The Earth Dreams in Ritual

I’m developing an intimate relationship to weeds

Wardell Milan, Early Spring. The Charming Evening. 2014, digital C-print, mounted on 4-ply museum board. 47 13/16 × 71 15/16". Courtesy of the artist and David Nolan Gallery, New York. © Wardell Milan.

Pandemic as Liminal Space

My uncle claims he can tell if someone is a Protestant or a Catholic by looking at the length of their toes. He’s a history professor who specializes in the Protestant Reformation, and when I was younger he used to regale us over holiday dinners with religious propositions like corn and wheat are Catholic crops because they require praying to intermediaries, like saints, for rain. “I am not a Christian,” I once heard him say, “but a Christian,” as if he had managed to free himself from the heavy baggage of historical Christianity and its modern day evangelical residue with a crisper, more courtly version. To this day he continues to play Christianity in a theatrical, performative way, dressing up as a pilgrim or a member of a monastery or a duke.

On holidays my uncle also liked to play something he called Liminal Space, making frequent reference to the anthropologist Victor Turner and his book The Ritual Process. Liminal space was transformational space, a threshold, a gateway, part of a rite of passage to cast off the mundane world and grow into something more creative and dynamic. Liminal space was anti-structure, carnivalesque, an afternoon’s access to a more luminous world than the narrow vision of the secular, modern, isolated, status-oriented individual. That’s my wording. The way my uncle interpreted Turner’s concept of liminal space was that everything significant in life takes place on a holiday, a holy day, where real life abides. Liminal space was the territory of right-brained activity. “Conversion is a right-brained neurological experience,” I heard him say once. “Like Alcoholics Anonymous, which was started by two Calvinists.” One had to undergo extreme ordeals to shut down the controlling part of the left brain to create enough room to make poetry. Holidays, like right-brained liminal space, were the day’s equivalent to the night of a blue moon, a time to pursue our heart’s convictions, where anything could happen, the only true plot points of our lives. All else was only survival, business as usual, getting by. I tried, at one point, to write a novel where the plot progressed only on a holiday.

I associated family holidays with liminal space — not only because of my uncle, but because, like the mycelium network, on holidays the entire family would morph into a mass of connection and belonging, akin to what Turner refers to as communitas. Communitas, Turner writes, emerges in the absence of structure. On holidays we would often rent a house on the coast, or in the woods, and for a few days to a week, thirty of us would live in a kind of anti-structural pandemonium. None of us was rich — my uncle started out as a tile setter, and the rest eventually became teachers or social workers. (My brother, the richest one among us, became a restaurateur.) But at these gatherings we would turn life upside down and play elaborate games like Aristocrat, or Russian Tsar.

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