(No) Going Solo

DCIM100GOPRO
Sushi Party! 🙂

I am a hopeless extrovert.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Going to Pot(tery)

bowls

I’ve done a lot of dumb things in my time, and I’ll be the first to admit that my life feels like a long series of blonde moments. And while this inherent blondeness permeates most all areas of my life, it manifests itself most acutely while I am traveling.

The first problem is my poor sense of direction. Although this had been a “known issue” for my entire life, my parents first recognized its extent during my senior year of high school. That winter I was started taking an acting class at a theater downtown. I had taken this route dozens of times in the past, but this winter was my first time driving there on my own. After the class finished at 10 p.m., I drove myself home… until I found myself at a Waffle House in the middle of nowhere. Trying to keep my composure, I called my mom, and together (with the help of Google Maps) we pieced together where I was and the route I needed to take. For 18th birthday a couple weeks later, I received a Garmin GPS with my parents’ encouraging explanation: “so you don’t die.” Sweet.

Other times, logistical problems have been my downfall. For instance, during my semester in Austria, I planned to meet a friend in Ireland over Easter break. To do this, I needed to take a train from Graz to Vienna and then another train to Bratislava, where I would catch a flight to Dublin. All should have gone perfectly except for one tiny detail: I forgot to check where the airport was in relation to the train station. Turns out that, like most airports, Bratislava one was a good ways out of town. After a very expensive taxi ride, I did catch my flight, but I left my some of my pride at the Bratislava train station.

And sometimes I fall victim to plain, old-fashioned mix-ups. One of the most memorable happened over Thanksgiving weekend my senior year of college. The Oklahoma State-Oklahoma “Bedlam” football match-up was in Stillwater that year, so my sisters and I decided to cut our break short in order to cheer on our cowboys. Here I should note that the trip to Stillwater is ridiculously simple. It takes exactly 5 hours door-to-door with 2 left turns: one to get on I-35 heading south from Kansas City and one to get on Highway 51 heading into Stillwater. Back when I chose to attend OSU (not long after my accidental Waffle House experience), my parents exclaimed with relief, “The drive is so simple, not even you can mess it up!” And I hadn’t messed it up—until that Saturday. About halfway through our trip, we pulled off for a bathroom break at a rest stop. In this section of the Interstate, the only rest areas are McDonalds/gas station complexes located between the north- and south-bound highways. When we pulled off, the parking lot on the south-bound side was full (apparently everyone was going to Bedlam), so I drove around to the other side. After we’d taken care of business, we got back on the highway and continued our trip… and then we started seeing signs for Wichita again. Yep, you guessed it; I got straight back on the highway, having forgotten that I’d driven around to the other side. Navigational Universe: 1; Steffi: 0.

These are just a few select examples; the actual list goes on and on. So it’s safe to conclude that, when it comes to travel, I’m not exactly the sharpest bulb in the box or the brightest knife in the drawer. But although these above examples are each unfortunate, one of the most embarrassing, most frustrating, and most discouraging of my failed travel experiences happened two weeks ago. Let me explain.

If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you’ll know that I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Poland. But you probably don’t know that I am mildly obsessed with Polish pottery. It’s colorful and bright, every piece is handmade, and it’s incredibly inexpensive—what’s not to love?! But although I love Polish pottery, I don’t own much of it. So I decided to change that, by buying some pottery to take back to the States when I’m there for wedding in May. The best place to purchase this pottery is in an itty-bitty town called Bolesławiec, where the factories—and, more importantly, the factory outlets—are located. The easiest way to reach this town is by car, but since I have a fear of driving on the German Autobahn, I decided to go via public transit. The only way to do this was as follows: take a 6 a.m. bus from Berlin to Görlitz (on the German-Polish border) and then 2 trains from Görlitz to Bolesławiec; reverse said route to reach Berlin again at 12:30 a.m. When I checked my schedule, the best and perhaps the only time for this crazy all-day shopping safari was Saturday April 16th. And so I booked my tickets, put my soon-to-be-filled carryon suitcase by the door, set my alarm for 4:47 a.m. and went to bed.

The morning came far too quickly, but I still managed to get to the Berlin Südkreuz station a whole 15 minutes before my scheduled departure. And then I waited…. and waited… and waited. No bus came, and since the one bus in the lot didn’t have my destination listed, I assumed it wasn’t mine. Plus, I expected the bus to be coming from the main station, as was the case for my trip to Groβ Särchen (aka “hotdog town”) a few weeks before. And so I didn’t think anything of it… until it pulled away and no other buses came. With a sinking feeling in my stomach and a rising panic in my chest, I called the 24/7 bus service line, and—you guessed it—that non-labeled bus was mine. I had perfectly organized my trip, woke up well before dawn, and shivered for 15 minutes only to stand stupidly on the sidewalk and watch as my bus drove away. Epic. Fail.

