27 :)

Well, friends, here we are yet again at the 27th of January. Although this day is likely just another Wednesday for you, it happens to be quite significant for me. “Why?” you ask. I’ll give you a hint: it begins with a “birth” and ends with a “day.” That’s right! Today is my birthday! And in keeping with my annual birthday tradition, it’s also the day when I post an entry reflecting on the lessons and experiences of the previous year. Since this year I am turning 27 (yes, it’s my Golden Birthday!), I will share with you 27 lessons from last year. Here they are, in no particular order* (*except for the final one). Buckle up and enjoy.

  1. Students (and archivists) can be bribed with cookies. If you don’t have cookies, chocolate is also effective.
  2. I actually like Brussel sprouts.
  3. If you get upgraded to Premium Economy on an international flight, try not to spill the free wine all over yourself right after takeoff. Or you will smell like an alcoholic for the remaining 9 hours of the flight.
  4. Kill the first ant you see in your kitchen. If you let it live, you will regret it. 
  5. I don’t have to be intimidated by German grocery store dairy sections. TBD on whether I can overcome my fear of weird sliced German meats.
  6. Although I love teaching, I really, really, really don’t enjoy grading.
  7. If you turn the key twice while locking a Polish apartment door, it cannot be opened from the inside.
  8. I (still) have the best advisor.
  9. Double check the name on your boarding pass before getting in line at the gate, or you might be stuck in Heathrow for an extra 4 hours.
  10. If you register for a German bank account, don’t lose your officially assigned PIN number.
  11. When you’re having a bad day or things aren’t going well, be honest about your feelings, rather than pretending that everything is perfect.
  12. On a first date (especially one to a super fancy restaurant), go to the restroom after dinner. Even if you don’t need to use the facilities, this will provide a invaluable opportunity to check your teeth. Because the last thing you want is to look in the mirror at home 3 hours later and see that, yes, that piece of spinach is still there.
  13. There are few problems in life that waffle fries with Chick-Fil-A sauce can’t fix.
  14. You can make free phone calls to the US via Gmail without having a Google Voice number.
  15. Never go to Primark (or any equally popular European clothing store) on a Saturday.
  16. Essential prescription medications will inevitably get stuck for 6 weeks in Polish customs.
  17. Being a bridesmaid is a blast—and being a bridesmaid twice is even better!
  18. Airlines using the metric system are more forgiving with overweight luggage than those using the U.S. system. (ie, 1 kilo is less egregious than 2.2 pounds).
  19. Memes make everything better.
  20. If you’re planning to run 20 miles or more, don’t trust the weather forecast. Because chances are, if the forecast says “sunny”, you’ll get caught in a downpour. And if the forecast says “rain”, you’re going to get sunburned.
  21. I will likely never understand Polish numbers.
  22. The world is very, very small.
  23. If you decide to go to dinner with your roommate, remember that you are in public and not at home. Otherwise, you both might burst into made-up songs at highly inopportune moments.
  24. Call the Midwife is hopelessly addicting.
  25. Some random Facebook messages are worth replying to.
  26. Expat Thanksgivings aren’t so bad after all, especially when your best friend joins you for them.

One of the benefits of writing this blog post annually is, well, knowing in advance that I am going to write it. This means that I have ample time to reflect on the “big lesson” of the year. As I looked back on this 26th year of my life, I recognized that it was an important one, and I did a lot of significant things: taught my own class, ran my first marathon, wrote and defended my dissertation prospectus, moved home from Atlanta, learned to read old German handwriting, took 6 weeks of Polish, and moved to Berlin. It’s been a whirlwind–a very busy whirlwind. Yes, I’ve been around the world and back, and that’s pretty cool. But what makes the last year so special isn’t the “special” things I’ve done, but the fact that I have shared them with people who are special to me. And so, here is my 27th (or rather #1) lesson for this year:

Friendship makes life so much richer. 

While I was in Austria, I discovered that adventures are best shared. And though I still hold that to be true, my understanding of “adventure” has shifted. You see, I now understand that it’s not the extraordinary experiences in themselves that matter, but it’s the chance to do life alongside people you care about. Because even when those people are scattered across the globe–when they’re miles, time zones, and continents away–they still stay close to your heart. For my grad school peeps and my Atlanta church family, for my long-time kamp friends and my brand-new Berlin friends, and for all the other people I love both at home and abroad, I am grateful. Thanks to these friendships, my life is rich and my heart is full. And I know that I am one of the luckiest birthday girls in the whole wide world, because I have so many people whom I dearly love.

And so, my friends, as I celebrate my 27th birthday, I also want to take a moment to thank you for making this last year and the 26 leading up to it so wonderful. Thank you for bringing me joy, for enriching my life, and for reminding me that I am loved, even from afar. Without you, this “Golden Birthday” of mine would be a tarnished silver at best. 😉

Note: I’ve only included pictures from the last year. If you aren’t shown here, please know that it’s due to a lack of space, rather than a lack of love!

