Release — on being an early-returned missionary

a completely true account of my service as a full-time missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

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* * * *

On the morning of July 29, 2015, just after nine o’clock, the phone started to ring. My companion was in the shower, and, not having finished getting dressed myself, I rushed to get sufficiently covered before answering. There are few people in the world that I can let myself speak to over the phone without being completely dressed, and none of them, so far as I knew, had the number for our missionary cell phone.

The caller ID showed that my mission president was calling, which struck me as somewhat strange. Of course it’s not impossible for him to call a companionship directly, but it doesn’t usually happen on a Wednesday morning at nine o’clock, with transfers still two weeks away. Still, with my robe pulled sufficiently tight, I answered the call.

“Hello?” I said, hoping to mask the confusion in my voice. “This is Sister Preston.”

“Hello Sister Preston,” he began, “I know you should be doing companionship study right now so I won’t keep you long. I waited to avoid interrupting your personal study.”

“Actually,” I replied, “We spent some time this morning at a service project, so we haven’t started our studies yet. We should be getting started pretty soon.”

“Okay, good,” he answered, then seemed to pause. He asked how I was doing, and I answered as truthfully as I could manage, always being careful to not be so honest that I reignited the bad emotions that all my energy went to running from.

“Sister Preston,” he said, “I’d like to meet with you sometime today. Could you come to the mission office before noon? Otherwise I could come to you, but it would have to be later.”

I looked over our schedule for the day. I wasn’t keen on driving to the office and back, a round trip of almost forty-five minutes, when we had a fairly tight schedule that morning. Besides, it was the end of the month, and we were running close on our mile allowance. So I suggested to him that later was probably better, and scheduled to meet with him at our nearby chapel at one in the afternoon. I let my companion know, ended the call, and sat down at my desk to start our morning preparations.

President hadn’t specified a reason for the meeting, I thought to myself. But that wasn’t necessarily a cause for concern. I knew that my mission president took very seriously his responsibility to serve the missionaries under his care, and knew each of them by name—more than two hundred at any given time—before he even met them. Like the Good Shepherd’s flock of one hundred bleating sheep, he knew the voice of each one of his missionaries, and felt a deep concern for their well-being.

Perhaps the reason why I was nervous was that I hadn’t often spoken with my mission president in person. When I needed outside help, his wife was usually my first point of contact, and my direct communication with him consisted of a couple of short interviews and the reports I sent in each week. In fact, the thought of meeting with him seemed rather exciting, a rare treat in the day-to-day regularity of missionary work, and though I couldn’t be certain about the cause for the occasion, it seemed to me nothing but promising.

* * * *

My decision to be a missionary was slow coming. As a child, it was too distant to seriously consider, and as a teenager it always seemed like a good idea that I would think about when it came to it. I remember starting my senior year of high school; tired of childhood, tired of a lot of things, one of the few things I held onto optimistically was that before long I’d be not only allowed, but encouraged to manage my own life. The mission idea sounded okay, but I wasn’t terribly thrilled about taking a year and a half to go where someone else told me to. Besides, I figured that since it was four years before I reached the age of twenty-one, that made it about two years before I had to start working it into my life plans.

In October of that year, two years of that plan were cut right out from the middle. When I learned that I could start a mission at nineteen, suddenly it became something to think about. Missionaries who had just begun their missions would still be in the field by the time I was old enough to join them, so in a few days of sudden prayer and asking God what I was meant to do with the next few years of my life, I got a very strong, very undeniable answer: I was meant to be a missionary.

Now, to be clear, I didn’t know when I was going to be a missionary, or even if I was really looking forward to it. I was a socially-anxious, outgoing introvert with a lot of hurdles to get past before I would be ready to give up eighteen months of my life for God and a mission president to decide where I lived, whom I was with, and what I spent my time on. I didn’t know how I would do it. I just knew that it was going to happen, and that I wanted to do my best.

I started tentatively planning to start my mission the summer after turning nineteen. I received my acceptance letter from Brigham Young University—Hawaii, started planning my first two semesters, and occasionally attended a mission prep class once I got there. I patiently awaited the signal for when to start filling out my papers, but when spring came and went and I didn’t feel like it was time, I just kept going forward as normal. God was never subtle with me when it came to my mission, and I knew it. When serving a mission was just one option, just an idea for what I could be doing with those months of my life, that wasn’t enough. I knew I couldn’t start quite yet. I had to wait until it was certain.

