I read a piece recently in the New York Times written by a doctor working in hospice, who very honestly confronted and articulated her experiences – both practical and emotional – when relating to people who are transitioning. In other words, dying. And yet these people are still living. They are said to be transitioning. The use of the word ‘transitioning,’ and the story she told of both beauty and fear, struck me.
The word’s usage in this context describes a very specific transition, arguably the most challenging of our lives. And sometimes these transitions are described as liminal phases. Somehow the word liminal resonates more deeply in my heart. It is evocative of something more than a transition.
Liminal is defined as “of or relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process” or “occupying a position at, or on both sides of a boundary or threshold.” It is to me, a beautiful word, a beautiful idea, but it can be terrifying. Rilke writes “let everything happen to you, the beauty and the terror, just keep going, no feeling lasts forever.”
I remember being too scared to visit my grandmother as she lay dying in a hospital bed. I was just a teenager at the time, and finally did visit, but I was terrified. I loved her so much and could not process or comprehend what was happening. Since so much is changing, and changing so rapidly, when you are a teen, adolescence felt like a free fall for me. I would awkwardly tumble in and out of the various rights of passage and seminal experiences.
After I saw my grandmother in the hospital for the last time, I went to see my best friend. We used to hang out sometimes at her father’s furniture store. It was a bizarre small town thing, but they had a trampoline in the back of the store. I remember bouncing up and down on the trampoline that day and crying. The embodied experience of repeatedly falling, again and again, allowed the tears to flow. There was anger and laughter, too. But until that moment, I had not been able to let myself fall into the present and experience the feelings of love and loss flowing in and out of me.
When I spent time with my father as he was dying, it too was a liminal place. But when I gave myself permission to feel fully the beauty and terror of this liminal place, I found myself, with him, on some strange yet familiar plateau. It was extremely quiet, and peaceful and full. It was an expansive liminal place of love. I say liminal because it is as if with in the stillness, I was also falling. And so letting life, love and loss, happen. “Let everything happen to you, the beauty and the terror” says Rilke.
That nothing feels completely certain anymore feels odd but true, or truer than any of the ideas or stories that take me away from the immediacy of these feelings, which as Rilke said, are always changing. But in that liminal place or phase there is a call to stay present – to the beauty and the terror – since no feeling lasts forever, and nothing lasts forever.
My mother is almost 90 and I sense, in myself, a certain uneasiness when we speak sometimes. There is an intimacy, but also a distance. The distance is actual (she is in New Mexico) but on some other level, emotional. But there is also a tenderness. A tender and at times tentative quality, or slightly awkward quality in our conversations. And sometimes we traverse the gap and find ourselves connected in that beautiful, scary, liminal place. It is as if we both know just how delicate, precious, and fleeting life is, liminal, and eternal in that.
I have never walked on a tight-rope (but are fascinated by those who do), never jumped out of an airplane, and have never even been on one of those bridges in the jungles that are made of twine and swing as you traverse them – but I imagine them at times. I imagine looking down at water moving and around at trees swaying and the fluid and ephemeral clouds above. What ground is there in this context except presence? The fierce, yet loving presence that allows us to connect to each other, and to ourselves, to the beauty and the terror.
I like feeling in control. But I also find myself drawn to those circumstances where I literally fall into presence. It is scary. It is beautiful. It feels like love.
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
-Rainer Maria Rilke
Categories: Carrie Owerko