On Thursday, April 9, I successfully defended my dissertation proposal on narratives of home at Burning Man, the global arts and culture festival held annually in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. (Yay!) The next day, Burning Man was cancelled for the first time in its 30+ year history.
I’m a tourism and events scholar and the COVID19 global pandemic is causing disruptions to both of these industries on scales never before imagined. Things in my field are changing, rapidly, and we don’t know where we’ll be in 3, 6, or 12 months. I’m sure this uncertainty is familiar for lots of you, too.
In this time of unprecedented upheaval, it is overwhelming to think about what comes next, whether “next” is what I’m doing in the next hour, or day let alone next week or once the spring semester ends. I’m not going to tell you to keep doing what you were doing pre COVID19 because, frankly, life is different now. Even if you haven’t been personally touched by tragedy from the pandemic, you likely know someone whose life has been turned upside down by the psychological or financial ramifications of the crisis. That person may even be you.
Yet in the midst of all of this, we still wake up. We still face the hours in the day. We still have deadlines, and expectations (internal and external). We find our schedules both simplified and somehow also so much more complicated. Our dogs are super jazzed about this whole situation, and our advisors, colleagues, and collaborators are all becoming really well acquainted with either our virtual background of choice or our living room walls. We’ve become pros at Zoom, and Google Hangouts, and Facetime and, and, and….
We are finding ways to live in this bizarre and unasked for situation.
When it started to become apparent that I wouldn’t be able to complete my dissertation project as I’d hoped (you cannot do in person data collection right now and the threat of cancellation has loomed for weeks), my advisor, Dr. Carla Santos, said something that gave me hope.
She told me that there would be time in my career for the project I’d planned to do.
It might not seem revolutionizing, but the simple notion that there would be time after COVID and that my research would still be there, waiting, enabled me to pivot my thinking away from the disappointment and anxiety I felt at having to rethink a project I’ve been working toward for years. It enabled me to see that this is just a moment in time, a temporary part of the hopefully long and full story of my research agenda, career, and life.
It’s easy to feel like this will last forever, but it’s helpful to remember that it won’t.
The disruption by COVID19 is hard and painful and unlike anything we’ve experienced before. But, to my surprise, it has also been a source for creativity and inspiration to make my research work for the situation we are in, not the ideal I’d imagined in my proposal. I’m making the choice to pivot, to embrace the strange opportunity of this strange time, to learn what I can from this experience, and to stay hopeful day after day that this too shall pass.
But of course, when I long for a return to normal, for the return of the event next year, and alleviation of some of this dark cloud of uncertainty and fear, it’s not just about the research. For graduate students, is it ever really “only” about the research? In each of our own ways and for our own reasons, we are weird, eccentric, passionate, and insatiably curious about some very specific thing in the universe.
I spend a lot of my time thinking about the meaning of “home” and the experience of finding home in extraordinary places. Like most of the graduate students I know, my research interest was sparked by my own lived experience. I’ve chosen this dissertation topic in part because of my life history as the child of a military family, moved from place to place every 1.5 – 3 years from birth through high school. I finally found home in the impermanent city in the desert that is the setting for Burning Man. In addition to my dissertation field research, this year’s event would have been the setting for my wedding, to honor the role that Burning Man played in bringing my partner and I together and the sense of belonging and joy we feel with our chosen family at the event.
Being able to pivot my research alleviates a huge stress in my life and I am fortunate to be able to do so with little trouble. But it doesn’t make the pain and uncertainty of this strange time go away. Necessary and minor as this cancellation may be in the grand scheme of things, part of me is devastated. While I look forward to my new research project, I mourn the loss of the future that should be.
I think that part of living life in this time is accepting that I can do both.
Caitlin Brooks is a PhD candidate in Recreation, Sport, and Tourism. Her research focuses on the creation of communities of meaning in subculture leisure spaces and her dissertation explores narratives of home at Burning Man. In her free time, you can find her traveling, cooking, and exploring with her handsome pug, Torbin.