But I wasn’t just upset; I was livid. How could I have been so stupid? Was my brain not screwed on straight? Why didn’t I think to just ask the bus driver? Why didn’t the bus driver ask me if I was one of his passengers? (after all, I clearly fit the description of ‘female passenger with hand luggage’ that was surely on his checklist). What the heck was wrong with me? My self-loathing soon mixed with tears, as the early-morning state of sleep deprivation began to take its toll. Angry, frustrated, and embarrassed, I took my still-empty carryon home and went back to bed.

A two-hour nap and some coffee later, I sat down to journal through what had happened. I’d clearly made a mistake—and a pretty laughable one, at that—but why did I react so strongly? And why, of all the emotions that I felt (including anger, frustration, and sadness) did shame and embarrassment rank toward the top? After all, no one besides my mom and a select few friends even knew about my day trip to Poland. Shame and embarrassment stem from the judgment, expected or real, of others. So if no one besides my closest friends and my mom knew I messed up—and their response would be to give me a virtual transatlantic hug—why did I feel so embarrassed and ashamed?

I puzzled over this question for several minutes, between sips of much-needed coffee. And as so often happens when I prayerfully journal, I soon arrived at an answer: I had made an idol of my own competence. Or put differently, I had made “not making really dumb mistakes” central to my worth and identity.

You see, as much as I make self-deprecating jokes and share my failures and misadventures on this blog, deep down I long to have it all together. Yes, I enjoy making people laugh with my often-unfortunate exploits, but if I’m honest, I’d much rather do things right the first time and not make dumb mistakes. And while I think it’s normal to want that—after all, who wants to be a basket case all the time?—at some point I took it too far. Somewhere along the way, I crossed over from a normal/good desire to be on top of things into making it my identity. And when you place your identity in anything finite, when you start to see yourself through any earthly lens, it will inevitably shatter.

But fortunately for me, and for all of us, the story doesn’t have to end there. As soon as I recognized my sin, God was quick to remind me of His grace: Christ died for me. And because of that, I am immeasurably valuable, incredibly treasured, and unbelievably loved. God’s love for me and what Christ did for me—these are what define me. These make up the core of my identity. Yes, I may try to find my worth in other things, be it academics, accolades, or successfully catching a 6 a.m. bus. But even as I chase after these other sources of worth, God always reins me back in, gently shattering my mirror of false identity and lifting my gaze back to the Cross, where it belongs.

Alright, that’s enough for today. I think I’ll spend the evening planning another trip… 😉

boleslawiec
Yes, I did end up making it to Boleslawiec a couple days later. The locals were clearly happy to see me. 

 

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!

 

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

Easy as 1, 2, 3

“She could, but she didn’t want to. She wanted to, but she couldn’t.” … The second one is how I feel about Polish.

If you want to feel great about yourself, don’t try learn Polish.

Seriously, I can think of no more effective way to feel incompetent, insufficient, and all-around dumb… except maybe by taking Calc II as a history major.

In case you aren’t aware, I started learning Polish in June 2013, when by a series of seemingly random events I ended up at the University of Pittsburgh’s Summer Language Institute. When I first started, I didn’t even know what pierogi or pączki were; I just politely nodded and smiled when people talked about them (though by now I’ve eaten more pierogi than I could possibly count, haha). That first summer, I spent 10 weeks in intensive language courses, with the first 6 in Pittsburgh and the last 4 in Kraków. I continued last summer with another 6 weeks in Kraków, and this year, thanks to the kindness of the University of Pittsburgh Summer Language Institute staff, I’m finishing up another 6-week course in Kraków before my research year in Berlin.

If you’ve ever tried learning a foreign language, you know that the acquisition process comes with ups and downs. But when you’re riding one of the “ups”, you feel like you can conquer the world; nothing is too difficult for you. You can have conversations with native speakers (who aren’t your teachers), you can befriend the local grocery store clerk, ask for a half kilo of mushrooms at your neighborhood produce market, and even correctly answer that guy on the street when he asks you what time it is. When these moments happen, you feel amazing, great, fantastic, like you can conquer the world. And when you have those moments while learning Polish, you find yourself this close to buying one of these t-shirts:

superpower

But the Polish-gods don’t like people to be happy, at least not for very long. And sure enough, as soon as I was finally feeling confident about my Polish-speaking skills, I encountered my worst language-learning nightmare:

NUMBERS.

