by Valerie Holladay
In some indefinable but definite way I had known when I was sixteen that I would serve a mission. At twenty I asked Bishop Veach to take my mission papers early; he just laughed and told me to come back when I was 21. He did let me put in my papers two months early, and I entered the MTC just after my twenty-first birthday. I had already memorized the first discussion in English and read Talmage’s Jesus the Christ and Articles of Faith. I also attended three different missionary prep classes, using Tools for Missionaries and Drawing on the Powers of Heaven as my scriptures. I felt absolutely prepared for my mission.
In the MTC, although some elders complained they had never studied so much, I enjoyed the twelve-hour days. In fact, since I wanted to learn all seven discussions I got up at 4 a.m. to gain two extra hours of study. My companion and I enthusiastically began the SYL—Speak Your Language—rule. We spoke only French, except for our weekly companion inventory; we even gave our personal prayers in French. Laughingly we used our “caveman” French as we announced our mail from home: “Lettres, c’est bien,” we said smiling. “Manger,” we said rubbing our stomachs before dinner. Food was the highlight of the day. “Toilettes,” we explained to each other the necessary but brief separations from our 24-hour-a-day companions.
After four weeks in the MTC, my companion and I were joined by a third companion, a French sister going to Fiji who spoke easy and exquisite French. My MTC teacher told me that sisters never learned to speak as well as the elders because they were in France for only 16 months, instead of 22. I hoped the Spirit would make up for my deficiencies.
Although I had prayed in French for the first two weeks, I felt strangled by the simple formula I had been taught to use: Notre Père Céleste, Nous te remercions . . . Nous te demandons . . . Au nom de Jèsus-Christ. Amen. I didn’t want to disregard the counsel of my leaders, but I couldn’t talk to God in a language I didn’t know. So guiltily I prayed in English. One morning as my companion got down from her bunkbed, I said distinctly, “Good morning. I’m speaking English because I’m going to go crazy if I don’t. Please talk to me.”
Immediately awake, she responded in English, “I feel the same way.” Sister Gagnon, our companion, went to breakfast with two other sister missionaries and found us still talking when she returned.
In France I boarded the train to Bayonne, a little town in the southwest corner of France near Spain, with Elder Hamilton, my new district leader, and Elder Green from my MTC group. Elder Green reminded me of Cyrano de Bergerac with his large nose and his delicate manners. “It’s so lovely,” I marveled at the greenness of the landscape. Elder Green shared my enthusiasm but Elder Hamilton read his scriptures silently, pausing only to say, “We get a lot of rain. You get used to it.” The elderly French couple who shared our compartment studiously ignored us. But a missionary was bold, I knew. So I told them I was a missionary from America with an important message for them.
“Nous sommes allés au Grand Canyon,” the man said.
At my perplexed look, he repeated himself more slowly. The only recognizable words were “Grand Canyon.”
“Vous aimez le Grand Canyon?” I asked cautiously. They both nodded and began talking at the same time, no doubt describing their trip to the United States although I wasn’t sure. Elder Green looked at me in nervous admiration and Elder Hamilton just smiled but didn’t join in. When we parted at the train station in Bayonne, my grandparents adoptés, as they had proclaimed themselves, kissed me on both cheeks in an affectionate French bise. I promised to come visit, realizing too late I didn’t have their address.
As I stepped off the train, two elders came to meet us, followed by a tall, unsmiling blonde sister. The two Bayonne elders each took a suitcase from Elder Green and Elder Hamilton and walked away. One called back over his shoulder, “See you tomorrow,” and my companion waved goodbye. I dragged my two suitcases over to her.
“Hi,” I said, “I’m excited to be here.” She gave a tight, little smile and led me out of the train station. Even with two heavy suitcases, I had to force myself to walk more slowly to keep her pace.
My new companion was not talkative, although I asked several times what missionary life was like. At the bicyclette shop I bought a bicycle and a lock, as well as some elastic straps to tie my discussion books on the bike rack. Then we went to my first French store, where I followed my companion meekly down the aisles, pushing my cart, buying exactly what she bought.
Soup, milk, apples, lettuce, eggs, cheese. At the cheese counter I was astonished at the different sizes, shapes, and colors. “Un demi-kilo de gruyère,” she told the clerk. I stared at the luscious cheeses—camembert, brie, and others with unpronounceable names—but my companion had already moved on to the square cartons of milk, about the size of a box of raisins, plastic-wrapped in bundles of three and stacked with the canned goods. I was interested to see what it tasted like.
