Monday, April 25, 2011

aspen engine

Oh look, it's my favourite motor vehicle again. (See also here, and here) I've been documenting its life over the past five years, and I finally finished a poem about it, that had lived in scraps for months and months.

* * *

aspen engine

when the car stopped driving

it rolled to rest in the back

forty, by the poplars at the edge

of the field. dead, they said.

no longer mobile. but within

weeks of abandonment,

an aspen engine slowly started

up, ignited this reclamation:

silver shoots pushing up amidst

stalled machinery, fingering the

shattered hood. eyes pried open,

& soon headlights emptied into

small portals for sparrows & the

chassis, a trellis for the twisting

blossoms of vetch. sunprinted vines

on the dash’s bleached plastic, rusted

springs of seat cushions swallowed up

in mossy upholstery. paint flakes

cling like periosteum & colonies

of sowbugs beneath the moist

deadfall of the brakes, seethe

like the memory of friction under

the foot of a driver’s ghost. now

only lichens creep with their slow

feet across the dusty windshield,

silvering filaments clustering,

mirroring the passage of clouds.

in its very heart, void of motor

the three trees grow: a burst

of new limbs to cradle the hull

as the rust comes chewing

small lamellae, claiming the skeleton

as carboniferous leaves fall in the

gravity of metal to earth. & so

this grove no graveyard for that

little green datsun, no scrapyard,

no junk heap. this is a plant,

a factory of deterioration, just a

shift in direction, shift into reverse.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

fieldwork and difficulty

sunset in the pines near sergeleekh, yakutsk, april 2011

So, I just read this article by Amy Pollard about anthropological fieldwork and difficulty, after coming upon a reference to it in an old notebook, something scribbled down at some pre-fieldwork seminar last year. And I just read it, & I am really torn as to whether that was a good idea or not; as much as it made me feel better about how I am currently feeling, it also made me feel worse. However, I am also feeling deeply grateful for this article, because I think it is a brave and necessary piece of writing, and it has allowed many anthropologists to speak about their experiences that they previously felt were unmentionable and had no place within anthropological discourse or even the discourse of academic life.

The section in Pollard's article regarding depression resonates so strongly: "Students criticised themselves for feeling depressed, and were criticised by others. Several students said their informants told them not to feel so sorry for themselves, saying that they were not going to be able to carry out research if they did not cheer up. Maria described how depression stopped her from feeling really interested in her fieldwork site for 12 months. Looking back, she was disappointed at the “very mechanical way” in which she had done this fieldwork, and resented the mental turmoil which had precipitated her depression."

And it's difficult, because I don't know what to say to some people when they ask me about life here, because a lot of people at home think that fieldwork is: a) basically just like going to school in another country or b) a grand travel adventure of hanging-out funtimes or c) both, and when I was last back I could say, yes, my research is... going, because it is going along pretty well, and yes there are lovely, kind people here that I am acquainted with, and I appreciate them very much and I think that everything will be fine in the end, but there is so much I have trouble expressing, to both people at home, and the people here I've come to befriend, like:

1. Dealing with a bureaucratic system so fucked up that sometimes I feel like I am in a combination of a Sisyphean nightmare + a Monty Python sketch (only decidedly not funny).

2. Trying to be assertive and anticipate when people who I think I might trust are trying to manipulate me or at the very least, take advantage of me. Giving in to demands when I should say no, then feeling guilty for not refusing.

3. Trying to explain to people, esp. other academics what it is I am doing here when they have already have very stubborn idea in their mind of a) what I am doing here and b) how what I do is not terribly worthwhile, etc.

4. Trying to explain my struggles with depression and anxiety in languages not my own, within a cultural context wherein these feelings are not often expressed and these problems dealt with very differently. (Here you do things unless you are actually dying. Haven't slept at night in days? Migraines with vomiting and aphasia? Not good enough.). The amount of energy it takes sometimes to present myself as an enthusiastic, inquisitive, flexible, useful fieldworker (teacher, helper, etc.) is more than it usually takes at home to do the whole performance thing.

5. Feeling the aforementioned depression and subsequently full of a strange sort of ennui, and then feeling guilty for feeling that way, because what is there really to be depressed about, you privileged, fully-funded, over-educated, ungrateful excuse for a serious anthropologist? You wanted to come here! etc.

6. Feeling so frustrated because I want to relate to what I am doing on a more profound level, but it just isn't happening. Of things not meeting your expectations or hopes. As well, I think half of my heart/brain is at home, and only half is here, but I am not willing to detach that other half. I can't.

7. The feeling that I am neglecting myself and my well-being in general, combined with the feeling of something a bit like Stockholm Syndrome wherein I try to justify to myself the troubling behavior of others here or the broken systems as not so bad after all.

Also, the thought of coming home unnerves me too. Because I know this has all changed me. I don't feel like myself right now, and part of that could be the depression speaking, but I also know I have changed in ways I can't even pinpoint, and I really don't know how to articulate many of my experiences. One comment in the article was "You leave and you can't really come back". I think that's true of so many sorts of leaving, and I've done a lot of leaving over the past couple of years. But I do feel like distances are growing between many people in my life, and I am not sure how to remedy this. I have been trying to keep contact as best as I can but it's difficult when both of us aren't trying. I really can't fathom how I am going to give the tidy sound-bite version of this year as expected this summer. And there's a silencing there.

Coming home also means the pressure to start writing, which at this point is starting to feel more real. (And I am afraid, because I wonder what I will write, and how much I will write and whether I will have enough to write about in the end, because look at me, only in the field for not even a year and some people go for a year and a half but I have to finish by Spring of 2013 because of the draconian British PhD laws and what if what if what if)

So while reading that article brought a certain relief and feelings of vindication and solidarity, it also makes me feel bad because as much as I can certainly recognize of myself under those ominous word-headings, I also feel weak for having some of these feelings. Yes, there's the whole ideology-of-difficulty aspect of Anthropology; I feel the pressure to do fieldwork like it's some grand feat of MANthropology that I must endure and get through with great stoicism. There's a lot of guilt and worry over my own performance, and trouble discerning what I can control and what I can't. As one person mentioned, "I felt it was all part of the rite of passage that people have to go through. [My fieldsite] was supposed to be so easy and civilised. I never felt able to say I was having a really hard time". That summarizes it well, the "Oh, but this is all just part of fieldwork!" argument that others use-- and that we use to convince ourselves. But at the same time, I also recognize that my situation has been infinitely easier than that of many other PhD students mentioned in the article. Exacerbation of my existing health problems certainly beats malaria or dengue fever... (Though the rabid dogs here have been putting me on edge lately) I have dealt with harassment and misogyny, but that's nothing compared to sexual assault. I do not fear for my life, or the lives of my friends here; I am not in immediate physical danger... though I am haunted by my father's illness at home. & I have the Internet when I am in the city and I can easily get in contact with my loved ones by phone, too. However, this also contributes to feeling silenced. “I came back and heard other people’s stories and thought [my experience] was kind of nothing.”

These are things I know I will be thinking on for quite some time, yet, I know. However, this article did provide me with a difficult but much-needed sort of solace in light of how I have been feeling as of late. And I am thinking I might pass it along to people to whom I am having difficulty explaining both fieldwork in general as well as my own experiences here, with the relevant parts highlighted... (and likely, the disclaimer that "Oh, but don't worry, it wasn't really that bad".)