Neither Fish nor Fowl

The young woman referred to as Elder Girleen when this blog started 14 years ago — when she started kindergarten — just spent five weeks here in Madrid with us.  I say here with us rather than home with us because she only spent a year here before she left for college. And that year was during Covid Times, with their unerring ability to make anywhere — everywhere? — the opposite of homelike.

She’d done a good job of planning out a summer back in the U.S. but then her college pushed back the start of the fall semester (again, blame Covid Times). So here she was, cooling her heels with us, long after everybody else she knew had gone back to school.

The bedroom she was sleeping in wasn’t her childhood bedroom; our apartment isn’t the house where she grew up.  Going home from college might be a chafing experience in the best of circumstances, but at least it’s comfortable, like a pilled pair of old pyjamas you’ve almost outgrown. Here, all we could provide was a way station between one place and another.

One day while she was here, as she and I walked somewhere, she asked me what I was thinking about.

Why? I asked.

You’re very quiet, she said.

Liminal spaces, I said. I’m thinking about liminal spaces.

Oh, liminal spaces, she said, offhand. People talk about liminal spaces all the time in college.

At that point, I nodded wisely and said Foucault! just because I could.

But I am here to tell you that never once in that far-off long-ago country I once inhabited called life before children did I think I’d discuss any such thing with my children. Reading Dr. Seuss; yes, I could picture that. But an actual adult conversation? With a living, breathing, walking, talking adult?

One thing that tends to get left out of conversations about parenthood is the fact that while we may continue to feel like parents until the day we die, our children will one day no longer be — or feel like — children.

Way back when I inhabited that country of childlessness, the phrase empty nest had the power to make me wince. It seemed so cliched! Being young and heartless, I couldn’t begin to fathom the change it was trying to encompass and describe.

The empty nest.

We use the phrase as shorthand (and sometimes as a joke). We expect parents, mothers in particular, to joyously shed the caretaking clothes they’ve worn for 20 or 30 years … and do what? Go back to being who they were before?

You can’t step in the same river twice, and really, who would want to?

If you eschew moving backwards, you can only move forward; or, as a friend said to me last week, the only way out is through. In other words — what’s next?

I have a couple of years before my nest is entirely empty (wince — I used that lazy shorthand). I was about to write that we don’t talk about the liminal space between motherhood on the front burner and motherhood that’s been relegated to the back one very much or very well. (Who knows why — maybe because the women going through it are usually post-menopausal, society’s opposite-of-sexy?)

But it also could be that we don’t talk about liminal spaces of any sort very well.  We just use them as a means to an end. We rush through them. 

The ancient celts felt heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter. Thin places, by their definition, are actual spaces, usually outdoors, maybe where land meets water, or mountaintop meets sky.

Travel to thin places does not necessarily lead to anything as grandiose as a “spiritual breakthrough,” whatever that means, but it does disorient. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. Or not. Either way, we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world….

“Where Heaven and Earth Come closer”, Eric Weiner, The New York Times

Maybe certain life experiences are thin places as well. Childbirth, the actual act of labor, might be one such space. Sitting beside someone who is dying might be another.

Experiencing the newly-emptied nest might be a third. In the beginning of our lives as parents, we’re asked to be more than for our children. And then, just a few short decades later, in an inverse of that labor, we have to step back. A dance as old as time; one nobody teaches you.