* * * *

Speaking of certainty, it doesn’t only happen at the beginning. Endings are planned as well. And like beginnings, they don’t always happen in the way we expect them. Both the beginning and ending of my mission were ultimately scheduled outside of my control. With God as my captain, I only went where he guided me. However, there is one key difference: when I chose to start my mission, it was my hand at the rudder; it was my feet that walked into the Missionary Training Center and my fingers that clipped the name tag on my dress. By the end of it, any control I had was gone, and I had nothing to do but accept it.

The acceptance came later, though, and first I had to mourn. And like traditional grieving, I got started early in denial and bargaining. I spent what would be the last few months of my mission refusing to believe that I was struggling as much as I truly was, pleading with God that things would take a better turn, and keeping my head down so I wouldn’t make it worse. I still had my head turned down when I entered that meeting with my mission president. Outwardly, I looked him in the eye and shook his hand firmly, but inwardly I still felt weak. We sat down. His wife and my companion were just around the corner, but I was the only one to hear him when he said to me, “Sister Preston, there comes a time when a mission president has to make difficult decisions. Every time we do transfer planning, we have to decide where every missionary will go for the next transfer, and who needs them most.”

My heart started to sink. I didn’t know what to expect. After three transfers with four companions all in one area, I suspected I was due for a change, but I didn’t look forward to it. Still, I listened.

“When a missionary is having a hard time, when they are discouraged or depressed, we try to take that into account, as I have done with you. I might try putting you with a different companion, or moving you to a different area. However, sometimes it reaches the point where the question changes from being, ‘Who needs this missionary most?’, to, ‘What does this missionary need most?’, and when that happens, we need to consider if having the missionary leave the mission is the best option.”

He paused, and I filled the silence. “I know, I know, I’ve thought about it too,” I said, “but I just don’t want to mess up my schedule. I don’t like the idea of only serving six months, and I don’t like the idea of pausing in the middle of it, but I’m still just so tired and I just can’t decide which of the options would be best.”

“Sister Preston,” he answered, “I wasn’t giving you an option. I’ve already made the decision, and I’ve talked with your parents.”

I can’t remember saying anything in response. I might have been in shock. But a familiar feeling came back, a feeling of certainty. I knew he was right.

At some point, he continued talking. He told me what he had discussed with my father, he complimented me on having exceptionally understanding parents. One thing he said particularly struck me: “Your parents really know you well. You’re very fortunate to have them.” I smiled, and I nodded, and I said, “Thank you, I think so too.”

The plan was for me to leave on the last day of the transfer, the same day as the missionaries who had completed their scheduled twenty-four or eighteen months. That way my companion wouldn’t be put into a trio, I wouldn’t be disappearing mid-transfer, and I would arrive in my parents’ home the day after they finished their summer trip. It was July 29; I would leave on August 11.

“Do you think you can do just two more weeks?”, he asked me.

“Yes, I think I can.”

“I want you to know, Sister Preston, that I’m proud of you. You have endured to the end. You didn’t give up, even when it was hard. You did your best.”

“Thank you,” I said quietly.

“And you should be proud of yourself too. I know your family is.”

I smiled my best tear-stained smile.

“I’m sure this is hard for you,” he told me, “but I understand how you’ve been feeling. I would imagine it’s somewhat of a relief, knowing that you only need to keep going for two more weeks.”

Nodding, I agreed. “Relief is definitely right. I’ve been worrying about how I can keep my energy reserves going for another twelve months, but two weeks sounds much more manageable.”

We discussed a few more things: what I needed to do next (talk to my parents, have some basic plans for what I would do when I got home), whom I could talk to about it (anyone I wished, which truthfully wasn’t many people), who already knew (only those who needed to so they could plan around it). It was comfortable, if difficult. I knew I was disappointed, but it felt so right that I just knew everything would be okay.

