Orem, there is a small house near the freeway. At one time, it was
surrounded by orchards, but is now nestled in a subdivision. It’s the
house my mother was raised in and the place my grandmother, now 84,
grandmother can taste the past, having heard firsthand accounts of our
family’s Mormon pioneer ancestry from her elders. With sharp features
and deep-set eyes, equal parts kind and blunt, she is our matriarch.
when my grandmother was trying to raise a family on my alcoholic
grandfather’s salary, I’m told, one corner of the couch in the living
room was held up by a cinder block. Today, one wall of that same room is
chaotically littered with an enormous and ever-expanding photo collage
of her descendents, numbering nearly 100.
a separate wall in the same room, she has established The Missionary
Wall. A shrine to her deep religious beliefs, she has professional
photographs of a dozen young men in suits with badges, neatly aligned.
Next to each photo, she’s displayed a miniature version of the flag of
the country where they served. The formality and organization of the
pictures on that wall are in sharp contrast to the huge jostle of family
photos on the opposite side of the living room. Located in the
epicenter of our family’s universe, it is a sacred wall seen by all who
visit. It matters.
the age of 18, I found myself unable to accept the LDS religious path.
Thus, no matter my good deeds, I would never be on The Missionary Wall.
Other family members who haven’t made it to The Missionary Wall can’t
help but note their absence as they visit Grandma in her living room. Do
they feel unintentionally shamed, as I did? But I made peace with my
absence, knowing that my grandmother could not embrace my choice without
dissolving her worldview.
at 30 years old, having been a nonbeliever for years, I joined the
Peace Corps, and began my own mission, of sorts. As my flight left Utah
and glided toward Africa, I saw before me that scene in Contact where Jodie Foster goes into deep space.
arrival in Madagascar, I was essentially like a stroke patient; I had
to learn again the meaning of chairs, houses, bathrooms and streets.
Everything was different. Slowly, I was able to move through the stages
of culture shock—but the cost of transformation was myself: I blocked my
own view too often.
It had taken years to establish the intellectual network that I called me; I had become a complicated root system of ideas, opinions, values and beliefs. Trapped in a sort of intellectual Tourette syndrome, I channeled my composite worldview and projected it onto the vistas of Madagascar. But it soon began to lose meaning. All of the ways I had differentiated myself back home—vegetarian, liberal, intellectual, feminist—no longer mattered to anyone. I was alone and championing a worldview with merits that I’d begun to struggle to articulate to myself. Slowly, and then suddenly, none of it mattered. It was in this divine silence that I lost myself.
remember the potpourri of smells of the Malagasy outdoor markets. I
remember the women with babies on their backs, babies who feel their
mother’s heartbeats as they reach consciousness and develop into a
society that honors its elderly. I remember the wild dogs and captive
pigs to whom I fed scraps. I remember the earthy and sober feeling of
being outside and inside at the same time, because of buildings whose
structures cannot fully escape nature.
had gone there to develop—to convert—this life and people into
something I knew. But living in a hut wasn’t sad to me anymore. I had
one friend whom prostitution had served well. Sweatshops were sometimes
welcomed jobs. What I experienced was more of an absence of judgment
than a new one. If I had held my opinions up like walls, I’d have never
felt the water.
through my Peace Corps service, I learned that my grandmother had put
me up on The Missionary Wall. There was no precedent for me to be
allowed there. Instead, there must’ve been a moment in her living room.
She might’ve taken a deep breath as she shopped alone for the flag at
the missionary store. Maybe she smiled and felt a little wave of
feminism. She expanded and exhaled enough that when she breathed in, she
could honor me on her sacred wall.
vividly remember watching slideshow presentations as a young child at
church of the young men who had recently returned from missions, usually
from South America. I remember them failing to explain to the
wide-eyed, well-meaning congregation what it was, exactly, that they had
done. They were touched by something they could not articulate. So,
they gave up and showed pictures of unimaginably large bugs. But we know
what happened, even if we can’t describe it: We traded opinions for