Living in the liminal

Living in the liminal

In 2020 fashion, this Labor Day weekend was strange for me and my crew.

It was too hot for camping–not to mention all the other people we were bound to run into, since the virus has rendered most other folks’ primary pastimes ill-advised at best and cancelled at worst.

When I was still going to school in Norman, one of my colleagues invited me to an exhibit centered around the town of Picher, OK, and it’s been on my list of places to visit since… and I doubt visiting an abandoned superfund site is most people’s idea of a fun Saturday activity. This seemed as good a weekend as any.

For those that don’t know the story, I’ll summarize. In the early 20th century, Picher was booming; after the discovery of lead and zinc deposits, its population exploded to over 14,000 in the 1920s, and it supplied 50% of the ore used during World War I. The excessive mining took is toll, however, when major sinkholes began appearing in the 1980s, and the Army Corps of Engineers determined that most of the town’s buildings were in danger of caving in. Picher’s water supply was also dangerously contaminated with heavy metal runoff. By 2010, the town had just one remaining business — a pharmacy — and six occupied homes.

When we arrived around 1:30pm on Saturday, September 5, 2020, I was shocked that it had ever been a town. It was a far cry from the photos I had seen in the exhibit; the town’s return-to-nature had been hurried along by the demolition of buildings and blocking off of side streets. If you didn’t know the history of the town, you’d have thought it was a little privately-owned junkyard along the highway.

As we continued to drive around, however, I was struck by the inconsistencies. The visual truths that made the place difficult to assign an identity to.

A clearly abandoned collection of duplexes — doors and windows removed, siding melting off from too many Oklahoma summers without maintenance — that someone had gone to the trouble of recently mowing around.

Across the street, there was a large field with a set of unmaintenanced bathrooms toward the center, a single set of bleachers, overgrown with trees and facing toward a junkyard, and a statue of a gorilla at the corner of the lot. “1A Football State Champs 1984,” it read.

A faded sign overlooking the area explained that the “park” we were standing in was maintained by volunteers. At least that solved the mystery of what the area used to be. But what was it now?

Armed with my camera, I found myself drawn to capture the sense of order among the chaos. The juxtaposition of items arranged in a way that indicated some sort of care, intention, definition… but in a context that left the observer unsatisfied.

We weren’t in a town. But we also weren’t not in a town.

We spent a couple of hours driving back and forth along the main stretch of Picher and went down a few side roads, but many were blocked off by concrete barriers. We assumed this was to keep annoying people like us from driving into a sinkhole. The scorching sun and humidity kept us pretty close to the car, though I’d like to venture back on a cooler day and (carefully) walk down some of the blocked off streets.*

I shared some of my photos from the day and made an attempt to explain the dis-ease the setting elicited, to which a friend responded that I check out “liminal space” galleries. I’d never heard of such a thing.

Enter the concept of liminality.

From Wikipedia: “In anthropology, liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete.”

If this isn’t the theme of the fucking year.

The concept originated with an anthropologist studying folklore, but it’s been expanded as a theory to explain social and cultural change, too: “During liminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt.”

It’s that really uncomfortable place that people hate between what something used to be and what something will become.

A global pandemic has sent us all into this kind of space. The reality that something we can’t see and sometimes struggle to measure has such a real, profound impact on our way of life is difficult to internalize, and the lack of information about what the future in which this reality exists looks like is disconcerting.

These spaces are so, so very important, though. They don’t come often, and they are a terrifying, beautiful, crazy opportunity to change relationships with reality. They bring people, things, and ideas together that wouldn’t, in the previous paradigm, have had the same level of opportunity to interact and create.

As I’m considering a major change in my personal path, this weekend was important. Picher reinforced for me that change is going to happen and that it can be devastating. But to keep on doing what you’re doing because it’s what you’ve always done is living in a reality that doesn’t exist — and it will eventually result in disaster if not questioned.

Here’s to sitting in my own period of liminality. Like the land that used to be Picher, I have a few areas that contain what I understand to be mutually exclusive pieces, but I pledge to do my best to feel this space. To use it as an empowering agent in defining what I will become. To question the very fabric of my judgements and to have the strength to take the risks inherent in redefining parts of myself.

I think we all need to be doing that off and on throughout our lives, but when we get an opportunity like a global place of becoming… well, that’s something you don’t want to come out the other end of unchanged.

*It’s worth noting this is probably illegal, so… don’t be like me.


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