Navigating Liminal Spaces: A Journey from Perceptual Boundaries to Empowered Perception

Living Happy Extra


JUL 29, 2023

I posted this on my substack last week, but I thought I might share it here, too!

Also, I’m teaching a free workshop at the Writing Barn, August 22. You should come! Here’s the link

I was born backwards and with the caul wrapped around my head. For a long time, doctors thought I was blind, but then, eventually, my eyes reacted to light. At one, I had an operation. But even then, after the patches and then with tiny blue glasses perched on my itty-bitty nose, I didn’t see right. I’d see eight of things, then eventually four, and then eventually two, until the ability to use both eyes at the same time left.

Stuck at age five, still with glasses, but unable to see the world with any depth. I grew up terrible at volleyball, baseball, tennis because I couldn’t judge how close the ball was to my face when it flew through the air. I ran into trees when I raced bikes in the woods behind Deb Muir’s house because I misjudged the jumps they made with plywood. I’d run through my own back woods, searching for Bigfoot and take massive Superman diggers, tripped up by New Hampshire tree roots that I didn’t realize were quite so high.

The bruises collected, but I refused to accept that I wasn’t seeing the world the right way, that everyone else could except me.

a person in a garment
Apparently I was looking for Big Foot in the wrong place. Photo by Jon Sailer on Unsplash

My mother, god bless her, was proficient at fixing broken glasses and pressing cold compresses on bruises, smoking her Marlboro Lights and admonishing me to protect myself.

“You don’t have to always be going and doing, Carrie,” she’d say while giving me a kiss and a hug, removing an ice pack or putting on a bandage. “It’s okay to sometimes just be still.”

My mother, god bless her again, wasn’t very still herself. “You’re going to be the death of me,” she’d say sadly before sending me off with a kiss. I wasn’t. Diabetes and those cigarettes were.


brown wooden house near brown wooden fence during daytime
Photo by Michael Förtsch on Unsplash

I wrote a post over here this morning about my town and liminal spaces—those transitory thresholds in our world, our architecture, our community, our own lives. And it may have sort of done me in, which was bad planning on my part when it comes to this post.

But I’m going to give it a go. When I think about my inability to see the world correctly, in all its full 3D glory, I think a lot about the liminal spaces, the existing in between things.

The liminal space is often defined as that in between. You are not where you were, maybe, and not where you want to be, maybe.

There are a lot of maybes when it comes to liminality. Just like there are a lot of maybes when you move through the world without depth perception.

Liminal means threshold. In architecture it’s often defined as “the physical space between one destination and the next.” 

There are tons of internet spaces (see what I did there?) that talk about physical liminal spaces, but the kind I’m a little more interested right now are the ones in a life.

Some people think liminal spaces have a sense of unease to them. Some think it’s more magical.

silhouette photography of person
Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

I like to think of it as both. It’s a place where you can feel change coming sometimes and change can be scary as heck but also so magical and full of possibility.

It’s when you just graduate and don’t have a job yet. It’s when you move to a new city or are about to leave the old one. It’s when you apply to college and aren’t sure where you’ll attend or when you are about to go to high school—that whole summer before. It’s when you’re waiting for an operation, when your kids go to college, when you’re about to retire or separate or you need to figure out a new way to make enough money to survive or thrive.

A quick look at word origins shows us that the base of liminal is limen, which is Latin for threshold.

Liminal places are thresholds, stairways, elevators, escalators. Liminal spaces are the space or the moment or the location between one point and another.

Richard Rohr describes the emotional/life journey part of liminality as:

“…an inner state and sometimes an outer situation where we can begin to think and act in new ways. It is where we are betwixt and between, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next.”


a group of people standing around a display of video screens
Photo by Maxim Hopman on Unsplash

I think, though, that it can be smaller than what Rohr talks about. You can enter these spaces every day when you pause and notice where you are, what you’re doing, how you’re feeling; when you take a breath between one task and another one; when you connect with just existing instead of focusing on thinking and doing.

Weird, I know, right?

But the way my brain ended up being wired after an illness gave me epilepsy in college is that most of the time my brain isn’t thinking in words or in pictures; it’s just sort of there. Just being.

Shaun, my husband, will constantly ask me what I’m thinking about and I’ll say, “Nothing.”

Super frustrating for poor Shaun, but that’s because a lot of the time my thoughts aren’t in words, they are just in knowings. And a lot of times the knowings are quiet and still. I know! I know! You now know too much about my brain.

Anyway, emptiness is kind of scary. We rush away from it even picking up our phone when we’re in the bathroom to play Wordle, or by scrolling through whatever social media app we’re into when we’re on the couch because it’s too hard to just sit and surrender to doing nothing or to that very big nothingness.

When my daughter was little, she wouldn’t go to sleep easily. I’d ask her why, wondering if she had nightmares. “What are you scared of?”

“The emptiness,” she’d say. “The nothing.”

“When you’re asleep?”

“No,” she’d say, “before.”

That cliff between being asleep and awake can sometimes be full of the nothing that she was afraid of, but it can also be a place where the conscious and subconscious sort of dance together like in a surreal painting.

The cool truth of this world is that we don’t all have to fill our days up and our brains up all of the time. The cool truth of this world is that we can all think and exist and see in different ways or in ways that are the same. The cool truth of this world is that those liminal spaces can be launching points toward something extraordinary.

house surrounded by withered trees and snow
Photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash

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Sometimes it’s okay to not fit in: Writing in the liminal spaces

While I was doing my five-minute break from work today, I pulled up YouTube and saw a video about feeling like you don’t belong by Marianne Cantwell

And it was all about her book, which came from her experience.

