Tuesday, August 04, 2015


After an exhausting thirteen-hour drive from Ohio on the first leg of our June vacation to Nova Scotia, we pulled into the driveway of a friend who lives in the town of Wappinger Falls, New York, just outside of New York City.  Melisssa is a nature artist and dog trainer, whom I met several years ago at The Festival of Faith and Writing. I don’t remember exactly how we met, but after realizing we both had a love of nature, art, and dogs in common, as well as a questioning faith that didn’t seem to fit anywhere, we became instant friends. 

Melissa and her husband have lived in a circa 1740 farm house for the last 22 years, slowly making changes over that time. They built a wonderful deck for entertaining, complete with picnic tables and enough bird feeders to help every migrant on their way up through New England. Recently they pulled up the kitchen flooring, only to discover wide wooden planks underneath, which they spruced up and varnished.  Her front porch brims with pots of flowers, herbs, tomatoes, squash and strawberries.  Each morning, she made me chocolate mint tea from leaves plucked off her potted plant. Her three dogs are as much a part of the family now as her three children once were.

But before all the remodeling and gardening and dog training, they had a busy life of working, homeschooling their children and finally sending them off to college.  Now all on their own, Melissa and her husband are in the place many of us 50-somethings are in…that uncertain, scary, yet potentially exciting, threshold, often called a “liminal space” or liminality.  If you are not familiar with the term, here is an excerpt from Wikipedia:

“In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word lÄ«men, meaning "a threshold"[1]) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual's liminal stage, participants "stand at the threshold "between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.”

Indeed, there comes a time (or perhaps should) when a person realizes that they are in some kind of transition, when they are no longer required or compelled to do what they have been doing, maybe for decades.  There are lifestyle "rituals" in being a parent, caretaker, employee, or spouse. Sometimes the transition can be ideological, if we begin to move away from beliefs or dreams that we long-held. These internal viewpoints with all their involvements, roles and rituals, too, may no longer fit or serve us, yet what we now believe to be true or best, or any new vision for the future, remains ambiguous. 

This can be a downright frightening thing, usually because we start to have emotions we can’t quite name. We get edgy. We begin to evaluate our lives, and become dissatisfied with things we feel guilty about being dissatisfied with. We long for a change but can’t exactly name that change. People may think we’re weird, or selfish or immature, thinking we should count our blessings and be content.  But maybe being content is not the best or most “righteous” thing to do be at this time.  Maybe a distant drum is beating...and we are beginning to hear its new rhythms. Maybe it's time to listen to our guts...for a change.  Or maybe it’s just time for big change. 

But change is scary for many people.  In his book,  Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr writes:

"The human ego prefers anything, just about anything, to falling or changing or dying. The ego is that part of you that loves the status quo, even when it is not working. It attaches to past and present, and fears the future.”

Unfortunately, our culture doesn’t really recognize these rights of passage and transitional phases of life as significant or sacred journeys…we call them things like a “mid-life crisis” or depression, or various kinds of “syndromes” such as the empty nest variety. Giving men and women the time to stand on these thresholds with support and encouragement for as long as they need is not in most of our discussions.  We can spend too much time “willing" ourselves to be content to no avail.  And the constant conscious or unconscious pressure  (external or internal) to keep the status quo, without reflecting on the underlying reasons why we are doing what we’re doing, is what leads to the little red sports car, the new husband or wife, the affair, or the depression. 

So over eggs and oatmeal in her newly renovated kitchen, Melissa and I discussed the liminal spaces we both find ourselves in.  As of this writing, she recently married off the second of her three children, and is looking forward to an Artist-in-Residence program in the fall at Acadia National Park.  She's not letting the fact that there are now only two of them rattling around in that old farmhouse be a discouragement. They are embracing it.

They are finding fresh rituals, like time to sit together in front of their new picture window to watch and listen to the birds through a microphone her husband rigged up. Or sitting in front of their big stone fireplace and reading together this past winter. She is considering co-authoring with her mentor a book on dog-training. That’s some creative and healthy transitioning! 

But it has taken standing for a time on that uncertain threshold, getting counsel, prayer, and trusting that her new desires will come. And not only come but be truer to her real self, filled with the wisdom of the years and an unfolding passion and deeper love.

As many of us approach it, or stand on the threshold of this uncertain time and space in our lives, we can heed the words attributed to Abba Poemen, one of the early desert fathers of Christianity, 

“Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart.” 

My hope is that you spend some time with your heart today. And if Ambiguity or Uncertainty show up, I encourage you to stand on the threshold, extend an invitation to come inside and get to know one another.