Judy T. Oldfield
Put your phone on airplane mode. Close your tabs. Enter into this space and stay with me for a few minutes.
A man gets in his car and drives north, out of his village, with only the clothes he’s wearing, because Daesh is on their way. Parents carry their unconscious daughter for days, with government forces chasing them. A teenager remembers the shattered glass of his childhood, the bomb striking, and his father’s arms grabbing him. A baby is born, a stranger in a strange land.
I can’t remember when liminal space entered my common vocabulary. But I know that both my husband Jason and I started using the phrase more and more when we broke out of the career path and took a much belated gap year at age 30.
My first clear experience of liminal space was at age 12 on a family vacation to Arizona, though I had no words to define it at that time. In a hotel pool flanked by palm trees, where I could look up at the cloudless blue sky and over to the rows of identical rooms on all four sides, I told another girl that my name was J.T., instead of Judy. I tried it out. I liked the ambiguity of the two letters.
I don’t remember the girl’s name.
1: of, relating to, or situated at a sensory threshold: barely perceptible or capable of eliciting a response
2: of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition: in-between, transitional
There is a freedom in being not somewhere, of being not something. A different breath, a different heartbeat. Coming in one way, being something else for a while, leaving another.
The first time I learned what liminal space was, in a codified way, I was in college, studying comparative religion, learning about ritual, reading Mircea Eliade and Émile Durkheim, theorists who make the basis of the discipline. Coming out of old books, published decades before my birth, it all sounded very esoteric. And yet, there was a practical, academic component to its mystery.
The boy leaves on a hunting trip alone and returns a man. The humans descend into the cave and paint on walls. The bride walks down the aisle a single woman and leaves the church with her new husband. The shaman puts on a mask and becomes a god.
Who are we in these in between spaces? Are we ourselves or not ourselves or are we different selves? How many selves can one self be? Is any self truer than any other self?
Questions from the dawn of time. Questions that prove the human experience just by being voiced.
I tried to kill myself when I was 14. I wouldn’t bring it up if what happened next wasn’t relevant. I wound up in Havenwyck, a mental hospital, for nine days. Other teenagers were admitted and released, the mix of us usually not the same more than two days in a row. I can still remember that there was a Leanne and a Christie. Otherwise their names are gone. I’ve forgotten the particulars of why they were all there, but at the time we spoke ourselves to each other.
We played Egyptian War and went to group therapy and talked about the fast food we would eat when we didn’t have to suffer the cafeteria’s horrendous macaroni and cheese anymore. When we were better. Free. We joked about using plastic spoons to dig beneath the walls and into the cold late-winter air. We compared medication types and dosages. We laid out the details of what we had done to ourselves and why we couldn’t escape ourselves and why we felt so much so hard and why sometimes we felt nothing at all.
The first day at Havenwyck, I knew next to nothing about where I was. I didn’t know if I would be there for days or years. This unknowing was terrifying. I recognized I needed to be in, and was in, a safe place, but was concerned I’d fucked up so badly I would never leave, that I had completely upended my life. At the time, I was reading I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Hannah Green. This didn’t help my expectations of mental hospitals. Before leaving for Havenwyck, I threw the book across the room. I brought some S.E. Hinton novels with me instead.
As the hours of the first day unfolded, I began to understand that nobody had been there for more than a couple of weeks. Nobody would be there for more than another week or two. This was a short-term-care facility. There was an end in sight.
Religion-theorist Mircea Eliade believed that ritual helps people access the Holy. Through ritual they dip back to a before-time. The time of mythos. This brings order and understanding to their lives.
Sociologist Émile Durkheim coined the term the Sacred and the Profane, two halves of a whole. The Sacred, that blessed by religion; the Profane, that created by man. The Sacred belonged to the group, the Profane, to the individual. Sacred does not necessarily equal Good and Profane does not necessarily equal Evil.
Ritual is Sacred. Dinner is Profane. Thanksgiving Dinner is Sacred.
