A Mission Dream For the Last Day of Autumn

Five-Sense Gray. 

9:15 in the morning in the very late autumn in Belgium.

             It’s barely and unenthusiastically light because the sun has just come grudgingly up (if you call ten feet above the horizon up), and because the heavens are so blanketed with clouds that whatever slivers of rays manage to get through are absorbed right away into the gray. Belgian towns aren’t colorful in any sort of autumn or winter light, but in this particular flannel-gray sort they might as well just go ahead and say it: we are thoroughgoingly monochrome.

            You’d have to be crazy to try shooting color film in light like this, because everything will just come out gray, even the orange busses and occasional red car. And forget about taking a picture of the train station, which is always the grayest thing in any Belgian town: even though it’s probably painted some optimistic color, even though the time schedules stretching along the platforms are printed on bright yellow posters surrounded by blue frames set on top of red poles, the whole place will all come out in one big formless shade of gray.

            On a day like today you can not only see the gray but touch it, hear it, smell it, and taste it too.

            The touch happens because as usual it’s raining, and emphatically gray Belgian rain is not only above you but all around you, like the blanket of clouds has dropped down low enough to wrap you wetly up, or like the blanket is so saturated that Zeus himself is just standing there wringing it out all day long onto everything below.  

            The crazy thing is that you can hear the gray, like when the rain hits your window at just enough of a slant to make just enough of a noise to let you know that it’s waiting just for you, or like when you hear through the dark window the long whooshing sounds of cars and bicycles as they splash through the countless puddles that have formed in the countless imperfections of the asphalt.

            Or maybe the real crazy thing is that you can smell the gray, not like the dusty smell you get out in some country field or on an urban blacktop in the rain, but a more-intense-than-usual diesel smell, which you might have thought the rain would just dilute or beat down to the ground, but you’d have thought wrong, because instead the fumes just regroup at street level then defy gravity and every other law of physics by rising back up stronger and grayer than ever until they find your not exactly welcoming nose.

            And finally there’s maybe the craziest thing, tasting the gray, because even if you have the nifty plastic raingear all the locals seem to have you just can’t keep the water off your mouth forever, not on a day like today.

            The gray is everywhere, even in your bones.

            Upstairs in Albrecht Rodenbachstraat 3, named so fittingly for an idealistic young man, you and your fellow missionaries dressed like local businessmen are just about ready to head outside for the day.

            You’d arisen at 6:30 sharp in the darkness of your dismal little afterthought of an upstairs room, which has only a giant mattress on the floor and an armoire that is actually a pretty cool piece of furniture but that says to American-suburban you why don’t they i.e. all Belgians have real closets? You’d every-other-day shaved in the tiny cold-water-only sink in your dismal room (which water on a day like today’d felt even colder than usual), maybe’d washed a little more thoroughly in the true bathroom downstairs, had shiveringly put on your suit-pants and white-on-white shirt and Hello Handsome tie, then’d finally prayed in private, until 7.

            At 7 you’d prayed with your companion too, then until 8 you’d rehearsed an entire Discussion together, under dim lights that on a day like today’d not only made your apartment look starker than usual but’d made you feel lonelier than usual too—something about those dim lights and old furniture in tandem made it impossible to imagine that you’d ever feel joy again. Even though you knew by now that you almost never got to perform very many of your well-rehearsed Discussions live on stage in someone’s home, you keep rehearsing them anyway all the way through, just in case, and also because you’ve worked so record-settingly hard to learn them that they’ve become sort of your signature trademark. That you and your companion and the other two missionaries in the apartment’d been the only ones in the whole town working in the darkness of morning on these words of life and death’d weighed especially heavy on you on a day like today, like you sensed more than usual that you had a special responsibility to get the words just right for the sake of everyone out there who was just dying to hear them but didn’t know it yet. That you spend almost all your time trying to convince people they need to hear those words, rather than actually letting them hear them, ’d weighed heavier than usual too, because on a day like today it’s even harder to convince people they need to hear them. You hadn’t stopped to think about it for long though, because if you had then you might’ve felt like you were drowning and might’ve fallen unconscious right there, so instead you’d just focused on getting the words perfect, as usual.

