Story Mondays, Week 3

I’ve just come back from a weekend retreat that was wonderful and very much needed, as I was forced to confront some work-in-progress areas of my life in a much deeper and more intentional way than I’ve had to in the past. (Ironically, in light of Week 2’s post, one of those areas was that of vocational callings.) It was also pretty emotionally and mentally exhausting. I’m still recovering and processing what happened there, but since that gets pretty heavy, here’s a memory that made me grin this morning. This one comes from a few years back, while I was an engineering student at Northwestern. Hope you enjoy it!


During my first quarter at Northwestern, most of my cohort and I had the distinct pleasure (and pain) of taking a class on quantum mechanics with a professor of exceptional caliber in the field. Minutes into his first lecture, it was obvious that this was someone who knew his stuff forwards and backwards. We later learned that he’d actually taught himself solid-state physics from textbooks as a young student. His teaching style was, to say the least, disciplined and rigorous, though he was happy to answer questions even if they may have sounded less-than-intelligent to him. He was not unkind, yet he gave the impression that he was not a man to be trifled with.

Our professor and his quantum course were something of a legend within the department. It was widely known that the class was a heavyweight, even in context with the non-trivial core classes we had to take for the degree. It was a tradition for the older students to take the first-years out to Nevin’s, a local pub, to drown out the pain of the first exam at the end of October. I distinctly remember telling a classmate in a post-exam daze that I felt like I’d been run over by 12 trucks.

Our professor also had the simultaneously endearing and infuriating habit of regularly pausing in his lectures to ask, “Is everyone comfortable with this?” The question was clearly asked out of a desire to ensure his students’ understanding of the material. Still, it became a point of desperation and hilarity with a good number of the class for whom quantum mechanics was not a research interest or side-interest. I think I’m being fair when I say that most of us were quite uncomfortable with the weighty material, but no one really wanted to say that out loud. Whatever quantum was, it was not a comfortable subject.

Ah, those were the days. It was a stressful first quarter – and to be honest, this class was only one of a number of factors that made it so -, but the challenges pushed us to work and study together. I’d heard horror stories of grad students who sabotaged each other to avoid being weeded out of their programs, but I found almost all of my classmates to be very willing to help each other understand what we were learning. It was hard at the time, but looking back on all that now, the memories have mellowed out into nostalgia and thankfulness for the camaraderie that grew over the course of that first year in Chicago-land.

Story Mondays, Week 2

I’ve got more work to do today than hours to do it with, but I don’t think my mind will let me concentrate properly until I’ve done a little bit of writing. Beyond assignments, it’s been one of those seasons where I could really use a Pensieve (for non-Harry Potter fans, here’s a description), but since I live in the Muggle world, writing will have to do. I can’t spend the time to write a full post today , so I’m going to cheat a bit and post an excerpt from a letter I wrote to my brother right before he graduated from high school. My mom had insisted that I give him advice for college before he headed off in the fall, and since I do my advice-giving best in written form, it turned into a lengthy letter that my brother was gracious enough to read through. It’s been a few years and thousands of miles traveled since, but for the most part I still hold to the same beliefs. Maybe I’ll publish the whole thing one day if there’s any interest. I know I’d sometimes wished someone had given me a bit of a heads-up on what college and young-adulthood would be like beforehand. On the other hand, I guess life is meant to be lived with some level of uncertainty. We humans are pretty terrible at predicting the future, as my finance & accounting professor likes to say. And that’s not always a bad thing.

Alright, enough blabber. Here’s the excerpt.

…Another huge thing for me and many of my peers was the idea of a calling. Some people think of this as their passion. What were you born to do? There’s a deep belief among many in our generation that the career we pursue should be something that is fulfilling, challenging, exciting, and world-bettering all at the same time. Whoa, there. And then a lot of people feel a sense of disappointment and bitterness when they find that such careers don’t seem to exist, at least not for them. Or even when their dream careers do exist, they hit so many roadblocks along the path of preparation that they start to wonder if it’s even worth it.

Here’s where I think the older generations do have a bit of an edge on us with perspective. Yes, your career should be all of those things I mentioned if you can help it. However, at the end of the day, it is just work. Just a job. There is more to life than just your job, so it’s dangerous to pour your soul into it and expect it to give back. Also, sometimes that dream career is actually achievable (although not in the same all-encompassing sense a lot of us young folk view it with), but it’s going to take a while to get there. Your first job out of college is probably not going to be exceptionally glamorous. But it’s ok, because day-by-day, month-by-month, year-by-year, you will build your career. Sometimes you’ll find you’re on the wrong path, and that’s fine – you’re not married to your job. Switching careers is becoming more common, and a lot of older folks walked some pretty circuitous paths to be where they are now.

