(Don’t) Forget It

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Oh, how well I can identify with this. Source: https://sallyinthehaven.net/tag/forgetfulness/

For me, the most basic things are often the hardest to remember.

For instance, when I was in fifth grade, we were making our annual Thanksgiving trek to visit my mom’s side of the family in St. Louis. We were about 45 minutes into the drive when I looked down and realized that I’d managed to forget my shoes. I had a pair of Mary Janes for church, but these would be woefully inadequate for playing in the woods by my grandparents’ house. And so, we turned around and went back to Kansas City, so I wouldn’t have to go barefoot. To this day whenever we are leaving on a family road trip, everyone not-so-surreptitiously looks at my feet to make sure I’m wearing shoes.

Another classic moment of forgetfulness happened yesterday afternoon. Since I was getting ready to leave for the summer, I spent a few minutes cleaning out my car. After all, no one wants to return after 2.5 months to a messy vehicle. I took out all the trash, organized the glove compartment, and even made a daring peek under the seats where I found some unused post-it notes. Because I helped some friends move last weekend, my back seats were still down. So I reconfigured the back seat and trunk before returning to my front-seat tidying. But in my trash-removing zeal, I forgot to close the back door. Until, of course, about 20 minutes after a thunderstorm. Oops.

As if these moments of spaciness weren’t bad enough, I also have a terrible memory for details. As a historian, this is especially  frustrating. When I’m teaching, I make up for this by bringing really detailed notes. So if I can’t remember a name or a date, at least I know where I to find it. But this poor recall gets very frustrating, especially when I’m trying to tell a historical story without my cheat sheet. For instance, I cannot even count the number of times I tried to tell the story of my favorite 20th-century Hungarian conman Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln only to say something like, “So there was this guy… and he pretended to be someone he wasn’t… and it was really crazy!” Forget being a steel trap; my mind is more like a strip of lint-covered Scotch tape. Very little sticks to it.

Harmless though this forgetfulness can be in everyday situations like tennis shoes and Hungarian conmen, it has a darker side when it comes to my faith. Even though I have been consistently reading my Bible for years, and even though I’ve heard literally hundreds of sermons about God’s love, I still have a hard time remembering it. For some reason, this truth bounces off my lint-covered Scotch-tape heart. No matter how hard I try, information about God’s love and care for me tends not to stick.

Since I’m a historian, you think I’d be extra skilled at remembering past examples of God’s goodness. In theory, I should be able to recall them at the drop of a hat, and stories of His faithfulness should continually be at the tip of my tongue. And while this is sometimes the case, and I have moments of being overwhelmed by God’s goodness, provision, and love, these reflections are far rarer than I care to admit. More often, stumble forward in nonchalant forgetfulness, simply wandering from one thing to the next. When life is going well, this forgetfulness doesn’t seem like a problem. Yes, it would be better to remember, but it doesn’t feel urgent. But when life gets tough, when I am afraid of the future or feel ashamed about the past, this forgetfulness can become catastrophic. In these moments of difficulty, when I am blindsided by this destructive form of “soul amnesia”, I forget. I forget God and His goodness. I forget that He has been with me in the past. I forget all about His love. Rather than treading water or reaching to the side of the pool for help, I flail and thrash and start to sink. It’s awful. But what can I possibly do about it?

The answer is fairly simple. In the words of the great philosopher Mufasa, “Remember who you are.” Especially in moments of difficulty, God calls us to remember who we are–and Whose we are. He helps us by using other people, who encourage us and speak truth to us. He speaks to us through His Holy Spirit, who lives inside us and who helps us “call to mind everything [Jesus] taught” us. And He does this through His Word. But the truths don’t magically jump off the page and into our brains; there is no passive spiritual osmosis. Rather, we must be diligent to read it, to spend time daily soaking it in, and sitting with its Truth. In doing so, we are reminded of our identity as God’s children, and we learn that our lives truly are “hidden with Christ in God.”

As I have been struggling lately to grasp and hold onto the reality of God’s love, the movie Fifty First Dates keeps coming to mind. In this film, Drew Barrymore’s character Lucy suffers from short-term memory loss. When she wakes up each morning, she has completely forgotten everything from the day before. Despite this obvious challenge, Adam Sandler’s character Henry falls in love with her, and (spoiler alert!) the two eventually get married and have a family. But Lucy’s memory problem doesn’t magically go away. So what is the solution? Henry makes a short video about their relationship and their family, and Lucy watches this every morning when she wakes up. Before she begins each day, she is reminded of who she is and where she belongs.

