Thresholds and Worlds Beyond

The expression "Beyond the Fields We Know" was coined at the turn of the last century by the Irish peer, Lord Dunsany, a gifted playwright and master storyteller, who used it in many of his tales to describe the realms which lie beyond the world we live in, Elfland or Faerie being just one such world beyond.

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats, a friend of Dunsany's, once said wistfully that he (Dunsany) wrote from "a careful abundance", and more recently, Lin Carter called Lord Dunsany a magnificent storyteller, and one of the last great masters of English prose, superior even to J.R.R. Tolkien in subtle artistry. Dunsany 's work has been a major influence on most, if not all of the fantasy writers who followed him, and "The King of Elfland's Daughter" rivals anything else ever written in the field of fantasy literature.

What separates us from Elfland and the other realms beyond the mundane one we inhabit? At the edge of the fields we know lies a hedgerow, a very ordinary sort of hedgerow containing a rustic gate. Hedgerow and gate mark the presence of a place which is not here and not there, not up and not down, not in and not out, not real and not imagined.

The hedgerow and its rude gate are a threshold or liminal space, and like all such places, they possess strong magic. They are not simply a barrier between here and there, as they seem to be at first glance, but a corridor or passageway into the unknown (but occasionally glimpsed and heard) mysterious worlds which lie beyond the mundane fields we know. Beyond the hedgerow and its gate are worlds rich and strange; dimensions which are by times, extraordinary, enlightening, creative, ecstatic, exhilarating and absolutely terrifying.

Thresholds are compelling places, and they can exert a powerful tug on the sensibilities. Every hero's journey or heroine's journey begins with one, with a call to adventure, one breathtaking, serendipitous, watershed moment in which she or he discovers a threshold, responds to its eldritch music and steps across it into another realm.

Mircea Eliade wrote of doors and thresholds as being potent mythic symbols and passages, corridors where passage from the profane to the sacred becomes possible. The philosopher Martin Heidegger described thresholds as joinings or spaces between two worlds: potent common or middle grounds which hold, join and separate two different realms, all at the same time. Thresholds are sacred places which form a boundary between what is "here" and what is "there", but they are, in themselves, neither here nor there.

"Here be dragons" was an expression used by early map makers to indicate that some of the regions shown on their fanciful creations were unknown (and possibly dangerous) territory, and they are also good words for journeying beyond the threshold. Traveler beware - dragons may await you on the other side, but there are wonders to be seen, and wisdom, adventure and enlightenment await at every turning. To cross the threshold and go through the gate is to set off on a grand creative adventure.

Within the seemingly empty space of a doorway or a threshold, one sometimes senses ancient, wild and chaotic forces in motion. Thresholds have the power to open a cranny between this world and others, letting those tumultuous otherworldly forces blow through. The ancients assuredly knew it, and they undertook special measures to secure their thresholds, carving arcane protective sigils on door lintels, placing sprigs of rowan and Brigid's crosses in the doors, burying pins and needles under their hearth stones, sweeping and blessing their thresholds and mounting horseshoes over their doorways to keep the fey without. They considered sunrise, noon, twilight and midnight to be threshold times of day when divination and magic could be worked by those skilled in such arts — such times would have been fearful for those without magical gifts or the protections of the Craft.

Sleeping, dreaming and awakening are threshold (or liminal) states, and so is the very act of breathing. Doors, windows, hearths, labyrinths, mazes, tors, barrows, stone circles, caves, bridges, crossroads and bogs are thresholds opening into other realities and other modes of being and thinking — as are quiet woodland trails, oak groves, springs and mountains. (I find myself thinking of the Queen Mother of the West and the mythical Peach Blossom Spring here.)

The old fire festivals of the Celts are perhaps the most powerful threshold times of all, for the four feasts of Samhain (Halloween), Imbolc (Candlemas), Beltane (May Day) and Lugnasadh (Loaf Mass or First Harvest) fall at the times of the year when the veils between the worlds are thin and magic is indeed afoot in the great beyond.