            From 8 to 9 you’d studied on your own, going back over Discussions that needed polishing, then reading in the scriptures, and it was during this hour that you’d thought the sun might have come up, but you weren’t quite sure because on a day like today it’s always hard to tell. 

            Then from 9 to 9:15 you’d eaten breakfast, which on a day like today was always hot oatmeal with some apple slices and cinnamon tossed in—but since there are so many days like today the slice of variety that the slices and cinnamon were meant to give’d seemed just a little bit old.

            And now here at 9:15 you and your companion are gathering ‘round with the other two missionaries for your daily group hymn and prayer before you head on out. You all take turns choosing the hymn, all three or four or five verses of which you now enthusiastically sing to get your spirits up, and also maybe to delay just a moment having to go out at all, maybe dreaming even what it would be like just to stay in for a whole day like today and read and stay warm and rest instead of going out into the rain that’s waiting for you. Elder Shepherd the District Leader asks someone to pray, which that person sincerely and lengthily does, and when the prayer is finished just before 9:30 you all shake hands and look each other in the eye and say as convincingly as you can on a day like today Success! At last you go down the flights of stairs and out the door, stick your supplies in the bike bag that you hope will keep out some of the rain, and jump on your bike to ride away.

            No one says anything about the weather, because that would just mark him out as a whiner or slacker and you don’t want that, but on a day like today you’re most definitely thinking about it before, during, and after the prayer—and maybe before, during, and after everything else too.

            You don’t have any appointments lined up, or any guarantee of getting inside to teach a Discussion, or any hope that the rain will stop, because the sort of rain coming down on a day like today doesn’t go away while you’re watching but only when you’re unconscious, and even then it doesn’t really go away but just reorganizes itself for some other time real soon. You’ll be lucky on a day like today if someone invites you in for something warm to drink, and if you’re really lucky even for a Discussion, but that doesn’t happen often because when it’s as wet as today people seem even more anxious than usual to shut the door, like they’re the ones getting wet and not you, or like they’re afraid you’re going to drip all over everything.

            On a day like today you feel even less hope than usual going out, because even though Elder Klein your new Senior companion is good-hearted he hasn’t been in Belgium much longer than you, but was made a Senior companion ready-or-not-here-he-comes because of the glut of young missionaries including you yourself recently arrived. His good heart isn’t enough to give you the sense of security you’d felt with your first companion, Elder Shepherd, who always seemed to know what to do even on days like today, and who probably could have calmed down the butt-kicking vintage old man who’d kicked you last week, even before the BKVOM went into action. EK is struggling with Dutch about as much as you are, not so much with the words, because he knows a lot of those and writes new ones down religiously in a little book he keeps, but with trying to say them, like he’s the walking proof that you really can’t change your mouth muscles after you’re seven even if you practice heroically like he does every morning in the bathroom so as not to bother others, but he just can’t get his r’s to roll no matter how long and excruciatingly he tries, because the bathroom isn’t quite as quiet as he thinks and it takes only about 15 minutes of unsuccessfully rolled r’s to make you start feeling like fingernails are scratching on a blackboard in there. You know you can’t expect EK to make the tricky French r at the back of his throat, the way that Flemish people speaking Dutch seem to do, because most missionaries can’t make that, but you have to at least do some sort of rolled r so you don’t sound like a total foreigner instead of just mostly one.

            Missionaries are supposed to be the weak things of the earth, that’s what Mormon scriptures say, but with EK you feel incapacitatedly weak, because he’s not making up for your own natural weakness the way Elder Shepherd might have. Instead you and EK are just two hyper-weak things together, which only accentuates the weak but on a day like today that already accentuated weak is accentuated if possible even more.

            Your new tracting area #9 that you thought would change everything is far enough away that there’s no way you can walk to it. On a day like today you think about taking the nice dry bus, but that costs money and it’s a little complicated to figure out. So you just ride your bike as usual, even though you know that the waterproof overcoat you’d been happy about not having to buy, because you’d inherited it for free from your recently deceased uncle-in-law, won’t live up to either of its names and you’ll be soaked through in less than an hour. When you’re riding that so-called overcoat isn’t over your legs at all, but keeps separating there, so that your legs are the first things soaked, and you can’t afford or don’t have enough initiative to figure out where to buy all the nifty plastic rain gear all the real locals seem to have, that stretches out over your handlebars and protects everything but your face.