Yes, I know what you are thinking. Counting is one of the most basic parts of every language; everyone who’s ever ordered a taco knows how to count to 10. And I did learn to count to 10 way back in my first week at Pittsburgh. But that’s not how Polish numbers work. In fact, they very rarely look like that, unless you’re counting to three before taking a picture or playing hide-and-go-seek.

You see, the numbers are easy if all you’re doing is counting or basic math. But heaven help you if you want to actually use them for anything else. Want to buy two bananas to share with your two sisters? You’re going to need two different words for “2”. Hoping to find 2 chairs so you can say that you and your friend are sitting on these 2 chairs? Again, you’re going to need two different words for “2” (and these will be different from the two “2’s” you already used in the first example!) That’s right; Polish has something like 18 different ways to decline their numbers! That means there are approximately 18 different ways to say “2”, depending on the gender, number, and case of the noun you’re describing!

But the number insanity doesn’t stop there. Because as if the above examples weren’t terrible enough, the Polish language has a special set of numbers that are only used when describing groups of men and women (but you have to KNOW that there are men AND women in the group; you can’t just assume), groups of children and/or baby animals, and permanently plural nouns like scissors, glasses, and doors. Just to recap, that’s—

Special numbers for CHILDREN, BABY ANIMALS, SCISSORS, AND DOORS.

The other day a friend told me that a Polish language textbook began with the following sentence: “the Polish number system is so complex that no one has ever successfully explained it fully.”

Quit while you’re ahead? More like, “quit before you even start.” Which is what this particular friend did.

One thing is for certain, Polish is not for the faint of heart. In fact, if I had known exactly how difficult it would be, I’m not sure I would have started. Some days I find myself wishing I had opted for an “easy” language like Italian or French. And yet for some reason—maybe I like challenges, something about communism intrigued me, I like to sound cooler than I am?—I decided to go with Polish. Deep down, I knew that if Polish were easier, it wouldn’t be worth it.

The other day as I was complaining about Polish numbers (yet again), I realized something: I use the same exact language to describe my walk with Jesus. Christianity, like Polish, is not for the faint of heart. If I had known how difficult, confusing, and frustrating following Jesus could be, I may have thought twice about it. Sanctification (the process of being made more like Jesus) can be challenging and painful, and oftentimes I feel like I take one step forward for every two steps back. Right when I feel like I’ve finally mastered a spiritual concept, I then find out that there is so much I don’t know or understand. Or to continue with the Polish metaphor, I then discover whole slews of scissors and doors and baby bunnies waiting to be numbered. And that can feel daunting and discouraging.

If I’m honest, sometimes I get really frustrated with this life of discipleship. Sometimes the criticism and correction—gentle, loving, and well-intended though I know it is—feels like a bunch of red marks on my grammar homework. But then I have to remember that a) Jesus never said that following Him would be easy (kind of like the “spoiler alert” at the beginning of my friend’s grammar textbook), and even more importantly b) the most worthwhile things in life tend to be difficult. The challenge creates the beauty. What’s true of Polish is even more so for our walk with Jesus: not easy, but therefore worthwhile.

Well, that’s all I have time for today. Now I need to get back to my homework. Before I start, though, has anyone seen my scissors? I had two pairs, but one seems to have disappeared… 😉

Cute, but terrifying.
Polish: the only language where 6 baby bunnies are terrifying.

26 :)

A not-yet-boiled pierog, which looks remarkably like a smiley face. :)
A not-yet-boiled pierog, which looks remarkably like a smiley face. 🙂

It’s that time of year again. Time for Steffi to have another birthday.

Which means it’s also time for Steffi to dedicate a blog entry to reflecting on all that has happened since her previous birthday. So in keeping with tradition, Steffi has compiled a list of life lessons from the past year. She will now stop writing in the 3rd person (she knows that referring to oneself in the 3rd person is slightly obnoxious, but she figured she could get away with it—at least temporarily—because it is her birthday), and she will commence her self-reflective list-making. 🙂

25 was a big year. I finished up my graduate coursework (I’ll never have to take another class again! Yay!… oh wait. Now I have to teach. #details), I completed a half-marathon in Nashville in a time of 1:51.30, beating my previous personal best by a whole 7 ½ minutes, I took an unconventional spring break trip to Holland, Michigan, and experienced a true northern “heat wave” (ie, when the March temperatures reached—gasp!—a whopping 33 degrees Fahrenheit). Along these weather lines, I survived my first southern Snowpocalypse and even taught my friends the joys of snow-diapering (far superior to sledding) and making snow-ice cream. Delicious!

