(The End of) the End

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They say there’s a first time for everything.

What they don’t say is that sometimes there’s a second time, and this second time may come quickly after the first.

At least, that’s what happened last month when I ripped my pants.

Prior to then, I had never, ever, ever ripped a pair of pants. Sure, as a kid, I’d torn holes in the knees (a natural hazard of refusing to play “house” unless I could be the dog). One time I accidentally ripped a dress when I was running up the stairs. And of course I’ve retired some jeans after noticing signs of wear around the back pockets. But ripping them completely? That’s just the stuff of sitcoms and low-budget kiddie movies.

I was wrong.

When I was initially preparing to leave Atlanta for the summer, I decided to bring three pairs of jeans. And because I have become an expert packer (schlepping one’s belongings for months on end can have that effect), I knew exactly which to take: a pair of Gap skinny jeans, a trusty pair from American Eagle, and another pair I had bought during my year in Berlin. They each matched my jeans travel criteria. All three were sufficiently comfortable for long bus rides and hours of sitting in archives. And all but the skinny jeans passed the “capri test”, i.e. the legs could be easily rolled up in case of unexpectedly warm European weather. I had contemplated bringing only two pairs of jeans (in this case, the skinny ones would have been left at home) but decided against it. While two pairs would have been enough for typical summer weather, a third pair could come in handy during the 10-day trip I’d planned through Scandinavia.

After starting my summer with a conference in Hamburg, I caught a day-long train to Copenhagen, where I spent a few days braving the icky weather, eating seafood, and learning about Hans Christian Andersen. I even had a pleasant surprise when a friend from my semester in Graz hopped over from Sweden to visit me. With my heart happy and all three pairs of jeans intact, I headed to Stockholm. The weather was unexpectedly warm, so I gladly donned shorts for two of my three days there. During my visit, I learned about Vikings, took a ferry ride through the archipelago and even discovered that pickled herring actually tastes good. With a full belly and a few hundred grams of real Swedish fish, I caught a flight to Bergen, Norway, blissfully unaware that my first pair of jeans was about to meet its end.

For every bit that Stockholm’s weather had been pleasant, the weather in Bergen was crappy. The sky was completely gray, and the rain came down with the kind of irritating persistence that makes being outside completely miserable. Only once did it briefly let up during my 18-hour stay, and of course this respite happened while I was indoors eating. The gray and gloom wouldn’t have been so bad if it at least been warm, but the temperatures refused to creep above 55 degrees. Although I should have expected this weather—a Google search revealed that Bergen has an average of 231 rainy days per year—the advance notice did not make the experience any more pleasant. I hate being wet, and I hate being cold. But I really, really, really hate being wet and cold. Still, I recognized that since this would likely be my only visit to Bergen, I chose to tough it out. Pulling on my trusty old American Eagle jeans and grabbing an umbrella, I ventured outside to hike Bergen’s main tourist-attraction mountain.

The trip to the top was cold and rainy but, apart from a brief accidental detour (*cough* I got lost *cough*), it proved wholly uneventful. I enjoyed the view, got a few pictures, and then headed back down to the city. I then walked around the harbor, grabbed dinner, and organized my luggage—completely unaware that I had a gaping hole in the back of my pants. I only noticed when I changed into my pajamas that night, hours after the rip had happened. But rather than being mortified, I managed to take it in stride. I mean, what a classic Steffi moment, to have torn straight through a pair of pants without even noticing. Chuckling to myself, I bid adieu to my now-worthless American Eagle jeans and climbed into bed.

Fast forward three days. In the intervening time, I had journeyed through the fjords, wandered around Oslo, and caught an early morning flight to Berlin, where I’d be visiting friends for a mini-homecoming. I couldn’t wait. As fate would have it, my jeans had their own homecoming as well; I was wearing the pair I had bought in Berlin two years earlier. But since the weather in Germany was ridiculously hot, I wasn’t planning to wear the jeans for long. Changing into shorts was #1 on my to-do list. And guess what happened when I did… Yep, I saw that these jeans were ripped too, just like the first pair. Right down the middle? Right down the middle. My second pair of jeans had bit the dust.

In the weeks since my jeans’ demise, I have shared this story with friends and family who, like me, find my “pants problem” quite entertaining. I purchased some new jeans (on sale!) at H&M, just in case my remaining pair suddenly decides to follow suit. And I’ve also spent some time thinking about my initial (hours-long) embarrassing moment and its soon-after sequel. I mean, who unwittingly walks around Europe with their underwear showing, not once but twice? And how did I fail to notice that my jeans split down the back? Could I have seriously been so oblivious to something that was so painfully obvious to everyone else? As I was pondering these questions about my jeans, another thought hit me:

I can be just as clueless about problem spots in other areas of my life.

Just like I when couldn’t see the hole in the back of my jeans, I’m also can’t have a hard time recognizing places in my life where I am falling short and/or need to grow. That’s why I need close friends, mentors, and my family members to walk alongside me–or for the sake of the metaphor– behind me. Because their perspective is different from mine, they recognizes patterns, weak spots, and shortcomings that I don’t automatically see. Sometimes their words may be difficult to hear, like when they point out an area where I’m struggling to surrender things to God. But more often than not, their different perspective allows them to offer insight and encouragement in the places I most need it. Regardless of how their advice may feel in the moment, I can trust that they’ve “got my back” and that they truly want God’s best for me.

