Saturday, January 14, 2012

A January Story, Part II

When I left off, I was having a pretty rough night. The next morning, as I joined the other students for the second orientation session, I was still teary-eyed, but at least I'd slept. I was able to concentrate better on the details of Scottish student life being explained. When the staff circulated a sign-up sheet for upcoming weekend excursions to Glasgow and the Scottish Highlands, I found myself writing my name down. I still knew in my gut that I couldn't stay here that long. Still, on the slim chance I survived a couple of weeks abroad, I wouldn't want to miss out on those things...right?

Somehow, through the remainder of orientation, the opportunity to "escape" never presented itself. I hadn't had the heart to tell my parents I wanted to leave already, and I didn't feel comfortable approaching the staff with so many other students milling around. I decided I would have to wait and see how the first weekend went. Then, before classes were scheduled to begin, I could visit the study abroad office and explain that I was too homesick to stay in Scotland. I knew no one would be happy, but surely something could be arranged.

When orientation ended, we and our suitcases were stuffed into cabs to be taken to the university dorms. Everyone was excited, many kids making plans to meet up that night at some pub or another. For my part, I felt a little calmer. Knowing I'd be flying home soon, I was able to detach a little and quietly enjoy the sight of old buildings whizzing by. Edinburgh was a beautiful city, its narrow streets and architecture so different from Pittsburgh or Roanoke.

Once I'd checked into my little dorm room, I savored being totally alone for the first time since I'd left home. I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. But I was too wired to unpack much, and I figured there wasn't much point anyway. So, after studying one of the city maps we'd been provided, I decided it wouldn't hurt to take a walk. Even if I was leaving soon, I'd like to be able to say I had seen something of the city.

Surprisingly, I felt rather exhilarated as I ventured down Clerk Street. The day was chilly and cloudy, but I didn't think it was unpleasant. I could see Arthur's Seat, the city's tallest hill, looming over the neighborhoods to my east. I wondered if I could climb it. I passed pubs, charity shops, a couple of familiar fast food places, and an inviting-looking Blackwell's bookstore. Soon, I was shocked to observe that, with few glances at my map, I had stumbled onto the famous Royal Mile, without once getting lost! And I'd done it by myself! In fact, I had rather enjoyed looking around by myself.

The Royal Mile had souvenir shops, historical markers, and even a bagpiper. I heard a few more familiar accents mingling with the Scottish ones as I walked along. Soon I noticed St. Giles' Cathedral, the historic Presbyterian kirk. I couldn't wait to tell my dad about it! I also knew that meant that New College, the theology department of the University, could not be far away. But there were numerous little side streets whose names either weren't marked or tended to change halfway along, so I was uncertain where to go. So, hardly thinking about what I was doing, I walked onto the grounds of Edinburgh Castle, just a few steps away, and asked an attendant if she knew where New College was. Though she wasn't positive, she suggested a likely street I remembered passing, so I quickly backtracked. Sure enough, in just a couple of minutes, I found myself standing in the courtyard of the New College of Divinity, gazing up at the John Knox statue.

Pretty soon I felt myself starting to smile. I was staring history in the face on these grounds. And when I turned around, I could see a Saint Andrew's Cross flag waving on the roof of the National Gallery, the Sir Walter Scott monument beckoning near the gates of the gorgeous Princes Street Gardens, and trains pulling into Waverley Station. Not to mention, this school was literally tucked into the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. And I was going to take classes here!

Even though it was scarcely 4:00 pm, the skies were starting to darken, reminding me how far I was from home. But as I headed back towards the Royal Mile to reclaim the solitude of my dorm, I felt that something  had shifted. I was still terribly homesick, but I wanted very much to take my theology classes in the shadow of the Castle. I wanted to tour the Castle and attempt to summit Arthur's Seat, too. Maybe even take a train somewhere.

And guess what? Over the next five months, I did every one of those things.

~ ~

Why did I recall these memories eight years later? I think it's because Edinburgh was where I learned that I could be brave, and that I could persevere when things only looked bleak. I'm not sure I knew those things about myself before. I also discovered that courage and perseverance do not necessarily look pretty. To this day, I still feel awful before trying something new, or even going through a pretty ordinary transition. I always doubt whether I'm up for the challenge and whether the whole thing will prove to have been worth it. But once I decisively venture to do what needs doing, I very often begin to thrive.

It's comforting to remember that on the cusp of a new semester. I have a truckload of anxieties, and I know I'm bound to have an ugly meltdown or two. But I also trust that God will give me the grace to be brave when I need to be. More importantly, even when I'm not brave, God will show His strength and faithfulness. That's something I'll always need to learn.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A January Story, Part I

I don't handle Januaries terrifically well. The transition from weeks of exclusive home and family time to full-time school, with all its attendant stresses, fills me with anxiety and dread more often than not. I start wondering why I ever thought an academic career was a good idea. Even though I've weathered January transitions many times before, I feel convinced that this time, it will prove to have been a terrible mistake.

~ ~

Last night as I struggled to fall asleep, I remembered a particularly awful January transition in the past. It was January 2, 2004. I was 20, and I had just arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland, for a five-month study abroad program.

