Hello everyone! This one is a doozy. Dense wall of text alert! For every person who actually reads the whole email my little sister Kaija has promised to knit and hand deliver a monogrammed sweater! Color choices include: adobe white, hot chocolate, almond biscotti, and blue.
Hooray!! One year and counting! I am actually writing the majority of this on a high speed train from Paris. I can testify that while being a magical city, Paris is slightly less lovely a ville when one is sprinting to catch said train. I had the chance to spend the better part of the day with Elder Dunskovic, Elder Merritt, and Sister Trotter, three other missionaries who started at the same time as me. The day was filled with reminiscing, storytelling, catching up, and all the other warm fuzzies associated with reunions. We have mostly been on separate but parallel paths since arriving here in France but that hasn't at all diminished my fondness for my fellow MTC missionaries-- if anything the absence has only made me a bigger fan. The dear friends made there are somehow more dear. It was really a wonderful day and a well timed mini-vacation.
There isn't any cosmic significance to the number 52 or 365 or 1/2 but when you add them all up you get 417.5... which isn't the least bit an important number either. (Though adding all the individual digits of 52 and 365 together does yield 21-- my age as of a few weeks ago. Take that and run with it all those readers who are conspiracy theory fans.) Like most things these numbers have as much significance as we let them have, as we choose to assign to them... And so I reflected a lot on what to say in this here email! I do enjoy the writing a lot! Sometimes it is cathartic, sometimes it helps me organise ideas, maybe once or twice in a year I say something that helps or entertains someone else. That this might be one of those times!
I'm utterly stupefied and in many ways devastated that I have been gone a year. It just slips by so quickly and I'm not able to catch it all!! I can't take it all in fast enough. Like when you scoop spaghetti with a spoon and 90 percent of the noodles slip off into the Italian abyss. Life is often the futile effort of trying to capture and retain the fullness of pasta in a spoon I think. There is too much beauty and wonder and life and tomato sauce to ever be fully appreciated! These last twelve months have been more than the average Olive Garden spaghetti either, this is the hole-in-the-wall restaurant made-by-a-guy-named-Tony stuff. It is downright heavenly. It is the most satisfying meal I've ever eaten. The most divine spaghetti one could ever find. This year has meant more to me than I could ever describe. I mean it. I do not have the words to give life to the magnificent changes that have taken place internally... to give credit to the amazing people I have met of every size, shape, color, smell, and personality... to paint pictures of the antics that take place when 6 missionaries are sardined on the floor of a small apartment... to describe France and its rich culture, landscape, and habitants... and finally, and perhaps ultimately, I can not tell you how strongly I know that there is a God who loves you and a Savior who loves you too.
I have certainly broadened my diet since my arrival! Gone are the days of gnawing on prairie sagebrush. I effectively had the culinary skills of a toasted walnut back in the day though with the help of loving companions and divine intervention I can now cook more things than Ramen. And that is only one of the countless skills and lessons I feel like I've learned and relearned over this year. In 12 moths of adventure (I actually caught that typo there but the image of whatever an 'adventure moth' brought me too much joy to correct it), in two French cities, moving in with someone new every 3 months, in talking to at least 8 billion people on the street, I have learned a lot I think.
New Skills/Things Acquired:
- the ability to eat cheeses that look visually off putting
- a very mild appreciation for tomatoes and onions
- an improved knowledge of wine! Acquired only by osmosis. Scouts honor
- not really a skill but the joy of knowing 'scout' is rhymes with 'toot' when pronounced here
- some mad organizational skills with all the planning and organizing and scheduling involved. I will be a mean secretary for one of you successful folk one day
- an affinity and fidelity for IKEA furniture
- stopping people on the street
- a hand shake proficiency
- an improved listening skill set
- a fatigue associated with wearing white collared shirts
- a better understanding of what it really means to work hard and strive after something
- kind of sorta half speaking French. This one has been an absolute blast to learn! I'm like an overgrown infant learning to communicate for the first time
- a significantly increased love for myself and for everyone around me
- a feeling of internal peace knowing I'm doing something I love with value
- the conviction that any two people can become dear friends who compliment and challenge one another
- an incomplete understanding of the French educational system-- everyone always explains it to me but there are so many acronyms and numbers and extra steps it is not at all clear in my mind.
- bow-staff skills
- list making down to a fine art
- many other things(!!!)
