Heavy Holidays

christmas market
Christmas Market at Breitscheidplatz, Berlin.

Hollywood lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. Please.

img_4094
Light shining into Darkness. Stars for sale at the Breitscheidplatz Christmas Market.

Schlepp-tastic

luggage
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. 

Small Town (Not) America

FullSizeRender
My home for the week. 🙂

When you’re doing research for your dissertation, you go to where the sources are. Sometimes, that takes you to major European capitals, like Berlin. Other times, you travel to smaller but still prominent cities like Hannover or Koblenz. But occasionally, you find yourself researching smack dab in the middle of nowhere.

And, as you probably guessed, this week happens to be one of those times.

Although my dissertation frustration is still ongoing, I had a breakthrough shortly after posting my last blog entry. Thanks to some intensive Googling, the German white pages, and some old-school snail mail, I tracked down an archive with some really important sources. And that’s how I ended up in Gross Särchen, a tiny town in the German middle of nowhere roughly halfway Dresden and the Polish border.

Here I should point out that, though I hail from suburbia, I’ve been to my fair share of small towns. One doesn’t grow up in Kansas and go to school in Oklahoma without experiencing a few places that barely qualify for their dot on the map. Plus, during my semester in Austria, I’d visited several tiny European towns. And so through my experiences at home and abroad, I’d come to the conclusion that most small towns share a few common features. For American towns, this usually includes a gas station/convenience store (often with a Casey’s Pizza), a grocery store, and maybe, just maybe a stoplight. For European towns, the list would feature public transit and/or railway access, a church, and a small town square with maybe a restaurant or two and certainly an ATM.

… Or so I thought.

My first clue should have come while I was planning my trip. In response to my query on the Deutsche Bahn website, I received a message that “no routes were found” between Gross Särchen and Berlin. A similar search on Google Maps revealed that, while I could get here via public transit, I would need to take a bus. No train station = Clue #1.

My second clue should have been the housing situation. After I’d confirmed the dates with Herr Ness (who has the archive in his apartment), he offered to check with a nearby inn to see if they had rooms available. Upon hearing that they were booked up, he gave me the contact info for another bed and breakfast in the next town over. No second hotel option = Clue #2

My third would-be clue was closely tied to the first and second. For while I now had a way to get to my research location and a place to stay in the neighboring town (the hotel there luckily wasn’t full), I had no way of getting between the two. Another quick check on Google Maps showed that there were no connecting bus routes. Fortunately, Herr Ness offered to drive me each day. No bus routes = Clue #3.

Despite all of these very obvious clues, I was still fairly clueless about just how small this town would be. That is, until the bus dropped me off in a cul-de-sac in the middle of nowhere. Thinking that the bus driver must have been confused—after all, two different town names were listed on my ticket; maybe he had dropped me off at the wrong one—I pulled out my trusty Google Maps app and put in the hotel address. But to my surprise, I was in the right place, and that cul-de-sac was the closest thing to a town square this little dot on the map had. Three minutes and an abandoned-barn sighting later, I found myself at the front door of the Gasthof (Bed & Breakfast) where I’d be staying for the week.

If the preceding events could be considered hints or clues, then what happened next was a dead giveaway. And as I stepped inside the Gasthof’s restaurant/reception area, all conversation ceased and everyone turned in unison to stare at me. If it wasn’t clear before, it was painfully obvious now: I was in a very, very, very small town.

This in itself shouldn’t have been a problem. As an awkward person myself, I have (almost) no trouble with odd social dynamics. And I’ve traveled enough that I’ve grown rather accustomed to sticking out like a sore thumb. Besides, at least I was in Germany, where I could speak the language. No, my problem would be one of a much more tangible—or you might say “liquid”—nature: I didn’t have any money. That’s right, I’d managed to leave Berlin without making it to the ATM. Which meant that I’d showed up in the German version of Mayberry with a whopping 10 Euros and 73 cents in my wallet. And somehow those funds needed to last me for the week. Oops.

Here I should stop to clarify that, although my situation was looking rough, it could have been worse. My room came with breakfast and, since the restaurant was connected to the hotel (as I learned during my oh-so-awkward entrance), I could my meals “on my tab” to pay with my room at the end of the week. This meant that I needed to find a way to stretch my accidental 10-Euro budget across four lunches. With a pre-rumbling stomach, I stopped my mental calculating and called it night, hoping that I’d find a way to make it work. Otherwise, this was going to be a very long and hungry week.

