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.

45 comments:

Giulia said...

Wow CJane. This is way too familiar. Way too familiar. It was hard for me to get to the end of this post and my heart was going SO fast. Oh those memories from 12years ago... I have had the kind of dreams (nighmares) you used to have, also while on my mission, but after as well. I had a ring on my finger when I left Italy to serve in the USA. My boyfriend was also on his mission. I can say this today: the Lord literally SAVED my life. My mission opened my eyes. I know there are volumes you could write about this subject...i sure hope you are able to write more. SO important to write these things. You inspire me...I should as well...I should for my 2 daugthers.

Thank you for posting this...missions truly are incredible opportunities and I loved reading a little bit about yours.

Giulia

2busy said...

Sounds like the Lord was warning you off of a real winner. (Insert sarcasm). I'm loving this part of your story.

meg said...

Beautiful and brave. Your daughters are lucky to have you guide them through this thing called womanhood.

Jordan Michel said...

I feel like I am reading a book that I just can't put down when I read your life story. Partly because I can identify with so much of it, and partly because it is so gripping! What next?!! I love your relationship stories... they are honest and real.

Whimcees said...

Hello,

The proof of a good writer is the ability to make the words so real to the readers that they are drawn inside the words - so completely that they forget they are reading - because they are there. This post brought back so clearly the fear, vulnerability and feeling of helplessness of my past that is still difficult to shake them off and remind myself that then is past and now is here. If you have ever doubted your ability to write - never let those thoughts bother you again. I look forward to your next post. Wishing you a happy week.

Hugs,

Barbara Diane

{natalie} said...

i am loving this series. you are brave. and i like you a lot.

Vanessa said...

3 sisters got to also come and help pick you up? That is just awesome. And I love the compassion/borderline heartbreak part as well. I get so proud and teary when I hear of missionaries who really fell in love with the people they were serving. Man I just love the missionaries. I am sad that the missionary part of your life stories is already over!

tiffanytijerina said...

C Jane, I am really hoping you don't let too much time pass in between these posts. They are VERY good. I can identify with you on so many levels. I was once married to a boy like that. Thank you for sharing this. It must be difficult - and liberating too. And, I hope you know you are helping a vast majority of women.

Miggy said...

Whether its a relationship, or a bad choice or a habit/addiction I think we can all relate to knowing what God wants for us, yet ignoring or even rationalizing/praying for a different out come even when the destructive result of that outcome is already clear.

I'm looking forward to and dreading the rest of the story the same time.

Shari said...

You simply cannot leave me hanging like this from week to week!!!
(So so relieved that I already know it's a happy ending but STILL.......)

Cannon's said...

I remember you writing about a very sad event that happened while you were returning from your mission. It was heart-breaking the first time I read it.

Best of luck and much love to you as you write about it again.

ureallyannoyme said...

Wasn't there another boy left behind who was killed right about this time? You missed his funeral because word didn't reach you in time while you traveled from QC to Manhattan?

Becca said...

I love this just as I have lived each chapter! I went to college and began my career in Ottawa and my first feline love was from the SPCA in Gatineau!

Heather said...

Oh CJane, I love this series so much. It's wonderful and heartbreaking to read. And oh so familiar. Thank you for writing about this and voicing what so many of us feel, what so many of us have lived through, and are living through.

tinychih said...

I used to think that women who stayed in, or kept returning to, abusive relationships were so weak or silly for continuing to go back to the abusive man. Then I fell into an abusive relationship, and my views changed. I get it now. Those relationships rarely start out as abusive--the abuser is masterful at testing to see just how much crap you'll take. Little by little you find yourself getting treated badly, but it's so subtle at first that you tell yourself you're imagining it, soit continues and escalates. Then when you look back, it is shocking to see the abuse you were willing to put up with. The chemistry in an abusive relationship is compelling on so many levels--you know it is unhealthy, yet you want to "fix" it, because then you won't feel that you wasted all of that time with a jerk. Plus, you're scared of the guy--they wield a power to frighten you, even when logic, distance and time all tell you that he can't hurt you any more. I was so emotionally abused (he never laid a hand on me, but the emotional abuse was devastating) that even now, 20+ years later, I have moments where I feel a chill of fear that he might find and hurt me. And I am a successful, strong woman with a great marriage and family now. That's how potent the "hold" of an abuser can be. But I've come to believe that abusers are ultimately cowards. You describe so well the dynamics of why women stay and keep returning to abusers. The only way I was finally able to get out of mymabusive relationship was when I prayed and begged, absolutely begged God to help me out of that relationship. Thankfully, He did....but even now, I can viscerally "smell" it when I'm around men who are abusive to their women--it's like I have a radar for that now, since I've lived it. And my internal reaction is to want to punch that guy's lights out, for thinking he can do that to any woman. Thank you for baring your soul and telling your story. My advice to women, in order to avoid this kind of relationship? Scrutinize carefully that man's relationship history, and also observe your inner "voice." It WILL tell you that "something is off here." Listen to that and run, if you feel it. If you try to rationalize it or talkmyourself out of it, you'll end up staying with the abuser, because they are masters at logic and charm. Listen to your inner voice, your radar. Trust that.

