I HUNCH IN THE PORCH SHADOWS, feeling for the rough side of my key. After a few exploratory taps, I ease the blade into the lock then turn to face the sky. At half past four in the morning, the stars are still out. They winkle in the branches. I begin my walk, about forty minutes up the street, through Acorn Park, then back. It’s March in the suburbs of Saint Paul. Winter has gone, though spring has not yet come.
Technically, of course, it is either winter or spring, but what moves me to be out is not measured by technical precision. I am relieved to feel myself somehow amid the calculated arcs of Earth’s orbit, touched everywhere by immeasurable emptiness, by a chance to walk awhile in the luxurious vacancy of a shattered category. In this curious moment, this nameless season, the walls of order drift apart and more space is breathed into the world. All up the block the hardwoods appear ornamented with extra air and even the flattened grasses add depth to the sky. As I walk along I become a center whose modest passing lifts entire trees into the stars and slowly turns their branches. The backsides of things revolve into view and shyly show their surfaces. It’s hard for what’s possible to find anywhere to hide.
As in March, I find a similar season on the other side of winter, in November. Melville notes it in the opening of Moby Dick. Who has not glimpsed these in-between and anonymous times that envelop us with a sense of life’s deeper trajectories? They are at once moments and states of being; though they occur in time, our clock hands cannot touch them. Each is a trespass on eternity. The days, too, offer up such moments, in the blue dawn before dawn or in the browns of the second dusk when soil turns to light and looks down at itself in the broken glass of rivers. In the tropics there is such a moment in late afternoon, heat’s contrition, when the sea turns from silver to gold and the ordinary things of a day become totems of divine wisdom — the dust, the market shadows, the trash in canals — all of it at peace with the faraway sound of dying.
A popular term for such evocations is liminal. You’d think the word had been around since antiquity, but it’s a recent coinage, made up about a century ago by a French writer and folklorist, Arnold van Gennep. He drew on the Latin word limen, or threshold, to signify the middle phase of a ritual, that strange moment after one has given up a familiar way of being but has not yet come into a new identity.
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In its short life, liminal has departed its anthropologically precise definition. It has since widened its meaning to include just about anything that suggests a transitional state. Places can be liminal — airports or hospitals, a road in the wilderness, Earth’s borderlines where thunderheads flatten or rocks melt, where the sea gives up its light. Through the lens of hindsight, the long march of life itself appears punctuated with liminal slithers and galumphs. One thinks of the genus Ambulocetus, the “walking whales,” or the feathered dinosaur, a creature known as an Archaeopteryx. Among life’s reasoning creatures, those who fail to match an assigned identity or who refute a category into which they find themselves placed, may live for years, if not a lifetime, as liminal beings.
As a writer, I like my definitions precise. But in the case of liminality I make an exception. I appreciate the way this term has come to model the ambiguous qualities it defines. How apt. To quantify an ambiguous thing, after all, is inherently a struggle. In religious matters, whenever inerrancy is asserted, whenever we say that God’s nature can be fully expressed by an idea or a law, then ambiguity becomes a threat, a thing to stamp out. I take an alternate view, that to engage ambiguity brings us nearer to divine truth; touched by ambiguity, we glimpse the narrow range of our provincialism and so invite a push from the angel that wrestled with Jacob; the divine, as I understand it, comes fully to life whenever life draws us into uncertainty, whenever it softens our sure divisions and sweeps us along, bricks and borders and all, into the heart of an enlightened mess. It’s deep in the liminal that the divine presses closest to our skin with its transformative mystery. Surely, this is good news for believers. For what in the world is not finally ambiguous? What in this wide universe — including the wide universe — is not on its complex way to becoming something else?
You’d think such a pervasive state of change would receive our constant attention. But the displays of such change, at least on a grand scale, are far too subtle for that. As the writer Gretel Ehrlich observes of a mountain worn down to a mere frosting on other rocks: some kinds of impermanence take a long time. At any rate, to say everything is liminal and leave it at that is not very helpful. So I add that some things of this world embody liminality more richly than others; their qualities combine to make them especially concentrated with the gray radiance of ambiguity.
