32 :)

Well, I don’t know if you heard, but yesterday was my 32nd birthday. And although it’s been a few years, I thought I’d bring back my birthday blog tradition of sharing some of key things I learned during the last year. Normally, I would have posted this on the day itself, but since I’m now a grown-up with a real job, I didn’t have a chance. So here they are–a day late and in no particular order–my 32 lessons for my 32nd birthday:

  1. I don’t have to be addicted to coffee.
  2. Latte the piggy loves bananas.
  3. Gulf Port, Mississippi, and Gulf Shores, Alabama, are NOT the same.
  4. Teaching online really isn’t that bad.
  5. Audiobooks are surprisingly awesome.
  6. Spending time in God’s Word each day makes a tangible difference in my life. (If you’re looking for a nifty way to do that, I recommend the “Bible in One Year” app. It’s awesome! And the narrator has a British accent, which is a definite bonus).
  7. If done on a Sunday, the trip from Atlanta to Kansas City can be completed in 11.5 hours.
  8. I own waaaaayyyyy too many books, and that’s okay.
  9. Selling clothes on Poshmark is trickier than you would think.
  10. I actually enjoy running again!
  11. Contrary to widespread popular belief, Darth Vader doesn’t actually say, “Luke, I am your father.”
  12. My hair doesn’t get that long after 10 months between haircuts.
  13. I really, really miss in-person church services.
  14. As we all learned in 2020… Life rarely goes the way we think it will, but we are more adaptable and resilient than we probably realized.
  15. I can make copycat versions of most of my favorite restaurant recipes, including some great Asian takeout.
  16. Friends, near and far and socially distant, make life so much sweeter.
  17. Taking the time to get organized can make a huge difference.
  18. Always double check that my car’s parking brake is engaged.
  19. It is possible to get tired of wearing sweatpants.
  20. Being kind and giving people the benefit of the doubt is always a good idea.
  21. I can do basic calligraphy!
  22. Psych is still one of my all-time favorite TV shows.
  23. Even if you have to wait an extra three months for the wedding, watching your little sister get married is so very sweet.
  24. Real wild rice cooks much more slowly than the Uncle Ben’s variety.
  25. Without fail, spending time outside always refreshes my soul.
  26. Don’t try to take I-75 when the President is in town.
  27. I am terrible at keeping succulents alive.
  28. I have a hard time getting through the entire Lord’s Prayer without yawning.
  29. I’m starting to get gray hairs, and that’s taking some getting used to.
  30. Grace can be a difficult thing both to accept and to give but–by God’s grace–I am working on it.
  31. Picking 150 pounds of pecans doesn’t take as long as you might think.
  32. 10+ months of Covid-related quarantine isn’t ideal, but it’s much better when you have an awesome husband to share it with.

And in keeping with birthday tradition… one more to grow on!

The Bonus: God is so faithful and so good.

Looking back over this last year, it’s easy to see all the difficult things that happened and all the places where life went haywire. And there were certainly a lot of them: the global pandemic, the sudden move of classes and church and everything online, the continued financial fallout, the travel bans and the inability to do my summer research in Germany and (later) having to say no to postdocs in Berlin, my sister’s three-month wedding delay, cancelled conferences and trips, the still-inexplicable run on toilet paper, the loss of Jim’s grandfather, unexpected tragedies in my friends’ families, an especially abysmal academic job market, not being able to see friends or family as planned, long stretches of being “in limbo,” so much racial injustice, and the most difficult and divisive election season in my living memory, and simply grieving the loss of what used to be “normal” while wondering what life will look like on the other side.

And yet even in the midst of an incredibly challenging and in many ways heartbreaking year, there have been unexpected bright spots and moments of joy: reconnecting with old friends over the phone because (thanks to the initial shutdown) we both suddenly had the time, learning how to slow down and live more simply, more quality time with Jim, buying our first house together and now living within walking distance of some of our best friends, a newfound appreciation for my church community, weekly Zoom calls with my high school besties, more time to go on walks and runs and just enjoy being outside, and having the chance to start working through some of my deepest insecurities and fears–and actually experiencing healing and freedom from many of them.

No, this year was by no means easy, and I don’t think I would choose to repeat it, but I can’t help but see God’s fingerprints all over it and His faithfulness woven throughout it. Nothing that happened, good, bad or in-between, caught Him by surprise. And while He may have felt distant at certain moments, He never left my side. There is great comfort and peace in knowing that He is Emmanuel, “God with us,” and Jehovah-shammah, “He is there.”

As I was thinking through this post yesterday, this song came to mind and (as songs often do) immediately got stuck in my head. But I think it captures exactly how I feel looking back over this last year and moving into the next one. Have a listen, if you’d like, although fair warning: it may get stuck in your head too.

And now this 32-year-old is in need of a snack… is 11 am too early for birthday cake? 🙂

Apparently, Jeni’s gives you 3 free scoops of ice cream on your birthday! 🙂

Living in Limbo

A clear round ornament hanging on a Christmas tree. The ornament says, "2020. One star. Very bad. Would not recommend." A piece of toilet paper fills it.