            But even the nifty plastic rain gear wouldn’t stop the water coming at you from below, thanks to the splashing cars, some of which if you’re not mistaken or if you’re feeling especially martyr-like seem like they’re actually trying to splash you, like on purpose. You can try riding along with your open umbrella over your head, but that’s usually more trouble and danger than it’s worth, because your hand brakes don’t work all that well to begin with in the rain and using only one of them feels just a little suicidal, especially if you have a cheaper Belgian bike that makes you lean way forward when you ride instead of a more expensive Dutch bike that lets you sit straight up. And if it’s windy an umbrella is useless anyway, whether you’re Belgianly leaning or sitting Dutch straight. You try at least to protect your head, with a hat, which the mission rules say you have to wear anyway during cold months, but it’s a cheap hat made out of corduroy and it’ll be drenched as fast as your not-actually-waterproof overcoat is.

            When you finally reach your area #9 that you thought would change everything and lock your bikes to a tree and start tracting, there’s usually only one umbrella for the both of you. That’s because one of you has inevitably lost his, but also because one of you has to write in the tracting book, and it’s way too much trouble to write when you’re holding an umbrella, or to say every 10 seconds Here hold my umbrella so I can write in the tracting book. The big problem presented by having only one umbrella is that it’s almost never built for two: there aren’t any big colorful golf umbrellas here, because the official color for umbrellas in Belgium is black, maybe to provide a little contrast in the gray tableau, and the official size is medium, so that you don’t poke too many passing people in the eye. So your outside arm and its accompanying shoulder are guaranteed to catch a lot of rain because the black medium umbrella is hovering over only part of you, and it doesn’t help that your black medium is guaranteed to have a broken spindle or two from the wind that turned your black medium inside out the day before or the day before that, so the water runs off at that pretty much entirely collapsed part of the umbrella even faster than it does elsewhere, so that not only your outside arm and its accompanying shoulder get soaking wet but some of the contiguous regions on your back as well, and then anything contiguous to them too.

            You’ll spend most of the day on a day like today casting little suspicious glances sideways to see whether your umbrella-holding companion has actually found true center over the both of you, or has maybe allowed a little natural drift to occur toward his own side, or has probably failed to notice that the wind is now blowing the rain at a severely slanted angle almost exactly the opposite of the severely slanted angle of just a few moments ago, thus requiring a radical repositioning of the umbrella; you politely suggest to him a new angle of defense against the rain so that you don’t get quite as wet as you are right now, and because by all means you the custodian of the tracting book for the day must keep it absolutely dry. You don’t think of going to buy another umbrella, because they cost money, and you’d rather just share your companion’s, at least until his breaks for good or is lost.

            It’s not easy to write in the tracting book on any day because of all the people watching you from the windows, but it’s even harder on a day like today, because people are still watching from the windows and now your ink isn’t flowing either, so that the pen slides scratchily across the damp page without making a single mark or maybe barely making one, which means you’re standing there even longer than usual trying to write in it. And if horror of horrors the book does get wet because of poor umbrella-positioning then the page will likely run with the ink that was already on the page, and several pages will mash down before drying out and then plump up and stick together when you try to turn them.

            Your worries about the little tracting book could seem a tad excessive to outsiders, but if it gets wet how will you know where you’ve been or where to go? And the odds of it getting wet are even better in area #9 (that you thought would change everything) than they were in old area #5, because so far no one in area #9 has even let you in the door, meaning you’re probably going to be out in the rain the entire livelong day today too. You’d thought that area #9 would change everything and finally give you some Success! because it’d hardly been worked by anyone before, and because the missionary who’d hardly worked it had been none other than your favorite LTM teacher the legendary Elder Fisher, the thought of which when you realized it had so filled you with a burning inside that you’d been sure the burning was telling you this was the area where people were waiting to hear you, and besides that area #9 consisted almost entirely of a village named Godsheide, which in Dutch meant God’s heath, and that just had to be portentous, because in fact this village right outside of town and right out of a Bruegel painting was beautiful enough that God may have indeed chosen to dwell there at least part-time. But so far you’d passed through Godsheide almost five times and hadn’t gotten in a single door or made one single appointment, but you’d felt that burning inside about it so you weren’t going to give up, not even on a day like today, which was another reason you were determined to keep the tracting book dry so you could write clearly when you finally wrote down your Appt or Gave C. It was probably better on a day like today not to know that it would end up being the only area during your entire two-year mission where you didn’t get into a single door for a Discussion.

