Swim out of the Fishbowl

This is part of a series on my Santa Perpetua tattoos. You can read the rest in the tattoo category on this blog.

The next one came up about one of my great loves, made manifest in a phase of my life. I have always loved the concept of liminal1 space. I first became aware of it as a concept at the Ann Arbor Film Festival2, spending 3 minutes with the audience watching a minute hand move from just after one marker to just before another on a watch face, the movement so slow it was imperceptible until they showed where it had started. The idea of being between things intrigued me. I cherished it when traveling constantly, always in airports and rarely anywhere at all. It was good to have a name for a space that can be so exhausting when I was between work, before I had realized that work didn’t need to be my identity.

When Reed and I started trying to get pregnant, I realized the roller coaster of waiting, then not knowing, and then of one moment of clarity followed by the same cycle every month might break me. Given how much Santa Perpetua and I had talked about liminal space in previous rounds, I figured it was time to go all-in on that topic.

Willow rides a bike. Towards the top of their left arm is a circle with the numbers 39 40 on it, a city scape above it, and a forest with a ship below it. Blue water color streaks down the arm, with numbers alongside it, down to the wrist. At the wrist is a cute little fish.

In the Red Mars trilogy3, Kim Stanley Robinson has the hundred people who have come to Mars adapt to the 39 minute and 40 second difference between the length of the Martian and Earth day by having a “Time Slip” where the clocks all stop at 00:00:00 for 39 minutes 40 seconds, and then tick over to 00:00:01. This sacred liminal space is used as a time marker for when to kick off revolutions (Martians fighting for their independence from the capitalism and government control of Earth), for performing rescues, and for sitting in collective silence.

Matsutake mushrooms thrive in human-disturbed forests. It is not predictable in how it grows, but it allows those who quest for it to survive in capitalism without having to take on all the trappings of capitalism. From The Mushroom at the End of the World: “Without stories of progress, the world has become a terrifying place. The ruin glares at us with the horror of its abandonment. It’s not easy to know how to make a life, much less avert planetary destruction. Luckily there is still company, human and not human. We can still explore the overgrown verges of our blasted landscapes – the edges of capitalist discipline, scalability, and abandoned resource plantations. We can still catch the scent of the latent commons – and the elusive autumn aroma.”

I also loved the liminal spaces I learned about in complex system theory. For example, littoral zones are the area between open seas and the shore, where small fishing crafts have an advantage over great war ships. I wrote a lot about how formal and informal groups can interact in crisis, by establishing a sort of liminal space between them through human interaction.

Crepuscular are animals active at twilight, living lives split between two extremes of light and darkness.

Penumbra is the partially shaded outer region of the shadow cast by an opaque object. It’s also the shadow cast by the earth or moon over an area experiencing a partial eclipse. The not-quite-shadow-not-quite-light.4

I equate the feeling of liminality to stairways and bridges, abandoned or not yet occupied buildings. Punk squats, New Years Eve. Airplanes, airports, train stations, trains.

This is also conceptually connected to the shoulder water & bridge tattoo – “a noticing that can shape our next steps, as more water joining the river.”5 And as you can see, the upper edge of this tattoo blends with the outward brush stroke of the bridge tattoo.

I love liminal space. And Santa Perpetua did it justice.

The artist's concept for the piece already described above. Includes an additional fish on top of the circle, which was hidden around Willow's body in the previous image.

The quote in here is “burn your ships”. It’s about committing fully to something, the way to transition out of liminality. It has to do with coming to anchor in a new land and burning your ships so you can never go back. Yes, it’s military in nature, but it also rings true to me in how to move outward from this space I love so much. And it matches the (now very light6) French Revolution quote on the outside of that forearm that reads “throw away the scabbard”. Because when you fight kings, you throw away your scabbard because you will either win or die. It’s now also attributed to Stonewall Jackson, who was a jerk, but that reminds me that the folks I’m up against will fight just as hard as I will, so maybe deescalation is a good choice a lot of the time. Liminal space isn’t that bad a place to be, if you haven’t agreed together on where to go to next.

Willow holds their left forearm across their body to reveal the outside edge. Along the edge is ASCII hex that reads "throw away the scabbard".


  1. The space between defined spaces.
  2. My best friend at the time, Madison, came along with us. We wrote to each other in a notebook in the back seat of the car so mom and dad wouldn’t hear us talk about our crushes. She doodled incredible things. I still have the notebooks, and Madison and I still keep in touch.
  3. One of my favorite sci-fi reads. So very, very good.
  4. Especially relevant after our trip to Mazatlán to see the total eclipse years later.
  5. From Emergent Strategies, a gorgeous book about organizing with space for joy and new ideas.
  6. Seriously, it looks like I leaned on a damp newspaper or something.

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