Living Liminality: Of Thresholds and Dwelling Places
A version of this post is the first of my contributions to the Feminism and Religion blog on which I will be a quarterly contributor.
Sometimes I think it happened gradually. Other times it feels like sudden change. Either way I find myself in an in-between space that is my life.
With apologies to Victor Turner and his cultural anthropological appropriation of liminality as a threshold space, I have come to view my liminal living as a more permanent dwelling place these days. Turner’s category of liminality locates subjects in the betwixt and between as they move from one manifestation of identity in community to a new kind of integration or role in community. I am starting to wonder, however, if the thresholds are actually dwelling places for some of us in this world.
I don’t know if that means I am actually more marginal than I am liminal. The margins are margins because they remain on the outskirts and they help define the boundaries. Margins are permanent. Am I marginalized if I live at the edges of the communities and identities I use to occupy, perhaps never to return to the bosom of the center? I hesitate to make such a claim mostly because I still occupy privileged spaces not the least of which are those constructed from how whiteness grants access and authority in this world.
Perhaps I am at work constructing my own kind of adjacency to the circles and institutions that had so thoroughly defined me—still touching them, still in relationship, but distinct and other at the same time. Adjacencies have their own inner logic, their own discreet existence, their own integrity and functionality. They are contiguous and therefore affected by their neighbors, but not the same, not necessarily dependent on them for life.
As a constructive theologian I still feel drawn to the category of liminality as having the most descriptive potency for this state of existence that has strange dissonance, pregnant possibilities, and a critical edge. Liminality captures the aesthetic of where I am as a theologian without an institution, a preacher and pastor without a congregation, and now a coach’s wife without a team and a human being without a stable community.
This new layer of change is where the gradual and the sudden swirl together to form an abstract of living liminality that is my life. There are not clear lines and boundaries, but suggestive hues and tones. There are not discernible shapes but instead interesting directions and connections. One can follow any number of paths and come to something altogether unexpected. I don’t know that this space is necessarily in between. It could be home.
For just about my entire adult life I’ve been on and off script for how a woman, a mother, an academic, a minister, and a wife are supposed to make a life. Some could look at my life and see symptoms of a pat traditionalism: My husband has been the primary bread winner, I have two kids (one boy, one girl), we have pets, we are home owners, and I am educated and involved in different kinds of work, mothering, and activity.
A closer look yields a more complicated existence: I am a PhD, feminist theologian married to a professional football coach (12 years in the NFL, 9 years in Division I college), we have lived all over the country and I have commuted to get degrees and/or served churches in every place we’ve called home. Several years ago when we moved to our fourth city in three years I decided pastoring churches wasn’t working for my family. Even before that I had decided with all the moving around we did for my husband’s job that a tenure track academic job didn’t seem like a viable option for me.
In the course of these practical and contextual decisions I got deeper into my own writing and my own inner work. Fragments of my identity as woman, wife, survivor, writer, mother, thinker, body, believer continue to integrate into my writing and my work. From early on, life has invited me into spaces of critical reflection and intense work on race, most pointedly that work has helped me to excavate the contours and shadows of my whiteness. From all these contingencies and invitations emerged theological, pastoral, intellectual, and existential sensitivities that I probably would not have befriended as profoundly had I been wrapped up in institutional politics and hoop jumping.
Some of the blessings of living liminality for me are a deep peace and a generous open space for my own voice and uniqueness to unfold. I enjoy working in lots of different settings, writing to and with multiple audiences and constituencies, and having space to slow down and speed up with my work as my family’s life moves through different stages and transitions. This peace and generosity include grief and critical awareness especially when it comes to the dynamics of power. Feminism has been both an easy and a difficult identity for me to carry through it all.
Lately this liminality, however, has gotten more thoroughgoing than I was prepared for. Now I am not just freelancing and working inside/outside of the institutions that formed me (church and academy to name the big two), but I am also putting a for sale sign up in front of our house. That’s not a new transitional symbol for me. My husband’s job has been in this kind of in-between, threshold space before. That’s how football works. But this time is different.
The common trajectory for our transitions would be more in line with Turner’s use of liminal—my husband would simply be in a transition stage between one community identity and whatever it is that comes next. As his family we would come alongside and our identities in the community would have an entry point with this newly defined role of my husband’s. Each of us would then expand out from there to make our place in that new space, to make a home place for each of us and for all of us together. That’s the normal way it’s worked for us all these years.
This time we have made some choices as a family. We’ve said no to the same way. My husband is taking a year off of coaching—it sounds innocent enough, a sabbatical of sorts. It’s been more like Pandora’s box than like a sweet rest though. This time around, the critical questions about power, privilege, and identity have seeped into the male-centric world of football that we have been tangled up with all these years. In some ways, the questions have been ones I’ve asked for a long, long time about my husband’s work. And still in others, this is a new way of being in relationship with this circle of power and influence. It will come as no surprise that many of these critical questions are repellent to the structures and frameworks of the football world.
I am learning that living liminality means eventually everything is in-between, everything is surfaced as a point of contention. Every layer of living is characterized by conflicting discourses, competing needs, and critical edges. Wisdom comes from these unblunted edges and clear distinctions. And they are sharp and can cut deeply into the givens that prop of everyday life just beneath our consciousness. And yes, these questions fertilize what can be and encourage growth and change. And they include painful decisions with ambiguous possibilities.
These edges, these margins, these thresholds echo with the same discordant and harmonious vibrations that being a feminist, an antiracist, and a Jesus follower have had for me all these years. There is such freedom, such anguish, such generosity, and such loss. Now this rhythm is everything—pulsing with possibility without much space to get comfortable.
What’s a feminist to do in such a complicated, dangerous space? A culture of linearity says just bide your time and something better will come along. But I think I better not waste much time waiting for a scripted reintegration. Living liminality is a habitable, maybe even hospitable, dwelling place after all.