            Sometimes on a day like today you might not ride all the way out to area #9 that you thought would change everything, but will maybe try instead doorbell-tracting one of the huge apartment buildings in town that you’re always saving for a day like today, where you just stand like some NASA engineer in front of a huge grid of doorbells in the lobby and start pushing one at a time, even though you know pushing those bells is even less effective than the already ineffective method of appearing at a door in person. It always gets really awkward when some resident inevitably walks through while you’re standing there pushing bells and looks at you suspiciously as s/he opens the second inner door to go really truly inside and then shuts it fast so you can’t piggyback on in behind him/her. Your flustered companion might even ask one such guy coming through, Which bell are you? Which was almost certainly going to always result in the guy saying back without the slightest hint of irony Me? I’m no bell! then going on past in a huff. Your best hope in front of those bells is that the person who answers on the intercom will as usual not be able to understand you through the static and so will buzz you up to see what you want in person, but most non-understanders aren’t curious enough to buzz.

            Or instead of riding out to area #9 on a day like today you might be desperate enough to try business contacting, but despite all the things you’d supposed you had in common with your fellow local businessmen, most of them don’t have time for you even while they’re working, even when it’s raining. So mostly you, as usual, just tract, and since you like to be a little systematic about it that means even on a gray day like today area #9 for you, tracting book and all.

            You get back on your bike just before 2 to make the long and wet ride home for lunch-dinner, which you merge into one big culinary occasion because then you don’t waste time riding home for both lunch and dinner, but on a day like today you wouldn’t mind riding home for both, just to get out of the rain, even though riding home even just once is almost certain to get you even wetter than just staying out in the rain with your partial umbrella would. The other two missionaries go home a little early to make the meal, but it takes only 15 minutes or so to whip up some noodles or fried oatmeal or potatoes. You eat as fast as you can so that you have some time just to relax, which you usually do by reading the scriptures or a letter you got that morning or yesterday morning, especially if it was from the girl you’re writing, because if you got one from her then the rain beating against the window is just a little bit easier to bear. Or maybe you take a short nap, but it’s hard for a 19-year-old to take just a short nap so you usually avoid the nap thing altogether and just read some more.

            Then 3:30 rolls around faster than you thought it might and a little dread sets in. Not a dread of telling people about your religion: you actually like doing that. Instead it’s a dread of all you have to go through just to get to that point, especially on a day like today, and also that you don’t like feeling like you’re twisting their arm to get them to listen, what with all the techniques you’ve learned to counter their objections. But you remind yourself that all your countering is for people’s own good, and you think about the poor and the orphaned and starving and permanently wet and cold people who are worse off than you are, so you try anyway.

            To steel yourself to go outside again on a day like today you avoid looking out the window and you say another prayer together, even though you just said one over the food an hour before and probably said one all on your own too a few minutes earlier, and maybe to pass a little more time you even sing another song together, all four of the regular verses and if there are any extra verses well even those too. Finally you all make it out the door around 3:30, about an hour before the sun goes conclusively down, which means you’ve got only about six more hours of tracting in the rain to go and only five of those hours in serious darkness. At least it’ll only feel gray when it’s dark, instead of look gray. And at least then you’ll find some men home, which means you can go inside the house if they’re willing to let you in, but then you realize that more men home isn’t necessarily good, because they seem even less sympathetic about your standing out there in the rain than the women usually do.

            The locals never seem to get bothered by a day like today, you notice. Unless it snows really hard, which can bring a Belgian city to a sliding halt, they keep going on no matter what: all the kids ride their bikes to school even in the pouring rain, with all their nifty plastic rain gear. But they only have to go from one place to another. They don’t have to stay out in it all day.

