I recently returned from one of the great liminal zones—the Oregon Country Fair. Fairs and festivals have a long history of serving as a “space out of time”—a place where the rhythm of mundane, everyday life is suspended and turned upside down, and “real life” is left behind. I have often heard people say they wish they could live in that world all of the time. That wish, however, would destroy the basic idea of something like the Country Fair (or that other great liminal festival, Burning Man). The point is that it is temporary. Its liminality, and the often amazing things that happen within that space, is generated by its passing nature. Yes, you can bring some feelings and concepts with you back to the “real world”, but you can never live full-time in the Fair—that would obliterate its effect.
I have been attending/working at the Fair for years, and every year is different. Each year has its own revelations, its own lessons to teach, and they can be very intense. Often there is a concept that its all rainbows and unicorns out at the Fair, but let me tell you, sometimes the unicorns have blood on their horns. This year, just a couple of weeks before the Fair, one of the core individuals in our Fair family died suddenly of a heart attack. He was young, in his early 40s. The news was jolting. Everyone dies, but somehow it is always a surprise when someone you know does. The shock of it followed us into the Fair and hung in the air. On the second day we were out there, I was taking a break in the back of the booth (we do food out there) when I saw a dark shadow enter the booth under the roof. For a moment I was taken aback—then I realized what it was. A huge black butterfly was flitting about inside the booth. I pointed it out to my booth mate, a person who was very close to the individual who had died. The butterfly covered the entire footprint of the booth, taking its time, then fluttered out the way it came in.
Quite the omen, I must say. Butterflies have long been associated with the souls of the dead, and their passage to the under/otherworld. They are a classic and powerful liminal symbol. At the time that we saw it, no one expressed aloud the thought that it was our deceased friend. Later on however, the person who was closest to him spoke his name and said that the butterfly was him, checking in on us at the Fair. This is one of those experiences that is all the more crystalline for having occurred in the “space out of time”.