All the Great Lights

Note. The following is an excerpt from a collection of missionary-memoir short stories by S.P. Bailey called All the Great Lights. You can read the complete collection at S.P. Bailey’s website. And please comment here! Reaction to the story would be great. But it might also be interesting to engage in a conversation about self-publishing in this manner. Is it extremely shameful? Or just sort of pathetic? Does publication by some small Mormon press–or even Deseret Book–really ensure quality or add meaningful prestige? Another topic worth discussing might be the missionary-memoir genre and its place in Mormon letters. Other topics would be fun too. Please comment!

11. The Sickness

Elder Hargrave’s homesickness was palpable every day he spent in the MTC. There was something precious about him writing letters home or carefully opening his family’s many packages to him. Hargrave taped a tiny portrait of his girlfriend inside the front cover of his “white bible,” the book of mission rules most elders carry in the left breast pockets of their white dress shirts. He looked at that picture so often that some missionaries must have thought he was contemplating key rules like “[y]ou and your companion are to sleep in the same bedroom, but not in the same bed.”

Between dinner in the MTC cafeteria and the Sunday-night fireside, we usually had a half hour to stroll from the grounds to the Provo temple. It was our last Sunday there. Hargrave and I stood on the corner waiting for the light to change so that we could proceed east toward the futuristic gold spire projecting from the temple’s massive white slab base. Hargrave kept checking his watch. He seemed nervous. I was enjoying the longer sight lines. Gazing south down 9th East, I could see well over a mile. The buildings on the MTC campus were staggered in a way that prevented long views. It felt safe there among those orange brick buildings–safe and confining, even suffocating sometimes.

Soon after we reached the fountain in front of the temple, Hargrave demanded that we turn back. I followed, reluctant to cut our last walk short. Back at the corner of the MTC entrance and 9th East, Hargrave stopped and checked his watch again.

“I need to wait here,” he said. “It won’t be long.”

I did not catch on quickly. I leaned against the brick wall at the corner and pulled my irregular verb conjugation card (laminated, color-coded) from my pocket. I worked on the different forms of perder, to lose.

I looked up. Hargrave’s head was inside the rolled-down passenger window of a white suburban stopped at the light. He nodded and smiled. He accepted a package. He sweetly kissed the girl who handed it to him. I recognized her from the front fold of his white bible. The light turned green, he pulled back, and the suburban drove away. I generally tried to be obedient to the mission rules. Yet the sight of Hargrave flaunting them–elaborately, prodigiously–somehow filled me with immense joy.

He tried to act like nothing had happened. He was grinning, and his eyes were all teared up. Among other missionaries returning from the temple grounds, we went back inside. Hargrave turned to look at me again and again. I think he was worried about how I would respond.

“I thought she lived in Snowflake,” I said.

“She does.”

“Just in the neighborhood?”

“My whole family was in that truck.”

“How many hours is it from Snowflake?”

“Nine. Maybe ten. They’ve been on the road all day.”

Silence.

“They’re on their way back,” he said. “My dad’s got to work in the morning.”

* *

Thanksgiving in the MTC had not been entirely awful. There was plenty of food, and we watched church movies instead of going to the regular classes.

I did not exactly celebrate one year later. We taught two discussions that morning. A second discussion to a family that declined to be baptized. We are baptized already, they said. The usual talk comparing and contrasting Catholic and Mormon baptisms ensued. We left with a standing invitation to attend mass with them.

Then we taught a first discussion to their neighbor, Franklin. He was working on his bicycle when we approached. He said he would listen if we didn’t mind him adjusting some things. He got us plastic chairs, and we taught as he tinkered with his chain. It went well. He had grease on his hands, so we set the book on his window seal. He promised to have us inside when we came back. Franklin was eventually baptized.

Almoço that day was at Dona Silva’s. We appreciated every bite that people fed us. Dona Silva was poor, but that was not the issue. Poor people managed to give us tasty food all the time. Not Dona Silva. We were approaching her house.

“I hope she didn’t dry out the turkey,” Golightly said. “I prefer a moist bird.”

I knew it was November, and I knew it was Thursday. But other than my weekly planner (the folded piece of blue cardstock in my left breast pocket), I hadn’t looked at a calendar in months.

“I hope she made banana cream pie,” Golightly said. “Pumpkin is more traditional, of course. But I don’t think they have any pumpkins around here.”

“Shut up,” I said.

“I could even go for some cranberry sauce,” he said.

“I am going to kill you,” I said.

“Please,” Golightly said. “Try to have an attitude of gratitude.”

