I tiptoe to the edges of it from time to time. Get lost on purpose. Walk into a room filled with strangers. Teach unfamiliar material. Add a new tool to my digital toolkit. Ask a new question. Sit with a new answer. Stretch. I even occasionally wear yellow.
Most of the time, I am comfortable. Even, dare I say it, staid.
But I study and write about Derry, Northern Ireland, a place far from home. Its culture has been shaped by a history I have come to understand something of -- it often feels just enough to illuminate all that I do not and cannot claim to know. Derry is simultaneously deeply familiar and quite literally foreign.
|Photo by Marty McColgan|
These things are true (well, ok, not the 51st state business.) Especially the love part. I love it in a way I don't think a native can --- they know it too well and can afford to take it for granted. Even after all that, as I plan a month-long trip to tie up loose research ends for the manuscript I am preparing for publication, the prospect of returning after many years away is disconcerting, uncomfortable, even scary. Since I was there last, Northern Ireland has evolved, transformed. Derry has changed. The people I know have changed, or moved, or passed away. And of course I've changed too.
I was taken by the obsession with appletinis. You'd think it would get easier, but I consistently find myself experiencing equal parts anticipation and anxiety.
I have been thinking about this, trying to befriend my discomfort. Naming all the butterflies in my stomach.
I try to avoid solipsistic navel-gazing. So, what's the point about thinking about worrying, about fretting over fretting? It could be that I've caught the reflexivity bug from my anthropologist friends, who are more sensitive to and more aware of the ways their presence creates ripples and waves in the lives of people they encounter and get to know while conducting research. Perhaps it is the cost of doing business in the north, where one often encounters gracious guardedness, a natural response to a world of interlopers and 'others.'
It is not simply that I have tried to say something thoughtful and meaningful about Derry's history, though I suspect the anxiety has a lot to do with that. I'll never forget Glen Barr saying if he had 10p for every Ph.D. who came over to Derry during the Troubles, trying to get inside people's heads and then f---ing off to write a book about it, he'd have been a very very rich man. I am always asking what the point of my work is, testing whether it is helpful or illuminative, guarding against the tendency to exploit painful histories without fully considering the purpose or consequences. Not presuming to know, but seeking to understand. Insisting that Derry matters, and not simply for the reasons it has traditionally made the headlines.
I'm heading out of my comfort zone in a few weeks. It is going to be fabulous. And I am nervous. Wish me luck.