To this, I add one thing more: anything richly liminal retains a hint of mischievousness, an antic delight that seems born of having vexed our impulse to make categories, to open yet another exhibit in the permanent collection of our head. As such, all things liminal seem to me inhabited by a kind of presence, one that receives us with a peculiar spirit of something like kindly ruin; we are invited into its company, even loved, yet its reception offers us no assurance that we are exempt from the frightful anonymity of its depths, which so calmly absorbs everything from mountains to stars.
GOD, SAYS EMERSON, COMES TO SEE US without a bell. Because the nameless season is so subtle, I’ve found it helps to put myself in likely times or places to receive it. Its occurrences are like faraway stars whose light can only be detected with peripheral vision. To glimpse one requires sidelong intentionality.
And so, these early walks. At the end of my street I cross a road and once more head into Acorn Park. On a city map its borders are as exact as the blueprint of a split-level house. Its interior, though, is a mishmash of swales and woods joined by a meander of unmarked trails. I make my way back through some trees and come to the edge of a little marsh. Beneath the stars, heaps of canary grass sparkle with frost. They look like the tops of clouds. I head out onto a boardwalk that curves through the grass and then disappears into a willow thicket. As I follow its curve, the willows deny me the long view; with each step I am sent back to myself. Trail makers call such a calculated hoard “creating a mystery.”
Curves like this one put an encouraging pressure on the imagination. What lies before us, unseen? What fresh arrangements of branches and stars? A good curve wakes one to the old questions, the sort whose purpose is not to gain an answer so much as to ease one into wonder and consideration. We live in a nation that does not much love a curve. We’ve grown accustomed to short lines between obvious points where there is no tolerance for mystery or wonder, for paradox. Some days when I am overfilled with such callow linearity, I just want to find me a bush and walk circles around its eternal withholding.
The marsh is beautiful. The wrecked grass remembers the snow. On a few twigs, just a few, the tips of pussy tails have cracked their shells. The Japanese have a term for such things just easing into or out of being, wabi-sabi. Like liminality, wabi-sabi describes a range of qualities that resists easy definition. We find it in things tarnished or withered or in the trembling intimations of things almost born. I’ve found wabi-sabi in a root cellar open to the sky, where young ferns were uncurling among the boards and broken jars. Wabi-sabi is the long view arrested in junk. It is there in the natural world wherever change is both quiet and continuous — in a vernal pond or in the orange blades of a tree stump, in the wildflowers that shake among fractured rocks.
One of the best wabi-sabi poems in English, I think, is Robert Frost’s “Oven Bird” whose subject, in high summer, with the leaves secretly old, asks the question of what to make “of a diminished thing.” In his brave little book on the subject, Leonard Koren tries for a list of wabi-sabi qualities: it accommodates degradation and attrition; it is comfortable with ambiguity and contradiction; it favors the variable, the warm. While there may be nuances of wabi-sabi too culturally esoteric for me to grasp, I appreciate what this idea has illuminated in me, for along with liminality it helps to clarify and a;rm my own sense of a nameless season.
In the end, what any of this means precisely really doesn’t matter. What matters most is nearness. Courting the nameless season is comparable to bird watching; we go where the little wings are. We make a bowl of ourselves to catch whatever pours in with the light. As the poet Phillip Booth writes, once inside the misty woods, we join the stillness and learn “to wait without waiting.”
What in this wide universe — including the wide universe — is not on its complex way to becoming something else?
A FEW HOURS FROM MY HOME, in Northern Minnesota, lies the origin of the Mississippi River. Its very source. You can see just where that great river begins, at the north end of Lake Itasca. A tall brown post marks the spot, N 47°13’05”, W 95°12’26”. It’s here that the nascent Mississippi slides out of the lake, spilling through some stepping stones before continuing on its long way down to the Gulf of Mexico. The stones are well traveled.
I’ve often thought how much more instructive it would have been had the Civilian Conservation Corps foregone our expectations and stuck to cabin building. What would it mean to have left that spot just as it was, a slough scarcely moving through wild rice, passing along waters already complicated with other beginnings? Indeed, like most magnificent things, the Mississippi River begins inconclusively. To truly engage its porous beginnings asks so much more of us than a trot over a dredged channel. It begins, yes, but way back in, among the bog laurel, with a bulb of rainwater slipping down the curve of a reed. It is the leak that precedes a flea surfacing from a pinhole in the mud. How useful it is to believe we know without question what to expect of the universe and then suffer the sickness of discouragement. Such instructive dissonance is the soul before morning, wise to the morning.
