Unpacking

I’ve been back in Chicago for three weeks now. We’ve found an apartment and moved in. People have every right to assume that we’ve settled in, or at very least ask if we have done so.

And yet…

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Our living room. Also, my dissertation research.

We find ourselves in the uncomfortable state of having both too few and too many things. There are too many boxes, too few places to put the things currently in them. Too many books, too few bookshelves. Too many people…ok, not really, but nowhere to sit that isn’t the floor or an Ikea dining room chair. But the TV, computer, and desk are set up, so civilized living is not out of reach.

“Are you writing now?” I can’t answer this question without clarifying the meaning of ‘writing’ and ‘now’. Three weeks back from archival research, you’re entitled to think I’d be settled in by now. But really, I’m still unpacking.

And that’s not because my year of research abroad was unfruitful. It was very productive. But now I’ve got a lot of stuff. And as I shift into a new stage of ABD life, I’ve got to figure out where to put it. And there are still a few things – some really important, some less so – that I’ve got to find before I’ll really feel like I’m ready to write normally.

So how do you “unpack” from dissertation research? I’ve talked with my adviser about some general initial goals: the chapters I want to work on first and a general timeline for when I want to get drafts completed. (Dear other committee members: I’ll be writing you shortly too. I swear I haven’t forgotten about you!) It’s my vision for what writing this dissertation will look like. But, like planning out an apartment before you’ve gotten the furniture, I’m sure I’ll have to shuffle some things around.

For those chapters – or one at least – I’ve revised an outline and written up a new to-do list. This means revisiting old to-read lists of books that I’ve set aside, like all the stuff I couldn’t bring myself to throw out but just had to put in storage while I was gone. And it means sorting through the materials I’ve gathered and notes I’ve taken over the last year to prepare to turn them into something. There’s some writing I can do almost right away. And some where I need to check off a few more boxes first. And some…

Unpacking is the worst. It makes you wonder why you have all this stuff and why you ever thought about moving in the first place. But it’s also fun. Opening up boxes can be like a Christmas gift from yourself. Sometimes you find something you forgot you had. And then there’s the new stuff you’ve picked up along the way.

When is unpacking over? In some sense, it is never stops, right? Do you ever have everything you want right where you want it? But you achieve a degree of order with which you are ok. And then you are “really” living, and you probably quickly forget all the unpacking that made that possible, at least until you have to do it again.

So I’m writing but not “really” writing, if that makes any sense. And we’re settled into our apartment, but it’s going to take a little time. But I’m optimistic that apartment and dissertation alike will be presentable before too long.

 

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