The Delicious Liminality of In-Between Places…
As an English teacher for over a decade, I get a zing of geeky pleasure in LIVING conceptual terms. When you really understand the definition of a word used to analyze a book — in this case, “Liminal Space” — you start to see it in the real world, and by being able to identify it, realize why it’s so important.
Read on to get a fun yet educational definition of the term, then a deeper understanding of liminality via experiences you have likely had, yourself!
I have illustrated this whole article with (awkwardly blurry) photos that I took out the window of a speeding train between Boston and New York — and you’ll soon see why they’re so helpful.
Can You Define Liminal Space?
A “liminal space” is defined as the threshold between two places, states of being, or eras. The term is derived from the Latin word, “limen,” meaning “lemon.” Just joking– it means “threshold” or doorway: the passageway between two things.
Though it may seem like liminal spaces are just boring places to pass through on the way to the “real thing,” in fact, liminal spaces are incredibly powerful… and they are everywhere in our lives. For example, are you a teenager? Congratulations! You’re in the liminal space between childhood and adulthood!
An Example to Explain the Liminal Definition:
I’m on the train now, zipping southward from Boston, driving the passenger next to me crazy by snapping photo after photo out the window.
Sorry, sir, but the light is golden-perfect, and these photos are going to illustrate something I’ve been longing to sing to the world for a long time: the liminal spaces BETWEEN cities are AMAZING! However… most of the time we don’t give a hoot about them.
Let’s analyze the magic that’s going on outside my train window right now.
People care about New York City. People take lots of pictures of its flash and architecture, from Times Square to the Empire State Building. On the other end, people care about Boston itself, too: it’s historic, beautiful, and it’s fun!
But what lies in the liminal space BETWEEN these famous cities? Look out the train window and see.
What lies between Boston and New York is: rippling blue water swirling between golden reeds. It’s a bunch of small towns most of us have never given a second thought to, mixed among Providence, Hartford, New Haven, and Mystic, CT.
It is boats bobbing on inlets, and laundry drying on clotheslines. It’s pockets of auto junkyards and heaps of scrap metal! It’s open fields with swaying grass, and birds swooping through glistening marshland. It’s forests with bronze-gold branches and dancing boughs. It’s lots of human and animal lives!
This space between deserves a glance, even a stare or gaze of adoration… and maybe also a bunch of photos!
When traveling in Cambodia, some of the coolest photos I took were on the rural roads between the major tourist hubs of Angkor Wat and Phnom Penh. In fact, I snapped the majority of photos from the breezy open sides of my tuk tuk, on the way to the places my guidebook actually listed.
The tourists (myself included) spent days gazing at the towering temple ruins… but what of the fields and farms and homes in the emerald green fields between?
Liminal spaces can be FUNCTIONAL and useful. Now, for example, my workout plans depend on the hour-long, 3-mile walk home I do each day to clear my head and stay sane.
See? Liminal spaces are important! Confusing? Sometimes. Misunderstood and sometimes ignored? Sure. But important? Without a doubt.
Liminal Spaces in Literature: Catcher in the Rye
Liminal spaces are everywhere in literature, too. If you’re cool like our tenth grade class, you’ve read Catcher in the Rye, and likely know that Holden Caulfield’s main struggle in the novel is the agony of adolescence, the liminal space between childhood and adulthood.
Holden’s wish to be a “Catcher in the Rye” is a symbolic manifestation of this in-between life stage. By being a “catcher” in a field of rye, Holden shows he longs to “catch” children before they dive off the cliff into adulthood and corruption. He wants to push them back to the protection of innocent childhood, and out of the confusing in-between zone.
(Enjoying this mini English lesson? Check out my articles on juxtaposition examples , apart vs. a part, or the spelling of the “T” word: travelling or traveling for a little more education action!)
Do You Love a Liminal Space or Two Now?
So what do you get now? What other liminal spaces do you see around you in your world? Have you ever noticed them before?
Now if you’ll excuse me, our train is pulling into New York City: The sparkling, pulsing, famous heart of capitalist America. Out of the wide, golden fields with their snaking rivers and liminality, and into the concrete craziness I go!
The author, Lillie Marshall, is a 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English, fitness fan, and mother of two who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched Around the World “L” Travel and Life Blog in 2009, and over 4.2 million readers have now visited this site. Lillie also runs TeachingTraveling.com and DrawingsOf.com. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media!
Thursday 15th of April 2021
I never knew the the alleyways I love to photograph are liminal spaces. Thank you!
Thursday 15th of April 2021
You’re welcome! So cool that photographing alleyways is your specialty! Gotta give some love to the liminality which is too often ignored.
Friday 15th of June 2012
Oh that's so cool! In Boston there are liminal spaces, separating neighborhoods. Between the South End and Back Bay there is a stretch of park. Also between Chinatown/Copley and South End there is the highway. Does liminal spaces only apply to natural landscapes?
Friday 15th of June 2012
Yes, that's very true! No, the concept of "Liminal Space" may apply to many things, both tangible and conceptual.
Friday 27th of May 2011
These pictures are truley amazing, and next I go to NYC, I will definatley notice the liminal spaces.
Wednesday 4th of May 2011
I never knew Liminal spaces between major cities could be so interesting! I've gone to New York a lot, and never really bothered to look out the window. Now I actually want to see what is between Boston and New York. This is going to be a great experience!
Tuesday 3rd of May 2011
I love the way you use " Catcher in the Rye" in this article, it fits in perfectly. It must be exciting to be on the road all the time.