What a bizarre year it has been.

Actually, “bizarre” doesn’t even begin to cover it. This year has been nothing short of insane. In the “you can’t make this stuff up” sort of way. From COVID lockdowns to wildfires to elections (and, in Georgia, runoff elections… yay) to murder hornets (because why not), this year has brought with it what feels like a lifetime’s worth of challenges. So many things have changed or are in flux that sometimes it feels sometimes like the whole world has been turned upside down. Who would have ever thought that Hallmark Christmas movies featuring holiday parties would feel dated? And who would have ever imagined that movie theater chains could go out of business? And who could have predicted that toilet paper would become the American equivalent of white gold? Like I said, bizarre doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.

Yet even in this weird and wacky year that is 2020, we still managed to find a new normal. In my studies of Cold War Germany, I have often thought and read about life in divided Berlin. One day, the city was open. The next day (and built over a few weeks), a wall ran through it. How strange that must have felt. Yet that division lasted for 28 years and some change. During that time, though, the Berliners managed to find their new normal. And according to the sources, this happened faster than you would think. So normal was the division and so ingrained in their minds, in fact, that by the time the the wall finally came down in 1989, the united city struggled to readjust to the new “old” normal.

Like the Berliners of the 1960s, we also have had to find an our new normal in this COVID-marked world. What makes it difficult, though, is that normal itself keeps changing, as soon as we start to find our footing. We’ve figured out how to live in this state of limbo and we’re doing it one day at a time. More often than not, life this year has felt like an algebra equation, one in which every element is a variable, and there are not enough numbers—or any numbers—to solve it with. Are we online for school, or are we not? Is it safe to travel on airplanes or not? Do we need a COVID test to go to this place, or are we okay without it? For how many days should we quarantine if we are exposed? What actually are the symptoms of COVID, and how much do asymptomatic people spread the virus? Which people can I trust to have in my “bubble”? Is it okay to hang out inside if we are wearing masks and keep at a distance? Can kids get the virus? Should we be concerned at all about the vaccine? Etc. etc.

And beyond these general virus-related questions are the questions we each face individually, Like for my sister this summer: how do you (re)plan a wedding with all the appropriate COVID precautions when these are also constantly changing? Or for me and Jim: did it make sense to take a postdoc in Berlin when it would have started in October 2020, i.e. when the second wave was projected to hit? Or what about taking a second postdoc set to begin April 2021, when depending on the state of the pandemic, this might mean not getting to see my family for an entire year? These are just a few of the tough and unexpected questions that COVID forced us to answer.

Despite all the craziness and uncertainty and unanswerable questions, we have still managed to make some pretty big decisions. In March, Jim started his own business and has been evolving and growing ever since. In April, when became clear that my university was experiencing higher than normal enrollment, I decided to take on a few online summer sections and added an extra section to my schedule in the fall. In May, Jim and I decided that renting in the city no longer made sense, and in June we bought our first house. In July, we decided to spend three weeks in Kansas with my family to help them with final wedding. And in April and again in November, after a lot of discussion, prayer, and quite a few tears, we decided that I would turn down the international postdocs. I know this was the right thing to do, even if it was one of the most challenging and counterintuitive decisions I’ve ever had to make.

In more ways than I can count, this year has been difficult, discouraging, and frustrating. I’ve cried and felt more overwhelmed in 2020 than I did when I was taking my PhD qualifying exams, and that’s saying something. But although these difficulties, discouragements, and frustrations are very real, and they are a big part of the story, they have never been the whole story.

Way back in January—oh, how that feels like a lifetime ago—I started listening to the “Bible in One Year” app created by Alpha. Hearing the Bible each day (or most days) has been one of the bright spots of this year. As usually happens for me in any “do this every day” sort of activity, I inevitably fell behind, which meant that today I listened to part of Lamentations. In this book, the prophet Jeremiah is mourning the downfall of Jerusalem, the exile of the Israelites, and the loss of all he holds dear and cares about. Jeremiah is experiencing some deep despair, and rightfully so. His whole world had fallen apart. Then in chapter 3, he says this:

‘So I say, “My splendor is gone
    and all that I had hoped from the Lord.”

19 I remember my affliction and my wandering,
    the bitterness and the gall.
20 I well remember them,
    and my soul is downcast within me.
21 Yet this I call to mind
    and therefore I have hope:

22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
    therefore I will wait for him.”’

He isn’t going to deny all his pain and suffering. He will not forget how awful things have been and still are. And he is not simply telling himself to “buck up” or “get it together” or “put on a happy face.” He will remember all the sorrow he has experienced, but he refuses to end there. He chooses to call to mind “the Lord’s great love,” and this brings him hope.

I’d be lying if I said that I enjoy living in limbo and that 2020 has been anything close to a “good” year. But while that’s true, I don’t have to let the crumminess be the whole story. Like Jeremiah, I can stay in touch with the struggles of this year, while also choosing to have hope in the Lord. And that’s my prayer for you too, whatever 2020 has brought your way.