My jeans story would have likely played out very differently if I’d been traveling with a friend. While I eventually figured out that my pants were ripped, a friend would have noticed much earlier and, ideally, would have cared enough to tell me. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes 4:9-10,

“Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them [rips her jeans], the other [will tell her] companion. But woe to the one who [rips her jeans] when there is not another [to let her know].”

The moral of the story? Surround yourself with godly people you trust.

… and always pack an extra pair of jeans. 😉

 

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Ice, Ice-Bergy

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The Titanic museum in Branson, Missouri. This photo op was the closest I came to going inside.

In 2015, I developed an unhealthy obsession with the Titanic.

I’d never actually seen the movie until that summer when I spent the weekend at my Omi’s house. In addition to our usual thrift-shopping/garage-saling and me learning (or attempting to learn) to bake, our hang-out times usually involve a classic movie or two. When I was younger, we would watch Anne of Green Gables, eventually making our way through the entire series. Then right before I moved to Atlanta, we watched Gone with the Wind. And so it seemed only natural that in the summer before I left for Germany we would add Titanic to the list. After all, I needed to see it at some point, and watching it with my Omi seemed like the best possible choice.

Needless to say, the movie that has been proclaimed one of the best films ever produced did not disappoint. I laughed, I cried, and I found myself sucked into the love story despite already knowing the tragic ending. I finally understood why Titanic got and, even 20 years later, continues to get so much hype. It really is a masterpiece. Depressing, yes. But a masterpiece all the same.

My experience of the Titanic did not end with the credits. Fascinated by both the original story and the making of the film, I started compulsively reading trivia and facts on the IMDB page and other fan websites. I found out about the captain, the ship’s architect, the band leader, and all sorts of other real-life characters from the movie. I learned about the ship’s construction and the iceberg that sunk it. I discovered that there really was a Titanic passenger named “J. Dawson”, whose grave in Canada remains one of the most visited (and decorated) by strangers to this day. And I read analyses by self-proclaimed “experts” about how there actually would have been room for Jack on that piece of wood if Rose had simply moved over. And then several hours later with all of this fascinating yet depressing information crammed in my head, I went to bed.

… which proved to be a big mistake.

You see, not only had my waking mind latched onto the Titanic, but apparently my subconscious one had become obsessed with it as well. That night, I had the first of many recurring nightmares about the Titanic. Sometimes, I was trying to hold onto the railings of the bow as it broke in half and sunk. Other times I was running through the ship’s hold as it filled with water. And in still other versions, I simply jumped overboard and hoped to make it. But in all cases, I woke up feeling upset and more than a little bit freaked out. And to make things worse, these dreams lasted not just one night but on and off for several months.

That said, my nightmares probably would have stopped sooner, had it not been for Celine Dion. Because not only could the abnormal amount of Titanic trivia floating around my brain trigger my nightmares, but I started hearing “My Heart will Go On” everywhere. I’m not kidding. For the next several months, I would hear this song or an instrumental version of it at least once a week and sometimes every other day. To be fair, it probably didn’t help that I also listened to playlists of classical music and soundtracks to study for hours at a time. But be that as it was, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that this particular song was following me. And although there are worse stalkers that Celine Dion, I didn’t enjoy the nightmares that frequently accompanied her.

Fortunately, though, my Titanic-induced nightmares eventually faded away, and my sleep patterns finally returned to normal. Hallelujah. But recently, that doomed transatlantic liner has invaded my thoughts again in a relatively indirect, but no less impactful way.

Over the weekend, a dear friend let me know that I had recently behaved in an unkind and hurtful way. When I found this out, I felt awful. Not only had I been a jerk, but in the process I had hurt someone I care about. It’s one thing to do something stupid and harm myself, but it’s a completely different matter when my actions cause pain to another person. No Bueno. Even though after apologizing and receiving forgiveness, the situation and my action have continued to eat at me. And a few days ago, I realized why.

My sin is like that iceberg that sunk the Titanic. And because of that, my friend only saw the tip of a much deeper problem. Pride, selfishness, insecurity, envy, judgement—all these sins and more hide just below the surface of my life. While I’m often able to hide this, and I come off to most people as “nice” and “sweet”, I know the truth about what’s inside of me. My hurtful actions toward him were not an isolated problem, but the product of an iceberg’s worth of ugliness deep inside of me. Jesus recognized this about mankind (and about me) when He said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15:19) and “Out of the overflow of the heart a man speaks” (Luke 6:45).

Needless to say, this is a hard pill to swallow, and I don’t particular enjoy being brought face to face with my own sin. But it’s far better than the alternative. You see, ignoring my sin or minimizing it is like not bringing enough lifeboats on the Titanic. It may work for a short time, but in the long run it will prove a tragic and costly oversight. Managing my surface-level symptoms will only go so far. If I really want to be free from own darkness, I need to admit that these sins live in me, and then bring them out into the light. Because try as I might (and try as I have), I can’t melt this iceberg on my own. I need God’s help to have an accurate view of myself and my sin. Though it’s painful and frustrating in the moment, it ultimately results in peace and freedom. This is why 1 John reminds us that “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

I have been reminded of this many times recently. While I would have rather not acted hurtfully to begin with, I am grateful that God used even those self-inflicted crummy circumstances to re-teach me a truth about myself, His goodness, and His grace. He sees the complete iceberg of my sin and loves me in spite of it. And together we can chip away at it, until one day this ugliness in me will be no more.

Alright, I’m thirsty and it’s time for a drink break. Ice water, anyone? 😉

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Seen at the ice-sculpting competition in the parking lot of the Branson Titanic Museum. Yes, you read that correctly.

 

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.