And so..The Adventure Begins

6 years ago this month, I was driving my trice-recycled ‘94 teal Chevy Malibu with the windows rolled down from my high school to the Senior Picnic–just days before graduation.  “Keep Your Head Up” by Andy Grammer came through the radio waves and it just seemed right.  I was full of optimism and excitement for a fresh chapter.  And what better way to kick off the next adventure than a class-wide picnic with my 700 other classmates?

If I remember correctly, the picnic was lame and I didn’t know where to put myself, like the rest of my high school experience, because some things never change.

I was driving to my last day of work this morning, in my ‘10 Ford Focus that mercifully doesn’t spray water in my face every time it rains like the Malibu did so I’m clearly moving up in the world.  Andy Grammer’s familiar tune came warbling through the FM again and I felt the echoes of that same optimism bubble up.  And then a new Maroon 5 song came on with the same tune they were using 6 years ago. Some things really never do change.

But some things do. I’m more cautious now than I was back then.  I’m not as willing to chase every idea but have learned to patiently wait for my dreams to surface.  I’ve stopped caring about eating lunch at the cool table and although I’m slower to act on new ideas, I’m braver in carrying them out.  During the last 6 years, I pushed to find the limits of how many things I was capable of doing simultaneously and now I’m content to find the few things in life that are worth pursuing deeply.

I’m thankful for nostalgic songs that inspire reflection–even if that includes some awkward high school memories–before starting this next adventure.  Besides learning the Russian language and acquiring a fur hat, one of my biggest goals for our time abroad is to grow in wisdom, character, and flexibility.  Hopefully by the next time I hear Andy Grammer on the radio in June, I can see those fruits in my life.

Until then, just gotta keep my head up.

It All Started With Anna Karenina

I promised some exciting news in my blog post last week so here goes…Luke and I are moving to Russia!  More specifically, to the Saint Petersburg area and even more specifically than that, to Pushkin.

This is old news for some of you and out of the blue for others, so I’ve compiled a list of the frequently asked questions we’ve gotten over the past few months.

Q: Are you crazy?

Maybe.

Q: Why Russia?

Luke spent a summer in Siberia a few years ago and it’s been one of his dreams to go back for a while.  One of the main goals for our time there is language acquisition, for Luke to use for further academic studies.  He’s also excited to gain more teaching experience, another important step for his career trajectory.

Q: What will you be doing there?

Luke has been hired by a language school to be a full-time English teacher.  I also plan to do some teaching on a part-time basis, while also pursuing some dreams and doing more professional development.

Q: Isn’t it cold there?

Yes.

Q: Why now?

Luke is between graduate schools right now and we don’t currently have debts or dependents to tie us down.  After reviewing our 5 and 10 year flow charts (no joke), we realized that if we were ever going to pursue this adventure, there’s no better time than now.

Q: When do you leave?

The first leg of our journey is to get from the West Coast back to the MidWest.  We’ll be leaving SoCal at the end of June and flying for Saint Petersburg in mid-August.

Q: When do you come back?

We don’t have a specific date yet, but the teaching contract is for one year.

I also promised to reveal what our joint anniversary gift was from last week.  You might have guessed it by now…it’s a travel guide to the Saint Petersburg area!  We are so excited to explore our new city–some of our current top sights to see are the Hermitage Museum and the homes/estates of Dostoevsky, Pushkin, and Tolstoy.

Because after all, it did all start with Anna Karenina.

Of The World, But Not In It

When my husband and I first moved to Southern California from rural Pennsylvania, we suffered from culture shock.  You couldn’t escape the smell of tacos and citrus trees seem to sprout of sidewalk cracks like weeds.  I also noticed the same bumper sticker on most of the cars parked on the street in the neighborhood and in grocery store parking lots.  

2760795Did we just move into a gang neighborhood?  The bumper sticker contained the acronym “N-T-W” and triggered some kind of childhood flashback I just couldn’t put my finger on.

It finally hit me.  I had a sweatshirt with that symbol on it once, back when it was the cool 7th grade thing to do to wear obscure Christian slogans on your hoodie. N-T-W = Not of This World.  I had no idea the company mass producing those sweatshirts and bumper stickers was still around, let alone infiltrating the the rear view windows of suburban San Diego SUVs.