            Sometimes you argue with yourself on a day like today about which is worse: the rain or the bitter cold (rain is just ordinary cold). Your inherited non-wind-resistant non-waterproof waterproof overcoat and your soaked gloves are about equally useless in either sort of weather, you reason, so it’s about even on the elements-protection front. As for rain: well there are more rainy days than bitterly cold days. But the cold just about disables you and sinks your spirits maybe even faster than rain. It’s a tough choice. Finally you give a little edge to the cold, because at least you’re not wet then, except for the little icicles forming on your face, and also if it’s absolutely inhumanly cold then not even other missionaries will expect you to stay outside the whole day, and you can even say without the slightest prick of guilt in Dutch syntax, Maybe ought we inside to go because this cold dangerous is. You couldn’t really say that about the rain.

            And despite all the gray you have to keep trying to be at least a little cheery or you’ll die. It’s almost sort of a necessity for everyone to be cheery now, and not just something optional or something for the more cheerily inclined: be cheery or be just totally overcome. Have a little hope or be crushed like a grain of wheat in a millstone. But the missionaries with a little bigger natural dose of cheeriness do better than others on a day like today, no doubt about it: Fantastic day for missionary work, Elder! they say. And if it’s a bitterly cold day they rub their gloved hands together and say Let’s around the block walk and up warm! instead of Maybe ought we inside to go because this cold dangerous is. And you don’t even mind these cheery guys on a day like today, in fact you’re glad to be nearby them as long as they don’t expect you to be naturally cheery too, or act like being naturally cheery is just a matter of will. Because again even if you can’t be naturally cheery you try and appreciate cheeriness, and so do people at the doors, because they’re not exactly dying to talk to a couple of foreign local businessmen on any day but they’re especially not interested on a day like today in talking to a couple of sullen and drippingly wet foreign local businessmen with a beat-up umbrella, which has an odd way of making you look beat up too. Beat-up by association. In fact if you can manage a cheery smile on a day like today it might just be incongruous enough to actually make you curiously attractive at the door—unless of course people think you’re crazy for being outside and smiling.

            If you’re working on a day like today alongside an easily cheery missionary like Elder Trimbo, then you actually have a chance to make it through in decent shape and even have a few laughs about it afterward. You can also get through by remembering that you have actually made it through days like today before: Look! you’d said at the end of an earlier day like today, you’re still here, you didn’t die, the clock did move, the day did end! You can also get through days like today by remembering how the clouds looked from up above when you flew into Belgium, which reminds you that everything up there is still light and sun and bright, which you want to believe is the natural state of things even in Belgium. And you can also get through by remembering that some days like today have actually turned out okay: you had appointments! You got in! Not all days like today made you wish you were unconscious or that this was just a bad dream and you would just wake up and it would all be over.

            But then you remember your friend who didn’t get in one door for six weeks, which is bad enough, but even worse is that you know most of those days looked just like today. You also remember that even when it’s sunny and warm it doesn’t last long, because the clouds get together with lightning and thunder to move back in and drive away all the light, like they’re saying Get on out and just keep on moving because you are NOT the natural state of things, not here! And if your companion isn’t cheery either naturally or artificially, and you aren’t any-sort of cheery yourself, and you don’t get in all day, or the evening appointment you’d so been looking forward to ends up falling through, then you’ll be wondering especially on a day like today just what in the world you’re doing here, and how in the world you’ll ever get dry, and how will a day like today really ever end? 

            What did Vince Lombardi say? Fatigue makes cowards of us all. The missionary version of that might be a little less poetic, something like a gray day like today makes rejection hurt even worse than it already did.