I think the same must be true for us. If we are going to flourish in Christ–i.e., if we want to live consciously in light of God’s love and our place in His family–then we have to start each day by letting Him remind us of who we are. This is absolutely essential to an abundant life in Christ. No, reading the Bible won’t magically make all of your worries, fears, and problems go away. But it will remind you of the God who cares for you in the midst of these things. And this awareness of God’s love, my friend, is unbelievably important.

Alright, that’s enough for today. I have a flight to catch. I should probably make sure that I packed my shoes…

Good (at) Grief

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There are certain compliments you really don’t want.

“You have a face for radio” or “she’s got a great personality” are the first that come to mind. I remember receiving one in middle school when my sister told me (in complete seriousness), “It doesn’t matter what anyone else says, Steffi; I think you’re great.” Similarly, my dad told me that, in the army, you don’t want your annual report to say, “he/she takes criticism well.” After all, it’s better to avoid criticism by doing things correctly the first time.

Over the last two months, I have added another less-than-ideal compliment to my list: being “good at grieving.” And based on the number of times I’ve received this compliment, it would seem that I am. I’m not saying that, if grieving were a sport, I could go pro. But I apparently have a shot at the minor leagues.

What does it mean to “grieve well”?, you ask. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. But if I had to wager, I would say that it might involve A LOT of the following: crying, taking walks around my neighborhood, listening to hymns on repeat, and talking the ears off of those family members and friends who don’t mind hearing the same things over and over again.

I’d also guess that grieving well means embracing whatever you are feeling in a given moment, no matter how unpleasant or unwanted that emotion may be. It means sleeping a bit later than usual, and then needing an extra hour in the morning to muster up the courage to face the day. It means being honest when you aren’t doing well, and then taking the steps to take care of yourself. But most of all, I’ve found that grieving isn’t just puffy-eyed crying (although that’s certainly part of it). No, being good at grieving means being okay with not being okay–and then giving yourself the grace to be angry, sad, or upset until you’re ready to feel okay again.

Grieving isn’t fun, even if you’re apparently “good” at it. Because let’s be real; we’d all rather avoid the loss in the first place. If I could rewind to 10.5 weeks ago, before things fell apart and prevent that from happening, I would. Once I realized that there would be no rewind or do-over, then I just wanted this process to be over. I so badly wanted a shortcut through this suckiness. But deep down, I knew that, just as there had been no detour around this situation, there would be no shortcut through it. The only way to emerge on the other side (if there really was another side) was to put my head down and trudge through it. And then trudge, and trudge some more.

It hasn’t been an easy journey, and there were days when my sadness felt like a permanent rain cloud, or like a lead apron from the dentist’s office had camped out on my heart. I couldn’t picture being happy again, let alone feeling moderately okay. Could the wounds inside me, still so deep and raw, possibly ever heal?

The pain isn’t fully gone yet, but it’s gradually becoming less intense. And while I’m not yet “better”, I am on the way to getting there. And as I look back over my shoulder at that darkness, here are few things I see. (*Caveat: Although grief is a universal process, people grieve in different ways. So feel free to take or leave my takeaways as you see fit.)

  1. Let yourself cry.
  2. Don’t grieve alone; open up and let people carry the pain with you.
  3. But while people can grieve with you, they cannot do it for you. Only you can go through the grieving process for yourself.
  4. Time is your friend. It won’t necessarily “heal all wounds”, but it can make your pain less acute.
  5. Grief is more cyclical (and circular) than linear.
  6. You may never get answers to your questions. And even if you do get them, they likely will not satisfy you in the way that you hoped. This is a hard truth, but there is freedom in accepting it.
  7. Though it may feel impossible, you will get through this season, and you will somehow know Jesus better for having experienced it.

That’s my current (still incomplete) list. I’m sure it will continue to grow as I journey further down this path. But I thought I would share it with you in the meantime because maybe you, too, are walking through a season of pain. If you are, please know that I am sorry. Keep hanging in there. And if you aren’t grieving but you know someone who is, maybe this list can provide some (meager) insight for helping them.