As Christians, is this the best we can do to engage with our culture in a meaningful manner?  And yes, I mean our culture.  The one we live in.  Not the ambiguous secular culture we love to hate or the Christian culture we pretend to like.  But the culture created by where we live and the people we work with and the neighbors next door.  Are they really going to look at that cryptic bumper sticker and think: “Now that’s someone living with Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior!”

Probably not.  The message is a good one–paraphrased poorly from John 18:36: “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.’”  But the delivery via bumper sticker falls short.

In his book, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, cultural apologist Ken Myers argues that rather than being in the world but not of it, Christians are far more likely to be of the world but not in it.

It has not been uncommon for evangelical Christians to give up trying to come to terms with “secular” popular culture, and to boycott it altogether.  But often they have simultaneously endorsed the creation of an extensive parallel popular culture, complete with Christian rock bands and nightclubs, Christian soap operas and talk shows, Christian spy and romance novels, and Christian exercise videos.  They have thus succeeded in being of the world, but not in the world.  The “Christian” popular culture takes all its cues from its secular counterpart, but sanitizes and customizes it with “Jesus language.”

Traditionally, critics of popular culture have focused on it’s content.  You turn on today’s latest hits for 60 seconds and you’ll hear filthy language, objectification of women, questionable sexual morals, and violence. But is the solution to replace crass bumper stickers with our “Christian” ones?  Perhaps the problem is not only the content of popular culture but the way we’re sending and receiving messages with one another in general?

Back in those hoodie wearing days of 7th grade, I was invited to an older girl’s 13 birthday party.  This was a big deal, because I was only 12.  The popular catch phrase of the day was a sarcastic “whatever,” usually accompanied with an eye roll.

This birthday girl’s well-meaning parents picked up on their daughter’s favorite retort and decided to slap some Jesus on it for her birthday present.  They gave her a t-shirt with “whatever” screen printed on it in size 72 font and the remainder of Philippians 4:8 in tiny letters: “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” They took a popular culture form of t-shirts with sassy sayings on them and attempted to “Christianize” it.  The result?  The Word of God placed on the same level as “I ❤ New York”

It’s the same reason why those cheesy Christian movies always leave a bad taste in our mouths.  And why when my high school youth group leader encouraged us to cut out all non-Christian music from our lives, another mentor suggested that we start listening to country songs to help us make the transition from secular to Christian music.

Later in his book, Ken Myers goes on to ask, “Are there natural virtues of sympathy, of love, of justice, of mercy, of wisdom that can be encouraged by aesthetic experience?  According to Lewis, learning to ‘receive’ a work of art does encourage habits of the heart that have effects in other areas of life.  And now, to put popular culture on the spot, does it have the same capacities?  No, and few people, even its most ardent fans, would claim that it does,” (Myers 97).

This is why being a critic of form and not just content matters.  Intaking messages that are delivered through media that does pass the Philippians 4:8 test makes us more like Christ.  It’s tempting to make rules like: “No music with 5 or more “yeahs” inserted randomly into the lyrics” or “Only read books that are at least 200 pages long,” but that just teaches us how to check things off a list, not how to value and hunger after the truly beautiful things in this world, explicitly Christian or otherwise.

C.S. Lewis provides a useful guideline for form criticism in his book, An Experiment in Criticism by suggesting we do some self-examination about the way we intake everything (movies, paintings, music, writing, etc..) and ask: Am I receiving this or just using it?  He distinguishes between the two this way:

A work of (whatever) art can be either ‘received’ or ‘used’.  When we ‘receive’ it we exert our senses and imaginations and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the artist.  When we ‘use’ it we treat it as assistance for our own activities….’Using’ is inferior to ‘reception’ because art, if used rather than received, merely facilitates, brightens, relives or palliates our life, and does not add to it.   

Most of the forms chosen by pop and Christian culture leave little room for receiving the message.   As Lewis says, we become “so busy doing things with the work that we give it too little chance to work on us.  Thus increasingly we meet only ourselves.”

