Neither Here Nor There

My nomination for word of the plague year: liminality

Neither Here Nor There, of course, is the title of a book by my hero Bill Bryson, a shambolic white guy who has made his way around the world a dozen times (it seems) while getting into minor scrapes, meeting cranks and pissheads, and delving into local history. Who knew there was a living in that? Had I known it was possible to make a living that way, I might have simply continued my post graduate education in randomly dashing from one place to the next, in perpetuity.

Our quote-spewing friends at Goodreads.com highlighted this passage from Neither, which pretty much nails what I have been up to during a lifetime of wandering: “That’s the glory of foreign travel,” writes the peripatetic Bill, “as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”

Doesn’t that last bit say it all? It’s not just a traveler’s existence that is reduced to interesting guesses, but every moment from womb to tomb, as well. I feel like I made an interesting guess about four months into the Covid-19 adventure, when the cannabis magazine I was editing went on hiatus, even though people were hanging around and toking more than ever. RIP, NatuRx. It plunged me into a liminal space, which I nominate for pandemic word of the year.

Victor Turner wrote all about it his paper, published in the 1960s: Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Passages in Rites de Passage. And he beat Bryson to the punch by forty years, with this definition of the liminal: “That which is neither this nor that, and yet is both.” That threshold is exactly what Bryson tripped over in his wanderings in Europe: Being nowhere and everywhere, at the same time.

So it was for me when NatuRx folded. A world of time opened up, with the question being: How will I fill this time? What will I make of this opportunity? A few years back, my friends Jeremy Katz and Dave Howard and I met in Estes Park, Colorado, to discuss what the hell we were going to do with ourselves in the time we had left. What kind of work is most meaningful?

At their urging, I drew up this scatterplot of my activities, real and imagined.

That crossroads is the definition of the liminal space, with opportunities and responsibilities competing with one another along the x and y axes, and that elusive top-left quadrant, where fulfilling meets money, is where we all want to live.

My answer to the implicit challenge from my buds was to go for it on “first person essays,” and before I knew it I was writing a memoir from the first of many liminal spaces I’ve occupied in life, using my journal writings as a 21–22 year old, wandering Europe in my own Neither Here Nor There moment, as a jumping off point.

And so, one morning last summer I sat down at my desk in a barn in Fort Collins, Colorado, and pecked out these lines, launching my life and a memoir at the same time.

“IT WAS MORNING IN PARIS. Also, the dawn of my adult life. And as a post-collegiate unemployed nincompoop, I was free.

Free to fly to Paris on a one-way ticket.

Free to study French for no apparent reason at the Alliance Française, 101 Boulevard Raspail.

Free to be walking north next to that leafy boulevard, with empty pockets, a vacant mind, and no prospects for filling either.”

As a result, I have been spending more time in that upper left quadrant, trying to figure out where I was headed down that boulevard in Paris, and also in the lifetime that followed. Bryson has help guide the way. Victor Turner, too.

Hard to tell how that commitment is going to work out, but then, that’s liminality for you: No telling which quadrant you’ll end up in.

How’s your scatterplot looking?

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