Dona Silva served what she called soup. My bowl consisted of lukewarm grey liquid, two lonely noodles, and a lump of gristle. The noodles instantly disintegrated on my tongue. I flipped the gristle out the window to Dona Silva’s emaciated dog when she wasn’t looking. I sipped a few drops of grey liquid from my spoon each time I raised it to my mouth. I was going for the appearance of hearty eating. We declined seconds. We gave silent thanks when she did not offer dessert.

The rest of the day was not exactly productive from a strict missionary-work standpoint. We were knocking doors. In between houses, we talked about Thanksgiving family traditions.

Golightly’s family spent the holiday at his grandparents’ farm. He explained the ingenious seating arrangement that somehow got forty-plus people seated in his grandparents’ modest home. He loved the noise and heat of so many people. The conversations shouted from table to table. The laughter. The repeated rising and sitting to permit constant movement between chairs and buffet table.

He gave me a short history of the annual family football game played on the front lawn. He told me how, several years ago, the game was won on a trick play that involved one of his uncles running around the back of the house and appearing–completely alone–between the apple trees that marked off the opposing end zone. His uncles argued bitterly about the legality of the play for a half hour. Now new trick plays have to be cooked every year. His last Thanksgiving at home, Golightly got one of his aunts to distract the opposing defense by announcing that they were all out of pie.

When the weather was good, Golightly’s grandpa hitched up one of his teams. He had Clydesdales. And six albino white Shetland ponies. Packed with grandchildren, the wagon slowly toured the rural Weber County streets surrounding the farm. Certain aunts usually came along, and they got the grandchildren singing Christmas carols as they went. Cold air and a pungent earthy smell (silage and chimney smoke and horse manure) burned in their noses.

I told Golightly about Thanksgiving at my grandma and grandpa’s house. It was a formal affair. Some families apparently have a separate kid’s table. My grandparents had a separate room for kids to eat in. The food was delicious and endless, but we had to stay in our seats. We had to wait for my grandma to replenish our plates one by one. After the feast, the grown-ups talked and played cards upstairs. The children were sent to the basement. We played ping pong and pool for hours. We watched football and movies.

We did covert operations (grandma would have killed us if she knew) in the sub basement storage room. We found old wooden skis and tennis rackets. And maybe twenty different fishing poles. Sword fights ensued. We dressed up in dusty old clothes. We found pictures of our parents as children. Even our grandparents as children. There were pictures of many others we did not know: vaguely familiar faces on brittle brown and cream paper.

One year we discovered a machine that had a strap you fastened behind your back. Its purpose was a mystery to us. You flipped a switch and–after a low groan–it shook you silly. We called it the “shaky-shaky.” It made my cousin Sam throw up a remarkable amount of green peas suspended in a matrix of liquid turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, yams, cranberries, and pumpkin pie.

Golightly and I were thoroughly miserable by the end of the day. We got to the point of half-renouncing our families, their full bellies, and glad hearts. How dare they rejoice without us?

I woke up the next day hung over from our homesickness binge. I didn’t want to do anything, and I was dreading the coming month of Christmas memories and longing. Eleven months was an impossibly long time. I worked out a compromise–I didn’t get up and get dressed. I did my morning study laying there in bed. As I read, the blender howled in the kitchen. Golightly was making his daily banana shake. Drinking it, he came into the bedroom.

“Morning Barker,” he said.

I grunted.

“Funny thing,” he said. “I just looked at my calendar.”

“That is funny,” I said.

“Right. Well–“ he paused. “Thanksgiving is next week.”

“No it isn’t,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “It is.”

I closed my bible and slammed it onto the broken chair I used as a bedside table. I got up and got ready for another day of work.

16 thoughts on “All the Great Lights”

  1. Not sure what to say except – wow – reading your stories and then reading more on your website brought back the reality-gone-sideways feelings of serving and returning from a mission. It is amazingly odd how, despite our differences as people, we all seem to serve the same mission.

  2. Enjoyable read.

    “Thanksgiving is next week.”

    I didn’t serve a mission but I’ve been at that “Thanksgiving is next week” place.

    Re: Your self-publishing and publishing through some small Mormon[esque] press question. I’m guessing people should follow the course they feel they can manage. I published through a small Mormon-like press because at the time I thought that was all I could manage. Hopefully, next time, I’ll manage to take the next step–whatever that might be.

  3. “Please Elder. You need to resolve this concern.”

    Now that’s funny.

  4. I have tons to say about publishing oneself, the first of which is to say, please call it “independent publishing.” That’s not a slam; it’s just “self-publishing” is looked down upon in ways that independent musicians and independent filmmakers and independent artists are not.

    I set up my own press. I did not go through Lulu or iUniverse or any of the other services of that nature.

