Selections from my final weekly email of my 18-month missionary service in Germany, sent home to close friends and family, penned October 25 2015. All names have been changed.
When I was but a child, my Dad always shared with me that the world was once black, white and every varying tone between. But then one day, he looked my Mum direct in the eyes and they began to turn blue, blue like the stretch of sky that sits directly above the horizon on a Summer's day. The world then followed suit, colour bursting beautifully through the grey like a drop of ink in a cup of water, and now here we are, in a world with hues countless- a world technicolour.
My world wasn't grey before my mission, it never was. I have my Heavenly parents above and my earthly parents on our mortal level to thank for that. But now, upon reflection on the hardest, most challenging, but equally and exceedingly as joyful and glorious time of my entire life, I look around and all I see, feel and hear is a land of colours- intense, vibrant, rich and deep, more intense, more vibrant, richer and deeper than I could ever curate into a collection of words. The injection of technicolor took 18 months to complete from full to empty, glittering my world from monotonous to its opposition. At times, the transition- painstakingly slow, others- a pressured push from the finger of Divinity causing colour to burst like fireworks, like a drop of ink in a cup of water. And now here I am, living in a world and with a mind literally exploding with hues countless- a world technicolor.
Let me take you on a little walk through the heaviest and hardest, yet most beautiful and most joyful week of my entire life to date, and I will show you the life I am leaving here, or at least a small percentage of it, a curated collection:
Blink back to one week ago and there I was, rummaging through shelves and shelves of books ancient and books just old, at the tiny second-hand book store in the oldest part of Zwickau's city centre. It smelt like old and used and timeless and worn, and the musty scent got me excited about life, because it reminded me of the thousands of years of thinking and recording people upon people upon people have done, and how I'm one of them too. I was reminded of the perfect quote from Carl Sagan, who once stated that writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs.
I presented my little stack of children's books, written, illustrated and printed here in the heart of East Germany itself, back in the days of communist GDR, on the over-crowded counter of our friend, the shopkeeper. With an orderly moustache poised above his top lip and rounded glasses propped daintily on his nose, he typed some numbers into his grey calculator and showed me a 25. 25 Euro. And, 'ich schenke Die dir', 'I gift you these', he added with a cheeky smile, placing a little collection of hand-picked books on top of it too. My heart first leapt with joy, and then danced, as I poured over the pages of the ones he chose out just for me. They were perfect. There's just something about the way the pages curled and the illustrations moved that made me nostalgic for a time I never knew, and I left with a bag heavy and a heart full.
That evening, a swarm of deep darkness fell over us as we sat on a wooden bench outside the Krüger's home, in the cold and without any form of light, talking about life and everything in it, bearing testimony as part of normal passing conversation, in hushed tones, with Schwester Krüger herself. With every word a stream of visible air exited our mouths, as the warm met the cool and collided in all its whispy wonder.
Schwester Hartmann on her 2 walking sticks, hobbled to the door the next day and swung it open, a wide smile on her face and with eyes creasing at the edges alongside it, to match the joy she expressed moments after greeting us, that we had come. She pressed us each warmly into her hand-knitted cardigan, reminding of the time she did so at church and then told me that when she sees me, ‘the sun goes up’, on a day I felt like a thunderstorm inside and needed to hear how I could be. We ate cold meat and salad with far too many sour gherkins inside, and a piece of bread with butter thick, slapped across the surface, for lunch. We were seated around their tiny wooden table in the centre of their living room, abundant with hand chiseled wooden furniture and decorative pieces, made by Bruder Hartmann, of course. His wife talked forever and he muttered only a few short words, chuckling to himself at his own jokes. He offered us a massage and a kiss too- that's what his wife has received after every single meal for the entire 50 years they have been married. Concurred on the massage. Passed on the kiss.