 

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Kodak Moments

It’s safe to say that I have a picture-taking problem.

It started way back in 7th grade, when I got my first digital camera for Christmas. Complete with a super cool translucent purple case and approximately 1 MB (if that) of memory, this little camera helped me discover my love for amateur photography… and the importance of proper lighting. (If there wasn’t enough light, the camera wouldn’t take a picture.) Poor quality aside, this camera acted as the gateway drug to my picture-taking obsession. I was hooked.

For Christmas my sophomore year of high school, my parents upgraded me to a Kodak EasyShare, so I could capture the (mis)adventures my dad and I would have during our upcoming ten-day trip to Germany. The camera did its job well, although unfortunately I looked terrible in most of the pictures. (Growing out your hair for “locks of love” without owning a blow dryer or straightener can have that effect). But despite my *cough* less-than-stellar appearance, the pictures of Germany turned out great.

... case in point.
… case in point.

Although my formative photographic experiences came from these first two cameras, my picture-taking obsession reached all-new heights during my junior year of college. Before I left for a semester in Austria, my parents presented me with a brand new Canon Digital ELPH camera and a massive memory card. During the next six months, this little camera experienced about six-years’ worth of wear, so that by the end of the semester, the case was scratched, the front cover was held on by a strategically placed purple rubber band, and I had taken more than 20,000 pictures. This led many of my friends to refer to me as the unofficial photographer of Erasmus and to say that “if Steffi didn’t take a picture of it, then it didn’t happen.” Which, honestly, wasn’t far off the mark.

Mirek and I became the unofficial photographers of Erasmus. :)
Mirek and I became the unofficial photographers of Erasmus. 🙂

My picture-taking tendencies have oscillated in the last few years, with peaks, such as during my time at the Kanakuk Institute, and lows, such as when school is in session. And yet while I’ve become slightly less anal about photographing (literally) everything, I still love to capture my experiences… even if I’m terrible about uploading them to Facebook, haha. But although this photography obsession has often come in handy, such as when I was responsible for “Social Media” at Kamp or for my mom’s annual Christmas card, this compulsive need to photograph things actually points to a deeper, more complicated problem: I want to hold onto the present forever, and I really, really, really don’t like change.

And as fate would have it, I am about to experience a whole bunch of changes all at once: I am leaving Atlanta for 14 months and moving to Berlin for my dissertation research. When I came to graduate school, the year of research in Germany seemed like the best part of the program. After all, ever since I’d returned from Austria, I’d been looking for ways to go back to Europe. That’s why I’d applied for the Fulbright, and that’s one of the reasons I chose to study European history. And although I realize that this next year in Berlin will be full of wonderful new adventures with incredible new people, I can’t help but look at my already wonderful life and my all-too incredible friends and want to enjoy this leg of the journey for a little while longer. In the last three years, I have come to love Atlanta, with its many quirks, its terrible humidity and pollen season, and its abysmal traffic. Despite its many idiosyncrasies, this city has become my new home.

But though I dread it—and I hate to think about it—the reality is that I am leaving. In just a few days, I’ll head up I-75 with my parents and say goodbye to Atlanta for more than a year. Ready or not, the transition is coming, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.

I know that everything will be okay, that I’ll keep in touch with my friends, and my life will be waiting for me when I get back. But it doesn’t change the fact that my heart hurts, and I am very, very sad. And in the midst of this sadness–and anticipation of sadness, which is almost worse–I keep coming back to this Switchfoot song, which I think at least partially captures how I feel:

Here’s to the twilight
here’s to the memories
these are my souvenirs
my mental pictures of everything
Here’s to the late nights
here’s to the firelight
these are my souvenirs
my souvenirs

[…]

I close my eyes and go back in time
I can see you smiling, you’re so alive
I close my eyes and go back in time
you were wide-eyed, you were wide-eyed
we were so young, we had no fear
we were so young, we had just begun
a song we knew, but we never sang
it burned like fire inside our lungs
and life was just happening (and nothing lasts, nothing lasts forever)
and life was just happening (and nothing lasts, nothing lasts forever)
I wouldn’t trade it for anything
my souvenirs

The pictures I take—and the memories they symbolize—are souvenirs of my life in Atlanta, visible reminders of the people and city I have come to love. And even though I know that, during this next year, I will inevitably look at them and feel sad, I hope that God will help me see these pictures and be grateful. Because my pain, though unpleasant, proves that these people and this place mean something to me. No one grieves the loss, even temporary, of something insignificant. And so while it stinks to say goodbye, I’m grateful that I have so many people to miss. And I look forward to that day 14 months from now, when I’ll be reunited with them and this quirky city we call home. In the meantime, I will look at my photos, I’ll pray for these friends, and I’ll keep in touch with them as best as the 6-hour time difference will allow.