And speaking of prayer, let’s ask God for a better 2021. Please, thank you, and amen!

Lenten Living

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This has been a very strange Holy Week, to say the least–and it marks the end of a Lent in which we’ve all had to give up more than originally anticipated.

When Lent started, I had planned on giving up some basic things: alcohol (because I love a glass of wine in the evenings, especially while grading); having my phone in my bedroom (because I don’t like that it’s the last thing I look at at night and the first thing that I check in the morning) and excessively holding Latte, my guinea pig (because, yes, that is actually a problem for me). These changes, though small, have served their purpose well, and I’ve realized how much I depend on these habits to make my life feel more enjoyable, or, in the case of my phone, more connected and purposeful. (I also realized how often I want to hold my guinea pig. Now that I’ve Lenten-ly limited it to two times a day, I think Latte is much happier.)

That said, I think we all end up giving up a bit more than we bargained for this Lent, thanks to the coronavirus. Interestingly, the first couple weeks of quarantine made me even more aware of these dependencies. All I wanted to do was drink a glass of wine and snuggle with my therapy critter. We’ve all given up seeing friends, eating out, going to the park, and even going to church… oh, the irony of having to give up going to church for Lent! In some ways our lives have become simpler. We no longer juggle our social engagements or factor in our (often very long) commutes. In other ways, though, things have become more complicated. Now we must plan out our meals more religiously, decide how to prioritize our internet bandwidth, and figure out how to ration our dwindling supply of toilet paper.

Lent is a call to wake up to our own mortality, and that’s also happened too. Ash Wednesday’s words now seem eerily apt: “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” As we’ve given up our normalcy, we have confronted anew our limitations and our frailty. Yes, Lent 2020 has been one for the record books; in fact, 2020 itself seems like Lent on steroids. But just as with our other behavioral changes in response to the virus, giving things up is not the point of Lent; rather, we give up things temporarily and for specific purpose. In the case of the virus, we give up meeting together, going to work, and interacting beyond our home sphere in order to “flatten the curve” and to keep the virus from spreading. Social distancing and its inherent sacrifices are not the end in and of themselves; they serve the wider purpose of protecting our health and the wellbeing of those around us.

In the same way, giving up things is not the purpose of Lent. Rather, the point of Lent is to show us our own weakness and our need for a Savior. In Lent, we learn anew that we are frail and we are finite, and we cannot do this on our own. We are reminded again and again throughout the Lenten season that “though we are weak, our Savior is strong” and, to quote the Apostle Paul, God’s “lovingkindness and mercy are more than enough—always available—regardless of the situation; for [His] power is being perfected and is completed and shows itself most effectively in [our] weakness.” The light shines brightest in the darkness, and we experience God’s comfort, peace, and strength in our moments of weakness and fear.

Lent is almost over (though I’m afraid this Lenten-esque season of quarantine is not). How can we more fully embrace–in a metaphorical, socially-distant, contact-free manner–these truths today?

 

“Supposed to…”

 

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Savannah, Georgia (by kellyv; licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 https://live.staticflickr.com/4552/38531961336_c127e6509a_b.jpg)

We were supposed to be in Savannah this weekend.

I have never been, and since we had planned on (likely) leaving Georgia this fall, this seemed like the perfect time to go. Last weekend, I was supposed to be in Kansas City for my younger sister’s bachelorette party. She was supposed to be getting married at the end of this month, and then she was supposed to join her husband in Hawaii for the remaining year and a half of his job contract. So many other things were supposed to happen too but no longer are. My friend Rachel’s PhD hooding ceremony and graduation has been postponed. My cousin’s wedding in St. Louis at the beginning of May isn’t happening, nor is a beach trip with Jim’s family at the beginning of June. My research travel in Germany this summer has also been taken off the books. And these are just within my immediate circle. Around the world, plans are paused, flights are canceled, and “normal life” has been put on hold indefinitely.

The President’s initial goal of “raring to go by Easter”has been replaced by stay-at-home orders around the country and around the world, through the end of April. Elizabeth, my respiratory virology PhD best friend, says this will last until at least the end of May, and other friends at the nearby CDC agree that we are in this for the long haul (one even pushed up her own wedding by two months, so she and her now-husband could be married before he got deployed to help with quarantine efforts). Life as we know it has stopped for the foreseeable future. And all the usual things–and the special things–have ground emphatically to a halt.

No wonder we all have emotional whiplash.

Now what? Where do we go from here? Or more specifically, where do we go from here when we literally can’t go anywhere.

I spent the first couple weeks of quarantine in a state of emotional turmoil, while trying to fill my schedule, effectively allot my time, and generally be overly productive. More recently, though, thanks to reading this article and talking with some of my close friends, including (postposted-PhD-graduation) Rachel, I’ve been trying to slow down. Instead of still rushing from thing to thing to thing, I’m letting myself name and experience these feelings, including sadness and grief.

For instance, I’m sad that we are not in Savannah right now. And I’m sad that we won’t be going abroad this summer. I’m bummed that my sister now has to wait to get married. And I wish Rachel’s graduation could happen like it was supposed to.