Jill said...

Your writing is amazing. I love your descriptions of how missionary work changed you...changed your heart. I can't wait to read more.

Just Jaime said...

Beautifully written. I keep returning for more.

Curly said...

Of all the times that the spirit has spoken to me where I was the most genuinely frightened by its warning were when I was told specifically not to pursue certain relationships--under any uncertain condition. The feeling of force was so clear and so powerful it scared me to consider just what kind of precipice I must be standing next to. In one situation, I was on study abroad in Israel, and the Spirit was unequivocal about what I needed to do with the on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again boyfriend at home that kept weaseling his way back into my life and emotional psyche. It told me, "Do not see him again--ever. Do not talk to him anymore--ever. This needs to be done, NOW."

I listened to what did not feel like as much of a "still, small voice" with both awe and trepidation for what could happen if I didn't. The inside of my bones could feel that what I was being told was spot on.

When I returned, sure enough that same boyfriend called me, chastising me for having not contacted him earlier, etc. etc. When I tried to say (again) that this was not going to work out, he started into his manipulative routine of how judgmental I was, and how I never given him a chance, etc. At this point the Spirit once again mercifully intervened, and put the words directly into my mind what I needed to say, "Jeff (name is changed), I live my life in chapters, and this one is now closed."

That was it. To this, he had no response other than a quiet, "okay," and the conversation ended. I felt an enormous sense of relief and have never spoken with him since.

Looking back, I consider what an incredibly tender mercy that experience was, and how grateful I am that God guided me through what I see clearly now was a terrible minefield. I'm sure so much of it had to do with the fact that in a couple months I was to go serve my own mission. The degree of protection I felt through that experience made me feel very loved, indeed.

Vesuvius At Home said...

I am certain that by sharing this, you've made someone feel less alone. To me, that's the whole point.

Cathlin said...

I love that you "grew increasingly genderless". Yes, exactly. Eighteen months in dresses and skirts and I've never felt less feminine in my life than I did as a sister missionary. It was so strangely freeing.

The Spice of Life said...

Please don't tell me this is the boy you end up marrying!

M cubed said...

Oooooooo excellente Souer Clark! I loved this post. I loved it because it wasn't a fluffy mission story. You wrote about a true reality of missionary life. I lived it and know it so intimately, but it's often hard to put into words. You did it excellently.

Though fluffy missionary stories are awesome , too. :)

McEngland like the McCountry said...

Oh, the hindsight! I'm so glad you are writing this down and releasing it into the universe! It's a legacy of wisdom you can leave your girls. Maybe they will glean the courage to stay single and prayerful until God's perfect timing sends them their perfect-for-them person. It takes a tremendous amount of bravery to relive this time in your life and put it all down into words for public consumption but you are doing it. You are so incredibly courageous and it's so very beautiful.

Delirious said...

What I love about this post is that I could insert my name and mission, and much of what you wrote would apply to my experience. I hadn't been in an abusive relationship, but the one I'd had wasn't the best, and serving a mission helped me to view the world through, as you said, "a different lens". It helped me become the kind of person that would be able to marry the man I eventually got. :)

Caro said...

Small world. I'm from Ottawa!

Liz said...

Read this having just had an email from a complicated male friend who breaks my heart on a weekly basis, asking me if I was still going away with him to a film festival next weekend...
I resolved a year ago to change my heart towards him. I've prayed to God over and over that my heart would change and heal.

Having read your amazing words, I'm reassured of what response I need to give to his email. It's hard, but it'll be better in the long run when I finally meet the man who's to be my husband.

Alicen said...

I literally felt I was back in my mission apartment reading this. Your writing is so delicious. MORE!

Saree said...

Darling Courtney, I love you so much. We truly fought a good fight back there. I will always remember you as strong, beautiful, and hungry for knowledge and all good things. The years have only reinforced this!

