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. 
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Cry Baby

Ja, genau.
Ja, genau.

Alright, you asked for it. (Or at least by all your positive responses to my last blog entry, you implicitly asked for it). Apparently, people on Facebook and the blogosphere like it when I’m honest, so in an effort to give the people what they want, here is another very honest blog post comin’ at ya. Be careful what you wish for, haha.

Since my last post, things have been better, although the last week certainly contained its share of ups and downs. A particular set of “downs” happened on Tuesday afternoon when a slew of little things conspired to ruin my afternoon: the café where I decided to work for a few hours didn’t have wifi (even though it looked exactly like the German version of Panera!) Unfortunately, I only discovered this after purchasing an over-priced not-so-large “large” coffee. So I soon decided to relocate to the Staatsbibliothek (state library), where I could find a quiet space and hopefully accomplish something before heading to small group. But since backpacks aren’t allowed inside the library (#weird), I knew I needed to rent a locker. And I knew that these lockers only accept 1 Euro coins, despite being designed to take the 2 euro version. Since I didn’t have any change, I decided to make a quick stop by a souvenir shop where I could buy a poster I’d noticed a few weeks before. I finally located the store, which turned out to be an adventure: the store ended up being in the mall, which, of course, was not clear in Google Maps, and had moved to a different floor, which of course was not mentioned on the mall map. But after much unnecessary walking, I found the store, bought the poster, and headed to the library… only to discover that I’d gotten multiple 50 cent coins in change, but not a single 1 Euro. So I tracked down the library’s change machine, got a Euro, found a locker, transferred the contents of my backpack to an official “Staatsbibliothek” clear plastic bag and headed to the entrance. But as I began going through the turnstile, the not-so-happy librarian on duty stopped me and motioned to my computer. Apparently, I needed to take it out of the case. So I side-stepped awkwardly back through the turnstile, liberated my computer, and reassembled the bag to enter again…. only to hear in angry German: DAS MUSS RAUS!” Which translates roughly into politer English as, “you have to leave that computer case outside.”

And with that, I was done. I turned around, walked back to my locker, and then burst into unashamed and very messy tears. I knew I looked silly and that plenty of very normal, well-adjusted people could see me, but in that moment I just didn’t care. I’d had enough frustrating foreign cultural experiences for one day, and I simply couldn’t deal with it anymore. After gathering my things, I walked (still crying) to the U-Bahn station and headed home.

But although the library crying incident was a new low (or at least a new recent low), it didn’t get the final word on my week. That night, I was really encouraged by my friends at small group… even if their prayer for me was simply, “Lord, please help Steffi’s mess”, haha. On Wednesday, I attended a university welcome event and made a new friend. On Thursday, I found out that I received a two-month research stipend for Poland—my advisor didn’t even expect me to get it!—so that was a very pleasant surprise. Over the weekend, I ate delicious homemade fish tacos with friends. And then I pulled two almost all-nighters to watch the Royals win their first World Series in 30 years. So all in all, my week turned out far better than my not-so-auspicious Tuesday afternoon foreshadowed.

But I guess life is often like that, isn’t it? Or at least it is for me. I go through rough patches and dry spells, and when I’m in the middle of them (think, last Tuesday) I feel as if they’re never going to end. I get frustrated, I get discouraged, and I get frustrated and discouraged by my frustration and discouragement. Talk about a meta-level mess.

Librarians don’t normally have the ability to make me cry. But sometimes, like last Tuesday, they do. And I guess I’m learning that this emotional rollercoaster with all its daily ups and downs is okay. It’s okay to be frustrated, and it’s okay to cry. I just have to keep going because, even though things may be crummy in this moment, they will probably get better very soon. And even if they don’t get better right away, good things are still coming from it. Especially in the difficult moments, I’m learning to become more honest with God and to trust deep down that He cares. Verses like “as a Father has compassion on His children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him” and “He catches our tears* (*even the librarian-induced ones) in a bottle” are becoming more real and meaningful to me. And so even though this emotional rollercoaster often stinks, and I’d oftentimes prefer not to be riding it, deep down I’m learning to be grateful for this experience.

… At least I am right now. Ask me again after my next trip to the Staatsbibliothek. 😉

Light and Dark

(Originally Posted on August 2, 2010.)

Well, I’m back.

“Back” in two senses of the word: Back to writing a blog, and back in the United States of America. The former seems natural; the latter, well, doesn’t.

To give you a brief recap, I left Graz early on the morning of July 5th (fortunately, I was stuck on a train with a massively large group of Austrian tween-agers going on a school trip; they were all too busy flirting with each other and comparing their cool new handys or cell phones to notice my bawling.) That afternoon, I caught a flight to Paris, France, where I would spend an AMAZING week hanging out with my favorite Parisian of all time, Anne-Sophie, and her parents. After taking in as many sites as possible, musing over Mona Lisa’s thoughts, marveling at Versailles (and checking out my reflection in the Hall of Mirrors), feeling quiet sorrow and pride at the cemetery at Normandy, and getting proposed to one night on the Eiffel Tower, the time came. I bid a painful good-bye to Anne-So, hopped on a plane to Vienna, spent the next day weighing and repacking my things (and mailing some of them home), and hanging out in one of Vienna’s lush, beautiful parks. That evening, my dear friend Jennifer, with whom I was staying, took me to her favorite restaurant where I enjoyed my first—and last—Viennese Wienerschnitzel (to everyone who doesn’t know: “Wienerschnitzel” really means “Schnitzel from Vienna;” Wien is German for Vienna. Hence, real wienerschnitzel can be found only in Vienna). The next morning, I got up early, gathered my things and headed to the airport. There, I boarded Austrian Airlines flight OS 093 and at exactly 11:30 a.m. Central European Time waved goodbye to the country I came to know and to love, the country that will always hold a piece of my heart.

