Out of Control

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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?

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Photo by 7.hust on Pexels.com

 

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(Not So) Sweet Emotion

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It’s been almost four months since I last posted. In case you’re wondering, that’s the longest break I’ve taken since starting this blog almost eight years ago. Sometimes I take “blogging breaks” when time gets away from me. Other times, I just don’t have the emotional energy it takes to write (especially when that’s how I spend my days anyway. Yay for dissertating). But this “blog break” stemmed from an icky combination of the two: Time has been moving way too fast (seriously, where did the spring go?), and I have more feelings than I know what to do with.

According to the Myers-Briggs personality test, I am very much a “feelings person.” This means that, when it comes to making decisions or navigating through life, I tend to go with my gut. I can make choices based on logic; I think through—and likely overthink—just about everything I do. But when it comes time to make a choice or take a next step, I’m going to act based on my emotions. If something doesn’t feel right, then I’m probably not going to choose it. And my emotion-driven tendencies aren’t limited to making decisions. I feel many things very deeply and, according to one personality test, even turbulently. As much as I try to downplay it or deny it, I feel things very strongly; that’s just how I’m wired.

This characteristic comes with its share of pros and cons. On the one hand, I really do enjoy life. When things are going well, I experience—and spread—a lot of joy. People describe me as having a “sunshiny personality,” and even my American Sign Language (ASL) name is a play on the sign for “smile.” When life is good, it’s really good, and I experience those feelings fully. But the reverse is also true. When life is hard and when sad things come, I feel those emotions deeply. It would seem that you can’t have one without the other.

Just as there are some things that will always bring me joy (catching up with friends, guinea pig snuggles, and the perfect bowl of cornflakes), there are also certain things that will inevitably make me sad. Change—and the passage of time, more broadly—is one of the biggest culprits. For as long as I can remember, the passage of time has filled me with a sense of loss. I remember being four or five years old and crying in my parents’ bedroom about the reality of change and time and growing up. Although I don’t (necessarily) cry in my parents’ room anymore, that feeling of sadness has never quite gone away. In fact, the more friendships I build and the more goodbyes I say, the more acute the pang of loss becomes. No, it doesn’t always last as long as it used to (I was a wreck for months after leaving Graz in 2010), but the pain is still real all the same.

In sum, I’m not a fan of change. And if I could control time, I would slow it down, rewind it, redo it, and live it all over again. I realize that’s not possible. I’ve come to accept that time marches on, and I can’t stop it. And as much as I dread changes, I adapt to them fairly well; history has shown that I come out fine on the other side. But that doesn’t mean that I enjoy the process. Even good changes—like getting married to the most wonderful guy—can still make a part of me feel sad inside.

Add my dislike of change to my affinity for feelings, and you’ll see why I haven’t blogged in the last few months. Yes, I’ve been ridiculously busy with writing a dissertation, planning a wedding, and figuring out so many details about being married (after two straight months of searching, we finally have a place to live!). But busyness is only part of the story. I’ve also been a bit of a basket case. To quote the great philosopher Ron Burgundy, I’m in a glass case of emotions. Or in the words of Mean Girls, “I just have so many feelings.” And I don’t even go here.

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Don’t get me wrong. I really am excited about what lies ahead. In two months, I’ll be married to the man I love. In the spring, I’ll be teaching another class at Emory. And by this time next year, I’ll have graduated with my PhD. Amen, praise be, HALLELUJAH! I have so much to be thankful for, and I truly am grateful.

But even in the midst of joyful anticipation, I also feel some sorrow. Because although these are incredible gains, they also entail loss. I won’t be as independent anymore. My relationships will inevitably change. My roommate and best friend of six years will be living in another state. In other words, my life will look very different. And while I know it’s a good and exciting different–one based on beautiful new beginnings–it requires an ending. In many ways, life as I’ve known it will be gone for good. So although I am excited for what’s to come, I can’t help but mourn the things left behind.

And so, to get back to the original intent of this post, that’s why I haven’t written. When my schedule and feelings are full, my energy stores (and tear ducts) become empty. In times like these, writing becomes challenging. I like to write posts with tidy conclusions and clever endings. I don’t enjoy the tension of being both happy and sad, excited and sorrowful Mixed emotions make me uncomfortable because, perhaps more than anything else, they remind me that I don’t have things “all figured out.” But I’m learning that being present–and being honest–means admitting to and experiencing all the feelings, even the not-so-sweet ones.

