18 June 2008

June Write-Away Contest

Here is my June write-away submission for the blog Scribbit. It didn't turn out quite like I wanted it, but the deadline is today, so I don't have time to revise. It explores some deep parts of my life and I don't have a title I like yet.

Oh, the Places You'll Go!

When I graduated from high school, the traditional graduation gift was given to me: Dr. Seuss’s book Oh, the Places You’ll Go! With its swirling colors and lofty aspirations, I’m sure the gift giver thought that I would love it as a book from one book lover to another. The thought was nice, but vague goals in childish fantasy were not for me. I put the book on my shelf and forgot about it. I had higher education to pursue and dates to go on. I had money to earn and adventures to experience. A few harsh heartbreaks, two study abroad programs, one job, and a bachelor’s degree later, my next goal was to go on that mission for my church that I had wanted to go on since spending a day with the sisters in Atlanta, Georgia.

Accomplishing this was easier said than done. I rejoiced that the time had come; I attended a plethora of institute classes, I was a frequenter of the Sunday-morning mission prep class, I saw the required doctors, I got the classy collared-shirt picture taken, and I sent in the application with gusto. My family, ward, and friends were excited to see where I would go, but no one could have been more excited than I. The week the call was to arrive, I pulled some strings through a friend to go pick up the call instead of waiting for it to be sent to my house.

Even after the envelope was safely in my bag, my mind was on it as I made my way home. Once I was sitting on my bed, I opened the package. It was all nicely arranged, with pictures of what kind of clothing would be acceptable, a little something from my mission president, and of course the mission I would be serving in and when I was expected to show up at the training center. I don’t know if I was awaiting some sublime moment, but I felt instead rather disconnected, as if it was unreal. Waiting to tell my family and friends where I had been called to until that night left time all during my brother’s wrestling meet to think about the call to serve. No meaning came to me. It was simply a place, a place I would work in, sweat in, love in, learn in—a fact I tried to come to terms with.

As expected, my family and friends rejoiced, but as the weeks passed, I found my thoughts wandering. I was thinking about what I would do afterwards; that year and a half took a blank space in my mind, even though it was something I prepared for every day.

I wasn’t afraid of learning a new language, in fact, I had secretly hoped for the opportunity (even if was just to improve my limited German skills). It wasn’t just that I couldn’t see myself serving in the country where I had been called. I couldn’t see myself serving at all anymore. Myself as a missionary was not an image that fit, and for someone with a very vivid imagination, that was big-time. I reprimanded myself for my disloyal thoughts. After all, when I set my mind to something, I’m going to do it! I prayed and studied harder, but I became more and more confused. I turned to a boy I was dating to see what potential was there. I needed to know if that was why I was confused, but I was unable to find any assurance. My mom saw my inner turmoil and said one night that maybe I wasn’t supposed to go, which annoyed me. “God wouldn’t curse me for serving Him,” I said. I’m just nervous, I told myself over and over. I just need to go and do what’s right.

I read talk after talk from church authorities telling people to put aside their selfishness and to go out and serve, but one scene kept replaying itself in my mind: I had asked my stake president (a church leader) several months before how girls knew if they were supposed to go. He had answered simply, “Your desire to serve is your answer,” which had completely satisfied me at the time, because I had that desire burning within me. Where was the desire to serve now and why had it vanished? What was I doing wrong? I searched and searched for some kind of reassurance, for some kind of motivation, but I found none. Life turned to chaos, bedlam, uncertainty, even though everything was going smoothly.

My bishop (congregation leader) advised me to go to the temple. Part of me wanted to be obedient and justified in my mind that the temple can never be a bad thing, but the other part of me said that it wasn’t the right time. One day that I scheduled to go found me in the worst mood. Until then, I had been internally confused, but that day I was unable to keep myself from snapping at others and I felt like crying the whole day. I finally canceled the trip, saying I would go later. In the meantime, confusion built to the point that I thought I was either going to have to find peace or I would explode from this personal turmoil.

