Problems Of Place: The Ambivalence of Liminal Space and the Art of Doing Nothing

As my partner applies for graduate degree programs outside of our home city and I barrel towards the end of mine, I am wracked by thinking about place. My ambivalence is palpable. As I aim to finish my dissertation in the coming year with no concrete plans to follow, I have agreed to accompany her wherever she decides. I find myself fantasizing about each location after each of her applications are sent. Ever a good student, I research bars, running paths, and nature hikes within a thirty-mile radius. I envision exploring new cities, meeting new friends, and eating exotic cuisine (is the cuisine in Buffalo, NY considered exotic?). It’s scary how immediately my brain can concoct a life for us in each hypothetical new place.

Just as easily, however, my brain can go in the opposite direction: when I move I will have to endure the feeling of being completely untethered. I will be disconnected from my cohort of supportive graduate students, the desk where I write every day, the friends who I rely on to make me feel grounded. Then the thought arises that perhaps she will decide to stay in Philadelphia, and suddenly I am disappointed I did not get to try that exotic cuisine of Buffalo.

In a sense, I find myself in a liminal space—grounded in Philadelphia, the place I have called home for nearly ten years while simultaneously being pulled in a multitude of different directions. With this, I feel a deluge of uncertainty. So what to do with the ambivalence of liminal space? How do I deal with the feeling of being both connected and eager to be disconnected? I am both excited and deeply worried, each emotion spreading from a notion and question of place. How can I ground myself within this liminal space? I suspect this is a familiar feeling for many who have chosen the academic life.

What works better for me is doing nothing.

I am consciously dedicating time to doing nothing in Philadelphia. And it’s helping. I first heard about doing nothing (what a concept!) this past summer when I stumbled upon a Medium article written by Oakland-based artist Jenny Odell in 2017. Odell argues that doing nothing and centering attention on the present reconnects people with their world, while simultaneously serving as a rebellion against the capitalist attention economy. She’s since given her work a book length treatment.

Have you heard of doing nothing? It was foreign to me too, as I suspect is it to many type-A graduate students like myself. Let me explain quickly: the idea is that you do not do anything. So things considered anything would be texting or checking email or eating a pizza or running a marathon or thinking about a fellowship application. You get the idea. To me, it’s sort of like mindfulness, but more outwardly facing. And it’s a way to understanding more fully one’s integration into the world around them.

I try to do nothing at least once a day in various places around the city. At work during my lunch break, I sit outside and watch cars flow back and forth on Broad Street like metal schools of fish. I make time to do nothing at the local wildlife refuge eying the curious way the little birds hop and the bigger birds flap lazily in the marsh (Odell likes to refer to this as bird noticing, vs. bird watching, which would be classified as not doing nothing). My mind wanders a little, especially at the thought that wildlife refuges serve as rest stops for migrating birds. I can’t help but think of a Pine Warbler grabbing a slice at Sbarro before hopping back on its bird road in the sky. But mostly I fix my attention on their sounds and movements.

For me, giving Philadelphia my undivided attention helps in two ways. First, when I am paying attention to the city, watching cars, birds, and the occasional person, it is impossible for me to worry or feel excited about leaving. This exercise in being present is calming and provides respite from the anxieties of liminal space.

Second, in a strange way, I feel almost guilty about leaving my home. I am not one for spatial promiscuity, although I do share some of Aadita Chaudhury‘s appreciation of wanderlust. I love travel. My favorite thing to do is load up my backpack and spend a week on the Appalachian Trail. I spent 70 days biking across the country, sleeping in a white 12-passenger van or the local baseball field (and one strange night in a gas station parking lot). Despite my embrace of temporary places, I take a deep sense of comfort in knowing I have the privilege to return to the one place I call home. To a place where I feel safe and all my things sit peacefully awaiting my arrival. A place that has been, for almost a decade, Philadelphia. My penchant for anthropomorphizing makes leaving all the harder. Thinking about another home, different bars and friends and routines, leaves me with a pang of guilt—a discreet aching sadness. And in doing nothing, giving one street or alley or view in Philadelphia my complete and undivided attention, that sadness dissipates a bit. It makes me feel like while I was here, I was, in fact, here. Connected. Present. Integrated in the broad tapestry of my place.

Doing nothing in Philadelphia is my way of accepting the liminal space in which I find myself. I am able to continue to indulge in my future while simultaneously giving my home the proper attention it warrants. The way I am coping with the placelessness I will soon face, in large part due to the role of academia in both mine and my partner’s lives, reflects the deep feelings and roots I have made here. I will be sad to go, but I take comfort in knowing I gave my place the love and attention I felt it needed. Or most certainly not that it needed, but rather that I needed to be able to let go.