Inhabiting In-Between Spaces

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been exploring liminality as a structure to think differently about how we transform and change, and the structures and concepts of liminality that are relevant to the navigate the journey. That’s fine in theory, but there is also the question of what it’s like to live with that in practice. To think and explore what it really means to navigate the liminal, in-between world of previous status and future identity, and to make sense of what it means to commit to the journey.

In doing so, I’ll likely be getting a bit more personal, as I examine my own experiences and journeys, and try to use those insights to illuminate the ideas that we’re exploring. And exploring is very much the operative concept at play here.

As I’ve mentioned before, liminality is a deceptively simple concept to describe and relate to. The structure is breathtakingly straightforward: there are three stages, and we navigate through each in turn. The preliminal stage is all about letting go of who we once were. The liminal stage is the journey of learning and discovery and developing of the resources and confidence to become who we are about to be (without actually being that new thing just yet). And the postliminal stage is the transition to our new identity. It’s where we assume the mantle of our new status and sense of being, and our reassimilation as we come to terms with our new identity.

It’s very easy to describe but very difficult to transition through, though, in real life. The significance of defining the concept of liminality as an anthropological concept was the recognition of the importance of ritual, transition and transformation in how individuals and communities develop. The structure, and its essential universality, provided a fundamentally valuable framework that has been developed and expanded upon.

Living within and managing the progression through in-between spaces is an entirely different proposition. We don’t see the structure. We don’t see the map. We don’t recognize the patterns and stages, and the compelling structure that we ascribe to liminality is not apparent when you’re wandering through it.

What predominates when we’re navigating the in-between spaces is uncertainty. Doubt. Lack of clarity. With that comes anxiety. Discomfort. Fear. Stress. How much these emotions predominate, and the influence they have, depends on both the situation, ourselves and our circumstances. There are those who embrace uncertainty and genuinely love the feeling that the ground can move under their feet at any moment and lurch them in a new direction. There are others for whom simply reading that sentence is enough to make them nauseous.

A significant aspect of living through liminal periods is recognizing that this is what’s going on. We need to be able to identify and appreciate that we are working through—or about to contemplate—a transition. The start of the preliminal stage doesn’t begin with fanfare and recognition. It starts with a glimmer. The notion of a question emerges. A nagging sense of doubt, possibility or hope makes itself known. We begin to figure out what we think and how we relate to that question.

A pivotal moment for me, some years ago, was the decision to relocate my life and work to a new province. At the time, I was still relatively early in my career. I’d been consulting in project management in a variety of roles for about seven years. My current role wasn’t what I had hoped for, and I was coming to the realization that it didn’t hold the opportunity for me that I sought. I was starting to think about what my next move might be, and the shape that it might take.

Around that time, a careers posting for a Manager of Projects appeared. The company was in Edmonton. I lived in Toronto. I didn’t want an actual job. And the role that they were seeking was to guide a significant change that would be hard for an internal employee to support and navigate. I sent them a letter (we still did that in those days) saying that the position was interesting, but they really needed a consultant rather than an employee. That was perhaps a rather audacious claim, but they were still interested enough to follow it up.

The start of the preliminal stage wasn’t the reply. It wasn’t the letter. It wasn’t the finding of the job posting. It was the flickering sense of dissatisfaction with where I currently was and what I was currently doing. It was the awareness that I was open to an opportunity and a new role. It was where I raised the possibility and contemplated the question of doing something differently.

Finding ourselves in the preliminal stage is something that often sneaks up on us. We might stay in it for a long period of time as we ignore or suppress the question. We might stay in it even longer once we open ourselves to the question but struggle with how to answer it. And we can drag it out interminably when we fail to subsequently make a choice.

For me, once there was a mutual expression of interest, things moved along quite quickly. A phone call led to a meeting that led to a further meeting that led to an offer for a consulting gig that was sufficiently long-term to make the move to Edmonton worthwhile. And that led to another, much more fundamental question: were my wife and I willing to pack up our lives and move across the country? That’s where, for us, the preliminal stage dragged out. Not in time, because we had only a couple of days to make a call. But certainly in emotional intensity.

We had a life in Toronto. We had friends. We had married only a couple of years previously. We had an awesome downtown apartment. There was much to like. And yet there was much reason to consider moving. My wife wanted to be near mountains (and no, Edmonton doesn’t have those, but at the time we considered Edmonton as a possible springboard to Vancouver or Calgary, which certainly does). We were restless. Change could be interesting.

