My wife and I bought our first home in the winter of 2019. Immediately, we began a harrowing journey to remodel our 1960s home. We had no plan and a woefully inadequate budget, but we also had a lot of moxie and sweat to give.
At first, it was thrilling to be finally working on our house after dreaming about it for 16 years. Many conversations would start with, “What if over here we did this…” Then one of us might say, “Oh, I like that! And what about…and if we are going to do that, we better do this first.” Quickly, the size and scope of the project ballooned. A few cosmetics changes to make the house livable turned into a complete gut job. Before long, the entire house felt like a FEMA disaster zone. Entire walls were removed and replaced with beams and posts. Drywall torn down. Flooring pulled up. Old electrical and plumbing ripped out. A bathroom completely removed. It turned into a chaotic mess almost overnight.
And that is when we moved into the basement.
Everything that comes to mind when you hear ‘basement’ is spot on. Dark. The dank smell from 40 year old carpet. Wood paneling. Spiders. Cold concrete walls. The loud droning of a old furnace about to die, which did by the way. We used seven space heaters strategically placed to keep warm that winter. That same week the furnace died, so did the fridge.
For the next six months little felt familiar and nothing felt like home. The “kitchen” area was a plastic folding table with two portable electric burners. A set of storage shelves became the pantry with all the canned goods, produce, dishes and utensils on it. Because everything was out in the open, meal time required us to first wash off the construction dust that had settled that day. Our three boys slept in one dungeon-like bedroom with mattresses on the floor. The work hours were long and brutal often ending late in the night. What we thought would be a few weeks turned into months of full-blown disillusionment. Eighteen months later, our house is much more livable, but we are still miles from the finish line.
We own a house, but now we really see what it means to be homeowners. Now we know that “sweat equity” is gratifying, but it is also physically and emotionally grinding. Now we know that to create beauty from something old and broken down meant we had to learn how to live with some chaos and uncertainty.
There is a lot of chaos and uncertainty in the air, isn’t there? Everywhere you look there seems to be the unsettling mess of a full-scale remodel, and by all accounts we’re not even out of the demolition phase of this thing. This is a marathon of uncertainty. The rising number of Coronavirus cases and deaths, the unrest against racial inequity, a global financial crisis, and the pandemic of confusing and divisive leadership highlight a sharp truth about life’s most difficult trials: there are no shortcuts through this wilderness. The only way out is through. This is a journey measured in steps. And we each have to learn how to be here – in this day – as we continue on this unknown path.
How do we be here, with all the difficulty that comes with these trials? How do we keep putting one foot in front of the other when so many feel weary and worn thin? How do we stay hopeful when it seems like everything is barely holding together?
In the weeks ahead, I want to explore these questions and offer a few thoughts and ideas on how to be here. I hope they offer some encouragement and help you plant your feet on the ground to keep moving forward, one day at a time.
Here’s the first though about how to be here:
Remember, you’ve been here before.
If I had the opportunity to ask you, “what stories most shaped you?” I’d probably hear about moving to a new town as a kid, the loss of a loved one, a traumatic event, losing your job, starting a business, failing in business, getting married, getting divorcing, having kids, or life after launching kids. In the middle of these stories just after the plot thickened you didn’t know up from down. Everything felt off and unsettling. Messed up. You were stressed out, likely anxious and fearful. You didn’t know what to do next. You did your best to cope. Some of those ways were not healthy. Some were. Often, you just wanted to go back to how things were. Life was in a state of disorder, and you had to do the slow, gradual work to make some sense out of it. Wanted or not, these moments were highly disruptive and hard for you.
Weren’t these stories also revealing? Didn’t they show you a great deal about the makeup of your character – what was there already and what you sensed lacking? Didn’t they ask you to grow up some and face your demons? Didn’t they force you to put a fresh grip on questions like, “What do I really want for my life?” Didn’t you see how some things matter very much to you now and some things just don’t? And then, didn’t you have to make a few leaps of faith, these partially blind choices where you take the best step forward with what you know at the time? Didn’t those moments call upon your courage? Or, put another way, didn’t you have to put some legs on your fear? If they are stories that shaped you most, I’ll bet they held deep learning and discovery. I bet over time you gained more self-awareness and confidence, I bet your courage grew, and you felt alive. I also bet that who you became and what was discovered because of that story in your life would have remained hidden, perhaps forever, without that trial.
These times in life go by the name liminal space.
The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word limens, which literally means, “threshold”. A liminal space then is the time between the old familiar story and the new one. It is a transitional space of intense uncertainty. They are undefined, confusing and uncomfortable days, just like the ones we are living through right now. It is the waiting and not knowing, the deep encounter with uncertainty, that makes these moments terrible and often unbearable.
It’s easy to look at a long, difficult trial as something to bear since many days are simply a fight for survival. But that’s rarely the whole story, is it? The stories you just recalled tell us that. If we are fortunate enough the most formative stories wake us up to the life we have and are deeply transformative in shaping us into better human beings. And by better I mean more grateful, less fearful, more joyful, more loving of our neighbor, more creative, more comfortable in our own skin, more kind to others in their skin, more purposeful, more service-minded and justice-oriented, more present here and now in this day that we’ve each been given.
So, you are still here. Another day. Five months into a pandemic and a world gripped by uncertainty and unrest, most days feel like this thing is barely hanging on by a thread. But remember, you’ve been here before. Of course, just like the rest of us, you’ve never had to paddle through these dark waters. And just like the rest of us, you’d rather be on the other side of the storm. That’s miles away. We are here. And you are no stranger to pulling at the oars in a stormy seas. Navigating uncertainty in life is a given for all of us. Who you become and how you respond to the uncertainty is entirely up to you. Looking back at your life will catalogue this quite well.
Liminal spaces are hard to tolerate, especially when they stretch on for months and years. Remember though, an incredible story could be up ahead that you might get the chance to tell someday. Much of that gets determined by how you show up and simply be in this day. By learning what it means to be here.
Remind yourself often that you are in a liminal space, and that you are not a novice traveler. You have experiences to draw upon that speak to your resilience. For today, remember that you are this magnificent and mysterious human being who can not only make it through hard thing, but can also become more alive and more human along the way.
- Think back over the last five months. Make a list of all the challenges and problems you have had to solve for. Many of these I assume you thought you’d never have to figure out! As you review the list, what does it teach you about your resilience?
- What have you been hard on yourself about lately? Write down what it sounds like in your thoughts. After each thought, consider this: what kind words or acts of care do I most need that these thoughts are preventing?