If there’s only one thing you take away from this essay, please remember this: Mom, Dad, and I are always here for you. Over the next four years, you will achieve great things, but you will also probably fall, and fall hard at times. Don’t let those times keep you down for too long. I remember wondering sometime in my first year (intro bio was a real kicker – they weren’t lying when they called it a weed-out class for pre-meds at Vanderbilt) whether I would actually make it. I’ll let you in on a secret: up until mid-sophomore year I had serious thoughts about transferring back to UF, sometimes due to academic challenges and other times due to a mixture of homesickness and worry about non-academic things. What happened to change that was a growing sense, over time, that I was starting to belong, that my place was actually with the community at Vanderbilt. You may go through seasons of self-doubt as well. But I encourage you to give it time before you decide to leave and give it up. This holds for a lot of things in life, actually. The best fortune cookie message I’ve ever seen goes like this: “Do not give up; the beginning is always the hardest.”

So whether you’re having a hard time or having the time of your life, don’t forget your family – we’re always just a text/call/email/Facebook message away. (Man, there are way too many methods of communication these days.) We’re excited to see what’s in God’s plan for you!

Love,

Your sister

 

* Just a qualifier – I have the same level of respect for UF students as I do for Vanderbilt students, and I’d wager there are many classes at UF that are more difficult than similar classes at Vanderbilt. I don’t buy into private-school-elitism because it’s silly and often unwarranted. At that early point in my college years, though, I was juggling a few issues that made focusing on schoolwork (and therefore doing well) more difficult, so the school “back home” just seemed like it would be easier to handle because I imagined I’d escape or at least lessen the severity of some of those issues. The grass always looks greener on the other side.

Story Mondays, week 1

I like writing. The process of building something with words and phrases is fun for me. But like any art, it’s something that needs practice. Inspired by an unexpectedly refreshing 8-minute Uber ride this morning, I’m going to try to tell a different story every week, specifically on Monday because Mondays get a bad rap for being blah. Here goes Week 1.

As someone who enjoys reflecting on potentially deeper meanings behind things, I’m pretty open to inspiration coming from surprising places and people. However, when I clambered into an Uber vehicle this morning to start the workday, I wasn’t exactly in a pensive state. I don’t remember where my thoughts were precisely – probably somewhere between “I hope I’m not late,” “I should have gone to bed earlier last night,” and “oh cool, finally an Uber driver who’s a woman!”

Her name was Rachel, and her outgoing, friendly nature was immediately apparent.

“Good morning! You ready to start the day?”

“Yeah!” (Ahem. But who hasn’t said, “Fine!” in response to “How are you?” even when it’s not true?)

She laughed. “Well, I’m glad one of us is, at least!”

We exchanged a few more pleasantries before she asked, “Where are you from? Your accent sounds almost Southern!”

This really tickled me, because I’ve never thought of myself having an accent – my “home” has shifted between cities in California, Arizona, New Jersey, Florida, Tennessee, and Illinois over the course of this not-so-long life. I do admit craving things like fried okra and finding excuses to use the word “y’all” ever since leaving Tennessee. Still, I don’t consciously try to affect a Southern accent.

I told her I’d lived in the South for a few years, and she revealed that she was from Memphis but that she’d been in Jersey for some 20-odd years. She seemed fascinated by the fact that I’d grown up all over the place and asked a lot of questions about why we’d moved so much, what I was doing up North, and where my interest in working with the healthcare industry comes from. I don’t usually open up to “strangers” so readily, but there was something so refreshingly curious about Rachel that I found myself talking freely. I didn’t want the conversation to focus solely on my life, but before I could think of good questions to ask her, she’d already come up with another for me.

Before I knew it, she’d pulled off to the side of the road so that I could get off. We exchanged thanks and well-wishes, and took off on our separate ways. I gave Rachel a 5-star rating in the Uber app and sent her a message of thanks for making my day by being so friendly. She was much more than that, though. She was a wonderful interviewer and listener, and somehow made me feel understood even though we’d only just met. She didn’t worry about whether she was asking “good questions” or not, and didn’t try to insert her own narrative when I was telling her my story. She listened, engaged, and reminded me by example of the beauty and simplicity in open conversation.

Thanks, Rachel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

a new chapter

I’m about to move again, and I haven’t worked out how I feel about it yet (delayed emotions, anyone?).