Charity Suzuki said...

please keep writing this story. sometimes girls don't realize that mental abuse can be just as damaging as physical abuse.

Martha said...

he made it all the way to AP, huh? wow.

Jill F said...

Sigh, this brought up so many memories for me. So many stories I've never been brave enough to tell anyone. I loved reading about your mission.

Daisy said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing all that you are writing. If you can write your stories of courage for the entire public to read . . . I can at least put forth the effort to write mine in my journal. Thank you! You inspire me to be introspective of my own life and try and understand better where I've come from and what I've learned along the way.

The Laidlaws said...

I will make my daughter(s) read these posts of yours someday.

Jenny (also) said...

What about the boy that passed away at the very end of the mission? Not the same guy, I'm pretty sure. need to find that essay.

Omi said...

I love reading your essays. They have an ability to calm even when the content is frantic. You make my soul listen more and have hope. Thank you.

Clancy and Katie Black said...

Thank you so much for writing this personal part of your life. Has helped me so much in learning and thinking about my own past relationship! Oh and my mom's been reading them too and it helps her to understand why my past relationship was so terrible. Thank you thank you!

LizzyP said...

This was a bold writing of a very difficult time. Missions are purifying and sometimes that hurts. I related to so many parts--I've never been brave enough to attempt to write about how I changed while I was missionary because it seems too hard. And you did it with so much grace. Thank you, thank you.

I love that you put that line about forgiveness right in the middle of the story. It changes everything doesn't it? I've been thinking so much bout it lately as it was the message in the Ensign from Pres. Uctdorf.

Scouter's Wife said...

Wonderful writing! Time for a new post, Mrs. K! :)

Jaime Mormann Richardson said...

After many, many frustrating days in Gatineau---high drama in the ward between new members, investigators, and a tired bishop; a run in with a creepy guy in a walk down apartment; and, being chased by a 270 pound man who thought we were sending demons to haunt his daughter---I was so tired, so spent. For the first time on my mission, I felt scared. And so I asked my companion to sing to me. She sang a little song about angels (not sure what the song was called), and how they were all around us. It gave me peace, and I fell asleep believing that there really were angels in our apartment that night to keep us safe. So, I guess I'm adding my witness to your comp's. :) I think there were angels in that apartment just 2 or 3 months before!

One other quick story about that apartment . . . One night, in the middle of the night, I could have sworn the boys upstairs were playing the song "Nothing Compares 2 U" by Sinead O'Connor. I could hear it, perfectly clearly. I listened to the whole song, reveled in the moment, and let the song soak into my whole being, without feeling an inkling of missionary guilt. I mean, it wasn't like I could avoid the music. It was blaring, and I couldn't escape. After the song was over, I gave out a long sigh of stolen pleasure, and went to sleep. When I look back on it, I don't see how it was possible I could have heard the song so clearly if it had been playing upstairs. Maybe it was just a dream.

Ashley said...

Write on, sistah! I love you more with every post.

Jamie said...

Thank you for being so honest! Wow, I am sure you get this a lot, but you are a very talented writer. I never went on a mission, but it sounds like missions really are life-changing. I especially love the way you candidly talk about past relationships. It seems that, too often, we women just shove that far back in our minds and never remember what we learned from them.

minta said...

This was so nice, I like to read what you write more every time. Thank you so much for your example of bearing your soul in a poetic and well-grammered way.

Nancy said...

Dear Courtney,
I remember the details so well.
I love you, compie!

<3
Nan

kristy said...

I used to wonder why so many girls graduating from high school would get a breast implants as a graduation gift from their parents. It downed on me after reading "the cold grip of pride about the neck." The reasons most likely were very similar to the reason why you had a personal trainer. I don't believe these practices help our daughters at all, and what kind of message are we sending? I believe this is harmful to the boys as well. I am thankful that for many years I was nieave to the the reasons why, and that my parents never sent messages like this to me. I love that you have risen above it, and are helping others.

Untypically Jia said...

I'm consistently envious of girls who went on missions. I ended up being one of those girls who got married to her RM at 19 and set off to start a family (though 9 years later we still have no children - but that's another story.)

I envied the time and energy spent in pure devotion to Christ. It's so hard to do outside of a mission (though I have no experiences to compare it to).

Your story is so motivating. I've also been in an abusive relationship and I know the drag it has on the heart and the soul. I know how much you want to walk away, but for some reason there's a pull back. It's like an addition. It's poison that you just keep drinking willingly almost unable to stop.

You are a vision of strength!