“Existing in Between: Lesson in Death” is a reflective and introspective narrative that explores the concept of liminality, the threshold between life and death, and the anxiety that accompanies this transitional phase. The author draws inspiration from cultural beliefs, rituals, and literary references to delve into the uncertainty of change and transformation in the face of mortality.
Existing in Between: Lesson in Death
6:00 pm and there I stood, “Thank you, hope it all works out,” I murmured. He, with an air of confidence, answered “Hope it does.” And so I headed out, climbing down the stairs – each step, a beat of a hollowed rhythm. For a moment, I stood witness to the stars as they ascended and claimed the skies, while the sun flashed its last glow – dying, yet still punctuated. Walking down the lane, Joni on my head-phone ‘For Free’, cars descended the highway, and the lights flashed by, all my way. My feet moved from point to point, tired, but my mind was still on the move, while the wind still turned the mill. In a space between neither this nor that, neither truly evening nor night, neither truly happy nor sad, walking a line between transitioning, everything was transitioning around me, everything is transitioning around me, even me.
This is an anxiety-fueled writing.
Back to my dorm, outside, I catch a storm on its way. While within, a different tempest brews in my belly (to be honest it’s been quite heavy for some time). Placed on my lap, my Laptop, which I cracked open, and my eyes on the screen, tracked word for word, down to the last punctuation of an article. The phrases of the article explored the idea of liminality and the liminal space, a threshold of change. Humans, with all our craziness, can never function in chaos, and so we yearn and strive to weave threats of order, even be it in chaos – order in chaos. Chaos rides on the winds of change, and change sends shivers down every man’s spine.
And here it is, in the usual fashion, the usual obsession; my mind is hijacked by the thoughts of death, change, and the fear that sprouts from them. A tragic thing that no magic trick can bring to a stop: tides and time may wait for none, but the coffin waits for all. Change is daunting and so in my mind, I conceive this idea that death horrifies every living soul, for it harvests change in so many ways. One moment, one’s breath is in sync with laughter and anger, a beating heart in the tapestry of society, and another moment one is a lump of meat devoid of any emotion, soon to be transformed into just a “in loving memory of”. An emotion that I wish to explore here, is how it feels like to be on the threshold of change, to be in this liminal space, to function in between the lines.
In 1909, Arnold Van Gennep published his seminal work The Rites of Passage. With a keen eye, Gennep ventured into the heart of human experience, peeling back layers of rituals and ceremonies, that adorn life’s monumental shifts. He revealed a three-phase pattern common to many rites of passage: Separation, Liminality, and Incorporation. The idea of Liminality was further explored by Victor W. Turner, “Liminality”, he declares that it’s a pivotal stage within the journey of transition. Turner’s work focused on understanding the deeper meaning and symbolism behind these rituals and the psychological and social transformations they facilitate. The term ‘liminality’ is drawn from the whispers of the ancient tongue of Latin “limen,” which means “threshold.” It refers to the transitional phase during a rite of passage when individuals no longer exist in their previous social status but have not yet fully entered their new one. It is the phase where participants exist in a state of ambiguity, being “betwixt and between” the old and new roles, identities, or statuses.
I would like to sweep you away for a moment to the realm of death. Transition and transformation find their place at the end of life’s voyage. The spirits of the dead people must be separated from their social roles as members in the community of the living and enter an undefined ‘in-between’ state, finally being reincorporated into a new status at the end of the ‘journey.’ Most cultures conceptualize death as a transition or rite of passage. In many cultures, this transition is seen as a journey to an ultimate destination that may culminate in rebirth, ancestral abode, reunion with nature or Divinity, or indeed total oblivion. In Borneo, the dead are left to ferment in large jars, so the soul of the deceased is seen as homeless and the object of dread. Only when the bones alone are left can the ritual journey be complete. In my view, the realm of transition and transformation finds its place among the beliefs of the tribe of the Ao Nagas. The journey in the liminal space, a passage headed for change, the transformation from a mortal to something eternal. The moment of death, suspended between life and eternity, is a threshold to realms beyond our perception. In this liminal space, the soul sets sail on an enigmatic voyage, leaving the material world behind, to journey into the ethereal unknown.
(*disclaimer- this is oversimplified) In the days before the colonial shadow fell, the native narrative of the AO Naga echoes the belief that when an Aoer (people belonging to the Ao community) is exhausted by earthly life, they embark on a tumultuous trail toward Asur Yim, or Diphu Yim—the realm of the departed. They do not say, “Mr A is dead,” instead they say, “Mr A has gone to the land of the dead.” Crossing a stream called Longritzu (lonely stream) that divides the living and the death, the soul sets out on a tumultuous path heading for the court of Meyustungba (the lord of death and righteousness). The path is haunted by their earthly deeds; spirits of different forms lurking on the path. But it was still a path to change nevertheless, an anxious path to take. On reaching the house of Meyutsungba, one is tested and rewarded or punished accordingly, and alas is transformed into an ancestor dwelling its everlasting life in the village of death.
The images of the threshold, the lonely bitter stream in the Ao traditional beliefs, the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, and the dark tunnel in Spirited Away. The gateway to spaces in-between world, a tumultuous anxious-filled path. The liminal is about the in-between stages of life – a space of transformation – where one encounters possibilities. So, the soul must traverse the difficult path to transform into an eternal spirit in the village of death. Chihiro had to enter the dark tunnel to transform from a whiny brat to a brave individual.
As I circumnavigate this phase of life, my mind is filled with anxiety. Uneasiness like a lump caught in my throat, I could swallow the sea to wash it down but it would be futile. Fever burns deeper than I could ever write about, and no game could ever distract this fear; it sneers as it pierces the skin of my soul. So I’ll pen out a play and a role for me to play, with a dedication to the action I will have to take. Perhaps it’s time for me to strike my pen and stride with my feet forward. Forget what could or would happen if I don’t amount to nothing. March marched by me and, April became August, and soon November will be December, and I will have to remember what my mother told me, “If you don’t march with time and be a bystander, the force of time will asunder you.” And so I’ll have to march, much like the second hand, marching by slowly yet never ceasing. Traversing and navigating moment by moment, my moment. Perhaps, it’s time to gather the package to carry and the baggage of “what ifs” to bury. With death as my constant reminder, life is beautiful and I want to savour it. Perhaps, maybe, possibly, if these stretching feet ceaselessly keep marching and striding ahead. Perhaps, maybe, possibly, I could manage to attempt some sort of transformation and come out of this liminal space transformed, for the better.
As always wish you dear readers, A good life and a good death.
Your morbid friend.
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Akumtong Longkumer is a research scholar at the department of History, NEHU. He has an eye for the morbid and tries to approach it with a sense humor. His writings has recently been published in Homegrow :Anthology Of New Writings From Nagaland. He advocates for 'death positivity' and believes that we as a culture should start the dialogue around death and dying.