Liminal spaces

Paraparaumu, NEW ZEALAND

Being in-between is a strange place. My life currently is a funny mixture of not being in Australia and yet not quite fully in New Zealand. By way of analogy, AA Milne describes this place in the poem Half Way Down:

Half way down the stairs is a stair where I sit.

There isn’t any other stair quite like it.

I’m not at the bottom, I’m not at the top;

So this is the place where I always stop.


Halfway up the stairs isn’t up and it isn’t down.

It isn’t in the nursery and it isn’t in the town.

All sorts of funny thoughts run round my head.

It isn’t really anywhere! It’s somewhere else instead!


Being out of the workforce this year has provided a welcome break from the frenetic pace of school teaching. However, it has been interesting reflecting on things learnt and discovered during this time. As I look back, there are multiple points of reflection in both the mundane and surprising. This year has provided the luxury of taking a sabbatical to travel. In doing so, I found that it is possible to reduce my life to carry-on baggage. In fact, the less the better, especially when you decide to walk 900km across Spain. In the journey of life though, I’ve come to realise that we are “not human beings on a spiritual journey but spiritual beings on a human journey.” As a fellow pelegrino told me one day: “The first time I did this pilgrimage, I booked my accommodation each night and followed a schedule. This time, I just decided to follow the little yellow arrows. That’s it.” I’ve found it so helpful to take time to listen to the little signs pointing out the next step (whether it’s up or down).

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After having spent six months overseas this year (trekking through the Annapurna Range in Nepal and walking the Camino across Spain amongst other things) our travels have come to an end in the antipodes. My wife and I will now call New Zealand home for the next chapter as a new adventure begins. Moving is easier said than done. I tend to get anxious about small things at the best of times. They say that public speaking and moving house rate amongst creating the highest levels of anxiety for an individual. My wife and I have decided to not only move but also move country. So it’s understandable that in the process I encounter a wide variety of emotions at any given time. Nevertheless, it’s not the first time that I’ve moved. I calculate that I have moved house and lived at 22 addresses between being born and taking this sabbatical. Bouma-Prediger and Walsh in their book “Beyond Homelessness” point out that this new “norm” of shifting and change is almost de rigueur for my generation. These authors point out that this generation finds itself profoundly dislocated socially, economically, ecologically and spiritually. We inhabit virtual new worlds with limitless social connection but ironically find ourselves isolated and cut off. This takes its toll. Paradoxically, this year while I have thoroughly enjoyed the adventures and freedom of travel, I have also longed for a place to call home, somewhere to feel connected to. Arriving then to a family and home-away-from-home is welcome respite as my wife and I have immigrated to New Zealand.

Ko Blue Mountains te maunga; Ko Stradbroke, Brisbane te moutere; Ko Ngatiawa te awa; Ko White te iwi; Ko Whyle te hapu.

This would begin my Maori introduction or mihimihi. Rather than identifying as an individual, Maori see themselves connected to a much broader environment and community. A mihimihi explains your connection to such things as a significant mountain, island, river, your tribe and sub-tribe and then your meeting place. So rather than just saying “my name is Rob.” I make a raft of connections in introducing myself to an audience. In the example above, I make a connection to my birthplace in the Blue Mountains. I then identify South Stradbroke as a significant island for me. Finally, I make connections to my family and the tribes that I belong to. Too often unfortunately, these connections are fractured and dysfunctional in our modern world. How much things have changed! Consider that only two centuries ago, the average person would not venture further than 50km from their local village. Compare that situation to our modern world where we live ‘on the go,’ always ‘going places.’ It seems that we have become a half-way stair people, living in airports awaiting the next big thing. The Maori philosophy seems to be a much more holistic and integrated way of finding our place in the world. The approach is refreshingly interconnected in comparison to the individualistic framework so prevalent in our Westernised post-industrial world. I have found that the Maori mihimihi provides a pathway to find my connection to my wider world.