Vacation is Profane. But through vacation, people dip not, perhaps, to the time of mythos, but to a younger, freer time in their lives. It’s a return to its own before time, to a less structured brain, drummed up from the ability to abstract and through abstraction, create order. Walls break down within skulls. If you ask me. But of course, those dead European men never have.
So it’s all very complicated, and interesting, and these theories can’t account for all the ways mental breaks affect a person’s brain.
I say, any liminal space is sacred. It is important to the shaping of human experience.
But I agree, that doesn’t always make it Good.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 65.6 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. The top 10 countries hosting the largest populations of refugees are all developing countries, where refugees are either waiting to be resettled to a third (usually Western) country, or for safety to descend on the land of their birth so that they may return home and to their lives. Many of these host countries fear disruption to their delicate economic systems and do not allow refugees to work or buy property.
In 2016, 189,300 refugees were granted resettlement. Out of 65 million.
The weekend after the American presidential inauguration in 2017, I went back to church. I felt a deep need to be in a spiritual place. I’m Catholic, but not really. It’s close enough. I sat in the worn wooden pew, listening about sin in the Garden of Eden, and replaced “sin” in my head with “emptiness.” It’s a game I play, switching out the words they use, remembering that they are just symbols meant to aid the human process of discovery as we make our way through life. Other times I just close my eyes and pretend I fully believe for an hour. Or I focus on emotion, that great beating wonder and fear of the world, that overwhelming feeling of love, that repetition of determination.
I walked to church across the I-5 overpass in Seattle, and then a few months later, I moved to Amman, Jordan, where now I walk to church on Fridays, down down downhill, through the old downtown and up up uphill, sometimes in 100-degree weather, grateful that no one walks to church on their knees any more. Mass is at noon, and as I walk, the Khutbah Jumu’ah, or Friday sermon, and then the call to prayer, wafts across the city, minaret to minaret.
I go to the Filipino community’s Mass (most of whom are here as domestic workers) because I can walk there. Otherwise I’d have to go Saturday evenings in different part of the city and take a taxi, and I’m just not ready to spend the $1.40 each way.
After months, I realized my favorite thing about church is that I have to turn off my phone for an hour.
In Amman, Jason and I both work for a small NGO called Collateral Repair Project (CRP), which helps Iraqi and Syrian refugees, as well as other minority refugee groups and some Jordanians. The refugees are living here in Jordan, hoping to be resettled somewhere else. But only 2% of all refugees worldwide will ever find permanent homes in the West.
They live, waiting, applying. They swallow liminal space by the spoonful. They eat it by the day, the hour, the second. Their waiting a hunger that can never be satisfied with more waiting. Jordanian law prevents most of them from working. Kids drop out of school when their families can’t afford books. They put off so much, accept so little, because they convince themselves that they’ll find permanent resettlement elsewhere. They watch the news about back home and wait and wait and wait.
There are more than one million refugees in Jordan. Thrust into liminal space. Devouring waiting.
Children are born on the border, Neither Syrian nor Jordanian. They have no national ID numbers. They are born liminal.
Theater is a liminal space. For both the actors and spectators. I go to the theater and sometimes I forget I’m watching live human beings. The actors become someone else. The spectator leaves her normal role of actor in her own life and becomes an observer.
Pregnancy is a liminal space. The process of becoming a mother. Of going from not a mother to a mother. Of going from not born to born.
War is a liminal space. The shorter the better. Best to get it over with. To get back to life. To pretend that this isn’t real life. But oh yes, so often liminal space is as real as it gets.
Jason and I traveled for 16 months on our gap year, then went back to Seattle for more than two years, then moved to Jordan. We’ll likely be here for a couple of years. We have an end in sight.
On weekends, I visit my friends who live in a small town south of the Dead Sea. They take me biking through the desert. A liminal space inside a liminal space inside a liminal space.