I do know that nostalgia was hovering over my shoulder for a good portion of this week, though. The result was an extended session of #ThrowbackThursday (#TBT for all you cool kids), involving lots of scrolling through old Facebook pictures. So much has changed over the past few years that I often catch myself wishing, just a little, that I could re-visit certain periods of my life. Sometimes I think that nostalgia is actually a coping mechanism for moments of uncertainty about the future, but that’s another blog post altogether.

I remember a conversation with a mentor during my freshman year of college. I was overwhelmed and adjusting to all the differences college life presents – no AP or IB class prepares you for those – and in the midst of everything, I admitted to her, “I just wish I could feel settled in life.” She laughed kindly and said, “To be honest, I don’t think most people feel settled until their 30s.” That was not quite the answer I wanted to hear; twelve years is a long time to wait for anything when you’re only 18. These days, though, I see the truth in her words, and I’m ok with it.

There is something to be said for the semi-migratory life, even though it can be hard to leave behind family, friends, and old haunts. I don’t mean that each move is a new adventure, although it is. I mean that when you’re really familiar with what it’s like to be an outsider, to be “that new person,” it can help you become much more aware of other people who may feel lonely or homesick or unheard. You learn that good friends can come from anywhere, that struggling through tough situations with people draws you closer, and that some of the best friendships begin when you step outside of your comfort zone and introduce yourself to that person you’ve walked past dozens of times but with whom you’ve never had the occasion to chat.

Here’s to a new chapter.

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Chimney Rock Park, North Carolina

joy

In this season of transition and all its companions – worry, impatience, doubt, etc. – I’ve sometimes found joy a hard thing to grasp. But tonight, I was reminded of why I love being part of a university and living in a college town.

Tonight, I sat around a dinner table with a married couple from mainland China, a young woman from Taiwan, and another young woman from Brazil. It was just another Saturday night, with no special occasion to celebrate and nothing more to inspire a gathering than hospitality and friendship (and the promise of hotpot!). We spent at least half an hour on Google Maps’ Street View, showing each other the neighborhoods where we grew up, the cities where we went to school, the places from which our families emigrated. We talked about everything from strange dreams to border security, with a healthy serving of religion and politics thrown in. And all the while, there was much food and laughter to go around.

It’s in these moments where I feel incredibly glad to be alive. Minds open up when we connect across boundaries of culture and differences in experience and thought, and homesick hearts find comfort when invited to share a homemade meal, but there’s also a wonder and joy that I’m not sure how to explain. It’s almost like…this is how it’s supposed to be. This feels like home.

Which is ironic, given that this city is not really home to any of us, at least not in the long-term view of things. Such is life for many in today’s world, I guess. The semi-migratory life is becoming more and more common as globalization progresses.

Still, I wonder if this is a little taste of what heaven is like. People from all walks of life and every corner of world, sharing a meal – except in heaven perhaps it’ll be more of a spiritual “meal,” finding complete satisfaction in the presence of God – and being really, incredibly glad. Heaven often seems so far – but occasionally a small ray of light seems to shine through, and I’m so thankful it did tonight, because it was very much needed.

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smile

This isn’t my usual flavor of post, since I usually try to be optimistic and hopeful and generally just not a killjoy (at least in public…haha). However, we do live in a imperfect world, so I think there’s room for going against the grain sometimes!


It looks like there’s been a growing movement to display positive, feel-good messages in public places. A few weeks ago, I was driving down Lake Shore Drive (endearingly referred to as “LSD” by locals) towards the University of Chicago when I saw what appeared to be a giant wooden tag with the words “you are beautiful” carved into the front (see here). Just today, I was on my way back from the post office when I saw this sprayed onto the sidewalk:
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And apparently, so Google tells me, there are actual groups whose missions include posting these sorts of messages in public spaces. For example, The Joy Team posts inspirational tag lines on billboards, while Operation Beautiful puts up affirming messages just about anywhere where people might see them, from bathroom mirrors to car windshields.

I have to admit, a small part of me is actually a little annoyed when I see these messages. Don’t get me wrong – I think they’re about 10 million times better than what’s normally graffitied on city sidewalks and walls. And if someone’s day or week is made better because of a positive message, then I’m glad it’s there. However, I can’t help feeling that they can come across as trite to someone who is going through deep sorrow or suffering. I can’t speak for how others would feel, but I’d imagine that if I was in a season of depression, seeing something like “smile” or “you’re awesome” wouldn’t really help. Or what if I was in a I’m-on-the-wrong-track phase of life? I wouldn’t need to be told that I was awesome – a more fitting message might be, “Wake up, girl!” or “Get your act together, you can do better than that!” (But please don’t go posting those around.) Of course, as strangers, there’s only so much we can do to help someone whose life we know nothing of, so we do the next best thing in an effort to do something. I get that. Still, maybe there’s a way we can say something that’s more, well, likely to be true or meaningful regardless of who you are, if we are to say something.

