musical milliner

January 15, 2010

La Sonnambula: Grief and the Liminal Place

I keep bumping into a word. It’s a familiar experience. One day, you hear a word with which you are mildly acquainted, but haven’t heard all that much. Then for no apparent reason, it appears, sprinkled into conversations or text with noticeable frequency. It’s both annoying and intriguing. Right? But collecting words enriches our experience. And as German language speakers well know it can be a hoot. Let’s stick to English.

For several years, a regular feature on the inside back page of the Atlantic Monthly was Word Fugitives. Readers would send in clever notes, such as the following from the July/August 2004 edition. Lots of fun to read the creative suggestions that made the column.

The second fugitive sought in March was “a term that describes the momentary confusion experienced by everyone in the vicinity when a cell phone rings and no one is sure if it is his/hers.” Paul Holman, of Austin, Texas, suggested conphonesion; Pam Blanco, of Warwick, Rhode Island, phonundrum; Alan Tobey, of Berkeley, California, ringchronicity; Jim Hutt, of Blue Mountain Lake, New York, ringmarole; William A. Browne Jr., of Indianapolis,ringxiety; and Gordon Wilkinson, of Mill Bay, British Columbia, fauxcellarm.

Taking top honors is Michael W. Pajak, of Portland, Maine, for being the first of many readers to suggest the apt coinage pandephonium.” (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200407/wallraff)

You get the idea. Every once in a while I’ll catch onto one of these and play with it. Of course we can play with language. How dull would it all be without this delicious pleasure? Sometimes it’s  a thoughtful word, a word that strikes a  tune in your thinking. And in your aural experience.

My new ear worm is the word  liminal. Unless you have spent time studying psychology or philosophy or some other “ology”, it’s a word you’re unlikely to toss about in everyday conversation. But here it is, and it won’t leave me alone. I know exactly why I am obsessed with this one.

In the past two weeks since my friend died, I have been plagued with a common grief reaction:  I awaken with a hard smack most mornings. I am dreaming about whatever, and in the passage from sleep to full consciousness my peace is abruptly disturbed when I remember what a crap time this is, and how  much I dread getting on with my day with this heaviness of heart. I wander off, underlining the hours until I can return to soothing linens of an indulgent thread count, a down duvet, and the half-dozen pillows I like to burrow under. It is indeed comforting under the comforter.

Sleep does not come easily because although my body is relieved by the cozy set-up, my thoughts are amplified as my brain betrays me, and I’m stuck with a familiar rat chasing these eternal rotations of my mental wheel. Insomnia is a bitch which has taken root in the past few years and is situationally exacerbated.  Usually I find sleep by means of an iPod with comfy headphones. Music is so often the cure in my life. Thank God for such a wonder.

The space in time between these two states is the liminal place. It is betwixt and between, and serves as a transitional period for our emotional states, our brain function, as well a means by which our bodies are nudged into activity, or from activity into peaceful slumber.  The early twentieth century anthropologist Victor Turner described the liminal state as the passage between childhood and manhood in certain African tribal cultures which practiced coming of age rituals. In fact, one can find examples of these practices in most non-Western cultures. (http://www.liminality.org/about)

The etymology of the word derives from the Latin “limen” (nominative case)  and liminis (noun,genitive case, third declension…I live in a house where both sons were required to study Latin, which means mom had to learn a bit as well.  I salute Ms. Firth in her persistence.)  But my sources concur that the English translation is “threshold.”

The very word used to describe this void in which change unfolds, is grudgingly recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary-2 (1989) only as an adjective, and not at all in it’s noun, liminality. (http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/liminal.htm) OED-3, began a major overhaul in 1993, and to date is not yet one-third complete. Words such as liminal and liminality, though not truly within common usage, are expected to be added  due to their increased inclusion in scholarly applications. (Ibid)   OED-2 gets picked on for it’s snootiness and perceived bias, but at 221,000 entries, it retains it’s place as the most authoritative English dictionary. (www.oed.com/newsupdate/revision0712)

Language is, or should be, elastic enough to accommodate  evolving usage.  I could get into a discussion here about email and social networking shorthand, which some see as the demise of English language, (and I don’t),  but that will have to wait for another day.

Back on track.  So we have this space between two places of consciousness. It’s a place where we process and integrate. It can’t be codified into a specific length of time. The liminal time seems to be fluid and mutable. It may be seconds or minutes.

My thinking is that when we experience significant disturbances in our daily lives, we do not spend the necessary  time in the liminal. We awaken with a spurt of catecholamines and don’t experience the liminal transition which is intended to ease us into or away from conscious function. There is something about the import of liminality which makes it essential for well-being.

I’ve managed to sleep a requisite number of hours. My dreams, as I can recall, are benign if not pleasant or interesting.  Yet when I slam into wakefulness, I am tired.  Not forever. Just right now. Another part of  my current situation. The full liminal meal will return, but apparently I need the shock of adrenaline to get me moving these days.  It just doesn’t feel right.

(c)GoshGusMusic/ascap

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