            At around 7, or 8, if you still haven’t gotten in a door for a Discussion or even spoken with a friendly person, and you’re really feeling the wet and starting to shiver, you’ll be tempted to turn in early, like you did that one night when something about the lights on the busy street’d shined so harshly on the endless line of row houses that they’d looked like a scene straight from an Ayn can-I-alienate-you-even-more Rand novel, more impenetrable and starkly shadowed than ever, as if they were saying no one will ever open to you. The wind’d howled down that canyon of a street with lots of fast-moving cars and five people in a row’d quietly refused to open the door and a sixth’d looked out the window and’d explicitly shaken his head no without even bothering to find out who you were, and that was when you’d just had it. You couldn’t go to another door, even though you’d always pushed yourself in sports to the point that you thought your heart and head and lungs would just burst, even though you’d stood bravely in a dumpyard from hell back home, even though you’d already sloshed through a lot of rainy days in Belgium already. Maybe if you’d had a letter from the girl that day then you might have been able to keep going that night, because you would have been too ashamed for her to think that you’d even thought about turning in early: what kind of a husband would that make? Maybe a letter from her would’ve helped you go to one more door, or ride to another more friendly area, but there hadn’t been a letter and so instead you’d just said to your companion that you didn’t feel well. Which was true, but not the way your companion was thinking you meant. And even if he didn’t want to turn in himself (which wasn’t likely) you knew he’d have to take seriously the health-needs of his companion and concede, which he did, so you’d gone home at 7:30 for the shame of it all, two whole hours before quitting time. But at least on that night even you were numb to guilt.

            Most of the time on days like today if you can’t take it any more you won’t officially turn in early, but you’ll instead go visit one of the precious old ladies that you can find in just about any city where there have ever have been Mormon missionaries, because if you go visit them then at least it doesn’t look like you’re turning in early even though you might as well be, because you’re not going to find any converts among precious old ladies. They’d once been among the legions who stood at windows looking suspiciously into the street, watching your comings and goings, but’d also been among the few brave enough or just lonely enough to let some missionaries in and even to hear a few of their Discussions. After a few of these they’d said to just come back for a regular chat, or dinner, or to drop by any time for some peperkoek (way too spiced cake) and something to drink (usually bubbly water which was just about the worst possible thing to drink with peperkoek, but since the missionaries didn’t drink coffee this was usually the only other thing in the house), but no more talk about religion okay? And so on days like today you’ll sometimes take them up on their offer and go by to visit.

            If you’ve already visited the precious ladies in the last few days though, then you might look for a little warmth and welcome instead at one of the three houses in town where actual Mormons live, because they also are likely to give a friendly welcome to missionaries just happening to drop by in the pouring rain or bitter cold. The problem with going to see actual Mormons is that you can’t usually count any visits to them in your proselyting total hours, because they’re already Mormon, and so you go there only when absolutely worn down, or your numbers will suffer. But if worn down enough you might on a day like today go to the trouble of riding several miles out across the mammoth Albert Canal and its cold steel and concrete bridge, where the horns of the boats moan through the dark and the wind whips across the bridge and chills you even deeper as you ride across, and impresses into your smallest little cells just what a desolate and inhuman place this canal is at night and how hard it will be to actually convert anyone. But you keep riding anyway through the cold and rain, precisely because you’re trying to escape the cold and rain that makes rejection hurt even more, and the road that runs across the bridge will take you eventually to the warm government-subsidized Mormon home of the De Smet family, who always let you in and who are always home because Mevrouw De Smet is too sick to go anywhere. And oh what luck you can count a visit to them as proselyting hours, because Mevrouw De Smet and the two children haven’t converted (yet)! During winter months, at least, you’re glad about that, because even though you’re not getting any teaching hours just sitting there talking and drinking herbal tea and munching koekjes, you’re at least still piling up proselyting hours, and in the absence of teaching hours proselyting hours are the next best thing, because they show that at least you’re trying. Mevrouw De Smet has actually had the Discussions several times by now, and okay, sure, she’s never been rock-solidly alert during any of them, but you can at least feel like your just being there might have a good influence on her, or even on the two teenage sons who like to try out their new American (mostly swear) words on you. You also genuinely like to make Broeder De Smet feel appreciated for being sort of the lone man in the local bar-top-church, you really do, which the very act of your visiting shows. But mostly you probably just want to get out of the cold, something you don’t dare accomplish by riding home already, because it’s too early.

            Despite having some genuinely good motives mixed in with your gray-escaping ones you feel guilty going to see the De Smets or one of the precious old ladies anyway, because you’re supposed to be spending your energy finding quality investigators, not seeking refuge from the elements among friendly old ladies and fellow-believers. You feel even guiltier if you happen to run into the other set of missionaries at either place, who apparently had the same idea you did on a day like today. If that happens, then you’ll both leave as soon as politeness allows, then split up and do some mostly half-hearted tracting for the last hour or so of the night to make up for your guilt at having been seen by the other missionaries among the precious old ladies. But if you don’t run into the others, then you might stay even longer than politeness allows, and you probably won’t say anything about your visit to the others after you all get home.

