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.

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!

(No) Going Solo

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Sushi Party! 🙂

I am a hopeless extrovert.

When I was younger and less self-aware, I tried my best to be introverted. I checked out dozens of library books at a time, so I could spend countless alone hours reading them… but even then my sisters and I would end up reading together or (worse) pretending we were make-believe librarians and patrons. After sixth grade, I got permission to take my Latin textbook home over the summer, so I could study grammar on my own. I used it twice, preferring to spend my days at the pool with my sisters instead. I even attempted to have an imaginary friend—I mean, how much more introverted can you get than that?—but it didn’t work. I got so bored. So I gave up and returned to real people. After all, they are much more exciting.

Despite these childhood attempts at denial, I think I’ve always known that I’m extroverted. Even in my early teens, I showed definite signs of needing to be with people. During one summer when I felt particularly lonely (none of my school friends lived nearby, and there were very few kids on my block), I habitually rode my bike around the neighborhood, just hoping that a new friend would magically appear. Pathetic, I know. Fortunately, though, for my sanity (and for my non-creeper status) I did make a new friend that summer. Courtney and I met at the swimming pool, and I spent the rest of the break hanging out with her and her 7 siblings. Talk about an extroverted dream-come-true.

But in case I wasn’t absolutely sure about my extroversion, I got an undeniable confirmation when I started grad school. During fall break of my first year, my roommates left town, which meant that I had the entire weekend to work uninterrupted on a term paper. Although I did no strenuous physical activity, got a decent amount of sleep, and drank plenty of way too much coffee, by the end of day three I was completely exhausted to the point that I could barely keep my eyes open. Somehow, though, I managed to muster up the energy to meet a couple friends for dinner. And then, like magic, within just a few minutes of hanging out, my body and brain had come back to life. This wilted extroverted flower had been revived, thanks to the water and sunshine of human interaction.

As I’ve gotten older and periodically put down more roots, my simple extroverted need for people has shifted and perhaps even matured. While I still enjoy small talk, I now crave deeper conversations and the community that often accompanies it. In the last several years, I have come to appreciate and long for this type of community more and more, and God has consistently provided it, at the Kanakuk Institute, in Atlanta, and now this year in Germany. He has continually brought wonderful people into my life—not just to quench my extroversion, but to encourage me and challenge me and help me to grow in my faith. Saying goodbye to these friends was the hardest part about leaving Atlanta, and again it was the most challenging thing about temporarily leaving Berlin this spring. I’m a quintessential people person who also needs community. And as I headed out for two months of research in Poland, I couldn’t help feeling rather discouraged and alone.

Yes, I knew that God was going with me. And yes, I knew I would still be able to talk with my family and friends at home and abroad. But the prospect of spending the summer by myself in Poland wasn’t exactly appealing. Don’t get me wrong; I love Poland. But apart from a few people in Krakow, I didn’t actually know anyone here. And since I’d only stay in each city for a few weeks at most, I didn’t foresee myself making any friends, let alone finding any real community.

But as you’ve probably figured out, God has a way of providing for our needs—and going above and beyond in the process. On my first Sunday in Wrocław, I visited an international church. By the time I returned home that afternoon, I’d already been prayed for, received a half dozen hugs, gotten at least that many phone numbers, and had been invited to Bible Study that Tuesday night. Later that week, I left my Airbnb studio apartment and moved in with a Polish girl from the church. Over the next four weeks, I went out to dinner and ice cream, attended a percussion recital/concert, watched Finding Dory (in Polish!), and ate a whole bunch of homemade sushi and chips and salsa (not together) while watching the Polish Eurocup soccer game. When I left Wroclaw this past Sunday, I was sad but also overwhelmingly grateful. I had come to Wroclaw feeling empty and spent, and I left completely refilled.

And as much as my inner-extrovert is happy, I don’t think my current joy stems from simply being around people. After all, one of the world’s loneliest places is in the middle of a crowd; encounters with people are not automatically life-giving. No, my heart is full because God used His people at the church in Wroclaw to minister to me. He used them to listen to me, to laugh with me, to pray with me, and to give me lots of hugs. And in the process, He reminded me that we weren’t made to go it alone. In the Christian family, there can be no “Lone Rangers” or “Hans Solos”. For although God can and does encourage us individually, He often most clearly channels His love to us through other believers. That’s one of the reasons why in His almost-last words to His disciples, Jesus instructed them to love one another, because through this the world would know they are His people.

And that is exactly what I experienced in Wroclaw: God used His people to encourage my soul. And even though I was physically present with the Wroclaw community for just a few weeks, I will never forget their hospitality and kindness. And I really will thank God every time I remember them–both for their encouragement and for reminding me so tangibly of the value of community.