This desert is the northern end of the Great Rift Valley, stretching up from the birthplace of humanity, following a line of gold and red and purple sands for thousands of miles. Dotted with palm trees and clear blue skies. The sand here is so fine. It will get between the layers of your hiking boots and sit there, bulging, unwilling to sift back out.
I look across the valley. Israel is on the other side. Sometimes I cross the border and hike through the desert on that side.
There’s a stillness in the desert. There’s a stillness in liminal space, in stepping outside of self, of life, of labels. It’s an emptying, all-consuming state of wonder and otherness. Internal winds flow across the barren landscapes of the mind.
While Jason and I were traveling, we met a guy in Egypt. His name was Mike. He was our age, and recently out of the military, clearly working through some things and a little weird. We friended him on Facebook just before we moved on. After seeing his comments a few months later about Arabs and Africans, we unfriended him. Six months after leaving Egypt, Jason and I ran into him walking down a twisting alley in Saigon, Vietnam. He looked rough, rundown, like he’d been taking too many drugs. We were polite and then quickly parted ways.
Here’s another story. We met a guy at a hostel in Spain, who had been traveling for seven years. “I don’t even know where I’m from anymore,” he said. He had also been doing a lot of drugs.
The drugs are part of it all, in these stories. A big part. Drug use induces a liminal state. But the endlessness of nowhere also takes its toll. You can dive down underwater and grab a handful of sand, but eventually you must come back to the surface for air.
In hostels, then and now, I meet people, swap travel stories. I don’t change my name anymore. But I release myself from the rest of my life or sum it up briefly. My life is not where I am.
I hike. I dive. I bicycle. I go someplace, and then I exit it.
CRP has expanded, bit by bit. We started with one, white-stone-and-concrete apartment, have gained the one upstairs, and occupy the one next door, and, as of very recently, the one above it, too. A kitchen becomes an office, filled with interns, with people walking through, asking for a glass of water or sometimes, please, can we help them to buy food, to pay rent, to find medicine, to talk to their child. The front rooms are a waiting area and sometimes a blanket-distribution area and sometimes an English classroom and sometimes a place to give out food vouchers and sometimes a meeting room. We walk outside to walk upstairs. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Just like all of the other apartments in the neighborhood. But at least we have air conditioners and fans and heaters. And at least sometimes they work.
The refugees who come to CRP bring their documents. They hold their UNHCR papers sacred. All elements sacred: the photo, the number, the barcode. These papers are both of the group and the individual. What would Durkheim say to that?
They don’t change their names. They bring everything they’ve gone through with them. Ask them a question about how long they’ve been here and they’ll tell you that Daesh bombed their house near Mosul and then they fled to one place and then another and another and they’ve been in Amman for three months now. Because really, what is here? Any here is not Mosul and also not the permanent solution they hope is coming.
It takes, on average, two years to go through the resettlement process. If denied, they must start all over. It’s a hope in sight, but only as much as someone clinging to driftwood can see a shore in the distance.
Boarding school is a liminal space. So is every grade. But so is summer vacation—the space between grades. On average, refugee kids miss two years of school. A law in Jordan prevents kids from re-enrolling if they’ve been out of school for three years.
My friend Ibrahim recently started at an elite boarding school just south of Amman. Founded by the King of Jordan, it’s one of the best boarding schools worldwide, certainly in the Middle East. Ibrahim is 18, but entered as a sophomore, after dropping out of the overcrowded, often cruel Jordanian public schools.
Tuition is the same each year as an Ivy League University in the U.S. He has a full ride this year, but the next two years remain uncertain. Ibrahim’s been a refugee twice over. Born in Iraq, his family fled to Syria, and then years later from Syria to Jordan.
Boarding school is not just a liminal space, but a very normal liminal space.
But maybe not for Ibrahim. The kids he goes to school with will attend top-ranked universities in America and Europe. It could happen for Ibrahim, too. But there is no certainty in Ibrahim’s life. There is no Ivy League on the shore, no city on the hill.
