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Easing the Journey Through Shadow & Light

  • Dawn

Inter-Tidal Regions of Collective Joy

The other day I was trundling a wheelbarrow full of earth I had just dug out of the woods across the street, over to my new raised garden bed, when it occurred to me: I live in a liminal place. "Liminal"--a word I learned a few years ago.

Something that is liminal is of, or at, a threshold, frontier or margin. A threshold of nature, of a group or culture--even life itself. Betwixt and between.

A perfect example of a liminal space and an excellent metaphor for liminality is what is known as the inter-tidal zone, which is "the area above water level at low tide and underwater at high tide" as Wikipedia puts it so succinctly. Above this zone it is definitely shore (beach, rocks, etc.) Below this area it is definitely ocean. But the zones themselves are usually in flux.

These inter-tidal zones are often divided into sub-zones because different locations in these living regions have different environments. For example, the area closest to "definitely shore" is only covered with water at high tide, while the area closest to "definitely ocean"is only uncovered at low tide. You can see the different colors of life in the various sub-zones shown in the first photo, above, but you can also see that the boundaries are not sharp.There is no single explicit line but a whole area of fluctuation, usually teeming with life.

There are so many realms and arenas that are or can be liminal, in addition to tides: emotions, thoughts, relationships, daily life, rituals, events, and more. The very processes of birth and dying--those gateway times--are thoroughly liminal, bringing us into the mystery, unexpectedness, connection and strange power that seem to reside at these thresholds of life and death.

The tides of life and creative energy thrive in liminal spaces, whether they are in the world, our hearts, or our relationships.

Here on the edge of town we live in physical liminality. Less than a ten minute drive to the university, we are surrounded on three sides by woods. There are sub-zones here as well. I can look into the woods from my yard, or cross the road and and stand on the edge the woods, or walk all the way in so that I am surrounded by a symphony of plants, ranging from the tiniest wildflowers, to the understory of dogwood, redbud and hardwood saplings, to the dignified oaks, maples, poplars, and occasional pines.

There is liminality within the woods as well. Since we are on the edge of town the woods are threaded with civilization's wares: power lines, railroad tracks, occasional escapees from a garden, and invasive plant species. Lawrence harvests firewood there, which disturbs the normal process of rotting windfalls.

I learned about liminality from Edie Turner, an amazing anthropologist who taught at the University of Virginia into her early 90s. She was a delightful and remarkable woman, and I had the honor and good fortune of working with her as an editor for more than a year.

Edie also taught me about communitas which often (but certainly not always) flows from the fertile bed of liminality. What is communitas? It's a mysterious process or experience, hard to define and hard to predict. The simplest definition I've seen is "collective joy" which comes from the title of Edie's book, Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy (Palgrave 2012). defines it as "the sense of sharing and intimacy that develops among persons who experience liminality as a group."

Lexico (an online project of Oxford University Press) says it is "a strong sense of solidarity and bonding that develops among people experiencing a ritual, rite of passage, or other transitional state together."

Edie notes that "communitas can appear in its full glory anywhere. It does so frequently in rites of passage because here is the great mood of people celebrating a new stage, whether it is one's marvelous marriage, the birth of one's baby, or solemnly--with tears all around--at the death of someone we value greatly. When these occasions are not over-structured, they burgeon with communitas and generate effectiveness." [p. 172]

I have had a number of experiences of communitas but the one that comes to mind most strongly happened in New York's Central Park in 1982, when over a million people demonstrated for disarmament during one of the United Nations' Special Sessions on Disarmament.

Our motivation? The hope of getting a strong message across to those meeting at the UN to disarm--in order to minimize, if not end, the unthinkable prospect of nuclear war. As my friends and I stood in our gathering place (with the huge religious contingent), and later marched and prayed and sang, we carried both hope and death in our hearts in some very profound ways, as did all who participated. After a very long, and very hot day, all of us finally arrived in Central Park for speeches and later a concert--it takes a long time to move a million people on foot!

As evening was coming on, James Taylor stepped to the microphone. And began to sing a quiet love song--to all of us:

When you're down and troubled And you need some lovin' care And nothin', nothin' is goin' right Close your eyes and think of me And soon I will be there To brighten up even your darkest night

Something shifted, and as he continued to sing, a hush settled over what had been a somewhat restless and noisy crowd. He sang to all of us, and voiced what it seemed we were all feeling for each other. A sense of connection washed over us. We felt hope, we felt part of one another, we felt gratitude. And love. It was a gift, given to a million people at once, a million people sharing it back and forth, in quietness. Sustenance for the long haul.

Everyone in my group felt it. I found out later that my brother had been there, in an entirely different section of the park, and he and all the people around him felt it too.

That is communitas, on a huge scale. Born out of acting together, holding death and hope in equal parts in our hearts. Standing in those liminal spaces of our common humanity and vulnerability, calling others to join us in that space, breathing life and compassion.

Intimacy. Sharing. Bonding. Solidarity. I cannot remember or record that experience without crying. I will never forget it.

In Psychology Today's online article on communitas the author notes that communitas "doesn't overwhelm individuality but enhances it in communal delight."

In her book Edie shares reports and personal experiences of liminality and communitas in very diverse situations: a pick-up soccer game, musical events, job training, the fall of the Berlin Wall, religious and spiritual gatherings, and even something as simple as a family birthday party, as well as more formal initiations or rites of passage in traditional societies. Although communitas most often seems to arise within a group, large or small, there can certainly be a communitas of two--between lovers, between a mother or father and a child, between friends.

Edie quotes her colleague, Barbara Myerhoff, in describing some of the elements of liminality and its mysterious and unpredictable offspring, communitas: "innocence, rebirth, vulnerability, fertility, change, emotion, paradox, disorder, anomaly, opposition and the like."

I am grateful to have daily reminders, in the woods across the road, of liminal potency and the possibility of the collective joy of communitas.

Until next time,


Photo credits:

Sub-zones on a rock, Bcastorline, Wikimedia Commons

Inter-tidal beach, Shutterstock

Woods, Manuel T, unSplash

Edie Turner, AIBR

!982 Special Session on Disarmament demonstration, Getty Images

People at sunset, Change Duong, unSplash

Mother and child, Christian Newman, unSplash


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