For students of Zen, thresholds, doors and gates are powerful symbols and metaphors for mindful living and the plane of earthly existence. Buddhist literature contains an abundance of references to such places, and there are reams of commentaries on them. In Buddhist practice, anything at all may be a threshold, door or gate, and beyond each and every one, enlightenment and the Buddha are waiting to be discovered. Through the simple act of entering a doorway or stepping onto a threshold, one acknowledges and makes a commitment to something which is at the same time smaller and greater than the self. One contemplates the intrinsic nature of the threshold, the random thoughts which form there and are held within the space, those who traveled the path before us and came to this place and those who are yet to come. When one is thinking kindly of other beings, doorways and thresholds become gates of compassion and realms of Tara.

Most of the thresholds we encounter in our mundane lives are physical objects like gates, doorways, chimneys and windows, but there are times when thresholds are intangible and invisible to the human eye — interstitial moments rather than physical places. These tiny "aways" allow us to transcend ordinary life for a brief intense interval and go somewhere else entirely. Anyone who has ever been carried away entirely by a gnarled tree in a hidden grove, a limpid forest pool, a fey breeze or a wild orchid blooming in a sunlit summer fen knows the feeling very well.

Ours is a winding trail holding wonders and surprises, and whether or not we realize it, we all encounter thresholds from time to time. Sometimes it is only a few steps from here to there. We need such places in our mundane lives in order to survive and evolve, to become authentic beings and exercise the creativity which is our birthright. Thresholds allow us to step out of the ordinary world for a while, and into the rich realm of the archetypal, the strange and the creative.

When one is attuned, the siren voice of the liminal is everywhere. We approach the liminal in our own way and our own time, and the lens through which we filter our experience is a unique and very personal thing. For some of us, the gateway lies through church services and collective ceremonies — for others, it is private prayer, meditation and stillness — for still others, the way is through art, communion with the natural world, carefully crafted rites of passage and the old seasonal festivals.

In my own life, I encounter the liminal in art, books, photography and stillness, in lighted candles and incense, in deep twilight and the perfect shapes of trees, in strong coffee and the keyboard sonatas of Scarlatti, in winter days in the shire when the air is so still that one can hear snow falling among the trees, in herons and loons (anywhere, anytime) and walks through the oak woods in late autumn, in the creaking timbers of old log barns, wood smoke, dark chocolate, good cognac and the fragrances of bergamot, lavender and rosewood.

On Balance

In early morning, mind and body fold themselves gingerly into the only meditative position they can cope with at this time in life and slide carefully into a breathing meditation. The physical position taken is precarious, ache inducing and anything but balanced, the mind equally precarious and seemingly intractable, ever inclined to wander, over the hills and far away.

When sitting, I sometimes think wistfully of the long limbed creature in her vibrant forties who scrambled easily up steep hillsides, down treacherous gorges and across soggy beaver dams in search of something, she knew not what. That younger woman was always searching for something, the sunlight falling across a wild orchid in the bog, the wind whistling through a crevice, the sound of a stream beyond the hill, a moment of radiant stillness at the top of a cliff. When younger self was engaged in these undertakings, she was in balance, and she knew it not.

Things are different now, for I am older, more brittle in my bones, less elastic in sinews and more ossified in physique. Perhaps I spilled coffee on the counter in the kitchen this morning at first light or dropped a mug and shattered it on the tile floor. This afternoon, my stiff fingers may be unable to grasp paint brush, camera or inkstone firmly, and my physical metabolism protests vigorously when I try to compel it to do anything at all beyond just sitting like a stone. For the most part, one ignores the creaks and protests of her aging organism and goes merrily on her way, only giving way a little, and only when absolutely necessary.

Balance is an elusive entity glimpsed now and then, but she always seems to be disappearing around the next corner in a graceful swirl of silken garments and tinkling bells. Sometimes I think I can hear her laughing at me as she moves away, amused by the longing of this eldering and somewhat sentient being for clarity, grace, balance and equilibrium. Let her laugh, for I am dancing onward and enjoying the journey all the way. Roots down, branches up, and off we go...