Back in our tiny kitchen, I sipped the heavy milk while looking out the balcony window. Our apartment overlooked the L’Adour Rivière, and across the river I could see a large cathedral and winding cobblestone roads. I was so absorbed in the view that I jumped when my companion handed me a head of lettuce.
“Wash it carefully,” she said. “Bugs cling to French lettuce.”
I washed it not once but twice, holding it carefully beneath the running water. After I had neatly torn several pieces, my companion gave me a carrot and a grater for the rest of the salad. She poured hot soup—made from an envelope—into our bowls. I said the prayer, my one accomplishment in French, and we ate silently.
I ate my salad first, as I always had in America, while my companion ate hers last, as do the French. As I sipped my soup, she poked the lettuce with her fork. “Ugh, a bug,” she said, scraping her lettuce with her fork. “Ugh, another” and another. She found seven. Looking closely I saw several infinitesimal black spots.
“I didn’t even see those,” I said.
She looked at my empty salad plate and gave her first real smile. “I wonder how many were in your salad,” she said.
On Friday mornings at 9:00 we met for district meeting at the salle, a house that doubled as the elders’ apartment and as the chapel. The two elders I had seen the day before at the gare lived in the bedroom upstairs. The kitchen downstairs was used for Sunday School, and Sacrament meetings were held in the living room. I greeted Elder Green like a long lost friend. Elder Hamilton smiled a cool welcome to the missionaries, as befitted his new rank.
In the chapel, my companion sat next to a deeply tanned elder and talked to him until Elder Hamilton said we were ready to start. “Where’s Elder Hite?” he asked.
“He’s getting ready,” answered the tanned elder, then turned back to my companion.
As the meeting began, Elder Hite appeared. He hadn’t shaved, and his blonde hair, uncombed, stuck out in little tufts all over his head. He carried his shoes in one hand and his tie in the other. His white shirt was open to show the top edge of his garments and an abundant amount of chest hair. I tried not to stare.
My companion continued talking with Elder Stewart under her breath as Elder Cyrano-Green and I introduced ourselves and Elder Hite put on his shoes. Elder Stewart gave the opening prayer and then read a scripture. Our district leader read a few more scriptures, mostly about obedience and the Lord opening doors, and told us to set goals to work 60 hours a week, to tract every day, and have companion study and prayer. We closed with a prayer, to find the honest in heart and to bless the refreshments, amen. Elder Stewart had brought molars, chocolate-covered graham crackers, a popular French cookie with the missionaries. His last companion had set the mission record by eating eight boxes of molars with only a half glass of milk in twenty minutes.
After the meeting, Elder Hamilton took off at a rapid pace with Elder Cyrano-Green behind him. My companion had disappeared and I found her outside next to her bike and tanned Elder Stewart. They were going to fix her bike, she said. “Why don’t you study your discussions?” I sat on the steps where I could keep my eye on her—the little white rule book said to never leave your companion—as I studied the plastic-encased discussion I carried with my everywhere. I had told Elder Hamilton that I would be ready to pass of the first discussion on Joseph Smith and the restoration the following week, but he had only said, “You better hurry. Elder Green already passed off his first last night and he’s giving me the next one tomorrow.”
As I sat on the cold, concrete steps to the salle and studied I could hear music playing from the upstairs apartment. But that was against the rules, wasn’t it? No music except on preparation days and then only classical. It didn’t sound classical to me.
After two weeks my companion and I had not tracted once. My companion urged me to sleep as much as I needed. “You’ll have jet lag for a while,” she said. Although missionaries were to be up by six, she slept in until nine, letting me sleep as well. We spent most days at home reading the scriptures, although we did visit the few members in the Bayonne branch so I could meet them.
“You seem shy,” said elderly Sister Dartis, patting my arm. “You need to speak more so you can learn the language.” I asked my companion if we could speak French a few hours every day for practice.
“You can if you want” she said.
We visited our few investigators. Mme Montclair’s son in Paris was going to baptize her this summer. Mme Maitrepierre believed in reincarnation and health foods. I tried to comprehend these discussions, which were nothing like those I was memorizing. Our third investigator was planning a baptism when she was eighteen. She and my companion joked and talked in rapid French that was meaningless to me.
On Sundays I smiled blindly through three hours of French that bore no resemblance to the language I had learned in the MTC. In southern France the language was strongly marked by the “Toulouse Twang”; the French said “du pang,” not “du pain” and “le fang,” not “le fin.” On my first Sunday Sister Dartis gave me a friendly bise in the kitchen after Relief Society and talked with me nonstop for about ten minutes. When Elder Hite came into the kitchen for his scriptures he caught my eye and winked. Later he asked, “Did you understand anything she said?” I shook my head.