And while I’m in Germany, I’ll also take a lot of pictures. After all, I have a reputation to maintain. 😉

camera and me

Relentless Lenting

Tulips

Spring has sprung here in Atlanta. The birds are chirping, lawnmowers are running, and the pollen is everywhere. Even as I sit on my back patio to write this post, a fine layer of that allergy-inducing dust is already settling on my computer. But as much as I hate the pollen, I can’t help but love this time of year, especially in the South. The weather is beautiful, the flowers are blooming, and the city that hid away during the “depths of winter” is finally coming back to life.

Spring also means the beginning of the most important season in the Church calendar: Easter. Although the toy and electronics industry will try to convince you that Christmas is superior, Easter is more significant because it’s when we celebrate the death and resurrection of our Savior.

But I have a confession to make. I don’t always love Easter. Yes, I understand its theological implications. Yes, I intellectually grasp what it means that Jesus died and rose again. But if I’m truly honest, this “holiday of holidays” usually just passes me by, lost in the pollen-laden (and paper-writing) sands of time at the end of the school year. Life in the spring is especially hectic, and I don’t often manage to pause long enough to make Easter meaningful.

Back in the day, leaders in the Christian church recognized that this might be a problem for people like me, so they instituted a season called “Lent” leading up to Easter. During these 40 days of fasting, Christians are asked to make space in their lives to contemplate their own mortality and focus on God. As we “sacrifice” (by not eating chocolate or drinking coffee… or the other 99 things on this BuzzFeed list), we are called to remember Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf.

This year, I tried really hard to observe Lent. I went to Ash Wednesday services, I gave up Facebook, I added more time of silence and contemplation into my schedule, and I even picked up a copy of Great Lent by the orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann. I so badly wanted to make Lent meaningful, so that Easter’s celebration would be that much sweeter to me. But try as I did, nothing “worked”:  The silence I sought soon filled up with noise. I only made it halfway through Great Lent (and of what I did read, I barely understood any of it). And even though I did stay off of Facebook, I only succeeded because my mom had changed my password; on my own, I would have never had the self-control to make it. In the end, instead of becoming more focused on God, I just became more discouraged and distracted.

Sure enough, despite all my attempts at relentless “Lenting” (pardon the terrible pun), Holy Week managed to sneak up on me—and fill me with dread. Here I was, a week away from Easter, and I didn’t feel any closer to Jesus than when Lent had started. I’d griped my way through most of Lent, lamenting my workload far more than my sin. I felt like the disciples on that last night of Jesus’ life, when He asked them to stay up with Him to watch and pray. But over and over again, they fell asleep; they couldn’t do the one thing He asked. He needed them, and they failed Him. That’s exactly how I felt. Jesus had asked me to journey with Him during Lent, and—on the days I actually managed to peel myself out of bed and walk—I only managed to trip over my own feet. What an epic and miserable failure.

Still feeling discouraged last Wednesday, I hauled myself to church for our monthly evening of worship and prayer. During this time, we literally create space (by clearing out a lot of chairs) for people to (surprise) worship, pray, and spend time with God. As I sat there journaling, venting about my frustration and discouragement, writing about how stuck I felt and how my faith felt like a dead end, I suddenly stopped… and began to doodle.

Here I should pause and say that I never doodle. I tried when I was a kid and I got so disheartened by my abysmal stick figures that I quit. So sat there last Wednesday and felt the inexplicable urge to doodle, I couldn’t help feeling curious about what would happen.

No, the result wasn’t the Mona Lisa. It wasn’t even much of a drawing, per se. On the paper were two curvy lines, like a mountain range with the sun coming up over the ridge. (Or at least, that’s what I interpreted it to be; again, I am not artistically gifted.) And on top of the sun (or what looked like the sun), I wrote the phrase “new mercies.” Despite its childish simplicity, the image stirred something in me, and I thought of Lamentations 3:22-24,

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

Ever since last Wednesday, I’ve been pondering this passage, and over and over again I am struck by its beautiful simplicity. God is faithful. God is good. And His compassions—His mercies—are new, not just when first meet Jesus, not just on Easter, not just when everything is going our way or we are following Him perfectly, but they are new every morning. He loves us, truly and deeply loves us, and because of this we have hope and victory, rather than defeat. So even when I feel spent, even when I’m in a terrible mood, even when I don’t manage to follow Lent, He is still abundantly, absurdly, extravagantly compassionate, faithful, and good.

This, my friends, is the hope we have in Jesus. Even when we weak and full of frustration, brokenness, distraction, and shame, God meets us daily with His new mercies. He is just that good. No, my Lent didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped, but He managed to redeem even that disappointment this week—by reminding me again of His unfailing love. Just like He proved on Easter by raising Jesus from the grave, our God brings life to the dead and lifeless places inside each of us.

Amen and Amen.

Now, where can I find some chocolate to celebrate? 😉

Stone Mountain Sunrise :)
Stone Mountain Sunrise 🙂