Speaking of sweet things, I could really go for some Nutella right now…

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Worth the Wait

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I’ve never been much of an “inspirational quote person.” I have nothing against them, per se. I even find some to be inspiring. My problem is less with appreciating quotes than with remembering them. It doesn’t matter how much I love a certain quote; if I don’t write it down right away, I probably won’t remember it.

Sometimes, though, there are exceptions. On these rare occasions, the quote not only sticks, but I can’t get it out of my head. I encountered one such quote last weekend:

“If your circumstances make no sense, stop and wait. God is up to something.”

This quote resonated because it perfectly summarized my last year. Let me explain.

Exactly a year ago, I was heartbroken. In less than a week’s time, my boyfriend went from talking through the logistics of getting engaged to informing me that our year-long relationship was over. I was devastated.

As if the emotional whiplash of almost-engaged-to-single weren’t bad enough, I was also left with an avalanche of unanswered questions. What had happened to change his mind? How did he go from sixty to zero virtually overnight? Had I done something wrong? Was there something wrong with me? I wracked my mind for answers but kept coming back to the same question: What the heck happened??

I repeated that question many, many times over the course of last spring (though I definitely used another word for “heck”). I talked to friends, to counselors, to my pastor, and my family. I read books, I journaled, I listened to sermons. But no answers came. The breakup still made no sense. I couldn’t figure out what had happened or why.

Then one evening in March, I decided to take a break from wrestling through my breakup and invited myself to a friend’s apartment for a UNC basketball game. Assuming the Tar Heels played well, it promised to be a low-key evening with a small handful of friends and acquaintances. The perfect, no-pressure way to distract myself on an inconsequential Friday night.

Yet as fate would have it, this particular Friday night was anything but inconsequential. Because among that handful of friends and acquaintances was someone new. His name was Jim, and crazy though it seems, he is now my fiance.

Although our relationship progressed quickly, this doesn’t mean that meeting Jim let me instantly get over my ex. In fact, when he asked me out after the game ended, I told him no. I was interested, I explained, but I had just gone through a difficult breakup and wasn’t ready to date. I then drove home, crying the entire way. The next afternoon, Jim called me. He told me that he appreciated my honesty and that he wanted to give me space. His offer for dinner still stood, but there was no rush. I could take as much time as I needed. He called again a couple weeks later, just to say hi. That’s when I told him we could go on a date. We did. And then we went on another date, and another, and another after that. After much soul-searching and heart-working (along with some encouragement from my friend Emily), I agreed to be his girlfriend. Seven months later, I became his fiance. And in less than six months from now, I’ll be his wife.

As I write this post, I am struck again by how crazy our story has been. In the span of just a few months, I went from absolutely heartbroken to falling in love. And in the course of a year and half, I will have gone from anticipated engagement to one person to marrying another. How crazy–and crazy good–this life can be!

So now it’s time to circle back to the original quote. What does it mean that, when our circumstances make no sense, God is working? And how does Jim’s and my story show this to be true? At the most basic level, the answer seems easy. Clearly, my first relationship had to end in order for the second one to begin. But what if the truth–and the reality of God’s working–goes far beyond that?

Even without my unexpected breakup, Jim and I would have likely met and hit it off. We might have even dated at some point. But our relationship would have developed very differently. You see, I naturally put up walls and an “I have it all together” facade. While I hope I would have eventually trusted Jim with my real, rather emotional self, I can’t say for certain that this would have happened. However, because I had been wounded through my breakup, my usual walls were already broken down. As a result, Jim saw the “real me” from the get-go. This vulnerability drew him in initially and, eventually, made him fall in love with me. In the same way, his compassionate response to my emotions and my “being a mess”, as I put it, made me feel safe enough to spend time with him. And as I got to know him, I began to see that Jim cared for me and wanted the best for me. Once I could accept that he meant what he said and that he truly was in this relationship for the long haul, I discovered that I loved him too. Though the circumstances made no sense, God was most definitely working.