In the meantime, keep trudging, my friend. Someday, by God’s grace, the sun will fully shine again.

Ice, Ice-Bergy

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The Titanic museum in Branson, Missouri. This photo op was the closest I came to going inside.

In 2015, I developed an unhealthy obsession with the Titanic.

I’d never actually seen the movie until that summer when I spent the weekend at my Omi’s house. In addition to our usual thrift-shopping/garage-saling and me learning (or attempting to learn) to bake, our hang-out times usually involve a classic movie or two. When I was younger, we would watch Anne of Green Gables, eventually making our way through the entire series. Then right before I moved to Atlanta, we watched Gone with the Wind. And so it seemed only natural that in the summer before I left for Germany we would add Titanic to the list. After all, I needed to see it at some point, and watching it with my Omi seemed like the best possible choice.

Needless to say, the movie that has been proclaimed one of the best films ever produced did not disappoint. I laughed, I cried, and I found myself sucked into the love story despite already knowing the tragic ending. I finally understood why Titanic got and, even 20 years later, continues to get so much hype. It really is a masterpiece. Depressing, yes. But a masterpiece all the same.

My experience of the Titanic did not end with the credits. Fascinated by both the original story and the making of the film, I started compulsively reading trivia and facts on the IMDB page and other fan websites. I found out about the captain, the ship’s architect, the band leader, and all sorts of other real-life characters from the movie. I learned about the ship’s construction and the iceberg that sunk it. I discovered that there really was a Titanic passenger named “J. Dawson”, whose grave in Canada remains one of the most visited (and decorated) by strangers to this day. And I read analyses by self-proclaimed “experts” about how there actually would have been room for Jack on that piece of wood if Rose had simply moved over. And then several hours later with all of this fascinating yet depressing information crammed in my head, I went to bed.

… which proved to be a big mistake.

You see, not only had my waking mind latched onto the Titanic, but apparently my subconscious one had become obsessed with it as well. That night, I had the first of many recurring nightmares about the Titanic. Sometimes, I was trying to hold onto the railings of the bow as it broke in half and sunk. Other times I was running through the ship’s hold as it filled with water. And in still other versions, I simply jumped overboard and hoped to make it. But in all cases, I woke up feeling upset and more than a little bit freaked out. And to make things worse, these dreams lasted not just one night but on and off for several months.

That said, my nightmares probably would have stopped sooner, had it not been for Celine Dion. Because not only could the abnormal amount of Titanic trivia floating around my brain trigger my nightmares, but I started hearing “My Heart will Go On” everywhere. I’m not kidding. For the next several months, I would hear this song or an instrumental version of it at least once a week and sometimes every other day. To be fair, it probably didn’t help that I also listened to playlists of classical music and soundtracks to study for hours at a time. But be that as it was, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that this particular song was following me. And although there are worse stalkers that Celine Dion, I didn’t enjoy the nightmares that frequently accompanied her.

Fortunately, though, my Titanic-induced nightmares eventually faded away, and my sleep patterns finally returned to normal. Hallelujah. But recently, that doomed transatlantic liner has invaded my thoughts again in a relatively indirect, but no less impactful way.

Over the weekend, a dear friend let me know that I had recently behaved in an unkind and hurtful way. When I found this out, I felt awful. Not only had I been a jerk, but in the process I had hurt someone I care about. It’s one thing to do something stupid and harm myself, but it’s a completely different matter when my actions cause pain to another person. No Bueno. Even though after apologizing and receiving forgiveness, the situation and my action have continued to eat at me. And a few days ago, I realized why.

My sin is like that iceberg that sunk the Titanic. And because of that, my friend only saw the tip of a much deeper problem. Pride, selfishness, insecurity, envy, judgement—all these sins and more hide just below the surface of my life. While I’m often able to hide this, and I come off to most people as “nice” and “sweet”, I know the truth about what’s inside of me. My hurtful actions toward him were not an isolated problem, but the product of an iceberg’s worth of ugliness deep inside of me. Jesus recognized this about mankind (and about me) when He said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15:19) and “Out of the overflow of the heart a man speaks” (Luke 6:45).

