Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Creative Liminality

Each year the Jewish Artists' Lab selects a topic that we study throughout the year. We begin in October and conclude in June. We then have an exhibition and an opportunity to perform in some fashion. I usually do a painting and read poetry or a short story at the performance. It is one painting, but it takes a lot of thought. Of course, each year I hope to come up with something thought-provoking, both for me and for my audience.
Threshold to my ancestors' home in Poland

The theme this year is one that I had proposed, Inside-Outside: Boundaries and Otherness. It is a topic that intrigues me. Most Jews grow up with a sense of otherness, especially those of us who grew up in small Jewish communities where our small numbers helped to underscore our difference from our neighbors. I helped my friends decorate Xmas trees and color Easter eggs, but I was always clear that I was an outsider dabbling in someone else's culture. Part of me has always liked the idea of being an outsider, embracing my differences. I've come to think of otherness as a creative engine. It allows us to see the world through fresh eyes, outsider eyes. 

When I proposed this topic, I didn't imagine it would become quite so...well, topical. In these political times, it has taken on added relevance. It is the year of the Other, the year of boundary walls. Those of us who grew up with otherness feel a deep sense of empathy for those our country seeks to exclude. We were once them. 

It is a broad topic with many parts, in, out and in-between. It is the in-between that interests me.  Maybe it has something to do with being a middle child, my psychology shaped by my indeterminate status, neither here nor there. I don't like the kind of in-between that is being stuck, in limbo, but the in-between of transition leading to transformation speaks to me. In the lab we  have the opportunity to teach a session to our fellow artists. I began to explore an idea for my session and stumbled across the concept of liminality. It was then that my idea for both class and artwork began to come together. 

As we discussed boundaries, those lines that divide us from each other, I found myself thinking of our own internal boundaries. They are the lines we must traverse in order to experience the many changes we undergo in the course of a lifetime. That in turn led me into the concept of liminal space. Liminal means threshold. It is the space between boundaries where the old rules no longer apply, the new yet to be mastered. It is an anthropological term marking rites of passage. Liminal space is often a place of change and transformation, a place of challenge as we face the unknown. While the word resembles "limbo" which derives from a word meaning "border," its focus on passage and transformation is the important distinction. In limbo we are just stuck.

There are stages to liminality. First we must let go of the familiar, deciding what we can take into this new environment and what we must leave behind. Then that difficult stage of transformation, neither here nor there. Finally we learn how to adapt to our new environment. Disruption is often a trigger.  Our lives may be touched by change when someone close to us dies or we divorce. Perhaps we move to a new environment or lose our job.  All the elements that turn our life upside down are also triggers for what may prove to be transformative. I have a friend whose husband died unexpectedly, still a relatively young man. She spent a difficult year adjusting to this new reality and when we met after a time she told me that even though she missed her husband, she was learning to like this new life. She had moved through liminality to transformation.

Liminality can happen to a broader society as well.  War and natural disasters are often disruptions on a much broader scale. I would argue that our recent election was also an exercise in liminality, disrupting the things we believe about our country and our neighbors, the form of transformation, yet to be fully revealed.

Marking our crossing of boundaries with rituals is a concept found in our everyday life. When a guest enters our home we might offer them a drink.  A school bell and perhaps the pledge of allegiance marks the beginning of a school day. We have markers, rituals, that highlight the fact that we are entering a new environment. 

Religion uses rituals to honor such passages. In Judaism a mezuzah might be found at the door entry. It actually means "lintel" and marks our entry into a home. A bar or bat mitzvah marks our entrance to adulthood. The Havdallah ritual marks the end of Shabbat. 

While ritual marks the entrance or exit, Jewish holidays recognize the passage. What could be more liminal than the 40 years in the desert that we celebrate at Passover? In Judaism we celebrate the journey, the preparation to receive the law, a period of transformation.  Purim has as its heroine, Esther. As a Jew masquerading as a non-Jew she has a foot in both worlds. As I analyzed each holiday I found they had a liminal state at their center, with the period of transformation central to the story. In fact as any writer knows, the period of transformation is the story.

People can be liminal as well. Immigrants and refugees have a foot in two worlds. So do those who are transgender. Many of those who are viewed as "the other" don't fit into the tidy boxes in which many like to see the world.  Ah, but no one can escape liminality if they have a teenager, caught between childhood and adulthood, the ultimate liminal being.

I think many artists and writers are liminal. Living in our world, but seeing the world with outsider eyes. It is what enables us to do what we do.  Part of creativity is often about connecting two seemingly disparate ideas into a new whole.  As artists we need to work through that transformative stage every time we create, leaving the familiar to enter something new. So with that teaser, stay tuned for what I plan to show at the Artist Lab show in June.

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