So here we are, in the last week of 2023. Children are out of school, many businesses are closed or slow, and the mad rush of holiday shopping and socializing has mostly passed, though some celebrations continue. If you work in retail, you may be bracing yourself for a flurry of returns and exchanges. If you celebrate Christmas, you’re likely feeling a little bit of a post-holiday slump. New Year’s Eve will be here soon, with more social obligations, but this last week of the year tends to carry a feeling of uncomfortable in-betweenness that can be hard to shake.
Anthropologist Arnold van Gennep coined a term in 1909 that I find helpful in the in-between times. The word, “liminality,” comes from the Latin word, limen, or threshold. It means to be not quite in one place or the other, like you’ve paused in a doorway before stepping into the next room. In anthropology, the idea comes up when studying coming-of-age rituals, or at other times when someone moves from one role in society to another. In modern America, an example could be the period between graduating from high school and heading off to college. That summer is a liminal time, when you’re not in high school, but not quite a college student either. Other liminal times in life could be cross-country moves, engagements, pregnancies, or other times when you are transitioning from one phase of life to another. Preparing for change, knowing it is coming, but not really knowing what it will be like, with all the messy feelings of hope and worry and excitement and anxiety that come with changes.
It might be easiest to think about liminality in a physical sense. In addition to doorways, other liminal physical spaces are hallways, lobbies, airports, and highway rest stops. Anywhere that is neither here nor there, but that you pass through on your way to somewhere. I find it useful to think about liminality as a metaphor as well, because while it can be uncomfortable to linger in-between during a time of change, sometimes you don’t have a choice, so you might as well take the opportunity to reflect on the path you’re walking.
This brings me back around to the betwixt-and-between feeling of this week. A lull, a time with little direction, and a time of transition into the new year. Many people struggle to maintain their mental health during the holidays, and I would argue that the strangeness of moving through a liminal time is part of that.
So what do we do, in times like these, when we are forced to pause before we step through the door into something new? How do we manage the feelings of uncertainty that come up during liminal times? The answers will be different for different people, but there are paths forward for each of us.
If you find meditation and mindfulness practices to be helpful, this is a great time to focus on the here and now, to notice how you breathe and move through space, and to recenter yourself before taking those next steps.
If your life and responsibilities allow, you might accept the season’s invitation to embrace the slow-down, to read, to cook foods that take some time, to play games, to go for walks, or to curl up and hibernate just a little and allow yourself to rest in the in-between.
If you are a reader (and since this is a library blog, I bet you are), you might find some solace in a book. The library has collected some lists of the year’s most read and most beloved books, locally and nationally. Some of these books are grounding, some challenging, some comforting, and some enlightening. They’ve been our companions as we’ve traveled around the sun in 2023, and maybe they will keep you company in this home-stretch week before the new year.
If you are a planner, and idleness is hard for you, you could use this in-between time to think about the year to come. Make some lists, if lists make you happy. Plan your garden, your meals, a trip or a project you want to tackle in the coming year. If preparation helps you feel more confident about what’s to come, then use this interstitial time to think about the future.
If you like to make things, then perhaps you could use this liminal time for creative work. It is a great time to reflect, both on what has been and what could be, and creativity can flourish in uncertainty. So maybe pick up your journal, your novel, your sketchbook, your paintbrush, or your needle and thread and find inspiration in whatever liminality brings up for you.
It is hard to know what to do with the feeling of being in-between, of not quite clicking into place, but these liminal times will keep coming back around, following the seasons of the year or the seasons of your life. We all find ourselves perched on a doorstep, not quite inside and not quite out, every now and then. Recognizing those times and figuring out how to navigate them in a way that works for each of us can help us find the next steps to take. If we can find a way to be okay with experiencing liminality, it allows us to keep growing and learning. If we can live with liminality, we are always on our way somewhere.