Needless to say, this is a hard pill to swallow, and I don’t particular enjoy being brought face to face with my own sin. But it’s far better than the alternative. You see, ignoring my sin or minimizing it is like not bringing enough lifeboats on the Titanic. It may work for a short time, but in the long run it will prove a tragic and costly oversight. Managing my surface-level symptoms will only go so far. If I really want to be free from own darkness, I need to admit that these sins live in me, and then bring them out into the light. Because try as I might (and try as I have), I can’t melt this iceberg on my own. I need God’s help to have an accurate view of myself and my sin. Though it’s painful and frustrating in the moment, it ultimately results in peace and freedom. This is why 1 John reminds us that “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

I have been reminded of this many times recently. While I would have rather not acted hurtfully to begin with, I am grateful that God used even those self-inflicted crummy circumstances to re-teach me a truth about myself, His goodness, and His grace. He sees the complete iceberg of my sin and loves me in spite of it. And together we can chip away at it, until one day this ugliness in me will be no more.

Alright, I’m thirsty and it’s time for a drink break. Ice water, anyone? 😉

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Seen at the ice-sculpting competition in the parking lot of the Branson Titanic Museum. Yes, you read that correctly.

 

Heavy Holidays

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Christmas Market at Breitscheidplatz, Berlin.

Hollywood lies.

I’m not talking about Disney princesses and Prince Charmings. My frustration is at an even more basic level of expectation versus reality. You see, according to Hollywood, bad things happen in dark and empty alleyways. And according to Hollywood, sad scenes almost exclusively take place in the rain. But if the music is in major key and the setting is bright and cheery, then, according to Hollywood, the scene should be happy. And so it follows that, according to Hollywood, German Christmas markets should be among the happiest and safest places on earth.

But the events of Monday night in Berlin laughed in the face of this cinematic logic. Because while people were chatting, shopping, and enjoying life, the unthinkable happened. Evil—heartless, senseless, and unspeakable evil—revved the engine, jumped the curb, and left death and carnage in its wake.

Two days later, my heart is aching and my insides still feel numb. Because not only am I upset by the blatant cruelty of this tragedy–I mean, how could someone attack a Christmas market?–but this hits unbelievably close to home. You see, I lived in Berlin on and off for almost a year, and in the process, this city became like home. I care deeply about the people there, and the fact that someone would murder them is nauseating. And that they would hijack the truck of a delivery man from Poland–another country I have come to love–is as infuriating as it is heartbreaking.

But I’m also upset on another, perhaps more jarring level: last year, I stood in that very Christmas market with my best friend, chatting, shopping, and enjoying life. After a late lunch at the KaDeWe, we headed down to this market, where we sipped Gluehwein, bought souvenirs, and marveled at the colorful stars for sale. Out of all the Christmas markets I frequented last winter, the one at Breitscheidplatz was by far my favorite. With its massive Christmas tree next to the glowing-blue stained glass Gedaechtniskirche, this market felt particularly magical. That this very same place became the site of such senseless violence and that the people who died there were just like me is a lot to take in. If my research year had fallen just a little later, I could have been there on Monday night with them. One of those 12 dead or 48 injured could have been me.

These are heavy thoughts, I know, and they have been weighing on me since I got the news on Monday afternoon. Now as I sit at home in Kansas, surrounded by all the trappings and trimmings of Christmas, I can’t help but feel the disconnect. Between the sorrow I feel on the inside and the joy I’m supposed to exude on the outside. Between the happiness that Hollywood tells me should accompany this season and the suffering that is happening around the world. Between the darkness sitting heavily upon me and the light I so badly want to believe that Jesus came to bring.

All Advent season and well before Monday happened, I have been wrestling with these thoughts. The Hollywood version of Christmas claims to be “merry and bright” and a season of endless joy. But this year, Christmas seems anything but happy. The civil war in Syria shows no signs of ending, and the remaining citizens in Aleppo are facing almost certain death. The families of terror victims across France and Belgium, as well as those who lost loved ones in the racial violence in the U.S. this summer, are still mourning. And then there are the countless families who still grieve those lost in more “normal” but no less tragic ways, such as cancer, car accidents, and suicide.

Taken together, there is a lot of darkness and sorrow in this world of ours. And during these last few weeks of Advent, I have felt the weight of it, perhaps more acutely than ever before. How are we supposed to be filled with “Christmas cheer” when so much of the world appears to be falling apart? Where is that joy that I’m supposed to be experiencing? I find myself resonating with that old Christmas hymn,

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Aleppo, Berlin, and countless individual sorrows seem to mock the idea of Christmas. But then again, isn’t that the whole point of Christmas? That into the darkest places of pain and the most broken parts of humanity, God comes to us.