The artless suspension of the trout in its watery medium, the effortless grace of a fallen leaf resting in the patient arms of a sleepy tree in late October, the smooth stones resting easy by the beaver pond and its calm waters — these are the essence of a wild, true and natural balance. Each and every trout, leaf, stone and restless being in the great wide world is already in balance, and there is no need to pile up the stones of one's existence into an inukshuk, a trail mark or a cairn. One can grow and bloom wherever she is planted, and I have been planted in some very strange places in the last sixty years or so. As for sitting like a chunk of rock, well, I am all for that — for sitting like a mountain, a boulder, a weathered glacial erratic or a chunk of volcano, and for thinking like one too.

Whenever and wherever I enter the landscape in a spirit of openness and reciprocity, I am at home and in perfect balance, but I am always forgetting that elemental truth. Perhaps in one of these lifetimes, I shall get my act together and be able to remember. In the interim, I often think of Linda Hogan's words (from her exquisite volume of essays Dwellings) as I am pottering along, and there is a large measure of comfort in them.

"I think of the people who came before me and how they knew the placement of stars in the sky, watching the moving sun long and hard enough to witness how a certain angle of light touched a stone only once a year. Without written records, they knew the gods of every night, the small, fine details of the world around them and of immensity above.

It is a world of elemental attention, of all things working together, listening to what speaks in the blood. Whichever road I follow, I walk in the land of many gods, and they love and eat one another. Tonight, I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and Listen. You are the result of the love of thousands."

The Library Table

There are times in modern life when one needs to get away, far, far away, and there can be no distant oasis or lofty aerie more rejuvenating, no finer companions, than a good book, a mug of Lapsong Souchong tea and a Morris chair.

Books and written words exercise their own discrete charm and power. They possess in abundance admirable qualities sadly lacking in our day to day existence: qualities of rigor, cadence, elegance, form, simplicity, and from time to time, incandescent beauty. Within their pages are glorious adventures, journeys along winding paths toward towers in the mist or the dragon's lair, safaris to lost and exotic cities, camel caravans bound for Persian markets and faraway mountain villages.

When one opens a good book, one can hear the lapping of waves upon the shore, the rustle of the wind in the trees, the songs of larks at sunrise and the tolling of distant bells. While reading a good book, one can leave the world behind and take wing.

Efforts to achieve a measure of simplicity and bring order to life notwithstanding, my Mission oak library table is a repository for the paraphernalia of daily life, and it holds a lot of "stuff" other than books: spare reading glasses, keys, artist sketchbooks, fountain pens, drawing pencils and charcoal, cameras, lenses and filters, a cellular phone, scissors, bus fare and (in the rainy season) one large umbrella, usually green.

Shelves on either side of the library table are crammed full of reference materials to which we refer often, and the volumes take their time finding their way back to their appointed place. There are, of course, several books on the table itself, along with a pair of owl bookends, a scented candle, a Macondi figurine, a statue of the Buddha, a wicker basket for mail, one huge pine cone (which I simply like looking at) and a magnifying glass which conveniently disappears whenever I need it. There is no Mission style reading lamp on the library table at present because I haven't found the right one, but the search for the perfect reading lamp is serendipity, and the right lamp will turn up sooner or later.

There is no shortage of books here, and wherever one looks in the little blue house, there are bookcases: tall bookcases reaching toward the ceiling and overflowing with printed material, solitary book shelves tucked in strange places, precariously leaning stacks. Finding a particular book when one wants it can be traumatic and usually involves hours of going through all those bookcases, shelves and elusive stacks. Then, when the futile search has ended, one suddenly remembers that the missing book was borrowed some time ago, and has not yet been returned.....

If the gods are kind, and the Norns grace me with their favour, there will always be a library table here, and there will always be books on it - you can keep the big screen television screen and bring me books any time and every time. They will be my companions for as long as I am able to hold them, turn their velvety pages, peer at the lovely inky words and conjure up the thousand and one worlds just waiting for a traveler and eternal seeker to open the door and reveal the ten thousand things, rainbow colors, exotic fragrances, gentle music and ineluctable magic.

