The world between worlds

The old year is finished but not quite done, the new one is coming but hasn't quite begun.

The world between worlds

It’s a special week, this week between Christmas and New Year. The old year is done, but not quite, while the new one is here, but not quite. It is a time between times.

One word for this in-between week is liminal (it rhymes with criminal). To live in a liminal condition is to live in between worlds; it is to occupy the space that exists between what has been and what is to come. When you’re in a liminal space, you’ve left the place you used to be but you haven’t yet arrived at the place you are going to.

To be in a liminal space, in other words, is to be embarked on a journey. According to Tolstoy, who had a big beard and can therefore be trusted,

It is always the case on a long journey that till the first two or three stages have been passed imagination continues to dwell on the place left behind, but with the first morning on the road it leaps to the end of the journey and there begins building castles in the air.

And this is indeed how many of us will spend some time this week. We will reflect on the year just past, and then at some point the scales will tip and we will turn to building castles in the air, which we will call our new year’s resolutions.


This year has been an in-between year for me. I’ve quit a job and a career I’ve had for about 15 years and I haven’t yet arrived at the safe harbour of my next job and career. My family and I have vagabonded across continents and we still don’t know where we want to settle.

I won’t lie, kids. It’s often been difficult. When you live in liminality, you’re constantly living in uncertainty, and this is psychologically demanding.

When it’s difficult, I try to remind myself that liminal spaces are important - there are important transitions in all our lives, movements from one stage to another, processes of transformation from one self to another. We need the spaces in which we can adequately live those changes, and we need the fortitude to live ‘in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’

It may be that some of you are currently living in a similar condition. And it may be that some of you are struggling with it. Especially to those people, I want to offer an image that has helped me this year.


As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into some kind of monstrous vermin. He lay on his soft, ridged back, the curved, cylindrical torso wobbling uncertainly from side to side. If he strained with his eyes and twisted, he could make out strange protrusions from his head and his body. His many legs wiggled in the air.

What has happened to me?’ he thought. ‘Perhaps this is a dream? Yes, this must be a dream. Let me sleep some more and when I’m awake this will have gone.’

It was not a dream. Whatever had happened, it had really happened. He was now a … a what?

Imagine. Imagine being Gregor Samsa. Imagine going to sleep a man and waking up a monstrous vermin. Imagine the torment of this transformation, the despair of realising that one is no longer a normal man, one is no longer what one was but instead something far weaker, far more grotesque, for more unsuited for the world. Imagine all the old certainties destroyed and nothing to replace them.

Kafka’s Gregor Samsa woke up and turned into a cockroach. But my Gregor Samsa, dear reader, our Gregor, turned instead into a caterpillar.

As caterpillars will, he ate relentlessly. And then one day Gregor the Caterpillar stopped eating and hung upside down from a twig. Once safely hung, he spun and spun and spun, spun so well that he had encased himself into a prison from which he could no longer emerge.

It was dark inside the prison. Occasionally, a little sliver of light would make its way through the threads, but this was very rare, and even when it did occur, the light was very faint and far away.

Gregor Samsa lay there in the darkness, the space too small to move, feeling very little and very alone.

In the beginning he sometimes made little noises. They began as cries for help and then, when he realised none was coming, they became cries of loneliness, little pleading sounds for the existence of another being. Just a sign, he thought. Give me one sign. Please.

Nothing came.

Gregor Samsa lay there in the darkness, weaker and weaker, beginning to eat himself to survive. His body released enzymes to break down his flesh, and the flesh oozed in on itself, reabsorbed itself.

Gregor Samsa lay there in the darkness, alone and afraid, dying in darkness, in an oozing suppurating stinking mess of blood and guts and flesh.

Time passed. Gregor faded in and out of consciousness until he finally fell into a coma.

When he awoke, Gregor Samsa had turned into a butterfly.


Caterpillars turn into butterflies.

The caterpillar has absolutely no idea that it is going to become a butterfly. The caterpillar only knows the pains of transformation, the torment of dying, the death of a self, of a life, without knowing that this is leading to creation.

It must be very hard to be a caterpillar.

In one of the hardest times of this past year, this image came to me as a gift and a benediction. And I pass it on to you now, trusting that it will reach the people it came to help.


I wish you a happy, gently wondrous week, dear reader. A time of candles glowing against the darkness, of mornings turning into afternoons with the breakfast still on the table and a fresh pot of coffee on the hob, a time out of time, a time of pauses, a time to dwell in the places that we are leaving behind, a time to leap forward to the places that are to come.