“I didn’t think so,” he said. “You looked so sincere standing there nodding your head. But she never expects us to answer.”
I came to know Elder Hite quite well, since every time my companion and I were at the elders’ for church or district meetings, she left me alone so she could talk with Elder Stewart. So as I studied I talked to Elder Hite, who was usually tieless and unshaven. He said the mission president was punishing him for not passing off his discussions. His companion had been in his MTC group. In order to motivate Elder Hite to learn his discussions the president made Elder Stewart senior over Elder Hite. “I was a pretty good missionary until that happened,” he said. “That really burned me, so now I don’t care anymore.”
He was a terrible missionary, I decided. Not only didn’t he work, he listened to music, and he spent lots of money buying books, reading them instead of his scriptures. He drank Coke and left it in the kitchen where the members could see. He even went to the store without his tie.
As I began my third week in France, I decided to take things into my own hands. When Elder Hamilton asked our plans for the day after district meeting, I quickly spoke up. “We’re going tracting,” I said. My companion stared at me but said nothing.
“Good,” said our leader and led his companion to their bikes. Poor Elder Green, I thought. When I had asked him how he was doing, he had sighed. They worked non-stop from 9:30 in the morning until 9:30 at night. His companion wouldn’t let him even bring up the subject of home, because it would distract them. They could only talk about missionary work and their investigators. Elder Green’s face showed his progressive misery each time I saw him. Actually, though, I was jealous. I wished my companion were more like Elder Hamilton.
In response to my persistent gaze, my companion led me wordlessly to our quartier. The apartment complex she nodded her head toward was four stories high, with two apartments on each level. We started on the top floor. She took the first door, I took the second, she took the next and so on. Except for our brief speech at each door, we were silent: “Bonjour, nous sommes missionaires de l’Eglise de “Jésus-Christ des Saints des Derniers Jours.” The French responses were meaningless to me, so I turned to my companion, who looked at me blankly until the door closed and led me to the next door. After two buildings of silence, I finally asked why she didn’t help me talk to the people.
“It wasn’t my idea to go tracting,” she said.
“But we’re missionaries,” I said. “Missionaries tract.”
“I was going to go home and read my scriptures,” she said sternly.
According to the little white handbook, juniors had to follow their seniors, but it didn’t say what to do about companions who didn’t speak or work. “I’m sorry,” I said at last.
I followed her to our bikes and rode as far behind her as I could without losing sight of her. She pedaled sedately ahead. At home she sat on her bed and opened her Book of Mormon. I sat on my bed and opened my Book of Mormon.
I didn’t suggest tracting again. In our apartment during the day, I memorized the scriptures that new missionaries had to pass off. At the salle, I sat on the stone steps and studied with my fingers in my ears to block out Elder Hite’s music while my companion talked to Elder Stewart.
One day my companion told me I was giving a talk in Sacrament meeting the next week. When I protested that I had only been in France three weeks, she shrugged and said, “I spoke last month.” At the look on my face, she compromised. “Write a talk in English and I’ll translate it into French,” she said. That Sunday as I spoke to the fifteen-member congregation, I scarcely glanced at my companion’s handwritten notes. The words seemed to come from somewhere other than the shaking paper I held in my hands, words that made no sense to me even as they flowed from my mouth. Was I making a complete idiot of myself, I wondered and interrupted myself to ask the faces that stared at me in amazement, “Est-ce que vous pouvez me comprendre?”
“Oui, oui, continuez. Ça va très bien,” the reassured me enthusiastically. After the meeting they lined up to shake my hands, everyone marveling that such a new missionary spoke such fluent French. Even my companion smiled and told me I sounded almost like a native. The next day she surprised me with a visit to a boulangerie, where we celebrated with flaky, cream-filled mille-feuilles and pain au chocolat. The chocolate-filled croissants were still warm from the oven, and we ate them silently together.
That night she asked if I could give her a permanent; she was tired of her long, straight hair. As I rolled her hair, she gradually warmed. She felt guilty for talking to Elder Stewart all the time, she confessed. She was afraid he wouldn’t like her after they both went home. And she was ready to go home, she said. After a year, she was exhausted and discouraged. She hadn’t baptized anyone, she wasn’t getting any younger, she didn’t know what she’d do after her mission anyway.
“I’ll be going this next transfer,” she said. “You’ll get a better companion and can do things differently.” I was torn between relief and fear, fear of having another uncommunicative companion, relief that this month of silence was going to end.
