During the merciless Blitz of the Second World War, sculptor Henry Moore joined thousands of British who sought refuge in the tunnels of the Underground. Armed with art supplies, he spent the nights sketching his sleeping companions.
One drawing in particular, Tube Shelter Perspective, captivates. Using watercolor, pencil and crayon, Moore depicts sleeping citizens in two rows, like the tube tracks themselves. The walls of the tunnel glisten, as a cave rich in ore. The sleeping figures appear as caterpillars in cocoons in a liminal space, waiting to emerge as new creations.
Liminal space, a place of transition, is the moment in time caught between then and now, the past and the not yet. These places can make you feel uncomfortable, like airports or waiting rooms. Or, as an engaged couple or a pregnant woman, they remind you that you are not who you have been and neither are you who you will become.
Moore captures the awkward condition of the “not yet” in his drawing. The sleeping citizens cannot see what’s outside, above ground. A few are awake, sitting up, listening, in anticipation. One imagines them holding their breath as they wait for the sounds of destruction or the quiet of dawn.
I too have experienced liminal space. Knowing I can no longer be who I once was. Like those sleeping figures, I laid waiting. There have been times where liminal space became more like a burial shroud than a cocoon. I stayed in a relationship, friendship, or in bad habits, waiting in this space for as long as I could, never pushing forward, until I grew used to my surroundings in languish.
Even in its awkwardness, there is a sacredness in liminal space; if we move through well, we move into fullness. The poet, John O’Donohue made this connection with sacredness and liminal space, which he referred to as thresholds, saying,
“when we cross a new threshold worthily…we heal the patterns of repetition that were in us, that had us caught somewhere. I think beauty in that sense is about an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth.”
When we push through liminal space, beauty breaks through in a glimmer as we see a truer reflection of who we are meant to be.
In his book David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell says the British government remembering the return of shell-shocked soldiers from World War I, worried the Blitz would make basket cases out of the general population. They assumed morale would be low from creeping into the tunnels Henry Moore sketched night after night, while the enemy bombed the city above. The opposite happened. The community built in those tunnels, the shared experience and common goal, made them resilient.
Perhaps this is the crucial element of liminal space, community.
Each night during the Blitz, the British learned to rely on the group. As they slept in the tunnels, their bodies warmed each other. They learned who had a small bladder or who snored straight through the night. They knew who lost someone the night before or who had a son fighting in the mainland. In community there is no room to be selfish. They pressed on, knowing that one night it would be themselves who would need to rely on the community, but for now, it was where they gathered strength and they became better for it.
I have been known to gather moss in liminal space, and it is community that has saved me. Community serves as a mirror, to see my weakness in the reflection of another but also to shine light on my strengths. In community I learn how to lean on another for support, knowing there will be a time when I will supply the shoulder to cry on or the arm to lean upon. In community I see who I was created to be and I rest, gathering strength for the transition to come. This is the crux of liminal space, as we can only come into fullness as humans in community, when we realize we are not alone.
Shemaiah Gonzalez is a freelance writer with degrees in English Literature and Intercultural Ministry. She thrives on moments where storytelling, art and faith collide. She is published in Loyola Press, Busted Halo, America Magazine, among others. She is pursuing an MFA in Seattle where she lives with her husband and their two sons.
Next up, The Meaning is the Waiting
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