Crossing the Threshold

There’s an anticipatory yet anxious feeling that accompanies the last week of high school. The waiting period between being largely done with exams and accepted to universities, to officially graduating. I actually never felt like I would graduate. Not because I was a poor student by any means, but because I’d been in the school system for so long that it felt like I’d never move past it. The universe would impede me and something terrible would happen. I’d somehow missed a graduation requirement. I’d get expelled through some heinous mistake. I’d fall off a bridge and perish, always being remembered as an eternal teenager. But the final week arrived, and all I had to do now was watch the clock and wait.

Sometime within that final week, my mom handed me an envelope containing a green flyer. It was from my old elementary school, inviting past students to visit again as part of a reunion for graduating Seniors. Unlike some other students in my town, I didn’t have any younger siblings nor did I have a relative who was an employee of the school, so I’d actually never been back to that building. It’d been roughly six years since I’d last stepped through those doors, so I was curious about what had changed. The school was only a short walk from my home and I didn’t have much else going on in my exciting life, so I decided I’d attend.

I vaguely recalled seeing some event like this when I myself had been in elementary school, where the older kids were striding down the hall as a last ‘hurrah!’. At the time, teenagers seemed so intimidating and mature. Now that I was in that position, I just felt awkward and apathetic.

For the most part, I wasn’t expecting to get much out of visiting again. I’d see my past teachers, not have them recognize me, and give a decidedly noncommittal shrug when anyone asked me what I was planning to do with my life. I just thought that it might be interesting to see my former friends, and at the very least, I’d get free food out of it. And for what it’s worth, those expectations did hold true! But I also felt a surreal feeling stepping into the building. What had once felt like a giant maze was now underwhelming and small. Classrooms which felt inviting and all-encompassing were now tiny, dull, and gray. Half the teachers and staff I’d known seemed to have moved on, which shouldn’t have been surprising given the passage of time. The ones who I did remember weren’t intimidating authority figures any longer. They were just adults.

That’s not to say visiting my former school again was entirely jarring. Throughout the years, I’d grown apart from many of my friends, but I was still happy to see them again. Maybe it was boring that I still had never known any other town, but there was a sense of pride at looking back at familiar spaces and realizing we’d all at least made it from there to adulthood together.
But there was also an overwhelming sense of nostalgia associated with the space, calling back to a time in which my biggest worry was about what shoes I’d wear to school, or what cartoon would be on TV that night. It was both near and distant to me, a time when I was conscious of that in-person liminal space.

Liminality: a concept defined as “the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage” (thanks Wikipedia). Within Jungian psychology, liminal spaces are seen as “boundaries between states of being, where the liminal space offers the possibility of a re-creation of self”. My first encounter with the concept of “liminal space” did not come through studying psychology or philosophy. As most things I discover these days, I came across the term on the internet, attached to a picture of an empty and downtrodden office space. Liminal space, in terms of virtual culture, is seen more as “the feeling of being in a transitional space that has been abandoned”. A broader scope, but not entirely unrelated from the previous academic definition. In some ways, I find that this framing puts liminality in a more “real” concept for me. A blend of a mindset, a feeling, and an aesthetic. A time between ‘what was’ and ‘what is next’.

Sites that curate liminal spaces often do so in the form of images or image slideshows. I can click onto the Twitter account, SpaceLiminalBot, and find scenes of an empty lit-up highway, an abandoned shopping mall, or uniform, bleary suburbs, among others. There’s not a lot of specific criteria for what makes a certain space “liminal”, but what does exist is crucial. The first common aspect of it seems to be that it evokes either a sense of a lost nostalgia or unease. This may come from old, faded photographs of places that were once ubiquitous or often-visited. The childhood playgrounds near my home come to mind. It can also be surreal scenes, either deliberately out of place or edited to look as if it is. I’m reminded of a small hotel I stayed at on a school trip, in which a sitting area existed on the second floor, but which was completely inaccessible.

A second common aspect is that there are almost never any people within these scenes. This absence of life adds to both the sense of apprehension and nostalgia one may experience when looking at liminal spaces. This isn’t strange when looking at photos of nature. Landscape photos are devoid of people all the time, for good reason. But urban or commercial spaces were not built to be empty. Seeing them in that way translates into what feels like a shell of a world. A place built by humans, but which was subsequently left behind by them. Familiarity marred by unease.