Despite my fears, most of the companions who followed were as communicative as my first companion had been withdrawn. As we tracted we ate Lindor chocolate, and in between doors we talked about our lives before we became missionaries and the lives we would return to. In the summer we taught German and English tourists in the park, using the panneaux, our bright yellow, four-sided sign with pictures of temples on one side, Jesus on another, families on a third side, and the story of the Book of Mormon on the fourth side.
Now, after nine months in France, I spoke French more easily. I liked the green freshness of southern France and the cold elegance of the many cathedrals. I liked the long, skinny loaves of French bread, the smooth, rich chocolate, and the wide variety of cheeses. I liked eating a lunch of bananas and yogurt as my companion and I sat on the hill that overlooked the beach, which was empty and desolate after September. And I liked the quiet evenings when we rode our bicycles side by side down the narrow roads, pedaling lazily in the cool, silvery dusk.
But at night I dreamed in incomprehensible French and heard slammed doors and angry voice. How do you explain a God who lets my wife suffer with cancer? Religion is a crutch. We don’t need religion.
I heard my own words at my mission farewell before I entered the MTC: My only desire is to serve the Lord. I want to be the best I can be so I can bring people into the only true Church on the face of the earth.
I still heard the words of my first companion: We’ll only be together a month, so why even both getting to know each other? My second companion, more cheerful and talkative: We need to lose ourselves in the work. Just be happy and don’t think about yourself. My third companion, cool and aloof: Don’t take it personally, but I just don’t like you.
But the most insistent voices of all came from my mission leaders when I was awake: Be obedient and the Lord will bless you. You are as successful in life as you are on your mission. You mission is a life in miniature. You will be held accountable for all the people you could have taught if you had taken your responsibilities seriously.
I spent seven months in Bayonne and a brief month in Beziers. Then I was transferred to Perpignon, another small town near the border of Spain, to be with Sister Little, an ironically petite, soft-spoken convert from England. We left at 9:30 in the morning and worked until 9:30 in the evening. After only one month she was transferred and I was made senior.
I thought of my first senior companion as I waited at the gare for my new companion. She was home in Canada now and I wondered if she was happy. I sat alone on the bench as the elders stood on the other side of the gare. Warned to avoid temptation, they avoided the sister missionaries, speaking to us only when necessary. They usually tracted 60-70 hours a week, teaching perhaps only once or twice. Most saw no more than two baptisms their entire missions; many averaged much less. They may have just been too tired to talk to the sisters although Elder Black and Elder Jackson took time to announce their yogurt-eating contest. They were going to eat 50 liters of yogurt each in one week.
The train rustled and whistled into the station. When it stopped, the doors slid open and a smiling French-braided brunette looked out the door and waved energetically. I smiled hello and led her to our bikes where we strapped her suitcases on to the back. “Toulouse was so great,” she said over and over as she described the people she had taught there during her first month. “I know they’ll be baptized soon.” As we pedaled toward our apartment, I could hear her singing behind me and recognized the children’s French song from the movie South Pacific:
La vie est belle
La vie est gai . . .
“Why is life beautiful . . . why is life gay?” she warbled behind me as we rode home, where we unpacked her suitcases. We shopped quickly at Mammouth, the enormous store where missionaries could buy food, clothes, souvenirs, postcards, and other necessities. My new companion talked continuously as we shopped, telling me of her conversion in Quebec a year ago, of her decision to be a missionary, and her desire to do the Lord’s work and baptize. Back in our apartment I gathered my laundry as she unpacked and talked. Laundromats were usually too far to use and too expensive, even for once a week. I excused myself to do my wash and closed the door behind me.
I scrubbed my garments furiously together between my hands, until my fingers were sore and blanched white, my nails clean and soft.
At district meeting the next day, I saw the familiar faces of Elder Hamilton, my new zone leader, and Elder Hite, who had just transferred to Perpignon. He’d spent the last few months in Toulouse so the mission president could keep an eye on him. In Bayonne he had convinced a young member to let him ride his mobilette, then forgot that French motorcycles are built differently than American ones—the brake is on the left, not the right. He braked too suddenly and flipped off, injuring his shoulder. Now he and his new companion entered the salle after we had already finished singing Sauveur d’Israël. He didn’t seem much changed; although he wore a tie, he obviously hadn’t combed his hair.
Elder Hamilton directed our meeting briskly, and when the other missionaries asked him what he was going to do when he went home next month, he refused to answer. His life was his mission, he said, and he would consecrate his complete energy to the work until his last day. After our district meeting he pulled me aside to ask if I thought Elder Green had gone home early, after only three months, because of him.