* * * *

That’s the interesting thing about how revelation works. It’s not always flashy or loud, and it doesn’t always make you fall to your knees. In my experience, revelation feels more like a weight lifted off the shoulders. It feels like restfulness, like when you have a full stomach and a warm blanket and a mug of hot chocolate. And sometimes it just feels like you’re ready to do whatever it takes, and nothing is able to stop you—which is what I had felt thirteen months earlier, back when I found that certainty I was waiting for and realized it was time to get ready to be a missionary.

Thinking back to that time can be somewhat bittersweet, now that I have seen the two years following it. I was excited, I was optimistic, I was full of energy. I loved filling out all the paperwork that would be sent to the general offices in Salt Lake City, and I read them over and over to make sure I didn’t miss a single detail. I read advice from everywhere I could find it on how to love your mission, what to bring with you, how to be the most well-prepared missionary that you could possibly be. I finished one more semester of school, and was thrilled and shocked by my mission call. I felt better than I ever had before.

I entered the Provo, Utah Missionary Training Center on February 11, 2015, eager to start and filled with enthusiasm. To be fair, those six weeks of training were hard and intense and exhausting, but I was the happiest I had ever been, and the other missionaries there felt the same way.

Once I reached the mission field, things slowed, but became more challenging. I went from speaking Spanish with native English-speakers to trying to follow the native speech of Mexicans, Salvadorans, and one very animated Honduran, and I was expected to keep up with it all. I was meeting new people every day—some glad to see us, some very much the opposite—and I found it hard not to miss the closer confines of the MTC, where each day was more predictable and I didn’t spend as much time putting on my most cheerful smile and introducing myself in my best Spanish.

I don’t wish to go into the day-to-day particulars. Every mission is a challenge and a blessing, and mine was no exception. Unfortunately in my case, the challenges were of the sort that strike me at my weakest.

My first two months after reaching the mission field went past without much incident; I was stretched socially, taxed emotionally, and pushed spiritually, but I endured. But, slowly yet surely, exhaustion set in—deep, constant exhaustion, the kind you feel deep in your bones and which never goes away no matter how well you sleep each night. It felt at times like I was completely exposed, my soul raw from all the stress of putting it through the same challenges every day. I felt like I could never completely make myself understood. I always answer people’s questions badly, I told myself, and the other missionaries think I’m strange, even when they like me.

I found joy in writing. Every week, I tried to find a spiritual thought or favorite quote to share in my emails home, and I loved to sprinkle humor and excitement into all my storytelling. I wrote poems, and I memorized my favorite Spanish-language hymns, and I celebrated every time it rained. In with all the hard times, I remained steadfastly optimistic, never letting myself consider that the ground was slipping from under my feet.

In my darker moods, I did what I could to lift my spirits, but over time the moments of optimism slowly diminished. I felt again like I was exposed, cut open with a scalpel so everyone on Earth could see my inner workings and know how strange I am inside. I’m sure I was being hyperbolic, but it felt real at the time.

By the end of the fifth month, I was at the end of my strength. Every day was a marathon, but without any sense of accomplishment. I still can’t understand depression well enough to say why it happened like it did, but I know this: it happened. I know that I woke up every day wishing it were time to go back to sleep. I spent every waking moment trying to convince myself that I could still do it, that I was still good enough, and that soon I would feel happy again. Some days it worked, and on those days, I pulled through. But most days were long and hard, and just a few were nigh impossible. My thin silver thread of optimism was about to break, but in my stubbornness, I held on tight. I took everything one day at a time, then one hour at a time, then one minute at a time, rationing out what emotional strength I had so I could get through it all.

* * * *

During those last two months, the burning desire to serve went from”well-tempered” to “all but extinguished”. People would ask me, as they often ask of missionaries, “Why did you decide to serve a mission?” Outwardly, I answered the same as I did in my gung-ho days: a slow and steady closeness to God, personal revelation, the realization that I could either face uncertainty alone or paradoxically gain control by relinquishing it to God. I still believed those things, but inwardly could no longer feel them. The times I was able to say what I was really thinking, when I could take off my public expression and be completely frank, my answer was this:

Because God told me to, and I didn’t want to end up in the belly of a fish.