We laughed as we ran to the bus stop, fingers crossed inside our pockets that we'd make it. It was raining and we were running late, and we hadn't the flexibility to shuffle any of our planned appointments around, because every minute was already accounted for. We made it with a split-second to spare.
In the home of our Persian angel, Frau Terrani, we talked about how God looks like us- how he's certainly almighty, but he's not unknowable, nor unimaginable. Through the language-barriered conversation, we walked behind the spirit, following his every move. I closed my eyes and poured out the best prayer I could when the lesson came to a close- blessing her home and her family and especially her husband, that he'd open his heart and set the uncertainty inside free.
As I packed my bag to go, Frau Terrani walked daintily to her dining table made from thick, tinted glass, picked up a tiny, pink-bowed package and handed it to me. Bitteschön!, she said. Inside was the most perfect ceramic egg-shaped, floral-patterned trinket box. It rattled as I handled it, and she prompted me to look inside, with a sparkle in her eye. I lifted the lid and found a pair of silver earrings, with pink stones dangling from the ends. They were perfect. So, totally Frau Terrani and therefore, so, totally me.
We hugged at her doorway for a very long time, after pulling on our jackets, and as I walked down those stairs, I looked back up as I always do, to catch a one final glimpse at the lady I love so dearly, blowing a kiss at me.
Out of breath, a day slipping between now and Frau Terrani, we'd made it up the hill. There was a pointed white house and it read 'Schäfer' on the mailbox. My German equivalent family. 4 daughters, 2 sons, with matching age differences to my own, but 10 years younger.
A black cat curled his body around my legs as we stood at the door, waiting to be welcomed inside. He purred and I reached down and patted him as gently as I could- hoping the care taken would double the happiness he felt.
The door swung abruptly open and I looked down at the welcomers, 5 year old Lisa and her 5 year old cousin, Anja. They giggled hysterically and pulled a face at us, we took off our shoes and followed the sound upstairs- the sound of life and families and kids everywhere, embracing mortality with their all.
The two of them decided it'd be best if they took off their pants and ran around in their tights instead, then decided holding both my hands, climbing up my legs with their own, and doing backward somersaults was a brilliant idea. I complied and after 15 minutes, my arms and my legs ached like no other. The sound of laughter filled that home and I thanked my lucky stars that I could be there.
Treated to a meal of burritos, each of the kids chose their desired toppings, accused others for taking too much of this, or not enough of that, or folding the wrap wrong. Lisa poured half the bowl of cubed cucumbers onto her dollop of sour cream, wrapped it all up like a baby in a blanket made of tortilla, and began to stuff it in her mouth, before growing bored of it all, and leaving the dinner table, little Anja tagging behind.
An hour later, we almost ran up the hill, in the dark and the wet and the cold, hair tied back and up high, clad in our sport gear, ready for our weekly sport class with a group of local ladies, to take place in the attic of our church building. We burst through the closed door and Frau Peters's face stretched into a smile. 'Sie sind doch da!' (oh, you did come! are there!). She'd arranged specifically to have ABBA playing for this 45 round of 'exercise', just for us, because we wanted it. Carrying out the class burns perhaps a total of 4 calories. It's an intense time. Not.
With a steam of air flying through the window I'd cracked open myself, we lay on our stomachs, all 10 or so of us, turning our lifted ankles in time to Fernando. I couldn't help but to laugh out loud, as I thought about what the heck we were doing. But the highlight was during Dancing Queen, when the instructor said we have the next 30 seconds to 'Tanzen wie sie Lust haben'- dance how you want, and we all moved our arms and swayed our hips and cha-cha'd with our feet, however we wanted to move. It was beautiful and fascinating and hilarious and I looked over at Sister Johnson and she was bursting with the same joy that I was feeling too.