I said only that Elder Green had been very homesick.
“I shouldn’t have pushed him so hard,” he said. I didn’t disagree. As I waited for Sister Duriet to talk to the other zone leader, Elder Hite stopped by my chair. “How ya doing?” he asked. “Fine,” I told him.
“Sure,” he grinned wryly. “Tell me about it. You and your companions were famous. Your name was in the mission newsletter for about four months in a row with all those baptisms in Bayonne.”
When I didn’t say anything he continued to wait. I thought of the baptisms of Christine and Dominique, both young college students, in a shining river one bright day in June, as several fishermen upstream looked at us curiously. Marielle, another student, and Mme Rigale, an older woman we had found while tracting, preferred baptism in the ocean. Nobody thought to tell Marielle to wear white underwear. Beneath the wet, white polyester dress that clung to her body, her black bikini was clearly outlined.
Mme Rigale hadn’t really been ready, but the elders wanted her baptized anyway. She had gone home immediately after her baptism, not even waiting to be confirmed to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost or to hear the talk on baptism that Christine, the newest member, had especially prepared. Our district and zone leaders just asked when our next baptism would be.
When I called the mission president to talk to him, he said, “I’ll be in Pau for conference transmission next week. Can it wait until then?”
In Pau I was shaking from hunger and fear as I waited for the president to call me aside to talk to me. I had fasted so I would be ready to talk to him and rehearsed conversations in my head. When I saw his wife, I asked when he would be seeing me.
“He didn’t say anything to me,” she said. “He’s in meeting until two, then we’re leaving right away for Bordeaux.”
At the look on my face, she asked in concern, “Is anything wrong?” and motioned me toward a bench in the corner of the room where we could talk. As I stumbled over my words an elder passed by and she called out to him, “How are you doing in Tarbes? We miss you in the office.” I waited until they finished speaking, and she turned back to me. She interrupted me a second time when another elder passed, then another. Finally I excused myself and she barely nodded when I left.
It was nearly two o’clock before my mission president signaled me. Pulling me into an empty room, he said quickly, “Make it fast,” and looked out the window. Only a few minutes to describe feelings and questions that had taken months to build up. Only a few minutes to tell him how much I needed to talk to someone who could answer those questions and soothe those feelings. I couldn’t tell him that now.
“It’s nothing,” I said finally. “I’m fine now.”
“The trees are so beautiful with thteir different colors,” he said, still not looking at me. “And even in November there’s a rose still blooming under the tree.” We gazed at the tree together and I took a deep breath ready to try again. But he had already opened the door and was waiting for me to leave.
But that had been two months before. Now Elder Hite was still waiting for me to speak. My companion was calling my name and pulling on her coat. “See you later,” I said as I stood up.
“Hang in there,” he said.
Back in our apartment, after a lunch of eggplant ratatouille, I told my new companion we had three rendez-vous that afternoon with new investigators—Mme LeFont at two, Sylvie at four, and the Conesa family at six. A native French speaker, she spoke easily with all of them, bore her testimony fervently, and made the follow-up appointments, which she apologized for after we left.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I was just so excited. Since you’re the senior, I’ll try to follow your lead. But don’t you think we should have both an opening and a closing prayer when we teach?” We had skipped the opening prayer with the Conesa family because, from the moment of our arrival, Mr Conesa had barraged me with questions about death, since he and his wife had just come from a funeral. Since the conversation had flowed naturally from their questions to the plan of salvation, I had motioned to my companion that we would postpone the discussion we had planned.
After shaking hands and kissing cheeks, we left the Conesas and returned to our apartment. My companion looked at me in surprise as I took off my coat and sat down at the table. “It’s only eight,” she said.
“People aren’t very responsive this time of night when you try to tract,” I said. “Besides, sisters have been told not to go out when it’s dark unless they have specific rendez-vous. There have been problems. We tracted three hours this morning and taught three rendez-vous. I think that’s enough.” I didn’t tell her that a man had grabbed me the month before as I was following my companion on foot down a narrow street. he had quickly run off and my companion had brought me home immediately and put me in bed with hot chocolate.
Now Sister Duriet stood at the door in her coat, not putting down her scriptures. “There’s someone out there waiting for us,” she insisted. We stared at each other and after several minutes I stood up. Although it was nearly nine before we chained our bikes and walked to the first batiment, she was undaunted. We started on the top floor, as usual, and the people at the first three doors told us to leave them alone at night. Then, to my surprise, a short, balding Italian man and his smiling wife let us in. We told them about Joseph Smith and the golden plates. They were interested, but not convinced. “Non, non,” the said, when we asked if we could come back and teach them. “Nous sommes catholiques.”
