In the Stirrings of the Chrysalis: Liminality, Embodiment, and Transfiguration

Ruth Li


I. Entering the Chrysalis, March 2020

What is it to live? To live is to breathe, to inhale, to inspire, to write, to create – as inspiration is an imbibing of the spirit, in the rises and falls of the consciousness. In writing, it is to feel the flow of ideas glide across the page; in teaching, it is to listen to the flow of students’ comments during a Socratic Seminar on the changing nature of literacy in the digital age, to comfort oneself with the chatter of a classroom, to sense one’s presence in a space.

What is a body? What is presence; what is absence? In the wake of a pandemic that seeps into our (bodily and institutional) systems, our communities, and ourselves, is ‘presence’ to be ‘present’ in a space inhabited by absent bodies that float away from material forms; or is ‘presence’ to be absent in a physical sense, yet present in another’s mind? Unraveling from our (dis)embodiments, split in a state of (non)existence between our bodies and minds, we inhabit a liminal space, one in which presence and absence become blurred; space and time separate from one another; physical and virtual realities grow conflated, distorted, complicated, merging into (un)realities in which we are at once t/here and not t/here, ourselves and yet not ourselves, strangely divided yet enjoined into individual/collective selves/others.

In a liminal, shifting, ‘evolving situation,’ one characterized by constant upheaval and destabilization, it is not only the existential questions of whether we are to be or not be, to live or to die, to be present or to be absent, which overcome us, but the unnerving, disorienting sense of inhabiting states of in-betweenness: of being caught in a seemingly eternal, yet transient territory of not knowing, of seeing a sense of certainty shattered before our senses. This is neither life nor death; neither work nor play; neither activity nor rest. It is a state in which we are ever seeking without fully discovering, ever waiting without summon. The interlocutors that interpellate our minds and souls become themselves inhabitants of the interstices of being and nonbeing, where consciousness teases us in and out of thought. To encounter indeterminacy is to hold one’s breath in the infinitesimal infinity that precedes a text from a family member; to catch a glimpse of the fleeting fragments of our own and our students’ shadowy selves partially effaced by a screen, emerging for an instant only to dissipate into the darkness; to witness the pauses, gaps, spaces, and silences when we call out a student’s name without hearing an audible response; to trust with faith that those absent from us are safe in their own physical presences; to upend our sense of what is (in)audible, (in)visible, (in)tangible, (ill)legible, (un)knowable; to ricochet through cycles of excitement and ennui, hope and despair, elevation and depression, distress and relief, chaos and catharsis; to retreat into the depths of contemplation; to reckon with who we are at the core, freed from the familiar commonplaces with which we fashion ourselves into a semblance of identity; to lose our sense of what is in imagining what could be, in the murmurings of wonder and fear and love. It is in times like these that the past collides with the present, that the future recedes ever into the recesses of the imagination, the possibility of a foreseeable future a mere whisper discernible in fits and starts amid the silent screams.

In a space and time that seems far from the one in which we seek to survive, I oft envisioned the digital dimension as a realm of enabling, exciting possibilities – encouraging continuity and expansion, inviting innovation through conversation and collaboration and connection, a space where fluid identities intersect and evolve. Such a naive, idealized vision of the digital has transfigured into a sense of foreboding, discontinuity, fragmentation, disconnection. Digital (dis)appearances invite a simultaneous intimacy and distance as we peer into colleagues’ bookshelves, effacing the distinction between the public and the private, the familiar and the strange, collapsing our sense of the knowable; continuities become disrupted, interrupted, elided, distorted: riddled by audiovisual inaccessibility on BlueJeans, stifled by the awkwardness of silence during a class share of students’ essay ideas, paused on a precipice so precarious that time itself lingers on the cusp of erasure. I experience the sudden shock of seeing that students are urged to leave campus by 8:00 a.m. tomorrow, the shock waves shaking my body with the reverberations of an earthquake that has shaken Salt Lake City, where my little brother is; the shock waves that ripple through the global and local ecosystems, the personal and the political realms. 

In moments of existential crisis such as this, our shells crack, exposing hidden layers beneath: the vulnerabilities, anxieties, and desires that course through our veins; the instinct to survive, to persist. The mind wanders away from the body, our consciousnesses carried by the cascades and crashes of blinking cursors, text threads, news alerts, email notifications, avatar profiles. To exist is to emerge and dissipate in a distorted, (dis)embodied form, as semblances and shadows of ourselves, ever seeking toward what we cannot fully find. As we are washed into this current, we disintegrate into a thousand fractured fragments yet fuse with others in blood and bone and flesh, becoming at once ourselves and yet not ourselves, coalescing into a constellation of collectivities, strangely synthesizing with the sounds of the sea.

