First Snow

Snow has come early this year.

I’d forgotten how much I missed snow; last year at this time, it was raining (and it didn’t stop until mid-march).

Waiting, smiling, oddly caught between two worlds: Such is existence now.

Settling in to a new place reminds me of the fleetingness of life. A few months have passed; a few new laws have come into being (and I’ve received frantic emails reminding me that, although my current state of residence has legalized marijuana, I would be wise not to partake in the festivities); my strapped-for-money Christian college has managed to bash headlines by allowing alcohol sales in their conference center (although they somehow have never realized how much alcohol is made in the chemistry department on a daily basis). I’ve written tests, studied until my brain died, come closer to realizing the unbelievable diversity of political opinions in existence, and eaten far too much ice cream. I’ve been hired to teach German (gap years really do pay off). I’ve thought about what I should do with my life, talked to people about what I should do with my life, received advice about what I should do with my life, given people advice about what they should do with their lives–and, still, nothing’s really changed. I’m still Sarah, one homo sapien sapiens of eight billion on this earth (and three orbiting it).

Life. So complicated! So crazy! I don’t know what to do about it. There’s all the crazy microbial creatures that swim happily in our guts, digesting our food and controlling our mood, and occasionally morphing into much more . And then there’s the nefarious naegleria fowleri, a single-celled organism (well, technically amoeba, but most people don’t know what that means) that likes to swim in ponds and sometimes people’s noses, where it noses its way up into someone’s brain, giving the person obnoxious headaches while munching away their cognitive capabilities.

But, biology aside, life is complicated, and being “home” has only amplified that fact. Somehow I expected that, upon returning to the snowy USA, I would have a clear expectation of what to do with life. I though I would know what classes to take, what internships or research positions or jobs to apply to, what classes to take each semester, which people to befriend, which people to impress. I thought, I thought, I though. And I’m still thinking, with less knowledge of what I should do with my life than anytime else.

The world’s awfully big. Crazy big. And I could do practically anything (well, probably not astrophysics) and do it well. That, I suppose, is what it means to be young: To have generally unlimited and undecided choices ahead of you. Some people, I suppose, never really get the chance to be young like that. I, however, do.

At this point, I somehow want to connect this challenging choice-making to my experience in Germany. Because, those eleven months had an awfully enormous effect on how my brain disseminates and understands the world. It gave me–it gives me–so much more than I could have anticipated before I dragged my (way over the weight limit) carry-on down United’s always blue-carpeted aisle. I somehow can’t communicate the change in my deepest understanding of existence.

I can merely say that I grew, learned, and developed a new framework for evaluating myself, others, and the social systems that connect us.

But.

It’s snowing.

In my high school lit classes, we would always talk about the power of frozen water in literature, how it snows when someone needs cleansing when someone is becoming something new. It’s sort of like a baptism translated into ink. Snow is accepting the fact that, because of the awkward three dimensions we exist within, the past is irretrievable, and the future is the only way forward, be it blessing or curse.

 

And thus the page turns, despite (or because of) the fact that I have no idea what I am going to scribble on the other side.

 

 

(P.S. Life has been busy and I’ve been learning the not-so-easy-way that my perfect day would have about 127 hours instead of a measly 24. Thus, this blog post is quite tardy. Please accept my sincere apologies.)

 

 

Farewell!

 

 

SG

 

 

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Almost 20

 

I have lived for 19 years. Working on 20. 20! That’s an intimidating number. 20, that means I won’t be a teenager anymore. Ever again.

I vaguely remember turning 13 and becoming a teenager. Feeling tall, important, grown up. After all, I’d always lived in the upperish middle class of a post-industrial service-based society. I never had ever really experienced physical want; the rural American frugality that’s been ingrained in my bones had never been necessary for my physical survival. Decisions always made themselves for me. Start playing piano when you’re six? Of course, it’ll provide you the foundation for whatever else you want to do. Go to college? Of course, we’ve been saving since before you were born. Want to go to Germany for free for a year? Goodness gracious, of course you should go—after all, there’s nothing else more important you could be doing.

Now, however, comes Adulthood, the era when decisions no longer make themselves. What classes should I sign up for next semester? What should I major in? What do I want to do with my life? No one is giving me these answers. I know I have essentially unlimited opportunities, that the world is my oyster. But what do I do? And what do I do with the obvious and uncomfortable reality that the vast majority of human beings in this world don’t have the opportunities I do?