At exactly 12:29 the next day, Herr Ness kicked me out for “Mittagspause”, and I began scouring the streets street in search of food. The first two restaurants I found were closed; that’s okay, one glance at the menu posted outside told me I couldn’t afford them anyway. Walking further along, I came upon a shop advertising schnitzel “to go”. But unsure whether that meant ready-to-eat schnitzel or the take-and-bake kind, I decided to keep walking, with my rumbling stomach and jangling Euro coins providing an unfortunate soundtrack to my day.

That’s when I saw it. Eureka! The capital “S” design that is a universal European sign for a savings bank! Against all odds, in this itty bitty town I had found a bank! Hustling across the street, I ran to the sign, only to have my hopes dashed. Though the “S” sign was indeed for a bank, it was for a “Fahrbar Filiale” or a mobile branch. So yes, there technically was a bank, but it only parked in this spot from 2:30 to 3 p.m. on Wednesdays and 11-12 p.m. on Fridays. Just my luck.

image3
So close and yet so far…

Annoyed, frustrated, and increasingly hangry, I headed back down the street. Before long, I came upon a bakery, and these words on the window caught my eye: “Hotdogs 1,55”. I didn’t need to be a math whiz to know that this price was in my budget (and I didn’t have to be a genius to realize that I wasn’t going to find any other food), so I went inside and ordered a hotdog. I must have sounded especially pathetic because she gave me some cookies to go with it.

And so, for the last four lunches, I have eaten a hotdog, mustard, and cookies at the bakery. No, it’s certainly not the most filling, tasty, or nutritious meal of my life, but it’s already become one of the most memorable… and not simply because of the difficulty I had in finding it. I hope I always remember this meal for a completely different reason:

It reminded me to be thankful.

You see, God has been unbelievably good to me, showering me with His blessings and more than providing for all my needs. I have a wonderful family, incredible friends, and the chance to do work that I (most of the time) love. And yet, although I have countless reasons to be thankful, I very rarely take the time to express my gratitude. If I like it when other people appreciate me or tell me “thanks” when I do small and very temporary things, how much more should I take the time to thank my Heavenly Father for caring for me? Every day, day and in and day out, He showers me with His blessings, and yet I take most of them for granted. I accept the gifts without even stopping to recognize, let alone thank, the Giver.

Monday afternoon and then every day during lunch this week I have been reminded to pause and thank God. For His kindness, for His goodness, and for hotdogs. And even though it’s just a small thing, and I still have such a long way to go in cultivating a heart of gratitude, I can’t help but think that this small-town week brought me a few more steps in the right direction.

Alright, that’s enough writing for one day. Now I need to look up bus schedules. I should probably make sure there is one back to Berlin tomorrow… 😉

image4
The one place where I’ve ever had a “usual.” 🙂

Dissertation Frustration

iPhone 110713 326
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…

IMG_3181.JPG

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!

 

“Where are you, Christmas?”

christmas market
The Christmas Market near Ku’damm in Berlin.

My dearest friends, acquaintances, and random people on the internet, I have some terrible news: Christmas is over. Today is December 29th, which means that we are now 361 days from our next Christmas. Thanks, Leap Year, for adding another day to our already-long Christmas wait.

We did our best to stretch it out and make it last. There were months of preparation, afternoons of shopping and crafting, hours of decorating and baking, miles put on the car or the Frequent Flyer miles compiled to visit relatives. Starting with Thanksgiving September, we listened to Christmas music, planned the decorations for our apartments and houses, and began plotting what gifts to buy our loved ones. And yet despite all of these attempts to extend our holiday season, Christmas cruelly reminded yet again us that it’s only 24 hours long, just like every other day of the year. And now here on Tuesday the 29th, the gifts have been unwrapped, the radio stations have ceased their Yuletide serenading, and many of us are already back at work, reminding us that soon—yes, very soon—life will return to its normal, everyday, often cheerless routine.