Deep in a deck of tarot cards you will find the Hanged Man. He dangles from a tree by one ankle, his hair pointing at the grass. The world he sees is turned upside down. You’d think such an attitude would produce a grimace, but his expression is serene, even spiritual. In some cards, his hair is luminous. The Hanged Man is tarot’s liminal card. He is all about the art of learning “to wait without waiting.” With the Hanged Man, we encounter enlightenment in its minor key. He represents the insight that approaches us in low places even as our old ways of thinking slip from our pockets like so many nickels and dimes. Who knows what will come next? The Hanged Man has no answers. But his vantage teaches him where the Mississippi River truly begins. When at last he comes down from his tree, he will not cross the stepping stones. He’ll go the way of a person like Thoreau, following the shore where it curves and the willow bushes hide the distance.
BACK IN ACORN PARK, BEYOND THE boardwalk, I head into a little woods. Its darkness feels older than that of the suburban streets. As I walk along, the trees pass the stars through their openings — Vega and Deneb, Antares to the south. When I pause, they find their places, and I regard them a moment. I am now midway through my walk; I’m midway through a lot of things, not least among them life’s journey.
In the Divine Comedy, that tour of the Christian cosmos, I find companionship in Dante’s characterization of himself, a middle-aged traveler aware of his uncertainty and open to the old questions. And thus he begins his great journey. Before long, he meets Virgil, his poet-guide, who in the early cantos shows the way so well. In my own life, Dante’s words have left their books. I find them out among the leaves and stars. They put me in mind of my father. He’s not a poet, but a doctor long retired and as all fathers must be, a guide. His name, too, is Virgil.
Recently, my father had been a volunteer at a local charity that marketed second-hand goods. He’d worked there for several months until, as they say, he was invited not to return. In the history of that agency, he was probably the only volunteer to have been fired for posing a threat of excessive labeling.
As he described it, he’d been employed in the receiving room, a dingy space crowded with unsorted appliances — waffle makers and hair dryers, toasters, curling irons, coffee machines. There were mountains of cords and adaptors, all in tangles. His duty had been to fix what broken appliances he could so that other volunteers could place them on the sales floor. In his zeal for order, however, he began to make recommendations regarding the mess. His approach, I imagine, involved a friendly delivery of uncompromising standards: perhaps a systematic cleaning followed by improved lighting, maybe some wire shelving and the introduction of assorted bins and trays — and, of course, labels all around, each printed in prominent font type and affixed to any drawer or lid that risked a mystery. His vision, if executed, would have resulted in a wonderfully efficient system of sensible categories. His ardor, though, proved too much for the manager, a less exacting soul who was quite content to function in the grody chaos of the original operation.
With no more appliances to fix, my father returned home and sat in his chair. Soon afterwards, that October, he received a diagnosis of cancer. He found he had no place in his life to put the information, even with an encouraging prognosis. Indeed, the house he keeps presents an almost palpable air of vigilant calm, a place in which anything out of order — a dropped newspaper, an overturned slipper — sets off a quiver, like a little EAS alert, signaling a need for corrective action. This impression extends even to the garage, a space so entirely tucked in that it recalls the modular purity of the old Nancy comic strips. Nowhere in that home is there a resting place for bad news.
For as long as I can recall, my father has been preoccupied with organizing and categorizing the things of his life. A robust materialist, he has never dwelt much on the Bible, though I sometimes imagine how much he would enjoy entering that book at Genesis 2:19, just long enough to name all of the animals. Indeed, in the years I was growing up, it was common to find him awake at four in the morning, seated in his study with a cup of coffee and a labeling gun. More significantly, he uses a figurative version of that gun to christen what he regards as right living and correct politics, and even more so to brand what ideas or beliefs he discounts as wrongheaded. There is no nuance in the dismissive stamp of his opinion. The world, however — so varied and antic, so vast and messy — refuses his categories. As does the vulnerable heart. As does death.
