the ones I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.

Introvert vs. Extrovert

I hate being alone.  I hate being in large groups of people who know me, like at parties.  I like when people are around, as long as it’s only one or two.  I love being alone, anonymous in a crowd of strangers.

Mainstream Culture (traditional view of success) vs. Counter Culture (nontraditional view of success)

I couldn’t really come up with a better way to name this one.  What I mean, is that a lot of my friends are artists, either trying to make money off that or holding down some random job to supplement their income while they do art for a pittance.  And then there are the people I admire who followed the traditional road to success, like having a respectable job that they got by getting a respectable degree.  I have a decent office job, but I’m at a point where I either need to resign myself to sticking around in this entry level job so that I have time to pursue my art, or striving to go to grad school or work my way up the ranks to get financial security, which may leave no time for my art.  If I do one or the other, I could count myself successful to some extent, but sitting around and not doing either of those is definitely not success.  It’s also the fact that I fit into a world of hippies, vegetarians, environmentalist, gay rights activists, people with nose rings and tattoos, that just feels the complete opposite of the “corporate” world, but there are many punk/hippie/alternative people whom I question for their inability to ever reign it in and act appropriate to a more serious occasion.  And, despite my great fascination with body art, I have always been too wishy-washy to ever commit to anything more risky than multiple earrings.

Adventurous vs. Cautious

On the one hand, I have tendency to over-analyze things, but on the other I have a tendency to be impulsive.  I agreed to go on a week-long canoe/hiking trip with some individuals I wasn’t very close to, even though I had never once been camping in my life.  I also have avoided taking yoga classes for years, even though I’d really love to, because I’m too nervous at the concept of walking into the studio and not knowing what to expect. I’ve bought several Groupons and passes to a yoga studio near my house, but let all of them expire without going.  If you gave me a hypothetical situation and asked me if I would do it, I’m not sure even I could give you the right answer, because I’m nervous when I least expect it and bold when I least expect it as well.

1. Linguistic puzzle of the day: since adding “dis-” typically creates a word meaning the opposite of whatever you add it to, should “distress” not be stressful?

And time yet for a hundred indecisions

Time for you and time for me,

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,

And for a hundred visions and revisions,

Before the taking of toast and tea.

~T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

I am really bad at making decisions.  I’m okay admitting it.  There are things that I’m good at, like cooking, standardized tests, and knitting amigurumi characters.  These skills are of varying utility, but I think it’s safe to say that being good at making decisions would be potentially more useful than any of them (although you would be surprised how much garden-variety absent-mindedness and stupidity people are wiling to forgive when they find out you got a perfect score on the ACT).

Most people are pretty bad at making decisions.  Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daneil Kahneman shows how the human mind is constantly tricking itself into selecting wrong answers and doing things that are objectively illogical.  The most poignant chapter for me was the one that shows that we are inherently inept at assessing our own happiness; we lose track of the differences between day-to-day happiness, moment-to-moment happiness, and life fulfillment, leaving us with an inaccurate pictures of what we really feel.  It’s a long book, full of fascinating and disheartening truths, but it is also a truth of life that people are required to make decisions every day, even when they are completely unprepared to do so.  Even though it is impossible for anyone to make all of their decisions with infallible rationality, it does appear possible for some people to at least make a decision, often, miraculously, one they’re fine with living with.

I, on the other hand, am so risk-adverse and analytical that I will agonize over my to-do list, losing precious moments of productivity while I weight the relative merits of doing my laundry before versus after going for a run.  Extensive restaurant menus cause me anxiety, so you can imagine the nausea and existential crises that ensue when I have to make an important decision, like what to do with my life now that I’ve achieved the goals {(1) graduate college (2) move out on my own, and (3) get a job} that have been driving my more quotidian decisions for years.

Ever since graduating high school, I have kind of coasted by a on a proscribed path.  I don’t even feel like the places I ended up after college were really the result of decision-making on my part any more than they were on luck.  I found a job connected to the university from which I graduated; I moved in with a friend, in the one neighborhood of Chicago where I knew someone; even my decision on what college to attend was made out of an inherent desire to avoid making a decision—it was the best local school that had the major I wanted, and smart people go to the best school they can.

They say that life can be improved by living more “mindfully” and doing things “with intention,” so I’d really like the next major move I make, whether it’s a big life change or just sort of staying in a holding pattern to be the result of a choice, rather than happenstance.  At the same time, it’s overwhelming how many and how few choices there are before me.  I obviously couldn’t possibly draft a neat list of all my options, though the lack of such a list may be fueling the illusion that they are fewer than they really are.  And, no matter how long that theoretical list may be, I’m constrained by the realities of the Great Recession, my college debt, my limited network, and the fact that writing is a far from stable lifestyle.  Seeing my high school peers now teaching English in Taiwan, toiling in cubicles, slinging lattes at chain coffee stores, wearing Superbowl rings, and working for legal non-profits, I know that I have options.  And I’m plenty grateful that with a college degree and decent job I have more options than many others do.

But I have big dreams and, when you’re a smart kid, those around you have big expectations, so it’s hard for me to be satisfied with a modest success.  I need goals.  I want something to strive for.  But I think right now, the decision that I have to make, and that everyone in my position who wants a fulfilling life, a life of more than computers, commutes, cubicles, and cable tv has to make, is how to define my goal and my success.  Do I do it by traditional standards? Do I do it by the positive change I’m imparting on the world? Do I do it by reaching for my difficult and perhaps unattainable dream?  Or do I do it by the happiness that I experience in the small moments of every day, the kind of gratification we often delay in favor of those other kinds of goals?

I once was lost, but now profound

Do you ever have times when you feel like you should be profound?

You feel like you should be in a tiny cafe listening to a poetry reading or watching a sunset on a rooftop with a guitar.  Moments when, to quote The Perks of Being a Wallflower, you should feel “infinite.”  A moment when you feel the breeze on your face and with the breeze should come that feeling that a part of you is seventeen again, listening to rock music while riding in your friends’ car in the summer evening, and you know that you could do anything.

It’s kind of like the exact opposite of writer’s block.  Instead of being in the frame of mind to create and throwing your bucket repeatedly and repeatedly into an empty well, you feel like a fountain, an endless stream of potential, if only you could achieve that “infinite” feeling, if only the humidity would drop to 50% and the mercury would hit 68 degrees just as the moon comes over the trees at the edge of the subdivision and “Boys of Summer” comes on the radio.  You know you’ve felt those moments; maybe those are the only moments in your life that you’re really alive and the rest, from the cubicles to the coupons is just a dream.  For the life of you, you don’t know how to capture that feeling.

But instead of discussing German poetry over croissants at an independently-owned, fair-trade coffee shop with friends who were philosophy majors and most get by on couch surfing and the free food at art gallery openings, you are just running around your apartment, full of manic energy alternating between having music on because it almost makes you feel profound and having it off so you can concentrate on being profound.

Or am I the only one?

(When you have to ask the question, the answer is usually, “I’m the only one”)