I spent a great deal of time after leaving my mission trying to decide which was the right answer, and the only conclusion I can come to is that they both are. Even as averse to hypocrisy as I am, being human means I am inconsistent. Perhaps God has clearer answers for why he does what he does, but in his divine perfection he can be the same yesterday, and today, and forever. But humans, in our divine imperfection—we just have to try our best.

I feel certain again, more than I have in a long time. I know that I followed the steps laid out for me, and I know that I have done my best. If my footsteps falter, it is only because I have reached my limits; and I reach my limits only when I stretch as far as I can.

Personally, I don’t like being called an “early-returned missionary”. The term may be concise, but I don’t think I left early. It was earlier than expected, it didn’t hold to what had been my plan, but I don’t think it was early, not from the only perspective that counts. Like my mission president told me: I endured to the end. Perhaps God had always called me on a six-month mission, and I just needed the patience to recognize it.

The apostle Neal A. Maxwell, whom I regard as a personal hero, once said that “faith in God includes faith in his timing,” and sometimes I think he said it just for me. We each need faith to make sure that when we go about doing something, we are not just choosing the right way, but the right time.

When it comes to missionaries, it’s important to be ready, but it’s also important to do it right. In that respect, I think it’s a misunderstanding when people say of us earlier-returns, “They must have left too soon. They weren’t ready.” I’m certain that such things can and do happen, but I’m equally certain that it wasn’t so for me. I waited a year longer than was necessary, and six months longer than I had meant to. My desire may have come slowly, but I was never uncertain of what I was supposed to do. The only conclusion I can draw is that I started when I was meant to, and I finished much the same: no earlier, no later, but at just the right time.

* * * *

We use the word “release” to refer to someone leaving a calling, which I think is an interesting choice. Most literally, it means a release from a commitment, as we leave one church responsibility so we might move on to another. But I feel a second sense to the word “release”: a release from burden. Though burdens might commonly take on a negative connotation, in the language of the scriptures, a burden can be a blessing. Christ offered to help carry our burdens when he said, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” As disciples, we strive to be like Christ, and thereby offer our shoulders to the burdens of others—not as he did for us, since our mortal strength is insufficient, but as a small part of our attempt to be Christlike.

Earlier, I mentioned a feeling of relief after learning that I had only two weeks left until I would be released. I was no stronger in that moment than I had been in the moment preceding it, but in anticipation my burden felt, if not lighter, certainly more manageable. Being released from a calling is not easy, especially when the calling is being a full-time missionary. It takes adjustment, and even as we appreciate the decrease in responsibility, we mourn the loss of the wonderful things we enjoyed during that phase of our life. But we do adjust. And even if we feel like everything is in flux, and nothing is possible, and there’s nowhere to go, with faith in God’s timing there is enough hope to move forward.

Being a missionary, even at the best of times, is hard. It comes with burdens that are not meant to be carried forever, and it changes everyone who goes through it. However, as long as we press forward with faith, trusting in God and putting in everything we have to offer, there’s nothing to worry about. Likewise in life, we do the same. It’s hard, it’s wonderful, it changes us all; and eventually, we are all released from our call to Earth, and everything is right.

Take that from an anxious, overly-skeptical, naturally-cynical young woman who tries very hard to see the good in everything in spite of her own nature:

There’s nothing to worry about. In time, everything will be right.

After all, it is all set in place by the One who will never do wrong.

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“psalm to the devil” and “land of the desolate”

Today I am sharing two poems, both of which were featured in the 2014 edition of Kula Manu, the literary journal of Brigham Young University — Hawaii. The first, “psalm to the devil”, was also the first-place entrant in the journal’s poetry category.
 

psalm to the devil

O fallen son,
Though I may fall,
My death shall be but for a moment;
Thou art fallen forever.

O son of morning,
How the foolish think they are wise!
Though I might be made low,
THou shalt be made lower.

O shining one,
How hast thou lost thy lustre;
Thou art shrouded in darkness,
But I have found light.

O adversary,
Rejoice not in my weakness:
When I fall, I shall arise;
Thou shalt descend into nothing.

 
This poem is inspired by Isaiah 14:12-15 from the King James bible, and was written to express the struggle of finding optimism when it feels as though you are being dragged downward. Like the verses from Isaiah, I hope that my poem invokes the thought that, however powerful the opposing forces might seem, they are finite and defeatable.