Yes, there’s a lot that I’m also grateful for right now. And I’m making a point to name these things too. But right now, I’m trying to give myself the permission to be sad, because that’s what I need this moment.

To quote psychologist Carl Jung, “What we resist persists.What we embrace dissolves.” Being present during the season also means letting myself acknowledge and sit with these feelings of sadness and disappointment. Sitting and simply being is an important part of this process, too.

I hope that someday when all this is over, or behind us, or at least not fully at the forefront, this sitting will pay off. Maybe it’s less like sitting passively on a couch and more like doing “wall sits.” Even though it’s one of my least favorite forms of exercise, this “sitting” will make me more ready to stand and jump and run forward into the new future, whatever it may hold.

 

About Time

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Astronomical Clock in Prague’s Old Town Square

What is time?

That has been a recurring question of mine these last few weeks as one day has seemed to blend into another and all the usual schedule-markers are gone. For as long as I can remember, I’ve lived my life according to orderly plans and self-made structures. When I don’t have that structure, things don’t go as well. Even as a kid, I made an orderly “chore chart” time schedule for each morning allotting myself a certain amount of time for every task, including making my bed and cleaning the bathroom sink. I remember that, upon reading my schedule which I had proudly posted on the refrigerator door, a friend commenting that I probably didn’t need a whole five minutes to use the bathroom. But in the interest of consistency and order, I had blocked off tasks in increments of time divisible by five. And so five minutes for bathroom-going made the most sense. Whether I really followed this well-intended, perfectly planned-out schedule is highly doubtful. But its existence made me feel better somehow.

I think we all like the sense of bringing order out of chaos and imparting a sort of certainty to the otherwise unbounded unit known as time. I think that’s been one of the most difficult adjustments for me in this new quarantined life. Especially as a historian, I take comfort in the sense of progress and narrative, and knowing how to locate myself within this onward march of minutes and days. Yes. I often have a fraught relationship with time, wishing I had more of it, feeling like I’ve wasted it, and wanting to go back in it to fix what seems to be amiss. But my obsession with time is linked, I think, to my desire to master it, to control it, and to convince myself that if I can tame it or leverage it with some “worthwhile activity,” I will feel more at peace, secure, and safe.

And so this upending of all time-markers has felt disorienting and anxiety-producing, to say the least. Time has leapt out of the bounds I’ve so carefully constructed for it, and I don’t know what to do. I have felt lost and confused and not quite sure how to handle myself now that all the time-calibrations by which I’ve ordered my life are gone. What is time? Something totally different from what it was four weeks ago. Time has slowed down, and all tenses seem to have merged. The past is a lifetime ago, and the future is incredibly uncertain. All that remains now is the present, the here and now. Ironically, the present–the hardest place for us to often be–is now the only place that we can go. We’re quite literally quarantined in “the now,” and we have no choice but to be present.

What does that mean for you and for me, and how do we do that? I’m not sure… but I have a feeling that will have plenty of time to figure it out.

 

No April Fooling

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The deserted Social Sciences building on my once-bustling campus.

So much for waking up today and this being one big April Fool’s joke.

Man, I miss how things used to be, the hustle and bustle of normal city life. Now I go on walks and I see maybe 10 cars where there used to be dozens. Feel free to cross the street anywhere, anytime, without even looking both ways. Odds are that nobody’s coming. The three weeks since my last class meeting feels like a lifetime ago. I miss my life. I miss our lives. I miss when the presidential race was the biggest thing on the news. I miss my family. I was supposed to see them this last weekend. I miss community group and having fellowship around the table with people I care about. I miss my commute (as crazy as THAT sounds), and just being on a busy college campus. I miss the routine the schedule, the predictability, but also the variety. Most of all I miss the people. And the little things, like being able to go the grocery store and actually taking my time, not being afraid that the person buying onions next to me is going to get me sick.

I miss the certainty, even in what was unknown. Yes, there were unclear parts of the future. Let’s be real; the whole thing was unclear, but at least it was going to unfold from a set of known options. The possibilities weren’t virtually limitless. And the timeline was relatively clear. I’m homesick for my life before corona, before all of our “normals got snatched,” to borrow Lisa TerKeurst’s phrase. Yes, there are positives. Yes, there are good things still happening. And yes, it’s valuable to slow down and breathe. But right now, in this moment, I just feel sad and helpless.

What a strange feeling to have literally “doing nothing” be the best thing I can do. It gives a whole new meaning to Psalm 46:10,“Be still and know that I am God.” Gosh, I’ve always struggled with that verse, especially since I don’t sit still very easily. I like to do, to feel like I’m contributing somehow, to feel like I’m helping others and thereby adding value. Being still and staying away feels so counterintuitive to me. And honestly, it also feels quite uncomfortable. Even though cognitively I know that rest and slowing down are important, and that I’m not actually that good at multitasking, I still try to do it. I feel safe, secure, and important behind that wall of busy activity. I feel like I’m doing something that matters. And then I feel worthwhile. like I also matter.