In the stirring of the chrysalis, in a space of simultaneous silence and screams, where a stable sense of society and self collapse, emerges the distant echoes of a fractured present, one whose whispers of compassion and commonality can begin to heal our divisions; one that throws into terrible relief the perils of inaccessibility, inequity, and injustice; one that exposes the elisions that illuminate our incompleteness and the fallibility of our systems, the fragility of life; that entreats us with a fervent desperation to ensure the safety of others, to come to terms with our own mortality. Yet a light glimmers through the cracks of our shattered shells: even in chaos, in cacophony, in collision, in collapse, arises an awakening, as we constellate into altered beings, present even in a partial consciousness of a nascent transfiguration, a metamorphosis, not only of form, but of substance, as we continue to (re)conjure the spirits with which we write and teach and learn and live and grow and love, aware at last of the stirrings of our common humanity.

II. Shattering the Chrysalis, June 2020

‘The future of time’ arises from ‘the persistence of memory.’

After Toni Morrison and Salvador Dali

What is time, in this shattered space? It flees from our sight even as we grasp toward it. Time slips away from itself, its clock spreading over surfaces, exposing the cracks and fissures beneath. In peering into the layers that emerge, exhumed from this excavation, we seek to look into ourselves with a fervent desperation. Yet the mirror into which we glimpse has cracked, shattered; it distorts, magnifies, transfigures the flaws hidden by the banal, the cursory, the transient: we gaze in anguish at the monstrosity of ourselves. In our fear of breaking ourselves we have broken ourselves and the world which in its brokenness reflects our broken state – the state of ourselves, the state of our state. Which is which, if time has paused, space has shifted, the internal realities unraveling, bursting into the external facade? The shattered glass fragments, disrupts, disorients, alters our states of being and nonbeing, trespassing the liminal spaces at the fading corners of time. What lingering vestiges of temporality toward which we seek peer at us with a penetrating gaze as we float, teetering at the edges of the known and unknown, hovering within a perpetual present whose future diminishes with each pang of the past. Where can hope perch where futurity herself is stifled, clipped of her wings? In holding a collective breath, we pause yet suffocate for want of air, the screams, stifled for so long, erupting amid the silence. 

Our aims echo as fleeting spirits that skirt the spaces of our dreams, our memories, our fantasies – a sweetness heard, felt, touched, evocative yet evanescent, a sprightly Ariel in play with our higher senses. It is in the netherworld of memory – a memory borne of a vision beyond manifestation – that nascent truths emerge and dissipate in the crevices of cacophony, “as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding” (Lorde 36). It is in the depths of despair that shadows flee from their filaments, elevating our senses and spirits, emanating a glimmer of a future that arises from the ashes of a past which we have long since buried, immune to its desperate cries, its yearning for relief, for restitution, for redemption, for reincarnation. Its breath escapes from the bosom of burial, its delicate wings tattered yet beating, its voice whispering before crescendoing in song. It is in this singing of a song that we can dare to imagine the future of time, a time that does not conceal or forget or neglect its pasts or presences but pulls on their force with all its strength and might. Liberty, equality, fraternity, justice – these are what can sustain us, what can surpass us – beyond any body politic or personhood under whose seeming transparency we hide our innermost realities. It is in a continuous seeking, a relentless rebuilding, a radical reckoning, that we can begin to imagine a broadening future, a future whose branches expand ever upward and outward in harmony with its deepest roots. Our roots run deeper than what can be perceived through a shattered looking glass. It is not only in altering ourselves – our states of being and becoming, the states in which we exist and persist – that we hold the capacity for change, but in altering the very lenses through which we look. In sparking metamorphosis, let us recreate the mirrors through which we gaze at ourselves and our worlds.

III. Coda

As I write, I hear birds singing outside my window. Attuned to the world outside my mind, I notice the sonic dimension of my own noticing – the chirping birds outside my window a reminder of the natural element that exists beyond our artificial/virtual realms of being. As a writer, I seek nature – its simplicity, its rhythms, its cycles – the chrysalis of transformation in which we find ourselves. In these currents of crisis, writing offers a chance to crystallize the chaos into contemplation, to cultivate calm through catharsis, to seek the spirit through meditation. In imbuing a layer of reflection upon one’s own consciousness, the process of writing awakens an attunement with vibrations beyond the self, and thus opens a space for ritual, for stasis and ‘returning’ – to one’s self, to one’s bodymind, to one’s presences and absences in the world – even amid change and flux. 

