Friday, September 25, 2009

Diary of a Madagascar Missionary

Three days ago my cousin Matthew left the MTC (missionary training center in Provo, Utah) to start his mission in the Phillipines, speaking the Tagolog language. My sympathies are so strong for him right now. He has just begun the adventure of his life, but those first few weeks are so trying - scary and lonely. I remember so well. Here are some journal entries from the first few days of my mission in Madagascar, 10 years ago:

November 28, 1998

It’s kind of dark and I can’t see very well, so I hope this is legible when the sun comes out. I can’t turn on any lights or I’ll wake up the other sisters. I have no idea what time it is but it must be pretty early because I’ve been up for an hour already and the sisters get up at six.

Yesterday was my first day as a real missionary and it was quite the day. My experience with Madagascar so far is that most of the rumors about mosquitoes and dirt and humidity are a little bit far-fetched, but the ones about diarrhea are right on the money. The reason I’m up so early this morning is because I’ve been sitting on the toilet for the last 45 minutes while all of my insides released themselves in liquid form. I’m feeling a little bit queasy right now. I hope this is something that I can get used to because I can’t imagine doing today everything I did yesterday when my body feels like this.

November 29, 1998

What I wrote about yesterday morning was just the beginning of a long miserable day of illness. But let me skip back and tell you about my first day as a missionary before I go on about that.

First thing in the morning, the AP’s came and picked us up at the mission home and drove us to our various areas. Although Soeur Wilson and I are not companions, and we serve in different cartiers (areas), we live in the same apartment. So we didn’t have to have a big dramatic goodbye, which was nice. You’ll be pleased to know that my area is the scummiest, poorest, most polluted area in all of Madagascar. I have smelled smells here that I have never smelled before, and they are not pleasant. But I love this city. It is beautiful to me. However, I have never seen such poverty in all my life.

So anyway, I arrived at my apartment, said bonjour to my companion, and off we went to teach a first discussion. We stopped at a member’s house first. We had to bring her with us because the people we were teaching spoke mostly Malagasy. So, before I knew it, there I was sitting in a little dirt-floor house made of mud and sticks teaching real investigators. I was so overwhelmed. It was exactly how I had always imagined it would be. Even the part where the woman fearlessly removes her shirt to breast-feed her baby right in front us. Somewhat uncomfortable, yes. Soeur Abriel is an awesome missionary and I have learned so much from her already, but she likes to teach me things the hard way. I quickly became familiar with her nod and smile that means, “start teaching, go ahead, your turn, etc.” That’s when my heart starts racing and I start praying for the words to say. Later in the afternoon we went street contacting. Seour Abriel made me go up to people, introduce myself and invite them to church on Sunday. So I proceeded to do so, in a very ungraceful fashion. The people are very nice. They smile and say, “Sure, we’ll come.” But then they don’t show up. Anyway, why would they go to church with a dumb vasa who can’t speak French? I’m telling you, if I could have one wish right now, I would wish for the gift of tongues.

…The remainder of the day was spent doing similar things in similar places. We taught a new member discussion, a fourth discussion and we read 3rd Nephi 11 with three teenagers. I didn’t quite catch if they were friends or relatives or what. All the while, of course, we were trudging up and down hills and stairways and alleys. I think I hike at least a mountain a day. By the way, our apartment is pretty good. Most of the modern conveniences are broken, but we are livin’ the life compared to these people. I am a little bit wary of the fact that the water comes out of the faucet brown and this is what I will have to wash myself with for the next year and a half. But, whatever.

So, about yesterday…

I think that was the closest I have ever come to death by illness. It started out with diarrhea, and then my stomach hurt like never before. I moaned, groaned, tossed and turned in my bed for most of the day. Twice I tried to get up to take a warm bath, but both times I passed out and collapsed on the floor on the way there. After which my companion dragged me back to my bed, where I proceeded to moan, groan and suffer. I have never wanted my mommy so bad. My zone leaders came over and gave me a blessing and my companion gave me a bunch of nasty medicine. One of the two must have worked because I feel much better today. Still not 100% normal, but well enough to work and that is all I ask.

So, to summarize my thoughts on my mission so far, I would have to say, THIS IS HARD! This is the least easy thing I have ever done! I would be lying if I said I have been completely happy since I’ve been here. To tell you the truth, several times a day I have wished that I could just go home. But I know this is good for me, and it will get better. And I will get better. All things aside, I am very grateful to be here.

The church is true.
Jesus Christ lives.
God loves us.

I was thinking today about all the times people have asked me what was the most important thing I learned on my mission, or how my mission changed me the most, or what my mission was like. I was also thinking about how I’ve never had an adequate or accurate answer for those questions. But today in my mind as I was driving, the perfect explanation came. My mission was exactly like being thrown into the deep end of the water to be taught how to swim. Even though I was in complete compliance, and I had been told to prepare, from the moment I went under, terror set in. My thoughts were these, “I can’t do this after all; I don’t know what I’m doing; I may not have what it takes; I can’t breathe; I’m sinking; I’ll never make it.” All the while, I’m kicking and paddling ferociously, awkward and uncoordinated, but having no other means to survive, fearing eminent failure. Along with fear and panic and weeping and flailing come exhaustion like I’ve never known it. But I keep at it because at least my head is staying above water. And from there, I think you get the idea. Eventually I discover that I can tread water fluidly. Once I figure out a smooth stroke or two, I can make progress in a forward direction. Before long, my form is clean and my pace is fast. Finally, I look right and left and realize there are few people who can do this swimming thing better than I can. In fact, I can scarcely remember what it was like to be on land and I’m quite comfortable with the idea of staying here forever. Just then someone hooks me, yanks me out and sends me home.