Without people to help, things to accomplish, and activities to fill my schedule, who am I? I feel stripped away, naked, and somehow deeply exposed. How can I prove my worth? How can I fight off the gnawing sense of melancholy if I’m not able to DO anything? If I just have to stay put and be still? It feels uncertain and scary, and I feel myself floundering like a person drowning at sea, thrashing about–even though being still and calm and letting myself be rescued is the only thing that can save me. “In quietness and rest is your strength” (Isaiah 30:15) and “The Lord will fight for you while you keep still. ” (Exodus 14:14). There’s quite literally no time like the present to try leaning into those verses.

 

Farm(like) Livin’ is the Life for Me

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Kansas Flint Hills, one of my all-time favorite places.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any extended period of time, then you know that I grew up in Kansas. I love to play up this fact, especially when traveling. Although international folks may not know of Kansas, they have usually heard of our two greatest (fictional) residents, Dorothy and Superman. I also apparently use a lot of Kansas-isms, phrases that supposedly people don’t say elsewhere: slower than molasses in January, circle the wagons, and cross that bridge when we come to it. All these phrases (and especially the first two) have prompted friends to tell me that my “Kansas is showing.”

Even though I proudly claim Kansas as home, many residents of my state would argue that I’m not truly from there. Because even though I shamelessly quote the Wizard of Oz  and regularly advertise our tourist attractions (including the “world’s largest ball of twine” and, my personal favorite, the “They Also Ran” museum), many of my fellow Kansans would likely say that I haven’t really experienced my home state. And I guess I have to agree with them. My childhood was spent in the suburbs of Kansas City, where the lifestyle is more defined by soccer tournaments and shopping malls than wide open spaces. Certainly, I had encounters with the countryside and small-town life. During the summer, for instance, I would often spend a week with my cousins in southern Kansas, riding horses and exploring the  pastures, but such experiences were the exception not the norm. Thus, although I proudly claim my Plains-state roots, I did not actually grow up anywhere near the “Little House on the Prairie.” 😦

That said, you don’t have to climb far up my family tree to find folks who really did live off the land. My grandparents (Omi and Opi) both grew up in farmhouses that didn’t get running water until at least the 1960s. Their parents raised cattle, milked dairy cows, and grew crops that they then sold on the back of their pickup truck in town. My ancestors knew all about cultivating the land and making a living from what it produced. Although we live in the suburbs, my nuclear family has maintained some aspects of this lifestyle. Several years ago we purchased a 100+ acre parcel of our ancestral land and, although we don’t farm it ourselves, we contract with some folks to grow crops on it. Depending on the year, there will be corn, soybeans, or nothing at all—if the land needs a rest.

Maybe it’s my Kansas roots that drew me to Psalm 37, which has become one of my favorite Scripture passages. Verse 3 says to “trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness.” As a suburbanite, I’ve never cultivated land in my life (in this year alone, I’ve killed three basil plants and two succulents); however, I’ve always found this imagery striking. What does it mean to cultivate faithfulness? And how can I better do this in my daily life?

Cultivating implies intentionality. It doesn’t just happen. Even if you plant seeds, crops won’t automatically grow. You have to water them consistently, and you have to routinely get your hands dirty and pluck the weeds. Cultivating requires attentiveness. In the same way, you can’t zone out or put your life on autopilot and expect faithfulness to happen. Growing into Christlikeness requires our effort. Salvation is a free gift of grace, but transformation only happens with our direct involvement. But what does this practically look like?

I’ve always been a journaler. I kept a diary on-and-off during my childhood and adolescence, and for the last ten years or so, I have journaled basically every night. In fact, now I can’t fall asleep without jotting down a few lines! Anyway, recently I’ve tried incorporating a specific type of journaling into my morning routine. (I didn’t come up with this idea on my own. The practice is really old, and my pastor often describes it in his sermons). The model is called the “Prayer of Examen,” and it involves taking daily stock of how your soul is doing. In five steps, you reflect on the previous day: thanksgiving, consolation, desolation, and invitation. Doing this “soul check-up” every day lets us tend to the metaphorical soil of our lives—the places where we need to be watered, the spots where the weeds are poking up out of the ground, and the areas where we can see God growing His fruit.

But how exactly does this spiritual exercise work? Let me walk you through it.

Thanksgiving: looking back over the previous day, make a list of things for which you are thankful. This first step is crucial, especially if you are going through a rough season or if, like me sometimes, you find yourself in a bad mood. Actively recognizing and saying “thanks” for good things allows us to lift our focus from what is wrong and to see our blessings instead. No matter how crummy life may be at the moment, there is always something for which we can be thankful. If you’re really desperate, “the air I breathe” is a completely acceptable item for the thankfulness list. 😊

Consolation: This old-timey word simply refers to ways that you could see yourself walking in step with God. Looking back on the previous day, where were you aligned with God and His purposes? Like the thankfulness list, the consolation section can contain virtually anything. For me, sometimes it’s having a day of focused and satisfying work. Other times, it’s an encouraging phone call with a friend or an impromptu conversation with the grocery store cashier. Chances are that the Holy Spirit has been working in some creative ways; we just need to take the time to look!