Don’t get me wrong; the breakup still remains one of the most challenging seasons of my life so far. But while I wouldn’t repeat the experience or wish it on anyone, I also am grateful for it. Because even in that time of sorrow–especially in that time of sorrow–God was working. And I wouldn’t trade the outcome for anything.

And yes, you can quote me on that. 😉

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Afraid (Not)

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Me being scared… and struggling to master the art of the selfie stick.

When I was growing up, I was chronically indecisive. A decision’s insignificance made no difference. If there were a choice to be made, then I would likely have trouble making it. Cookie dough or mint ice cream? Read a book or watch a movie? Go for a run or ride a bike? Making decisions could absolutely paralyze me. Some of my most vividly terrible childhood memories come from drive-throughs at McDonald’s where I would be faced with a whole host of miniscule, yet somehow debilitating choices. Somehow I had to choose between a hamburger and a cheeseburger, a fry or a side salad, a soft drink or a water–all in 30 seconds or less! Ridiculous though it sounds, these moments were traumatizing. I mean, making decisions was hard enough, but making them at the pace of my family’s fast-food ordering was nearly impossible.

Fortunately, as I’ve gotten older, I have also gotten much better at making decisions. Now I rarely think twice about the silly little choices that used to be such a challenge. In fact, the other day my Omi even commented about this, noting how far I’ve come. Most everyday choices now come easily, and it’s amazing how much better I feel.

Some choices, though, continue to be difficult. And unfortunately, these decisions aren’t of the transient fast-food variety. No, these are the big choices, the ones that end up defining a person and possibly determining the trajectory of a life. And to make this decision even more complicated, it’s not always obvious that a choice is involved. Let me explain with an example.

About six months ago, I sat across the table from Emily, one of my dear friends and mentors. It was the Saturday evening of our church’s spring retreat at a beautiful camp in north Georgia. Emily had just spent some time chatting with me and a new friend of mine… it was a guy. Jim and I had been on several dates during the preceding few weeks. By all accounts he seemed like an amazing guy, and he was interested in me, which was even better. There was just one problem: I was scared. You see, just a few months earlier, my heart had been broken by my last boyfriend. I didn’t know if I was ready to trust someone new, no matter how great he seemed to be. I was just so afraid. And that’s when Emily said something that changed everything:

“Fear is a choice, Steffi. You can choose to be afraid, or you can choose to move forward as though you’re not. It’s up to you.”

Needless to say, Emily’s words found their mark that evening—Jim and I started “officially” dating the very next day—but they have come to mind many times over these last several months. This question nags at me: If fear really is a choice, then how often do I choose it without even realizing it? Probably more frequently than I would like to admit.

Looking at my life from the outside, you might think it strange that I would struggle with fear. After all, I spent more than a year living out of a suitcase. I’m getting my PhD. I’ve traveled across almost all of Europe by myself. I run marathons, I learn Slavic languages, and I even share my thoughts, feelings and experiences on this blog. From the outside, I may seem adventurous, ambitious, and even brave. But appearances can deceive. Yes, I take risks, but only calculated ones, the kind that I feel confident about. Fear dictates more of my life than I would often care to admit.

And so tonight as I was running, I found myself pondering Emily’s question yet again. In what ways am I choosing fear? And what would it look like for me to move forward as if I’m not afraid? My thoughts landed here, on this blog. I love to write, but sometimes I go for months at a time without posting. Not because I don’t have things to say, but more because I am afraid to say them. You see, I want my writing to be authentic, honest, and real, but I’m afraid of not ending on an upbeat note. Yet I’m finding that much of life—if I’m honest about it—doesn’t come with the neat little ending. Life is messy; I’m messy. But since I’m afraid to show that to the world, I opt not to write.

Maybe, though, there is a different way forward. Maybe I can choose to be more open in my writing, even though it scares me. Maybe that’s the choice I should make. Because heaven knows I’m tired of letting my fear have so much sway. And maybe by being a bit more transparent about my journey, I can encourage some of you in yours.

