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  • Writer's pictureRobin Reif

The Pandemic as a Liminal Space

Given its assault on life, livelihood, and our collective psyche, the Covid pandemic easily qualifies as “the worst of times.” That said, as humans, we seem compelled to seek meaning and hope, to extract shape from the shambles.

My own version goes something like this: As I’ve had the good fortune to stay healthy, the pandemic has become, for me, a kind of liminal space between what’s past and what’s to come, a time to set down the burdens of social and professional striving, gather my energies, reflect and reorient myself to a future that seeks to improve upon my past.

Before the lockdown, I was running too fast, managing too much — clients, household, political activity, long distance relationship, work-out schedule, writing deadlines, helping to shepherd my daughter through college applications. Then suddenly, last March, there was nowhere to go and far less to do. Consulting work fell off, my partner was in another state. I was forced to quiet down, acclimate myself to relative stasis. Outside was threat and death and also wild applause for essential workers each night at 7. But inside it was still.

I began to hear something I’d missed in my striving years ... Silence.

In the enforced lull, I began to hear something I’d missed in my driven years of single motherhood and full-time work: Silence. Attuning my ears to its manifold textures—now a circular hum, now a spacious hiss, now an unpunctuated buzz — it was, at best, sublime, like listening to note-less music. It hit me how much of my life has been spent projecting my own voice. I am, admittedly, a big talker, often intent on making the stronger argument, persuading as much out of righteous conviction as ego, demonstrating expertise in a word-driven business, engaging in verbal joust, just for fun. I also began to wonder whether the breathlessness of my prior life had been a kind of evasion, an effort to turn from the truth of aging, transition and loss. I had to admit: It’s only at certain speeds that I feel alive. Anything slower and I panic. Call it fear of fading.

But this new quiet put me in a more receptive and elastic state. I thought about silent reveries like those described in Thoreau's Walden Pond and remembered the beautiful lines: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately. . .” The middle of Manhattan had suddenly become still as the winter woods, a shelter of solitude in which to think about living deliberately, refocusing on what’s important.

The intense push of middle adulthood was over . . . so what were my new priorities?

The time was right to do it. I was in a transitional space, pandemic or no. The intense push of middle adulthood to raise my daughter, educate her well and support us in New York, was over. My full-time career, creative and thrilling, but also a 24/7 highwire act was over. I’d climbed those peaks and could take a moment to exhale and look out across the vista of what I’d accomplished: My daughter had grown into the person I wish I’d been at her age — capable, curious, emotionally solid, kind. She was ready to independently take life on. My work had richly rewarded me and had also benefitted clients and colleagues who I believe are better for the genuine contribution I’d made. It occurred to me that I could finally give myself a gentle pat on the back and say, “This is good.”

It occurred to me that I could finally give myself a gentle pat on the back and say, ‘This is good.’

So, as I reemerge, what are my new priorities? Well, the main thing, of course, is that I’ve stopped buying shoes. My hair is 4 inches too long but, frankly, who cares? I suddenly aspire to cook well enough for my daughter to stop yelling “tim-ber” when she sees me at the stove.

And now, as consulting work returns, I’m committing only to assignments I value. I’m spending more time with those I love, investing more urgently in social justice work and in long deferred dreams.

I still aspire to take a day off each week. Take a walk. Notice the sky. Feel the joy of early morning. Listen. And follow the advice of Thoreau who, long ago, exhorted us to “. . . settle ourselves and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance. . . till we come to a hard bottom. . . which we can call reality. . .” With less time left in life than ever before, this pandemic, bringer of death and despair, has also bred a paradoxical ‘good’: clarity that the time has come to settle and work and wedge.


Brand Strategist, Writer and Storyteller: After holding leadership positions in global brand engagement agencies for three decades, Robin currently is a senior consultant at The Artemis Partnership, a growth and bid consulting practice. She continues to coach senior women as well as write for publications such as: The New York Times Modern Love column, McSweeny’s, and Yes! Magazine. She is a single, adoptive mother to Sophie Reif.


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