Limnos, and reflections on a life lived “dancing in between”

From the Greek limnos, meaning “threshold,” liminality describes an in-between time when what was, is no longer, and what will be, is not yet. It is a time rich with ambiguity, uncertainty, and the possibility of creative fomentation.  And what particular advantages does living in liminality offer? ~ quoted in Perspective, May 2005

Ever since I first came across Dr Barbara Schaetti’s work in 1998 on the life journey and travails experienced by those of us growing up in between cultures during our childhood years, her words on liminality as a time of transitions; as a bridging time between the past and the future; as a threshold between what was and what will be – such as the snippet quoted above on the day I resigned from my last fulltime position as Director of Graduate Admissions and Student Services at the Institute of Design, Chicago – I have come back to reread her words at critical junctures in my own life.

These are words I can unhesitatingly say are those that might indeed fall under the umbrella of magic as described by the word songs of the Kalevala. Reaching deep into the core, and capturing the essence of the life once lived sprawled across continents – a dorm room here, a parent’s attic elsewhere, an adult life established on a third continent – it was by gleaning through her words that I found the means to tackle the accumulated challenges of a lifetime where the only familiar space & time zones had become waiting rooms in airports around the world. Whilst Debra Carlson’s essay moved me to tears the very first time I read it, it was Dr Schaetti to whom I turned for deeper understanding of the origins of the sense of dislocation I had always felt in my passport country, having lived abroad since age 4.

Being recognized as a global nomad, to use Dr Norma McCaig‘s definition of children who spent a significant amount of their developmental years outside their passport country due to their parents’ profession, made all the difference in my own life’s work of ‘dancing between cultures’. At the turn of the century, just before she passed away, I was lucky to receive a phone call from Dr McCaig who, in a brief exchange, still managed to leave me with words of value – she pointed out that while my parents – although living abroad for more than 30 years at that time – may have perceived themselves as only temporarily permanent, having grown to adulthood in the context of their own culture* – my sister and I, on the other hand, would forever experience the feeling of being permanently temporary, growing up in the expat international school milieu of the 1970s in the Far East from kindergarten through high school.

Understanding the origins of the sense of rootlessness, of forever having your nose pressed against the glass separating you from your own extended family, of feeling ‘terminally unique’ to use Schaetti’s powerful words, made all the difference between never finding a space for my feet on the ground versus discovering my own working definitions of feeling centered and stable. I was able to reconfigure the accepted norm that anchored one’s cultural identity to one’s geography – that is, the place you were from defined who you were – into a framework far more empowering and grounding for one of my highly mobile childhood, exposed to multiple cultural influences, many of which were in conflict with each other’s value systems.

 “I would not exchange the laughter of my heart for the fortunes of the multitudes; nor would I be content with converting my tears, invited by my agonized self, into calm.” ~ Kahlil Gibran

I embraced her question “What particular advantages does living in liminality offer?” as a challenge for my professional development as an independent expert, and dived deep into the concepts of liminal space, liminality, even ‘limnos’ as a threshold, exploring them all extensively in writing about business and design back in second half of 2005. More than 15 years later, at the threshold of a different phase of mature adulthood, it feels like a timely moment to reflect on my decision to center myself within the ambiguity and uncertainty of liminal space rather than attempt to seek out certainty and its accompanying sense of stability. That is, I chose to accept the contradictions and the restlessness and the losses of entire lifetimes worth of spaces and people gone far away and out of touch, and to work on building the strengths that this same developmental life experience had bestowed upon my growing self. Many would rather reject the complexity and confusion and simply decide to settle down in one place, perhaps never to wholly nurture or discover their unusual and unique skills.

To best reflect upon this, it makes sense at this point to share some of the earliest bits that spoke to me, on a personal level first, before I transmuted the experience into career skills for sale. Due to formatting limitations, I’ll have to use font colour to distinguish quoted text I wrote in 2005 versus that taken from Dr Schaetti’s work.

When I embraced living in liminality, and truly there is no word other than “embraced”, that is to take in, wholeheartedly, within your worldview and allowing it to alter your perspective on the world around you, this was the paragraph that resonated with my experiences.

Remember first that one of the defining themes of the internationally mobile childhood is frequent change. Consider, then, that for every experience of change— by their own mobility or another’s— nomads experience a parallel process of psychological transition.

William Bridges has written extensively on the three developmental phases that compose this internal process: the ending, the neutral zone, and the new beginning. Movement through each varies from individual to individual. […]

What Bridges called the “neutral zone” is what we are calling liminality. When a person is in liminal space, he or she is on the threshold, no longer part of the past and not yet part of the new beginning. For many global nomads and their families, in particular for multi-movers, the experience of liminal space becomes the most constant, lived experience.

So, my sense of what liminal space means is that “neutral zone” between the old and the new, that time of transition itself, in between leaving one place or state or physical location to settling into another state or physical space. When your life has been one long transition, after all if San Francisco is #10 in the list of cities I have called home in my not quite forty years, then embracing liminal space as the state of being can be liberating. I don’t have to be “from somewhere” moving here. I can just be.

As I pondered and explored my thinking through my writing, I drilled down through Schaetti’s and Carlson’s words, together with my own experiential knowing, distilling them into a sequence of posts as described below by another snippet taken from the same post.

