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:

pigeon mug

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. 😉

 

Schlepp-tastic

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

I. Hate. Packing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dissertation Frustration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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