But her talk was about how some of us aren’t terribly good at fitting in and that’s okay.

As a writer, I’ve felt this.

And as a person, I’ve felt this.

I almost quit my MFA during the first residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts because I felt so much like I didn’t fit in. I’m pretty sure I actually said, “I just don’t belong here. I need to quit.”

One of the teachers there at the time, the lovely and kind and brilliant Lisa Jahn Clough talked me down. And I stayed. And I learned a lot. I never fit in and that was okay because the people there were cool like Lisa, who told me she often felt like she didn’t fit in either. They were chill with me being me.

But that wasn’t the only place where I felt like I didn’t belong.

plot pacing and proms writing tips

I never fit in with my family, too quirky, too weird, and though I’m quite pale my skin was far too dark. DNA explained that away eventually.

My sibling would say to me, “You’re so weird.”

My mom would say, “You’re just a bit special.”

My sibling would say, “Who dressed you?”

Or “Are those Snoopy shoes? What the hell?”

It wasn’t easy. I usually tried to hide by sitting on the floor at all family gatherings, hoping not to be noticed because to be noticed? It was to be hurt.

I didn’t fit in at college even though it was a great college.

I wanted to study political science and theater and psychology and it all felt too—confining.  My friends told me I was anti-intellectual because I worried about class issues. Nobody else worried about class issues except for this one Marxist guy from England that eventually fled from the FBI.

Everyone else seemed to want to procreate all the time and I didn’t really think about sex, worry about sex, be motivated by sex. I wanted to write poems, figure things out, write stories and plays and understand Derrida and Kant. I wanted to be Derrida and Kant, honestly.

I worked as a security dispatcher because I had to work as part of work-study. I interned at the district attorney’s office while other people spent their summers interning at family law firms and sailing and leading cool Outward Bound trips. I hung out in court rooms with cops and lawyers and alleged criminals.

Still didn’t fit in.

And as a grown-up, I didn’t fit in during my first career as a reporter. I wrote too fast. I cared too much. Same thing as a city councilor.

People said, “Carrie’s nice and smart. But she has pigtails.”

Spoiler alert: They were braids.

They’d say, “She just doesn’t seem tough enough to be a politician. She cares so much. Too much.”

And as an author? I don’t fit in all that well very easily. I’ve gotten to hang out with people who are considered “great,” Printz Award winners, super bestsellers, those whose books become Netflix and tv shows, and also those who are just quietly brilliant and awesome. But never ever have I been part of a clique.

Still no fit.

And I kind of thought I’d fit there. But instead, like always, I have random good friends who fit in their own cliques and I love all of them.

I joined Rotary International because it’s all about service above self and helping others. Still nope. I truly didn’t fit in there at all though I loved SO MANY Rotarians and had so many wonderful experiences talking to massive conventions.and helping others. But did I fit in? I didn’t even own a business suit. So no.

The video reminded me of a few things and we talk about some of them during our live podcast of Loving the Strange:

  1. You can shift careers and professional tracks if it doesn’t suit you and it gets to be too much. You don’t have to stay.
  2. Sometimes if you are okay with persisting in a career where you don’t fit in, you can create great things there.
  3. You can create things all on your own—your own path, careers and ways of living that might not be the ones society thinks are ‘successful’ or where you should fit.

How Does That Relate To Writing?

In the Ploughshares’ blog, the brilliant Yasmin Adele Majeed writes

“Writing is a liminal act, one that comes from a place between the writer and the world, the writer and the page. In this way it is mediated by death, desire, and dreams, those other “in between” spaces we move in and out of in this life.” 

In her own blog, Jeannette de Beauvoir writes:

“Liminality is the borderline area, the frontier, the place that, as a Lewis Carroll character might say, is neither here nor there. Rites of passage move people through liminal moments. Borders move people through liminal places.

“That liminality is on my mind because I’ve recently been having trouble sleeping, and so I’ve been hyper-aware of that almost-but-not-quite asleep moment during which (as in all liminal spaces) magic quite clearly occurs.

“For me, magic always has to do with writing. I am a writer not just in the sense that writing is what I do, but also in that it’s my most authentic and innate self.”

Writers and artists are specialists in the in-between spaces, but they aren’t the only ones who are. There are masses of us out there, searching, discovering, not quite fitting in, making our own spaces, claiming our own spaces.

We all are capable of stripping through the layers of society and self and getting to the essence of who we are, who the characters in our stories and our lives are.

As E.E. Cummings said, “The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned in order to know himself.”

Writers do that with characters, building them piece by piece on the page, and when we do that, we reveal what it is we believe about people, about character, about cause and effect, society and connections.

But we can also do that with our own selves, right?

We can look and see where our identities stem from, our choices, and we can stitch together the narrative that suits our lives and who we want to be. Sometimes that’s lonely because it’s not always the ways we’re taught to think.

And just that phrase – taught to think – shows how terribly important it is to pursue an understanding of the different layers of your identity, to understand who you are at your deepest core without society or even your family or friends telling you who you ought to be or who you are expected to be.

In a speech back in 2010 at the Edinburgh Book Festival, author Jeanette Winston said,

“Art is such a relief to us because, actually, it’s the real world — it’s the reality that we understand on a deeper level.… Life has an inside as well as an outside, and at the present, the outside of life is very well catered for, and the inside of life not at all…. We can go back to books or pictures or music, film, theater, and we can find there both some release and some relief for our inner life, the place where we actually live, the place where we spend so much time.”

And that’s what it’s really all about, striping away, expanding, creating, living, finding relief, finding our own story and reality even as we create inner lives for others and ourselves.

I hope you find your space. I hope I find mine, too. We’ve got this, right?

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