On Coffee Spoons and Liminality—An Ode To What Is


One hundred years ago this month T.S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock appeared in the magazine Poetry. Ezra Pound championed the poem to editor Harriet Monroe in a series of letters, and Poetry became the first journal to publish Eliot in America. It can safely be said that Prufrock is one of the first Modernist works, although it wasn’t received with great enthusiasm at the time—it was widely dismissed as something less than poetry. In creating Prufrock, Eliot used dramatic monologue to cross a threshold of sorts, allowing the intensely personal to resonate with larger cosmic questions. Existential angst found its 20th century voice when Prufrock uttered the words “Do I dare disturb the universe?” In modern parlance, it’s nothing less than a Hamlet meets Chopra moment.

Moving forward can be a challenge, especially when you know you’re moving into your end game. Choices always count, but at some point they gain critical mass. Their possibilities are no longer infinite. Unlike Prufrock, I don’t feel that there will be time for a hundred indecisions, visions or revisions. I’ve seen time collapse firsthand. There’s no going back when that happens. Even the best measured coffee spoons fail.

The word liminal has come into my head like the flashing green light on Daisy’s dock in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I hear it in my head. I sense it in my energy. I am navigating a threshold—the place between that which has gone before and that which is to come. I call it my liminal life. It is the space between the space I inhabit.

In anthropology, liminality is used to refer to the disorientation and ambiguity that occurs in the middle stage of rituals. As one set of cultural norms no longer serves and falls away, a full transition to a new status is also not yet complete. And while the concept of liminality gets bandied about more than it should, its Latin root—limen—meaning threshold, is sound. And more importantly, it is apt. Nothing else describes this time in my life with more precision.

I’ve been thinking about the people I have lost, the ones I loved, the ones I never wanted to say goodbye to. It feels like it is time to loosen my hold on them a bit to give us all some breathing room. Notice I said loosen, because I don’t believe I can ever completely lose the imprint of the hearts that have held mine. I wouldn’t want to. They are proof that I was loved—as a daughter, a sister, a mother, a best friend, a student, a teacher—a fellow traveler. But it feels right to lighten up and let the present moment inform my next move, however that unfolds.

Making a new identity without them has been hard. The urgent momentum of doing and caring that spurred me forward for so many years has given way to the need to just be. To be here for myself. And for those who still are here. The ones I love in present tense: my husband, my brother, a few precious friends, my finest teacher, my little dog Woody. I am deeply grateful for the love I have been given. When many others walked away, they stayed. What more is there to say? What higher expression of love is there but constancy and trust? I no longer have to understand all the reasons why things happened as they did—I know time will provide the perspective and the tumblers will once again fall into place.

So now I move forward, not with Prufrock’s scuttling claws, but with intention. It doesn’t hurt that I feel supported by unseen hands—hands that push me just a little farther than I think I can go. Hands that support me and guide me, and even tap me on the shoulder when it’s necessary. I would put my life into those hands, but no one is asking me to. The universe is always flashing green, as green as the summer grass below my feet or the leaves above my head. This liminal life serves a fine purpose; it’s directing me to my future, which is always right here, right now.

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding—The Four Quartets

Author’s note: This month marks 50 years since the passing of T. S. Eliot. I invite you to re-engage with his marvelous, complex work. Prufrock serves as a fine starting point while the Four Quartets, Eliot’s favorite work—and mine—reveals a mastery that transcends craft. I have no doubt that we will be celebrating Eliot well into the next century, for such is the power of language and imagination. As always, your comments and thoughts are embraced here so do share them with me.

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