i want to stay.
i want to leave.
i am three oceans away from my soul.”
I just participated in a workshop on relationships in conflict and one of the themes was that academics and practitioners needs to stop labeling institutions, people, events, or most things really, “all good” or “all bad.” These labels are not useful and destroy all of the nuance that exists in our complex world. This is a thought pattern I am trying to work on in my own life and is very common with people who struggle with anxiety (which I am increasingly believing is almost everyone I know). According to a website on common cognitive distortions (which is basically our thoughts convincing us of something that isn’t necessarily true) one of the common cognitive distortions is polarized thinking (or “Black and White” Thinking):
“In polarized thinking, things are either “black-or-white.” We have to be perfect or we’re a failure — there is no middle ground. You place people or situations in “either/or” categories, with no shades of gray or allowing for the complexity of most people and situations…”
I came across the poem at the beginning of this post on Instagram last night and I think it perfectly describes how I feel about fieldwork. I think it is meant to describe someone who is an immigrant and thinking about their home, but while I am no expert in poetry, I believe one of the purposes is to allow the reader to relate the words to her own context.
Some of the moments I am proudest of and feel most fulfilled are while traveling and doing my research. There are tremendous highs where I overcame something that feared me, feeling like I am connecting with someone I am interviewing, or discovering a new interesting topic. Last time I was in Nairobi I declared that these trips and this research was a huge part of who I am. On the other hand. I have felt some of my loneliness moments while traveling. I started singing in my head the song, “I feel so lonesome I could cry” in a dramatic fashion last night as I cried. Also, while in “the field” I have experienced some of my most exhausted moments, frustrated moments, and times when I have felt most unsure of myself. Last night I said to my mom, “I can’t imagine coming back to do this again.”
Yet I know I will. I know I will come back because that challenge and pain makes the joy and discovery so much more exciting. After a few months at home I will forget the pain (or laugh at it) and remember the joy and pride I feel in my work. This is reminding me of idea of retrospective fun Cheryl Strayed talked about about.
During my trip (and pretty much only at night) I question why I do this when it can be so hard and make me feel so sad. I called Shaun and was getting a bit emotional and I said, “why do I even do this?” and he replied frankly, “well I think you are passionate about it.” I realize the things we are passionate about are usually not the ones that come easy or are the most carefree or comfortable activities. Being passionate about something is when it lights a fire inside of you and fills you with excitement (and probably fear) and as much as I absolutely adore something like laying with my dog on my couch, it is not the same kind of fire lighting activity.
I met my best friend Amanda on one of my early big long adventures filled with loneliness, homesickness, stomach issues, laughter, joy, beauty, adventure, and fun. We met in a study abroad program in Argentina and decided we had to take advantage of that trip to see as much as South America as possible. Today we both have careers that require us to travel a lot which we both like (most of the time) and in addition to work travel we are both constantly planning side trips. However, at the same time our frequent texts explore our conflicted feelings about travel and adventure. When we are on our trips we usually want to be home and when we are home we can’t wait for the next trip. The grass really is always greener – maybe that is another cognitive distortion I can add to that list.
I am sure in a week and a half from now I will miss the pace of life here, the excitement, the constant interaction during the day (which is contrasted with the loneliness at night), and the committed focus on my research. I will be thrilled to be reunited with Shaun and my dog and the comfort of home, but I will also probably bored with the everyday life of chores, little daily worries that I forget about here, and lonely research in my dark PhD office. Last time I was here in 2013, when I was probably even more homesick since I was gone for six weeks, I put my complex feelings in list form. I wrote a list about the things I would miss in Nairobi and the things I was most looking forward to returning to at home.
Each trip here is slowly teaching me the same lessons that I will practice throughout life – being patient; being okay with being uncomfortable, sad or lonely; being present; and realizing the grass is green enough where I am.
Finally, these trips are realizing that I am both. I am both anxious and adventurous. I both want to be here having this experience and want to be home. I am both independent and in need of my parents, husband, sisters, and friends to comfort me through this process. I am both a good traveler and a bad traveler. I am both someone who likes nice things and comfort and am someone who chooses to go to those places that are not so comfortable and easy. I am both proud of who I am and what I am doing and I am wishing it didn’t come with loneliness, fear, and insecurity. But, I can’t only get one, everything is both.