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Makoto Fujimura, Images of Grace

I’ve been reading (again) Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, a collection of essays on the art and craft of writing poetry. There’s so much here to mine for writers of any stripe, or for anyone engaged in the creative process.

My favorite essay—and certainly the most underlined and annotated—is the last, “Writing and the Threshold Life.” It’s here where she speaks of the liminal, the time and space of transition integral to all rites of passage. It’s where, she writes, “a person leaves behind his or her old identity and dwells in a threshold state of ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy.”

Most people dip in this space only temporarily for specific purposes. But for some “the liminal becomes their only dwelling place—becomes home.”

This was true for me when our family sailed around the world. The sea was our home. We were in a constant state of transition, travelling within the circle of an ever expanding horizon, with no landfall at all sometimes for weeks, months, at a time.

The sea was “a threshold state of ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy” as we sailed upon its surface or dived beneath it, weathered its storms and doldrums, watched lightening forking the sky and striking down all around us, greeted herds of dolphins rising up from the deep to play by our side before dipping back into the world from which they rose.

Our world was in constant motion as the waves rushed past our hull during the night and the stars circled over head while the boat rocked us to sleep. One after another port or cove, island or atoll, would disappear behind us new ones came into view.

When our travels ended, coming back to a so-called conventional life ashore did not dispose me of this deep sense of the liminal, of living always within a state of transition, for so many transitions I’ve made between then and now.

When I deeply examine the fabric and construction of this world we live in, I become more and more convinced that we all are living within a liminal state all the time. For nothing stays the same, nothing is as it first appears, everything is always becoming something else.

We pass through one doorway to another, one room to another, one place to another—so many thresholds we pass through every single day. Dusk to dawn, toddlers to teens, acorns to oak trees. There’s no end to it.

But the poet or any person on a creative or spiritual journey lives this liminal life even more keenly, or at least more consciously, more deliberately, perhaps, than others.

Hirshfield quotes from a poem by Czeslaw Milosz:

Ars Poetica

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
How difficult it is to remain just one person,
For our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
And invisible guests come in and out at will.

She elaborates: “Speaking from the point of view of multiplicity, betweenness, and visitation, the writer can become a person in whom both individuality and community may ripen into true expression.”

When writing, she tells us, we assert who we are and what we think, but we also surrender those things “to stand humbled and stunned and silent before the wild and inexplicable beauties and mysteries of being.”

The writer’s task is to become “permeable and transparent.”

It’s about “stepping past what we already think we know and into an entirely new relationship with the many possibilities of being, with the ultimately singular and limitless mystery of being.”

“Above all it is about . . . the affection for all existence,” the hawk as well as the rabbit it hunts.

But isn’t this, or shouldn’t this be, the task of all of us as we transit this life? To stand humbled, stunned, and transparent as we move from what we were before this life began to what we will become when we travel beyond it?

Hirshfield’s book ends with this poem by Gary Snyder:

On Climbing the Sierra Matterhorn Again After thirty-One Years

Range after range of mountains
Year after year after year,
I am still in love.

Me too.