  5. I loved these stories, and I served in France, not Brazil. I agree with #1; we all seem to serve the same mission.

    As an aside, I can’t believe you’re seriously asking if there’s something shameful or pathetic(!) about self publishing. It’s not often that someone makes a sincere but almost offhand comment that reveals such a wide gulf between one’s own preconceptions and theirs, but you certainly nailed it with that question. I genuinely can’t process how behind the times someone has to be to wonder about this. To think that acceptance at any publishing house is somehow a marker of quality is just so… archaic that it’s almost quaint, like a so-bad-it’s-bood movie.

  6. Oh, geez. And now I realized it’s the author himself asking the question! Ignore me, folks. Apologies.

  7. I genuinely can’t process how behind the times someone has to be to wonder about this.

    Actually, it’s an extremely valid question. It’s becoming less stigmatized, but it’s going to be a long time before there is no stigma attached at all.

    He’s right to be concerned about it and the only way you figure out which way you want to go is by knowing how it’s perceived (perception == truth) and drawing up a list of pros and cons for yourself and accepting the risks associated with whichever path you choose.

    For me, the *only* downside of independent publishing was that I’d only have to work harder to get my name out there.

  8. Bradly: I hope having those feelings brought back wasn’t entirely unpleasant! A few other former missionaries have said the same thing. It is odd. I agree.

    Patricia: Thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    Wm.: The old pink Missionary Guide was comedy gold in a lot of ways. Particularly the role-playing stuff.

    MoJo: I like “Independent Publishing.” And you make a good point: the comparison with independent film works for me.

    Chuck: Thanks! I’m glad you loved the stories. The note that posed the question about self-publishing, I mean Independent Publishing, may have been confusing. (I don’t think it is shameful or pathetic at all by the way…)

  9. SP: not unpleasant, just overwhelming. Missions are challenging things, accompanied by extraordinary emotions and experiences. The waves of memory came back in a flood!

    On the independent publishing question. I have a friend who has only ever “self” published and he has had a great career in writing. Granted, he spends ALOT of his time marketing himself, but he prefers the freedom to represent his art in his own way.

  10. I should add that I am a slight synaesthetic – I feel a literal physical response and my visual cortex erupts with colors, personality, and imagery when stimulated by words and visual characters – and so the effects of the writing was probably magnified in my case. Again, interesting stuff.

  11. On the independent publishing question. I have a friend who has only ever “self” published and he has had a great career in writing.

    Bradly, name and link?

  12. I suppose that the financial outlay that publishers make mark a work as something that might be worth reading (or at least worth selling), but I don’t know that the editorial process at any of the LDS/Mormon publishers inspire confidence in me. So I don’t see why, when it comes to this type of fiction (which is not supported in the market much at all), self-publishing shouldn’t be an honorable, or even the most honorable, route.

    Shawn has won several awards for his work. And what’s more I have read his work and he has edited my work. I’d trust him as an editor as much as anyone in the world of Mormon letters.

    Now, of course, I have that experience with him and his work and that makes a lot of difference. But the field is so small that I think that’s pretty much all any of us have to go on: the individual or individuals behind the publication (whether electronic or in print) of a work.

  13. Nice work. Makes me want to read more. Although, as someone who hasn’t served a mission (and therefore cannot fall back on my own experiences to lend your story immediacy and importance to my reading brain), it did make me wonder what your stories offer to enrich the genre. Like I said though, I want to read more. I like the narrator who consciously is trying to do the right thing but subconsciously undermines himself. That I can relate to!

  14. Laura, I’m curious. When you say,

    it did make me wonder what your stories offer to enrich the genre.

    what genre are you talking about? And what do you mean by “enrich”?

  15. MoJo-
    I was referring the missionary story genre. To my mind this is one of the most popular genres in LDS fiction and it is interesting because it includes memoirs (_The Other Side of Heaven_), plays (_Fires of the Mind_), poetry (I can’t think of any specific examples off the top of my head; there are probably more than I can count!), and fiction (my favorite is _Angel of the Danube_ by Alan Rex Mitchell). It is an important genre because it is one area where LDS writers are not simply copying/building on a mainstream literary tradition but we are creating our own.

    My question about “enriching” the genre was market minded. In submitting my manuscript to publishers (I’m currently writing for the national market, so this may be different in the LDS market) they all want to know how my book fits into the market and if it does anything noteworthy. How is my book different than all the others? What books are like my book and how does my book improve on and connect with those other works? Those are the kind of questions I had in mind. These popped in to my brain because Shawn mentioned “independent publishing”–meaning that this work would need some level of marketing and those question are all important when it comes to marketing a book.

    Does that make sense?

Comments are closed.