I would like to start with restating the definition of limnos, that was the springboard for my thoughts, then I will attempt to explain what I mean when I say I’ve embraced living in liminality. Finally, I will end with articulating how I think that “dancing in between” can be effective for innovation, or managing the new, in this time of flux.

These characteristics, developed by those with highly mobile childhoods, crossing continents and cultures:
– Cross cultural skills such as flexibility, tolerance and strong observation skills
– Comfortable with ambiguity.
– Multi-dimensional world view.
– Open to other value systems.
were those which not only spoke to my lived experience and world view, but offered me a wholly new perspective on approaching a professional career in the realm of design and innovation, informed and inspired by immersion in the field leveraging design research methods and tools for sensemaking and wayfinding in foreign operating environments.

They cannot be bought off the shelf or learnt in school, without great efforts on the part of the novice to root out their own contextual and cultural viewpoints and embedded implicit biases. For children who grow up in third cultures, attending schools where upto 40% of the population can change from year to year as parents relocate for work, these are the skills that come with forever experiencing the shock of the new or the different until feeling foreign becomes the normative and familiar experience. As Carlson writes in her essay, we have more in common with each other, regardless of our passport identities, than with those who are purportedly from our cultures of origin.

Extremely rapid digitalization over the past 15 years, and the invention and adoption of social media since then, have probably done much to collapse the gap in understanding the Other, and shrinking the time lag for cultural diffusion. But in my estimation, two issues still remain top of mind: One, the virtual, no matter how realistic or rich the medium, cannot replace the experience of daily life lived in entirely different geographies, particularly as a young child still evolving a sense of self and identity; and the other side of the coin, the generational aspect of expatriate life before the explosive globalization of the past 30 or 40 years, when letters written with pen on paper were the only means to keep close friends alive through time and space, and graduation meant the lifelong loss of all one’s childhood loves.

Looking back at the age of 55, what I have left behind and what I have lost forever, is more than just a place but a time, and a space. People like me literally cannot go home again, for our first question within would be ‘when (not just where) does my heart call home?’. For me, its Malaysia of the 1970s and 80s, though Singapore in the last decade served at a pinch, if only because the food court was as familiar. This, even though I have not lived there since 1984. Our second question is ‘where do I go home?’ – and for most of us, the answer often is wherever our aging parents are located. Again, its Carlson’s words that best capture the individual experience:

The struggle in answering the question “Where are you from?” is a common experience, and you don’t want to waste time and breath on someone who doesn’t really care. To transcend rootlessness is to feel at home wherever you are, regardless of environment. Home is reframed to include the world. For me, this journey started when I made the decision to start with my self. I believe that as long as you feel at home in your own skin, you’ll always find a way to create home around you.

My most empowering decision was the one where I chose Finland as my home country. For the first time in my life, in my late 40s, I got to choose the country in which I would live. And, it was from extensive experience that I knew I had found a homeland for my old age, having lived on 3 continents, paid taxes in 4 countries, and relocated umpteen times in more than 10 global cities before arriving here. I could feel the chi of the land speaking to me. That was 12 years ago. I went away, hopping through Nairobi and the Netherlands in the three years I was apart, only to return as soon as I was able. It is no wonder that reading the Kalevala touched me as deeply, scraping across many unexpected and still tender places, as it did last weekend. The rightness I feel in being physically here in this geography is all my own.

Even though I’d learnt to call my own skin home in the life work journey I began with this blog more than 15 years ago, comfortable with traveling and temporarily living in vastly different spaces, it is here and now that I have come recognize the resting place for my restless and rootless soul. When all is said and done, my heart is happy. And I am, fundamentally, in a state of equilibrium that I have only ever experienced living here in Finland. For the first time in my life I have been living in an apartment for the longest duration ever – a full 7 years come November – and, I have yet to feel even an iota of the old itch for disruptive and overnight change in lifestyle that a relocation brings.

That long ago decision to embrace living in liminality carried with it the seeds of this disruption, even as it offered me the ability (the magic knowing?) to tap into the inner knowledge of navigating the unknown, often with inadequate data, as I traversed random rural places and conversed with strangers, all in order to practice my chosen profession of concept design and innovation planning in informal economic conditions, most prevalent in the countries of the global South. It is this childhood experience that led me to establish long maintained relationships with everyone at my chosen service apartment complex in Nairobi – building, over time and the past decade of regular travel, a sense that it was a second home, albeit far away, foreign, and on another continent. Implicit knowledge and skills developed at a young age have probably helped me more in my work than anything I later learnt in school.

Where do I go from here with my long ago embrace of living in liminal space? How much does being comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty benefit me now, as my roots finally start growing deeper into the earth? I can already feel that worldview conflicting with the dissonance of experiencing the peace of knowing, and of certainty, of belonging to a place and to a space and time. It is as though my senses have made a lifelong commitment without my deliberate and conscious knowledge. Perhaps, and it seems to make sense, this might be the root of wanting to shorten the horizon of my mind’s eye – the focal length and shape of the lenses of my sensory inputs – that I perceived yesterday? Ironically speaking, if I don’t want to run off chasing rainbows, then I must figure out how to stop looking for them to the exclusion of all else. Oddly enough, this conclusion seems to fit right. If I do need another quest to lose myself in for the next 15 years, I’ll go looking for magic words in the woods instead. Suomeksi.

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