When Melville’s November came round, my father took to drinking heavily, a winter-long decision that by the new year nearly produced the death for which the cancer had only intimated. One morning in February my brother found him on the carpet barely responsive and so with the help of family checked him into a treatment center. He spent a few weeks there, shuffling its wide hallways, looking out the windows. Sobered and frail, he returned home to sit in his chair and watch old cowboy movies.
When I received the news of his diagnosis, I started on a gift for him: a collection of ten wooden boxes. I covered the panels of each with images cut from colored felt — forests and rivers, windy skies, places he knew and loved. The panels, taken together, tell the story of the soul’s journey from its birth in the world to its departure. Should you open a box you would find inside a deeper layer of images, each in its own way a meditation on that box’s theme as well as on the depths of meaning that await us in the half-hidden and in-between places of earth and self. I worked on it all winter. Short of writing I’d never done anything more soulful.
When I brought the gift to him, there at the treatment center, I saw immediately that it was too much. In the quiet pastels of his room, perched on an end table, those ten colorful boxes sat beside him like some kind of big Russian firebird. He had no idea what to make of so overt an expression of his existence. He fidgeted in his chair. He smiled, glancing at the walls, and waited for the moment to end. After a short while, I packed away the boxes and passed them on to my mother. I now realize that an understated gift would have been so much more appropriate, much in the way that a Tibetan monk would sit quietly beside a troubled man as opposed to showing him postcard after postcard of the ornate palaces of Lhasa.
BOTH MY PARENTS ARE FROM upper Michigan — its western end, Gogebic County. They came of age in hematite country, with its red-dirt roads and ore trains, though during the 1960s, the years of my boyhood, that industry had all but died away. In that distressed economy real estate was incredibly cheap. Indeed, you could buy a house with a credit card. The summer of the first moon landing, my father purchased an old miner’s house. He fixed up the inside and then, for a decade, our family of eight came north to stay there while we skied or visited relatives.
During the summer my father was renovating the place, for one long weekend, he brought me along with him. We worked together, just the two of us. We bought a roll of rainbow-colored carpet and unfurled it across the downstairs. We laid a frame of painted two-by-fours around the oil heater and then filled the inside with stones from Lake Superior. At night, he took me to a tavern for fish fries served on paper plates. It was a nine-year-old boy’s time with his dad, and I moved eagerly among my tasks, proud to hold the hammer right, or to keep a paint brush on its path along the baseboards.
Sometimes, when I’d take a break, I’d go out back to poke around. There was a rotting garage with a dirt floor and behind it a tool shed littered with broken glass. The lawn hadn’t been mowed in years. I liked pushing my way through its deep grasses. I’d go back to the property line where the higher weeds began. A willow lay there, a huge sideways tree, and I’d walk up one of its trunks. The perch inspired a coastal feel, as if you were gazing out on a strange, broken sea. The wind, when it came, made a surf of the grasses. It swept through the windows of junked cars and then washed over me and into the woodpiles behind people’s houses. These were caving grounds, my father explained: a roughening over the abandoned mines where now and then the earth gave way. It was land predisposed to subsidence, a place where people left things. And that was as much as he or anyone ever said about it.
And yet. How much more seemed to be there than what came to me in such summarizing shrugs. How at peace it all seemed in its disregard. Beyond what such a place had to say about human greed and environmental ruin, those fractured and marginalized vistas touched me with their air of serene permissiveness. How effortlessly they received a child’s spirit, the full size of it, which otherwise was forever crashing against the furniture and the right angles of a thousand conventions. Here was a place that was both human and inhuman. It offered no decisive form or purpose, but simply loomed into my life as a deeply passive occasion of earth wide enough and strange enough to accommodate whatever I might wonder about, or hope for, or fear. No school or church ever said so little so well.
That Saturday night, while my father and I were lying on our cots, a great sorrow overtook me. I shook with grief, and could not stop crying. My father, bewildered, asked what was wrong. I had no idea but could only ask him over and over whether he loved me. In the face of our happy time together, he laughed at the unlikeliness of my question. He assured me that of course he did, of course, while I listened carefully, nodding. He then settled back into his blankets and went to sleep. For a long while I lay on my cot watching the darkness, looking into it, my eyes drying. The next morning he made us both one of his memorable breakfasts — lacy eggs in bacon fat, coffee and buttered crispies — and then we finished our work and headed home.
