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Dwelling On The Threshold
A Reflection On Our In-Between Times
Today feels like the first day of spring in my part of the world. Trees and plants are blooming, the sun is shining bright, it’s warm enough to venture outside without a jacket, birds are singing, and bees are buzzing. Stubborn old man winter has finally left.
We New Englanders often whine that spring comes too late and leaves too soon. Yet this year it seems on time, and I’ve seen no forecasts of an early summer. For us sports fans, this is also that special time when teams in two sports are advancing or being eliminated in the early rounds of their leagues’ playoffs, while on baseball diamonds pitchers and batters are well on their way to finding their rhythm. We are in no rush for this magical season to end. Maybe for once we can enjoy a leisurely pause that carries us gradually and pleasantly from past cold to future heat.
A pause during a transition from one period to the next is sometimes called “liminal space,” a space that, when recognized, can be pivotal to our growth. Liminal spaces can arise in many circumstances, such as a job change, a break in a relationship, an injury or illness, or a geographical move. One obvious example is a gap year, a year between high school and college or between college and grad school, designated specifically as a time to sort out the student’s goals and better equip them to choose their next steps.
Liminal spaces often provide opportunities to assess our situations, consider our options, and choose our directions. Franciscan Richard Rohr describes them this way:
The Latin word limen means “threshold.” Liminal space is an inner state and sometimes an outer situation where we can begin to think and act in new ways. It is where we are betwixt and between, in transition, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next. . . . In such space, we are not certain or in control.
The very vulnerability and openness of liminal space allows room for something genuinely new to happen. We are empty and receptive—blank tablets waiting for new words. Liminal space is where we are most teachable, often because we are most humbled. Liminality keeps us in an ongoing state of shadowboxing instead of ego-confirmation, struggling with the hidden side of things, and calling so-called normalcy into creative question.
Rohr points out that “we generally avoid liminal space,” and that has proven true for me. When I retired from my law firm in December, I knew I’d want to remain active in law in some capacity, though not in the same way I had before. I wasted no time setting up the legal, financial, and technological structures I would need to take on cases as a mediator and to advise lawyers and their clients in the handling and/or resolution of their class action lawsuits. I also arranged to continue teaching as an adjunct professor at two excellent law schools, continued and expanded my roles with the American Bar Association, and continued the new media ventures I began two years ago – my Higher Callings podcast and this newsletter. In short, I jumped from one setting to the next without allowing myself a breather to rest and reflect on how I wanted to spend my post-law-firm time.
Fortunately, I also had arranged to get away for a couple of weeks, which forced me to pause my various activities. As I mentioned in a previous post, I used most of that time to visit other people.
Over the course of seventeen days, my travels took me to nine cities and towns, a feat that realistically could be accomplished only by car. My first stop brought me to a dinner and meeting of my law school’s advisory council, where I was able to see old law school friends, a former law firm colleague and mentor (a highly accomplished trial lawyer who was the dinner’s keynote speaker), and law school administrators I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know over the last few years.
From there, I traveled in a loop taking me pretty far south, then a bit west, then north, and finally back east. I was able to spend quality time with several nieces and nephews, long-time and more-recent friends, sisters- and brothers-in-law, my own two sisters, and one of my children, who recently moved south to start a new business. It was a trip I needed to take, both because of the people I wanted to see, and because of the distance I needed to put between my pre-retirement routine and the busy schedule I had so quickly adopted.
I’ve only been back from my trip for a week, but I’m trying to remain for a while in this newly discovered liminal space. I’ve been setting aside time each morning to read, not only to keep up with what is happening in my areas of expertise, but also, and perhaps more so, for my personal edification and enjoyment. I’ve been making shorter to-do lists each day, and am not rushing to check each task off. And I’ve been taking stock of what is important to me and what is not, placing a higher priority on the things I want to do because I enjoy them and not because I think they’ll contribute to some post-retirement brand.
I expect to emerge from this brief interlude refreshed, a little wiser, and with a clearer sense of direction. I still will devote time to staying current in my area of practice (a necessity, as it also is the subject of my teaching), and will continue to make myself available to companies, lawyers and others who might benefit from whatever skills or wisdom I have to offer. I still will teach and try to support the future of the profession and the people entering it in that small but important way. I still will volunteer through the two bar activities to which I’m currently committed. And I still will look for ways to be supportive of my family and friends, and to contribute my more abundant time and modest talents to my community and the larger society, in whatever forms that happens to take.
What I hope I won’t do is sublimate my quest for meaningful service and personal fulfillment to the pursuit of purely material rewards. Forty-two years of climbing professional ladders and chasing business was enough. It’s been a great ride, but now that I’ve had some time to dwell on the threshold of the next chapter of my life, I’ve begun to appreciate the value of the purposeful pause, and of allowing the journey to unfold before me, even if only one day at a time.