Even as I write this, I know that answer feels Sunday-schooly, perhaps even a bit trite. Especially if you’ve grown up in the church, it’s easy to say things like “God came to us” without thinking about what that means. But these last few weeks, and especially these last few days, have turned such Christianese-esque indifference into a luxury I can’t afford. I am hurting, and I want answers. And even more than answers, I need to know–deep down in the painful places–that God has come and that He cares. That’s my prayer as this Advent season draws to a close, that His light would shine into this darkness of our world and this darkness that I feel, and that I would remember again the rest of that old song:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. Please.

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Light shining into Darkness. Stars for sale at the Breitscheidplatz Christmas Market.

Free “Fall”-ing

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I love autumn.

Yes, I know that today is December 1st. Thanksgiving has come and gone, and Christmas trees are already bedecked with lights and ornaments. Starbucks has transitioned out of its “Pumpkin Spice everything” phase and is now advertising its winter drink menu. Radio stations have their holiday playlists (which I swear only contain 17 songs max) playing on repeat. And everyone is bustling about trying to stock up on some more holiday cheer.

But here in Atlanta, where summer reigns supreme and winter only comes once every few years, autumn isn’t quite ready to let go. The trees, though slightly less full, still boast a fair number of persistently colorful leaves. Although we reached the low fifties last week, the temperatures continue to hang out in the upper-60s range. And yesterday, as if in a deliberate attempt to stick it to winter, the weather forecast included a tornado warning. Don’t let the lights and décor fool you; Atlanta does not yet feel or look a lot like Christmas.

But honestly, I’m okay with that. Partially because I know that in a few weeks I will return to the Midwest—the real land of tornadoes—where I will get to break out my winter coat and fluffy scarves. And partially because I don’t think I’m quite ready to let go of fall. You see, I’ve always loved fall. For as long as I can remember, it’s been my favorite season. I love all the leaves and how they turn colors, especially on maple trees. I’m a sucker for flannel shirts and bonfire s’mores. And I can think of few things more satisfying than that first Saturday morning when the air is finally crisp enough for a hoodie and my favorite pair of jeans.

Last year, I didn’t get to experience much of a fall. In Berlin, the seasons change almost overnight from summer to winter, with barely a breath in between. The leaves had barely turned and then they were gone, replaced by 6+ months of colorless winter. It was miserable.

Maybe that’s why this year, like the dry brown leaves of an oak tree, I find myself clinging to fall, as if this would help it last longer. Or maybe I’m not ready for fall to end because I’m simply not ready for another transition. Maybe this year, perhaps more than all other years, I find myself identifying with fall, that perpetually in-between season, more acutely than ever before.

The last year and a half, and especially the last two months, have been filled to the brim with transitions. I’ve hopped from city to city, continent to continent, and now state to state with barely a moment to catch my breath. While that time has been good and I wouldn’t trade these experiences for anything, it’s also been difficult. Apart from the obvious things, like missing my friends, Berlin, and European public transit, I also feel homesick in a way that I can’t quite pinpoint or articulate. Everything feels so transitory, as if I’m stuck in a place I can’t fully identify, lost somewhere in between. And to make things worse, even as I am reunited with family and friends, I find myself missing them too, or missing that sense of home that I once felt with them. And all that to say that, in this moment, I’m not quite sure where I belong anymore; all I know is that, like fall, I am stuck somewhere in-between.

And even in this feeble attempt to put my thoughts on paper, I can’t help but wonder if this feeling of displacement is somehow at the core of the human experience. If perhaps this sense of loneliness, this deep but elusive feeling of homesickness isn’t part of what makes us alive. After all, if we didn’t feel an emptiness inside of us, we wouldn’t turn to other people to fill it. If we didn’t desire something greater than ourselves, we would never seek after God. Maybe seasons of transition, with all their unsettling and reshuffling, are actually a backwards sort of gift, a “severe mercy”, a blessing in disguise. Not only do such times remind us that “this world is not our home”, but they can also stir up a longing for the One who is constant. Like a child asleep in its mother’s lap, we can find refuge in His unchanging and everlasting arms.

