Running on Fumes

sleeping ferret
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. 😉

 

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:

circus monkeys lucy

And so at this point, halfway through my archival research, I am simply exhausted. And I am really, really tired of what I am doing. In one sense, I’ve been here before multiple times. Each semester of coursework brought its own set of challenges, and exams were anything but fun. But unlike the end-of-semester “crunch mode” or my 10-day exam period, there is no definite end in sight. Yes, at some point in the still-distant future, my funding will run out, I’ll start getting “motivational” emails from the graduate school, and it will no longer be socially or academically acceptable for me to be a PhD student. But that is still a long way off, and there are still many mountains to climb in the meantime. And the one I have been trying to climb for the last several months is so unstable and slippery that I just keep sliding back down again.

So besides ranting on the internet or eating my feelings in Nutella (*cough* both of which I may currently be doing), how am I supposed to respond to this? Yes, it’s all well and good to say that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”, but that expression never says exactly where they go. And right now the only place I seem to be going is backward, and the only place I want to go is out of here. What am I supposed to do?

I don’t know. I really don’t.

But as I’ve been trying to figure this out the last several days (while also trying to drag my well-trained Sitztfleisch to the archive), I keep coming back to my first marathon last spring. After years of saying that I wanted to run one, I finally decided to commit to a race in Nashville. I’d run a few halves before, but I’d always shied away from the full because it required so much more time. Who has time to run 10-15 miles multiple times in a week? But last spring, I decided to make time, and so train I did. It had its share of difficult moments, and some days my body felt absolutely miserable. After my first long run of 9 miles, I was so tired that all I could do was curl up on EQL’s couch and watch a movie. But as the training progressed, my body slowly got stronger, and by the end, I was cranking out double-digit mileage with virtually no trouble at all. Yes, some runs were grueling (12 miles around an indoor track, and 20 miles around Stone Mountain in the pouring rain weren’t exactly fun), but I got through them. And when race day came, I managed to do what I’d been doing all along: I just kept going.

That’s exactly what a marathon is: a deliberate choice to continue forward, to keep putting one foot in front of the other, mile after mile after mile. And the more that I think about it, the more convinced I become that a PhD is basically the academic (and very sedentary) version of a marathon. No, it’s not fun. Some days are harder than others, and oftentimes things just plain stink. But when you boil it down to the core, the key to success is to simply keep going.

And so I guess that’s what I’m going to do, putting one academic foot in front of the other. Thumbing through another file, visiting another archive, writing yet another mediocre draft of my half-formed thoughts. Someday it has to come together, right? And someday when I cross the finish line (or, in this case, the commencement stage), the process will have worked, I’ll be done, and it will have all been worth it.

Alright, that’s enough sitting and thinking for one day. It’s time to go for a run. Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten so much Nutella…

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Friday the (February) 13th

Aren't they adorable? (Photo by David Guenther, http://tinyurl.com/l2wtq62. CC-A-NC-SA)
Aren’t they adorable?
(Photo by David Guenther, http://tinyurl.com/l2wtq62. CC-A-NC-SA)

As you may have noticed, today is Friday the 13th. Which in any other month would be associated with nightmares of ghouls, haunted houses, and other “normal” paranormal happenings. But this Friday the 13th elicits a wholly different—and, for many of us, far more frightening—set of fears: the fear of being single forever. Because this Friday the 13th happens to be the day before Valentine’s Day.

Ahh, Valentine’s Day. A favorite holiday of greeting card companies, chocolate retailers, and the people who make those cheesy magnetic “kissing” teddy bears. And for those lucky folks with a special someone, it’s the perfect day for a romantic dinner at a fancy restaurant (provided you remembered to make a reservation) and giving each other greeting cards, chocolate, and matching magnetic teddy bears. But if you’re not among the “fortunate few” in a relationship, you don’t have to be alone in your loneliness. Netflix is ready with a  weekend’s  lifetime’s supply of sappy chick flicks, you can still buy yourself chocolate, and if your misery loves company, you can even curl up on the couch with your trusty old non-magnetic teddy bear.

Yes, I realize that this probably sounds rather cynical. And lately that’s exactly what I’ve been whenever I think about relationships, love, and dating. For instance, I normally love country music; now I change stations if Blake Shelton, Thompson Square, or some pre-pop Taylor Swift comes on. My go-to movies are usually chick flicks; now I can’t stand them. And when I walk through the grocery store and see a cute little kissing teddy bear, I can bearly (pun and spelling error intended) resist the urge to stick it to a metal door in the frozen-food section.

