Liminal Living

About a month ago, I got rid of my couch. Well, “couch.” It was a beautiful antique Chippendale sofa my grandmother had proudly displayed in her parlors since the 60s. It was not comfortable at all, but I piled it up with extra cushions and draped it in scarves and pretended it could be. But then I realized my skin broke out every time I laid down on it. Then I realized that my cat was having persistent skin problems, too. Then I realized I am allergic to feathers and this thing was stuffed with feathers and probably several decades worth of mites. So I paid some dude $35 to cart it off (please don’t tell Granny). If I had the time and patience to reupholster it, I might have been able to sell it, but it was time for it to go.

The living room echoes now, and it’s still not comfortable at all, but it’s not the right time to buy a new couch.

“Do you know the word liminal? Like ‘liminal spaces?’” my dear friend William asked me 6 1/2  years ago. He and I were both single at the time and staying with family while between lives. We took a lot of walks, and that night we were wandering through the neighborhood where my parents lived. It was close to midnight in deep winter, so the small town streets were completely still. We’d just passed the house where he’d grown up. The light from the blue street lamps made it and its neighbors look more like a movie set than places with real living people inside.

I told him I didn’t think I’d heard the word liminal before.

“I came across it in this book I’m reading.” He was studying folklore, getting ready to apply to grad school. “It’s kind of like an in-between state.”

“Like limbo?”

“No, not quite like limbo.” Limbo had connotations of absence, he said, where liminal spaces were something more than that.

“Of or relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process,”says the all-knowing Google. “Occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.”


I think of William as I sit in a nest of blankets on my empty living room floor. He didn’t get into grad school the first time he applied, but he tried again, and he was teaching folklore at the college level by the time he died 2 years ago in June.

William walked the length of my previous liminal space with me—a season of my life I remember as a time when belonging nowhere came to mean belonging everywhere. He was a perfect guide and soul companion for such a time: a great listener, an easy-going explorer, an asker of questions, a patient presence in long quiet moments. He was also clumsy and endearingly awkward—almost like he was a little out of place no matter where he was, but he had friends and adventures absolutely everywhere. (Now that he’s not here, it’s impossible not to think of him as just continuing his adventures on the other side of a new boundary.) When I look back on those 4 or 5 liminal months, I remember it as one of the most beautiful times in my life. I remember driving William around one night—slowing down over the bridges so he could stick his head out the window and smell the river. I felt every flower that opened that spring.

If I had been given the option at the time, though, I would have rushed through that season.

I was nursing the pain of an abrupt exit from my previous life. I knew that time was the only thing that would heal my loosely wrapped wounds, and I was ready for that time to go ahead and move through me, past me, and leave me normal again. I’m so glad I don’t control time. I’m glad William made me lean into it, investigate it, stretch it, take off for the beach on a whim, show up at poetry readings and house shows, talk to new people.

I’m so glad he gave me a name for that liminal space, too, because now as I sit on a new threshold, I feel a little more prepared to slow down instead of blowing past it, to look for the beauty in the pain of rebirth, to recognize this as an important part of the process and not just a limbo of nothingness between one place and the next.

In 3 months I’ll be starting over like I never have before.

All of my stuff will be in storage, strangers will be caring for my cats, and my partner and I will be putting our limited Spanish to the test looking for a place to live in Madrid. There is so much paperwork, cleaning, packing, decision-making, emailing, researching, mending, money-spending, job-leaving, tossing-outing, and good-bying between here and our arrival in Spain. Everyday I can feel myself leaning one way or the other in the balance that tips between mourning for the life I’m leaving and laser-focusing on the new life ahead. But this is an important moment, too. This one. There is much to learn here–here in this living room with no couch.

It can be tempting to look at the garbage bags I haul to the thrift store as I’m pulling up my roots and wonder if there is something wrong with my life. I’m 30. A scroll down my facebook newsfeed will show you a bunch of pictures of people getting married, completing advanced degrees, celebrating promotions, buying houses, and welcoming a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th child into their lives.

But these are all thresholds, and what are thresholds but openings for things to come and go?

Why not let a threshold be as spacious as possible? I wouldn’t want to jam up the works. There is much to learn here in this living room with no couch–where I can be out in the open for a while in my own home before it’s time to take my home with me out into the open.

What about you, dear reader? What thresholds have you inhabited? What have you learned in your liminal spaces?


7 thoughts on “Liminal Living

  1. Hello SHDonnell.
    I am William ‘s Father and would love to talk with you sometime on a “postive conversation, not sad”
    about your experiences with my son. We can share lots of information. Yes, he introduced the word “liminal” to me too!
    I would LOVE to speak with you at your convenience!
    William Clarke Lindley, Sr.
    My cell in Burlington, NC is 336-260-4113.

  2. Thanks for reading, Clarke! I would love to share some stories about William. I’ll be in touch in the coming weeks!

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