He wants to go to either Georgetown or University of Colorado. He wants to work in Iraq and help Iraq and someday be president of Iraq.
There are a million Ibrahims; there is only one Ibrahim.
Twice recently Iraqi women have cried to me, saying their sons want to return to their homelands because they have no future here in Jordan. One, a woman with a 20-year-old son, one a woman with a 16-year-old son. Both women are terrified that their sons will be killed. “If I die, then I die,” the sons say. Out of school, unable to work, they remain in a state of listlessness, they are drowning for years on end. They would rather die than go on drowning.
When I leave myself and enter liminal space, my self is waiting for me on the other side. Refugees feel a loss of self, of future, of pride, without knowing how to get it back.
Emptiness, as it turns out, is overwhelming. Tearing down barriers is meant to rebuild new structures. Liminal space is meant to cleanse and reshape. Not to erase completely.
I never went away to summer camp, but I had Havenwyck, and I think that’s close enough. Whispering after lights out, intense shared experience in a short time, forced volleyball participation.
This was in 1997, well before Facebook. My family didn’t yet have a computer, let alone Internet. Maybe some of the kids exchanged AIM screennames, but I didn’t have one to give. I never saw or talked to Leanne or Christie or a single one of them again. I took them with me, but I also left them behind.
I wasn’t 100% cut off from my regular life, because there were designated hours when we could use the payphone, but as far as a teenager is concerned, I may as well have been on a different planet.
Day over day, I crawled up. After the first 48 or maybe 72 hours, they gave me my shoelaces back and let me use a razor to shave under my arms. Looking back, I’m not even sure how it happened. I wasn’t fixed. Nine days can’t cure that kind of depression, but I was perceptibly changed. Ready again for the world.
I entered one way, I exited another, both through the same door.
As a staff at CRP, we undergo trauma-sensitivity training. In two languages, we discuss how to help children and adults who are dealing with trauma. Beryl, our education consultant, who had worked in Gaza in the 80s, who did her first of three stints in the Peace Corps at the age of 69, acts as guide through the course. We are outside of our normal work routine, everyone equal, despite language barriers or job titles.
This is a list of symptoms that children who are living with scars of trauma feel:
- Feeling that life is out of control
- A loss of faith in the future
- A break in relationships
- A lack of empathy
- A loss of self-confidence
- Difficulty in regulating emotions
- A lack of trust in adults
And they exhibit:
- Impulsive/aggressive behaviors
- Irritability and outbursts of anger
- Increased startle response (jumpy/fidgety)
- Increased heart rate (sometimes difficulty in breathing normally)
- Difficulty in sitting for long periods of time
- Sleep difficulties
- Difficulty in concentrating
- Difficulty in paying attention
- Difficulty in remembering
- Difficulty in using age-appropriate behaviors
- Difficulty in understanding directions
At our training, Beryl leads the discussion, pausing as Karam, our Education Specialist, translates her English into Arabic for the Syrians and Iraqis on our staff, some of whom (like me) only possess one language.
What are some of the ways we can help children and adults exhibiting these symptoms? For example, we decide that at our After-School Club, instead of time outs, we will tell children to go sit away from the group until they are ready to come back. Let them take agency and decide for themselves when they are ready to rejoin the group. They have such little control over anything.
Abu Nabil—who was a lawyer in Syria—spoke about what he’s tried to do for his own teenaged daughter, Maria. How much does he tell her now, how much does he hold back. What’s his responsibility as a parent?
Most importantly, he said, parents must be strong for their children. “When an adult loses trust of faith, it reflects on the children in the same home,” he said, in Arabic, and in English, through the mouth of Karam. I didn’t know it on that day, but later Abu Nabil tells me that he’s thought of suicide, his despair in Jordan has at times been overwhelming. But then a voice comes, and says, “No, Maria still needs you.”
