If you’re not a logophile, or if you just don’t like lengthy blog posts, you should probably stop reading now. You are standing at the threshold. You have been warned.
Sometimes – frequently, if the truth be told – I get a word stuck in my head. It’s similar to the “earworm” phenomenon when you get an annoyingly catchy song stuck in your head, but, instead of leading to melodic madness, “earwords” cause me to do research on the etymology. The word I’ve been obsessing over this week is “liminal.” I’ve known the word since college, but I recently used it in conversation for the first time in many years and felt a compulsive need to determine if I had used it correctly. That led me down the rabbit hole that is Google. In the past, I would consult my enormous 1989 edition of Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language to confirm a word’s meaning, but I’ve become an Internet research enthusiast. As a result, I spent a generous amount of time reading online dictionary entries and watching videos of scholars expounding upon the meaning of the word. I watched with relish, the way some, I imagine, watch the latest music video from Drake or Beyonce. Assuming you don’t suffer from the same word fetish I do, I’ll spare you a recapitulation of their wise ramblings and just say that the online Oxford University Press defines “liminal” as “relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process” or “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.” Without a doubt, “threshold” will be the next word to bedevil me, but now I have a few things to share from my study of “liminal.”
In my electronic wanderings, I came upon two related words: “liminality” and “liminoid.” According to Wikipedia, liminality “is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.” “Liminoid” is used to describe an experience that is not a formal rite of passage but similar in the sense of being “neither here nor there.” These words have resonated with me over the past two weeks, as I have repeatedly found myself betwixt and between.
It started when I went to see Venom Inc. play in Seattle. Venom Inc. is two-thirds of the original members of Venom, which is one of the most influential extreme metal bands in the history of the genre. Since 1981, they have carried the banner of satanic metal music, and, while I am no satanist, their music has held my soul captive for many years. My metal brother, Sean, and I went together. For me, going to a metal show is entering sacred space. As a mild-mannered middle-aged manager, walking into a darkened concert venue is to step away from normal society, that is, a liminoid experience. The opening band was Goatwhore, and they were fantastic. I know some of you read that name and flinched. It’s not a normal band name. It’s not nice, it sounds scary, and that’s my point. I was no longer Todd the state government manager, I was Todd the metal head going to see, without shame, Goatwhore and Venom Inc. When Venom Inc. took the stage, Sean and I were in the front row, banging our heads and screaming along from start to finish. The day’s meetings and emails drained from my mind, and I was only concerned with the music and the movement of the crowd. When their set ended, the band came to the front of the stage to shake hands with the crowd and celebrate the metal journey we had taken together. The drummer, with the demonic stage name Abaddon, carried a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in his left hand while he shook my hand with his right. When he had made his way to stage right, he turned back and held the bottle aloft. It was an offering, and Sean and I accepted it happily. He tipped the bottle and poured shots into our mouths, like a shaman administering peyote to eager initiates. Of course, most of the whisky ended up on our T-shirts, and we decided it would be wise to each buy a new Venom Inc. shirt. We had a long drive home, and it would be difficult to convince any law enforcement officer who decided to pull us over that we hadn’t really been drinking that night; the booze had been applied topically. We made it home without incident, and in the morning, I returned to normal society, working from home, reviewing email and participating in meetings over the phone. My liminoid metal experience had come to an end.
When I returned to the office, my next liminoid experience wasn’t far away. I went for my usual lunch time run, and when I got back to the locker room, I showered to wash away the sweat that was at least as offensive as a whisky-soaked T-shirt. As soon as I turned off the water, I heard a high-pitched alarm pealing through the locker room. Fearing it was a fire alarm, I quickly toweled off and dressed in hopes that I wouldn’t be forced to retreat to the parking lot wearing nothing but a towel, which would be a liminoid experience all by itself. The alarm persisted while I dressed, but I found that there was no evacuation in progress. The piercing sound was localized to the locker room area, and I returned to my office wondering what had triggered the shrill alarm. Later, I was told that the sump pump in the basement, where the locker room is located, had failed, and staff working on that floor were no longer able to use the bathrooms or water fountains. The news got worse as we were notified that the necessary repairs would take a week or more to complete. My next liminoid experience had begun.