Lewis’ distinction helps us find forms that encourage us to receive and interact with the message instead of just using it.  Not only will you find yourself a better reader, appreciator of art, and listener, you will also be developing those “natural virtues of sympathy, of love, of justice, of mercy of wisdom.” Using these same forms to glorify our God and share His Gospel encourages active and thoughtful reception of the best message of all time.  I’d say that beats a bumper sticker or t-shirt any day of the week.

Capsule Closet Part Three | Seven Months Later

 

I started my journey towards a capsule closet 7 months ago. I’m far from the finish line, but here’s what I’ve experienced so far.

1. It’s slowed down my decision making process

Our clothing budget is $10/month.  For both Luke and I.  Luckily for me, Luke refuses to buy clothing until he literally has one grey t-shirt left with a minimally acceptable amount of holes in it so I get more than my fair share of the budget.  But still, you can do some simple math and realize that I’m not buying a whole new wardrobe at one time.

The result?  I’m very strategic about what clothing I buy.  As in, I made an entire inventory list of what I already own, wrote out a list of my “ideal capsule closet” and then created that closet on Pinterest (55 items total, excluding pajamas and t-shirts for working out), marked “Tried” on the items I already own and then added the items I’d still like to an Amazon wish list and Google shortlist.

The unintended consequence was that I also became more thoughtful about other non-clothes related buying decisions.  I’m typing this blog post out on a brand-new laptop, which took me 4 months to narrow down the options and purchase.  I went to Target to go on a mini-shopping spree and couldn’t bring myself to buy anything that I wasn’t already planning on buying.  This might sounds like a tortured existence for those who love to shop, but I’ve found it so freeing.  I’m completely in control of the purchased items that I bring into my life as well as the money going out, which feels great.

2. Easier to get ready/pack

Less clothes = less options = way easier to get ready in the morning.  Couple this with the fact that literally everything goes together (no more fashion missteps!) and I’ve gotten my morning routine down to a speedy 6 minutes.  Plus, creating a capsule closet has killed my habit to “contingency pack” where I bring 5 more outfits than necessary on a trip “just in case.”  When all of my items go together and layer perfectly, I can actually bring just what I need.

3. I love thinking about fashion

I was never into fashion growing up.  We mostly thrifted for clothes, which can be awesome, but typically just meant searching through racks to find something that looked passable in society.  I never thought much about  what styles fit me best or what colors to put together.  Now that I’ve become hyper-strategic about my closet, I’ve found myself really enjoying the process.  Instead of picking the least ugly option from a predetermined set at Goodwill, I’m dreaming up what kinds of clothes I’d love to wear and then trying to find them.

4. I’m happier in the clothes I wear

I’ve eliminated all the items that I don’t love to wear which means every shirt in my closet is my favorite shirt. Plus, since I’ve been thinking more about body types and how clothing fits, I’m narrowed my closet down to items that really fit me well, which is always a good boost for the body image self-esteem.

5. Cascading decision effect

Luke recently coined the term “cascading decisions” in our household to refer to the domino effect that some decisions can create.  In this case, my decision to create a capsule closet has led me to decide to be slower to buy  anything which means less knickknacks around the house and less coffee impulse buys on the way to work.  It means easier getting dressed decisions in the morning which means leaving earlier for work and a quicker commute to the office (also aided by less coffee stops).

I’m far from a full-blown minimalist but the benefits I’ve experienced just from minimizing my closet makes me excited for other cascading decisions to come!

T of Death (2/3)

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I used to enjoy merging. On long drives home from Grove City, I’d merge happily on the freeway to keep myself amused and awake.

I realized today that I have become a right lane rider. After months of passing gruesome wrecks on the highway, merging has become a gamble with death. There’s a downside to parking in the right side lane too often, though. You tend to get stuck. The traffic flow experts can correct me on this, but it does seem that the left lanes go faster. But it’s safe in the right lane.

Last post about the T of Death, I bewailed against being so broadly skilled that you aren’t skilled at all. This week, I want to spread my caution against getting too stuck doing the same thing forever.

Ironically, this is often the result of being too diverse in one’s interests at some point. You take every job and internship you can get. Of course, a wood-carving class tends to lead to wood-carving internships which leads to a wood-carving job and before you know it, you’ve spent your whole life as the human equivalent of a termite.