So here begins my little experiment. There will still be funny blogs with self-deprecating “Steffi stories”—these bizarre, blog-worthy situations have a way of finding me—but there will also be more serious posts, ones that may pose more questions and offer fewer answers. Ones with more loose ends than tidy endings. Ones with more musing and less concluding. And maybe at some point there will be less fear and more courage in me. Who knows if this little experiment will work, but it seems like it’s worth trying.

Am I nervous to post more blogs like this? Yes, I am. And I’d be lying if I said otherwise. But starting today, I’m going to do it anyway. Starting today, I’m going to try acting like I’m not afraid. Alright, here goes…

Six Years

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6 years is a long time.

In 6 years, a newborn becomes a first grader.

In 6 years, Jupiter travels halfway around the sun.

In 6 years, World War II began and ended.

And after 6 years, I am still a graduate student.

Yes, technically, I realize that I am currently in my 6th year, which means that it’s been 5 years and some change since I started my PhD. But while 6 years have not passed since I took my first seminar, I still am technically a “sixth year.” Which means that I have been in graduate school for a very long time.

I usually make light of it, though, and try to poke some fun at my situation. For instance, when strangers, after learning that I am a graduate student, innocently ask what kind of degree I’m pursuing, I reply, “It’s either a PhD or a really long Master’s.” I’ve also started copying my best friend and fellow sixth year Elizabeth. When people as about her dissertation defense date, she responds, “I’d rather tell you how much I weigh.” Our old age in graduate-school years has made us both a bit snarky.

I’ve found other “productive” ways to cope with my perpetual studenthood. Together with Elizabeth, who also happens to be my roommate, I finished the entire Parks and Recreation series. In a moment of creativity, I purchased and repainted some patio furniture. And, perhaps most importantly, I have adopted a guinea pig. Isn’t she adorable??

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Meet Latte! Isn’t she the cutest?! 🙂

Grad school isn’t easy, though. And despite my healthy coping strategies—guinea pigs really are the best therapy pets—this journey often becomes exhausting. I guess this makes sense; after all, I’ve been working on this degree for more than half a decade. My friends who started their Master’s programs with me in 2012 have been gainfully employed for at least three years now. Some of my other friends have worked multiple jobs since finishing college. Still others have gotten married and had their second kid. Yet here I am, still a student. I realize that getting a doctorate is a job in itself, but I can’t help feeling like I’m caught in an extended form of adulthood-limbo. And sometimes I find myself wondering whether pursuing my PhD was the right thing to do. Whether all the hours—YEARS—pouring over books, traveling to archives, and staring at a computer screen will eventually be worth it.

On my good days, when I find an interesting source, when I run into a former student, or when I receive positive feedback on my work, my answer is yes. In those moments, it’s easy to believe that this journey, with all its ups and downs, has been and will be worthwhile. I try to hold onto those days when they happen, and to recall these “small victories” even after they’ve passed. But in reality, those “good” days don’t happen very often. They can be rather few and far between, and their memory fades much more quickly than I’d like. The majority of the other days aren’t “bad”, per se, but they can become rather wearisome. Almost-six years of delayed gratification can have that effect, I suppose. I am worn out. And while I’m not going to quit—I have come waaayyyy too far for that—sometimes I just want to curl up into a ball and sleep for a really, really long time. Rest is a good thing, I know; and I am doing my best to take it along the way. But at some point, I have to muster up the energy to just keep going. And sometimes that seems very hard to do.

I’m currently in Germany on a one-month research stay at an institute in Marburg. It’s been good to have a break from “normal” life for a bit, and I’ve found some information in their archive that has helped with my project. Anyway, this institute (and the guest apartment where I’m staying) happen to be on top of a mountain. This means that, when I go grocery shopping, run errands, or do anything besides hang out at the institute, I have to end by climbing back up the mountain. Last week, I decided to go for a long run along the river and through the city center. The run was beautiful, the weather was perfect, and my legs felt so happy. Until, that is, I started climbing back up the mountain. It. Was. Brutal. My lungs were heaving, my legs were twitching, and according to my Garmin watch, my heartrate was embarrassingly high. I found myself stopping every 1/10th of a mile to rest, which made for a very slow trek up the ¾-mile-high mountain. It was awful.