            At last the day ends, as it always unbelievably does, and you ride back home, getting soaked yet again in the Belgian gray. You lock your bike outside the front door, climb the three flights of stairs to your apartment, take off your wet outerwear (mostly everything), put on your pajamas, grab what’s left of the slightly stale Belgian bread on the kitchen counter, and if you’re all getting along you all sit down at the table and eat numerous slices of it ravenously together, with butter and not too much jam. Then you get ready for bed and hope that it won’t be gray like this tomorrow.

            But as you are about to fall into sleep on your giant mattress on the floor that takes up half the room, you know the odds are good that it will be. And that you’ll try again. And that you’ll wonder again how much try you have left in you—maybe enough for another day or week or month, but another almost two years? You don’t believe the calendar lying nearby, which optimistically says that 21 more months really will come.

            And you sleep at last.


This is an excerpt from a manuscript I’m writing, tentatively titled Young Men Dreaming: The Pretty Clearly Troubled But Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary (as opposed to the strictly musical sort of missionary), based on my experience in the 1970s. Do note that not all days were as bad as this, but this is a composite of the worst sorts of days, the idea being that if you could confront this, well you could confront anything. Do not think either that it reflects some sort of dislike of Belgium: au contraire, it’s my favorite place, which I’ll try to convey better in a winter post. But it seems to me you can only say somewhere/one is your favorite if you’ve seen the warts and all, and accept them, or even see them as essential parts of the virtues that attract you too.

17 comments for “A Mission Dream For the Last Day of Autumn

  1. Thanks Jim and Russell, I remember your essays Russell, and found them inspiring, which probably wasn’t even your intent. I especially liked that they were set somewhere besides Belgium, as so many tough stories I read seem somehow to be set there or northern France. Not that tough stories don’t happen everywhere, of course, but that something about those places somehow sets people to writing.

  2. Loved this. Sounds pretty much like East Germany! And as you say in your past paragraph, that shouldn’t imply any sort of dislike for East Germany; ganz im Gegenteil!, it’s one of my favorite places! “But it seems to me you can only say somewhere/one is your favorite if you’ve seen the warts and all, and accept them, or even see them as essential parts of the virtues that attract you too.”

  3. A world apart from my mission. You had no Bumper Beagley, no Fat Jack and Heavy Evy, no missionaries working at the YMCA. Those are the things that stave off boredom, depression, and few baptisms. Can’t wait to read the entire book. You have such a great gift for writing.

  4. Craig, thank you for your service.

    Belgians like Yoda talk. Who knew?! ;-D

    Sherm, don’t throw out a teaser like that and leave us hanging! Elaborate … forthwith!

    RAF, I’m not sure what your reasons are for your ambivalence (if that’s the right word) about your service, and I’m sure my reasons are completely different, but, different reasons notwithstanding, I can relate to your assessment.

    The Bar has been raised. I would not have made it on a full-time proselyting mission under today’s Raised Bar standards, but as hard as it was (and as hard as I made it for myself sometimes [and, admittedly, on others], and as ambivalent as I sometimes feel, I’m glad I went; I’m glad I served.

  5. Thanks for comments all. Sherm’s hilarious stories are indeed like a drug: they simply make you forget about your troubles. There was some hilarity in Belgium too, but of a minor sort compared to his, which was apparently a sort of magnet for creative missionaries. Ken, I can’t imagine not having gone. It changed everything. My not writing and thinking about things for so long was because I’d sort of unofficially concluded that all the benefits outweighed the hard things. I don’t think about it like that any more I guess. Everything was just there together.

  6. Beautifully written. Reminds me of my mission in a northern European country. Sun wouldn’t come up until almost 9 a.m. It would be completely dark by 4 p.m. It was so cold we couldn’t stand to take our gloves off to knock on doors so we gently kicked them with our feet. We would take hot chocolate breaks at 10:30 a.m. and again at 2:30 or 3 p.m. The world became surreal. Honestly, I didn’t mind all this. What was so incredibly difficult was that we hardly ever got in to speak to anyone. Tracting seemed like an incredible waste of time.

