It was not actually raining when we went down for our swim this morning but there was fine mist. The air wasn’t warm though the water, not yet at its summer temperature, felt the same as it’s felt since we first started swimming three weeks ago. Once I’m fully submerged, I forget it’s chilly and do my strokes beyond the ropes delineating the beach area. I’m out of bounds but not really too far out in the lake beyond the shore.
I’ve been thinking about liminal space lately. Maybe we all are. Liminal, from the Latin root limen, meaning threshhold. From my anthropology courses in the last century, I remember that it was a term used for the middle part of a rite of passage, when you have left one stage to transition to another, which you have not quite attained. It’s a space of uncertainty. As we negotiate the new routes and pathways that might allow us to travel safely in our daily lives, so much of what we have known and done is left behind. Or our relationship to our old lives and lifeways has shifted. In the night I lie awake, wondering if I’m prepared for the future, do I have the right guides, have I paid attention to the signs, do I know the dangers and can I meet them with courage and with love? I don’t know yet. The footing feels uncertain, the boundaries unclear.
I recently read Hua Hsu’s profile of Maxine Hong Kingston in the New Yorker and I was struck at several points by Kingston’s apprehension of ghost lives, the ones that are sort of adjacent to our own. As part of a delegation of writers visiting southern China in the 1980s, she travelled with Toni Morrison and Leslie Marmon Silko:
One day, they were on a boat going down the Li River, and Morrison saw a young woman doing laundry along the shore. Morrison waved to her and said, “Goodbye, Maxine.” She gets it, Kingston thought. If immigration hadn’t brought her to the U.S., “that could have been me,” she said. “Were you my possible other life?”
When I was in Ukraine last September with my husband and daughter, we were at a celebration in the Carpathian Mountains where we feasted, sang, laughed, and danced. My daughter leaned to me at the table at one point and said, “That woman looks so much like you.” I looked and did she? I think she did. I recognized myself in her. After a prolonged and lively dance, I sought her out and with the help of another woman who spoke some English I told her what my daughter had said. We touched each other’s face and held each other’s hands. My sister, she said, laughing. So much of that trip was me looking at houses high up mountain slopes or else beyond the fields by the road as we drove to my grandfather’s village, not imagining myself into them, but occupying that space in a way that I can’t explain. I was not the woman in the van but out of my body, up in the soft grass, looking down, a faraway look in my eyes.
In “The River Door”, the long essay I am just finishing, I realize how this sense I have of being between lives has influenced the way I am structuring the piece. There are three strands of narrative. One of them I’ve justified to the left margin of the page. Another to the right. But there’s also one that hovers between the two perspectives—I could call them early and late, or historical and contrived, imagined, or now and then—and I’ve centered those passages. They’re brief, lyrical, and when I think about them now, I realize they’re thresholds. Step forward, step back, stand for a moment in the space between what you know and what you don’t, the living and the dead (because it’s an essay in part about the Spanish flu), the past and the present.
“They need help desperately at Drumheller,” she said. “The flu seems to have taken a particularly virulent form among the miners. They even believe it’s the Black Death of Medieval Europe all over again. There’s no hospital but the town council has taken over the new school to house the sick.”
Where were they living when the flu arrived? I see them, mid-river, a wagon of their belongings, paused. Paused between homes, between what they’d known and what was to come, the moment a hinge on the river door.
When I read the profile of Maxine Hong Kingston, I kept thinking, Yes, this is so familiar. Leslie Marmon Silko remembered visiting an old storytellers’ hall in southern China and how she realized that Kingston’s work is “storytelling at its highest level, where webs of narrative conjure the ghosts that stand up and reveal all.” I need this kind of storytelling now, to guide me through this liminal space where I no longer feel safe earth under my feet. I am waving goodbye to the woman in the Carpathian Mountains, telling myself hello.