In the October meeting of our contemplative photography class, we discussed the practice of crossing thresholds – one of the eight practices of a spiritual journey described by Christine Valters Paintner. (The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Journey Within, Sorin Books, 2015)
When we embark on an intentional journey like a pilgrimage, we are making a commitment to live in the space of threshold. Threshold is the liminal space, the place of not knowing how things will turn out. I believe it is the place of possibility. (p. 53)
Paintner quotes Irish poet John O’Donohue’s definition of a threshold:
A threshold is not a simple boundary; it is a frontier that divides two different territories, rhythms, and atmospheres. (To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings, Doubleday, 2008)
Our assignment was to reflect on the thresholds we have crossed, or failed to cross, in the past and to photograph thresholds that might illustrate our experiences. As with most people, I have crossed thresholds both going into new situations and coming out of others, for example, leaving home, changing jobs, or moving to new locations. I have crossed thresholds from student to teacher, back to student, and now once again to teacher. The thresholds I wish to reflect on today are the two that opened up whole new worlds to me: the first time I went to Africa in 1983 and the first time I went to South America in 2005. These two journeys had all the hallmarks of threshold: not knowing how things will turn out, places of possibility, frontiers that divide different rhythms and atmospheres.
Prior to my travel to Botswana in 1983 to consult on a USAID-funded project to improve primary education, the only U. S. border I had crossed was the one with Canada. I had not until that time had a passport. Everything about Botswana was new – the people, the culture, the language, the landscape, and schools with very limited resources. When I first arrived I thought, “Everything is poor — how sad.” By the time I left three months later, I realized that even though resources were scarce, the situation was not sad. Botswana was, and continues to be, a land and people of great possibility and enthusiasm for growth and change. When I traveled across the U. S. later that summer, I saw that Botswana looks a lot like Arizona and New Mexico, a threshold experience if you have lived only in Massachusetts, southern Indiana, and southern Ohio.
More than twenty years later, I was invited to consult with engineering educators in Chile – my first journey to South America. In 2005, I was working on an international project to improve engineering education in undergraduate programs at major universities. Once again, I crossed into a new culture, new language, new university systems, but this time with better access to funding sources than I had seen in southern Africa. In the past ten years, I have had the opportunity to cross the thresholds of three other countries in Latin America. Even though my work with all the universities is conducted in English, I have found that learning to read, write, and speak Spanish gives me insight into the richness of the culture, land, and people of each respective country.
Crossing thresholds has given me the opportunity to see life from different points of view. I have had opportunities to work with and befriend incredibly warm and generous colleagues. Learning new languages, particularly in the context of their respective cultures, has opened new worlds and given me an appreciation for diverse ways of thinking and expressing ideas. Crossing thresholds makes me humble in the presence of great possibility.