Editor’s note: This is the first of a pair of posts on dislocation and grief as part of our Problems of Place series. Stay tuned for Katie’s second piece, coming soon.
I’m sitting on a picnic table with my dad. I’m probably eighteen or nineteen. We’ve just come from a trip to the dump and are rewarding ourselves with ice cream from the Shake Shoppe in Kakabeka Falls, on the outskirts of our hometown, Thunder Bay, Ontario. These places, mispronounced or renamed by settlers, sit on Anishinaabe territory of the Fort William First Nation, on land outlined in the Robinson Superior Treaty of 1850.
It’s a hot day, and we’re both struggling to maintain the structural integrity of our ice cream cones. Eventually, my dad reveals why he brought me on this mission.
“I think you’re feeling a bit lost, Kate.”
I pretend I don’t know what he’s talking about, but I know it’s about the fact that I couldn’t seem to land a summer job I thought would be fulfilling. I feel completely stuck and afraid to admit it. Choosing his words carefully, my dad tells me a story about how, when he was younger, he was overcome by a similar lack of direction. One day, in the private space of introspection best afforded by a bathroom, he confides, he was stricken with fear and anxiety to the point where he physically could not move.
My dad used his own story to create a space that allowed me to express my own anxieties, frustrations, and confusion about my path forward. We shared tales about feeling ambivalent and adrift. Sometimes, he said, you end up drifting to meaningful places you wouldn’t have if you stayed in one spot. Never one to hide his emotions, he held my one free hand and cried with me as I added my own tearful contribution to the puddle of ice cream already forming on the table.
This memory comes back to me often. It has resurfaced even more vibrantly over the last few years as my path once again began to drift out of focus.
After I graduated with my PhD in Human Geography at Queen’s University, my partner and I agreed we would go to the first place where one of us landed a stable job. As precarious academics, “stability” for us meant finding work at a university or college for at least one year. When my partner was the first to secure a postdoctoral position, that job happened to be in Atlanta.
My dad masked any feelings of disappointment or concern he might have had with outward excitement that my journey was taking me through the landscape that inspired one of his favourite rock bands, the Allman Brothers. “Hot’Lanta!” he said. “Eat a Peach!” Yep, we were “Southbound.”
The sonic geographer in me loved the musicality of our new home but, as it turned out, living in another country on a spousal visa was not optimal for finding work in an already sub-optimal academic “market.” I had little historical connection with the place and its people. I bore the guilt of an outsider who showed up uninvited. I began to feel immobilized by what historian Erin Bartram described as “the sublimated grief of the left behind” when I could not find work. At the same time, I longed for what environmental historian and EHN contributor, Jessica DeWitt, claimed as a “period of dormancy”—downtime from academic landscapes, identities, and applications.
Feeling dislocated from previous homes in geography departments and university libraries, my passion for scholarly research began to wane. As others have expressed, perhaps more exhausting than preparing a lengthy application is the emotional work required to imagine ourselves in a new place all over again for (likely) another temporary arrangement.
Place matters in all aspects of our lives. For emerging academics, finding a job means struggling to find a place for our research and our selves.
Navigating the liminal spaces of academic precarity and uncertainty, I am left with the question: how does one weather all of that (dis)embodied “drifting” and still find meaning in their work? No wonder it’s so difficult to imagine how our research might take shape when we don’t know how – or where – it will take place.
This feeling of disorientation has only intensified with a world turned on its head by a pandemic, exacerbated by ongoing social and environmental injustices, feeling disoriented about where we are and where we’re going.
My personal world turned on its head in June 2017. Not fully a year into our Atlanta lives, my brother called in tearful shock to tell me our dad had died. I have never felt so far from home.
My dad was cycling from our family home in the outskirts of Thunder Bay, along the shores of Lake Superior, across the border to Grand Marais, Minnesota. He made that two-wheeled journey many times when we were kids and picked cycling back up again a few years before he passed. He would often tell us about his “nemesis,” Mount Josephine—a peak in the Sawtooth Mountains just a few miles across the Minnesota border—and we’d roll our eyes as he’d launch into his well-rehearsed account of its grueling incline.
On June 12, 2017, he had a heart attack while climbing toward the apex of his nemesis. He was rushed by ambulance to a Grand Marais hospital but it was too far and too late.
The road sign memorializes his final age: Highway 61.
It is important for me to acknowledge that, despite how painful this experience of grief was for my family, it was profoundly shaped by our white privilege. It gives me peace to know that my dad died doing something he loved, but road cycling is an activity typically enjoyed by those with access to time, mobility, and money. The geographies of his sudden death were most likely related to unforgiving topographies of land and body, rather than outcomes of systemic violence, police brutality, land dispossession, residential school trauma, or environmental racism.
I am privileged to have had three years of protected, uninterrupted space through which to grieve a man who died by unfortunate happenstance rather than violent circumstance. Without dismissing my family’s trauma in losing the man who meant the world to us, I know that grief is not immune from power.
Among the condolences came messages from fellow geographers and historians who, unbeknownst to me, had also lost parents or other close loved ones at relatively young ages. A recurring theme within these notes of support was the experience of feeling “adrift.” Their words stuck with me, not only because of their generosity or how effectively they captured my life over the past few years, but because they were the same words my dad had used in the ice cream therapy session.
So, I drifted. And I wound up here.
[to be continued]
*Cover image: Lake Superior, near Grand Marais, MN. Photograph by Paul Hemsworth.
[Cover image description: a sailboat on a lake with trees and shoreline in the foreground.]