I sat by my sweet, perfect, dream-of-a-German-lady, 77-year old Frau Scholz, on her pillow/towel/blanket/soft toy pile, and we sung together for the final time, her quaking, melodic tone dancing in harmonies with my own. She had her arm around my shoulder for part of it and I rested my head in her neck. She's somehow my best friend out here, and I'm 'die Ann-et-te' to her. I reached into my bag, pulling up the sleeve of the sweater she'd just gifted me, and pulled out the hand-drawn card I'd crafted for her. She put on her perfect 60s reading glasses, and began to read out loud, slowly and beautifully. Halfway through, she burst into tears, and cried her way through the rest of it. And I did too. My heart broke in half as she told me she'd never forget me and will miss me every single day. She held the photo I'd glued inside of the two of us smiling outside her home up to her cheek and closed her eyes.
From the bridge crossing the river back to the bus stop, far off in the distance I caught my last glimpse of Frau Scholz, her perfect red shawl pulled over her head as always when she goes outside- who stood on her driveway, waiting for us to reach the bridge so she could wave us goodbye until she could see us no more. I waved with both arms and she did too, and the moment was glorious.
I lay in my bed wide awake at midnight, following the same pattern my body has followed for 2 weeks straight. Thoughts and memories and ideas and thoughts and memories and ideas again, like a surreal merry-go-round, flying through my mind with jovial, tantalising music to match. Decided I'd make use of the awakeness for the first time instead of sending myself insane, and sat on my favourite corner couch and penned my best friend Amy a letter. My head pounded from crying at the end of every appointment in the arms of similarly crying friends and congregation members, one after the other, the whole week long, stress levels were running high, lack of sleep was catching up, and feeling overwhelmed with things to do assisted nobody. So it felt good to write something nonsensical to someone I love as a release.
The night turned to day and my heart felt heavy as we hiked the hill for the final time to my final Sunday in the Zwickau congregation, and in Germany overall. Surreal. We swung the first door open and pushed the second, and were greeted by people I love dearly. My bag filled quickly with gifts wrapped in bows of varying colours, and my eyes filled with tears with every warm hug from the arriving congregation members. Schwester Hahn held my face in her hands and just looked at me, and with a sigh she told me that we'll see each other again. Someday, somewhere. Jasmine handed me a little envelope and inside was a long note from her, written in perfect 15-year old German girl handwriting. Schwester Werner laughed with me as she lent casually on the wall outside the young women's room, dressed in her short, denim pencil skirt. She told me that missionaries come and go, all the time. But there are some that will never be forgotten. 'Sister Wilson', she said 'Sie sind eine von denen'- you are one of them.
With the chapel still under construction, church was split into two again, and each of the departing missionaries had to bear their testimonies twice, once for the elderly sitting downstairs and once for the younger, stair-climbing capable generation in the pointed, wooden attic. It was perfect. Every time I've ever had to do any form of speech, I'd returned to my seat, head buzzing with things I wish I'd said, and I always wanted a second chance. I got it.
We began downstairs and halfway through the opening hymn, it hit me. I'm going home. I cried my way through the rest of the song, and Heike sitting by me put her arm around me and cried with me too. 'You'll be okay', she whispered in my ear. 'It's the hardest thing you'll ever face, but you'll be okay'. She arrived home from her mission in Romania a week before I arrived in Zwickau, and I have watched her adjustment right from the beginning. She pushed my head gently into her neck and rubbed my arm. Sister Johnson said her goodbyes, expressing her love for a congregation and a people she only had 6 short weeks to learn. But the love was real. She cried and then when it was my turn, I cried too. Almost the whole way through, but my words still came out clear and heavenly help made it possible for me to really pour it all out in German correct. Schwester Fuchs looked at me from the 5th row, face red and tears streaming down her face. My stinging eyes bounced around the room at all of the old, gentle, loving members of my sweet Zwickau town, and the vast majority had crying eyes as well. That room felt heavy but simultaneously sweet, and so came the time to climb the stairs and repeat.