It’s not as though I really know lots of people who have struggled as I have not. I’m going to a religious-based private liberal arts college where the institution’s Dutch heritage blasts me every day as I wonder at the amazing number of blonde-haired, blue-eyed family clans who have somehow managed to retain their recessive genes for over a century and a half. I know of people who have struggled mostly by reading about it or hearing speakers talk. But I think I am starting to get it now, get the fact that most people don’t live like I have in my upperish middle class, post-industrial, socioeconomic strata.

Adulthood is complicated. Life is complicated. I’m currently split between writing this blog and attacking the endless pages of problems attempting to demystify the three dimensionality of molecular existence, between studying for a linguistics exam and watching Disney movies with my dorm. I’m split between medicine (yes, the hours are brutal, but my future family won’t want with that salary) and chemistry (though I’m not yet a fan of the windowless, vibrationless basement laboratories where chemists seem to do most of their work), neuroscience and philosophy, German and English, theology and writing. I sort of love it all, it’s all fascinating, and I don’t want to do the adult thing and decide.

I’m not fishing for sympathy. Look, I’ll be honest. I want to remain idealistic in my pursuit of whatever I do, to do it because I love the subject, to pipet and measure and inform and heal and because it’s fulfilling, because it’s my calling. To do medicine or chemistry because doctors help people and chemists help doctors. But is that honestly why? Does the fact that those fields are at least somewhat more attractive because they’ll probably allow me to continue living in the social strata that I’ve grown up in, the social strata where home ownership, annual vacation, and post-secondary education are givens, make me an immoral person? What do I do with that? When I feel like nobody lives by the fact that there’s so much outside the bubble, so much beauty and pain and misery and joy and everything else? The one thing I haven’t found in science is an understanding of equity, the lack of justice that’s inherent in all human society. The fact that spending hours isolating the compounds in Tylenol doesn’t help that there are millions of people who don’t have access to Tylenol anyway, much less the education that allows me to unmake it.

It angers me, I suppose, when people treat human injustice as an unimportant, incurable, irrelevant necessity, even when they spend their livelihood decoding the protein patterns that make cells human cells become cancerous. Yes, cancer is bad, but cancer is not limited to biochemical processes. Social cancers are much more rampant, much less studied, and much more widespread than biological ones, because they effect, have effected, and will effect every human being ever to exist. We should talk about it, and allow what we say to effect what we do.

Although, of course, I’m just as guilty of my accusations as everyone else.

20 is coming, much too quickly for my taste. Somehow adulthood never really existed to my childhood self; I’m just beginning to realize how poorly prepared I am for the reality of “the rest of life”—whatever that is. And, as I’ve got some more studying to do, I suppose I’ll give my

Farewell!

 

 

SG

Back (and Forth)

Well. Well. Well.

Where to begin? Because I’m honestly quite confused and not sure where the beginning is. This post is, I suppose, a life update, an update on what it’s like to be back here in my home country, on what it’s like to transition, on what it’s like when life just sort of keeps on rolling and you find that you can’t seem to control its ever increasing velocity.

So.

Adjustment. I admit, I have had an enormously wonderful time readjusting to my home culture. Being away from home teaches you just how important home is, and I know a little more about where I belong than I did last year at this time.

From the beginning of that journey: I vaguely remember the plane ride back, the way that 45 exchange students on their way back home can have a crazy good time for 9 hours, complete with hourly oh-my-gosh-I’m-seriously-probably-never-really-going-to-see-you-again hug parties and not terribly happy flight attendants. I remember the awful waiting through customs at the airport, the elatedness of my family, their “Welcome Home!” posters, the strange way that my mind managed to completely avoid any sort of jet lag, the sweetness of the 5 kilos of chocolate I managed to stow away in my luggage, the hugeness of the American roads and cars and buildings and Lake Michigan I hadn’t seen for eleven months. I still have memory of the fluttery happiness of finally being back at home, the ecstasy of being where I love and am loved.

Was it hard? Is it hard? I feel that I should say yes, and I know plenty of people who have  difficulty adjusting back to American life. For me, though, the transition was as natural as could be. Great summer work, seeing old friends, catching up on a year’s worth of life-ly adventures, spending time at that beautiful Lake Michigan, enjoying those moments in life that are simply nothing but enjoyable–that was the consistency of my transition.

I’m not German. I have a home, imperfect as it is. And I was glad to be there for a final, perfect summer.

The far more challenging aspect of the transition isn’t the transition; it’s life itself. The way that, caught in the awkward three dimensions that we are, we can’t escape time. Leaving home after finally getting home was–is–treacherous. I’m happy at home, my home is happy to have me; why would I ever want to leave?