As I was trying to coax myself up another tenth-of-a-mile segment, the first few verses of Hebrews 12 popped into my head. This was one of my favorite passages; I used to quote this passage to myself when I ran track, so I wouldn’t give up during training runs or the merciless 800-meter races. I hadn’t thought about it in awhile, but my brain oxygen-deprived brain would take any distraction it could get. And so I started repeating it to myself: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, who, for the joy set before Him, endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus… so you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

I am weary. My brain is tired. My body is tired. I am tired of working on the same project, staring at the same computer screen, thinking through the same questions and ideas. I know that graduate school is a privilege and that not many people get to do it. I understand that, and I am grateful. But I am so tired. Very, very tired. So I guess the question posed to me is this: what am I going to do with that exhaustion? Will I curl up in a ball and sleep for days on end? Will I get down and discouraged like I am often so tempted to do? Or will I do everything I can to “fix my eyes on Jesus… so I won’t grow weary and lose heart”?

I wish I could answer once and for all, but I’m finding that every day (sometimes every moment) asks me that question again. And oftentimes, all I can muster up the energy to say is, “Help me, Jesus.” I guess that counts for something.

Tonight, though, it’s time for some R&R. If only I could hold that adorable little guinea pig… 🙂

Cappucci-yes

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I never meant to become addicted to coffee.

In fact, I almost made it all the way through college with barely touching the stuff. Sure, I’d occasionally indulge in a white chocolate mocha (a guilty pleasure) to get me through finals week, but I generally didn’t need caffeine to keep my brain afloat. But that all changed during the second semester of my senior year when I enrolled in a Latin American history class.

Don’t get me wrong; Latin American history is anything but boring. However, the combination of the class taking place from 3-4:15 in the afternoon and the professor speaking with a barely audible, essentially monotone voice (case in point: I sat in the second row and had to strain to hear him) made it very difficult to stay awake. And so on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, I got in the habit of picking up a cup of coffee from my sorority’s kitchen. Thanks to this little boost, I managed to make it through the class… but I also began the downhill slope of my coffee addiction.

I spent the next year at the Kanakuk Institute, where daily classes from 8 a.m. to noon made coffee into an essential part of my daily routine. About halfway through the year, I learned the hard way that I needed coffee to stay awake. One of my classmates thought it would be funny to pull a prank on the rest of us. When he was on “breakfast duty”, he swapped the fully-leaded coffee grounds for decaf. We all filled up our travel mugs and headed to the morning’s lecture, completely unaware of his bait-and-switch. That is, until we began falling asleep in class and noticed him laughing in the back of the room. Although his joke was well played, our decaffeinated state made us all very, very unhappy.

Since starting graduate school five years ago, I’ve come to terms with my coffee habit. I try to keep it in check by only having two or so cups a day, though during exams and finals season, this number inevitably increases. Occasionally, I detox by going cold turkey, especially over Christmas break when my brain doesn’t need to be engaged with schoolwork. And overall, I’ve learned that, generally, if I have coffee within my “caffeine window” of 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., I won’t have any withdrawal symptoms. Sometimes, though, I can get away with skipping my daily cup of joe and be just fine; it all depends on how tired I am, what I’m doing, and how active I am that day. For instance, if I’m out and about running errands or exploring a city, I may not need coffee. But if I’m reading at an archive, then caffeine is pretty much essential.

A couple weeks ago, I relearned this lesson the hard way. I was in Warsaw, doing my last bit of research at the Polish version of the State Department archives. This archive was only open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., which are fairly limited hours compared with other archives. Plus, it was closed on Friday. Since I didn’t get into Warsaw until Monday, this meant that I would only have three days to plow through as much material as possible. Using my trusty Google maps app, I figured out my route for the 45-minute trip on two buses. I figured at least one of the bus stops would have a bakery nearby where I could grab a cup of coffee. But as you’ve probably guessed, I thought wrong. Not only was there no coffee shop anywhere in sight, but the archive itself was at the end of a long residential street essentially in the middle of nowhere. And unlike the German State Department archive, which has a vending machine for coffee (and even for milkshakes!), this archive had nothing. I was up an archival creek without a caffeinated paddle.

