Field Notes
Leave a comment

The rituals of a return to the field

When I returned to the United States for my graduate degree, I promised I would stay put for a little bit. I declared this the ‘age of (semi-) permanence‘ and even purchased a bookshelf or three to anchor myself in Boston.

I put nails in the wall and unpacked every box and suitcase and bought polka-dotted wine glasses at the nearby Goodwill store and went through the rituals of nesting with gusto. In early January I wrote:

But I am learning permanence now, if you will, and part of that requires making peace with the part of me that will always, always want to be the girl who goes.”

In the months that have passed since then, I have made peace with the fact that the girl who longs to stay and the girl who wishes to go inhabit the same body. There is a part of me that feels like my happiest, most alive, most invigorated self ‘in the field’, doing the work I love, asking the questions that drive me. And there is a different part of me that finds joy and learning in every footnote, that exhales at the thought of curling up in my attic apartment with a glass of Malbec or a cup of Earl Grey and Andre Aciman’s latest novel or Joan Didion’s essays. I long for the calming repetition of our summer Saturday recipe: muffins, tandem bike ride, pond, collapse onto the floor with exhilaration. And I long — sometimes equally, sometimes more — for the ways in which field life does not allow for calming repetition of routines, for the ways in which it requires leaps of faith.

And so, on Monday, I go again.

There is a ritual to field departures for me, and it differs from packing for a vacation or for a brief business trip in the United States. It all starts with unearthing the relics of the past that have accompanied me on every field mission: The Nokia phone that I have had since high school, and which I used to text my then crush, has since hosted my SIM cards in Sudan and Egypt and Guatemala and Uganda and beyond. For anyone who grew up in Europe in the 1990s, a game of ‘Snake‘ on a Nokia phone was a marker of puberty and dexterity alike. There is a poetic giggle to having those memories trail me on my current field trips — and an irony to my attempting to defeat insomnia and jet lag by playing Snake so I can beat the high score of my 16-year-old self.

That little Nokia is not capable of internet or Instagram or, believe it or not, of serving as a functional alarm clock. That is where the tiny green alarm clock comes in, complete with the single battery that keeps it running. We live in the era in which alarm clocks can sound like chimes or sing you a song or belt out Beyonce. Compared to these advancements, the tiny green alarm clock sounds like a parody of alarms, like it is trying to adhere too much to the stereotype of beeeep-beeeeep-beeeeeep every morning because that is the only sound it can produce.

Then there is the trip to Insert-Superstore-Here to wander down the aisle of tiny cute things and buy the travel-sized version of my life. I indulge the illusion that travel-sized mosquito repellent will suffice and hoard Tide stain-removing pens, as though stains will truly be my chief worry. I stock up on medicine and I buy the batteries for the headlamp that has never failed me. I return home to a drawer of chargers and plug adaptors and try to figure out  which one charges the video camera-Kindle-Nokia from my teenage years. Yes, I said Kindle and no, I do not hate the publishing industry nor do I wish for it to go bankrupt because “people like me buy electronic books. #kidsthesedays.” But, you see, there is no way to lug the 40 books Elijah and I bought at the Harvard Bookstore Warehouse Sale (for $50!) to the field without having to pay the equivalent of my body weight in gold in overweight luggage fees or deal with the mockery of my colleagues at the ‘amateur’ size of my bags. A Kindle allays my fear of being left without reading in a country in which the availability and affordability of English books I’d like to read is limited. So, please, add the Kindle charger to the packing list. Throw in an extra dozen Ziplock bags while you are at it. [And, if you are earnestly interested in a packing list for the field, please visit Chris Blattman’s phenomenal blog.]

I find the rituals of packing and preparing for departure comforting, in part because I perform them out of muscle memory these days. The emotional preparation for the transition is less mechanical — and, this time, it involves wrapping my mind around returning to a place I once called home and to the site that has hosted some of my most treasured personal and professional memories. For the past five years, my every stint of field work involved departing for a conflict or post-conflict zone without a sense of my next destination or the conviction that I would return to a particular home — let alone to the home from which I departed. For the first time in five years, I am leaving behind a home at which I have lived for nearly a full year and I do so with the intention to return. I am grounded here by bookshelves and community alike, by graduate student ambitions and obligations, but also by my own affinity for Boston and conviction that it is, indeed, now my home. And, as I wrote nearly two years ago to this day, I am anchored by love.

I am moving slowly this week, lingering through coffee dates, plunging into hugs for a few extra seconds. I fold two shirts, consider that my accomplishment of the hour, and pick up another (print) book to read before I leave. I daydream and stay present at once, look forward and miss this era in which I am living in the same breath. In some ways, I have mastered the art of leaving; in other ways, I have newly discovered the appeal of making a home truly one’s own. These binaries may feel like tensions that require a choice: Will it be this version of life or that one? The girl who stays or the girl who goes? In my mind, however, they are simply different narratives, punctuating different memories, yielding different joys and sorrows. I do not wish to choose quite yet; indeed, a part of me hopes I never have to. Until that moment comes, if it does, I plan to linger in the space between transience and permanence, between staying and leaving, between here and the every there, and embrace all the lessons it has to offer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *