Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Thoughts from the girl who goes: On place, planes, permanence

An experiment in putting my feet down, in permanence - Photo in John Lennon Park - Havana, Cuba. "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one."

If there were assigned roles to airport farewells, I would lay claim to the part of the girl who is tearing up on the walkway to the gate. I have been that girl time and time again, wearing every article of clothing that did not fit in checked baggage and carrying on my shoulders every book and memory with which I could not part. Despite the moving walkway sweat and sniffles, and much like a high school student auditioning for a play, I have thought that the parts in the drama of airport farewells are unequal: It has always been easier to be the girl who goes, than the person who is left behind.

"I am sick of watching your backside fade into the distance," I was once told. I have been privileged to always leave one home in search of another, one project in anticipation of the next, to depart from one community with the knowledge that I am en route to the next one that will host me. And every time, the person I have left behind has had to return to the home we once shared, empty of my belongings, and move on with life by making independent memories that are not anchored by my scent, my notebooks strewn everywhere, my obsessive need for the bed to be made the second the last human crawls out of it. It is a privilege to be able to go in the first place, to feel wheels detaching from the ground, to leave and to arrive, and know new beds and nod in recognition when the pilot says "If this is your final destination, welcome home." It is a privilege to know that there is more than one place at which you can feel those words to be true for yourself.

I have not boarded a flight since August 1st. To put this in perspective, in 2010, I boarded 43. This is the longest period of time in four years for which I have stayed planted in one country without crossing its borders. When I arrived in Boston after a dizzying nine flights and one final work assignment in Mexico, I craved this sort of permanence. I wanted to put the suitcase away and feel rooted in ways that would not be challenged by the first wind of wanderlust. In many senses, I have satiated that desire. After not owning anything that could not be packed in a suitcase for four years, Elijah sent me a link to a popcorn maker yesterday. A popcorn maker -- not a microwave, not a pot with oil and corn kernels. A specific popcorn maker, teleologically and exclusively designed to, well, pop corn. Nobody boarded a 4 AM propeller plane to insert-conflict-zone-of-choice with a popcorn maker in tow, so in many senses, the link to this unlikely device has become the latest emblem of permanence and indulgence, of the redundance and accumulation that comes with making a less transient home.

That very accumulation is troubling. When I arrived here, a different symbol of permanence had etched itself into my memory: nails in the wall. I wanted the kind of certainty of staying at one place that merited a hammer and nails and cork boards and coat hooks. All of the above lend gravitas to a home, as though they signify that its resident will live here too long for thumbtacks and is too attached to the process of creating a home to live among bare walls. Had this home-making process stopped at nails-in-the-wall, I may have been exhaling more easily.

And yet, it rarely does. Stuff invades. There is stuff under the bed "for storage," stuff under the sink, also "for storage," stuff on the landing to the basement, stuff in the basement - yes, you guessed it, "for storage" - stuff that is on its way to the basement, but never made it, but really, should be kept "for storage." In a fit of post-finals energy and aggressive cleaning in late December, I started clearing space and decluttering. I told a friend then that I felt crowded by my stuff, by stuff in general. Note that I am the kind of girl who will hold on to the ticket stub for a movie that carried a little extra significance, the boarding pass that served as a bookmark, the receipt for a great meal in a country thousands of miles away six years ago. In other words, I am continuously dancing on that contradictory balance beam of wanting to hold on to the tokens of memory while needing minimalism, lightness, and space to make new memories and exhale.

The question I am living in as the new year starts is how to clear space. As I suspected when I was in the middle of the shredding and tossing, I am not crowded by books and ticket stubs alone; realistically, my earthly belongings are still trim and minimal. What is perhaps more challenging in this journey of making a home and reacquainting myself with permanence is carving out room for all the selves that seek to inhabit it. This is a question that spans all realms of my life: My academic interests range from gender and conflict to transitional justice to non-violent civil resistance to the role of documentary and narrative storytelling in the sphere of mass atrocities. This site is home to reflections ranging from love and storytelling to PTSD to field work to travelogues to, again, mass atrocities. How does one make peace between the self who is invigorated, heartened, and disheartened by her research on gender and mass atrocities, the woman who loves to read and write academically about transitional justice and peacekeeping, and the girl who loves to share photographs of red leaves in the fall and thoughts on airport goodbyes?  These identities often compete for attention, or falsely pose themselves as mutually exclusive. A blog reader even emailed me a year ago, unsolicited, to offer that if I have "academic or professional aspirations", maybe I should write more about "international development and war" and less about "love and travel."

For me, this is not about more or less. This is not an experiment in the perfect recipe of writing, working, or living. Rather, it is a question of peace and authenticity, a question of space -- of carving out space for various interests, dreams and ambitions and accommodating the ways in which they sometimes pull me in different directions. I am shedding layers and belongings these days, discarding what is weighing me down, making room on the shelves. At the same time, I am holding on to parts that still feel true, to ticket stubs that still mean something, to the identities that co-exist, however imperfectly.

For now, one different direction in which I am being pulled is being the girl who stays, rather than the girl who goes. My newsfeeds on social media are overflowing with images from my friends' winter travels. A staff member in my graduate program asked us to share photos of our wandering during the break and the stories came rushing in. For once, I have nothing. My stories all unfolded in the same zip code as the graduate program itself. I hiked in the local forest, went sledding for the first time on the university hill, saw the puppy I was watching color the snow yellow. Watching the rest of the images pour in is nagging me a bit, knowing that I thrive on wander and wonder, that the road makes me feel alive, that I derive tremendous fulfillment from my work with communities worldwide, that sitting still in one place for too long can render me restless. 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.

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