At first, I thought I’d be fine. After all, I am fine sometimes when I go without coffee. And besides, I had some ibuprofen in my backpack if I started to get a headache. Plus, I needed to work so intensely that a wave of adrenaline should have kicked in at some point.

… except it didn’t.

And neither did the ibuprofen. By 1 p.m., I had a splitting headache, I could barely keep my eyes open, and my Polish comprehension abilities had reverted back to a beginner level. To quote many a millennial, I literally couldn’t even, and the struggle was unbelievably real. At some point, I realized that my plan to tough it out simply wasn’t going to work. If I were to make it through the afternoon, I was going to need a caffeine injection STAT. Leaving the reading room, I asked a security guard (in broken Polish) for directions to the nearest gas station. Ten minutes later, I was halfway through an XXL-size cappuccino and felt significantly better. The caffeine had kicked in, and I knew I was going to make it through the day.

As I was waiting for the bus that afternoon and thinking about my day, a thought struck me:

How does my need for caffeine compare to my desire for Jesus?

I’ve been a Christian for many years now and have consistently carved out daily time with God for the last several years. And yet if I’m honest with myself, these “quiet times” can often become an item to check off my list rather than an actual encounter with my Savior. Especially when things are good and life is going well, it’s easy for me to slip into a routine in which these times are rushed, or if I am busy, non-existent. So while I may sing songs about loving Jesus and desiring His presence, these lyrics far too easily become empty words and good intentions, rather than an actual reflection of my heart.

Yet that’s not the way I want to be, nor is it the abundant, Spirit-infused life that I see in Scripture. The Psalmist talks about craving God, saying that “as the deer pants for the water brooks, [his] soul thirsts for God, the living God.” And elsewhere we are told to desire Him above all else and to rejoice in His presence. Put differently, if we love God, we should increasingly crave His nearness; our souls should need Him in the same way that our lungs need air or, to continue the above analogy, that my body needs coffee.

But if I’m honest, this is often not the case for me. All too often, I don’t crave Jesus, and I certainly don’t desire Him above all else. When I fail to spend intentional time with Him, my day tends to look pretty much the same; my soul doesn’t show withdrawal symptoms until much later. And even then, this frequently comes in the form of “I should read my Bible” rather than “I desperately need this time with God.”

Yet while this revelation is convicting, I take comfort in the fact that I want to want Him. This seems to be a good place to start. I am praying that the Holy Spirit would grow in me this thirst for Jesus and this hunger for His nearness and His presence, so that He would truly become my heart’s greatest desire.

And with that, my brain is now tired… time to find another cup of coffee. 😉

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(The End of) the End

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They say there’s a first time for everything.

What they don’t say is that sometimes there’s a second time, and this second time may come quickly after the first.

At least, that’s what happened last month when I ripped my pants.

Prior to then, I had never, ever, ever ripped a pair of pants. Sure, as a kid, I’d torn holes in the knees (a natural hazard of refusing to play “house” unless I could be the dog). One time I accidentally ripped a dress when I was running up the stairs. And of course I’ve retired some jeans after noticing signs of wear around the back pockets. But ripping them completely? That’s just the stuff of sitcoms and low-budget kiddie movies.

I was wrong.

When I was initially preparing to leave Atlanta for the summer, I decided to bring three pairs of jeans. And because I have become an expert packer (schlepping one’s belongings for months on end can have that effect), I knew exactly which to take: a pair of Gap skinny jeans, a trusty pair from American Eagle, and another pair I had bought during my year in Berlin. They each matched my jeans travel criteria. All three were sufficiently comfortable for long bus rides and hours of sitting in archives. And all but the skinny jeans passed the “capri test”, i.e. the legs could be easily rolled up in case of unexpectedly warm European weather. I had contemplated bringing only two pairs of jeans (in this case, the skinny ones would have been left at home) but decided against it. While two pairs would have been enough for typical summer weather, a third pair could come in handy during the 10-day trip I’d planned through Scandinavia.

