(Not So) Sweet Emotion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Afraid (Not)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six Years

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6 years is a long time.

In 6 years, a newborn becomes a first grader.

In 6 years, Jupiter travels halfway around the sun.

In 6 years, World War II began and ended.

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

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

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

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

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Meet Latte! Isn’t she the cutest?! 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cappucci-yes

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I never meant to become addicted to coffee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

… except it didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Running on Fumes

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A ferret in a “dead sleep.” #jealous

Steffi confession #153: I have a weakness for terribly corny jokes.

And when I say “terribly corny”, I mean that they should appear on Laffy Taffy wrappers—or they likely already have. Or they warrant a sassy response like, “3rd grade called; they want their joke back.” As a former summer camp counselor to elementary-school kids, I have collected quite a few of them over the years. Here are a few of the most memorable:

Q: What’s the most musical part of a chicken?
A: The drumstick!

Q: Why did the chicken cross the playground?
A: To get to the other slide!

And my all-time favorite:

Q: What happens when you stand in front of a bus?
A: You get tired!
Q: What happens when you stand behind a bus?
A: You get exhausted!

I’m not exaggerating when I say that, every time I tell that last joke, I crack up, regardless of whether anyone else finds it funny.

…I’m also not exaggerating when I say that right now I am absolutely exhausted.

On the one hand, it makes complete sense that I would be tired. I mean, I spent 9+ hours today at an archive, reading and taking notes on Polish primary sources. Of course my brain is sleepy after that!

But I’m afraid that I’m not simply tired from today. Because if this were only a “gosh I had a long work day” kind of tired, then a good night’s sleep and a cup of coffee tomorrow  would cure it. No, I think what I am experiencing now is a deeper, more prolonged type of weariness, the cumulative effect of many long days of working toward a very delayed gratification.

Again, this makes sense. After all, I left for Europe almost exactly a year ago today, and I hit the ground running. After another 6-week Polish class in Krakow, I started my archival research in Berlin. In the last several months, I’ve basically been on a perpetual/extended research trip, visiting archives all over Germany and now Poland. While I have taken some wonderful breaks, such as during visits from friends and family as well as some fun trips of my own, I have spent most of the last 10 months doing research and, with the Polish class, the last 12 months intensively learning in some capacity. There seems to be an inverse relationship between my energy stores and my computer’s harddrive: the more filled the latter becomes with notes and document photographs, the less capacity my brain has to handle it. Like someone standing in front of  AND behind the bus, I am wiped. I’m also really temped to buy this mug:

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Here I should say that I’m not trying to complain or feel sorry for myself, although that’s probably how it sounds. I know that I’ve been given incredible opportunities to both pursue a graduate degree and to conduct research in Europe. And I am immeasurably grateful for this time; I truly am. But the truth is that, as much as I enjoy being a “professional nerd”, sometimes all this studying can leave me feeling pretty tired. I guess “living the dream” doesn’t necessarily come with restful sleep.

In addition to my brain being tired, my body isn’t particularly happy with me either. Apparently sitting on one’s rear and staring at a computer screen for days on end isn’t the healthiest lifestyle choice. So to counteract my current sedentary state, I decided to train for another marathon. In theory, this was a great idea because it ensures that I am physically active at least 4-5 times a week. But in reality, most days it feels absolutely terrible. You see, when you try to run long distances after sitting for 9-10 hours each day, your body responds by getting very, very angry. Or at least mine does. No matter how hard I try to pick up the pace, my times are the slowest they’ve been in years, if not ever. I just can’t seem to kick my body into gear. Like my brain, my body no longer wants to cooperate. I guess it’s worn out too.

On top of this mental and physical weariness, I am also spiritually spent. Starting at the beginning of June, I decided to pick a topic each morning and then pray about it throughout the day. And then almost on cue, the world decided to melt down. Now I have a hard time picking just one item for each day; there are way too many injustices and tragedies to go around. And it seems that every time I check the news, another one hits the headlines. My heart hurts for the world around me, as pain and suffering seem to multiply by the second. And though the Bible calls us to “mourn with those who mourn”, this too can be draining.

Fortunately, there is at least a temporary end in sight. After finishing up the Polish portion of my research on Friday, I’ll leave for a much-needed two-week vacation. I’m hoping that this break will rejuvenate me and put some of the “pep back in my step”, metaphorically and literally (I’d love to start clocking some decent running times again.) But as much as I am looking forward to it, I also recognize that my current weariness is likely not a one-time-only thing. Because although I won’t necessarily spend almost an entire year doing research by myself in foreign countries, I will inevitably end up in tedious and tiring circumstances again for extended periods of time. From what I can tell, that’s kind of how life goes. So the question remains: what in the world can I do about it?

I don’t have any magic answers. (And if I’m entirely honest, my first response is to sleep and sleep and sleep.) But even in the midst of the weariness, I keep coming back to these two things: to keep going and to keep coming.

I already discussed the first one in a post a few months back, so I’ll be brief about it here. As Woody Allen said, 80% of life is just showing up, or in this case, keeping going. For me, that means dragging myself out of bed and to the archive for the umpteenth day in a row, if for no other reason than that’s the task before me for the day, and I want to be faithful where I am.

And the second one: keep coming. In one of my all-time favorite verses, Jesus tells us, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” While I don’t necessarily feel magically refreshed by spending time in prayer or God’s Word, I know that Jesus promises to give me His rest if I come to Him. And so, I do my best to just keep coming, day after day after day, trusting that He is faithfully filling me up even if I don’t always feel it.

Alright, that’s enough for tonight. It’s time for this sleepy grad student to head to bed.

Hey, speaking of bedtime, have you heard about the new corduroy pillows? They’re making headlines. 😉

 

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:

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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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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. 😉

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