Maybe “this won’t last forever.” Or “there is still grace.” Or hey, maybe the occasional J.R.R. Tolkien quote. Personally, I like “even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

God with us.

I wrote most of this post on Monday morning, when the week ahead looked daunting and all I really wanted to was dive back under the covers. I’m pleased to say that the week actually went well for the most part, but a little downtime on this Friday night meant finishing my half-baked thoughts. May these words be encouraging to you!
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As we come to another potentially challenging week, I think an attitude check is necessary this morning:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart

And lean not on your own understanding;

In all your ways submit to Him,

And He will make your paths straight.

There are a lot of things I don’t understand with regards to research results and how to best proceed with new directions. More importantly, there is so much I don’t understand about what’s been going on in our world recently, both locally and internationally. The lights are up, carols are being sung, gifts are being exchanged, and compassion (or intended compassion, at least, for some of us) is being given…yet Christmas cheer feels as fleeting as a wisp of smoke. Part of this is certainly colored by my own issues this year, but I know I’m not the only one, and “sad” doesn’t even begin to describe the state of our world. You know that verse about all creation groaning, waiting for God to come back and heal it? Here, let me look it up:

For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

Think about that for a bit. (Yeah, it’s not pleasant – the closest I’ve gotten to witnessing childbirth is watching the PBS show Call The Midwife, and from that I’ve seen all I ever want to see.) The whole world is basically shrieking in pain. I appreciate the lack of sugar-coating here.
But Paul goes on, and here we see something very interesting:

We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.

Woah there. You mean that Spirit, that Holy Spirit who is God – He groans on our behalf? So much for wondering if God is even listening to us. God is actually experiencing our pain for us, putting Himself in our shoes, and groaning. This is weird, but wonderful. You know what this means?

This means that not only does God know about our pain, but He’s actually feeling it. I guess the image of a weeping Savior isn’t so bizarre after all, next to this. God knows, He cares, and He feels it, too. I’m kind of speechless. But I’m also glad – so very glad. I guess I’d been under the impression that God knew what’s been happening, and maybe that He did take an interest, but for some reason never realized how deeply involved He was. And that gives me hope.

weeping may stay for the night,

but rejoicing comes in the morning.

Ultimately, this really isn’t so weird when you think about some of Jesus’s last actions on Earth – namely, His submission to a cruel death by crucifixion, carrying the weight of all the world’s evil and sorrow on His shoulders. Not to be sacrilegious, but I’m pretty sure Jesus was at least groaning and feeling a lot of pain at that moment. He felt our pain, too.

As we reflect on both the joys and the sorrows of this past year, and as we look ahead to the next seeking ways to live out our callings in this world, I hope this truth brings comfort and wonder at the gift of Immanuel – God with us.

* Scripture verses cited in order: Proverbs 3:5-6, Romans 8:22, Romans 8:26, Psalm 30:5. Excerpts taken from the NIV (The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan House, 1984. Print.)

glimpses of grace

A couple of years ago, one of my all-time-favorite authors from childhood wrote a post on her blog about remembering all of the “if’s” that we have to be thankful for (ie. if I hadn’t had my flight delayed, I wouldn’t have seen X again after so many years, etc.). The idea of keeping an “if-list” – an alternative way of counting your blessings – really struck a chord with me, and ever since then, I’ve been keeping my own version of the if-list. It’s called “God’s Fingerprints” (also inspired by the title of an uplifting song by one of my favorite artists), and though it probably sounds cheesy, having this list to refer back to has really helped me during some of the darker moments of the past two years. So at risk of revealing a little too much, or infringing on copyrights (Joan Bauer gets the credit for the idea, and Steven Curtis Chapman for the song title), here are some of the entries written over the last couple of years. I’ve changed some of the names for the sake of privacy and maybe not embarrassing anyone.

If I hadn’t been able to go to Hong Kong this summer, I would never have had all the crazy experiences – Macau with Elisa, “watching the sunrise” at the Peak, hearing all the crazy things about Sara’s life – and might have missed hanging out with my maternal grandparents (especially since they were in their final months, though we didn’t know it then). – Summer 2013

If all the other first year Mat Sci’s weren’t so helpful and friendly, I wouldn’t have survived this first quarter without seriously considering giving up. – Fall 2013

If WhatsApp didn’t exist, my family wouldn’t be able to communicate as well as we all do now that Stephen is in college and my parents are often travelling. – Fall 2014

If Crystal hadn’t randomly texted me so that we could catch up at church and lunch, I wouldn’t have had the encouraging conversation I had with her. – Spring 2015

And so on. I think one of the greatest blessings I’ve been given is that I’ve had the privilege of knowing (or virtually knowing) some incredibly resilient, optimistic, and brave people who by example have taught me to always, always reach for hope, even when there is little empirical evidence suggesting that one should have hope. Optimism doesn’t often come easy – and why should it when there is so much grief and pain in this world when we stop to look? – but it’s essential for moving forward when all the lights seem to fade. I’m definitely preaching to myself here. Attitude checks are a daily (hourly?) necessity, and I haven’t been doing a good job this week, to be honest.

