Monday Musings, Recommended Readings
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Embrace the liminality in life

A friend was stepping down after a successful period of business leadership. In a note of appreciation, I encouraged her to embrace the liminal passages that she would inevitably go through at this moment, even as life moves forward around her. In the midst of our remarkable lives, it seems important to welcome those uncertain in-between places. They can create new connections which come alive when we least expect it.*

Embracing liminality is one subtext of a superb new memoir, a book that served as a reminder of why I enjoy exploring writers previously unknown to me. Every now and then you uncover a real gem.

Lost & Found: A Memoir (2022) by New Yorker staff writer Kathryn Schulz is one such gem. In the initial section, entitled Lost, Schulz admits she has “always disliked euphemisms for dying.” Words like “passed away,” and “no longer with us” seemed like a “verbal averting of the eyes.” But her father had barely been dead ten days when she heard herself utter the one exception to her rule: “I lost my father.”

That sets Schulz on a meditation about loss, from the trivial to the consequential, the abstract to the concrete, the cosmic to the personal. Isaac Schulz was clearly a force in his daughter’s life. When he was lost, she grappled with the enormity of the void and the myriad ways she would be forced to cope.

Schulz writes, “To be bereft is to live with the constant presence of absence,” and she carefully navigates us through her personal sense of that void. The emotion “confuses us by spinning us around to face backward, because memories are all we have left, but of course it isn’t the past we mourn when someone dies, it’s the future.”

The book’s second section — Found — suggests that one of the challenges of finding the right thing in this world is that we often simply do not know what we are looking for.

Schulz, a single woman in her early 40s at this point in the story, isn’t sure what she’s looking for as she contemplates committed relationships. Yet suddenly she is writing about finding her life partner in a totally unexpected moment after a mutual friend innocently suggests they meet for lunch. C. as Schulz identifies Casey Cep, the woman who will become her wife, stops by her Hudson River town for a meal. They are very different in fundamental ways: Schulz was raised in the relative wealth of Cleveland’s suburbs while C. is from working folk on Maryland’s rural Eastern shore; Schulz is a non-practicing Jew and C. is a Lutheran with a master’s degree in theology. Nonetheless, on their second date — which lasts nineteen days — Schulz realizes that she has met the woman she wants to marry.

Every love story “is a chronicle of finding, the private history of an extraordinary discovery.” And the characteristic emotion of the liminal passage of falling in love is amazement.

Schulz is most often moved to gratitude and tenderness and awe by those parts of C. that are least like her. “Love is so often written about analogically — ‘my luve is like a red, red, rose,” etc. — yet the point of the beloved, the whole reason you are in love with her is that she is like no one else on earth. That includes you: your beloved is not like you.”

C. and Isaac Schulz do get to meet, but within eighteen months he is gone. The transitions around losing the parent who raised and shaped you and finding the love of your life are almost universal experiences. The Lost and Found sections, therefore, often explore the ways we react to the liminality in our lives.

A third section, entitled And, considers the passage of time that takes place around the liminal transitions of lost and found. In our deepest grief, life goes on. As we experience the initial joys of love, life goes on.

Schulz is clearheaded in her exploration of the mixed experiences and motives we encounter.

The world is full of beauty and grandeur and also wretchedness and suffering; we know that people are kind and funny and brilliant and brave and also petty and irritating and horrifically cruel…. As Philip Roth once put it, ‘Life is and.'”

Our world is not either/or. We live with many things at once. Everything is connected to its opposite; everything is connected to everything.

This world rewards those who pay attention and Schulz pays attention in ways all exceptional writers do. As she moves through life, Schulz notes that her days are exceptional even when they are ordinary. “We live remarkable lives,” she writes, “because life itself is remarkable.”

This book itself is a rare find: a memoir by someone who is happy that is worth reading. It is a tender, searching meditation on love and loss and what it means to be human. Schulz, an exquisite writer, knows that there is both a wonder and fragility to life. While many feel small and powerless in the face of that reality, it is also easy to feel amazed and fortunate to be here.

On the whole…I take the side of amazement. I cannot look closely for any length of time at even so simple a thing as a pond and do otherwise….what serves us best, in the face of inexorable loss, is not our grief or our acquiescence but our attention. For now, at least, the world is ours to notice and to change, and that seems sufficient.

Schulz ends this generous and perceptive work by noting that disappearance reminds us to notice, transience to cherish, fragility to defend. “We are here to keep watch, not to keep.”

More to come…

DJB


*Liminality is a state of transition between one stage and the next, especially between major stages in one’s life or during a rite of passage. The concept of liminality was first developed and is used most often in the science of anthropology. In a general sense, liminality is an in-between period, typically marked by uncertainty.


Image of threshold from Pixabay.

This entry was posted in: Monday Musings, Recommended Readings

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I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.

11 Comments

  1. Schulz includes a delightful explanation of how the English alphabet ended with the letters “…W X Y Z &” until the early twentieth century. Students were taught to use the Latin phrase “per se” meaning “in itself” to indicate they meant the character, not the word. “Thus instead of saying’X, Y, Z, and’ they dutifully said ‘X, Y, Z, and per se and’ – a phrase that, over time, grew blurry from repetition. It is our language, then that turned the Latin ‘&’ into the ampersand.”

  2. I sent this review to a few friends as I thought the book would resonate with them. One wrote back very quickly, saying “I love this book…it prompted me to write an important long-avoided letter to a lost friend, closing an unfinished chapter. Losses are to be held up to the light.”

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