I am devoted to my daily run, so for the next week and a half, I was forced to travel to our agency’s other building to use the locker room and shower facilities there. This was not a liminoid experience of the same degree as the Venom Inc. show, but nonetheless I was stepping out of my routine. I could run my usual routes, but I had to start them at what would normally be the halfway point. Some days, I would run them in reverse. If you are as much of a slave to routine as I am, you’ll appreciate how unsettling this was. Compounding my problems, I was running without any music. The MP3 player I use to play metal while I run had recently decided to cease operating, and, as a cheapskate, I was delaying buying a new one. Those silent daily runs gave me plenty of time to think, and it took me about a week to accept that it was possible, if not likely, that the shower I had taken was the straw that broke the sump pump’s back. I may have been the source of my own liminoid experience. Of course, that meant I was also the source of 300 other people’s liminoid experience of no longer being able to pee without first ascending to the first floor of our building to find a functioning toilet. My bad.
Last Sunday I had another running-related liminoid experience. I ran a half marathon, and while I’ve run many full and half marathons, thinking about this one in the context of my recent obsession with all things “liminal” infused it with new meaning. Running 13.1 miles is certainly stepping away from normal society. When I stand in a starting corral waiting to cross the line, it feels a bit like standing in the front row waiting for the band to take the stage, in excited anticipation of what might happen. It’s the threshold idea, like the eaglet standing at the edge of the nest daring to take the first flight. The half marathon demanded more from me physically than the Venom Inc. show, but they are both rituals in which the outcome is uncertain. Both include the possibility of pain, whether from people moshing a bit too vigorously or from my own quadriceps burning up with lactic acid. My shaman on the run was the pacer, LaDonna, who kept me and a few others together for the whole distance so that we could finish in two hours and fifteen minutes. Thanks to her guidance, I overcame the challenges of rolling hills and aching muscles, and felt stronger for having done so.
Even my grilling habit entered the liminal space this week. With September came cold and wet weather in the Pacific Northwest, and I am a seasonal griller. I was ready to shut down the barbecue operation for the winter when the sun returned to the sky last weekend, and I decided to extend the season. Over the weekend, I grilled one last batch of burgers topped with bacon, onions, mushrooms, and fried eggs, all prepared on my cast iron griddle. On Tuesday, I grilled salmon, kissed by apple wood smoke, and Thursday it was simple chicken paillards. But yesterday, the sun retreated behind the clouds, and the rain returned. I’m standing at a culinary threshold waiting for what comes next. Grilling season is all about rituals filled with heat, smoke, time, and toil, but the return of soups and stews and baked goods, the hearty fare of the winter months, is upon me, and that’s not a bad thing.
So, what caused this obsession with liminality, you may be asking? I have tortured this liminal metaphor to no end, but it comes from a genuine moment of me standing at a threshold. My boss is retiring at the end of the year, and the next boss has been chosen. Change is coming. I have been in my current position for nine years, almost to the day, and it’s time for something new. This week I interviewed for a job, and I’ve recently been approached about another employment opportunity. Whether I take on the challenge of bringing a new boss’s vision to fruition or move on to a new post, my professional life is going to change. I am taking steps away from who I was, and I’m at the edge of what comes next. In a true liminal ritual, there are three stages. First comes separation from what was, like walking into a concert venue, standing at a starting line, cleaning the grills one last time, or wrapping up the last few meetings and emails. Then comes the liminal stage of being neither here nor there. Finally, there is re-incorporation into society with new status. Today, I am liminal, and that’s where the transformational work happens. The waiting and wondering. The pain of running those 13.1 miles until I cross the finish line and put the medal around my neck. Waiting for the chance to smoke another rack of ribs. Headbanging and moshing until I walk out of the venue victorious with the smell of whisky on my shirt. Based on my recent liminoid experiences, I have every expectation that I will emerge from this moment a different person, stronger from having endured the journey. Wish me luck. I may be a little old for a rite of passage, but such is life.