When we return, what will we find?

Craig Moreau
5 min readOct 5, 2020
The empty halls of a once vibrant university building. Photo Credit: Craig Moreau

Everyone in the department was catching our collective breaths. We just unpacked from a move into a suite of brand new office spaces — a rare gift for those of us who work in the humanities. Like my colleagues, as I opened up boxes of mostly books and looked out our strange new windows, I was already contemplating what the Spring semester would look like in our new digs.

Though we had assigned office spaces, I felt a little unsure if I was where I was supposed to be — something akin to the familiar “imposter syndrome” felt by many grad students — though this time it was a touch less metaphorical and more literal. The space was nice. Too nice, perhaps. I figured at any moment someone would jump in and ask me, “What are you doing here? This is my office! Go back to where you came from!” But, thankfully, the imaginary villain and my guilt for having something nice never fully materialized, and I as I considered the all-important question of how I might optimize the re-shelfing of my books, I wondered what it takes to get comfortable with a new space? Is it only a matter of time? Or is there something else?

I looked around: those appeared to be my books on the shelf. The marginalia inside seemed to be my handwriting. The smoky-sweet aroma of my officemate’s Russian tea seemed in place with all the pens and post-its… but inside I knew that comfort wasn’t about the objects, but the accumulation of experiences one has with those objects over time.

As we unpacked, stacks of cardboard moving boxes eventually disappeared and were replaced with everyone’s various scholarly heirlooms. Mine, for example, is a small bronze bowl that sits next to my computer. I gently strike it before jumping into work — when the metallic hum fades it’s my signal to focus. The heirlooms and workload felt familiar, I figured all I needed to do for the space to feel familiar was just to wait a while.

Of course, COVID-19 changed what it meant to “wait a while.” I would not be accumulating time and experience in the office — my bronze bowl would not sing. In fact, until today, I hadn’t been to my office in 105 days since campus closure and the stay-at-home order was issued. I managed to pivot to online teaching for the rest of the spring semester with only a few hiccups, supported largely by my fellow grad students and faculty in the department. But, as I looked towards summer teaching, and yes, the relentless dissertation that seems not to care if there’s a pandemic or not, I started to lose memory of what my office looked like and the books that lined themselves across my shelf.

Books on a shelf are more than scholarly resources — they are physical reminders of the possibilities one’s work can take as well as the questions we forgot to ask. There has been more than once when I’ve paused mid-paragraph to look away from the screen for a moment to serendipitously spot a book title whose implications I had yet to consider, or be reminded of a scholar whose work I disregarded perhaps a bit too early.

The thought of writing over the summer without the input of the scholars on my shelf left me feeling more than a little insecure — what if the difference in an OK paragraph versus a GREAT paragraph lay in seeing that just ordered copy of Martha Nussbaum’s The Fragility of Goodness? I must get my books back!

After some e-mails with the department office manager and an official PDF on my phone which I could show to campus security (if they asked), I drove over on a rainy day to stock up for a summer of research-at-home.

When I got my building, I felt like I was breaking in. There was no one to acknowledge a shared belonging to via a nod here, a wave or “hello!” there. The sound of my footsteps on the marble and the buzz of the stairway lighting as I walked down the empty corridors reminded me of what was: undergrads pacing beside me, doors opening and closing, and that invisible but no less inspiring steady buzz of energy that comes from humans learning together in a classroom.

Where was the unplanned encounter with one of my colleagues, running to the library excitedly to get some obscure book that had just arrived through inter-library loan?

Of course, the book loans and my fellow book nerds were all in quarantine. For this trip, it would just be me and my canvas bags. And as I walked further up the stairs, I noticed an eerie beat between my knowing where to go and me actually going there. In short: I forgot, momentarily, how to get to my office.

My muscles forgot the route to my office, but my mind eventually remembered as I entered (re)found my door and the unique wiggle of the key I had to do to get it unlocked, and then started to re-pack the books I had only just recently un-packed. Almost immediately, I felt like a ghost to the space that was supposed to be my office. But as I took more books off the shelf, accompanied only by the sounds of bindings flexing and flopping, I discovered what was really missing wasn’t a sense of comfort with the space; it was the jokes with my colleagues we’d share in the downstairs café. It was the humdrum of students moving from class to class, and that shared moment we had when we stopped writing one day to watch the passing of Spring’s first rainstorm from our window, and how in that moment, rain somehow felt new again.

As I placed a final book into my bag I saw on the empty shelves a glimmer of what it is we might find when we return — and I can’t wait to share that discovery whenever it is I see my office mates again.

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