Desolation: As you likely gathered from the name, this section is essentially the opposite of the previous one. Where were you “misaligned” or out of step with God yesterday? Again, I find that this can take a lot of different forms, from having a negative attitude about doing the dishes to saying something mean or getting mad in traffic (a common Atlanta problem). My sin can be sneaky and creative, so I often take a couple extra minutes sitting with this question. Examining one’s heart isn’t for the faint of heart.

Repentance: After writing down the ways I erred, I then spend a moment naming these mistakes before the Lord and asking for His forgiveness. This step is SUPER important, especially because I tend to get down on myself and try to work harder rather than accepting God’s grace. By repenting and asking forgiveness, I am reminded again of the Gospel: that as a sinner, I am powerless to save myself, but through Jesus’ sacrificial death (i.e. not my own effort) I am made right with God.

Invitation: In this final step, we invite the Holy Spirit to walk alongside us and guide our steps during the coming day.

And there you have it; that’s the “Prayer of Examen,” aka my new favorite way to actively cultivate faithfulness in my life. Like all spiritual disciplines, this prayer practice is not a magic tool or a silver bullet, nor does it somehow manipulate God into loving us more. What it does do, however, is enable us to bring our hearts and lives before God on a daily basis and make us more in tune with and open to His Kingdom and its coming.

Thanks for reading and have fun “cultivating”! 😉

Done and Done-r

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I did it. I finished this crazy long, often-frustrating, sometimes circuitous, frequently discouraging, seemingly never-ending, but-now-finally-over PhD.

WOW.

Even though it’s been two months since I (somewhat anticlimactically) pressed “submit” and uploaded my completed dissertation, even though it’s almost been one month since I walked across a stage and added a fancy hood to my academic outfit collection, being finished still feels surreal. Right up until the end, even as I was making the final edits and searching for misplaced commas, l felt like I would always be a PhD student. And then suddenly, with the click of an onscreen button, it was all done. To quote the title of a book I read for my qualifying exams, “Everything was forever, until it was no more.”

It’s a funny experience, achieving something into which you’ve poured so much of yourself for the better part of a decade. You have dreams about what life will look like on the other side, how much time you will suddenly have, how free you will finally feel. You expect all those feelings to appear magically at once. And while I certainly felt a burst of euphoria after clicking that “submit” button, the excitement was soon replaced by exhaustion. After completing the biggest achievement of my entire life to date, all I wanted to do—and all I could do—was sleep.

Now two months later, having finally caught up on rest, I am ready to jot down some thoughts about my experience. And, boy, do I have a lot of thoughts. As in, enough thoughts to fill multiple blog posts on the subject. With that in mind, I’ll focus this entry on one main impression:

I’m different from when I started. 

When I came to Atlanta for my “admitted student” visiting weekend in March of 2012, I knew I would be attending Emory. I had been wait-listed at or rejected by the other programs, and with the April 15th acceptance deadline approaching, Emory was truly my only option. Fortunately, the visit had been enjoyable. I liked the students I had met, and I had nice conversations with the professors and seemed to click with the one who would become my advisor. However, despite those clear indicators that graduate school in general, and Emory in particular, was the next step for me, I still felt so scared. When the visit ended and I was waiting to fly back to Branson, I walked on autopilot through the world’s busiest airport to my gate. Then I sat down on the carpeted floor by a window in the corner, and proceeded to cry and cry and cry. The future felt uncertain and overwhelming. I was embarking on something big, new, and unknown, and I had no idea what to expect. What would my life in Atlanta look like? Would I find a new church community? Would I make new friends? And most of all, what would happen during graduate school? How would graduate school change me, and would I even recognize myself when it was all said and done? These are the questions that filled my mind as I produced a puddle of tears on the floor of terminal C. I was so worried that I would turn into someone I didn’t want to be and that I might lose part of myself in the process. What if Steffi at the end were completely different from Steffi at the beginning?

My fears were not wholly off-base. I am different and, in many ways, unrecognizable from the person who cried on that airport floor. But rather than being a betrayal of myself or an unhealthy transformation, all the changes are positive. Here at the end, I am more confident, less anxious, more assured, and more articulate; less prone to comparison, more resilient; less apt to feel overwhelmed, and more likely to feel at peace. The thing I feared most turned out to be the best possible thing for me. How did that happen?

At departmental orientation my first year, the DGS (Director of Graduate Studies) explained that finishing a PhD was less a matter of intelligence than of Sitzfleisch—German for “perseverance” but literally translated as “sitting muscle.” Having spent the better part of seven years, and especially the last three, on my rear, I can confirm that sitting is essential to the PhD. But I agree even more with the importance of perseverance. Starting a doctorate is easy; finishing is anything but. You need grit, determination, and an insane sort of stick-to-it-iveness to work thirteen hours straight to meet a writing deadline. You need Sitzfleisch to dig through book after book because you know that what you need for a citation is buried there somewhere. You have to draw on inexplicable sources of energy to lug yourself from archive to archive, going through endless piles of foreign language documents to build an argument that does not yet exist. And you have to be a borderline-irrational variety of stubborn to tear apart a chapter draft—sometimes physically on the floor—because you know the argument can be better, clearer; and you won’t stop until you feel satisfied with the result. In other words, you have to a certain kind of crazy to start the PhD, and you have to reach new heights of myopic madness in order to finish. Yes, you’ll need Sitzfleisch, and you will need it in spades. At the beginning, I couldn’t picture myself having what it would take to make it to the end. And that makes sense. Tenacity wasn’t something I could magically conjure up; I had to build it along the way.

