I enjoyed a brief stint of "popularity" for a few months in 1996. Those quotations marks should indicate exactly what kind of popularity it was. And, it must be admitted, the kind of popularity that I had spent all of middle school and high school trying to taste. I had always been kind of a hanger-on to that "it" group. I think some part of me always wanted to be the "it" girl.
I've mentioned before that I went to college with an unhealthy (read: toxic) level of cynicism. Spring time seemed to exacerbate the feeling as college kids who met in the fall, cuddled on couches indoors all winter, now burst forth from their apartments holding hands and wearing engagement rings. It was like watching a Discovery documentary titled, "The Gag-inducing Mating Habits of LDS College Students. I envied their seemingly easy happiness and wondered how it could be that I hadn't really been on a date in like two years. Summer came and the first round of friends got married, and then back at school in the fall more and more friends started pairing off. Their bliss was my horror movie.
My sister-in-law unexpectedly asked me if I wanted to intern for her uncle at the state legislature that winter. I hesitated about 30 seconds and said yes. (This is why I loved the old-school quarter system: a throwaway quarter didn't matter the way a semester did, and if you hustled you could still graduate in a reasonable amount of time.)
That winter I fell in love. No, no, not in the way that would have earned me a spot in the documentary, but with politics and the drama of the political process. But even more than finding a hobby that has stayed fascinating to me, I realized that the world was full of people who were working hard to make a difference. The two senators I worked for were very different men, but both made enormous personal sacrifices to work in the legislature each winter for a pittance because they really believed in what they were doing. For all the negativity there is about politicians, the ones I knew personally were men of integrity and purpose.
I decided I was tired of just standing on the sidelines and watching life happen. After spending all those weeks immersed in a group of movers and shakers, I was ready to get involved in my own life. When the legislative session ended, I had two weeks of down time in which to write a paper and put my plan into action.
On a tip from my dad, I walked into the Alumni Office and asked about joining student alumni. How lucky was I that they were in the middle of a meeting! I was escorted in, feeling a bit sheepish, but then I realized that the handful of kids in the room was ALL of SAA. The organization had been mostly dead for a decade and a new staff member was trying to revitalize it by re-introducing a huge spring festival that had fallen by the wayside. I was gratefully received and put to work almost immediately. A few weeks later when the letter came to join a student honor society that was active on campus, I threw an application in there as well. Before that school year was out, I'd been appointed SAA secretary for the following year (our festival was a huge hit) and elected as an officer in the honor society. I signed up to volunteer on the Arts and Lectures Committee so I could get into all the events for free and meet new people. A few months later, I started a job in one of the "cool" offices on campus (right, chrisw?), and was asked to serve on the Student Advocate Advisory Board.*
My junior year was a lot of fun. I was busy all the time, and had little time to feel lonely or pensive. There wasn't time to brood about being lonely, and soon I had so many friends that I didn't feel lonely either. I even got a boyfriend. (You've heard of this guy: I sometimes refer to him as "the Bullet;" as in "I dodged THAT bullet" or the "Mistake.") I cut a foot off my hair.
Another spring approached and my internal mood was as bright as the outdoors. I had said with varying levels of commitment in the previous year that I would serve a mission when I turned 21, and as my birthday loomed near, I still felt good about that decision. Then, the president of my honor society, who was also Academic VP for our student council, approached me about running as his replacement. The rumor was that only one guy was going to run for it. "A real doofus," apparently. Though qualified, he was rather unlikeable. With the connections I'd made in the past year, I was associated with people from nearly every major student group on campus--Institute, fraternities, sororities, student council, clubs. Besides that, my unique major put me in regular and familiar contact with people from three different colleges. It was time. If I wanted to really be a mover and shaker, that was the time.
But I put in the mission paperwork anyway. As I did so, I wondered why all of these wonderful things that I had always wanted were put in my life precisely then. I think part of my initial decision to be a missionary was motivated by wanting to get away from some things I just couldn't deal with. Suddenly, besides being a great spiritual adventure and a selfless act, a mission seemed like a huge sacrifice. It occurred to me, somewhat belatedly, that perhaps such sacrifice was the reason all of these things had come into my life at that time.
I went anyway.
When I came home, nearly all of my friends had graduated. My roommate was my grandmother in a city ten miles from campus. The university was switching to semesters and I had to scramble, beg, cajole and rearrange to get the many classes I needed in order to graduate without losing a whole year. My checking account nearly always had less than $50 in it. I worked a variety of jobs, each only giving me five or ten hours each week. The only thing that WAS waiting for me was The Mistake, but even he didn't stick around for long--just long enough to shatter the tenuous hold I had on reality for nearly six months after my return. I decided that spring that they needed some place that was the OPPOSITE of the Mission Training Center. Like a Mission Detox Center.
Might have been happy in that other life? The one I might have realized if I had stayed home? Certainly.
But I have never been sorry. Influencing even hundreds of people for a minute pales in comparison to influencing a single person for . . . well. . . ever. As for the changes that took place inside myself? It is impossible to even describe. I think of all those long, hot days (or long, cold days) and the lessons I learned from the isolation from all other people but my companion, the determination I found in myself to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and the realization I came to that happiness isn't based on some tangible achievement.
In the missionary discussions in use through the nineties (and maybe eighties??), the fifth discussion was about sacrifice. One of the sections was titled, "Sacrifice Brings Blessings." During my 17 months in New South Wales, I learned this lesson with such force that I thought I would never unlearn it. (For that misconception, see Sacrifice Brings Blessings: Part 2. As yet unwritten.) I thought I had given up a lot, but I had merely given up something good for something so much greater. I had given up notice for knowledge; a hundred acquaintances for a handful of friends; my agenda for the Lord's.
Hardly a day goes by that some lesson learned from my months Down Under is not brought back to my mind. Those most difficult and wonderful months were a foundation for the rest of my life. In a few days I will have opportunity to sit down with a handful of the remarkable women I served with and around during my Australia years. It has been well over a decade now since we were missionaries. No doubt, the swapped stories will wane (or become the stuff of legend!), as they have each time we've met over the years, but they will be replaced by new stories of faith and motherhood and the lives we have now. These eternal friendships are among my greatest blessings.
Sacrifice? What sacrifice?
* Mostly what we did on SAAB was team-building activities. There was a very eventful afternoon of laser tag and pizza. Perhaps the most memorable, though, was playing broom hockey against the administration in the Spectrum. My aggressive side came out that day. (read: violent and dangerous) I hit Val Christensen in the leg hard enough to drop him--when he retired a year later he was called as a General Authority in the LDS Church where he served as a counselor in the general Sunday School Presidency. Last year he was called as the President of the Rexburg, Idaho Temple. Dropped him like a rock.