It was after ten when we got home, and Sister Duriet was silent as we undressed for bed. “What is it?” I asked her.
“If we hadn’t wasted so much time coming home after teaching the Conesas, we could have tracted more and finished on time,” she said changing into her nightgown. “I’m not going to keep dragging you out all the time. You need to do your part.”
Without answering, I went into the bathroom and closed the door. I didn’t come out until I knew she would be asleep.
She awoke at six and hummed as she braided her hair. We read our scriptures together for an hour, then individually for an hour. Before leaving the apartment at 9:30, we had our required companion prayer then rode our bicycles to our tracting area.
That day and on the days that followed she rode her bicycle cheerfully across town, singing gaily behind me. She was cheerful and affectionate to our investigators and to the branch members. When we taught, she bore her testimony frequently, tears filling her eyes. She loved her mission, she told everybody who would listen, and she denied any homesickness or desire to return home after her mission. She was going to stay here all her life, she vowed. She loved being a missionary.
When we tracted out Jean Michel, I asked Elder Hite and his companion to come with us for our second discussion. Jean Michel was young and single, and sister missionaries couldn’t teach male contacts just as elders couldn’t teach young girls. My companion wanted to ask a more serious-minded missionary to come with us, but Elder Hite and his companion lived nearest to Jean Michel.
Elder Hite and Jean Michel talked easily from the beginning, while his companion attempted to steer the conversation toward the plan of salvation. Elder Hite’s incessant double-playing on words kept us all laughing, but I noticed that when he taught his eyes were serious.
Although I hadn’t been especially kind to him in Bayonne, Elder Hite always asked how I was doing. He wore a tie and combed his hair most of the time these days, but he was still late to district meetings, especially now that he lived several kilometers from the salle. On Sundays and at district meetings we always talked together; he was the only one who ever asked how I was doing, so I told him while my companion sat stony-faced on the steps of the salle studying her discussions.
One day as we taught Mme Font, I started to cry and had to leave the room. As we left my companion looked at me softly and put her arm around me. She thought I had been moved by the Spirit and didn’t understand when I pulled away and refused to talk about it. My companion and I spoke only when we made our plans for the day. We discussed our meetings with members and investigators, which quartier we would tract in—we had two areas on opposite ends of town—and which callbacks looked promising. Once a week we sat down at our table and shared a lifeless companion inventory to decide what discussion to teach our investigators. I heard her crying in her bed at night, but I didn’t talk to her.
We both cried when Veronique was baptized, although not for the same reason. Veronique had been introduced to the Church at a young adult conference and had been deeply moved by the spirit she felt there. After our second discussion she asked to be baptized. She had been coming to church for nearly a month and the entire ward knew and loved her; nearly 50 people attended her baptism. Everyone thought it entirely normal that the sister missionaries would cry at this special occasion.
One evening, after a fireside at the salle, one of the young female members approached me giggling. “Dites à Frère Hite que sa braguette n’est pas fermée,” she whispered. None of the elders had noticed Elder Hite’s unzipped trousers, although several young female members had. I remembered my embarrassment when I spoke at Dominque’s baptism with my blouse unbuttoned several inches too low, as an elder pointed out to me afterward. A sister missionary can certainly tell an elder to zip his zipper, I decided, and sidled up to Elder Hite at the refreshment table. “Your zipper’s down, Elder Hite,” I whispered.
His face without expression, he bit into the round, flat gateaux in his hand, chewed slowly, and swallowed. “I know. I did it on purpose.”
I choked and coughed, and when I could breath I laughed. Smiling crookedly he said, “That’s better. You looked like you were carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders.”
I coughed some more and thanked him for his thoughtfulness.
The next week after district meeting as I stood talking with Elder Hite, my companion said curtly, “I’m going to talk to our zone leaders.” She walked across the street to a bus stop where they sat together on the bench. As she wiped her eyes and pointed to me, both elders looked at me with an odd expression.
“Doesn’t look good,” said Elder Hite. He touched my arm quickly then left with his companion who stood waiting at the bottom of the stairs.
Standing on the steps of the quiet building, I watched my companion and the zone leaders talk. At last Elder Hamilton rose and came toward me, leaving our companions alone on the bench. I waited for him to speak.
“Do you know how unhappy you’re making your companion?” he asked. “Did you know she cries herself to sleep at night?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“She says you never talk to her or share your feelings, and she’s exhausted from dragging you everywhere.”