After starting my summer with a conference in Hamburg, I caught a day-long train to Copenhagen, where I spent a few days braving the icky weather, eating seafood, and learning about Hans Christian Andersen. I even had a pleasant surprise when a friend from my semester in Graz hopped over from Sweden to visit me. With my heart happy and all three pairs of jeans intact, I headed to Stockholm. The weather was unexpectedly warm, so I gladly donned shorts for two of my three days there. During my visit, I learned about Vikings, took a ferry ride through the archipelago and even discovered that pickled herring actually tastes good. With a full belly and a few hundred grams of real Swedish fish, I caught a flight to Bergen, Norway, blissfully unaware that my first pair of jeans was about to meet its end.

For every bit that Stockholm’s weather had been pleasant, the weather in Bergen was crappy. The sky was completely gray, and the rain came down with the kind of irritating persistence that makes being outside completely miserable. Only once did it briefly let up during my 18-hour stay, and of course this respite happened while I was indoors eating. The gray and gloom wouldn’t have been so bad if it at least been warm, but the temperatures refused to creep above 55 degrees. Although I should have expected this weather—a Google search revealed that Bergen has an average of 231 rainy days per year—the advance notice did not make the experience any more pleasant. I hate being wet, and I hate being cold. But I really, really, really hate being wet and cold. Still, I recognized that since this would likely be my only visit to Bergen, I chose to tough it out. Pulling on my trusty old American Eagle jeans and grabbing an umbrella, I ventured outside to hike Bergen’s main tourist-attraction mountain.

The trip to the top was cold and rainy but, apart from a brief accidental detour (*cough* I got lost *cough*), it proved wholly uneventful. I enjoyed the view, got a few pictures, and then headed back down to the city. I then walked around the harbor, grabbed dinner, and organized my luggage—completely unaware that I had a gaping hole in the back of my pants. I only noticed when I changed into my pajamas that night, hours after the rip had happened. But rather than being mortified, I managed to take it in stride. I mean, what a classic Steffi moment, to have torn straight through a pair of pants without even noticing. Chuckling to myself, I bid adieu to my now-worthless American Eagle jeans and climbed into bed.

Fast forward three days. In the intervening time, I had journeyed through the fjords, wandered around Oslo, and caught an early morning flight to Berlin, where I’d be visiting friends for a mini-homecoming. I couldn’t wait. As fate would have it, my jeans had their own homecoming as well; I was wearing the pair I had bought in Berlin two years earlier. But since the weather in Germany was ridiculously hot, I wasn’t planning to wear the jeans for long. Changing into shorts was #1 on my to-do list. And guess what happened when I did… Yep, I saw that these jeans were ripped too, just like the first pair. Right down the middle? Right down the middle. My second pair of jeans had bit the dust.

In the weeks since my jeans’ demise, I have shared this story with friends and family who, like me, find my “pants problem” quite entertaining. I purchased some new jeans (on sale!) at H&M, just in case my remaining pair suddenly decides to follow suit. And I’ve also spent some time thinking about my initial (hours-long) embarrassing moment and its soon-after sequel. I mean, who unwittingly walks around Europe with their underwear showing, not once but twice? And how did I fail to notice that my jeans split down the back? Could I have seriously been so oblivious to something that was so painfully obvious to everyone else? As I was pondering these questions about my jeans, another thought hit me:

I can be just as clueless about problem spots in other areas of my life.

Just like I when couldn’t see the hole in the back of my jeans, I’m also can’t have a hard time recognizing places in my life where I am falling short and/or need to grow. That’s why I need close friends, mentors, and my family members to walk alongside me–or for the sake of the metaphor– behind me. Because their perspective is different from mine, they recognizes patterns, weak spots, and shortcomings that I don’t automatically see. Sometimes their words may be difficult to hear, like when they point out an area where I’m struggling to surrender things to God. But more often than not, their different perspective allows them to offer insight and encouragement in the places I most need it. Regardless of how their advice may feel in the moment, I can trust that they’ve “got my back” and that they truly want God’s best for me.

My jeans story would have likely played out very differently if I’d been traveling with a friend. While I eventually figured out that my pants were ripped, a friend would have noticed much earlier and, ideally, would have cared enough to tell me. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes 4:9-10,

“Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them [rips her jeans], the other [will tell her] companion. But woe to the one who [rips her jeans] when there is not another [to let her know].”

The moral of the story? Surround yourself with godly people you trust.

… and always pack an extra pair of jeans. 😉