That’s what I’m trying to remember right now, in these moments when all these transitions and uncertainties leave me feeling lonely or sad. I knew this was coming—in fact, my very first blog post here dealt with reverse culture shock—and I know this too shall pass. So in the meantime, I’m going to keep trying to do the next thing, embracing all the emotions that come with it, and turning to the God who has been with me all along. And to my fellow homesick transitioners, keep hanging in there and don’t lose heart. Autumn may be over, but winter won’t last forever, and spring will come again. It’s okay to grieve the fallen leaves, but don’t forget that new ones will be here soon.

… and if all other mood-boosting attempts fail, at least Starbucks still has their Pumpkin Spice Lattes. 😉

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Photographed on November 30th. Autumn in Atlanta really does last forever. 

Crazy (November) Eights

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I’m not particularly into politics.

This is probably not surprising to anyone who knows me even remotely well. I have what might be called a “harmony-seeking personality”, which means I prefer everyone to get along. And it would seem that politics, by definition, is built upon strife. Which means that, though I may be a hopeless extrovert, I will never be the life of any political party. Haha.

While growing up, I had occasional delusions of political grandeur or, more accurately, delusions of interest in politics. For instance, my junior year of high school, I ran for class treasurer. But despite my active campaigning—I even passed out fake coins with “vote for Steffi” stickers taped to the back—I still managed to lose… to a really popular guy… who decided to run the day before the elections. Go figure. Out of pity, the Stuco sponsor offered me a position as “at-large representative” as a consolation prize. And I’m pretty sure I showed up to more of the 6:30 a.m. meetings than the actual elected treasurer.

In college, I figured that I had left the usual “popular crowd” competition behind, and I decided to apply for a spot on the Freshman Representative Council. At orientation, I’d heard that FRC was the ticket into Oklahoma State’s student government and, more broadly, to influence on campus. As a self-proclaimed (*cough* prideful and slightly delusional *cough*) up-and-coming mover and shaker, I knew that FRC was the place for me… until I didn’t get in, that is. Oh well.

In retrospect, though, this was probably for the best because I soon began to realize that I really, really don’t like politics. I’d rather read about the debates and drama of the past than deal with political conflict in the present. Although spending a year in Germany taught me the value of cordial political discussions—seriously, debating politically charged topics with friends is a favorite German pastime—it will never be my preferred Saturday evening activity. And as a harmony-seeker and peace-keeper, I would prefer that we all just get along.

But politics, and especially this most recent election season, does not lend itself to such pie-in-the-sky niceties. I cannot remember a time in which emotions have run so high and an election has been so polarizing. It has been disheartening, discouraging and—for this conflict-avoidant and politically ambivalent grad student—downright frustrating. And yet while on the one hand I have been wanting all this to finally be over with, gosh darn it, on the other hand I have dreaded the end because neither outcome strikes me as particularly appealing. Especially in terms of cultivating a “can’t we all just get along?” cultural mentality.

And so, while I did exercise my civic-duty muscles and cast my vote last Friday, I didn’t feel awesome about my decision. In fact, although I had done my research, thought through, and prayed extensively about my, I still second-guessed my decision, even as I pressed the green “submit” button. I came home not feeling liberated, but burdened. What if I had made the “wrong” choice? No, my vote ultimately wouldn’t matter all that much on its own. But the beauty—and danger—of democracy is that enough inconsequential individual votes can tip the electoral scales. What if my vote helped to tip it the “wrong” way? What if? What if? What if?

These thoughts and questions pestered me the entire way home, like a repeated needle prick or a sharp rock in my shoe, welling up into anxiety-filled doubt. And that’s when I heard it, that nagging little whisper I’ve learned to pay attention to, the one that redirects me when I most need it. “Where do you seek your peace, Steffi?”, it seemed to ask. “Who do you think is in control?” and even more pointedly, “Will you choose to trust Me?

I’d heard a similar set of questions in a different context two years before. I was in my third year of graduate school, prepping almost nonstop for my PhD qualifying exams. For the months leading up to it, I was absolutely convinced of my impending failure. And as my starting date drew mercilessly nearer, my anxious thoughts became all but unbearable. Yes, I knew that God was in control; He wouldn’t abandon me, and He would carry me through. But I still couldn’t shake the nagging fear that my efforts wouldn’t be enough. No, God would not let me down or fail me, but I was still part of the equation. Which meant that I could still screw it up, and I could still find a way to fail. I had learned to trust God in a general sense, but I struggled to have faith in the face of my own real and potential frailty.