The summer was equally memorable, with an 8-week trip to Germany and Poland by way of Kansas (because that makes so much sense geographically). While autumn left much to be desired in terms of sleep and a social life, the satisfaction of passing my comprehensive exams made all the hours spent as a “library troll” (at least mostly) worthwhile. And so with that fairly sappy introduction, I will move onto the part you’ve all be eagerly waiting for….

Steffi’s 25 biggest lessons of being 25 (Note: my initial list included 37 points. Apparently I’m a hurry to age, haha):

  1. The Polish words for “Kathy” and “buckwheat” are essentially the same.
  2. Babies don’t universally hate me. At least when they are sleeping. 🙂 (shout-out to Blake, my brand-new baby cousin).
  3. Fried pierogi > boiled pierogi. Hands down.
  4. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton is still my favorite book.
  5. Never walk through a nature preserve after it rains. Unless you enjoy the brisk crunch of snail shells beneath your shoes.
  6. I will never be too old for sleepovers.
  7. The Emory shuttle waits for no one. Even when it’s pouring down rain.
  8. God hears and answers specific prayers.
  9. You never know who you’ll meet in Poland.
  10. Sunsets are worth catching.
  11. Natural Gas companies aren’t perfect.
  12. I am capable of more than I think.
  13. When the motor in your washing machine breaks, you should probably talk to your landlady sooner rather than later. Because no matter how much you hope the machine will magically fix itself, odds are that it won’t.
  14. I actually enjoy hiking.
  15. Grad school and acne go together.
  16. Even extroverts need solitude sometimes.
  17. I can write 24 pages in 24 hours.
  18. Even 5 years later, Erasmus friendships are such a gift.
  19. Kansas City has a world-class baseball team. (See what I did there? #punny)
  20. Being single isn’t a bad thing.
  21. If traveling in a foreign country, don’t use the self-check-out lane.
  22. Whether in Kansas City or Minnesota, weddings are worth the trip.
  23. How we view God directly impacts how we live.
  24. I am still addicted to Milka bars.
  25. “When I am weak, then I am strong.”

All in all, 25 was an incredible year, full of laughter, friendships, and meaningful conversations. Perhaps like never before, I witnessed God’s hand shaping my life and orchestrating each day. But 25 also contained its share of challenges, with its many “ups” matched by a set of corresponding “downs.” Because for all its joy and life, 25 was also a year of loneliness, frustration, anxiety, and discouragement. I complained more than I care to admit, and I wasted more time worrying than I spent having a rock-solid faith. But it was in the midst of this fear and frustration that I came to understand what Paul meant when he wrote, “But [the Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me10That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

You see, as unpleasant as these low points were, it was during them that I discovered Jesus to be kinder, closer, more faithful and more loving than I had ever dared to hope or imagine. And because I have experienced His presence and His care in this deep, real, and personal way, I can’t help but love Him—truly love Him—all the more.

So here’s to you, 25. You were great, you were challenging, and I’m not sure I would repeat you if given the chance. But I am thankful for how you shaped me more into the person I am today. 26, you have a tough act to follow. But since the Author of my story is infinitely creative, I have a sneaking suspicion that you’ll be up for the challenge. 😉

My favorite photo from 25. :) Credit to my very patient from Anja.
My favorite photo from 25. 🙂 Credit to Anja, my very skilled (and patient) friend.

“Reality” Check

Confession: I’m not a fan of reality TV.

Yes, I know these shows are super popular and some of them are fairly clever. The UK-based “Farmer wants a Wife” has even become an international sensation, with spin-offs in 24 countries, including Sweden, France, Australia, Slovakia, Lithuania and Norway. (Apparently, the CW made its own version in 2008, but unfortunately I don’t remember seeing commercials for it. #bummer). And I realize that millions of people watch them, so they must have some redeeming qualities. So maybe before I dismiss them completely, I should try to figure out why I don’t like them.

My family’s lack of cable TV could be the problem. Maybe if I were able to watch the real versions of shows like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Say “Yes” to the Dress I would find them more compelling. But for some reason, the “off-brand” versions on basic cable just don’t cut it for me.

Maybe some reality shows are just too “real” for me. Take What Not to Wear, for example. Some poor, unfashionable soul is “nominated” by friends and family to get a wardrobe makeover. With the help of fashion experts, this person is transformed from hopelessly dull to unbelievably stylish in less than an hour. At the end, they are confident, chic, and ready to take on the world. And you’re probably wondering what I could possibly have against a show like that. Because maybe What Not to Wear hits a little too close to home…

... Yes, I actually wore this outfit in real life.
Yes, I actually wore this outfit in real life. … And yes, I actually thought it was cool.