Approximately 9 hours and 36 minutes later, I landed in Washington D.C. After going through customs, picking up and rechecking my bags, missing my originally-scheduled flight, calling my mom to let her know that, yes, I was indeed still alive, I boarded a second airplane—the airplane that would take me to Kansas, home.

Since landing, life has been a whirlwind (or in Kansas, maybe “tornado” would be a more appropriate word). It’s been so wonderful to see and spend time with my family, including my grandparents, to eat food that I didn’t have to cook or pay for, to catch up with best friends, to sit inside with air conditioning (this is a recent development; our house’s AC broke on the day before I got back and just recently got fixed), and to take a moment to relax and recuperate. In all those respects, being home has been very nice.

At the same time, though, it’s been… weird. Just. Plain. Weird.

During my study abroad orientation classes last August and in Austria, the directors warned us about a nasty little thing called “reverse culture shock.” But no amount of warning, cautioning, or mental preparation can really make you ready for it. To anyone who has never studied abroad or had the chance to experience this odd phenomenon, let me explain. Reverse culture shock happens when someone leaves his or her home culture to live in a new culture or place for an extended period of time. This person gets accustomed to the new culture, adapts to it and learns to live in it at least for the time being; in a sense, it becomes like home. Then when that person returns to his or her home culture (either willingly or by force, or in my case, by an expiring student visa), he or she must suddenly readjust to the home culture, which has now—strange as it may seem—become foreign.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Well, in a way it is. Crazy… but so true.

“Reverse culture shock” involves more than remembering to say “excuse me” instead of “entschuldingung” (or in Alex McAulay’s case “please” instead of “bitte”). It goes beyond the basics like converting dollars to euros and vice versa and refreshing oneself on how to drive. Rather, it’s learning to fit a new, different, likely improved version of oneself into the situation where the old, pre-study abroad version used to live. And that, let me tell you, is far easier said than done.
Living in Graz and traveling in most of the countries of central Europe changed me. Meeting people from all around the world, hanging out with them, and becoming friends with them changed me. Listening and dancing ridiculously to all sorts of crazy-beat techno music… changed me. Every experience, every adventure, every seemingly miniscule thing that happened to me changed me and made me into who I am right now, here, today. I’m a different girl than the one who left on January 31st, and, to be entirely honest, I like the new version of me much better. But I’m back again to my former situation. How do I keep from reverting to how things were, to who I use to be? How do I keep being the new me?

A lot of things didn’t change a bit. My bedroom walls are still lime green; my sisters still give insanely tight hugs; my cell phone still has my homemade Tenth Avenue North ringtone; and I am still terrible at parking my car (Every time, without fail, I have to pull back out and readjust. Always.) Dollar bills still have George Washington’s face, this world keeps on turning, and Kansas thunderstorms and sunsets still take my breath away.

And I still have the same blonde hair, same brown eyes, same size 10.5 feet. If I look the same on the outside, why do I feel so different on the inside? And what, if anything, can I do about it?

As you might have noticed, I really like quotes. Unfortunately, most of the time, I can’t remember them very well. Sometimes, though, a good quote will pop into my brain at exactly the right moment, precisely when I need it, like a sunbeam straight from heaven. Other times, one will come exactly when I need it but really don’t want it. This week, I have been feeling very sad about Graz and have been missing my life there terribly. At a particularly low moment when I was silently wallowing in my own misery, this quote flashed into my mind. I tried my best to ignore it because, honestly, I would much rather have continued being sad and feeling sorry for myself. But the quote persisted stubbornly. And I guess I am glad it did. Here it is:

“Don’t forget in the darkness what you learned in the light.” ~Joseph Bayly

Although the quote is probably fairly self-explanatory, let me break it down since I could use a refresher. Basically, when God teaches us something in the good times—when the sun is brightly shining, the birds are chirping, and all is well with the world—He wants us to remember it, and not just when life is good. On the contrary, when the going gets tough, He tells us to think of His lessons from the light—and keep going.

I don’t want to sound selfish. I realize that my struggles over missing Graz are small and trivial compared to what so many other people experience. I am not in the business of comparing heartache or hardship, but I do believe this: pain is pain—regardless of how big or small it may seem to others. What matters less is the type of darkness; far more important is how we respond to it.

And so now I must ask myself the question that we all should ponder: how do I respond to pain and the darkness that comes with it? Am I going to crawl into a corner and cover my head and cry to myself? Or will I look to my God and remember the lessons He taught me in the light?

If you followed my Graz blog even a little bit, you would have noticed that God showed me a lot this semester. He grew me and changed me and transformed me in ways I would have never thought possible. On top of that, He showed me so much about His love and provision and WHO He is. He taught me to trust Him and to have faith in His promises, knowing that He would never let me go.

Here in this post-Erasmus “darkness,” so to speak, I have to remember His lessons from the light. I also know that this phase will pass, and the sun will eventually shine again as brightly as it did before. I know that it will. Why? Because that’s what He taught me, back in the light.

Whether you are in a dark patch right now or catching some rays in the sunshine, remember that He’s with you. Always.

God bless.