  7. As a Belgian who has been privileged to read the whole manuscript already, I can only say how delightful it is to see this chapter here on T&S. Treat the readers with more soon, Craig.

  8. Thanks Don and Wilfried. It’s indisputable that tracting was a huge waste of time, but the astonishing thing is how long it took for lots of people to realize that. From what my daughter tells me about her recent mission in France, many things do indeed seem to have changed. In fact the more I hear the more I think my manuscript is more a historical document than a current-event sort of thing, but it needs to be recorded then…even if through my undoubtedly distorted set of eyes. And thanks Wilfried for not taking the stuff about Belgian gray personally. After all, after a while, I found it endearing. It was such a relief from the relentless sun I’d grown up in. When I’d say this to sun-loving Belgians, they of course would think I was crazy, as they eagerly looked forward to their longed-for sun in the south of France, or Spain, at the next vacation.

  9. Interesting remark in the previous comment, Craig. Has tracting changed fundamentally? I know missionaries are now more involved in service projects, a number of hours a week, but has trying to contact people, ringing door bells or accosting people in railway stations or with street boards, etc. not remained the basic approach? Getting referrals from members has probably not improved in Europe. So, what differences would there be with the past?

  10. Wilfried, you’re right that these other forms you mention are essentially just other forms of tracting, and that many people do indeed regard them as accosting, however noble your intent. The differences I see between now and then were yes, in doing some service hours, in not counting proselyting hours, in putting more emphasis on befriending all sorts of members, in having extra daily time for language study, and in getting out the door a bit later and returning earlier, which has a decent cumulative effect. But you’re right, the approach is itself is basically the same. Four hours of service is a good idea: in retrospect, I wish it would’ve been about 40 for us, because then you’d at least have felt you were mostly doing something good and worthwhile.

  11. It probably helps that the number of missionaries in Europe has decreased significantly over just the last 12 years or so.

    Fewer missionaries in Europe probably means more dinner appointments, more less-active members and more referrals for each individual pair of missionaries. Thus, less tracting.

  12. Maybe Tim, but not sure about “more referrals.” Many members seem referralled out to me. But maybe not: some congregations seem to be growing. Or maybe service sorts of opportunities, informational sorts of approaches through the internet, might be better ways to spend time.

  13. Referrals were pretty rare for me too, 12 years ago. But we had a handful, including some that turned into solid investigators. Not just from old-time members, but from new members and Temple Square. Cut the missionary numbers in half (which is what I believe has happened in Western Europe in the last 12 years) and I’m convinced those referral numbers stay fairly steady, meaning twice the number of referrals per missionary. Not a ton of new work, but combined with everything else I’m sure it makes a difference.

    Honestly, though, there are tons of less active members on most of those membership roles. We had some luck with those too–mainly family members or girlfriend/boyfriends of less active members. Often those less active members haven’t had contact with the church for years. Definitely productive missionary work to do some investigative work and track them down.

    Still, though, I imagine there are lots of missionaries who would rather tract than do smart missionary work. I encountered a lot of that mind set from companions of mine. If they’re out tracting, they feel like they’re working hard, and they don’t have to exert the brain power required by most effective missionary work.

  14. Tim, I think that for some people, maybe many, there’s a lot to that psychological quality of feeling like you’re directly doing missionary work, or what constitutes missionary work in your mind. And it does depend a lot on how you and your companion agree on this or not. There were basketball missions (Australia in the 50s, my brother in the Northern Indian mission in the 60s), and building missions, or Ammon just herding sheep waiting for his big chance. Not such bad approaches either. But then of course some of these have been abused, and led to scandal, so they get a bad name again. Some modern equivalent of herding sheep wouldn’t be bad though, it seems to me. It took me a lot of years to realize that if you helped someone see that Mormons were from planet Earth, that was a triumph and a worthwhile thing. At the time, that just wasn’t good enough for me.

  15. I loved this too. It may be the most accurate description of missionary work that I have read, and is definitely the most poetic.

    Thank you.

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