Every good book ever written is chock full of spells and cantrips. There are so many glorious words, and only a few lifetimes in which to befriend them.

Summer's Jeweled Singer

He climbed (or more likely dropped) onto the sundeck and the railing, and he just sat there for a while, breathing slowly in and out.  His tymbal muscles contracted and relaxed, the rhythmic vibration producing what is, to me anyway, a brief rendition of summer's most resonant and engaging song.  I took a few photos and told him how beautiful he was, thanked him for being here with us this summer.  A few minutes later, he became still, the light in his eyes receding as he tumbled from his perch to the ground. For the first time after days of lighthearted cicada love songs in the garden, the old tree over the deck is silent, and I am bereft.

Nothing lasts forever.  We are here for a while, and then we are not - that is, quite simply, how life unfolds.  That is how it unfolds with big sisters and little sisters and blithe sisters of the heart, with canine companions and jeweled summer singers, with bumble bees, dragonflies and grasshoppers, frogs and snakes, rivers and trees and fields even.  That is how it will unfold with me too one of these days, and I know it, but knowing how things work almost never makes it easier to handle them when they show up in life and insist that we pay attention.

It seems to me that there is more to mourning a cicada's passing than marking the silencing of an aestival song, the passing of a single tiny being who lived for a scant handful of days in the light and the overstory, the slow irrevocable turning of one season into another.  If I have learned little in all my years of wandering around on the planet (and that is probably true), I do have some small inkling about that.

My cicada on the other hand, knew exactly what was happening, and he was easy in his mind with the whole thing - I could see it in his eyes and hear it in his last sonorous vocal offering.  There's a lesson here.  Our task is one of cultivating that kind of patience, acceptance and unfettered Zen mind, the willingness to dissolve effortlessly back into the fabric of the world when the time comes - in future, I think I shall simply call whole thing, "cicada mind".  A young friend and I interred the little guy among the antique roses in the garden, and we will both think of him whenever we pass by that sunny corner.  I wish I had thanked him for his teaching too.

August 2013

Trailing Edges

I open my eyes, the trailing edges of a dream by woodland and river brushing against my still foggy mind – impressions of roots and moss covered rocks, tender ferns springing up and delicate wildflowers blooming in shady places, flickering sunlight and blue sky through the old trees, the song of the river in its blithe becoming.

There was melancholy in my dream and an element of panic too – now the night’s questions and concerns linger as I come back to life with coffee in hand after a long night's ramblings.  What if I am failing here in this lifetime?  What if I am unable to express adequately and share in any meaningful way, just how rare and precious and beautiful is this sacred earth we are all treading together?

The tender ferns emerging from the ancient rocks in the gorge care not about such things, and they are content simply to be there in the sunlight of their native place.  Perhaps, like them, I get to come back and leaf out over and over again until I get things right.  I remember Joanna Macy's words and am comforted:

It is my experience that the world itself has a role to play in our liberation. Its very pressures, pains, and risks can wake us up -- release us from the bonds of ego and guide us home to our vast, true nature. For some of us, our love of the world is so passionate that we cannot ask it to wait until we are enlightened.
Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self

Whatever happens, I shall be here among these hills forever and drinking in the light. My molecules will disperse and reassemble and cavort in many other life forms in times to come, but it may be that they will remember in some small measure or scrap of their being what it was like to be here this time around.  That is quite enough...
Catherine Kerr
May 2012

Spirit in Place

Daylight arrives later and later as autumn progresses.  It is cold when I take my mug out to the garden before dawn and look up at the fragile scrap of waning moon dancing right over my head. One must wrap up warmly to go outside on chilly October mornings, and coffee does not stay hot for long.