But while I am exaggerating (and I would never harm an innocent teddy bear), my cynicism toward dating is real. And last week after I’d angrily switched off the country radio station yet again, I found myself wondering where this cynicism was coming from. I’m not normally a cynical person, which meant there had to be a reason why. So I went on a quest (ie, a run on an indoor track) to find out. Boy, was I surprised by what I found.

For the first few laps, my mind drifted to all my friends whose smiling faces and “save the dates” cover my refrigerator door. Am I jealous of them? I wondered to myself as I rounded another lap. No, I concluded, I didn’t begrudge them their happiness; I really couldn’t be more excited for them. Having thought about my close friends, I then moved outward to my wider circle of acquaintances, sorority sisters, and Facebook friends whose engagement and wedding photos daily fill up my news feed. Okay, am I jealous of them? I wondered again. No, that wasn’t it either. As with my close friends, I’m happy for them too. So if the green-eyed monster wasn’t the source of my cynicism, then what was to blame?

I rounded yet another lap (this is a frequent occurrence on indoor tracks; they are so small!) and asked myself, Am I mad at God? After all, my undiagnosed frustration with the Almighty has caused many of my issues over the years. But after another 1/8-mile loop, I concluded that this wasn’t the case. My singleness isn’t God’s “fault”, and I wasn’t attributing to Him any blame. Okay, I thought, if I’m not jealous of my friends or mad at God, then where is this cynicism coming from?

For the next twenty minutes or so, this question played over and over again in my mind, as my feet synced up with the beats of Relient K and Superchick. Loop after loop went by, but an answer remained elusive. What was wrong? And then as I was rounding yet another itty-bitty lap, I found the answer I’d been looking for:

Somewhere along the way, I had lost hope.

It didn’t happen overnight or all of a sudden, like a balloon being popped. It was more of a slow and gradual wearing-down, like when a helium balloon loses air and inches closer to the ground over a long period of time—the cumulative effect of many years (and Valentine’s Days) spent single as more of my peers joined the “married club” without me. Doubts that began as occasional whispers became louder and more persistent, telling me that a love story wasn’t in the cards for me. I should just accept that reality and continue on with my life. Through these years of gradual attrition, I had not only quit believing that God had someone out there for me, but as a result, I had ceased to pray, to dream, to hope that this kind of future was possible for me.

Yes, I realize that this may sound a bit melodramatic, and I know that relationships aren’t the be-all-end-all-of-all. Even if I am single forever, I will still have all I need in Christ. But while I can ultimately live without a relationship, I cannot live without hope. Because hope, my friends, is a vitally important thing—arguably as essential to life as air, water, and food. Hope provides us with a reason for continuing on, even when times get hard. To paraphrase Nietzsche, hope provides the “why” so we can weather the “how”. When we lose hope, we soon after lose sight of our purpose and our meaning. And it becomes dangerously easy to fall into despair.

As I was rounding those last few laps, God pointed out to me the crack in my heart where my hope had leaked out, and despair—disguised in the toxic cloak of cynicism—had crept in. But even as He showed me my lack of hope, He offered me a renewal of it: because He gave me the desire to share life with someone, then it stands to reason that there must be someone out there with whom I can share this life. And even more importantly, I can trust that He is good and that He has my best interests in mind. For if imperfect earthly parents would never “give their kids a stone when they ask for bread”, then our perfect heavenly Father—who loves us more than we can possible fathom—must know how to give good gifts to us His children. Our job is keep hoping, believing, and asking.

Yes, I will still be single on Valentine’s Day tomorrow. And who knows? I may be single for many more Valentine’s Days after that. But if my heavenly Father loves me the way He says He does and if He indeed knows me better than I know myself, then I need keep hoping and believing that He will fulfill His plans for me—even in the relationship category

Whew, that’s enough deep thoughts for one day. I think I’m going to curl up on the couch,eat some chocolate, and watch a chick flick. Now if only I had a teddy bear… 😉

13.1… and done

 1:59.00

History repeats itself. And that can be really, really annoying. Especially when it comes to half-marathons.