…Enough said.

Or maybe some shows are just plain silly. Don’t believe me? Look at Bridezillas. Yes, I realize that these women are under tremendous stress (planning a wedding seems akin to running a small country) and being continually filmed probably adds to the pressure. But intentionally becoming the wicked witch of the white dress? Who does that?! And what’s worse is that men are willing to marry these women despite their appearing on a show called Bridezillas! Someone please explain to me how that is not THE most major “red flag” of all! Bridezillas is silly. I rest my case.

Okay, okay, enough with the ranting. Though these are all valid points, if I am honest with myself, none of them is the actual reason behind my anti-reality-show sentiments. Because if I am being completely candid, the real underlying problem is this:

Reality shows remind me of what I don’t have… especially in the relationship category.

Now I know you are probably thinking, “Steffi, do you want a farmer who is looking for love?” or “Steffi, are you jealous of Bridezilla?!” or (quite possibly worst of all) “Steffi, are you going to start wearing pastel-colored short overalls again?!” The answers are no, no, and (maybe) no. But they aren’t entirely off. Let me explain.

I’ve never been much of a dreamer, but my whole life I’ve always assumed that I would date, get married and have a family. And I’ve trusted that God would fulfill this in His way and time. (I’ve even blogged about it–surprise!) Recently, I’ve seen Him do exactly that in many peoples’ lives. In fact, all but a few of my closest friends are married or are headed in that direction. And every time I check my Facebook, I notice another friend has gotten hitched (often when I didn’t even realize they had started dating—whoops.) I am so very happy for all these people, and I wish them all the best with what God clearly has for them. And in the meantime, I will simply keep waiting on God to carry out His plan. That’s been my outlook for the last few years: Trust that the Lord has someone for me, and that He’ll bring him along at the right time.

Until yesterday, that is. It was the early afternoon, and I was heading from my apartment to downtown Krakow. During my ten-minute walk down this very long street (appropriately named “Ulica Długa”, which is Polish for “Long Street”), I found myself thinking again about my singleness and when my “day” would come. (Unfortunately, these thoughts are especially common here because Długa happens to be Krakow’s wedding district. I’ve counted at least 12 wedding dress stores, 8 shoe boutiques, 6 flower stores, and even a random place to buy fancy, old-fashioned hats). So as I was walking down the długa Długa and asking God yet again how to be faithful until He brings my guy along, a quiet thought pierced my heart:

“What if I never bring him along, Steffi? Would I be enough for you?”

Forgetting my mission to get to the city, I stopped dead in my tracks. This was a moment of spiritual de-ja-vu. I’d heard a question like this from God before, right before I found out that I didn’t get the Fulbright three years ago. Surely I was just remembering that experience. So I resumed my walking—until it came again:

“What if singleness is my plan for you? Would you still praise Me then?”

I stopped again, conviction shooting like ice water through my veins. And in that instant, I understood a very difficult truth: I had put my hope in God’s promised blessings rather than in God Himself. And in the process, I fell headlong into that ancient but deadly sin of idolatry.

But what exactly is idolatry? The word sounds foreign to our sophisticated, twenty-first century ears. The answer is simple. It means desiring or loving something more than God. Jimmy Needham, one of my favorite singers, puts it like this:

“Anything I put before my God is an idol
Anything I want with all my heart is an idol
Anything I can’t stop thinking of is an idol
Anything that I give all my love is an idol.”

Our hearts can turn anything—even good things like family, service, or school—into idols when we give them the attention, love or glory that only belongs to God. What’s worse is that we do this all the time, usually without even realizing it. John Calvin was right when he called the human heart “an idol-making factory.” And when it comes to idols, God has a no-tolerance policy. After all, the First Commandment says “you shall have no other gods before Me.” He truly is a “jealous God.” But why? Because He is a tyrant? No, on the contrary: because He loves us. He is the only One who can satisfy our desires, hopes, and needs. He is the only Source of life, love, and joy. Our other “gods” will leave us empty and will make us slaves, but He comes to give “life to the full.” And so in His mercy, He pursues our hearts and tears down our idols, stopping at nothing until we are fully and entirely His.

He gently yet firmly reminded me of this yesterday during my walk down Długa. If my aim is for anything other than Him—relationship, family, career, anything—this is sin. But I am thankful that God chases down my wandering heart, and I pray He will make it more completely His.

Whew, that’s enough for today. I think I’ll go shopping. Anyone know where to buy a new pair of overalls? 😉