It’s fascinating being a tourist in your own country. You see the world with different eyes. I read once that some disproportionate percentage of people who live in Arizona have never visited the Grand Canyon. Yet nearly five million visitors come to see the Grand Canyon each year. Similarly with Australia and New Zealand, it’s often surprising how many local tourist attractions we have never visited ourselves. The stunning scenery and picture perfect postcards are striking especially to the foreigner here in New Zealand. My wife and I recently took a road trip in her homeland, visiting the South Island and were astonished at the grandeur of the landscape.

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There are some key differences between Australian and New Zealand culture that start to emerge once you emigrate. Geographically, both countries share a collective sense of isolation. Australia in the words of Dorothy Mackellar, self-identifies as a “sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains”, with a vast outback that has the ability to create the most profound sense of isolation and smallness. It is a different sense of isolation however, that pervades New Zealand. New Zealand has a peculiar sense of ruggedness and raw isolation. Carl Walrond claims that New Zealand is the most isolated temperate landmass in the world. Little separates New Zealand form the wilds of the Southern Ocean and the polar ice mass beyond. If you drilled through the earth far enough from Wellington, New Zealand, you would eventually pop out near Madrid, Spain. Geographers call this the Antipodean point. Far from the high culture of Europe, New Zealanders have had to become an ingenious and self-sufficient people. Common wisdom here in Aoteoroa prevails that you can fix anything with WD40 and number eight wire. I always find it interesting to see the effect of the geography on a people and its culture. So too with New Zealand, its culture and people are greatly affected by this rugged geography.

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A recent tramp (kiwi lingo for bushwalk) in Fjiordland National Park on the South Island certainly reinforced this sense of isolation. We stood stunned and awed at many points on the Kepler Track. I for one was cognizant that the storm atop the ridge beyond was being thrown up from the wild Southern Ocean and the Antarctic beyond. Hiking amongst stunning mountains capped off by snow, brilliant icy peaks radiating through the wild storm clouds that threatened to break at any moment. Mishal and I ploughed through the snow along the broken ridge to emerge in moss hamstrung forests to emerge in the valley below. I half expected Treebeard (the Ent or walking tree, from the Lord of the Rings) to emerge and offer a cheery hello. Nature has always helped me to reconnect to my sense of spirit, as I stand in awe of Creation, revelling in the beauty of the wilderness.

There are many strong social cultural ties between Australia and New Zealand. The ANZAC spirit springs to mind. It is strong and our countries share a common heritage. Our histories overlap at many further points, and we are almost like brothers if not cousins. For decades, there has been a steady flow of people between our two countries, although the trend has been for more Kiwis to settle in Australia. In the past few years however, for the first time there has been a net migration of New Zealanders moving back to New Zealand. As my wife and I immigrate to New Zealand therefore, we find ourselves mid flow with this emerging trend. ‘Why did you move then?’ is often the first question that gets asked when we start to explain the almost golden life we had back in Brisbane. While in Brisbane we were ensconced in a community that we felt we could contribute to, both of us were in challenging jobs with opportunities to shine, we were developing strong friendship and family networks. It was time to return home we often reply: family, friends, and the sense of timing helped push us across the ditch.

In 2011, researchers working at Notre Dame University gave us all food for thought. They titled their research “Why walking through doorways makes you forget.” In their study, the psychologists tried to make sense of why we tend to become forgetful when we move from one place to another. Classic example: you put on the kettle and think of five other things that need doing before it boils. You return at least three times to boil the kettle before you actually get that cup of tea. Crossing the ditch is a big doorway for me. Not actually of course, there are airports and aeroplanes with all that security jazz but the transition is real. I see it in my wife as we take flight, it’s as though she is in one place but has already transported herself to the future in readiness of what lies ahead. My doorway is different. This is not just a temporary holiday, I am no longer a tourist, New Zealand is now home. The doorway feels more like the gateway to a new place of opportunity. Has this doorway made me forget Australia? No. I bring across a whole baggage of values, culture and beliefs with me as Max Weber clearly points out. What do I conveniently forget? Much I guess. It gives me the opportunity to start afresh though and to bring a new take on things perhaps taken for granted here. Sensitivity and humility will be required in spades though to learn and remain open to what’s ahead.

