On the heartbreak of leaving the field
As I sat dreamily in the window seat, somewhere towards the back of the Air Canada flight from Montreal to Albuquerque on the last day of May, I wrote the first of many field notes. Following the training I had had so far as well as the predispositions of my own personality, I already knew that my anthropology would be reflective. So there I was, counting the feelings and anticipations I was experiencing on the plane on my way to my MA field site as ethnographic material. I had a professor in my undergrad who told our class one day that no matter what our greatest insecurity was, it would be amplified during fieldwork. That tidbit of what I suppose I’ll count as advice stuck with me as well as the irony of my greatest insecurity being my ability to get to know new people and the fact that my chosen career path primarily required that. The people who are close to me will agree that it is particularly difficult to become my friend—at least to really become my friend. I’m willing to give myself the credit of being friendly and likeable right off the bat, but it’s breaking through that first layer of polite smiles and and carefully constructed witty remarks that takes time. I admit I usually require an unfair amount of effort on the part of those trying to become my friend to break through those initial walls. This is an aspect of my personality that I’ve become increasingly aware of as I move through my twenties and, for the most part, I’ve come to accept it. But on that last day of May on the plane to New Mexico, I was reflecting on the brief stint of time I had to get to know those people I was about to meet, and get to know them well.
I wrote in my Maruman notebook, with its pages still silky and without a grain of desert sand in its folds, that there was no time for my usual timidity. The nature of the ethnographic fieldwork I was about to embark upon required that people open up to me. I needed to know them and understand them. But how could I expect them to show themselves to me if I was unwilling or unable to do the same? So I promised myself, there on page one of my field notes, that I would be open. I would lay myself bare and give everything—all my thoughts, feelings, insecurities. If they were willing to listen, I would be willing to share. But the thing about vulnerability in relationships, any type of relationship, is that it opens you up to heartbreak. From the moment that I wrote that I would give these relationships my everything, I had two and a half months before they would be over.
When I got back to Montreal those two and a half months later I was excited to see my friends and my partner and my cat. I was excited to go out in familiar bars and put on clothes that would be unwelcome in the desert. I did all those things and I was happy, but there was an aching that I hadn’t expected. I would be laughing in the middle of a conversation over a glass of wine and all of a sudden the knot in my stomach that had been there all day would tighten. I remember replying to something someone had said with an exaggerated “yikes!” then realizing that, of course, this was an inside joke that in my field site had just been a joke, shared by almost everyone. I missed the way that I interacted with the world while I was there, walking slowly along dirt paths picking the occasional desert wildflower. How much I wanted to tuck a flower behind my ear, but you can’t just pluck flowers from people’s front gardens. I felt lost without that rigid daily routine that had seemed so wild to me when I first arrived. I missed the sound of three bells followed by the proclamation that declared it was time to eat, or time for showers, or time to play some game on the field. I felt lonely. I felt heartbroken.
Of course, I missed individual people. But that wasn’t really the issue. Especially now with our increasing mobility, access to social media, and the fact that during the rest of the year many of them don’t actually live that far from Montreal, I’ll see individuals again. But during our closing ceremony on the last day of our time there, the director hit the nail on the head. She said that while we might come back there and while we might see each other again, we will never all be in that place all together in the same way again. And that’s just it. My heart was broken not by leaving individual people, but by leaving something much bigger.
I imagine that perhaps Nick Carraway felt a similar way when he left West Egg. When he arrived there, he knew it was just for a summer. He knew his relationships would be fleeting, but still he fell in love with Gatsby’s world and let himself be swallowed by it. The hole that he felt when he was spit back up again was not a hole left just by Jay Gatsby or just by Daisy or Jordan or any of them. The hole was carved out by a combination of community and experience and place and being. Like an ethnographer, Nick Carraway jumped headfirst into a world that was not his own and he emerged forever changed by it. He knew he would never be able to jump in again, and if he did it wouldn’t be the same water. The East and West Eggs would be there, but Gatsby would be dead; Daisy would be back in Chicago. It took us too long in anthropology to learn that the communities we study keep on going without us. They don’t stop mid lifetime waiting for us to return and press play again. Things will be different if we return, so when we leave, a certain something is left behind forever.
So I almost didn’t leave. Perhaps I can even say I “went native” with a boatload of salt and an apology. As my time there was wrapping up I began to desperately seek ways to stay. I started to rewrite the trajectory of my life in my head. Should I apply to the University of New Mexico for my PhD? Do I even want to do my PhD? Do I want to become an outdoor educator instead? Should I take some time off and try to work there full time? The answer to these questions, looking back at them now that I’m home are no, yes, no, and no, respectively. I am happy in my life and excited about my plan. I truly want to be an anthropologist and am willing to work extremely hard to make that dream a reality. But I tried hard for a time at the end of my fieldwork to convince myself that I didn’t have to go. But eventually I had to leave and just let my heart break a little bit.
It wouldn’t have been so hard to go if I hadn’t made myself that promise on the plane. Maybe I shouldn’t have swum so deep so fast. I was vulnerable in ways that I very rarely am with anybody, let alone people I have just met. I felt that many of them really knew me and in turn I felt that I really knew many of them. Not all ethnographers will agree with me, but I can’t imagine gathering the material that I did with the richness that it has any other way. I can’t imagine doing fieldwork now without creating this intense emotional bond. That bond is a good thing beyond the quality of my fieldnotes. It means that these relationships are real for me, that I’m not just using people for my own gain. It also means that when I write about them I’ll be careful and generous not because I was taught to be in my research ethics course but because I truly care about the wellbeing of the people I’m writing about.
But I was ill prepared for the heartbreak. No one told me I might feel this way coming back. Should they have? In blog post written for The Familiar Strange, Ian Pollock says that “Anthropologists are now looking beyond the reflexive turn to ask new questions about fieldwork, including its emotional qualities, and the need for mental health support”. I’m sure mental health support is a great idea and I won’t truly understand the emotional toll of doing fieldwork until I take on the much longer PhD research. Still, I don’t think just talking about what happens to us in the field quite covers it. I’m talking about an ongoing emotional pattern of arriving, vulnerability, leaving, and heartbreak that I now imagine so many ethnographers go through. What kind of persons does this turn us into? I’m terrified to have my heart broken again and again throughout my career, but I also think its necessary. That love and vulnerability and the undeniably human messiness of it all is what makes anthropology beautiful and our work important.