Through most of the long British Airways flight, I was fairly calm, even cautiously excited. Studying in Scotland was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, and I was finally going! Even the terrible inner-ear pressure during the descent into Edinburgh didn't ruin my pleasure at seeing the gray, snow-covered hills and realizing I was probably the first of my family to lay eyes on this land in many generations.

By the time I'd gathered my luggage and joined the rest of my study abroad cohort, however, I started to feel self-conscious and worried. I realized something: they all knew each other. Well, not everyone. (As I was later to discover, there was one other solo traveler, a fellow reticent Sarah, who would be responsible for some of my happiest adventures in Scotland.) But the vast majority of kids had traveled in contingents from their home universities, so they had friends with them. They chatted buoyantly on the coach that took us from the airport to the hotel where our orientation would be held. Meanwhile, I was the only Hollins woman, the only theology nerd as far as I knew, and the only one hailing from a tiny Southern college with fewer than 1,000 students.

Suddenly, it really began to hit me that I was at least 3,500 miles from home. I didn't know a soul on this island.* And I was going to be stuck here for almost half a year.

 I started crying. It seemed to be the only way I could grapple with the crushing isolation and uncertainty I felt. Silently, and as inconspicuously as I knew how, I cried through the better part of the next 24 hours: I cried while the group of New England coeds sitting near me in the hotel lobby talked about Edinburgh pubs and how awesome it was that we could legally drink here. I cried while the study abroad staff gave us all the basic settling-in details, such as how to matriculate, where to get photo IDs taken (what suddenly sounded like insurmountable tasks), and how we must never call Scottish people "Brits." (Did people really not know this?!) I cried when I noticed that my hotel roommate looked vaguely like my best friend, from a certain angle. I even teared up when a friendly Scottish man spilled part of his cereal onto my tray at breakfast the next morning and fell all over himself apologizing.

I probably couldn't have put into words why I felt so overwhelmingly emotional. It's not as if I had never traveled independently before, or even that it was the first time I had traveled overseas. But I had never been both overseas and totally alone. Unlike my father, who at my age had circled the globe a couple of times and survived war zones, I'd never gone for more than a couple of months without seeing my family. I felt terribly out of my element, I was far too shy to engage in more than a few phrases with anyone around me, and there was an entire ocean between me and everything I loved.

Do you know how exhausting it is to cry like a leaky faucet for hours upon hours -- all the while laboring to conceal your disgrace from everyone around you? It's demoralizing in a big way. And, I suspect, probably nowhere near as successful as I hoped. By that time, though, I was too sad to care.

I found respite that night when we were finally dismissed to our hotel rooms; at least now I had a pillow to soak up my seemingly endless supply. And I had a little silence in which to think. I realized there was no way I could stay in Scotland. It was simply too much, too hard. Apparently I wasn't cut out for a trip of this magnitude by myself. While it would be embarrassing to admit defeat and re-enroll at Hollins for the semester, I could think of nothing that sounded more appealing. At the earliest non-awkward opportunity, I would talk to the study abroad staff and explain that I needed to book a flight home as soon as possible.

~ ~

No, the story doesn't end here. And yes, it ends on a MUCH more hopeful note, as you probably already know! But you'll have to wait for Part II to read the rest. :-)

*Had I known that my future husband would be landing at Heathrow less than a week later, to spend the next three months 300 miles away from me at Oxford, would it have comforted me at all? I wasn't to know that for another few years. :-)

Monday, January 2, 2012

Pressing on...Toward Peace?

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Phil. 3:12-14

2011 was a pretty good year for us. It was our first full year in St. Louis, a city we've enjoyed calling home so far. Some of the highlights of the year included getting more involved in our church (I am so excited to be able to attend Midweek again this semester!), making some new friends there, and traveling to Texas to become godparents for our nieces there. We also got to travel to Pittsburgh for Thanksgiving and Christmas and for a week at the beginning of the summer.

In 2012, I am very excited to visit California for a week in March. We haven't been back since our initial move to St. Louis. I also hope to take better advantage of inexpensive ways to have fun around St. Louis. But perhaps the thing I'm most looking forward to is finishing my PhD coursework.

Looking back at personal journaling and other things, I can tell that anxiety was a major factor throughout the year. I've always been adamant that school is not the only or most important thing in my life, but the anxiety still finds ways of creeping up uninvited. The fact that I do insist on taking time off (such as evenings, parts of weekends) usually comes back to bite me later, compounded by a sense of guilt that I'm not working as hard, or at least not getting as much accomplished, as others in my program. But it's not just school, either. I seem to be prone to worry, even when I'm not consciously dwelling on an anxiety-producing thing.

So I would be very happy if 2012 could be a year in which I learned to fight anxiety, however one does that. And I don't want to simply say, "I just have to tough it out through one more semester of coursework, and then things will get better." While I believe the latter will be true, I want to genuinely enjoy myself and look forward to life in the meantime. I'd like to remember my later 20's as more than a long haze of stress. I don't think I'll ever look back and say, "I wish I had spent more time worrying."