Recently in Mission stuff Category

An Obvious Compound Word

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Today one of my students gave me a poem built in part on questioning something I apparently said about heartbreak.

When I first got home from my mission I was suffering from what I would eventually come to call religious despair. On my mission I was suicidally depressed, though I lacked the initiative and the energy to do anything about my grief. I could not eat or sleep. I wept uncontrollably for nine weeks, so bereft that I could not stop my tears even in public.

And then I finished my mission, went home, and went back to work on my undergraduate degree. I was young and pretty and from a middle-class family. I liked wearing bright blue mascara and clean clothes. I still attended church. My suffering did not involve addiction or physical violence.

And so no one believed me when I talked about my unhappiness. God forbid I try to write a poem about the despair I had experienced! I remember a middle-aged gay male bartender responding with undisguised loathing to a poem I submitted in class attempting to describe the young, chaste, female trauma I'd endured. How dare I, he proclaimed! How dare I believe I knew anything of heartbreak!

And now that I am middle-aged, a young man is saying basically the same thing, because.... I can pay my own mortgage? Because there's still no addiction and physical violence in my life?

OK, I don't know a thing about heartbreak. I know nothing of it. I relinquish any claim to so dignified a word. What I know--all I know--is grief's assault on the rest of the body. If you want to talk about suffering rooted in and expressed through phlegm and bile and blood and bowels, then hey, I have something to say about that.

The Hinge

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Today is the twentieth anniversary of the event I think of as the hinge of my life. Twenty years ago today, when I was 22, a great dark door swung ever so slightly ajar after I slammed against it so violently I cracked a rib and got a concussion. I knew instinctively that freedom lay beyond the door, but I was too frightened, too weak and muddled, to push it any further. Instead I retreated further into the claustrophobic darkness of the tiny, stifling room I inhabited, even though there was no place for me in it: it was agonizing to live there, but it was familiar, and it was also home to everyone I loved. How could I ever leave it?

That probably sounds histrionic and hyperbolic, but hey, there are times to say "today is the twentieth anniversary of something that really sucked" and then there are times to try to capture a certain profound, visceral distress accompanying an experience that can still quicken your pulse and bring bile to the back of your mouth, even after two decades.

Here's another way of saying it:

Hopeless Cases and Lost Causes

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This is something I wrote during the summer, about a relationship I knew was doomed but still wasn't ready to abandon--I was so not ready to abandon it that I couldn't even acknowledge the real subject matter in the piece. I read it now and its intensity strikes me as strange, but then again, although there are situtions in my life I wouldn't describe as optimal, right now there's nothing I feel I should quit. Anyway, I came upon this piece and thought it might be better to post it when I don't feel all overwrought than when I do.

***

How many times do I have to say "I give up" before I believe it and mean it?

Or,

Why do I say "I give up" before I believe it and mean it?

One of my lessons in this incarnation must certainly be how to give up. I SUCK at it. We had all these lessons and lectures at church on "Enduring to the End," but what I really needed was some training in the fine art of judicious giving up, knowing when to quit, cutting my losses, calling it a day.

I knew within ten minutes of saying good-bye to my parents at the Missionary Training Center that I had made the biggest mistake of my life by going on a mission. But did I call my parents at that point and say, "Uh, yeah, Mom and Dad, I was wondering if I could catch a ride back to Arizona with you?" NO! I not only endured all freakin' nine weeks of the MTC, that "saccharin-coated hell-hole," as I had the good sense to call it at the time; I stayed on a mission for 18 and a half goddamn months, becoming more and more miserable, more and more ill, more and more damaged--but hey, I endured to the end of my mission and got a freakin' honorable release. It took me another three years to admit that I could not remain a Mormon, three years of struggle and failure and despair.

So why didn't I give up?

Because I didn't want to seem like a quitter.

Art That Fits in Envelopes

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This post is dedicated to my new friend Tammy, whom I met through Friendster (yes, you really can meet interesting people that way) thanks to the suggestion of a mutual friend (SBJ, to be specific), who thought we'd get along. We've been corresponding for less than three months, and she has already written me several of the best letters I have ever received in my entire life.

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I think one reason I like blogging so much is that it's the closest I can come to writing letters all the time. The letter is one of my favorite art forms and one I think I'm particularly good at. I have always placed a high premium on good mail, and while I've learned to appreciate the virtues of email--its immediacy, for one thing--still, in many ways it's a sorry substitute for a real, honest-to-goodness letter. Most people send such short, inconsequential notes over email, and I still miss opening my mailbox, finding an envelope bearing the return address of some cool person, and knowing that inside are a couple of pages that will entertain and delight me.

Email has also hurt another of my favorite art forms, the postcard. What a great thing to find in your mailbox: a few really witty statements on the back of an interesting photo! I love getting and sending postcards, and used to devote a lot of time and energy to building up an impressive postcard collection. But these days I have only one friend who sends me postcards: John C, who not only sends postcards, but sends them with postmarks from Thailand and South Africa and Austria and so forth. (I am chagrined to admit I send him, at best, one postcard for every four or five he sends me, and mine have BORING postmarks.)

Madge and the Beast

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I sometimes say that Madonna saved my life while I was a missionary in Taiwan, because it's really kind of true. I hadn't much cared for her before my mission--I loved the song "Material Girl," because it was so witty, but so much of her other stuff just seemed like the silliest, shallowest dance music, and I liked my dance music rife with complexity and angst. But as a clinically depressed missionary given to long bouts of crying, I guess I felt that since the whole God thing wasn't working for me, I might consider looking to other things to offer me happiness.

I got transferred to Taichung, one of the larger cities in my mission (which covered the lower half of the island) at the beginning of June. It was monstrously hot, and spending all day riding a bike when it's 100 degrees and 100% humidity really takes something out of you, even if you're not being treated for depression. To escape the heat, my companion (an assigned working partner, not my lover) and I would do something we called "shopping first-contacting," which meant that we would go to some department store with air-conditioning, then wander around passing out flyers advertising the church until we at least felt human again.

Our favorite department store was called LaiLai's. It offered many attractions, including a restaurant in the basement that served barely edible pizza (as opposed to the inedible kind of you found everywhere else--Pizza Hut had not made it to Taiwan in 1986) and an electronics department featuring a big-screen TV that constantly played Madonna videos. We would often position ourselves right at the top of the escalator, which was also midway between an air-conditioning vent and the television, thrusting flyers at people without saying a word as the escalator crested. They almost always took them, looked at them, looked at us, and shrugged.

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