Sitting on that airport floor in March 2012, I could only imagine graduate school’s negative changes, and as a result, I feared that I would lose myself as a result. But to my great surprise, the exact opposite happened: I am more fully myself than ever before, and the PhD made it possible. Small and invisible though the transformation was along the way, I can now see it so clearly. God met me in all those places of anxiety, doubt, and fear, and He used those experiences to make me more into the person He created me to be. Oswald Chambers describes this well:

God does not give us overcoming life: He gives us life as we overcome. The strain is the strength. If there is no strain, there is no strength. Are you asking God to give you life and liberty and joy? He cannot, unless you will accept the strain. Immediately you face the strain, you will get the strength. Overcome your own timidity and take the step, and God will give you to eat of the tree of life and you will get nourishment. […] Spend yourself spiritually, and you get more strength. God never gives strength for to-morrow, or for the next hour, but only for the strain of the minute.

Would I do another PhD? Heck-to-the-no! Would I recommend others pursue a doctorate? Probably not. But am I glad I did it? Without question. Yes, there were countless times during the last 7 years when I wanted to throw in the towel, when I felt like curling up in the fetal position (and did!), when I didn’t think I would find the strength to keep trudging on. Looking back, though, I can see now that these moments (or months) of fear and uncertainty—and they were many—were not without purpose. Because it was in those difficult seasons of late nights, language courses, research trips, and repeated dead-ends that I was becoming a resilient person. Shortcuts were impossible. The times of weakness, discouragement, and exhaustion were essential parts of the process. Struggles are the catalyst for courage. Yes, I am different now from my 23-year-old self, but in more incredible ways than I could have ever imagined. Thanks be to God.

I’d like to end this post with the lyrics from one of my favorite songs. I have it memorized both because I like it, and because it’s featured on my “running music” playlist. (I also survived the PhD with a LOT of running.)

Say Goodbye by Joy Williams

I saw you today
My familiar stranger
Everything’s changed
You have come so far
You’re different now
Would you go back, would you want to anyhow

Say goodbye, say goodbye
To the you I knew before
Say hello, say hello to a new beginning
Say goodbye, say goodbye
To the you I knew before
This is your genesis

Face to face
The present and past collide
And it’s no mistake
I see the future is in your eyes
You seem so free
Like nothing’s ever gonna keep you down

You’re different now
You’re different somehow
You’re different now…”

I am different now, and I wouldn’t go back, nor would I want to anyhow. There are many unknowns as I face this new beginning of the post-PhD life. But thanks to the years earning this degree, I can face that future with genuine excitement and joy. No, I’m not sure what will happen, but I know that—with God’s help—this doctor of philosophy will be strong enough to handle it.

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Still Here…

lego grad

Hello world.

Yes, I am still here. As in, still alive, still able to write, and still capable of posting on this blog.

And I’m also still here. As in, still a PhD student, still writing, and still attempting to finish this darn degree.

It’s been six months since I last published anything on this site, and remarkably little has changed during that time. My life seems to consist of a blurry mix of job applications, dissertation revisions, and lots and lots of emails. This semester, I’ve added teaching to the rotation of “stuff Steffi does,” and that has been a nice change. But for the most part, my days feel like a giant grad-student helping of “same old, same old.”

In the midst of the monotony, there has been one major development: I am now on the cusp of graduating. The end is officially in sight. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not a train. Yay!

I’m realizing, though, that while this is incredibly exciting, and oh my gosh, I can’t wait to be done with this silly PhD, this season of waiting of “still being here” isn’t over yet–and it may not be for some time. The job market in History is abysmal at best, and although I’ve been fortunate to have a couple interviews, I haven’t gotten any offers. Something may come up in the next weeks or months, but there are definitely no guarantees and I’m not getting my hopes up. I can’t definitively say what will happen next or what actually lies beyond this degree. All I know for sure is that, on May 12th, I’ll walk across a stage, be handed a fancy piece of paper, and get to wear blue velvet, Harry Potter-esque hood.

I guess then it makes sense that I’ve been thinking a lot these days about waiting. The in-between spaces and the times of uncertainty are not fun, especially for those of us who like to plan, who like to know, and who like to have things figured out. I want answers, direction, and guidance, and I want it right now. But that isn’t happening. I still don’t know with any degree of clarity what is coming next, and that likely won’t change anytime soon. So I’m left with this question. How can I occupy this liminal place, and occupy it well?