I’ve often wondered about that weekend, our cheerful time together and that unaccountable grief. Of the sadness, I now think I can speak to what it meant, that it was my soul weeping over its private wisdom. It understood that this energetic man, this Virgil, so centered on physical things — rainbow carpets and money, sunlight and well-being, bacon and eggs, the precise instruments of his profession — had no capacity for the nameless season in all of its airy melancholy. That depth into which I would pass, and love, was not to be one that we could share, but to the contrary was going to serve to separate us by degrees, for as we both aged into the fullness of our natures it would make me appear in his eyes as too much the dreamer, a man seduced by hesitations over immaterial complexities and therefore incapable of seeing the things of this world as they so obviously are.
In the Purgatorio, Virgil leads Dante to the top of that high mountain, just under the towering absolutes of heaven, where he and a second guide must leave the middle-aged poet to continue on his own. In a memorable passage, in Canto XXVII, evening falls and each traveler makes a bed upon one of the mountain’s stone steps. And there at the top of Purgatory the three sleep through the night. It is a lovely moment, a liminal moment, and it reminds me of that evening when my father and I lay next to one another on our cots. I, too, was just awakening to the divine in my life. And in that curious and edgy time, just as the old Roman poet stays the night with Dante, so my own father stayed the night with me. Come sunup in Purgatory, in parting, Virgil gives Dante an elder’s highest blessing. He affirms his self-determination: I crown and miter you over yourself.
In my own life, I, too, have received such a blessing, its purest form coming to me through my literary elders, Emerson and Rumi among them. From my own dad, it has come in a more mixed fashion and so to accept it, I would have to wrestle. And so I have. In the contest, I’ve learned to turn aside from judgment and catch his gruff, buffeting affection. In his holiday meals, so artfully prepared, I have learned to accept what is tangled in the food while we all dish up his pastas and salads, his grilled poultry, while he looks on from the background, softened by alcohol and sentimentality. His blessings are the stuff of wabi-sabi, and they’ve made me a student of his complexity, learning to see what is half hidden among the rough and the broken, beautiful in its way.
I THINK MUCH OF TREES. Here in these predawn woods, just north of Saint Paul, I take heart looking up into their branches. Trees are the pillars of liminal space. They bind earth to the worlds that exist figuratively above and below us. In a tree’s symbolism, we’re reminded that each life transpires in an interstice. As expressed in a thousand poetic ways, we emerge from heaven-knows-where and soon we return. In our meantime, we hunger to understand the fullness of our condition, but despite all of the say-sos that fill our books and aim to ease our fears, no such claims can ever be more than provisional.
For those who insist on absolutes in their metaphysics, this position will infuriate, I know. But the nameless season does not seek to offend. It only knows the earth will not traffic in certainties, and simply invites us to wonder. It says the oven bird sings in high summer and the moon circles like a child who will not show us her backside. Near the creek, the lady slipper kicks off her blossoms and leaves no footfalls farther back into the bog. Far above the ruins of old mountains, clouds are born. They sinew the air, like rivers. The Buddhists talk of skillful this or skillful that. How about skillful wondering? Human wonder, I think, is the only resource we have ample enough to spill out to the edges of our existence and then slop back into the thick of us with whatever poetry we need to live honest, courageous, and meaningful lives.
I sometimes like to imagine that there is a special tree for all the rebuffed things of this world that so refuse a category. Let us allow Eden its pair of trees, while we keep this one. Call it the Tree of the Fruit of Miscellany. It resembles one of those wide African baobabs, full of crevasses and shade. On approaching it, one finds a canopy filled with fruit, each piece tied to a twig with a ribbon. And not one fruit finds a twin in its neighbor, for each arrives here from the place where it fell somewhere back in the world — onto a kitchen floor or a public square, in a church basement or a university classroom — each gathered up and floated through the night, each tied just so to a twig and left to hang.
Sometimes, though, the ribbons undo themselves. No one can say why. Sometimes, the fruits drift back over the horizon and into the All-Souls moments of an ordinary day. They show up in the dawn before dawn, or in tall grasses that you know in some odd way love you and only want to be honest. They arrive in the cupped hands you blow into, planting your air with invitations.