The last, and most obvious aspect, is that these are places one never stays in for too long. It’s the whole reason that they are “liminal” or transitional spaces. The classic example for this is a hotel hallway. How many people actually remember many of the details of the last hotel hallway they saw in person? But how many could instantly recognize one if they see it out of context? Even aside from hotels, the bulk of liminal space aesthetics is consumed by gas stations, airports, bus stops, and more. Places where what comes before and after is more important than the place itself. There is nothing inherently unsettling about a hallway in real life, but there’s no point in staying there any longer than one needs to.

I imagine most liminal spaces and the ideas they bring up might not be universal. When I watched a video about this very topic, a commentator said something interesting: “I’m kinda sad that I don’t feel a thing looking at them…must be because building structures in Brazil don’t look similar to those in the US”. It was a perspective I hadn’t considered. Out of curiosity, I show my parents a few of these spaces. They’ve lived almost their entire adult lives in America, but they didn’t grow up here and I wondered if it would make a difference. On my phone is a picture of an elementary school library, complete with ladybug bean bags and garish green walls. It was my school library. Well, not literally, but close enough that I had to stop and wonder for a second before realizing the differences. I asked if they thought about anything when they saw it. “It’s a children’s library”, my mom responds. I guess that’s not wrong? “Anything else?” She stares at it for a bit longer before saying, “I think it feels very happy”. A valid feeling, and possibly a more hopeful outlook than my own. Or maybe I was just focused on the wrong things. She begins to understand my perspective when I explain how the absence of people and the dynamism of life makes these spaces feel desolate. Or perhaps my mom was just humouring me and wondering when I’m going to move on to something more productive.

At the time of writing this, humanity itself is around one year into their own collective liminal space. As new starts often are, the beginning of 2020 was filled with anticipation. “2020 vision”, or so it was jokingly called. I often find the platitudes that come with the “new year, new me” attitude in January to be tedious, but I found it to be a new start for me as well. I was returning to school after a leave of absence, a period of a stagnant few months in my life in which I felt left behind at the time, but which I realized was wholly necessary afterwards. I could not predict what would happen about two months later.
What was once surreal and confusing became “the new normal”. Around the period in which lockdowns were enacted across the globe, I clicked onto an image slideshow depicting how landmarks around the world now looked without the marring of tourists. Times Square, the Eiffel Tower, the Red Square, and countless other spaces that are drowned out by tourists, were now just simply there. Nature took a brief stranglehold over some places, with the local animals now scrambling for scraps of food. I even felt that loneliness myself going on morning drives in the first week after in-person classes ended. It was ominous, but admittedly peaceful. It feels somewhat ridiculous now, looking back on that time period where I thought it was the apocalypse. But everything was so unknown. And in some ways, it does still feel like the beginning of an end.

When I mused on this topic months ago around September of 2020, people were grappling with even more unknowns. A working vaccine still felt like it would be years away. Coverage of the presidential election was inescapable. COVID rate graphs looked like rollercoasters, as places went in and out of stricter rules for lockdowns. Things feel a bit more concrete now, even if plans for the fall and beyond are often accompanied by the word “tentative”. While so many are eager to exit quarantines, I do think that the sense of pre-2020 “normalcy” is one that is impossible to return to, for better or worse. I myself wonder if I have adapted to the transitional crossing space for so long that “normal life” is now what comes off as unusual.

It likely doesn’t help that the conventional college experience is an additional time of great change, meant to bridge the gap between adolescence and adulthood. And for me, even those conventions were thrown out the window. While I find remote classes suited to my personality and my studies, a consequence of spending all day in virtual spaces is the need to walk more in silence. On my daily walks around my neighborhood, I regularly pass by my old elementary school. To my surprise, virtually nothing has changed on the outside, even though it seems like everything else in my town has. The school building doesn’t look like it’s gone under any new renovations. The playground equipment appears to be made of the exact same structures that I spent time on as a child. If anything, the swingset might look slightly rustier and weathered. Depending on the time I decide to stroll out, I might even see children playing, supervised by teachers whom I obviously don’t remember, but whose faces almost look familiar. Nothing has fundamentally changed, except I’m on the other side of the fence now, moving into an adulthood full of uncertainty. On days when the school is empty, I see the playground and fields surrounding it and still feel that sense of surreal sadness that I can’t pin down. I take a picture of the beat up swing set. I say I’ll get around to drawing it, perhaps to practice perspective, but I never do. The chain link fence would be easy to climb over. What felt like an all-encompassing barrier is now tiny and weak. My lizard brain urges me to climb it and to cross the threshold. I never do.

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