At some point in that pre-exams process, though, I made a conscious decision to trust God and to believe in His provision despite my own inadequacies. Coming to this realization was difficult—in some ways, even more difficult than the exams themselves—but it remains one of the most valuable spiritual lessons I have ever learned. We serve a God who is sovereign over and faithful in the midst of our messes, both potential and realized. His purposes succeed, and His plans play out despite our mistakes and our lack of faith. While our actions matter and do have real consequences, we cannot mess up or thwart His plan.

Two years ago, I learned this lesson in a very confined, personal, and finite situation. While the stakes felt high (and to an extent they were; if I failed I theoretically could have been kicked out of graduate school), the outcome would ultimately be quite contained, and its effects would be limited to me. In contrast, this election is a big deal with far-reaching impacts. The decisions made by our government in the next four years will undoubtedly affect our country and the world for generations to come. And yet despite the wider scope and different circumstances, I think the fundamental questions facing us remain consistent: Where are we putting our hope? From what do we seek our peace? And who do we believe to be in control?

It’s 11:20 p.m. on election night. I haven’t checked for updates all evening because I prefer right now not to know. But even in my state of self-imposed ignorance, I remain convinced of this: whatever happens, however this absolutely crazy, polarizing, and disheartening election plays out, the sun will come up tomorrow, and God will still be in control. And so with that, my fellow Americans, I am going to bed.

… after I take a couple Advil. Goodnight.

 

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Obligatory voting selfie. Don’t let the smile fool you; I was not happy.

 

The Year in Zahlen (Numbers)

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I’ve never been much of a “numbers person.”

When I was in school (and by ‘school’, I mean the kind where I still had to take math classes), this made things like Geometry and Calc II rather unpleasant. And when I was applying to graduate school, this arithmetical antipathy led me to enroll in a remedial GRE math-prep class. It’s a good thing too; thanks to the class (and my self-imposed intensive study sessions at the local public library), my math score jumped from abysmal to relatively decent.

But it’s not just the “complicated math” like Calculus or problem-solving math like on the GRE that gives me trouble; I also manage to struggle with very basic numbers-related things…. Like, counting. You have no idea how badly I wish I were joking. If you tell me to count anything–sheets of paper, dollar bills, rooms in a house, I guarantee that 2 out of 3 times, I will get it wrong. And if I count it twice, I will get two different numbers. I can’t even be trusted to  measure ingredients correctly when I bake. (This may be why my favorite gluten-free cookie recipe has a one-one-one ingredients ratio…) With groups of people, I am hopeless. And with small children? Even worse! In fact, the only way I survived being a kamp counselor—or, more accurately, that my kampers survived having me as their counselor—was that I learned to assign them each a number at the beginning of the week and trained them to count themselves. #winning

But although I’m not a numbers person, I know they can be very important, as my accountant mother and my engineer boyfriend frequently remind me (yes, that “complicated ” fella and I made it official 7 months, 1 day and 22 hours ago… but who’s counting? 😉 ) I may not “get” numbers, but I still have a lot of respect for their quantitative capacities. So in a show of solidarity with all you math-inclined folks out there, I’ve compiled some stats from this last year.

Housing/Places I’ve stayed:

  • I left for Europe on July 31, 2015, which was 420 days ago. Apart from 3 weeks at Christmas and 10 days in May, I have been in Europe that entire time.
  • During those 420 days, I have stayed/spent the night in (at least) 37 different places. Only 3 of those were for a month or more. The maximum uninterrupted duration spent in one housing arrangement was 3 months and 5 days.
  • I’ve stayed in 11 Airbnb or Airbnb-type places for a total of 43 nights in 7 cities and 5 countries.
  • I have worn flip-flops in the showers of 9 hostels in 7 cities and 4 countries. *Note: the maximum duration was 10 nights total. And this included my 27th birthday.
  • I spent the night in 4 hotels in 2 countries for a total of 10 nights. The maximum stay was 4 nights, and that’s because Groβ Särchen didn’t exactly have other housing options.
  • And last but not least, I have enjoyed the spare rooms, pull-out couches, and/or incredibly comfortable floors of 10 friends in 6 cities and 3 countries over a total of 28 nights.
  • And of these 37 places I have stayed in the last 420 days, 26 of them were from the end of April until the middle of August.**
  • **Author’s note: spare yourself the trouble and don’t do the math. Although I did my best, the numbers probably don’t add up.