There is frost on the grass in the garden and on the trees. There is a splendid inky darkness overhead at five o'clock, a few hours before the sun climbs over the horizon on a day in late autumn. Jupiter is clearly visible this month - it can be seen in the east just after nightfall, but it is still a radiant presence in the darkness before sunrise. Through my astronomical binoculars, four of the planet's many moons are strung like beads across its face.

This is the wondrous region of the winter stars. The color of the sky before first light this morning was reminiscent of a favorite fountain pen ink by Private Reserve. Called Tanzanite, the fluid is a shade of violet so deep and rich as to be almost indigo in its intensity. The same manufacturer makes a gorgeous color called Purple Mojo, and I am thinking of giving it a go. All I have to do is find my favorite old Waterman pen.

Local geese are still flying merrily back and forth between the river and stubble cornfields, but many of the flights of Canada geese passing overhead now are from the far north. They are traveling at altitudes so high that one can barely see them, and their farewell songs are little more than a plangent echo on the icy wind. I bless them each and wish them well, a safe journey south and then back here in springtime.

There is something about migrating geese that always makes me restless and a little melancholy. That is at least part of the reason why I am standing out here in the darkness while the rest of the village sleeps - that and the simple fact that I love these predawn hours and the faint glow on the horizon, harbinger of a brand new day. Some part of my crone self wishes she too could take wing in autumn and fly away on an adventure. Chances are I would be winging my way north if I could fly and not headed south like the geese. I am drawn like a magnet toward the shores of distant Lake Superior, to sweeping winds and untamed waters, weathered rocks, canyons and jack pine trees. Still a wild thing after all these years...

Flight is not in the cards this year for a number of reasons, so I am considering tinting my hair burgundy, acquiring a new pair of of purple Doc Martens, finding the Waterman and sketching something in a fetching shade of ultraviolet in the tattered art journal of the moment.

As the sun dances above the horizon and I turn to go back into the house, I remember that all our northern snows are touched with violet, and I smile - there is color everywhere in autumn and winter if one only has the wits and the eyes to see it. The finest migrations of all are those undertaken within, no airplane tickets required.

October 2010

The Artist

These are the wandering journeys of a thoughtful mind, a passionate eye, an eccentric wit and an earth loving heart through the landscape with camera, paintbrush, pen and field notebook in hand.

I'm a freelance photographer, artist, graphic designer and wordsmith by calling, someone with her roots planted deep in the good dark soil of the eastern Ontario highlands. After chalking up a diversity of experience in the legal sector, telecommunications, graphic design, writing, and marketing, I had dreams of flying solo and opened the KerrdeLune Design Works a few years ago.  I've never been happier, and I've never looked back - but I sometimes wonder how I managed to survive for so many years, toiling away in the entrails of large urban corporations.

There is a wildness to these eldering days that feeds me, and I couldn't live without it. All nature is my canvas, and the sweeping north wind my brush - the turning seasons compose the symphony, orchestrate the score and write the choreography of my random wanderings.  My happiest hours are spent rambling the woods and hills and fens of the beautiful Lanark Highlands, and the camera is my third eye - the clear and ever present lens through which I see earth and the heavens, connect with them in a profound, painterly and elemental way and filters my experience of the living world. Call it simply an ongoing study in Mono no aware (物の哀れ).

A naturalist all my days, I'm an ardent devotee of twilight, full moons, liminal spaces and the wild wisdom which sustains the cosmos, confessing cheerfully also to a love of old trees, meandering rivers, weathered rail fences and starry, starry nights. I entertain hopes of authenticity, wildness, rude good health and enlightenment somewhere up the trail, but for now I am content to ramble and wonder and just breathe in and out.

For Daido Loori

Winding river, endless mountains—
the dark forest breathing mist.
There is no road into the sacred place.
It’s just that, the deeper you go,
the more wondrous it becomes.
John Daido Loori, Roshi

The verse above was taken from The True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen's Three Hundred Koans, translated by John Daido Loori and Kazuaki Tanahashi, with commentary and capping verses by Daido.   Abbot of the Zen Mountain Monastery, founder of the Mountains and Rivers Order in upstate New York and a world reknowned photographer, Daido passed away quietly in October 2009 after battling cancer for some time.

