Crossing borders never fail to send me into an internal, squirmy fit of nerves. I fear the alarm sensors in a store are going to go off on me as I walk through them. I shuffle through airport security, petrified the uniformed-clad authority shall seize me. I mentally prepare for my tragic mortal end when I cross the street as a pedestrian. Borders are my valleys of death where I fear all evil.
There’s a term for this sense of being on the rickety edge of the unknown. It’s called liminality (loads more concise than “internal, squirmy fit of nerves”). Liminality, from the Latin līmen for “threshold,” describes a state of ambiguity and transition, the space in which you are getting from “here” to “there.”
Here are some examples of liminal moments:
- Purgatory (aka Dante’s inferno – you want to avoid this at all costs)
- Puberty, and adolescence in general (the classically awkward state of liminality during which all you want to do is get out as fast as possible … at least that was my experience)
- Marriage (the intimidating liminal jump from single-ness to couple-ness, the formal ritual during which people in many culture eat, drink, and make general merriment)
- Life (the whole thing is a highly liminal experience from first cry to final breath)
- Waking Up in the Morning (the swirly journey from unconsciousness to consciousness is a foggy road for the brain indeed)
These examples all involve the act of crossing borders – borders with grooves barely identifiable; our only means of finding them is by blindly feeling them out with our fingers in the dark. It entails risk and requires faith.
The precariousness of liminality popped into my head when I crossed the border from Thailand to Cambodia last Tuesday. I kept thinking of my mother’s border crossing 33 years ago.
After the Vietnamese came into Cambodia in 1979, and drove the already debilitating Khmer Rouge regime into diaspora, survivors of the genocide wandered the country in search of what to do next. That typically led them back to whatever was left of their homes, or to a border. For my mother, this was Thailand, where refugee camps dotted Cambodia’s western front. She’s recounted her border crossing to me one time: it was dark (only the foolish, brave, or desperate crossed during the day), there was a river with a lot of water, high and moving fast, soldiers were shooting, and she, as well as her sister who was eight months pregnant at the time, were trying to get to the other side, treading for some relief. An album of family photographs was lost sometime during that night.
My border crossing was nowhere near as curdling like that of my mother’s. On top of that, there was the fact I was going in the opposite direction. All the same, I recognized the liminality in my border crossing as well.
Under the warm, sticky shroud of night – pelleted by a light, late autumn rain, heralded by fishy-smelling puddles on the ground, blinded by gaudy neon casino lights, led through checkpoints by a scrawny stranger – there I was, trudging along, walking my own threshold of ambiguity and transition, just trying to get to the other side, trusting respite was there, somewhere, welcoming me with a table, and a full cup, and quiet waters, and green pastures, and goodness and love, and a home, to dwell in, for the rest of my liminal days.