Despite my best efforts to learn about the world and explore I grew up pretty sheltered and far from the world. I had a wanderlust! Insatiable. I yearned to know what else was out there, what other people were like, to what extents we were different and the same! History channel (before it turned into shows about storage lockers) and Discovery Channel (before becoming an absurdly successful show about duck call makers) were my dear friends. The Wyoming education system did its best to teach me about the world ("Just copy Finland already!" he said, fully recognizing the complexity of the issue and how homogenous Finland is), but there were plenty of things left to discover. And now I can say I discovered some of them. I got to see and breath that diversity I had always yearned after. Now I can say that I love France. And I love the sometimes- to-often stubborn French people. And I love the culture.
Another thing I have learned is that God really does answers prayers. I want to tell you the story of a 14 year old who asked a question. And it is probably not the 14 year old some of you are thinking of. He has the same name as me. And the same genetics. The same chiseled facial features and charm. And some of the same qualities as me but in general he was noticeably worse. I wanted one day to know very simply if everything that I had heard from my parents was true. I wanted to know if there was a big man up stairs, what he was like, and why he put me here. It wasn't the easiest question to ask, because in doing so I had to admit that I didn't know the answer, and that my parents and everything I'd sort of gone along with for 14 years may have been wrong. And so one day I decided to ask. I didn't have a nice wooded grove on hand so I used the upstairs bathroom instead. I kneeled down and poured out what I had in my heart to someone who I wanted to be there. I felt nothing at all in response. I was more than a little disappointed. It broke my wee heart. He hadn't answered... And he took his sweet time until he did answer. Over the course of the next 7 years the questions and curiosities I had nurtured then were finally resolved. There were some moments of radio silence... though I had stopped listening and looking during some of these. There were some cries of desperation. There were some cries of frustration. And as I was patient... and even when I wasn't patient... I was given just as much answer and light as I needed. Until I was really ready to hear. Though in the end I think it really was better. I really do think he knew what he was doing. I look at who I am now, what I believe, and the path that led me here and there is nothing to feel but gratitude. God has a special place in his heart for 14 year olds I think! He did answer everything I asked him. I would bet anything he will answer you too. All you have to do is find an upstairs bathroom and tell him what is in your heart. You have nothing to lose but everything to gain. God wants to talk to you. He wants to hear from you. And he will answer. That doesn't guarantee infinite free cars or anything-- God isn't Robin Williams-- but that promise does include the answers that you need and will make you happy.
I was asked by someone the other day how I could believe in any sort of heaven without ever having seen it. This is true! I have not seen any heavens!.. Though I have seen glimpses of heaven. I felt that scratch at infinity's door the first time I held my sister's baby in my arms-- a wrinkly little lump at the time. He has since grown into a dashing toddler with a sprig of red hair. The cloud-cover seemed awfully thin when I felt the loving embrace of my family before leaving. And the separation between earthly and super-earthly has never been so small as during this year. I saw heaven when a 92 year old lady dared to believe that she would be able to see her deceased husband later. I saw heaven when a man named Victor kneeled down to pray for the first time, with the partial intention of showing that there wasn't anything bigger than us, and then started to share all his fears, worries, and hopes with a God he didn't think was there. He said he really felt something. I saw heaven when Olivier hugged me and said we would be friends for life. I saw heaven when a man told me I was the first person to be nice to him in his 50~ years of living. How could no one have ever shown this man kindness? To love another person is to see the face of God; no wonder the world seems to be less inclined to believe and less loving. How often I have felt the embrace of heaven comforting, guiding, even carrying me during this year. That frequency is matched only by the intensity of my invocations of the blessings of heaven upon each one of you. I beg, through tears of gratitude, that you be helped and guided in your life. That you know of God's light. That you find good things that make you happy and never let go of them. I pray you find the force and courage to listen to your heart and make the decisions and changes you need to. And this is a very personal thing. This is an individual wish for each one of you. I would that I could look you-- yes you, not your neighbor or the other person on this list I know better-- in the eyes and tell you what you mean to me. You are more important than you realize or dare think. I want and pray that everyone of you be better than I am and ever will be. I love you all. You, that affection, and all our memories together, that's the largest glimpse into heaven I've ever seen.
I sometimes worry these emails end up with a bit of a doctored feel. That the sincerity and depth of feeling I have might get lost in the transition between my intimate thoughts and feelings and the 'ding' notification on your smartphone that you will probably ignore. Know that I really mean the things I wrote! This excessively long email doesn't do it justice!
Needless to say I'm pretty content with my life in France for the moment, and for the service I am able to render to others and to God. I look forward to the next year and will see hopefully all of you after its conclusion. I'm am grateful for the parts you play and have played to get me where and who I am.
And I proudly proclaim all that in the name of my dear friend Jesus Christ, Amen.
With all I have,
-Elder Alex Hacker