One cold January morning, standing at the bus stop on a cold morning, I called my sister. Usually in times of stress, I called her and relayed events to her, but this time, I couldn’t complain about work or social life or family or money. I had nothing to convey but a feeling. I felt miserable as I tried to put my confusion into words, as I cried about my inability to understand what was happening, as I was unable to swallow anymore because the pain in my throat was so bad. As always, my patient and wise sister had the kind of answer that helped me understand the answer I had already received. As soon as I said, “I’m so confused, I don’t even know what I’m confused about,” she said, “Helllllooo, you know this already. That’s a stupor of thought. You just need to let go and think for just one minute what would happen if you didn’t go.”

For several hours, I fought the idea anyway. Of course I was going to go. I’d wanted to for so long! This was what I had aimed for, and nothing could take me from my goal, but fighting so hard against the obvious drained me. I don’t remember where I was, but I remember the feeling. The exact moment I allowed myself to think that maybe I shouldn’t go, it was like being able to fall asleep in the middle of a loud and rowdy concert. I felt peace for the first time in a month. I was aware that I was alive, that there was something for me, that I had been fighting my answer for the last month. I knew that I wasn’t to go on this mission and that that was okay.

Nevertheless, I waited about a week to tell anyone. I wanted to make sure this feeling was consistent. I enjoyed the fruits of the peace; I flew through everyday events with a smile on my face and a laugh in my eyes. Three days after I had decided and four days before I told anyone, my boss called me at home. He said he didn’t know why since I would be leaving so soon, but he felt like he should promote me. This of course complicated things, as it then looked to jealous coworkers like I gave up the mission because I had been promoted. I didn’t care what they thought because I had my answer and I knew I had made the right decision.

My change in plans surprised friends and family (immediate family not so much, I think), but they were supportive, sometimes too supportive. Everyone seemed to have the idea that it must be because I was going to get married instead. It’s true that a newly-budding relationship with a wonderful young man was something I looked forward to after each busy but happy day in my new position at work. But when that relationship ended, I found myself in personal crisis. The peace and happiness of having made the right decision about the mission had worn off. Wait a second, I thought, I wanted to go on that mission! What am I doing!? I finally recognized the loss of a goal I had so eagerly looked forward to and I mourned it. I was done with my bachelor’s, and the natural thing to follow in my mind had always been the mission. I still knew that I had made the right decision, but my life had been future goal-oriented for so long that I had no idea what to do without a goal.

Work became my new goal because it was there; as my life, it helped me ignore the fact that I didn’t know what I was aiming for. In a way, it became my mission as I worked with senior missionaries. When problems arose, I aimed to not give up until I had overcome the challenges. However, the job always felt temporary. And when it got to the point that I realized some problems can never be overcome, I poured my soul into finishing everything I started, which took a few excruciating months when things just seemed to get worse and worse. The day my biggest project was finished, I told my boss I wasn’t coming back the next day. We both mourned, but I needed to move on. I needed to deal with this lack of goals and find some meaning.

The next few months were some of the hardest in my life. I took a short-term job only to reject it five days later; I needed time to myself, time to recuperate, time to lay in the sunlight and do nothing. I read and pondered and slept a lot. I practiced the piano more than I had in years. My spotty jogging habit became an intense outlet for my stress. I would run as hard as I could and cry as hard as I could. I knew that I needed to get away, that I needed a new beginning.

I began looking, though one thing held me back: my jogging had brought me regularly to visit my grandpa, with whom I now had a strong relationship. I could see myself in his life. Somewhere between getting married and retiring, he had turned into a strict, grumpy person, during which time I was born. I got to know him in this phase, and I stayed away from him because of it, calling him “Grumpy” instead of “Grandpa.” After his retirement and during the sickness and death of my grandmother, something happened that no one in the family could explain. “Grumpy” became “Grandpa.” He was softened somehow. Still a stubborn individual, he loved people more than he had ever shown before. Generous to all organizations, regular studier of the gospel, a new lover of Mormon romance novels, this grandpa was one I had never known. He would invite me to watch movies with him, eat breakfast at his house, accompany him to plays, and read his old books (which didn’t suit me, but which was kind of him). I saw that it was possible to change for the better and that my situation wasn’t hopeless. I rejoiced when I could help him by weeding his garden while he wasn’t home, or by putting clean sheets on his bed. With his health getting worse, I knew I needed to spend as much time with him as possible.

