The Celts believed there was another dividing line that all people could straddle, if only they stretched themselves out a bit. And that’s the divide between the world and the otherworld. -Steve Rabery, In The House of Memory
I was lying in a tiny berth in a cabin supposedly made for three grown people, but really could hardly accommodate one. While I had drawn the short straw for the middle berth, it turned about to be a gift. My cramped bunk, while stuck between the top and bottom, had the lion’s share of the view out the window. As much of a pain as it was to crawl out and downwards to access the bathroom, or be closer to the heater (it was November, after all), I could pull up my blankets and feast myself on the vistas flashing past.
Or at least until it was too dark to really see anything.
I had been living and working in Romania for a few months already. A beautiful, rugged country with warm, passionate people, and all the ciorba I could eat (ciorba is Romanian sour soup), I believed at the time I was going to live there for the rest of my life.
As it was, a missionary couple from Hungary had invited us to come visit them for American Thanksgiving. The cheapest train fare departed Bucharest for Budapest the evening before, hence finding myself in such cramped conditions. The train ride took us through the wild Carpathian Mountains. Smaller than the Rockies I knew from home, but far less domesticated, they rose up in jagged ridges and waterfalls on either side. Falling into the hypnotic rhythm of the train, I let my imagination take over.
Mist tumbled out of the woods as dusk settled in. It curled and twined around tree trunks and across rivers; it muted streetlights as we slowed to pull into each village station along the route, and it softened the look of the houses; it made the world an entirely new place to move through other than daytime or nighttime, or even dusk for that matter. It took over and made the countryside it’s own private kingdom, shutting us out from the bright world beyond, and insulating us within its skin.
It was easy to understand how Bram Stoker envisioned Count Dracula prowling around as the very mist itself. It possessed a breath and life all its own. It made the world into this eerie realm because the thing itself was alive with an altogether power of otherness.
I began to realise in those moments suspended between day and night, light and dark, how desperately I needed possibility, how much I craved what could be. In many of the traditions I grew up in, imagination was limited to certainty. Which meant, everything was crystal clear and understood. Mystery was another word for heresy, unless that mystery ended up with references to the literal crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
For me, the ache for magic wasn’t so much a cry for pagan ritual (although I had been practicing some of those already), as much as a scream for possibilities — the balm of what could be. I knew the world of black and of white; of light and of dark. I knew the world where colour and angles and shapes were sharply clear in their definitions. All explanations were sufficient, and if I didn’t find them sufficient, the problem was mine to own.
The mist beckoned me to love liminality: the space between spaces where the impossible is not only possible but plausible. As someone who knew only certainty, moving about in the mist was hard at first. I didn’t like being unable to see perfectly as I had been taught to see. And could swear that the mist also sucked up sound as well. I couldn’t hear as well as I had been taught to hear. It’s cold breath was too ethereal for me to feel comfortable in; it demanded to touch to much of my skin. Whatever I craved for in liminal space, it certainly craved a lot of me in return.
But as I let fall away all the lessons I’d been taught about how to see or how to hear or how to feel, I began to enjoy the wonder that is the lifeblood of liminal space. My confession became one of love and longing for sunrises and sunsets, dawns and dusks, rather than noon or midnight. My muscles ached furiously after having been constrained by such strict ways of moving through the world. Now, they were free to explore the copse of trees behind the village, to wander in the ruins, to wonder at what might be around the next bend.
The mist aggravated an ignited curiosity, but also demanded I move differently. I was stiff and stilted at first, unsure of how to be now especially now that I had to use my eyes and ears differently. I was still the person I was, but now I was faced with innumerable possibilities of the person I could be. And the person I was in that present moment then — THEN! — was able to live.
There are days I pray for the certainty I once had in my faith traditions. I would give anything to be able to see things so clearly or hear things so surely. But I have to remember how stunted and confined I was to a specific set of dogmatic instructions for living. I have to remember what that did to me as a person — what it did to so many. The suppression of curiosity was only one way of ensuring adherence. And adherence is not a synonym for faithfulness.
There are dark things that hide in the mist. There is danger is exploring possibilities. But the truth is, the cult of certainty can no more promise truth or surety than the mist can promise safety. Danger lies in the noonday sun just as it lies in foggy spaces. Leaning into liminal spaces, however, reminds us that God is not a God of absolute technicalities, but rather one of open possibility and life.
I’ve come a long way since that night meandering through the Carpathians. But I can say that whenever I have the chance to jump off the train to explore the mist, I do. I’m often startled, but I’m rarely disappointed.