Now, I’m not trying to undersell Christmas or poo-poo it with a post-holiday depressed attitude. I actually had probably one of the most memorable and enjoyable Christmas seasons to date. After several weeks of enjoying Germany’s Christmas markets, I came home to Kansas and had a truly wonderful time with my family. We went to my Omi’s house and decorated Christmas cookies, we drove through our favorite neighborhoods to look at Christmas lights, and we even squeezed in a trip to Silver Dollar City, our favorite 1880s-themed amusement park in Branson, Missouri. Simple though it may seem, this Christmas with my family was truly lovely. And having been away from my parents since July—and from my sisters since far longer than that—I appreciated our time together this year even more than usual.

But now, whether I want to admit it or not, Christmas is over. In a little over a week, I’ll be flying back to Berlin, where the Christmas markets will have disappeared, the glühwein will be gone, and everyone will have settled back into their natural state of light-deprived semi-hibernation.

And now as I think about it, I can’t help but wonder: am I the only one who finds this a bit dissatisfying, if not anti-climactic? I mean, Christmas has the longest build-up of all the holidays. Can you name another holiday that has inspired so many songs (or so many covers of the same songs)? So many movies (and unnecessary sequels to those movies)? Can you think of another day of the year that is greeted with such anticipation by young and old, rich and poor, religious and agnostic alike? We go crazy for Christmas—some of us for months on end—and then before we know it, it’s over, and we’re left looking forward to this time next year, holding out the hope that maybe next Christmas will somehow last longer and be different.

I love Christmas. I truly do. But every year I experience this same discontented feeling. December 26th rolls around—talk about the most underappreciated day of the year—and I find myself wondering yet again, “Was that it?” Somehow it’s just never seemed fair to me that, after such a dramatic entrance, Christmas would just vanish so quickly without a trace. And I find this even more disappointing in light of so many of our favorite seasonal songs and movies, which remind us to have “the spirit of Christmas” and “keep Christmas in our hearts” all year long. Yes, I realize that these quotes come from cheesy, childish sources, and holiday movie specials are a poor choice for your life motto. But still for some reason, these phrases have always bothered me this year, and even more so this year. And now as I sit in my annual post-Christmas slump, I can’t seem to get them out of my head. Because it’s not just Disney who tells me these things; the Church does too, encouraging me to “live in light of Christmas” all year long. But what does that actually mean? And more importantly, how do we do it?

I’ve been wrestling with these questions for the last several days (getting a head start by thinking about them before Christmas Day. #efficiency). And while I don’t have a perfect, 5-step formula or a catchy slogan, I think I’m at least starting to arrive at an answer: Christmas leaves us, but Jesus never does. Let me explain.

In one sense, the post-Christmas funk is natural. Experiencing an emotional low after such a significant and highly-anticipated day makes complete sense. I bet Mary and Joseph even their own version of this after the very first Christmas. After all, if your labor pains result in a sky full of angels and a room full of worshipping shepherds, the reality of late-night feedings and diaper changings must have seemed a bit anti-climactic—and they were caring for the Son of God! But you see, for them Christmas wasn’t the end of a story; Christmas was the beginning of their lifetime being Jesus’ earthly parents.

I think the same principle applies to us today 2,000-some-odd years later. Christmas reminds us that Jesus has come to us, but, just like for Mary and Joseph, His presence didn’t end when the manger had been filled with feed again and the shepherds had returned to their sheep. And it doesn’t end for us either, even when the decorations and lights have been taken down and packed away for next year. It’s no accident that Matthew’s Gospel refers to Jesus as “Immanuel” or “God with us”. John puts it so beautifully, saying that Jesus “became flesh and made His dwelling among us.

You see, Jesus’ story with us began on Christmas and continues today. And I think it’s only by remembering and believing this truth—that He came to us, He loves us, and He is present with us now—that we can keep “the Christmas spirit” and its accompanying joy, anticipation, wonder, and awe alive with us every day of the year.

So even though Cindy Lou Who was right in asking, “Where are you, Christmas? Why can’t I find you?”, her natural feeling of confusion and loss was only part of the story. Because although Christmas has already come and gone, the One whom we celebrate hasn’t left us and never will.

