Tuesday, October 9, 2012

My Life Story: Onward Ever Onward

I could write hundreds of essays about the eighteen months I served as a full-time missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I could type thousands of words about the colorful blocks of city we’d wander through, painted by cultures I never knew existed. I could tell many stories of service, hot, potent Greek meals in brown wicker baskets we’d deliver at invalid’s doors once a week to serving at airy, senior citizen retreats, singing Quebecois anthems in the faces of the dying. I could write a whole chapter dedicated to the companion who modeled for me a near-perfect partnership, helping me to realize the type of spouse I should marry for the greatest possible outcome. I could pen a short story about the time the wind blew so hard in Quebec City I saw a woman holding on to a street lamp horizontally, screaming for her life. And it would certainly be no stretch to write novels about the people I met, the people who became so close to me, the families, the mission companions, the spiritual survivors who shared pots of poutine with us in steamy cass croutes.

But this essay for today.

I spent six months in Gatineau—a French town that sits across the river from Ottawa. We lived in a basement apartment downstairs from a family of four, two boys and a mother and father who fought a lot. When I first arrived in the apartment it looked like it hadn’t been cleaned out in years. My companion and I sanctioned a day of work dedicated to cleaning the entire place top to bottom. We opened the windows, hauled out old dusty furniture, batted the rugs and scrubbed--top to bottom--all the walls and the tiny, kitchen. After a full day of cleaning, my companion and I slept well that night. In the morning I woke up to hear my companion tell me she was awakened in the middle of the night by a bright light coming from our living room space.

“I think it was angel,” she said to me, fantastically.

I wanted to believe this, that indeed we had cleaned out all the evil spirits and lurking unseens along with all the dust and left-over cobwebs crowding our space. I wanted to write home stories of angelic visits and evangelical encounters. But even still I was skeptical.

It was some time after that night I started to have dreams about my boyfriend. It was always the same dream, something horrible had happened to me and I couldn’t reach him by phone. And when I did get a hold of him he’d yell at me for bothering him despite the desperate reason for my call.

I’d dream it every night. And if I were lucky enough to catch a fleeting nap the dream would start all over again. This was late fall when Gatineau was more dark than light. The cold had started to warn our bodies of frozen mornings to come. Despite my happy companionship and loads of work, I became depressed, anxious about falling asleep.

I was still writing this boyfriend at the time, he was a world away as a missionary in Chile. I had noticed his letters were more distant to me. At nights I would think about our relationship and because I was dedicated to understanding the works of God and Jesus Christ, while immersing myself in an entirely new language, my mind was sharp and clear. After a time, I could see that what had happened in our relationship prior to our missions with a new lens. I had been in an abusive relationship and God was trying to tell me to cut all ties and never go back.

Christmas came with piles of frozen snow, French carols and the one privilege missionaries look forward to all season: a phone call home. After the traditional passing around of the phone from parent to sibling to niece and nephew, I hung up happy and filled. Then, later that evening my phone rang again, this time it was a call from Chile, the boyfriend.

It was against the missionary rules for him to call me, and certainly against the world wide mission rules for missionary boyfriend to call missionary girlfriend, but we talked with my voice shaking and my heart pounding--I was scared of him. I had hoped that our relationship would be mended by our tandem spiritual growth in the mission field. During our global exchange it became obvious to me we weren’t having similar experiences as missionaries. He laughed at my dedication to the work. He told me I looked terrible in the photos I sent him, ("You're sending me the bad ones, right? You don't really look like that?") Near the end of the phone call, defeated and defensive, I told him about the dreams I was having, hoping with a last hope he’d plug the problem with an empathic response. Instead he seemed proud of his behavior in my dreams. Our patterns were painfully still intact, our respective missions weren't sorting out the problems between us.

Shortly after Christmas, into the New Year I was sent a new companion to train as a new missionary. She was full of stories and animation. Her strength and young energy helped bolster my tired spirits. Her arrival in my life was perfectly timed. A few weeks later my boyfriend sent me a letter letting me know his love for me had ended. He was no longer going to write me.

It was my opportunity to forgive and forge forward.

 I sent a letter to my family explaining the character of my relationship with my boyfriend (they were equally supporting him on his mission) and asked them to please cut all communication with him, and even more importantly, I asked them to please help me when I returned home to NEVER get back together with him. Their response back was written with surprise, but they agreed.

Then my ever-loyal companion and I took all of his letters, all of his packages, tapes and stacks of pictures to the backyard of a Mormon family we had befriended and lit them on fire. I watched them burn and prayed for resolution. The promise ring he had given me, white gold with a square cubic zirconium (to be replaced by a genuine sparkler someday!) I sent flying into the deep Ottawa River as we crossed the steel bridge one freezing night into town.

The dreams stopped.

For the next seven months of my mission I worked and knocked, choked on my French, attempted boldness, cried with the loneliest souls I’d ever meet in my life. I grew increasingly genderless, a happy spirit void of vanity, puffy and slouchy but so satisfied. There were times I swore I could reach out and touch an angel, without the bright light, just a spirit from heaven urging me onward. I was for the first time in my life completely teachable, and I was taught a lot.

As a missionary I felt like I had the key to understanding the mysteries of God. I read the Bible, I read the Book of Mormon, and I read anything I could get my hands on. I studied Jesus, his ministry, his methods. I came to know Joseph Smith intimately as I was constantly answering questions about his (private and public) life by those who were investigating my church. (I uncovered a lot of stories about my church's history as I engaged with other people.) I learned about heaven and I learned about hell. But most importantly, I learned about compassion. I learned to love so much it borderlined heart break. And I came to know--as I wandered through the weather-intensive French province, talking to strangers, passing along my vulnerability, exchanging it for a meal or a moment of connection with someone I’d never meet again--this was the call of a disciple of Christ.

Then the last day of my mission came. I was bused from Quebec City to Montreal. I arrived at the mission home, walked in through the front door and was met by some elders with huge smiles on their faces.

“Sister Clark,” they sang, “an assistant to the President in Chile just called our office, he wants you to know he still loves you and he’ll be home a day after you.”

Over their teasing I could hear my heart thudding in my ears. The red, hot flash of desperation overcame me and I couldn’t be sure if I was flattered or frightened.

A few minutes later the president of my mission sat down next to me in his office.

“Who is the elder calling our mission office all the way from Chile looking for you? Sounds to me like he doesn’t understand the sanctity of missionary funds.” This was punctuated with a look of disapproval meant for my future decisions.

“He doesn’t understand the sanctity of anything, actually.” I returned.

A day later my parents arrived with my three sisters to pick me up and take me home. Somewhere between showing my family the footsteps I made as a missionary in Quebec to the busy, congestion of Manhattan, I found myself hoping my boyfriend's call to the mission home was a cryptic message of repentance. I knew the Lord had changed my heart, and surely He would've changed my boyfriend's heart too. I began to wonder if we could share a lifetime remembering  how powerful our souls felt  intimately discovering the pulsating draw of divinity and humanity. 

With our new peaceable hearts, I prayed, we'd re-connect and never hurt each other again.