2015 in review

Scout’s Landing, Angel’s Landing Trail. Zion National Park.

I haven’t had a proper personal blog in a few years, and I’ve felt its absence terribly. In 2012-13, I blogged a great deal for Building Bridges, which often functioned partially as a space to reflect on my own life, not just the project itself, and as a place to unload some of the terrible puns and extraneous detail I’m so fond of. These past couple of years, I’ve jotted down notes on my phone, in Word documents, on scraps of paper, and unpublished blog posts (some of which have been migrated over here). It frustrated me that I didn’t have one place that I could go to capture everything, and I realise in retrospect that I need this kind of space, despite my equal frustration that “everything” is fairly eclectic. So! I’m carving it out for myself now in readiness for 2016.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve had two websites that I didn’t quite know what to do with (this one here, as well as www.nushelledesilva.com) so they’ve been largely empty, with content that was thematically scattered and sporadically added. I brainstormed and made diagrams and tapped my pencil a lot, but nothing really came of any plans I had. The trouble was, was trying to neatly sort myself into boxes but the boxes didn’t fit. Things spilled out, or were sorted into the wrong folders, and I felt rather frustrated by the whole venture. So. This website remained empty, and my other site — while nominally an academic blog — also played house to a few posts on theatre and the arts that didn’t quite fit.

Then 2015 happened. This has been an incredibly odd year. A very GOOD year, but full of musings about who I want to be and what I want to do, oddly bookended by the same sorts of things. For instance, at the beginning of this year, I was writing the first draft of what would become a chapter of my SMArchS thesis, a paper that explored Cold War exhibitions and the mechanics of putting them together. Now, at the end of the year, I’m inspecting the respective pieces of one fair I deconstructed — the itinerant U.S. Small Industries Exhibition, as it unfolded in Colombo in 1961 — and zooming in even closer. The three term papers I’ve chosen to write look at the following:
– Part of the agricultural exhibit (the Wheat Kitchen) but its appearance in India, exploring just how the U.S. started foisting its surplus wheat stocks on the country through a piece of legislation called PL480.
– A panoramic film apparatus (the Circarama) that appeared at the exhibition but went traipsing around the globe — particularly the Indian subcontinent — funded by the rupee reserves that started piling up through PL480 exports.
– An exploration of appropriate technology and Buddhist economics through a slightly outside-left examination of a Sri Lankan alternative development organisation, Sarvodaya, arguing that scholarship of what is loosely called the counter-culture movement can be enriched by including movements like the above.

Being able to keep working on a “single” thing and explore how this research connects to my other work (on museums, monuments+memorials, and art) while having the space to chase leads that snake away from the thing I started looking at (my research often skitters laterally instead of burrowing down into the thing itself) has made me a lot more comfortable about what kinds of questions really interest me, as I begin to see how they circle around the same kinds of things. I’m not quite at the level of elevator-pitch articulation yet, but maybe I’ll tackle that in a future post.

The second bookend was pure chance, and it’s curious how that one came about. A long time back, when I was still taking the train to Vavuniya each week to do theatre with a bunch of the best children I’ve ever met, I’d set up a One Young World profile, even though I couldn’t put together the funding to go for a summit and would have much rather spent it on Building Bridges even if I had. And then I forgot about it until August 2014, when Catherine Peter, OYW’s Development Director, reached out to me to ask if I knew anyone from Sri Lanka who, like myself, was working on reconciliation. Long story short, I ended up being funded by OFID to go to Dublin and listen to two incredible gentlemen who had fought for the IRA and UDA talk about their current role in ongoing peace talks. It made me wish that I could have seen a former soldier and LTTE member share a stage in the same way in Sri Lanka (doesn’t that seem weird, even though it’s not that different from Jackie and Sean?). By this point, I’d been in a graduate research programme for a year, whose critical (cynical?) atmosphere made my Building Bridges work seem laughably naïve, a thing whose idealism should seem shameful rather than laudable. OYW was so full of idealism, though, that I suddenly got fired up about the project all over again. (Note: I absolutely LOVE the programme I’m in; I’ve even chosen to stay here for my PhD. The people, the classes, the energy, everything is right up my alley. But it’s not the kind of place that pats you on the head for doing things like Building Bridges, it’s the kind of place that snorts with laughter into its drink at the idea. So why am I here, and why do I love it? This is what this post is trying to unpack.) So! When I stumbled across a post that invited young people across the Commonwealth to apply for the inaugural Queen’s Young Leaders award, I thought it sounded like an excellent opportunity to walk through some of the concerns I had about BB with the mentors that this award said it would offer, while launching a new BB project using the tools shared on its online course. I sent in the application, and I’ve blogged elsewhere about how I promptly got cold feet and impostor syndrome at the Skype interview. So I started this year getting an email that I’d been selected as a runner-up, to working through a lot of my insecurities, doubts, and things I was generally fuzzy about, to the news in December that this time around I had been named an award winner. I am indebted to the programme for giving me the determination to give it my absolute-best, most-confident shot on my second go, regardless of the outcome (I actually practised for the interview with Jon the day before, definitely a first in that department).