If you’ve read my blog for any extended period of time or know me personally, you may have noticed that I love to run. Call me crazy, but I find running to be relaxing, exhilarating and even fun. After being cut from the high school softball team (word to the wise: when playing catch, always make sure your partner is looking; hitting them in the head doesn’t bode well, especially if the coach is watching), I went out for track, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. I made new friends, got in great shape, and discovered my inborn love for “running in circles and turning left.

After high school, my desire to run came and went. Sometimes I loved it; other times it was the last thing I wanted to do. But all that changed when I signed up for my first half-marathon during my junior of college, and I convinced my dad to do it with me. Eight weeks and lots of perspiration later, I finished my first half-marathon in one hour and 59 minutes. I’d accomplished my goal, burned approximately 1,550 calories, and couldn’t have been happier.

Fast forward three years to my first semester in graduate school. As I start a new chapter of my life, I recognize the need to develop good habits, become disciplined, and find a healthy alternative to sitting in my desk chair (Grad-school gain? No, thank you.) So what do I do? Run a half-marathon, of course! After a quick internet search, I found one nearby and signed up; my second half-marathon training had begun.

When December 9th arrived, my hopes were high, my goal time was low, and I was ready to go. Much had changed since my debut three years prior. I had developed a new running form, invested in Nike Lunar Foam shoes, and followed a more advanced and rigorous training plan. Much had changed… except my time, that is.

That’s right. I got the EXACT. SAME. TIME.

Seriously?????

Seriously.

You see, when the rubber met the road (pun intended) my new running form, more advanced training plan, and awesome (if overpriced) Nike shoes ultimately failed me. Why?

Because I was running alone.

“But, Steffi,” you say, “I thought you said you signed up for a half-marathon. What do you mean that you ran alone?” Okay, so “alone” may be a bit of an exaggeration, but in the end that’s how I felt. When I signed up for this race, I failed to read the fine print which said, “We keep our races small—50 to 60 runners max.”

Most road races have a lot more than 60 people. For instance, the Boston Marathon has approximately 26,000 entries; the New York City marathon has 45,000 runners. Even the Tulsa marathon/half-marathon (my first one) has almost 2,000 participants. Compared to those races, running with 60 people is basically like running alone, especially because everyone has a different pace. And that’s why my time didn’t improve. Bummer. Without people around me, pushing me, encouraging me, my time would never get better; I was doomed to stay the same.

Our relationship with Christ works the same way.

God didn’t make us to go it alone; on the contrary, he designed this Christianity-thing to be a team effort. We need each other. Togetherness isn’t optional; it’s a necessity. On our own, we can never become all that God created us to be; on our own, we’ll never grow and change.  A knife by itself stays dull, but a knife in contact with a sharpener becomes useful again.

For most of my life, I’ve been terrible at this, tending toward what I call “lone-ranger” Christianity. I found my identity in being the Christian, and I tended to avoid other believers. Plus, community was scary; if I let people get too close, then they would see that I wasn’t perfect. So I kept going solo. Being felt safe—and seemed so much easier than being real.

But then something crazy happened: God sent me to the Kanakuk Institute. Suddenly, I was surrounded by seventy other Christians, and the “only Christian” identity to which I’d clung was gone. And though it was scary at times, it was truly the best thing that has ever happened to me.  God used my Institute classmates, especially my accountability partner Nichole, to sharpen me, challenge me, and make me an entirely different person. It wasn’t always pleasant—do you think knives enjoy being sharpened?—but it was so very worth it.

I’ll never forget the day during my first track season when my distance coach pulled me aside and said, “Steffi, today I want you to run five miles with Jenny.” Jenny was a senior and a bit of a legend on the track team. Though she rarely won races, she was incredibly—almost bizarrely—consistent. Rain or shine, snow or sleet, marathon or not, Jenny always ran 8-minute miles. Always.

For the first mile or so, I felt great. I was keeping up with Jenny better than I’d expected. But when we reached the two-mile mark and the three, it became increasingly difficult. By the fourth mile, my lungs were on fire. When the fifth mile finally rolled around, I thought I was going to die. I’d never run that hard or that long before, and my body was crying inside. But even though I felt awful, I was so proud of myself. Somehow I’d managed to keep up with Jenny, and that was worth celebrating. After that, I ran with Jenny every day, and my times drastically improved. I eventually made it onto my school’s “all-time” list for the 800-meter and my relay team went to State.