So many times he has come into our morning staff meeting to say that a cousin or an uncle has died in Syria. From a bombing, or because a delay at a checkpoint meant they couldn’t get to a hospital in time to treat an illness. And then he goes about his day, helping other refugees. It’s as if he’s been a parent to the whole community here. But he also has admitted to me that he pretends to be stronger for other refugees, even though he feels everything that they’re feeling.
The kids in our neighborhood fear jet planes. They aren’t excited by them, they aren’t impressed by the vessels of metal soaring above them or their sonic booms. They have nightmares and wake up soaked in urine.
Beryl tells us that routine and ritual are important in helping kids navigate these feelings and start to—quite literally—heal their brains. I bet Eliade and Durkheim would agree there.
But in such a state, is that enough, I wonder.
That’s not true, what I said about not changing my name anymore. In Jordan, I change the hard “J” sound to the soft, drawn-out ج of Arabic, and lengthen the “U” until it’s closer to the Arabic name.
My CRP badge says “Jody” because transliterated the letter ﻭ can be either “U” or “O”. I intensely dislike this because people have mistakenly called me Jody or Julie my whole life.
In Islam, Al-Joodii is the mountain where Noah landed his Ark after the flood. I tell this to people and then their tongues can grasp my name. Al-Joodii was near the Tigris, somewhere between what is now called Syria and what is now called Turkey.
By name, by passport, by circumstance of birth, I have a haven inside of me.
Am I a different self here? Probably.
We discuss self-care and compassion fatigue in our staff meetings. I don’t say it, but part of my self-care, I’m sure, involves knowing that I don’t have to be here, that I’ll only be here for a couple of years. That I can leave any time.
Abu Nabil was one of the first lawyers to defend the protesters in Dera’a against Assad’s regime. And so his house was bombed while Maria was taking a bath, then twelve years old. She was likely the target and came very close to becoming another death statistic in the war. Abu Nabil and his wife Um Nabil carried her unconscious body to one hospital, then another, and through the desert. Abu Nabil carried her under gunfire and with dogs chasing the scent of her blood. I’m not the first person to cast Abu Nabil’s story out in to the world. It’s a compelling one. They fled to Amman, but Abu Nabil has never told Maria that after they fled, their house was bombed twice more. He’s never told her one of her friends died.
His older daughter, Duaa, has two young sons who have no Syrian or Jordanian identiy, one who crossed the border in her womb, as she bled, four months pregnant and in Azraq camp, the other born in Amman. Three years ago, her brother, Ahmed, crossed overland to Germany. Abu Nabil’s oldest son—the Nabil in Abu Nabil—fled separately, to Lebanon. Jason and I flew to Beirut for our anniversary and brought him a cooler of home-cooked food. A short jaunt over borders into the liminal space of vacation for us. Nabil hasn’t seen his family in seven years.
In a smattering of English, Abu Nabil told Jason before we left, “You give him a kiss. Both cheeks.”
We first met Abu Nabil while Jason and I were in the middle of our 16 months of travel. In the middle of our in-between state. We reached the shore of our liminality, lived in Seattle, and moved to Amman. Meanwhile, he waited.
Summer before last, I drove back from Till, a writer’s retreat near Seattle, with Breona, another writer. Maybe owing to the free ride, she let me ramble on and I talked and talked about liminal space as we left the old farm behind for the city. I reflected on the need for liminal space in a creative life. I don’t always feel comfortable with other writers. For more than a decade in Seattle, I had one foot in the for-profit world of tech and one foot in the writing scene, never truly fitting neatly into either.
So there was a low-level buzz of discomfort between my ears that weekend, and yet, the discomfort was good for me, to immerse myself in my craft and in community. It propelled me into talking about technique and genre with decreasing levels of awkwardness and pondering plot points and using the late-spring cool rain as inspiration.