Last night, as I was feeling frustrated yet again with all the waiting, I found a brief moment of clarity: these is something fundamentally sacred about seasons of waiting, because it’s in these places of uncertainty that God is waiting to meet with us. When everything around us seems blurry and confounding, He desires to make Himself most clear. It’s in these spaces that we can experience Him most fully. Yet the extent to which we encounter him here depends on us. Will we lean into the ambiguity, even when everything inside us just wants to rush through it?

Well, I’ve met my quota of non-academic thoughts for today. Now it’s back to the dissertation. If you need me, I’ll be at my desk, still here.

Out of Control

nyquil

I had big plans for last week.

Jim and I were finally done moving, so I planned to get most of the remaining boxes sorted through and organized.

Universities have started posting ads for academic jobs, so I was going to work on drafts of my cover letter, teaching statement, and other application materials.

I’d gotten feedback from my advisor about an article I had written. I hoped to start making revisions, so I could send a new draft to her and a couple other colleagues in the next week.

Yes, I had big plans… but then I caught a cold.

Colds may be the most annoying sort of illness. You’re not sick enough to feel socially justified in taking the day off to sleep, yet you’re not well enough to accomplish anything when you do attempt to work. Basically, you’re just left with a guilt-laden crapshoot. Or “cough shoot.” You know you should keep going and save the time off for when you’re actually “properly” sick. But as your brain turns to some form of oatmeal-eqsue mush, and you know deep down that your efforts aren’t going to get you anywhere, and you would have been better off staying in bed with Nalgene full of water and a box of off-brand Kleenex, thank you very much.

Needless to say, my week of “grand plans” was all for naught. As Tuesday turned into Wednesday and Wednesday into Thursday with no relief in sight, I accepted the fact that my dreams and schemes would have to wait until Monday. Friday ended up being a runny-nosed wash, as I zombied my way through previous commitments to collapse at the weekend’s finish line.

My goals had been big, but not overly ambitious. In a week of normal health and productivity, I could have easily accomplished them. Yet for one cosmic—or microbial—reason or another, this was not a normal sort of week.

In between naps and doses of Nyquil, I have caught myself coming back to this question: what, if anything, can I actually control? I’d set goals and created a schedule to meet them, only to have a cold “knock me out cold.” Terrible pun intended.

Sure, we can optimize our circumstances all we want, making sure that we take enough vitamins, get enough rest, and do enough exercise. But all that preparation can’t guarantee that we won’t get sick. We can take perfect care of ourselves, and a renegade germ will still get the best of us.

This fact doesn’t just apply to colds; the limitations of our control affect every area of our lives. Say, for instance, that you’re a parent. You take care of your kids, you try to raise them “right,” and you remind them often that you love them. Still, there’s no guarantee they will ultimately love you back. Or say that you’re single, and you hope to get married one day. You can put yourself in all the “right” places, try out all the dating apps, join a church with lots of eligible singles, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll meet your soulmate.

Or here’s an example from my life right now: I can get a PhD—the highest possible degree—from a top-ranked university, I can (maybe) even get accolades on my dissertation, and (if I’m lucky) publish an article or two. I can do all the “right” things like teach classes and receive research fellowships and serve on university committees to demonstrate my commitment to the historical profession. Yet there’s no guarantee I’ll become a professor at my dream school—or any school, in fact. Statistically speaking, there’s a high probability that I won’t. Because even if I had the “perfect” application, the most stellar teaching record, and the most outstanding research, dozens of other factors come into play. Department politics, needing to hire a more diverse candidate, or the idea that my research doesn’t quite “fit” are just a few possible examples of the infinite things that might get in the way. As an applicant, I have no idea about these extra factors and, even if I were aware, I wouldn’t be able to change them.

This begs the question: what can we do when we are ultimately in control of so little? I have spent a lot of time thinking about this question during the last couple years not just while applying for jobs. I’ve encountered health challenges (not limited to the common cold), I suffered an unexpected heartbreak last winter, and I’ve watched family and friends struggle with illness, loss, and change. So many parts of our lives are so out of our control. How can we respond authentically to the unknown, admitting that it feels difficult or scary, while also having hope?

I think this is where faith comes in. Not the trite or cheesy “pretend your problems aren’t that bad so you can smile and say that ‘God is good’” kind of faith. I mean the faith that accepts that our challenges are real and that our feelings are legitimate, and then chooses with the help of God Himself to move forward all the same. Oswald Chambers captured this kind of faith well when he wrote that “faith is unutterable trust in God, trust which never dreams He will not stand by us.” The book of Hebrews gives a similar definition, saying that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” But one of my favorite descriptions of this kind of trust from a novel by Maria Semple. Describing faith as riding a bus to an unknown destination, she writes, “If you truly believed you had a benevolent bus driver, and you were certain he was taking you somewhere good, you could just settle in and appreciate the ride.”

That, my friends, is what I am praying for the grace to do: trust that God really is the “benevolent bus driver” of my life and that He is taking me somewhere good, so I can settle in and appreciate the ride. I have some room on the plastic seat next to me. Will you join me?

people sitting inside bus
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