Storytelling and narratives
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Resurfacing: Lessons of a graduate school spring

Postcard from a Boston spring: Blossoms and post-Marathon love

I wish there were a way to pick up digital conversations where one left off, as though the internet were a best friend who lives on a different coast. I wish I felt no responsibility to connect the dots of narratives, to tell the story of what happened between then and now.

The relevant ‘then’ is the Boston bombing, which was the last time I was able to write anything that did not require a footnote. The bombing took all my words away and grief filled the spaces in between.

Spring came. Everything bloomed the day after the bombing suspects were apprehended. It felt like the universe winked at Boston, like it decided that the city had had enough pain and had earned its blossoms. I have always had trouble with sudden transitions that require shifting from agony to jubilation, so I stumbled my way from the manhunt to the dancing, the snowmelt to the flowers.

This was the spring that I fell in love with anthropology (anew) and with qualitative research methodology. In a meta-kick of academia, I have thoroughly enjoyed not only the content of my research, but the process of teaching myself how to conduct it. My desk is crowded with Designing Qualitative Research and Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes and Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork and I keep longing for more hours in each day to ingest all the learning. Or perhaps for more focus, since after a long stint of concentrated effort, my mind gravitates more readily to daydreaming and napping than to research diagrams and conflict analyses. Despite the fatigue, I am growing increasingly comfortable with my emergent identity as a researcher: I am drawn to narratives of the human experience, as told by individuals themselves. As Sfard and Prusak write, “storytelling is integral to understanding lives and all people construct narratives as a process in constructing and reconstructing identity.”

My own scholarly and professional identity has been largely shaped by gender and the analysis of its effect on human experiences of conflict, injustice, and suffering. The past few months have been full of finding inspiration in the work and lectures of academics and practitioners whose paths I would be elated to follow. Hearing Fionnuala Ni Aolain, Dara Kay Cohen, and Kimberly Theidon discuss gender and armed conflict, Hannah Riley Bowles explain the gender dimension of job negotiations, or Chris Jahnke train women in public speaking filled me with ideas and left me desiring hours of sifting through life stories. I have always been curious about how individuals ended up on the life path they are traversing: Are their doing their life’s work? How did they know this was their life’s work? Why this, and not something else? And what were the missteps, kinks, and resets along the way?

These are some of the questions I have been asking myself while I have been robbed of my words. I have spent some time lately longing for multiple lives, so that I could devote a whole lifetime to being an anthropologist on the ground in conflict zones and then another life to being a photographer in much the same settings, and then yet another life to being a teacher and a scholar and a mentor, and yet another life to writing books and weaving stories. Can a girl cram all these selves into a lifetime? And if she can, should she or will the very act of cramming cause life to burst at the seams and forever deprive her of mindful presence?

Mindful presence evades me these days. I still get glimpses of it — mainly when I am sitting on porches drinking lemonade with darling friends. I used to dream about lemonade and porches when life was entirely colored by snow, and it is — finally — lemonade and porch weather. Somehow, though, my thoughts wander elsewhere — to Toronto, where I will be presenting my wartime sexual violence research in a week, to Colombia, where I will find myself once again later this summer, to Greece, where I wish I could find myself once again later this summer, to Pakistan, which is occupying my professional thoughts these days, to leisure, which is elusive.

Perhaps this has been why I am struggling to write. Writing requires of me a sense of feet-on-the-ground that has not characterized the past few weeks, marked instead by hype and sleepless fleetingness. There is a lot of goodness in this world — a lot of goodness in my world right now — and I wish for life to slow down so I can wrap my heart around it. During my first year of field work, I had made attaining mindful presence one of my goals and, foolishly, thought that once I had mastered it, it would be the kind of skill that would stay with me forever. I breathed presence that year. I was present through late-night conversations in Cairo, car breakdowns between Damascus and Aleppo, witnessing a birth in Uganda, losing my beloved stuffed panda in Sudan, stumbling over my Spanish in front of Colombian ex-combatants, and surviving a volcanic explosion and hurricane in Guatemala. I promised then to wed myself to the here and now because it felt good to slow down a racing mind, to limit one’s thoughts to the scenes unfolding right in front of her, rather than letting them live in the memory of the past or anticipation of the future. Moving back to the United States this year was full of blessings, but mindful presence was sacrificed in their name. The search continues, but there is a part of me that worries that a quieter mind is not possible here for me, that my ‘field self’ breathes more readily and laughs more easily — that I like that girl better.

I raised my hand a lot this spring, in part because of fear of reneging on my commitment to keep that hand raised. I asked a lot of questions, many of them in writing, most of them accompanied by footnotes. Whose memory matters? How are women’s experiences of mass atrocities remembered and memorialized? Why is a gender-sensitive approach to symbolic reparations significant for achieving the goals of transitional justice in the first place? How does the construction of masculinities and femininities affect women militants’ identities in the Colombian armed conflict? And — with help from Kimberly Theidon — what are the narrative obligations we impose on communities of victims? Each question has birthed another, recalling Rilke’s reminder to “learn to love the questions themselves.” I love constructing a question, just as I love building a research paper sentence by sentence, but I also long for sentences that do not end in quotation marks. I wish to be the kind of academic and practitioner that can slowly, cautiously, humbly begin her way beyond “we don’t know.”

The word ‘longing’ has appeared in this reflection more than it typically does in my writing. It has been a spring of yearning, bookmarked by a tandem bicycle. Elijah and I share an affinity for unusual means of transport, as is evidenced by the fact that the only ones we own are an inflatable kayak and a tandem bicycle. On the day after my spring exams ended, we walked past this bicycle and instantly knew we needed to own it. A muffin and a few pedals around Teele Square later, it was ours. In a fit of “sentences that can only by uttered by hipsters,” (#whatistheworldcomingto) we are addicted to the tandem bike. There is something refreshingly beautiful about seeing the world together, hitting the pedals at the same pace, trying to steady ourselves at the start line and negotiating every dismount so that our left feet can hit the pavement at the same time. We know no moderation when it comes to tandem cycling; last Saturday alone, we biked 36 miles to Walden Pond and back. Thoreau’s cove and the journey to it are exactly the stuff of yearning.

Postcard from a Boston spring: A tandem bicycle, Walden Pond, Fresh Pond, and exhales

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