I read the final page and close the cover. The idea of being separated from someone you love intensely, whether by distance, time, or circumstances, comes with a stab so sharp that it almost isn’t bearable.
Never mind that The Time Traveler’s Wife is fiction. The frequent separation of Claire and Henry, especially their final one, is crafted with this piercing truth, the longing for the “in-between” period to be over so that the characters can be together again. Sometimes the interim lasted for years.
While Claire and Henry usually had the advantage of knowing the duration of their separations thanks to his time traveling, the rest of us don’t get such clear glimpses of the future. We have to endure the various in-between stages of our lives, not knowing how long they’ll last, not being able to speed up time, not knowing the outcome, often having little or no control. These in-between places are often laced with deep aching, a sadness and desperation at being apart from someone we love. Existence is as flat and barren as a desert. The emptiness is huge, frightening; we want to rid ourselves of it before it consumes us. The scope of this in-between-ness is too much for us. The loss cannot be dealt with as a whole but only lived through in chunks – a day, maybe just an hour, at a time.
There are in-between places other than those of relationships. The loss of a job, long illnesses, hardships, disasters – all can be dark places that sap our strength, sometimes with no foreseeable guarantees that all will end well. Living in these situations is like navigating a dark, unfamiliar forest. Not knowing which way is the shortest or best way out, we often go in pointless circles without realizing it.
I recall an in-between place that’s quite different. It’s remained in my mind since I was a child, on my first reading of The Magician’s Nephew.
It’s called The Wood Between the Worlds.
In the attempt to move from our current world to another by wearing magic rings, two children land in a sort of “connector” place. Here’s how C.S. Lewis describes it:
It was the quietest wood you could possibly imagine. There were no birds, no insects, no animals and no wind. You could almost feel the trees growing . . . a pool every few yards as far as his eyes could reach. You could almost feel the trees drinking the water up with their roots. This wood was very much alive. When he tried to describe it afterwards Digory always said, “It was a rich place: as rich as plum-cake.”
Digory discovers that he’s not frightened, excited, or curious. He’s forgetting why he’s there and what he knew of his own life, even his mother, who’s dying.
If anyone had asked him: “Where did you come from?” he would probably have said “I’ve always been here.” That was what it felt like – as if one had always been in that place and never been bored although nothing had ever happened. As he said long afterwards, “It’s not the sort of place where things happen. The trees go on growing, that’s all.”
Not the sort of place where things happen, but things go on growing around us while we are numb, sleepy. Who among us hasn’t experienced this?
Digory has an epiphany nevertheless – he tells his companion, Polly:
That’s why it’s so quiet and sleepy here. Nothing ever happens here. Like at home. It’s in the houses that people talk , and do things, and have meals. Nothing goes on in the in-between places, behind the walls and above the ceilings and under the floor, or in our own tunnel. But when you come out of our tunnel you may find yourself in any house. I think we can get out of this place into jolly well Anywhere!
Digory is right. The rest of the book deals with the results of his and Polly’s choices, both wise and foolish, but suffice it to say that they get out of The Wood Between the Worlds to witness the birth of a brand-new world.
Here’s another illustration, not out of fantasy.
My family once decided to travel from Raleigh, North Carolina to Boston by train. There was a problem with the train at the first segment of the trip – it had to be made by bus. Arriving at a different station, we boarded the train at last.
What we didn’t realize is that the train would stop at every major station on the East Coast even when no one was getting off or boarding. Long into the night we rode, stopping in deserted stations, sometimes for an hour or more. Bleary, exhausted, regretting our choice of transportation, we wondered how long this train would sit in this place where nothing was happening, and why.
I fell asleep.
The first light of dawn woke me. I looked through the train window at gray nothingness to see a shoreline slowly materializing. After having come through the unsightly backsides of major cities for most of the trip, this was unexpected. The sky turned pink, the sea rose-gold and sparkling, with the rising of the sun.
It was breathtaking, one of the most glorious sights I’ve ever seen.
After nineteen (eternal) hours on the train, we arrived in Boston.
The trip home was longer, as another train’s battery died and our train had to deliver a new one to them.
The point is that while the in-between places are static, and we often arrive in them for indeterminate stretches of time, they do serve a purpose. We can rage at the nothingness there, fervently railing at the passing of time, or sink into numb paralysis for the duration. Or we can see the in-between places as connectors, the temporary segue from one phase of our lives to another. Away from the energy, the hustle and bustle of life in this world, the in-between place may be one of needed rest, one of learning, reevaluating, recharging, restoring, until the path becomes clear and we can move on with living where the action is.
The next destination may not look like what we imagined.
It could, in fact, be far more glorious than we ever dared to hope.
Reflect: What in-between places have you experienced in life? What stories can you tell about enduring and getting through to the other side? If you are in an in-between place now – strength to you. It is temporary. Reorient yourself; think, and begin preparing for what is waiting for you just ahead – be ready to meet it.