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What is a Liminal Space, and Why is it So Powerful?

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.

Liminal space
A sapphire river in the fields between Boston and NYC.

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.

Define liminal
This tree ain’t in Boston or NYC, but it wants your love!

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!

Define liminal
Will you notice liminal spaces now?

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.

liminal space
A golden field out the window on the train between NY and Boston.

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.

Catcher in the Rye liminal space
Grading as the train crosses liminal spaces.

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!)

liminal space
A liminal space divides two things, like this river!

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!

Can you guess who this seventh-grader is??
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