Well, that’s enough for one day. I’m feeling hungry. Christmas cookies, anyone? 😉

 

No EQuaL

berlin wall hug edit
Note: This section of the Berlin Wall has “LOVE” spraypainted on it. The word “HATE” next to me is just an unfortunate coincidence. #shouldhavelookedmoreclosely #butatleastwelookcute

In Atlanta, my best friend and I call them “drive-by hugs”. They usually happen on weeknights when we technically don’t have time to hang out. After a quick text or short heads-up phone call, one of us drops by the other’s house for what, in theory, should be a brief hug in the driveway. But more often than not, these brief hugs lead to hour-long conversations, turning the “drive-by hug” into a well-intended misnomer. But that’s the danger—or rather the benefit—of best friends: 10 minutes become two hours before you realize it, and you wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sadly, though, since I left Georgia this May, my life has been drive-by-hugless. Until two weeks ago, that is. That’s right; Elizabeth (or EQL, pronounced “Equal”) took the drive-by-hug to a whole new level, upgrading the 10-minute convo for a 10-day stay with me in Europe, even taking off work from the Microbiology lab where she is a PhD student. That’s right, she set a new (and likely unbeatable) friendship record by coming 4,993 miles just to give me a hug.

And just like on the weeknights in Atlanta, the time flew by, with three days in Kraków, 6 days in Berlin. We ate pierogi, visited museums, celebrated Thanksgiving with my friends (twice!), and compared the Glühwein at different Christmas markets. We even took a daytrip to Wittenberg, home of Martin Luther, where we may have had a bit too much fun exploring his house-turned-museum.

luther collage

To say that the week was wonderful would be an understatement. More fitting words would be “sparkly” and “magical”, and not just because of all the Christmas lights we saw along the way. For 10 days, I got to show my best friend my homes-away-from-home in Berlin and Kraków. We took way too many pictures, ate way too much RitterSport and cinnamon almonds, and reminisced about old memories while making all new ones. We laughed, we cried… and even laugh-cried through one last hug at the airport on Monday, prompting a nearby Brit to astutely note, “You must care about each other a lot.” Well done. We shall knight you “Sir Obvious.”

It’s now been a week and a half since Elizabeth left, and my heart and schedule have finally returned back to normal, though I still miss her dearly. My pastor here in Berlin captured it perfectly in an email to me the day after she left: “I hope that you’re doing reasonably well and that the gap isn’t too big… more often than not, best friends leave behind large gaps when they go.”

How true that is. You see, while I have found met some wonderful people in Germany at church, through my living situation, and even at the archive, and I am grateful for the chance to get to know them, the reality is that I am still getting to know them. Friendships, like anything worthwhile in life, take time. And so this is yet another reason why having Elizabeth come to visit, even for a few days, was such a gift: she already knows me (sometimes, I fear, even better than I know myself). We’ve spent the last 3.5 years developing this friendship, being there for each other in ups and in downs, and stumbling our way through emotional rollercoaster that is PhD-student life. From that first fall of graduate school when we accidentally spray painted the back patio of my rental house purple (oops) to last Monday when we had to say goodbye for another 10 months, we’ve weathered a lot of storms together, big and small, and our friendship only becomes stronger.

EQL hates sappy things and she’s not a huge fan of “words of affirmation”, so I know that this next paragraph will likely make her cringe. (In fact, EQL, you may want to spare yourself the trouble and just stop reading now, haha). But I still need to say it all the same: Elizabeth is one of the best people I know, and I am so, so grateful to be able to call her my best friend. She encourages me, challenges me, and even makes gluten-free food for me (Read: if it hadn’t been for her cooking I would have starved during my exams last fall. But seriously). She is selfless, wise, and unwavering. She helps me see the world differently, and she reminds me to be brave even when I just want to curl up into a ball and cry. She shows me what it means to be faithful in the midst of difficult circumstances, and she keeps me going even when I feel like giving up. She reminds me continually of who I am in Christ, and she loves me with His love: unconditionally, compassionately, and steadfastly. My mom captured it well last week, when I texted her about being “EQL-sick”, reminding me that “God knows exactly what kind of friend you need and gives one.” And so at the risk of further sappiness, I have to agree. Elizabeth isn’t the friend I would have designed for myself—history and microbiology are just scratching the surface of all the ways we are different—but she is exactly the friend I needed. God is so good, and I am so grateful. So even though I am really, really sad that Elizabeth’s visit has come and gone, I’m even more thankful now for her friendship. She truly has no EQuaL. 😉

EQL Brandenburg editIMG_20151126_133711349_HDRIMG_3607.JPG