Alright, that’s enough blogging for today. I need some human interaction. Anyone up for a quick phone call? 😉

Schlepp-tastic

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My last three weeks. Proof that not all travel is Instagram-worthy.

I. Hate. Packing.

And by “hate”, I mean that I would rather be hung upside down by my toes while being tickled, be stuck watching Groundhog Day on repeat, or spend an entire day doing nothing but coloring books. In other words, packing is one of my very least favorite things to do.

Why do I hate it so much? So many reasons.

  1. It’s stressful. You have to think through so many potential outcomes and plan for them. And no matter how hard I try, I still manage to forget something essential.
  2. I have an over-packing problem. Even when I was a kid, I would manage to fill a massive duffel bag every time we took weekend trip. And to this day, no matter how hard I try, my luggage is still always at—or slightly over—the weight limit.
  3. Whatever you pack, you then have to carry.

The most memorable example of #3 happened when I was leaving Austria. When I booked my ticket, the two 50-pound bags were still permitted on international flights. On the night before I returned to the States, I left my suitcases in a train-station locker on the way to the airport, so I wouldn’t have to haul them across town the next day. What I failed to notice, though, was that this particular train station was under construction. Which meant that a) I had to navigate a series of zig-zagging hallways to get out of the station, b) throughout these hallways were scattered random sets of stairs, and c) of courses there were no working elevators. As a result, what should have been an easy exit became a weight-lifting obstacle course. In mid-July. By the time I finally escaped the train station and made it to the airport, I was, quite literally, a hot—and very sweaty—mess. Not a great way to start a 9-hour flight.

That was 6 years ago. I’ve done a lot of traveling since then, so you’d think by now I’d be a professional packer. And in many ways, I have definitely improved. I’ve since invested in a lighter suitcase (which makes such a difference), I’ve discovered the trick of rolling your clothes to make them fit, and I now own a small traveling scale, so I can check the weight of my luggage before I get to the airport.

But probably the biggest game-changer has been my new packing strategy. Several days before I leave, I commandeer a large open space (usually my younger sister’s bedroom. Thanks, Rascal.) and make several piles: of must-bring, of maybe-bring, and bring only if absolutely necessary. Then I spend the next few days sifting through and rearranging the piles. By the time my trip rolls around, I know that I have what I actually need.

This worked really well for my flight to Europe last summer. I managed to fit an entire year’s worth of things into a single 50-pound suitcase. But unfortunately, I’ve had to pack many times since then, most recently for a three-week research trip in south-central Germany. And because the start of this trip coincided with the end of my lease in Berlin, I also needed to move the rest of my belongings to store them at a friend’s place. And thanks to timing (getting back from a short weekend trip that Sunday and flying out early Monday morning), I couldn’t follow my “start early, eliminate often” strategy. And that’s how I got stuck lugging around an unnecessarily heavy suitcase for three weeks.

Side note: you don’t realize how much stuff you have—or how heavy things are—until you have to carry them everywhere via public transit. And I had to carry them everywhere: in the last 22 days, I’ve stayed in a total of 9 places, which means that I have also moved my belongings at least nine times. And the midst of all this stuff-schlepping, I had ample time to contemplate why the heck I was carrying all of this stuff and to ask myself why in the world it was so darn heavy.

I already knew the reason, though. Because I didn’t get to take out the random extra things before I left. On their own, those little things were basically nothing, but together they added up. If I had just been able to reevaluate my suitcase’s contents, I would have had a much more pleasant journey… and my shoulders wouldn’t hurt so badly right now.

As I was dragging the suitcase (yet again) through Berlin yesterday, I realized something: in the same way that I was dragging around more than was necessary in my suitcase, I often lug around more than I should spiritually. Whether it’s “big things” like getting a job or “small things” like where I am going to research next, I tend to schlepp around way more in my spiritual suitcase than God intended. Instead of lugging them around endlessly, He wants me to carry them to Him. That’s why 1 Peter 5:7 says, “Cast all your anxieties upon Him, for He cares for you” and Psalm 68:19 tells us that God “daily bears our burdens.” But because God respects us, He won’t just take them away; He asks us to bring them to Him in prayer. And it doesn’t just happen; we have to actively do it. In the same way that I pack the lightest when I take the time reevaluate, I also live most freely when I consistently take stock of my cares and consciously give them to the Lord.

Alright, that’s enough writing for today. I leave for the States for 10 days tomorrow, and I need to finish packing…

suitcase
No, that’s not staged. That’s actually how my suitcase looked as I was writing this blog post. 