But thus comes college. After not actually doing school for a year, it took a week of very painful studying to become accustomed to the 24/7 stress of college life. Yet more challenging than the workload is coming to terms with the fact that I’m not exactly who I culturally should want to be. You see, American culture holds high the ideal of Amazingness. We strive for exceptionalism in everything we do. We hold in high esteem the people who win gold medals despite enormous odds, the people who amass multimillion-dollar companies singlehandedly, the prodigies who are masters at sixteen or the dancers who dance professionally while teaching physics at Princeton with degrees from Harvard and Oxford under their belts.

And, well–I’m not that amazing, and I’m never going to be that amazing. Sorry, but not sorry. Because look! The world is so much bigger than that. It’s so much more than whatever degree will be inked onto my diploma, more than the Midwest or Southwest or Northeast or wherever, more than the English-speaking Fox-news watching Twitter/Facebook/Snapchat/Instagram-using populous in the Northern Hemisphere. Existence is so enormous, people!!!!!

And I don’t know what to do about it.

That’s my struggle. I’m caught between the language-loving, German-speaking, poetry-writing, ach-isn’t-that-sunset-heartwrenchingly-gorgeous part of me, the part of me that’s found a home for itself inside of me this past year, and the other seditiously viral parasite that I somehow can’t escape. I don’t know what I want to do with my life; I can get the grades, elicit some passion, but somehow can’t balance the current contradictions of existence.

But, then again, patience is a virtue. And we shall see what comes out of it all.

Farewell! Until I write again!

 

 

SG

 

 

 

 

 

What It’s Like

What is it like to leave someone and know that you’re probably never ever ever going to see  or hear from them again?

What is it like to say goodbye, hoping you’ll somehow, somewhere see each other again, hoping to overcome the fact that there’s more than 4,000 miles and 7 hours of daylight savings time between you? Even though you know that somehow, somewhere is probably not going to happen?

What is it like to say goodbye to somewhere where you’ve grown up so much, even though you’ve only been there since after you turned 18?

What is it like to say goodbye to people who have been around you and helped you through most challenging times in your life—the times when you where at your most vulnerable?

What is it like to say hello to people you’ve lived your whole life with—well, all of your life except the past year?

What is it like to say hello to your friends that you’ve done so much life with—but have grown apart from over the last 345 days?

What is it like to step off a plane in a busy airport and suddenly be confronted by the world that should be normal but has somehow become foreign? To suddenly yourself be foreign even though you don’t have to stretch your mind for words or be surprised at the yellow stripes on the road?

What is it like to not have an accent? To not trip over tricky words or attempt rather unsuccessfully to convey with words a complicated emotion or event?

What is it like to not be a resident alien, but still sort of feel like one?

So many questions! So many things to do, farewells to give, awkward feelings of oh-my-goodness-am-I-really-leaving-ach-I-should-have-done-this-or-talked-to-this-person-or-eaten-ice-cream-with-you-one-more-time. I am coming home. I am returning. This super strange yet retrospectively unbelievably formable and beautiful period of life is coming to an end. To an end!

If only the Atlantic Ocean wasn’t so large and plane tickets so expensive. If only I could magically acquire a billion yellow balloons like the old guy in UP and transport the castle of Karlsruhe, complete with the beautiful people I’ve been blessed to meet here, onto an island right near the coast of Lake Michigan.

If only!

But no.

4 more days.

Not really. 4 more days, and then life will go on. I am still me, even if this me is a little different—a little older, a little wiser, a little worldlier, a little more German—than the me that had difficulty smiling in the final family photo at the O’Hare airport check-in desk. The ridiculous amounts of chocolate that I’ve consumed haven’t changed the essentialness of ME. I am who I am.

Transitions are the challenging parts of life, and I have a huge transition ahead of me—new (old) country, college, figuring out what is going to be done with my life. But what I’ve learned this year (Relax! Enjoy the ride! Don’t worry about stuff you have no control over! Don’t be afraid of your failures and vulnerabilities! Be humble! Take all the opportunities that arise! Get enough sleep! Relish in the rain as much as you do in sunshine!) will help me in the future. I am quite sure of it.

So.

Yes.

Perhaps I will post again—I’ll try to, if I have enough ideas to fill up some random (and sort of imaginary) space in a giant WordPress server somewhere. But, if I don’t, or if you don’t want to read again (this post is rather lengthy):

Farewell!