IV. Poem

Even as I gaze outside my window, a poem materializes from the spaces between the branches of the trees; the words bespeak a meditation on metamorphosis: 


at the threshold of life and afterlife

   arises a sudden silence –

   a pause infinite where words transmute

      into prayers, where souls flee

  their shadows into filaments of light

       that transcend earthly burden.

   such a stillness steals across this space –

  betwixt water and air,

  earth and fire.

  chaos cracks our shells

    into dust,

     its flesh exposed,

        its skin rendered

          into oblivion.

   yet from the crevices

       of despair a shaft emerges,

       light sifting through dark caverns,

its silken threads unraveling

      to awaken a self yet unseen,

our eyelids

     opening to welcome


     slow to awaken our dim senses

     to this mortal passage

         into the unknown

  let us embalm our spirits with the glow of a

      warmer hearth, with a steadfast

           faith in the

               stirrings of the chrysalis –  

                 in the metamorphosis

                 that unfurls our legs into wings,

                each flutter the

           delicate breath of a new being.


Author's Reflection

I awaken to a room suffused with light, its glowing tones a spark of illumination on the wall. In peering into my reflection from last year, I discover that the mirrors of the past distort yet cast the present into strange relief. In recalling the moments crystallized into the essay, I am struck by the sense of panic that grips a single instant, by the earthquake that shakes far away: stifled breath, frenzied cry, quickened impulse. In a sudden moment that seized my veins, I felt the threads of time and space slipping, dispersing, unraveling into fearsome terrains.

What is time? What is space? I wondered, losing the threads of the self in unfolding fragments. In juxtaposing the past and present, I am inspired by Northrop Frye, who writes, “in

ritual...we may find the origin of narrative” (p. 1257). We are enamored with “the epiphanic moment, the flash of instantaneous comprehension,” the sudden throb of knowledge, the penetrating pang of pain. Yet we find comfort in the cycles of constancy and change, in the ebb and flow of the seasons. In the past year, I feared an unfathomable future, its mysteries sunken into a cavernous abyss, the tendrils of thought seeping into the crevices of the unknown. Still, the ever-unfolding present sheds light on the contours of the unknowable, as glimmers of insight flicker, emerging and dissipating with each revolution of the sun, with each cycle of nature.

With the buds that sprout from the soil following winter’s icy gaze, we embrace the return of life, the rhythms of the earth whispering a salve of constancy amid a pestilence that has torn these anchors from the ground and thrown them, reeling, into the sky. Life, in its continuation, is an experience of returning — a ritual remembrance of the spirit intermingling with the body, in a fusion or synthesis that conjures breath.

On a recent spring day I spent by the river, I was enraptured by the incessant flow of the stream, by the cadence of its song, by the voices that echoed around me, brimming with life. Waters that appeared still from a distance revealed the slightest agitations upon a closer view; so experience is a prism of shifting perceptions exposed by the threads of time and space. As the infinitesimal intertwines with the infinite, in observing the stream I witnessed the shapes and contours of life unfold in a continual formation, the ripples cascading over the stones. In an interplay of stillness and movement, I encountered a sense of passage entwined with the silence of a meditative pause.

In the merging of pasts, presents, and futures, in the stream of experience, we discover connections among disparate strands. In the present, the unfathomable becomes fathomable: a sliver of light trespassing into the room, embalming my spirit with a glow of hope. In the present, we glimpse a brilliant shard of futures yet to be. Gently, I step into the light, traversing the threshold of being and becoming.


Works Cited:

Dalí, Salvador. The Persistence of Memory. 1931, Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

Frye, Northrop. “The Archetypes of Literature.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, William E. Cain, Laurie A. Finke, and John McGowan, 3rd ed., W.W. Norton and Company, 2018, 1250-1262.

Lorde, Audre. “Poetry is not a Luxury.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Freedom, CA, The Crossing Press Feminist Press, 1984, pp. 36-40

Morrison, Toni. “The Future of Time: Literature and Diminished Expectations.” The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations. New York City, Knopf, 2019, pp. 113-126.