At my last half-marathon, I needed a Jenny—someone to run with, encourage me, and to push me on when I wanted to give up. In the same way, we need friends to help us in our walk with Christ. Then at the end of our days, we’ll be able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

In the meantime, I’m going for a run. Care to join? 😉

13.1 miles later

Right On Track

I never meant to run track. In fact, I wanted to be a softball player, just like my mom. She’d been a star high school pitcher and even went on to play in college. Although I knew a career in the NCAA was out of my league, I figured that I could at least make the BVHS roster. However, I forgot to factor in a few minor details.

1)      I couldn’t throw overhand. For years I had tried, but to no avail. My arm simply wouldn’t cooperate. And apparently, throwing is an important part of softball.

2)      Batting was a challenge. Although I could zip around the bases with semi-remarkable speed, I had a hard time getting on them. Which is kind of essential.

3)      Try-outs aren’t my forte. Something about performing athletically under pressure—and the watchful eye of a coach—makes me really nervous. As a result, the week of try-outs was disastrous. During the pitching session on Monday morning, I got nailed in the head with a softball. And it was all downhill from there. By the way, the term “softball” is a misnomer; they are definitely not soft.

Needless to say, my high-school softball career was short-lived. And by that I mean that it never even existed. Somehow I made the C-team, (I think the coach felt sorry for me because of the large bruise on my forehead), but even that didn’t last long. After a week of failing miserably at practice, I faced the warm-up music and realized that Kansas 5A softball wasn’t for me.

But I’ve never been one to sit at home and twiddle my thumbs, so I needed something else to do. And that’s when my former volleyball coach suggested I go out for track. At this point, I’d never run more than a couple miles at a time—and even then I thought I might die. Freshman year I started to run a little; volleyball conditioning and PE class had whipped me into better shape. (At the end of the year fitness test, I decided to run the mile with the guys instead of the girls. But at the starting line, I accidentally tripped Matt Sobcyzinski, and he fell on his face. I still feel bad about it). Anyway, I’d always been athletic, but I had never considered myself a runner. So I took her advice and came to practice. And that’s when I fell in love with running.

Scratch that. I fell in love-hate with running.

You see, running is not an easy-to-love sport. Yes, you can love the results of running, or you can love the satisfaction of finishing a race or a difficult route. But with the exception of a few top athletes (or clinically crazy folks), you can’t always love running. Because running is hard; it’s exhausting. Heck, it involves breaking down the bonds between your muscles and depriving them of oxygen for extended periods of time. Yuck. Though rewarding, running isn’t always pleasant. But for some reason, I keep doing it. Why? Great question.

Two thousand years ago, the Apostle Paul wrote about running, and his words might hold a few clues. I don’t know if he competed in the first annual Nike sandal 10K, or if he was part of the “run barefoot” movement, but he understood running and my paradoxical relationship with it. In 1 Corinthians 9:24, he urges believers to “run in such a way as to get the prize” and to “rejoice when [they] run into trials and problems, because they develop endurance” (Romans 5:3). But my all-time favorite Paul-ism on running comes from Philippians 3,

“Not that I have already obtained this or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Just like I’m more motivated to run if I’m training for a specific race or goal, Paul encourages us to run with the end in mind. If I sign up for a half-marathon in July (which would be crazy since July is ridiculously hot!), my likelihood of running consistently skyrockets. Having a tangible goal is essential to successful training. Otherwise, I’ll take every chance to eat that bag of potato chips rather than jog around the block. But if I have a race ahead of me, suddenly my workouts take on a whole new meaning and purpose. I’m no longer running aimlessly or just for the heck of it; no, I’m running to win… or at least a finisher’s medal.

In the same way, Paul urges us to run with purpose. Don’t look backward; that’s a great way to face-plant. Instead, look ahead and press on toward Christ. HE is your goal; HE is your prize. Keep your eyes fixed on Him, and run for all you’ve got. No, it won’t always be fun. Yes, you may trip or get a shin splint or two. You will get tired, and you will be frustrated sometimes. But in the end when you cross that heavenly finish line, you’ll hear the saints and your Savior cheering your name.

So in the meantime, “we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God.” (Hebrews 12:1-3, The Message).

I’ll see you on the track. 🙂