 

SG

Thoughts For The Longest Day Of The Year

16 more days.

There are a few simple questions that follow that: I am happy? Or sad? Ready to leave, or not at all?

The simple answer is, well, yes. I’m “happy” to leave. I’m ready to leave. I’m like Harry Potter getting ready to go back to Hogwarts after a long summer at the Dursleys, surviving on the scant news of his real home from newspapers of a foreign world. I’m excited to see my friends again, to be around people who understand me, and people who I truly understand.

Yet.

Home. What is home? What is home in my mind, and what is home in reality? What am I going to do about the inevitable disappointment that will plague me, even though I’ll be back where I belong? About suddenly losing my obvious foreignness, yet still feeling odd and strange?

Who will I be without my accent? Without my feeling of being slightly lost all the time?

What will I be like, after this crazy experience, to people I’ve known forever but haven’t seen for 347 days? What will I think of people I have known forever but haven’t seen for 347 days? How will I react to this unfortunately unavoidable upcoming stage of life?

And what of the future? This year is sort of a vacation from real life, for there are no real consequences for my actions. Skipping a class in order to talk about life over yummy three-fourths-chocolate coffee results in no failing grades or trips to the truancy office. I have been able to dream about my future—do I want to be a doctor? A writer? A teacher?—without having to trudge through endless mountains of chemical sketches and pages of hopelessly loss calculus calculations.

No, this year has not been easy. But no, going home will not be easy, either.

I suppose my greatest worry is exactly what has plagued me here. Here, I’ve always been on the outside, tapping at the window of the room where it happens. But when I get home, it will be similar. I’ll be standing outside, waiting for everyone inside to come out and see how great the world is—and people will look for a moment, smile, and return to their own lives, forever and eternally oblivious to what’s outside.

After exchange, some people carry deep friendships throughout their lives. I guess I never really managed to take my shot, or maybe I just never really got one—the relationships here have just never really existed. But I have memories and struggles and angry explosions at midnight in my room when no one was awake. I have a new way of twisting my tongue and mind around everything in life. I have the beautiful Karlsruhe sun on my face in March, and the wonderful snoozy heat of Karlsruhe in late June. I have a new appreciation for home, for my family, and for friendship.

But that’s not going to make it easier.

Thank you all for reading my thoughts! Discombobulated or not, it’s what it is.

 

 

 

Farewell! Until we meet again!

 

SG

Ice Water and Donut Holes

Finally, another post!

As many of you know, I am studying in Germany with the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Program. It’s a program jointly funded by the US Congress and the German parliament, the Bundestag. Essentially that means that I’ve studied here for free (the only thing I have to pay for is spending money; the program even pays for my train tickets for school). The climax of this program is a week in Berlin, which was last week.

And it was unbelievably exciting.

First, it was wonderful to be with all of the other exchange students on my exchange program. I’ve learned this year that I am pretty American and most definitely not German, and it’s great to be able to hang out with a bunch of Americans for a week. We spent lots of time talking with each other about everything we’ve done this year, what we think of the experience, and what we think about the fact that we currently have 25 more days left (25 DAYS!!!!!).

It was also nice to see the Teamers/Consolers who have been with us at all of our group meetings. Four of them were at both the mid-year seminar in Hamburg, and one at the 4-week language camp and at the middle seminar. We’ve grown up a lot with them, so it was great to spend our last group time together.

We did quite a few exiting things in Berlin. As most of you probably know, Berlin is the current seat of the German government (it was the seat of government for former East Germany; the Bundestag voted to move itself to Berlin after the reunification). It’s a surprisingly modern city for being so old. After being largely destroyed in WWII, and then separated with a wall during the Cold War period, it was built up again throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

We spent the first few days in Berlin enjoying out time together and visiting various museums, memorials, and plays about communist kangaroos (if you are German, you know what I’m referring to).

Friday was the big “Berlin Tag.” We woke up ridiculously early in order to have time to get to the Reichstag (the parliament building) by 7. We then waited, with all 300 other CBYX exchange students from all of the other programs, to go through security and take some snazzy pictures. Once we were inside, we were able to watch a session of the Bundestag members debating and voting. It was actually quite interesting to watch; they discussed a raise in the ceiling for campaign funds (which passed) and, later in the day, what Germany is going to do about the US breaking the Iran treaty.