Here are some things about Maria: she’s 16 and a half; she wants to be a fashion designer and matches her hijab to her Converse shoes; a lot of girls are really into boys but she says that Muslim women must focus on their future and not date, though also admits this is hard; and though she was unconscious when her parents were carrying her, she swears she heard her mother say that maybe they should just let her die because she wasn’t going to wake back up.
When Maria tells her story, she starts playing with her ring, and then bites her lip, before finally letting the tears come. I study her face, never before noticing how much her features resemble her father’s, the curve of her nose, the irises of her eyes so dark brown they blend with the pupils. Her scar is faint, easy to miss on a first pass. It starts above the line of her hijab and trails down her pale forehead.
She is like a real-life Harry Potter. The Girl Who Lived.
There is so much freedom in my liminal spaces. Spaces designed to free my brain from its own constraints. Spaces open to me with a flash of my passport. Freedom to end any space I enter. It’s that end that makes it free. That understanding that now is not forever, that now is immediate and worthwhile and sacred.
Liminal space is so untethered, the only way to bare it is to fill it, however loosely, with ritual and structure. Or else risk the loss of self utterly.
Sometimes, though, even for refugees, there’s another side, a safe haven, a light at the end of the tunnel. I leave myself space for this line on the first draft of this essay. On the second, on the third, on the fourth draft of this essay. And finally, the same day I start the fifth draft, Abu Nabil, Um Nabil, and Maria fly to the U.K. to be resettled.
“It’s one of the hardest things, being a refugee,” Ibrahim tells me a few weeks before Abu Nabil leaves. “Seeing people come and go. Making friends who leave.”
And I see Um Nabil two days before, holding her grandchild on her lap. Duaa, her husband, and her children are still here in Amman. Because they fled the camps illegally, they will have a harder time joining the rest of the family. The UNHCR will finally legitimize people like Duaa and her family, but the process is bureaucratic at best, and regardless, the process of resettlement is long and tedious and often leads to staying right where they already are. Meanwhile, Duaa waits. “When you are a refugee, you can’t dream,” she says. “You can only sit and wait for tomorrow.”
America may well be in a liminal state right now. Between dominant and whatever is coming next. As we readjust ourselves, we damn others to endless liminality. Banning groups of people. Even before the ban, in the last several years, we Americans took in 10,000 Syrian refugees per year. 10,000. Millions of Syrians have been displaced. Millions.
65.6 million people displaced worldwide.
Our liminality, our conflicted indeterminacy, ripples out across the world. We offer no safe shore to most. No way to come up for air.
Meanwhile, the stress of unknowing and changing beats down on Americans. Tensions surface, plans are pushed into the future. Relationships and work suffer. Our smartphones merge into our palms, we spit outrage, we drink cortisol and adrenaline.
We offer ourselves no end in sight, in part because we don’t know that we’re in transition.
At a recent mass, the gospel reading came from Matthew 22:36, the two greatest commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. Before mass ended, the priest made one last appeal. “We used to say that the only path to salvation was through the Church,” he said. “But we don’t talk that way anymore. Now we might say that the only way to salvation is through love.”
So sometimes I don’t have to substitute the words.
You went into this essay expecting something, and then I told you about this other thing. You studied the pictures I painted on the walls, and now you’re returning to the cave’s opening, and when you put it down, you’ll be out of this liminal space.
How will you have changed?
*Author’s note: In the end, I worked for CRP for two years before returning home to the United States. As of this publication, Duaa still awaits resettlement. Ibrahim is a senior at King’s Academy, and is waiting to hear if he will be accepted at an American University in the fall and if he will receive a student visa.
Judy T. Oldfield’s work has previously appeared in Gigantic Sequins, jmww, Portland Review, Cleaver, Passages North, and many others. Her flash fiction, ‘Their Lists Long, Their Spreadsheets Lost,’ was a 2017 Best of the Net finalist. She grew up in the metro Detroit area and earned her BA from Western Michigan University in English and Comparative Religion. After more than a decade living in Seattle and abroad, she currently lives around the corner from her mom in her hometown with her husband and daughter.