The year in general was also fairly eventful. I went to a couple of graduate academic conferences for the first time (a lot of fun), and I also had the joy of being in the position of having to choose between some really exciting PhD programmes. I spent the nicest spring break sifting through declassified archival documents at NARA in College Park. I was in Sydney twice, and got to spend more time with my family there than I had in a long time. Jon visited Sri Lanka and met my family in July, and in August I trekked out to Vancouver for the first time (so PRETTY) and met his parents. We also spent more time on each other’s coasts, especially during the latter half of the year. I started working as a Graduate Community Fellow for MIT’s interfaith dialogue programme, and have met a bunch of incredible undergrad and grad students. I went out on a bit of a limb and applied to be a Global Shaper for Boston’s hub — I’ve grown to love the place so much (okay so maybe what I really love is Somerville and Cambridge), and its problems are ones I care about, but I felt guilty and thought I ought to be spending all my time working on Sri Lanka-related projects. I’m glad I applied, though, precisely because I think that working in many contexts, and with many different kinds of people, is the best kind of learning experience…even though (or perhaps because) I can be a bit of a loner. I volunteered to copy-edit the new QYL modules for next year, and it was one of the most satisfying things I’ve done. I went camping for the first time ever in Zion and Bryce, and it was glorious, despite trying to sleep at night while having the coldest feet I’ve ever had in my life.

There were also a number of particularly tragic deaths that darkened the middle of this year. A friend’s parents died in a fire, and I watched as she continued to work on her thesis and deal with the legal aspects of their death with more courage than I could ever have mustered. Another friend dealt with the passing of an elderly gentleman who she had quietly been a staunch friend to for several years. A few days before my thesis was due, I learned that a friend of my brother, a courageous young man who had been battling a prolonged and painful illness for years, had just left this world, a couple of weeks shy of his twenty-second birthday. He was talented and big-hearted and brave. He was an only child. He was so young.

And quite suddenly, on that grey day in May when I found out, just as green tendrils were poking out of the soil to celebrate the eternal circle of life, everything seemed rather pointless. I’d just spent two years giving my all to a project that was essentially a leap of faith (I turned down offers from departments of urban planning to go with my gut feelings that I would thrive in the esoteric world of architectural history, theory, and criticism, and also be able to get a job after it was all done) but I suddenly felt terribly selfish. Life was so fleeting and so uncertain, and I realised there was no playbook on how to balance investing in a rapidly-evolving, highly-elusive future with just chucking it aside to spend time with dear people who might very well be gone tomorrow. How should I be present, while also looking to the future? What did it really mean to follow one’s heart, and what was the cost?

I felt rather muddled all through the summer and early autumn, and struggled a great deal with this question during my first term as a PhD student. I knew I didn’t want to be as narrowly focused as I had been with the SMArchS for the next five years, or the rest of my life. I love my work. It makes me buzz. A few days ago I dreamed that I was doing research in a beautifully designed and expertly catalogued archive, and it was one of the best dreams I’ve ever had. But I got into this gig as an idealist. I certainly made that fairly plain on both my SMArchS and PhD applications, and the committee seems to have not had a problem with that. I wanted to hang on to some semblance of that, but I didn’t quite know how. What I absolutely love about HTC is its interdisciplinary approach and its training in incisive critical thinking. What gets my goat is the paralysis that comes with it. I recently resolved that, if nothing else, this is precisely why I need to continue BB. To let my critical self have its say, and then respond. Keep iterating, keep on keeping on.

It really helped that Irfadha, whose shining, focused enthusiasm drove me forward with Building Bridges, came home to Sri Lanka in the early summer after a couple of years working in Bahrain. She put together a syllabus for a new arts programme, we talked about the plans we had for the upcoming years, and we started meeting with potential partners. I met Muradh from Connect at the Colomboscope art exhibition a couple of days before I was to head back to Boston in August, and we got talking about BB. Throughout the semester, even as I struggled to figure out what portion of my day to allocate to reading theory, to thinking about BB, to calling home, to taking walks, to meeting friends, it helped to have that Saturday call to Irfadha — even if we often missed it.

This was supposed to be a post in which I articulated the core values that will keep me moving forward in 2016, but I appear to have written a 2000-word preamble instead. I think it’s an indicator of how sorely I needed a blog. I’ll leave the actual writing of values for another post before the new year begins. I do want to be able to pin them down a bit more precisely than how I’ve been feeling them as I reflected on QYL assignments that asked me to think about my “project” — which left me stuck as to whether I should be thinking about my academic or arts initiatives. Writing about them separately at first, I started figuring out how they coalesced. I started saying yes to opportunities that sat at this sweet spot, and perhaps in some ways, doing work that brought those opportunities to my door. I do feel that expressing them with more clarity, though, will give me more confidence on what I say yes and no to in the upcoming year.

In some ways, my academic work and my arts initiatives will be incredibly separate, and that’s why I will have two blogs in 2016 — www.nushelledesilva.com for every bizarre photo from the archives, odd quote from my primary sources, and connection between topics that might at first blush appear separate. It’s for everything I’ve been putting on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and then thinking I really just put it up there for myself, because I wanted to see it in digital space. It’s not a blog for general consumption. It is to be cackled over by a party of one, even as I hope that the writing will be engaging to cultural and architectural historians who know what “the Foucauldian notion of power” or “the Lacanian real” or “the Freudian uncanny” is. I realised that I need a place to use the jargon (over there) and I also need a place to dispense with it (right here). Over here will be “everything else”, a box that still troubles me a bit, but you can always delete/move/edit things. It’ll be news (up front in the slider), the many musings I have over the year (tucked away in the blog), my work for QYL in 2016 (in its own category), snapshots from some of my non-BB arts projects (featured as portfolio projects). Some things will be migrated over here, so that this will no longer be the first post on the blog. This theme is extremely useful for organising. Quite possibly this blog will also be read by a party of one, which suits me fine, and this party of one is really glad to have this division settled in this way (for now). We’ll see what it all looks like this time next year, and the year after that.
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