It is not easy to spin a net of words about someone who was a major influence on my mundane ramblings for years, and my wanderings in wild untrodden places with camera, notebook and brush. Daido was an ardent advocate for the earth, and he saw the perfect workings of the dharma in every mountain, river, forest and limpid stream he encountered - he wrote passionately of the "inherent intelligence of wildness and wild places". A copy of The Zen of Creativity has rested on my library table since it was published, and I still dip into the book for inspiration and rejuvenation. In it, Daido wrote:

"Creativity is our birthright. It is an integral part of being human, as basic as walking, talking, and thinking. Throughout our evolution as a species, it has sparked innovations in science, beauty in the arts and revelation in religion. Every human life contains its seeds and is constantly manifesting it, whether we're building a sand castle, preparing Sunday dinner, painting a canvas,walking through the woods or programming a computer. The creative process, like a spiritual journey, is intuitive, nonlinear, and experiential. It points us toward our essential nature, which is a reflection of the boundless creativity of the universe."

Arts such as painting, calligraphy, drama, music, poetry, the tea ceremony and flower arranging have been part of Zen practice for centuries, and they are treasured as as creative pursuits existing beyond the narrow and well traveled terrain of training and technique — "no mind", suchness, mystery, playfulness, and an awareness of the fleeting nature of life are understood to be as essential to full creative life as study and apprenticeship are for a beginning artist or monastic.

The Zen Mountain Monastery founded by Daido at Mount Tremper survives, and his portfolio comprises some of the most superb photographic imagery captured by one man and his camera in communion with the living world.

Thresholds and Beyond

The expression "Beyond the Fields We Know" was coined at the turn of the last century by the Irish peer, Lord Dunsany, a gifted playwright and master storyteller, who used it in many of his tales to describe the realms which lie beyond the world we live in, Elfland or Faerie being just one such world beyond.

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats, a friend of Dunsany's, once said wistfully that he (Dunsany) wrote from "a careful abundance", and more recently, Lin Carter called Lord Dunsany a magnificent storyteller, and one of the last great masters of English prose, superior even to J.R.R. Tolkien in subtle artistry. Dunsany 's work has been a major influence on most, if not all of the fantasy writers who followed him, and "The King of Elfland's Daughter" rivals anything else ever written in the field of fantasy literature.

What separates us from Elfland and the other realms beyond the mundane one we inhabit? At the edge of the fields we know lies a hedgerow, a very ordinary sort of hedgerow containing a rustic gate. Hedgerow and gate mark the presence of a place which is not here and not there, not up and not down, not in and not out, not real and not imagined.

The hedgerow and its rude gate are a threshold or liminal space, and like all such places, they possess strong magic. They are not simply a barrier between here and there, as they seem to be at first glance, but a corridor or passageway into the unknown (but occasionally glimpsed and heard) mysterious worlds which lie beyond the mundane fields we know. Beyond the hedgerow and its gate are worlds rich and strange; dimensions which are by times, extraordinary, enlightening, creative, ecstatic, exhilarating and absolutely terrifying.

Thresholds are compelling places, and they can exert a powerful tug on the sensibilities. Every hero's journey or heroine's journey begins with one, with a call to adventure, one breathtaking, serendipitous, watershed moment in which she or he discovers a threshold, responds to its eldritch music and steps across it into another realm.

Mircea Eliade wrote of doors and thresholds as being potent mythic symbols and passages, corridors where passage from the profane to the sacred becomes possible. The philosopher Martin Heidegger described thresholds as joinings or spaces between two worlds: potent common or middle grounds which hold, join and separate two different realms, all at the same time. Thresholds are sacred places which form a boundary between what is "here" and what is "there", but they are, in themselves, neither here nor there.

"Here be dragons" was an expression used by early map makers to indicate that some of the regions shown on their fanciful creations were unknown (and possibly dangerous) territory, and they are also good words for journeying beyond the threshold. Traveler beware - dragons may await you on the other side, but there are wonders to be seen, and wisdom, adventure and enlightenment await at every turning. To cross the threshold and go through the gate is to set off on a grand creative adventure.