Last year I had the privilege of being able to do further study in Education at QUT and came across James Nottingham’s idea of the ‘Learning Pit.’ This describes the process of inquiry learning, starting with curiosity and its associated wonderment. What often follows is a sense of frustration and anxiety as you enter the pit itself. What draws one out of the pit is the ability to make sense of the world around you as you construct new information. It’s a fairly good approximation of the process that students go through as they encounter the highs and lows of inquiry learning. Of being thrilled at new finds but also the anxiety encountered and frustrations of the unknown. As a teacher you literally throw students in the deep end when you start them off with learning. As a teacher, I find that if I can fire a student’s curiosity they get excited about learning.

Being on the receiving end in my studies however, I realised the emotional ups and downs of this process that I didn’t normally empathise with as a teacher. In the movie “Wit,” a professor played by Emma Thomson, realises too little too late that her hard-nosed approach has won her respect but no love from her students. The professor in her pursuit of ego and knowledge neglected her own humanity. I don’t think I was as cold blooded as this particular fictional academic, and in fact fully enjoyed coaching students through their inquiry processes. Doing my studies though, I realised how difficult it all can be and the associated anxiety that students actually go through. I realised that the process however, could be daunting and frustrating for the learner involved. What was needed were people to help make those broader connections and to normalise my sense of flux.

I attended the “Citizens Advice Bureau” (yes, they have a service here in New Zealand, kept alive by retirees to help you with anything that Citizens need advice with!), and came across this insightful explanation of the stages of settling into a new country. They’ve split this journey into a nice curve, whereas in reality I’ve probably felt all of these emotions can be felt in a day. The diagram provided describes the process in three nice boxes, whereas I find that I jump between these almost simultaneously. For instance, my thoughts drift back to Australia and my homeland at any random interval as I hear about news from Canberra. As I tramped through Fjordland on the Kepler Track, I found myself frustrated by the thought of having to resolve some of the bureaucratic red tape by emigrating to New Zealand. I find myself therefore easily tired out by just being in this in-between space, “neither up nor down.”

I find it uncanny to compare the Learning Pit with the advice provided at the Bureau. Both describe a process, and anybody who has been through similar experience will attest to the accuracy of each of these models. The assumption with the Learning Pit is that you inevitably go through an emotional down as you struggle with learning. Whereas, the third stage of the Stages of Settling in model implies that the individual mainly determines the outcome. Fortunately, as John Donne says, “no man is an island.” In his inimitable prose, he says that we ought “never ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” In essence, we are all inextricably connected to each other. I think some of the ancient wisdom of the Maori philosophy alluded to before has much to teach me as I face the busy frenetic instant world about us all. Richard Rohr chimes into say that this in-between space or liminal space is about taking the opportunity to grow and embrace the changes afoot. I find that a heck of lot harder to do than talk about.

I find that these liminal spaces, doorways, or half-way stairs give lots of room for exploration. I look back at my past to find a clear chronology, while the jigsaw of the future ahead is slowly coming together. I’ve scored a job at a local high school, and things like my driver licence and teacher registration have been approved. Over the next six weeks we will live at Ngatiawa River Monastery. Ngatiawa is a retreat space, converted from an old Presbyterian church camp, complete with a beautiful log chapel set amidst the Tararua mountain range. People are welcome to come and stay as long or as little as need be. We join a group of people in their pursuit of community, participating in the daily rythyms of prayer and Taize worship. Ngatiawa holds a strong link to the land, providing that deep sense of belonging and connection to nature, giving further meaning to my mihimihi. In finding this sense of home however, the paradox persists. In entering this half-way stair space at Ngatiawa, I must hold the tension of deeply engaging where I find myself presently against the impermanence of this world. It will not surprise me when a sense of adventure and freedom will inevitably seek to challenge the status quo. The best advice I received was to walk the next stage well. I can’t solve the future but I can live in the present, remembering well where I have come from.

Hei konā mai



2 thoughts on “Liminal spaces

  1. Pingback: The first strand | The Road less Travelled

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