Dissertation Frustration

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A very candid look at first-year Steffi. Oh, how naive I was back then…

When I started graduate school in the fall of 2012, the DGS (Director of Graduate Studies) explained to me and my fellow first-years that the key determinant of PhD success is not brain power but “Sitzfleisch”, ie the ability to sit. On your rear. For incredibly long periods of time.

… and let’s just say that at this point 3.5 years later, I have gotten pretty sick of sitting—and all the frustration that goes with it.

No, grad school isn’t all bad. There are definitely moments when I like, or even love, what I do. I enjoyed the rigorous discussions with my fellow students during seminars. Teaching my own class last spring was incredibly rewarding. And even my exams, hellish though they were, still rank among the greatest and most satisfying accomplishments of my life thus far.

But this whole archival research and dissertation-developing process? Well, sometimes it’s just not my cup of tea/coffee. You see, sometimes it just plain stinks. And, you guessed it, right now is one of those times.

While lamenting my plight to EQL the other day, I likened this stage in the dissertation to a high-school relationship (not that I know from personal experience, but having seen enough Disney Channel Original Movies, I have a vague idea of what one looks like). I express an interest in a topic, I spend lots of energy, time, coffee money getting to know it, only to have it dump me in the end—or play so “hard to get” that I ultimately just give up.

Odd though that analogy may sound, it’s the best description I can think of for my research situation right now. No matter how hard I try to get something to work out, I only find myself back at square one again, with seemingly nothing to show for it. And after five, six, or seven failed “relationships”, this can become very, very frustrating.

And to make things even worse, this is my problem! You see, at this point in graduate school, I have already made the leap from being a “consumer” to a “producer” of knowledge. Or to use another metaphor, I have been pushed out of the nest and expected to fly. Yes, my advisor, committee members, and colleagues are still there for me. And yes, they will support me and help me as best as they can. But ultimately, this is my project, which means that these are my problems. No one can solve them for me, and there are no more answer keys to tell me which direction is correct. I have to figure this out on my own. Which oftentimes leaves me feeling a bit like this:

circus monkeys lucy

And so at this point, halfway through my archival research, I am simply exhausted. And I am really, really tired of what I am doing. In one sense, I’ve been here before multiple times. Each semester of coursework brought its own set of challenges, and exams were anything but fun. But unlike the end-of-semester “crunch mode” or my 10-day exam period, there is no definite end in sight. Yes, at some point in the still-distant future, my funding will run out, I’ll start getting “motivational” emails from the graduate school, and it will no longer be socially or academically acceptable for me to be a PhD student. But that is still a long way off, and there are still many mountains to climb in the meantime. And the one I have been trying to climb for the last several months is so unstable and slippery that I just keep sliding back down again.

So besides ranting on the internet or eating my feelings in Nutella (*cough* both of which I may currently be doing), how am I supposed to respond to this? Yes, it’s all well and good to say that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”, but that expression never says exactly where they go. And right now the only place I seem to be going is backward, and the only place I want to go is out of here. What am I supposed to do?

I don’t know. I really don’t.

But as I’ve been trying to figure this out the last several days (while also trying to drag my well-trained Sitztfleisch to the archive), I keep coming back to my first marathon last spring. After years of saying that I wanted to run one, I finally decided to commit to a race in Nashville. I’d run a few halves before, but I’d always shied away from the full because it required so much more time. Who has time to run 10-15 miles multiple times in a week? But last spring, I decided to make time, and so train I did. It had its share of difficult moments, and some days my body felt absolutely miserable. After my first long run of 9 miles, I was so tired that all I could do was curl up on EQL’s couch and watch a movie. But as the training progressed, my body slowly got stronger, and by the end, I was cranking out double-digit mileage with virtually no trouble at all. Yes, some runs were grueling (12 miles around an indoor track, and 20 miles around Stone Mountain in the pouring rain weren’t exactly fun), but I got through them. And when race day came, I managed to do what I’d been doing all along: I just kept going.

That’s exactly what a marathon is: a deliberate choice to continue forward, to keep putting one foot in front of the other, mile after mile after mile. And the more that I think about it, the more convinced I become that a PhD is basically the academic (and very sedentary) version of a marathon. No, it’s not fun. Some days are harder than others, and oftentimes things just plain stink. But when you boil it down to the core, the key to success is to simply keep going.

And so I guess that’s what I’m going to do, putting one academic foot in front of the other. Thumbing through another file, visiting another archive, writing yet another mediocre draft of my half-formed thoughts. Someday it has to come together, right? And someday when I cross the finish line (or, in this case, the commencement stage), the process will have worked, I’ll be done, and it will have all been worth it.

Alright, that’s enough sitting and thinking for one day. It’s time to go for a run. Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten so much Nutella…

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