As 2019 comes to a close, I've found myself further pressed to define exactly what it is that I am doing on this year of travel. No one is forcing me to. In fact, many people have encouraged me to resist definitions at all cost. But invariably, such ambiguity can begin to grate on you. I've never claimed to be the free spirit type (traditionally defined). I am about as goal-oriented, status-conscious, and hyper-competitive as any of the over-scheduled generation who are now reaching adulthood in droves. A little structure goes a long way for people like me. Structure during this crazy year may be a lot ask for, but here's at the very least, a little reflection.
Over a never-ending stream of dumplings and Myanmar Beer last weekend, I found myself engrossed in conversation with an oddly specific group of people. Three of the ten at the table were currently completeling their anthropology PhD. They were all from the American south, all donning round glasses and healthy mustaches, and they all had Burmese wives. Birds of a feather, I suppose.
Of course, people were asking me what I was doing in Myanmar, and of course, I was doing a bad job at explaining it. In the midst of fumbled sentences and much frustration, I cut myself off and almost shouted, "how about I just tell you what I said in my interview!?"
Much to my surprise, my elevator pitch rolled off the tongue as easily as it had over a year ago. Digital saturation, networked life, blurred realities: I spun the whole yarn.
"That seems amazing," one of the bespectacled PhD's said when I finished.
"Except now I know that none of it's true," I muttered under my breath.
Not quiet enough, however. The PhD sitting across from me recognized what was happening and immediately interjected.
"Don't say that! I know where you are. I know exactly where you are."
He went to to explain his own experience, which turned out to describe how I was feeling in unnerving detail. He described how his dissertation was sending him through cycle after cycle of confidence and doubt. He would go into the field and be overwhelmed by the breadth of what he observed. Every day brought hundreds of new ideas to light. It would blanket him completely and obliterate any preconceived notions he had going in.
Then he would return to the page, and slowly, painfully, construct some sort of understanding from the sea of ideas. He described each argument he made as a concession, a trade-off he was forced to make, knowing that he was failing to capture some aspect of the experience as it had existed at the time. But with revision, editing, and especially with defense in front his advisors, he began to believe his own reasoning. Where previously, each proclamation felt like a betrayal to the actual experience, the writing began to feel like its own line of reasoning that could–and maybe even should– stand on its own. Of course, with each subsequent stint of field work, he had to start all over again.
I am in the heart of my "field work." Pitching this project, all those rounds of essays and interviews, that was like writing the intro. I had put so much work into my ideas, I had come to believe they were synonymous with the truth. Being thrust into the world quickly dispensed with my ready-made notions and has forced me to contend with the nearly incomprehensible complexity of the actual situation.
I am, as I like to think of it, in the middle. By "the middle," I am referring to one of three stanzas of a Billy Collins poem. If you know Billy Collins, you'll know the one. And if you knew me some years ago, you'll know who taught it to me.
This is the middle.
Things have had time to get complicated,
messy, really. Nothing is simple anymore.
Cities have sprouted up along the rivers
teeming with people at cross-purposes—
a million schemes, a million wild looks.
Disappointment unshoulders his knapsack
here and pitches his ragged tent.
This is the sticky part where the plot congeals,
where the action suddenly reverses
or swerves off in an outrageous direction.
Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph
to why Miriam does not want Edward's child.
Someone hides a letter under a pillow.
Here the aria rises to a pitch,
a song of betrayal, salted with revenge.
And the climbing party is stuck on a ledge
halfway up the mountain.
This is the bridge, the painful modulation.
This is the thick of things.
So much is crowded into the middle—
the guitars of Spain, piles of ripe avocados,
Russian uniforms, noisy parties,
lakeside kisses, arguments heard through a wall—
too much to name, too much to think about.
I can identify the middle parts of my life when that last line rings just right. This is a time of too much to name, and far far too many thoughts. There is no remedy, but Collins shows that there isn't supposed to be either. The middle is not something to be fixed. The middle just is. All we can do is be patient and open as we wade through it.
At the beginning of the year, I thought my Watson year was my project proposal. I thought it was the shiny blurb about me they put on their website. Next, I thought it was about cultural exchange (whatever that means). I briefly thought it was about saving the world–that didn't go well.
Five months in, however, I feel slightly more confident in claiming what I want it to be. I want my Watson year to be about embracing "the middle." It's remarkable that the Watson allows me to travel the entire world, but what may be even more stunning is that they provide an entire year of unencumbered thought. What a gift. I try to appreciate and utilize it each day.
In 2018, I was able to meet one of the few people in this world I might actually consider an idol: Jad Abumrad, one of the founders of Radiolab. During the conversation he had with a group of Pomona students, he mentioned a concept he uses while producing the show. He called it "The German Forest." Radiolab, in famous contrast to This American Life, has almost no editorial flow (ok, yes, maybe famous only to public radio nerds, but still). Whereas Ira Glass and Co. churn out shows like clockwork, Jad chided, Radiolab sometimes has over 100 concepts in the works simultaneously. "The German Forest," he explained, is the point along a show's evolution where the producer has lost both the original sense of direction and any hope of finding a way out. He admitted its a miserable place to be. He also insisted that everything Radiolab has made worth listening to only existed because it passed through the German Forest.
Well I've probably given the unnamable enough names by now: The German Forest, Unecumbered Though, Field Work, The Middle! Whatever you want to call it, that's where I am now. Not always the most relaxing destination, but I'm glad I'm here, because it's perhaps the only way I rest assured that I am on the right path.