 

Land of the Desolate

It came in a moment, they said.
We couldn’t have known, they cried.
We’ve been through enough, they wailed,
Then wept as their pleas were denied.

In vain, they grasped for a light in the dark,
But in spite of the smoke, there was not a spark.

They shuddered and breathed in the dusty air
And blinked, unseeing, with empty stares.

Sunless day became starless night
As they fought back the chill and mourned their plight.

A land once called holy, now only ash.
One darkness must come for the other to pass.

Only once they were blind could they truly restart,
For broken eyes see into an empty heart.

They gasped when the light of the first dawn broke.
At the heart of desolation lies a glimmer of hope.

 
This poem is directly inspired by the accounts in the Book of Mormon that describe three days of darkness that came over the land prior to Christ’s coming. However, in a broader sense the verses also are intended to express the concept of repentance and redemption, and of finding hope and truth while surrounded by darkness.

Past, Present, Future, and Locked Doors

I’m someone who is prone to contemplation: about life, death, eternity, and how I relate to the universe. Since two of my greatest passions are religion and science fiction, this is probably my own fault. If I quit reading scripture or space opera, maybe I wouldn’t have to spend as much time worrying about the future. As it is, though, I can’t go back to fix that past. Instead I’m doomed to always worry about the future. It’s just my lot in life, I suppose.

This fate is not without its upsides, as it provides me with near-endless ways to redefine my understanding of the universe. I am drawn to stories, a trait which I think is common in human beings but particularly important to me. We tell our history and all our greatest myths and legends through story, with links of causality connecting the events in an ongoing web through time and space. An event is not simply an event; it is one link in the great fabric of human experience. Then, just as important as the logical links of causality, there are also the abstract links of theme, symbol, emotion, and association. These are the links that I find most fascinating. They are, in large part, what makes us human, yet also what helps us to transcend simple humanity and connect with something more profound.

Because that is what the abstract connections are all about: that quality which is called profound, and moving, and soul-stirring, and spiritual.

Still, I can’t deny that there is a downside to my contemplative fate, and that is the worry. It’s easy to get too bogged down in abstract thoughts and patterns, and to worry about how your story is going to play out. Will it follow the traditional arc, patterned after the stories that came before, easy to understand and predict because in a sense it has already happened, but unoriginal and sometimes tragic? Or will it take you somewhere else entirely, off the charts and away from the predictable frame of reality, exciting yet exhausting and frightening in its unpredictability?

It’s terrifying not to know everything.

The problem is, when you realize you don’t know everything, it’s all too easy to fool yourself into thinking you know nothing.

At the back of one of the many buildings in the garden of the Summer Palace in Beijing, there is a door. It’s not a door you can walk through, nor look through.  The entirety of the space within the frame is filled with bricks, of the same shade and shape as those that make up the wall surrounding it. It was put there sometime around 1898, when the Empress Dowager decided she’d had enough of her nephew the Emperor and his attempts at reform, so she ordered to have him placed under house arrest and many of the doors sealed up. He lived under house arrest, Emperor in name only, for ten years.

Most of us are lucky. We aren’t emperors of a dying empire, locked in a room by a power-hungry aunt and prevented from knowing what other people don’t want us to know. Our view might be obscure, and we might not be able to know everything, but we can still see. And hope tells us that there is a chance we might someday see more. Perhaps even, says hope, our knowledge might be perfect.

I don’t think I’m a very hopeful person, at least not naturally. I think that’s why I try to remind myself of it every day. Hope is not an easy trait to hold on to, but not everything has to be easy. After all, life doesn’t reward you for doing things the easy way. It rewards you for finding what’s good, and holding on tight, and helping as many people along with you as you can. Life rewards hard work, and endurance, and optimism. It rewards taking what you have and making it better. Sometimes our efforts get us locked in a room with a walled-up door and boarded-up windows, but at least we know that it wasn’t because we didn’t try. And somewhere, somehow, if we’re lucky, our efforts might just mean something, to someone.