I just want to make sure I don’t live my entire life in the right lane, playing it safe only to find out that I’ll never get where I want to go. The merge might be scary, dangerous, and potentially life-threatening but I’d rather be moving in the right direction than idiling in the same spot.

 

Time Zones

My sister has lived at least one time zone away from me for the last five years.  Minus one, plus two, minus three.  My time, your time, Eastern Standard Time.

This summer, my fiance has been in two different time zones.  At first, I consoled myself by thinking, “It will be better once it’s a ten hour difference, not 7 hours.  7 hours is too awkward–10 will be better.”

Turns out, any time difference is the wrong difference.  For now, I am eagerly anticipating the day when I can call all of my loved ones without whipping out the calculator.

Following the Pact

When I was young and foolish, I could not get my mind around traffic jams.  Why were we just sitting there?  Why don’t the first cars just move already?

Nowadays, I still don’t understand all the dynamics of a highway, other than a slight decrease in mph
creates disproportionately high increases in road rage.  But I realize it isn’t as simple as a large block of cars, moving at the same speed.  There are entrances and exits, merging highways, adverse weather, the occasional deer.

Not to mention drivers’ personalities and motives.  While some are perfectly content to putt along, 10 mph under the speed limit, others seem to see driving on the highway as a real-life version of Frogger and get sick thrills from merging at dangerously fast rates, for no apparent reason.  Some are rushing to an important meeting, others are dragging their feet in getting into the office.  One has a sick spouse at home that they can’t wait to get back to, others have a sick spouse at home that they are trying to avoid for as long as possible.

I’m none of those.  I’m a copy cat driver.  I slow down when others do, speed when everyone else is, take the detour that the majority of cars are taking.  This works decently well on the highway.

But I have a tendency to do so in real life too.  We’ve been talking a lot about abiding in Christ lately at my internship.  One of my key take-aways was the foolishness of comparing ourselves to other branches (believers) instead of the vine (Christ).  I don’t know where they are going.   I don’t know there personality, motive, experiences.  I definitely don’t know what God has planned for them.  So why do I spend more time trying to mimic the growth or avoid the pitfalls I see in others rather than nourishing myself?

Driving like that would end me up in Houston instead of Lancaster.  Living like that means I miss out on my own journey and end up exhausting myself just spinning my wheels.

How To Survive A Lecture-Based Conference

You open up the obligatory “Schedule of Events”  A quick scan reveals that all you were hoping against will be your reality for the next few days.  Hours of lectures.  A break-out discussion.  More speakers.  If they’re feeling crazy, maybe even a panel discussion or two.

I’m very confident that we weren’t designed to thrive in these settings.  Yet it is a necessary part of the Summer of Growing Up and so I have compiled a survival guide in case you find yourself in such a predicament.

How To Survive a Lecture-Based Conference
 

  1. Pretend that you have stumbled upon this odd gathering of two-legged creatures by accident.  Take detailed notes on their habitat, diet, behaviors.  Compile into a log journal–including the peculiar sounds they keep making.
  2. Make friends.
  3. Develop your doodling.  I had to graduate past my trusty triad–the heart, the balloon,  and the square house–in order to not appear completely disinterested.  Instead, trying organizing your notes in creatively graphic ways and transform interesting soundbites into typography.
  4. Eat as much of the delicious food they provide as possible.  No portion control, no regrets.
  5. Explore!  If given the time, do some adventuring wherever the conference is.  My favorite way to do this is to do a few investigative  morning runs.  You get your bearings, find neat things, and don’t feel so sluggish during the 23rd keynote speaker.

Riding Solo

In this Summer of Growing Up, I have officially accomplished one of my many goals.  You’ll be hearing about the rest later.

I successfully completed my first road trip by myself!  This may not sound that impressive, but given my affinity for getting lost, the mere fact that I made it to my destination within a five hour window of my intended arrival time is something that I gleefully celebrated.

Even though I wasn’t able to indulge in my favorite activity of car sleeping, it went by quickly.  I became proficient in radio channel changing, food sign scanning, and meaningless merging.

Next Growing Up Goal: Surviving the Wild Topography of Lecture-Based Conferences

Stay tuned for more adventures!

Always,
Chloe