We tried making the decision rationally. We made lists. We weighed pros and cons. We talked it over interminably. We waffled endlessly. And finally, at 2am with a commitment due the following morning, we flipped a coin. Heads we’d move to Edmonton, tails we’d stay in Toronto. We flipped. Heads. Two out of three? Heads again. Three out of five? Heads again? Five out of eight? Heads and heads. We committed to moving based upon five flips of a coin, all of which said to leave.

And so ended the preliminal stage. We had decided. We were moving. We notified employers, landlords and friends. Moving trucks were booked. Boxes were packed. House-hunting ensued. After we had chosen to leave, we had let go of the status of living-in-Toronto and begun the transition to a new status of living-in-Edmonton.

And that’s the thing about the preliminal stage. You don’t leave it until you decide to leave it. And when, in making that decision, you genuinely mean it. Pinky-swear, no-take-backs, which means you can stay in it for an incredibly long time. And many of us do. We may be dissatisfied, we may see opportunities that might appeal, we test the waters of change by dipping our toe in. And at the same time, we keep one foot firmly planted on the shore. We leave our options open. We stay on firm ground where it’s safe, and don’t truly decide to move from that ground. Until you make that leap, you haven’t decided. And once you’ve decided, there’s no going back.

Until you do go back. And that’s where our example shifts, to another move between cities. In the spring of 2011, my wife and I were still in Edmonton. We’d built a life, and we had built a company. We had also just come to the end of an incredibly difficult thirteen months dealing with deaths in our families, where they were in Toronto and we weren’t. In the previous year, one or the other of us had spent probably close to 50% of our time away, one dealing with family while the other of us tried to hold everything together in Edmonton.

Finally, my wife came to the rather emphatic decision of wanting to stop what we were doing and move back to Ontario because that was where we were needed. Three months prior, I’d been in a similar headspace after coming off my own period of family struggles, and had no energy left to pick up where I’d left off. However, in the intervening period, I’d been the one holding it together so she could be at home, and I was so far down the rabbit hole of doing everything for everyone that I couldn’t see out of it. We had a difficult decision to make, and we were about three months out of phase with each other trying to make it.

This story isn’t a re-exploration of the preliminal stage, though. It’s about the liminal stage. In a short space of time, we did choose to move back to Ontario. Houses were sold and offices were shut down. Boxes were packed, and moving trucks were once again booked. By October of that year, all of our worldly possessions were either in storage or wedged into a very small condo in downtown Toronto.

That, though, wasn’t really the end of the liminal stage. It was the start of it. In fact, it was the start of several. We had chosen to move back. In doing so, though, we had actually made several choices. To let go of a home that we had lived in for fifteen years. To let go of our office and our employees. To let go of a market that I had worked to develop and built a reputation in.

Each of those “letting goes” were their own liminal stages. Rebuilding a home had its own pace and timeline. But ultimately that was a transition that came to a close. We did the things that one does in moving to a new place. We got new driver’s licenses. We found a new family doctor. We made new friends. We got to know our new home and our new neighbourhood.

The transition of work was very different. When we left, I had numerous commitments in Edmonton. I spent the next year commuting back and forth as I followed through and fulfilled those contracts. And I have kept doing that ever since. While my work in Alberta has tapered off, it hasn’t gone away. And while it has taken time, I’ve also begun to build up a presence and a reputation again in Ontario. The challenge has been that, in the intervening years, I’ve often felt torn between west and east. I’ve been in-between both places, and haven’t always felt that I’ve fully inhabited either. Six years on, however, I joked to a friend that “I can’t really make the argument that I’m in transition anymore.”

That realization was, for now, the end of that particular journey. The wrestling of the liminal stage was about exploring and figuring out how to build a life that involves, today, working in two very different places. It was about recognizing and coming to the appreciation that my new status wasn’t about “being in transition.” It was about “firmly having my feet in two different provinces.” While I’m physically in between both places (and I’m actually currently in Edmonton as I write this), that is in point of fact my current role and status.

That doesn’t mean that I won’t change again. And that’s probably the predominant feature of transitioning into and then finally leaving the postliminal stage. We often think that we need to make the right decision, to find the perfect choice, as if once made it will never change. And of course it will change. While we can’t go back, we can still move forward. And we will keep moving forward. Sometime in the future, my role and my status will shift again. I may finally transition fully to Ontario. And then I again I may transition somewhere else entirely.

That’s the wonderful thing about life, and about liminality. You can always be in-between. Not as a permanent state of indecision, necessarily, but constantly changing and transforming, growing and evolving. For all the choices you make today, there will be future ones for you to explore and consider. Some you will embrace. Others may be thrust upon you. And while it might feel uncertain and uneven and sometimes downright scary as you go through the transition, eventually we all come out the other side.

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