After watching the sessions, we got to go upstairs into the discussion room for the CDU/CSU party (that’s like the center-right party) and talk to a panel of Bundestag members from every party currently in the Bundestag (there’s 6). It was interesting to hear their responses to the questions people asked, which were not always easy to answer. It was also interesting to hear the answers from every side of the political spectrum. The Bundestag members responsible for the CBYX program also talked about its importance and how important it is for the relationship between the US and Germany.

Once the meeting was over, we had a very delicious lunch, and many representatives from the Bundestag came to meet students from their districts. My representative didn’t come, but I did have the opportunity to socialize with the other CBYX students. It’s amazing how easy it is to talk and connect to people from all over the (honestly rather large) USA in a foreign country.

When lunch was over, we headed to the US Embassy, where we were greeted by the US diplomatic corps. They talked for a while, gave us some American food (yes, you guessed it: Donut holes and ice water), and taught us all about what it’s like to be a diplomat for the United States of America. Not an easy job, I can tell you that. After we finished talking, we essentially had a party, complete with music, more ice cold water and donut holes, and plenty of time to socialize.

After the program was done, we headed back to the youth hostel/house where we were staying. There, we grilled, talked, and came to terms with the fact that we will never spend an entire night together as a whole group. Saturday morning meant an hour and a half of goodbyes and farewells.

My time here is coming to a close. It’s been a weird year, to say the least; I fully admit that I’m excited to go home, but I will still hold this time in Germany as one of the more formative soul-forming years of my existence on earth. I’ve grown up a lot, and met many new and interesting people. I’ve learned a new language, learned about and engaged a new culture, and come to a better understanding of my cultural identity.

And now, for one final advertisement: Do you know anyone who might be able to use a year in Germany? The CBYX scholarship has three main branches. The program for high school students is the largest, and it’s essentially just a traditional exchange year with a few more seminars and a language camp included. There is also a program for graduating high school seniors (note that graduating high school seniors that are 17 for their senior year can also participate in the high school program) and a young professionals program for students and young adults ages 18-24. If you are interested, or know anyone else who is interested, please pass on the information! A year with CBYX is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity that is not to be missed.

 

 

Farewell!

 

SG

When You Can’t Melt The Iceberg, Part II

Learn from it!

I know I haven’t blogged for a while. I was in France, at a funeral, and at a birthday party for an 80-year-old.

But I’m back now, to my “home,” my blog, and the iceberg metaphor I sort of stole from my cross-cultural training materials.

Unfortunately, there isn’t any known way to instantaneously melt an iceberg. Running into them in anger (or by accident) usually doesn’t work to well, either. It’s best just to accept the iceberg for what it is: Beautiful, dangerous, foreign, cool, intimidating, cold.

And then, move on with life. You’ll be past the iceberg soon enough, even though it seems like eternity when you’re facing it.

On a less poorly attempted metaphorical note: I have 35 days left in Germany. I’ve had this blog for over a year, which means I have less days left in my exchange than I had days until my exchange started on this date, 2017.

Crazy thing, time.

It’s been rough, as I’ve already admitted. But I will give some of the non-academic things I’ve learned:

1. You can’t rewrite your past. So look ahead, realizing that what’s there will eventually be irreversibly ingrained in the trail behind you.

2. Appreciate other people.

3. Self-obsession is dangerous, so don’t think about yourself so much. The axis of the earth’s rotation isn’t what degree, scholarships, jobs, or other worldly awards your can write next to your name.

4. Your family (the people you live and share life with) is important. Make sure they know that.

5. Contentedness is more often than not a choice.

6. Choose wisely.

7. Figure out what you believe and who you are in your humanity. Treasure those things deeply.

8. Respect others’ beliefs and values, even if they conflict with your own. They are just as human as they are—even when you disagree.

9. Don’t be afraid of your own opinion—in fact, you should treat it just like you treat everyone else’s opinions: Cautiously, with respect and a critical eye.

10. Think about what it’s like to be the other human being (especially) when you’re in disagreement with someone. Grow and guard your ability to empathize.

11. Embrace Home—not just where you come from, but the ideals, beliefs, customs, traditions, values, literature, music, and everything else that is essential to your understanding of yourself.

12. Don’t afraid of disagreement. Respect it. But don’t go fishing for an argument, either.

13. Be flexible. Even when you really, really, really don’t want to.

14. Realize that there’s an often enormous bridge between knowing something and actually matching your actions to that knowledge. Work on building that bridge—it’s harder than acquiring the knowledge yourself.

15. Your glass should be half-full. Always. Don’t allow anyone (yourself included) to drain change it to half-empty.

 

Farewell!

 

(35 more days…)

 

SG