A tough transition home

I haven’t written for the KIN whanau in a while. Last December, I moved my life back home, to Vancouver, Canada, except I selected to live just across the water in Victoria instead. It’s actually been a more challenging transition than I had expected—and not because of any lack of effort on my part or those around me to make it as smooth as possible, but because I continued to live in liminal limbo for a long time.

Phase 1 of liminal limbo: Finishing writing

My experience of cognitive limbo was because I was still writing my PhD thesis for completion a month after my move, to submit from Canada. I hadn’t adjusted to my physical reality of being in a new place until I had formally submitted, which I did at the tail end of a near (actual) breakdown. But I did it and my lack of enthusiasm here is because I experienced what a lot of people have shared about the hand-in experience—that it’s anti-climactic. I just wanted to be rid of the thing and absolve myself of any responsibility attached to it. After that, I immersed myself deep into the poetry of 15th century poet Hafiz, whose whimsy and timelessness made more sense than the real world I was living.

Phase 2 of liminal limbo: Waiting

Cue the glacial waiting period: examination. Although I did a decent job of finding distractions, including traveling to New York and presenting at a conference in Puerto Rico (where I won a Best Paper award in the area of Sustainability), the liminal struggle came clear as day through an emotional breakdown on a beach in Maunabo at the southeastern edge of Puerto Rico. I asked Tangaroa, the god of the sea to take away my feelings of uncertainty and insecurity so that I could present my research confidently and begin this new journey ahead. I cried until my tears were finished and drove back to San Juan the following day to join the academics.

In general, I found it difficult to talk about my research in this phase because as I explained to a visiting academic, “my brain just wants to let it all go and be empty”. I sometimes wonder if that’s a trauma response as it felt like my body and brain were actively trying to forget. Wisely, he advised against forgetting so I held onto it a little longer.

In total, I only had to wait two months for the examiners’ reports to come back, and my defense was scheduled for April 18.

Phase 3 of liminal limbo: Can one be liminally suspended and entirely immersed at the same time? Preparing for the defense

In the interim, I was beginning a new research project with a group of First Nations up the coast of British Columbia whose declaration says: The First Nations of the North Pacific Coast inherit the responsibility to protect and restore our lands, water, and air for future generations. They operate as a collective called the Coastal First Nations under this mandate. One of the Haida chiefs was inheriting a hereditary title, and his family was hosting a potlatch, a large gathering of approximately 800 guests to ceremonially pass this title on, over three days. I had the opportunity to attend, except the potlatch took place over Easter weekend, the weekend before my PhD defense. Now, several things crossed my mind:

  1. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to witness an event of this size and significance in BC First Nations history.
  2. When will I have a chance to prepare for my defense?
  3. This is the precise phenomenon that I explored in my PhD. Except for tribally specific differences, witnessing this gathering is a form of defense preparation.

It was settled. I attended. The experience changed my life. I’ve never been so moved by the hospitality, spiritual work and most importantly, I saw evidence of the economy of affection that I wrote about in my thesis. It is alive and well. I successfully defended my thesis.


Phase 4: Grounded

Since April, life has settled down in the sense of me finding some grounding moments, being reunited with my belongings stored in boxes for the past eight years and finally feeling ready to get back to writing. I have been home for seven months and this blog is my first effort to write. Just in time for me to come back to Aotearoa New Zealand for my convocation this September. One of the things I am looking forward to is having all three of my degrees professionally framed because man! I worked bloody hard for them! I hadn’t imagined what it would feel like to reach the end of the line (in terms of formal education), but now that it’s before me, I am ready to see the culmination of achievements and celebrate that!

In the immediate future, I am preparing my paddling arms to help pull for a canoe departing from a remote community called Hesquiaht this Saturday that will travel approximately 650km around the bottom of Vancouver Island (the size of the North island of Aotearoa) to We Wai Kai, a community close to Campbell River.

Tribal journeys map 2017

This is open ocean paddling in a traditional war canoe to different First Nations communities along the way, using traditional protocols for arrival and camping overnight for early departures. The evenings are a highlight with feasting, bonfires, drumming, and traditional gambling games. There are at least 46 other canoe families that will convoy at We Wai Kai after their journeys from the north coast, south coast (Washington, US) and mainland on 5 August.

For me this journey is significant because I participated in Tribal Journeys exactly 20 years ago as a 14 year old who was just getting to know her own strength. I am not sure I have ever felt as proud as I did that week in 1997, when I was incrementally moved forward in the canoe by the skipper, recognized each day as a stronger and stronger puller. This time, it’s a much longer journey—19 days, and a more challenging route, navigating the open ocean along the outside of the Island.

Side note: I have set aside four days in the middle to uphold my commitment to attend Indigenous Fashion Week in Vancouver. A quick shower and I’ll be runway ready! Then off with the heels to hop back in the boat and help the whanau paddle up to our final destination.

I think that’s the perfect way to celebrate a completed PhD journey!


P.S. Special mention goes to Amber Nicholson and Alisha Castelino for printing and binding my thesis!


  1. Amber Nicholson

    The uncomfortable liminal space – but they say that is the exactly where you need to be to grow. And you have blossomed wonderfully through to the other side. Arohanui my friend. You made it!!!!


  2. Abigail McClutchie

    Dara when I saw the picture of the kina I thought I’d be reading that you miss the seafood. Instead thank you for sharing this personal journey of discomfort, growth, and grounding. It is good for us to know the phases we may encounter when we get there. Ha ha I like the way you choose to celebrate completing the enormous task of a PhD: another hard challenge. My heart beams with pride for your success. Ngā mihi.


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