“I’m ready to go at 9:30 in the morning and we usually have rendez-vous ‘til 9:30 at night,” I said, “except for one morning when I was sick.” I didn’t add that when I told her we weren’t going out she had grabbed her Book of Mormon and walked outside, slamming the door behind her. She sat on the front porch reading for over two hours and didn’t speak to me when she came back in. she didn’t ask if I was feeling better, and I didn’t tell her.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But I just can’t talk with her. She doesn’t understand what I’m feeling. I don’t understand what I’m feeling.”
Elder Hamilton was silent, and then he walked away. I waited for my companion, who didn’t meet my eyes as we walked wordlessly to our bikes. I pedaled slowly to our tracting area, her bike trailing in the distance behind me.
by Alison Craig
I thought again today of how I used to sit where I could watch the singer for the deaf club at forums and devotionals. I knew the manual alphabet and recognized a sign or two, but mostly I watched without understanding, the signer’s hands eloquent and expressive, echoing the words of the speaker. I’d see “thank you,” a hand to the lips and then out; I’d identify the rapid-fire finger spelling of a name—much too fast for me to read. And at the end of the prayers, that beautiful sign “the Lord, Jesus Christ,” the letter L moving diagonally from the left shoulder to the right hip, and then a finger in the palm of each hand. I was always crying long before the prayer.
I couldn’t really understand why I cried—perhaps it was that was watching speech made visible and it was utterly beautiful. But as I think of it now, it’s not just speech it was revealing—it was the beauty of language itself—it was language as poetry—each gesture and movement standing for an idea, a thought, a name. it was the embodiment of my belief that in the beginning of language, every word was a metaphor—a tiny moment of poetry—and that in each of us there is a poet—one who understands and creates with poem-words.
I’ve also thought again of how beautiful the Salzburg dialect was to me when I first heard it—and could not understand it. It was lilting, almost singing, the vowels rich, the consonants dropped, swallowed or changed. But as I learned to understand the dialect, I could no longer hear its beauty—instead I heard, “The paper costs 10 shillings,” or “We do not sell calendars.”
If I learn sign language will I no longer see the beauty and only see the meaning: “Please exit to the right”; “Dress for Success”; “Vote Republican”?
The newly sighted people Annie Dillard reads about in Marius van Senden’s Sight and Sound see a world of “color patches,” “the tree with lights in it” (28, 30). Those of us who have seen since birth don’t see that beauty anymore. Instead we see leaves, a tree, the meaning without the wonder.
My Greek teacher ridiculed the King James Version that describes the shepherds as simply “wondering” at the appearance of the heavenly hosts, but it’s the perfect word to me, since it combines the idea of awe or amazement, but also the notion of not understanding. We seem to lose both kinds of wondering once we know.
Is that the tension—between knowing and wondering? Once we know the name, do we lose the wonder—both the wondering what it means and the wondering, the awe? In losing the one wonder, the other wonder also leaves.
Does this paradox apply to everything—that I can either see beauty and experience wonder or see meaning and not wonder? I fear it may. Dillard says, “[Beauty] is condemned to an eternal danse macabre with meaning. . . . The color patches of infancy are lost” (31).
Did Adam and Eve actually have to leave the Garden? Or with their new and knowledgeable eyes did they simply no longer see the paradise they had in their innocence seen?
The distressing conclusion to this is that the more knowledge I gain, the less beauty I can experience, until at last I’m the perfect encyclopedia—knowing it all, appreciating nothing.
But I reject this conclusion. I can’t accept that to gain the good of knowledge I must forfeit the good of beauty. Surely God, who knows so much, also still sees beauty. His creations he declared “good”—he can’t have meant just mechanically accurate, all parts in place. Surely he also meant beautiful.
Will reclaiming the beauty be part of becoming as a little child? Again seeing with new eyes—eyes not dimmed, but made young, ignorant, capable of Eden?
Does this mean I have to progress again to ignorance as well as progressing to knowledge?
How does God see?
I remember hearing my father tell about a time when he reclaimed the beauty and the wonder. He spent a year on a ship in the Aleutian Islands during World War II. For most of the year, he was based on the outermost island of any size. There were no trees on the island, only low-growing shrubs on the hillsides. There was no town either, only a military base of Quonset huts and temporary shacks.
But my father wasn’t on the base; he was aboard his ship, his first command. And although he was involved in no battles during that year, he felt the tension of his new position and the stress of the hazards of constant wind and fog to his small, lightweight ship.
