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  • Writer's pictureRichard Hughes

A Liminal Life

Updated: Dec 24, 2022

In my practice room I have a framed photograph by the Walthamstow artist Paul Tucker, which people often take time to look at and comment on. The subject is a panelled room in the William Morris Gallery seen through an open doorway. The tones are muted, apart from a hint of ripped red wallpaper on a far wall. I am curious about this image and what draws me, and so many others, to it.

Doorways are liminal spaces, there’s a sense of being ‘betwixt and between’. The word itself derives from the Latin ‘limen’ which means ‘threshold’. Sometimes we need to inhabit the uncertainty of this kind of space, it can invite new perspectives whilst drawing attention to what may be out of awareness.

It is fitting then that I have this picture in my therapy room. Psychotherapy can be a liminal state. There is what took place before and what will be after. Carl Rogers described the moments of resonance in the therapeutic encounter as having an ‘out-of-this-world’ quality; they signify the movement from disorientation to integration. Liminality invites us to sit with this and to be curious. For the child psychologist Donald Winnicott, liminality was where creativity and play flourished, which can be an important part of the therapeutic process. Even the physical space has a liminal quality to it. Carl Jung described it as ‘temenos’, a vessel, or magic circle where transformation takes place.

Of course, when we become aware of liminality, we begin to see and feel it everywhere.

Liminal places are often defined by their ‘between-ness’: airports, hotels, hospitals, bathrooms, the foreshore, carparks, stage wings all embody this feeling. There can be a sense of otherness that is neither unease nor comfort. I have always been drawn to liminal places and have lived in plenty. For many years I had a flat on the Caledonian Road, possibly the most liminal place in North London and now I'm on the 'village boarders' in Walthamstow. There's a transience to E17, people don't put down roots here, which adds to its liminal sense.

When it comes to liminal objects, there is something about a discarded shopping trolley. How can the prosaic be so unsettling? At the other end of the spectrum, art can leave us feeling curious, confused, or moved. This feeling is liminal. The literary critic Stefan Collini described archeaological museums as 'a purgatory for objects'. And then there's the Victoria and Albert Museum with its 2021 immersive exhibition entitled Filthy Lucre, in which the artist Darren Waterson reimagined one of the most famous interiors of the late 19th century, James Abbot McNeill Whistler’s celebrated ‘Peacock Room’. The room appears to be in a state of decay, which is accompanied by a soundscape of muffled voices giving it an unsettling quality. The stage is set for something, but what? It is pure David Lynch, who of course is the cinematic master of the liminal.

Any music in a minor key can be liminal, consider ABBA’s ‘The Day Before You Came’, a song full of melancholy and moratorium, and its video which is set on a train platform. Or the plaintive ‘SOS’, in D minor, with its lyrics: ‘where are those happy days, they seem so hard to find, I try to reach for you but you have closed your mind’. Here the in-between place of a lost relationship is full of yearning, the sense of hope is fragile.

The relationship between liminality and sex has always been strong; the metaphorical threshold that has to be overcome or penetrated in some way. A lack of sex can feel like a spell which needs to be broken. And then there are those liminal places associated with sex: carparks, lovers' lanes, bath houses, piers and cruising grounds. 'The sex tree' has taken on an almost mythical status on Hampstead Heath, a ritualistic totem that the likes of Boy George and the writer Armistead Maupin have much to say about. In our digital age, Grindr, Hinge, Tinder are all liminal spaces where people can be shadowy and nebulous in their search for sex, connection or something else.

And what about liminal people?

The link between liminality and 'otherness' is strong. It can be a gift and a challenge. LGBTQ+ people, migrants and minorities are all liminal whether they are in touch with that part of themselves or not. Freelancers, shift workers and zero hour employees all embody the liminal, as does anyone whose job goes against the flow of daily life. There is an idea, developed by Ronald Burt of the University of Chicago, that the most effective and creative people are able to occupy 'structural holes', those places in organisations or society where the flow of ideas stop, or structures don't reach. These liminal people can be a bridge, bringing people and ideas together. Whilst liminal people are not always 'outsiders', there is the sense that they are on the edge of the norm. If you have found yourself sitting on the 'spare aunts' table at a wedding, you have entered a liminal vortex!

You may experience liminal people as 'messengers'. Sometimes, someone comes into your life fleetingly, but their impact is acutely felt; and on reflection, the encounter may herald change.

Mythology and folk tales are full of these liminal messengers. They are often semi-human, their intention initially ambiguous, the message they bring may not be clear. They usually vanish as quickly as they came. If you have experienced such a 'messenger' there may be something about them that sticks in your mind, their eyes or hair, or something they have said which stays with you for a long time afterwards.

I am currently re-reading John Masefield’s A Box of Delights. The protagonist Kay Harker, is returning from boarding school, a liminal place if there ever was one, when he finds himself mixed up in a plot to get hold of a magical box. Kay is an orphan, a liminal way of being, and on his adventure he crosses time and dimensions, meeting an array of messengers, talking animals and folklore characters, as well as a nefarious magician/jewel thief disguised as the head of a theological college.

A popular trope in ghost stories is a terrifying manifestation that seems threatening but is in fact a messenger trying to warn us, for example the children in M. R. James’s Lost Hearts. Another ghost story I am drawn to at this time of year is Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter. Here the protagonist, trapped in the eternal night of an Arctic winter, is haunted by a genganger,one that walks again’. What is its purpose and why has it manifested? The protagonist, stranded in a liminal space where time has no meaning and day and night merge, becomes increasingly disorientated, his decisions fogged by the expectations of his class and upbringing.

Liminality may not always feel comfortable but by leaning into it and allowing yourself to be sensitive to it, you may gain a deeper understanding of your self and others and through that something may shift, change may happen.

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