How do we cope when we find ourselves teetering on the precipice between school years; one foot still in our old year before leaping into something new? Some students may feel a little nervous and unsure, keen to settle into the stability of routine once more. Later as adults, we may experience similar emotions between homes, jobs, relationships or a big move abroad. Embracing the uncertainty of our liminal life may allow us to discover that profound possibilities exist in this fertile void.

TS Eliot wrote in his poem, The Hollow Men: “Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow.” We may lurk in this shadow in many guises. This year as a community we have come together in the spaces between lockdowns, tiers and travel restrictions – and while handling the uncertainty that rose up with each news bulletin.

Sometimes in life, we may choose such periods of ambiguity – we knowingly destabilise ourselves – but we also know that we may face redundancy, or lose an important relationship against our will, and it can feel like bad luck, as if something in our lives has gone ‘wrong’. But what if as children and adolescents, we had learnt to reconsider these setbacks and, rather than seeing them as obstacles, reframe them as a rite of passage towards the new version of ourselves we so ardently want them to be?

The word ‘liminity’ derives from the Latin root ‘limen’, which means threshold. David Gray, author of Liminal Thinking, describes it as: “Periods of transition during which the normal limits to thought, self-understanding and behaviour are relaxed, opening the way to novelty and imagination, construction and destruction.” That certainly sounds all too familiar. COVID-19 made liminality a universal experience, as we said goodbye to an old way of living and sat in our homes and our bubbles, still outside of life on the other side of the pandemic. But the experience of being betwixt is not reserved for a global crisis, nor is it reserved for someone who allows all facets of their identity to simultaneously merge, tumble and remould on a regular basis. It’s a place we all frequent throughout life: it’s the alternative reality that every one of our students has experienced this year. 

When we’re in liminal spaces in our life, our instinctive urge is to recommit ourselves to core identity pillars. These provide the outline for who we are. Uncertainty and rapid change shake this sense of identity and may even lead to an identity crisis. The message to our students is this: harness the real joy in being suspended in the possibility of a different version of you, or a new way of living – even if just for a moment. And perhaps that’s the more poetic purpose of liminality, to let us explore who we could be, outside an identity that’s ossified. It’s a chance to remould, for things to get messy as we play with the clay of life.

When we are not in transition – when we have entered the new academic year or the post-pandemic world – we will have the benefit of increased assurance and certainty. But let’s not forget the simple truth that we all have multiple selves. We’re not just a teacher, a mother or a sister; who we are goes beyond these simplified ideas. The liminal is undoubtedly tough and sharp-edged but it might also be the space of pure truth. It’s a fleeting state, inviting exploration. Our identities will solidify again, but how can we expand if we don’t allow ourselves to learn something in the discomfort of change?

We urge you to consider this summer as a place of power and lush possibility. It may just demand that we surrender to chaos, upheaval and that great human affliction that can sometimes be a blessing: not knowing what’s next.

Nisha Kaura, Head of The Abbey Junior School