At the end of the year, my father was transferred to a new assignment. He arrived in Seattle at night; the next morning—his first day back in the States—he boarded a bus for Tacoma. Standing in the aisle of the overcrowded bus, he saw out the window a New England-style village with a white church and houses scattered among tall evergreens. This peaceful scene was familiar to him from the past, but seeing it again after his year away, he began to weep and couldn’t stop. A woman sitting on the aisle made room for him to sit on the armrest as he continued to cry at the wonder of what he had seen.
I remember when I saw it happen to my sister, when she found the wonder again. My sister had her first child at a birthing center, and I was there, nervously, as the family helper—the person to see that someone attended to the husband’s needs.
Much of that long night I have forgotten, but I remember my sister, just a few hours into her labor, leaning against her husband as a contraction gripped her and moaning that she couldn’t take anymore. She was already beyond her strength, and she had so far yet to go.
By morning, we were all on the bed with her, each holding an arm or a leg. The baby’s head had crowned, but then it stuck there without moving for hours. “Nothing can be worth this agony,” my sister moaned.
When, finally, the midwife, kneeling in a pool of blood, caught the baby, we were all weeping, in joy and relief, and my sister, holding her daughter for the first time, said, with awe in her voice, “It’s already worth it!”
There was a time, too, when I saw the beauty again: the second summer I worked at the state school for the handicapped.
Devon was what we usually call spastic—stiff and jerky in his movements, with little motor control. He couldn’t talk, and he couldn’t eat regular food because he couldn’t chew. But he could sit in a wheelchair, didn’t need constant medication, and seemed to enjoy trips, so I was assigned to take him everywhere.
I was dragging Devon’s wheelchair around the zoo for the fourth time that summer, and just to make some conversation I said, “Where’s the deer, Devon? Point to the deer.” He jerked in his chair, his arms flew up in front of him and seemed to lock together, crossed. I glanced away as he jerked again. When I looked back, one arm was stretched out, a finger pointing at the deer.
Before, I’d talked at Devon, or worse, down to him. After that I asked Devon to point at everything, until he would tire himself out and stop.
Margaret was my swimming partner that summer, her legs permanently crossed, her arms drawn up tight at her sides, hands curled over. I would roll her rigid body from her bed onto the gurney and wheel her down the hall to the swimming pool. Then I’d dress her, diaper and all, in a swimming suit, and carry her into the pool. For five minutes or so, I’d just hold her while her body warmed in the hot water. Then another worker and I would hold her leg, above and below the knee, and pressing gently, try to bend her knee—half an inch, an inch—and slowly straighten it again. Then her other leg, each ankle, each arm, each hand, slowly, gently. Margaret began to recognize me as the summer wore on. And I could tell how much she liked the water—and how much the movement hurt.
All the summer workers loved eighteen-month-old Miles because he would grin and gurgle when you talked to him. He couldn’t sit up because his head was too large, but we took him to the Fourth of July parade anyway and tied his balloon to his wrist so he’d have something above him to watch as he lay on his back.
As I sat there beside Miles, waiting for the parade to start, I saw a child about his age running along the street in front of us. Nothing special, just a child running along the empty street. And suddenly I was crying. The beauty, the grace, the precision and timing of his body—it moved together with such ease, each part in perfect harmony with all the rest. The miracle of it! And all that day, each child I saw was another miracle, each motion a surprise, a relief, a joy.
And throughout that summer, off and on, it would happen again. We’d stop in our special bus for gas, and I would see normal children and weep again at the beauty of their going.
How do these experiences apply to everything else? To learning to see again the beauty?
Perhaps there is a universal process at work here. Perhaps when I was a child—before I knew its name—another child in motion was poetry to me. But as I learned its name, I lost the wonder of the thing itself; its mystery faded. It became an ordinary and common thing—running. Instead of the beauty, I saw the meaning, the name. But when the bodies of Miles, Devon, and Margaret became ordinary to me, I oculd see again that poem in motion that is a child running.
I’m coming to see that once we have lost the innocence of Eden, the only way back is through the bitterness of the world, where there is horror and injustice and pain and evil. And though I’ve been thinking of our return to Eden as a return to the “color patches of infancy,” it’s a return with a difference. We don’t return again to the wonder of not knowing. This time we return “and know the place for the first time” (Eliot 2134). And it is utterly beautiful.
Surely that’s the goal: to know the name, but to experience again the wonder. Surely that’s how God sees.
Dillard, Annie. “Seeing.” In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Bantam, 1974.
Eliot, T.S. “Little Gidding.” In American Literature: The Makers and the Making, Volume II. Ed. Cleanth Brooks, R. W. B. Lewis, and Robert Penn Warren. New York: St. Martin’s, 1973.