And why was I traveling so much?, you ask. While I’d love to be able to say that I was vacationing my way through Europe, most of my trips were for research. And speaking of research….

Research:

  • I have visited 11 archives in 8 cities and 2 countries.
  • I have presented my research 3 times in 3 cities and 2 countries…. in German.
  • I have photographed thousands of documents and, as a result, lost approximately 57 GB of space on my computer.
  • I have read through/interacted with/taken notes on at approximately 300 files. (I wish I could give a more exact number, but my computer decided to die 2 weeks ago… thank goodness for online backups!)
  • I have spent approximately 320 hours in Polish archives. And close to 4x that (i.e. 1,280 hours) in German ones.

And to get to all those research-related (and the occasional fun) destinations, I had to…

Travel!

  • I have made 18 journeys on planes. 5 of these were trans-Atlantic.
  • I sat (or, in some very overcrowded cases, leaned against my luggage) for approximately 40 hours on trains.
  • I attempted to sleep on at least 12 buses*. (I purchased 2 more bus tickets, but failed to use them).
  • In addition to all this traveling within and beyond Germany, I have transported all or most of my belongings across Berlin via public transit at least a dozen times.

While the above numbers can show a lot–such as why my marathon training has been less-than-ideal or the reason my suitcase wheels have broken… twice–they don’t show everything. Because although my math friends out there may disagree, the most important things in life cannot be quantitatively measured. So why did I bother compiling these stats and sharing them with you? Simple.

Because each of these numbers represents areas of growth.

You see, in the midst of all the apartment-hopping, research-tripping, and stuff-schlepping, I was also changing. And as a result, behind each of those numbers is an example of where I learned a little better how to handle life, rather than letting life handle me. Adulting can be hard; adulting in a foreign country (or foreign countries) can sometimes feel impossible. And although I had my fair share of anger-, frustration-, and tear-filled moments, the process of going through them–of having to figure out logistics, troubleshoot, and problem-solve–was not in vain. Because slowly, little by little, across these last 420 days, I grew. I learned to be self-sufficient. I gave up my constant need for a plan and for control. I adapted and went with the flow. I started to let go and to trust more easily. I became more grateful for the little things, like trans-Atlantic phone calls and unexpected hugs. And most importantly through this entire process, I think (or at least I hope) I became more like Christ.

And so it seems fitting that, as I look back over these last almost-fourteen months, He is the One who stands out. I can’t help thinking of a quote from Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest: ‘Faith is unutterable trust in God, trust that never dreams He would not stand by us.’ Two years ago I typed those words on a digital sticky note on my computer’s home screen, in the hope that I would one day believe them. Now here at the end of my research year, I can say that–while my faith is still far from perfect–I trust Him more than ever before, and I know that He really does stand by us. In the midst of uncertainty and changes, He is faithful. And if we continue to seek Him, over time His faithfulness will water and tend the mustard-seed of faith inside our souls.

That said, my time abroad is almost at its end. In 6 days, I will be boarding a plane bound permanently or ‘für immer’ to the States. On the one hand, I have a good sense of what waits for me there: hugs from family, reconnecting with friends, and transitioning back into Atlanta grad-student life. I will no longer be lugging my belongings all over Europe, and I will finally be able to unpack my suitcases once and for all. But though I look forward to more stability and to having a place to call home, I also recognize that this ‘familiar’ life will bring its own challenges and uncertainties. I’m going to have to start actually writing my dissertation, reverse culture shock is real, and gosh darnit, Atlanta’s traffic will still be as terrible as ever. So in the midst of this transition, I’m going to choose to trust in my Savior, knowing that He who was with me these last 420 days will be with me on the other side of the Atlantic too. He is faithful; I’m trusting in that, hoping for that, and choosing to rest in it.

… Or I guess you could say that I’m ‘counting’ on it. 😉

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Last day at the Protestant Central Archive in Berlin!