One of the perks of working late in the summer (and having a west-facing window) is that you get to watch breathtaking sunsets. This one's from sometime in either June or July of this year.

One of the perks of working late in the summer (and having a west-facing window) is that you get to watch breathtaking sunsets. This one’s from sometime in either June or July of this year.

Sunset over Florida.

My family officially left Florida yesterday, and I’m not going to lie – I feel like I’ve lost something.

Not that I really moved with them, not physically, at least. I haven’t been able to visit ever since my parents told me they had decided to move, though that wasn’t so long ago. The last time I stayed there for more than three weeks was two years ago, and technically, I moved out of Florida when I left for college. But home is where the heart is, and part of my heart was definitely still there. As they say, home is really more about the people, but I think I underestimated the power of having a place that becomes comfortingly familiar over the years. Gainesville has its own share of problems, but I can’t help but see it through rose-tinted lenses right now. There have been so many memories made, both good and bad, in a place where change is the norm – it is a college town, after all – but things still seem to stay the same year in and year out. It’s hard to remember a time when Gainesville didn’t feel like home. (Although now that I’m looking back, I do remember that first month when we couldn’t move into the house yet, so we were living in an apartment that seemed to shake with the afternoon thunderstorms and had a bathroom door that wouldn’t close if the toilet seat lid was down.)

And now all the memories come flooding back – those first strange impressions of the city being full of more trees and churches than a bit over 100,000 people could ever require (trust me, it was really strange coming from the Bay Area), that first fall when we learned what it meant to be in a place so quiet you could hear a pin drop (the city 3 miles out from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium during a football game – of course, once you got closer, the roar from The Swamp sounded like a 20-second tornado had descended whenever a touchdown was made), that first winter when – wait, who do you think you’re kidding? Florida? Winter? (Or so most people seem to think. North Florida does have its share of freezing temperatures, though.)

Remember the days of Tim Tebow and the back-to-back football and basketball national championships (2006-2008)? I’d never been much of a sports fan and I’m not much of one now, but back then, it was nearly impossible not to panic when Ohio State scored a touchdown within seconds of opening the 2007 BCS National Championship Game, or feel elated when the Gators came back around to take the lead. We all got caught up in the spirit of the orange-and-blue one way or another. I remember my U.S. history teacher promising us 10 bonus points on our next test if the Gators beat the Bulldogs in the upcoming UF vs. UGA game. So long ago now, but those were the days…

I don’t miss the thick summer heat and humidity, though – the way it would feel like walking into a sauna every time you left an air-conditioned building, with any showers taken before 10pm being essentially useless. Nor do I miss the annual swarms of lovebugs that made you wonder how such slow and stupid insects hadn’t died off a generation ago. And of course, on a much more serious note, I don’t miss the way the city still felt segregated between east and west – that division was surprisingly stark for a 21st-century big-college town.

Nevertheless, I’m going to miss Gainesville, and on a larger scale, Florida. You can’t grow in a place without it leaving some mark on you, and frankly, I don’t mind.

Another thing I'll miss - those breathtaking sunsets that were far from unusual.

Another thing I’ll miss – those breathtaking sunsets that were just part of summer Floridian life.

A poem (as yet untitled).

It’s been a long hiatus, but this morning I remembered a short poem I’d written a few weeks ago in response to some things I was dealing with, and accompanying struggles. I don’t have a title for it yet, but I’d be open to suggestions!

Ah, Fear

My constant shadow, grown larger under the covering of night

An unholy companion

A robber of Joy

Friend to none, save Worry and Despair

Who let this unwelcome stranger into the secret closets of the heart?

Begone, you!

Pretender to Care and Concern

You only seek to corrode, layer by layer

Until I break.

You will not win this fight.

Hope comes back to take its rightful place

A coating, thin to invisible, but one that nonetheless

Will wrap its arms around the wounded soul

And keep it safe from harm.

(Yes, materials science had to sneak in there somehow. I can’t have taken all these classes for nothing!)

I hope you win the battle against fear today – but if not, don’t worry, because the war isn’t over yet.