Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Getting Comfy in the Liminal

One of my favorite concepts is one called liminality, which was developed by Victor Turner, a cultural anthropologist. Liminality (coming from the word "limen", which means threshold), is described as a time when individuals are "betwixt and between": not belonging to society in the way that they once belonged, and not yet being reintegrated to society in a new way. Wikipedia writes, "Liminality is a limbo, an ambiguous period characterized by humility, seclusion, tests, sexual ambiguity, and communitas." Turner explored liminality during religious rituals like pilgrimmages and trances. According to Turner and the many theorists who have followed, there is something especially auspicious, especially sacred about the liminal. During those "in between" times, magical things happen that would never happen during ordinary day-to-day life. And interestingly, it is often during these magical periods of transition throughout history that women have flourished and risen to positions of power-- somehow, women seem especially comfortable during these periods of change and journey.

One thing I can say quite absolutely about motherhood is that it is one of the most liminal experiences that exist. From pregnancy, in which the body becomes a vessel for flourishing life, to childbirth, when the bodies of mother and child separate in an experience that is like no other, motherhood is marked by thresholds and transitions. And even now, with two small children in the household, it often feels like there is nothing I can quite grab hold of-- just as soon as I feel like I have figured my child out, she transforms, expands, recreates. Just as soon as I feel like I can name my relationship to my children, it changes. Just as soon as I feel like I have my feet firmly situated on something concrete, the earth beneath me shifts.

Mothers are guardians of their children from birth to adulthood, and in many ways that entire span is one huge threshold-- from small to big, from pathetically dependent to capable, from suckling to weaned. We live in the liminal, and that is where we learn to flourish, because for us that ambiguity is where we find the sacred. There is no joy greater than observing discovery, creativity, transformation. And for mothers, for me, that is a place that I can call home.


Once Upon a Parent said...

I have to say that you really are a born mother> I see you as someone who excels at nurturing, fostering and teaching. Thanks for the inspirational post. It is a nice reminder of how special this phase of life is.

One and Doll said...

Hmmm...I think you use the word liminal the way Sean and I use the word grey...nothing is black and white- nothing is for sure... and this is both good and bad- grey.