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Our other selves: From the field to graduate school

When the deep breaths came more easily: Day 3 in Massachusetts after returning from Bogotá.

Returning home is a process of memory and activating the muscle of remembering to be here in Boston is more strenuous than I had recalled.

I used to have dreams about Boston fall. In the years that I lived in deserts or straddled the Equator, cherishing the eternal warmth and sunshine, I missed the crispness of a September morning. This September, with my feet planted on top of crunching leaves, I struggle to feel anchored in place; almost ironically, I am having trouble feeling my feet on the ground.

Leading a life of perpetual transitions allows one to develop a strange set of expertise, of the kind that cannot quite be called a skill or a desirable trait. Pack a carry-on bag in under five minutes. Emerge on the other side of the world and find your bearings sooner than one would expect. Learn to love from a distance, and love well. ‘Being good at distance’ is not a title anyone craves — presumably, proximity would win every time — but once one learns how to navigate loving from afar, it feels like a survival skill.

Learning how to navigate transitions is similar. There is a head-spinning element to constantly leaving, to trading one home for another, one morning routine for the next, one route to work through the mountainy Circulnvalar for a walk to graduate school, one bakery full of your breakfast croissants for another full of muffins. There are elements of managing these changes that can be learned: Unpack as soon as you get ‘home.’ Create a (new) order, even if it’s constructed and artificial. Take your time in re-entering the community — but put it off too long and you risk dreading re-entry. There are prescriptions, however simple or obvious, that begin to emerge from patterns of constant motion.

What I have found, however, is that no matter how much experience one has in leaving homes behind in favor of creating others, it is difficult to learn to breathe through the lags. My heart moves more slowly than I do. So do my memories. I may wake up in Boston every morning, but a significant part of me still mentally resides in Bogotá. I get dressed to the sound of Carlos Vives and I transcribe interview notes to the tune of Fonseca. I am still living in that story, even if Boston ought to provide a new setting for new narratives. I need time and space to process, and I need to allow nostalgia and reminiscence and yearning for other places, other times to flood those spaces.

That yearning is not limited to wishing for another era, another place, a different setting for the narrative. This is not about wanting to trade in Boston for Bogotá. Both have been generous homes, and it truly feels as though I left one home for another — arguably, a gratitude-inducing kind of transition. Rather, it is about wishing for other selves — the selves that emerge when one shifts the setting. I acknowledge that it is possible to be elated and anxious, smitten and devastated at every place… but could it be that different places inspire different sides of us to float to the top? Could it be that certain places inspire whimsy, just as others inspire anxiety, that some trigger ambition to emerge unabashedly while others are daily reminders of humility?

I stumbled more easily in Colombia. I laughed off the mistakes because I had dared to make them. I feared less — not because there was less to fear, but because the stakes felt larger than myself. Colombia makes me feel small in all those ways one actually wishes to feel tiny because it becomes a daily, living reminder of our humbling place in the face of this world’s needs. I danced more, not because I had less to do at night or because I felt less of a sense of responsibility to my work, but because in that setting, dancing felt like an imperative. Dancing at night was how I did the work. It was part of self-care, part of getting out of bed in the morning to face the trauma anew.

And so, no matter how many transitions I have been through, it never ceases to amaze me that we leave our ‘field’ selves behind so quickly. I am back to typing in the library with my shoulders sitting tightly near my ears, ‘typing with purpose,’ as Anna Kendrick’s character so aptly termed it in Up in the Air. The seemingly ubiquitous two-hour lunch breaks of Colombia have given way to eating with a side of typing. I blitz through my days, filling every minute of my time, collapsing into bed at night. There is no part of me that believes that Boston inherently means blitzworthy typing and tight shoulders and do-do-do, just as there is no part of me that believes Bogotá is just for languid lunches and perfectly manicured nails and salsa turns on a dance floor. But I do know that there is a part of me, with all my idiosyncrasies and sensitivities,  that is susceptible to Boston’s cycle of competition and unbridled ambition, just as there is a part of me with whom Colombians’ appreciation of leisure resonates. There is a part of me that resents that, in moments of transition, I get swallowed up by my weakest demons: I get caught up in the hamster wheel of commitments and of being and doing and showing and I forget to breathe until I turn blue in the face. There are days when I wake up in my Boston suburb and wish for the Bogotá mountains to be outside the window, just so I can feel a little extra grounded again.

As I wrote in an email to a dear friend recently, I recognize that this disorientation is a product of reverse culture shock, nostalgia, and a sense of remembering (relearning?) how to be at this home. The beauty of having done ‘this’ a few times, of having been steeped in transition enough times to feel the water boiling around me, is that I have faith that I will wake up one morning, walk out my front door, and feel like something has clicked and fallen into place again, even without the mountains there to greet me.

Until then, though, I wonder: Will I always like my field self better? What is it about our abroad, other selves that can make it easier to be kinder to ourselves… even when those ‘other selves’ are not abroad just to travel, marvel, and wander, but also to serve, think hard, battle stress, face dilemmas, and confront conflict?  Can one bring some of the sentiment of spaces of whimsy to spaces she associates with stress? How do we carry those other salsa-dancing, two-hour-lunching, manicured, breathing, smiling, stumbling selves home with us?

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