Within the seemingly empty space of a doorway or a threshold, one sometimes senses ancient, wild and chaotic forces in motion. Thresholds have the power to open a cranny between this world and others, letting those tumultuous otherworldly forces blow through. The ancients assuredly knew it, and they undertook special measures to secure their thresholds, carving arcane protective sigils on door lintels, placing sprigs of rowan and Brigid's crosses in the doors, burying pins and needles under their hearth stones, sweeping and blessing their thresholds and mounting horseshoes over their doorways to keep the fey without. They considered sunrise, noon, twilight and midnight to be threshold times of day when divination and magic could be worked by those skilled in such arts — such times would have been fearful for those without magical gifts or the protections of the Craft.

Sleeping, dreaming and awakening are threshold (or liminal) states, and so is the very act of breathing. Doors, windows, hearths, labyrinths, mazes, tors, barrows, stone circles, caves, bridges, crossroads and bogs are thresholds opening into other realities and other modes of being and thinking — as are quiet woodland trails, oak groves, springs and mountains. (I find myself thinking of the Queen Mother of the West and the mythical Peach Blossom Spring here.)

The old fire festivals of the Celts are perhaps the most powerful threshold times of all, for the four feasts of Samhain (Halloween), Imbolc (Candlemas), Beltane (May Day) and Lugnasadh (Loaf Mass or First Harvest) fall at the times of the year when the veils between the worlds are thin and magic is indeed afoot in the great beyond.

For students of Zen, thresholds, doors and gates are powerful symbols and metaphors for mindful living and the plane of earthly existence. Buddhist literature contains an abundance of references to such places, and there are reams of commentaries on them. In Buddhist practice, anything at all may be a threshold, door or gate, and beyond each and every one, enlightenment and the Buddha are waiting to be discovered. Through the simple act of entering a doorway or stepping onto a threshold, one acknowledges and makes a commitment to something which is at the same time smaller and greater than the self. One contemplates the intrinsic nature of the threshold, the random thoughts which form there and are held within the space, those who traveled the path before us and came to this place and those who are yet to come. When one is thinking kindly of other beings, doorways and thresholds become gates of compassion and realms of Tara.

Most of the thresholds we encounter in our mundane lives are physical objects like gates, doorways, chimneys and windows, but there are times when thresholds are intangible and invisible to the human eye — interstitial moments rather than physical places. These tiny "aways" allow us to transcend ordinary life for a brief intense interval and go somewhere else entirely. Anyone who has ever been carried away entirely by a gnarled tree in a hidden grove, a limpid forest pool, a fey breeze or a wild orchid blooming in a sunlit summer fen knows the feeling very well.

Ours is a winding trail holding wonders and surprises, and whether or not we realize it, we all encounter thresholds from time to time. Sometimes it is only a few steps from here to there. We need such places in our mundane lives in order to survive and evolve, to become authentic beings and exercise the creativity which is our birthright. Thresholds allow us to step out of the ordinary world for a while, and into the rich realm of the archetypal, the strange and the creative.

When one is attuned, the siren voice of the liminal is everywhere. We approach the liminal in our own way and our own time, and the lens through which we filter our experience is a unique and very personal thing. For some of us, the gateway lies through church services and collective ceremonies — for others, it is private prayer, meditation and stillness — for still others, the way is through art, communion with the natural world, carefully crafted rites of passage and the old seasonal festivals.

In my own life, I encounter the liminal in art, books, photography and stillness, in lighted candles and incense, in deep twilight and the perfect shapes of trees, in strong coffee and the keyboard sonatas of Scarlatti, in winter days in the shire when the air is so still that one can hear snow falling among the trees, in herons and loons (anywhere, anytime) and walks through the oak woods in late autumn, in the creaking timbers of old log barns, wood smoke, dark chocolate, good cognac and the fragrances of bergamot, lavender and rosewood.