Grandpa had decided to take the whole family on a cruise, which I wasn’t going to miss out on. I felt like it was the last big thing I could do for my grandpa, to be there for the present that had excited him for months. There were days when I thought I would have to leave before the cruise or I would die, but I didn’t know where I should go anyway. Mini trips temporarily satisfied my wanderlust and acted as therapy: I rock climbed in Moab, river rafted through Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, hiked into the Grand Canyon, and drove through Costa Rica.

I began to revive the old idea that I was going places and I was excited by the possibilities. I updated my resume and filled out applications. When I was accepted to two universities in Germany, I couldn’t believe my luck. The two oldest universities (nearly 600 years old) in Germany wanted me! I could combine so many interests: German, traveling, a Master’s Degree, the study of literature, etc. During the cruise, I announced my intention to move to Germany. Grandpa hugged me and told me he was proud of me, but he got teary-eyed when he said he would miss me. With his well wishes, and the knowledge of his love, I could move on.

I booked the flight to Leipzig and included weeks in Boston, Manchester, and London along the way. Leipzig was an unknown city with unknown people, but so were Boston and London, and they both ended up being wonderful experiences where I met many people and saw enough sights to make me love both cities. A new friend in Boston said she felt like it was meant to be that we met. She told me that her first semester away from her family was the hardest, that she had to learn that when no one else is there, God is. When I finally arrived in Leipzig, I was eager to take on the challenge of a new city, a new church congregation, a new language, a new school, new friends.

Amazingly, it hasn’t been hard. I immediately loved the city and everything about it upon arrival. I now understand the trials of life in new ways. I have built my trust in God more than ever before and have been showered with blessings, among which I count the fact that homesickness has never been a problem. I have re-learned that friends are to be found everywhere, that there is always a reason to smile and laugh, that I can accomplish anything because of my faith. My involvement at church has kept me sane; it is something I can always rely on and put my energy into when other things are frustrating.

I can see that a lot of satisfaction in my life has been and is based on being able to work towards a clear goal. Looking forward, I fear the day that I will be done with institutional education. There may be further goals to carry me on, but will I some day become bored with my role either in a job or in a family of my own? In other words, the success that all of my life has lead up to doesn’t sound satisfying. It sounds rather fearful to settle down in the way acceptable to society. Setting “die happy and faithful surrounded by family” as a goal seems too far-off and vague. I yearn for something concrete. I yearn for new experiences and cultures. I fear my way of assessing progress will bring me down if that want isn’t met. However, looking backward, I know that each step in my life was guided. The Lord was telling me that if I wanted to go places, I would go places with Him. And now I need to find the faith and trust to know that He knows best, that he wants me to be happy, and that He will continue to take me places.


  1. I feel as if I want to check back in six months and get the next installment of the story--it's not quite finished yet is it? :)

  2. I loved that you shared your story!

    God will give you the adventure you crave! Although it might look very different than what you expect. That's the fun, and hard, part of knowing He who knows all. Constant Surrender..

  3. Oh, Michelle. That story needed to be written. I remember feeling those emotions along with you. Thanks for being brave enough to post it.

    Shouldn't it be "studies abroad"? :)

  4. A fantastic string of experience. Thank you for sharing! I've had similar situations in my life and I understand the emotions so well. I'll never forget the moment that I realized my big stupor of thought. Life has been SO much easier now that I can interpret that feeling correctly.

  5. I don't know if this is appropriate, but I definitely think the phrase that I've heard before is true, that "God is not a second-rate novelist, when he puts something down all you have to do is pick it up". Thank for sharing.