Whether by luck, fate, or divine blessing, locked doors can be opened. And when that happens, I hope the future they lead me to is a good one. I hope it is full of light, but not so much that I forget the darkness that made me love light in the first place. I hope it’s full of peace, but not of the complacency that too often follows. I hope it’s full of art, and life, and beauty of every kind. And I hope that it’s full of potential, because life without progress is no life at all.

Open doors of a Roman ruin

Bleeding Trees

I read a lovely quote today.

In truth, I read a lot of wonderful quotes. This happens when you’re someone like me, one who eats words and ideas for sustenance and then throws them around into huge piles and files of stories and terms and theories and thoughts, things I might want to think again someday and things I hope I never have to. However, though I am afraid to admit it, I am not always happy with the way I read. How long has it been since I finished a book? Over a year, perhaps. At any one moment I’m reading at least half a dozen, then by the time I try to finish one, I’ve forgotten the beginning, so I find myself starting over. Though it pains me to say it, I skim. I wish I wouldn’t. There are just too many things to read, too many things to see. That’s what I tell myself anyway, while I sit on my bed and wonder why I don’t want to read anything.

In my efforts to make my reading have meaning, which in no way (read: every way) have to with my reborn desire to write a science fiction epic, I found myself looking back at old blogs and publications that I had long neglected to read intently. One of these led me to an essay, one by James Goldberg, a writer whom I have admired for quite a few years now but whom, clearly, I did not understand as well as I thought I had. He writes:

I like to think; I like to talk; I like to dream out loud; I love playing with language with the reckless abandon of a kid whose parents could only afford that one toy. But I hate writing. I hate losing layers of the human and interactive vibrancy of a good conversation as I try to force thoughts into the narrow confines of paper. I hate thinking about how to please a publisher and find an audience you can point to on a demographics chart and maybe someday get my name on a check after I finish marketing a piece. And oh how I hate the pretentious parts of the academic arena of writing—which, unfortunately, seems to be the clearest available economic alternative to mass publication.

Maybe most of all, though, I hate writing because when I write, I often feel as if I am trying to carve wounds into dead trees in the hopes that they will still bleed. Who exactly, I keep asking myself, shall I make them bleed for?

As I write, I wonder whom I write for. “Myself”, comes the obvious answer, but even as I say that I know it is not quite enough. If I write only for myself, the words might as well be put in a secret diary, locked first in a cipher for which only I have the key and then in a safe for which only I have the code. I write to be heard, even if only by the dim whispers of the vast frontier that we call the Internet. When I go about “carving wounds into dead trees”, I do it in the hope that the scars will mean something to someone, though I might not be there to witness the event. I worry that I won’t have an audience, that nobody wants to hear the pseudo-philosophical ramblings of a naïve young woman with a lot of words but not much substance. I worry that I will succumb to pressure to copy another’s voice, in the hopes of attracting an audience that would not otherwise be mine. And then I worry that I worry. Worry and me, we are old friends.

I will write what I like to write, and sometimes I will hope to write what others like to read. If nobody listens, well then, at least it wasn’t for lack of an opportunity. No one can hear words that are not spoken.

Original Poetry: Bittersweet

Stories are full of heroes and villains, of great men and of monsters. But what about the ones caught in-between? The ones who slide down the path towards evil, but are good in their heart? Through writing this, I tried to express what that meant to me.

Bittersweet

Pain, anguish, death, sorrow, heartbreak, betrayal. Old friends become hated enemies, we become the enemy of ourselves. Corruption, blackmail, espionage, treason. We ignore the good and forget to heed its wisdom. Homicide, suicide, fratricide, genocide. The wrong company and the wrong vice will lead you down the path of endless fire. Tragedy. It will eat you up. Vain ambition. It will tear you down. Your sacrifices will be for naught, you cannot hide forever. It all comes in time, no more than you deserve.

Peace, calm, healing, warmth, love, joy. Hated enemies become old friends, we come to respect ourselves. Honesty, integrity, kindness, dignity. We free ourselves of evil and become beacons of light. Forgiveness, charity, redemption, salvation. The right people and the right mission will lead you out of the furnace and into the light. Trials. They will bring you low. Faith. It will raise you high. Your sacrifices will have meaning, your heart will not remain hidden. It all comes in time, no less than you are entitled to.