Free “Fall”-ing

img_20151126_133648899

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. 😉

img_0472-1
Photographed on November 30th. Autumn in Atlanta really does last forever. 
Advertisements

Berliner Blues

umbrellas

When I started this blog a loooooooooong time ago (in “internet years”, 4.5 years is an eternity), I planned to post here often. Although I started out strong, life got busy, and after a few months I faded off. I had a new burst of energy in 2014 and made a New Year’s resolution to write once a week. However, this soon became “twice a month” and then faded into “almost never” once the semester got crazy.

Sometimes, like when the school year is in full swing and crunch-time is upon me, I simply don’t have the time and/or mental energy to write. This was the case during my first semester of grad school and then during my initial summer learning Polish. It turns out that learning to decipher academic texts and (impossible) Slavic languages can be equally exhausting. During other times of infrequent posting, I simply haven’t had consistent access to the Internet or a computer. My summers working at Kanakuk are the best example of this.

But there are other times when my lack of posting isn’t due to my lack of internet connection or energy. Sometimes, I simply have trouble figuring out what to say. Paradoxical though it may sound, in these moments I feel as if I have both too much and too little going on in my mind. It’s in times like these that I go into “avoidance mode”, looking for every possible excuse to avoid opening up a blank document on my computer screen. For instance, tonight (note: I wrote this post last Friday) I ran 6 miles, skyped with friends, cleaned my room, washed all my laundry, and even baked* a cake (*not from scratch). As I was finishing up all the things, I then tried to find something else to do next. And though I was this close to curling up with an episode of Sherlock (news flash: I finally got Netflix!), I wandered back to the kitchen table and began writing the words you are reading now.

You see, most of the time when sit down to write a blog entry, I have a pretty clear idea of where I’m headed. I’ll already have chosen a funny anecdote for the beginning, and I know basically which point I’d like to make. Which is another reason I was avoiding writing this tonight: I have no idea where this is going and, as you probably noticed, this post isn’t particularly funny. But I sometimes life is like that, and so tonight I guess I’ll just share with you what’s on my mind.

Honestly, the last few weeks have been kind of hard. In theory, everything should be great. After all, I’m a single adult living in Berlin, I can travel around Europe whenever I want, and I have easy access to some of the best culture, museums—and chocolate—in the world. And in that sense, I suppose that I am “living the dream.” But just because it’s a dream doesn’t mean it’s perfect. I miss my family and friends, I miss my church, and I miss my life back home. Yes, technology is awesome, and I am so grateful for What’s App, Facebook, Skype, email, FaceTime, iMessage, etc., but coordinating around time differences can be tricky, and my friends and family have their own busy lives. And, let’s be real, even with all the above resources and apps, they still haven’t invented a way to receive trans-Atlantic hugs.

Here I should pause and say that I’ve met some wonderful people here in Berlin. God was so good to lead me to an amazing church my first Sunday (the pastor’s wife is even from Nebraska! #Midwest), I’ve joined a small group, and I’m starting to make some friends. But friendships, by nature, take time to deepen. And though I am doing my best to be patient, a huge part of me misses having people who really know me. I’ve moved enough times to know this will eventually happen, but in this moment, I can’t help craving that feeling of being mutually known and loved.

Berlin is an amazing city, and I’m really thankful that my main archive just happened to be located here. (How different a research year I’d be having if I were stuck in the middle of nowhere!) This is a perfect place to be studying German history, the museums are incredible, and there are more cultural and academic events and opportunities than I could possibly ever take advantage of. But Berlin is also very big—very, very big. Especially compared with itty-bitty Krakow or university-town Graz, Berlin is gigantic. And while I’m starting to figure out how to efficiently navigate the S- and U-Bahn and I’m finally biking places without getting (quite so) hopelessly lost, Berlin still feels massive. And it should; after all, 3.6 million people live here. And as a result, it’s easy to feel very, very small and very, very insignificant.

So there you go. It’s a Friday night in the party capital of Europe, and I’m sitting at home blogging about how I feel homesick, lonely, and insignificant. Lame though I know it is, this is just where I am right now. So, other than Netflixing my cares away, what am I supposed to do? And how should I respond when the dream I’m living also comes with some less-than-stellar feelings?

I don’t have any perfect answers. (If I did, I probably wouldn’t be writing this rather pathetic blog entry.) But in the midst of my less-than-awesome mood—which is not in any way helped by Berlin’s perpetually gray sky—I have found comfort in these two verses. Genesis 16:13, “You are a God who sees’,” and Psalm 139, “You have searched me and known me… If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” All of these things that feel so absent right now, God promises to provide: He is the Friend who never fails (and is never 6 or 7 time zones away), He knows me completely and loves me wholly, and He fills each day of my life with value, worth, and significance.

I know that my homesickness will eventually pass, that I’ll develop deeper friendships here, and that I’ll start to feel more connected and at home in this place. Someday, hopefully not too far down the line, Berlin will join my growing list of “homes away from home.” But right now, in this moment and on this Friday night, I’m not there yet, and things still feel rather crummy. And while I don’t feel okay, I guess God wants me to trust that everything will still be okay. And maybe He wants this to be an opportunity to grow my faith, to believe that His words are true and to trust that He is caring for me even now.

Alright, that’s enough writing for tonight. Maybe it is actually time for Netflix. Sherlock, anyone? 🙂

Kodak Moments

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

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

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

... case in point.
… case in point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

camera and me