It’s always interesting balancing different roles of being, as they tend to change and coexist depending on when and where and with whom I am. As an ethnographer who has chosen my time in Edinburgh as my object of study, I constantly oscillate between the pressures of being cognizant and critical but also natural and relaxed. Being present in the moment is sometimes, for academia’s sake, easier to contrive in retrospect: reflecting on a space can be simpler than trying to absorb and archive all the information in a single scene while I am still in it. Allow me to give an example.
Each Thursday night, I go to a friend’s flat for a Bible study with a group of ladies from my church here in Edinburgh. I know the space very well simply because I have been there multiple times. It is from repeated interactions within and with the space that I can now describe it to you in detail – the coat rack above the radiator by the bathroom, on which we hang our coats and below which we place our shoes; the living room space with giant south-west facing windows, door-like shutters, one sofa, a futon in sofa posture, a rocking chair, a dining table, a small coffee table, and an ottoman; the fairy lights and pictures of friends strung across the walls above an inaccessible fireplace; the kitchen from which tea and biscuits lovingly come every week like clockwork. I know this flat because I have climbed its stairs (panting like Po from Kung Fu Panda every time I reach the top) and spent time within its walls.
But do I really remember it mainly because I have seen it so many times or does it stick in my memory because of the people with whom I share the space and the reason we gather? One evening I took the time to draw one of our hosts as she sat on the futon, holding a warm cup of tea (see image at left), and I got thinking more about this project of capturing people in spaces for later recollection and analysis than I was listening to what we were discussing. Though I find myself easily able to hear and process information as I draw, my brain must decide on which topic to focus.
I am no neuro-scientist, and I’m sure this has a great physiological explanation that assures me this is how the brain works – however, my point is that it is very difficult to be multiple things in a single space at a single point in time. The key is when one or more of those roles becomes so internalized that it can be acted upon subconsciously, simultaneously allowing these thoughts and considerations and actions to exist within the mind. I am an artist, so drawing in the midst of other things happening comes easily to me. I am a Christian and am familiar with the setting of a Bible Study, so I know how to engage with the conversation. But I am new to ethnography, especially autoethnographic examinations of such intimate spaces. Over the course of the semester, I hope to grow in this area – I suppose we will see what happens!