What was different about me after my mission, as opposed to before, was some serious spiritual muscle. I had courage (a lot of it) – which I think sometimes is the same as faith. Confidence – like nothing that lies ahead can be harder than what I just did. I can do anything! Certainty – that I know what the Spirit sounds like and how God speaks to me. I’m not confused. I get it. I became a competent person. Not someone who worries they’ll get lost if their mom doesn’t go with them. Not someone who turns outward to others for answers or solutions. Not someone who is afraid to be alone or thinks her looks are her only selling point. Not someone who questions her ability to succeed, for lack of trying anything challenging. If I was a boy, I would say I became a man – and I can see why so many of them say that.

I know that God is the one who threw me into the pool, in spite of the danger and the difficulty, hoping I would be something different when I came out. I know he is the one who kept me afloat all the while.

Maybe there are other things in life that evoke dramatic change in people in a similar fashion, like military service or being orphaned at an early age or something. I’m sure life in general would refine us adequately, though it might take longer (like years of conventional swim lessons). I bet I will look back at the end of my life, like I did at the end of my mission and say, “That was so hard; that was so scary; that was so great; I was so happy; I am so lucky.” And maybe when we get home to heaven, someone will ask us, “How was mortal life?” And we’ll say, “It was good.” And we won’t have the time or the terminology to explain all the reasons why. We’ll just be so glad we went.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Hanna's Castle

I grew up with four sisters. An older one who did my hair, taught me to use makeup and helped me get ready for prom; one just younger than me who I played dolls with, fought over clothes with, made jewelry with; and two baby sisters, who I’ve had my cosmetic way with on Sunday mornings and date nights. I’ve been so certain that sisters are imperative to a girl’s girly-ness, that I’ve worried about my Hanna who was born amongst a bunch of boys. However, the older she gets, the more I am convinced that one Hanna equals five daughters when it comes to girly-ness. It is oozing out of her! She is two years old and barely has a grasp of the English language, but she is keenly aware of and educated on all things feminine. She is adament that shorts and pants will not suffice when dresses and skirts are available. Somehow she knows that shoes, beads, boas, tiaras and the color pink are all important things. We don’t even have these things in our truck-filled, testosterone ridden house, but somehow they gravitate to her like magnets. Maybe we’ve called her princess a few too many times, because she is convinced that that is what she is. And last month when we took her to Utah to visit her cousins and made a quick tourist stop at the Salt Lake Temple, she took one look and proclaimed, “My castle! It’s for me!”

Since Hanna was so thrilled by the prospect that castles exist in real life and not just in Disney movies, I was thrilled to inform her that someday when she grows up and falls in love, she can put on a fancy white dress and get married in that castle. At that moment a magical light went on in her princess brain. She has talked about nothing but marriage to this day. Right now she plans on marrying her dad and since she’s two, that works for me. Her excitement has given me cause to get out all my wedding photos and show off my pretty dress, my handsome prince and my gorgeous castle. She looks at me with a whole new respect – I have senior princess status now!

Though I didn’t walk down an aisle and I never said the words, “I do,” my wedding was more romantic and memorable than any movie, because I was married in the temple. Mormon temples are different from Mormon church buildings, where kids roam the halls and bounce off the walls and the floors and furnishings are meant to withstand the wear and tear of organized chaos. If you could close your eyes and imagine God’s house, the front room where he would welcome invited guests, that’s what the inside of the temple looks like – and FEELS like (peaceful, clean, quiet and furnished for a most honored king). No wonder I felt like royalty when I entered there, took the hand of a cute boy, promised to be loyal to him and received a promise and a blessing that we would be together forever, even after death. So, if there really is a princess on this earth, I challenge her to show me what she’s got that could be more valuable than that. And to the rest of you, enjoy these pictures of my castle!

Thursday, September 3, 2009


Since I am new to cyberspace, I might as well make my introduction. And there is no knowing me without knowing the Wellmans (the eleven people I shared a bathroom with for eighteen years). Being a Wellman makes me something unique. In fact, it may be the only entity in my total package that has “wow factor.” For I have never met a person (inside the Mormon community and out) that has a larger family than mine. To this day I can raise eyebrows and drop jaws at the mere mention of my number of siblings in casual conversation. So there must be something special in my experience, and it’s nice to think that because of them, I’m something special.

So if ten kids to two parents (no halves, no steps) doesn’t impress you, imagine what we’re like now that my mom is on the verge of empty nesting and 80% of us are married and reproducing at a rapid rate. Today I actually have 16 siblings if you count my in-laws. Imagine nine sisters occupying every available chair at a pedicure parlor, or bustling between platters and appliances to prepare a meal for fifty mouths. Then, picture seven adult brothers roaring at a UFC broadcast on the big screen, ravaging desert shrubs in a dusty paintball battle, or finding new ways to wound one another in swimming pool basketball. And if you still don’t think us something spectacular, think about the 27 grandkids (first cousins) ranging in ages from post-pubescent to barely born. Picture them extracting a million Easter eggs out of their hiding places in ten seconds flat; and instantaneously covering the carpet Christmas morning with an explosion of ripped ribbons and wrapping paper, and lined up beside the pulpit in the front of the chapel singing “I am a child of God” at a baptism. Impressed yet?

Then picture my dad looking down, from somewhere clean and white if you picture it like I do, either watching longingly or chuckling with amusement; because he left just when things were really getting good, and he can’t believe how far we’ve come and how much we’ve grown and how happy we are. And hopefully he feels responsible for it all. At the very least he sees it, and even if no one else is, he’s impressed.

Why the funny acronym in the title of this post? That's a shout-out to my brothers and sisters from the imaginary radio station of our youth - WACTY
(Wellmans Are Cooler Than You).