I’m waiting tables again. This past fall, a couple gaps in my teaching schedule left funds a little thin, so I picked up a couple nights a week at a place not far from home. Waiting tables has always been something I’ve done between other jobs, between teaching and writing and life. Often, the restaurants where I’ve worked have been staffed by artists and students and immigrants – people on their way to doing other things, people working two jobs or three to support families, put themselves through school, pursue creative projects, people between countries, languages and cultures. On top of all of those betweens, there’s the contrast between the staff racing around, keeping tabs on tables and drinks and entrees and the customers at rest, eating and drinking, catching up with friends.
Waiting tables makes me think about these collisions, these betweens. It also makes me want to go have a drink after work. So, the other night, somewhere between one day and the next, I was sitting at a bar with a couple new friends from the restaurant. Bars past midnight are in between places. The hours spent on a barstool feel like stolen time. I’m always slightly surprised by the bite it takes out of the following day. Anyway, my new friends and I were talking about crossroads, times in your life when divergent paths lie before you, and this way or that, the future is uncertain. Crossroads are rich places and scary. In folklore and myth, they are potent, liminal spaces, full of possibility. They are places between.
When I teach writing and theater, I love delving into “in between” as an area of investigation. Children readily respond to this – being a kid is itself an in between. The idea of between resonates with many of my students who are biracial, bicultural, bilingual. They are world travelers, experts at moving between communities and cultures. A couple years ago I read “Ground Swell,” a poem by Mark Jarman that’s lush with betweens, with a group of high school students, then asked them to write about what they were between.Between my older and younger brother. Between rain and sun. I am between my mom and dad. I am between anger and forgiveness. Awake and asleep. A and B. Between child and adult. Between morning and night. I am between.
I had another student this fall, a fourth grader working on a performance exploring bias ask, “Why do people have to know if you’re a boy or a girl?” Why indeed? We’re not comfortable with the uncertainty that lies between. We want to know: boy or girl, black or white, this or that. But ultimately, the places in between are where most of us find ourselves most of the time.
As a kid, I loved this chapter in P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins Opens the Door where Jane and Michael find themselves in the space between the old year and the new. All the characters from their storybooks come to life and dance by moonlight in the wet grass of a London park. Sleeping Beauty explains it to them,“The Old Year dies on the First Stroke of Midnight and the New Year is born on the Last Stroke. And in between—while the other ten strokes are sounding—there lies the secret Crack…and inside the Crack all things are as one. The eternal opposites meet and kiss. The wolf and the lamb lie down together, the dove and the serpent share one nest. The stars bend down and touch the earth and the young and the old forgive each other. Night and day meet here, so do the poles. The East leans over towards the West and the circle is complete. This is the time and place, my darlings—the only time and the only place—where everybody lives happily ever after.”
I love Travers’ version of between – that it’s where we live happily ever after, where all things are present, where we are widest awake. Betweens bring what is dormant to life; they expand possibilities. Maybe it’s in the spaces where things are in flux that we have the greatest capacity for joy. But betweens can be difficult, especially extended betweens (writing a book, for example). They’re slippery; they’re places of unsteadiness, change, dis- and reorientation. In the in betweens we experience loss – between adolescence and adulthood we lose one identity, take on another. I think of twilight. It’s hollow, an interstice, a waiting. I remember watching the sunset with my family on Martha’s Vineyard when I was young. There was a totem pole, the wide eyes of its stylized creatures seeming to take it all in: a girl’s criss-cross swimsuit suntan, wisps of hair escaping from a ponytail, an old man in plaid Bermudas, the long chocolate drip that ran from my wrist to elbow crook, the fireball of the sun leaving us. There’s a hauntedness to twilight. Betweens can make us uneasy; they can be complicated, confusing and hard to live in.
Every moment brings a crossroads, an in between. Question and answer. Thought and action. Touch and response. I’m between starting to write a book and finishing. I’m between starting this post and sending it into the internet ether. I’m in the middle of a day, in the middle of a life. We are between seasons, at the spring equinox, those of us in the northern hemisphere tilting from winter dark into the long days of summer. Between is where all of us are, all the time. Somewhere between the beginning and the end. And now. And now. And now. Over and over again.“Is today the New Year, Mary Poppins?” asked Michael. “Yes,” she said calmly, as she put the plate down on the table. “Shall we, too, Mary Poppins?” he asked, blurting out the question. “Shall you, too, what?” she enquired with a sniff. “Live happily ever afterwards?” he said eagerly. A smile, half sad, half tender, played faintly round her mouth. “Perhaps,” she said, thoughtfully. “It all depends.” “What on, Mary Poppins?” “On you.”
I believe this. That in the in betweens we have the capacity for happily ever after. If we can live with loss. If we can learn to not know. If we can not be afraid of the dark.