A fresh wave of life washed over me as I opened the door to a packed-out attic, filled with all the young families. Crying babies and laughing children and husbands with their arms around their wives shoulders. Sister Johnson went first again and then I followed suit. I told them how I loved them so, how I'll miss them deeply and how my mission changed my life. When I bore my testimony of the truthfulness of this Gospel, the room went quiet and all the babies stopped crying, and the children stopped laughing, and a sweet spirit settled over the room.
Bishop said his closing words and invited Elder Clark and I to perform the piece we'd prepared, as the closing hymn. Schwester Schmidt played the introduction slowly and sweetly on the keyboard, of Wie Gross Bist Du- How Great Thou Art. We sung the first in unison with piano, the second in harmonies, with piano too, and then skipped to the 4th and the piano dropped out. Our voices tangled together in sweet, melodious, harmonious partnership, and I told myself in my mind to sing out all the love I have for mission, all of the gratitude, all of the everything. It worked and I hadn't an ounce of nerves, I could control my every note and we ended perfectly. We simmered in the hushed silence, closed the Gesangbuch gently and walked back to our seats, passing by a sobbing Schwester Hartmann, a weeping Schwester Wagner with her teary-eyed teenage daughter Jemima nestled in her arms on the way back to my seat. The closing prayer was said and afterwards the members took turns squeezing me for the final time, I cried on and off, handed out all my hand-drawn and hand-written thank you cards and gifted the 66 Australian animal-shaped cookie cutters I had my sister order me to Germany, to the kiddies. Words of well-wishes and gratitude and then a bawling Schwester Fuchs grabbed me by both shoulders and accused me for singing so beautifully. 'Warum!' she said, Why! I'm sorry, I said. She embraced me and the rest of the day was a blur, of eating appointments and spiritual thoughts and crying and hugging and crying some more.
Bruder Weber stood at the bus stop with us at the final of my appointments of my whole entire mission, in the dark and the cold, and I opened my gift his family had wrapped for me in Christmas paper. A Räuchermann dressed as Santa, a real one, made of precious smooth wood reigning from the home of Christmas and Zwickau's next door neighbour. It was perfect.
We sat on the back seat of the bus on the way home and I rested my head on the window, trying to keep everything that happened that day, that week, this month, this year, everything inside. I cried only a tiny bit, because that's all the tears I had left.
So. There we have it. The tiniest percentage of what my week consisted of. Are you feeling it how I'm feeling it?
My mission has drained, strained and rearranged me. And completely changed me. I can see and feel and think more clearly than ever before. My perspective has shifted to the eternal and it lifts me, every single day. My intellect has expanded immensely and I learn things of both heaven and earth through the greatest teacher on earth, the Spirit, gifted me when I was 8 years old by my Father holding the Priesthood power of God. He was the best birthday present I've ever received. These shuffle-arounds of my world's understanding and life-approaching came through ways varying and through ways plentiful. I have seen fires ignite in the eyes of those coming to a realisation of their divine potential, held the hand of a struggling companion in her darkest hours and visited the lonely. I have witnessed the celestial power of music, cleaned windows and homes and chapels in the service of our Father in Heaven, learned how families truly work, understood more completely the reaching blessings of the temple, and faced the darkest parts of myself and in so doing, came to a very solid understanding of one of the most basic doctrines sung by the smallest voices in the primary: that I am, indeed, a Child of God. Through having a 24-hour companion, I have learned about the deep, inner workings of the natural man and have grown to understand his enmity toward God more than by any other means. And I have learnt to control and to overcome him. I have been privileged to love and teach not just people with German blood running through their veins, but children of God who reign from all four corners of the earth, gathering them home, as per the prophecy I am required to fulfil as a member of Ephraim's tribe. I have come to a very deep knowledge that the adversary is real. He has worked his hardest on me, as he does anyone engaged in this work, and I have never been so aware of his reality in my whole life. He is real. He is the destroyer of all happiness. And he will kick his followers when they are down. But in saying that, I have come to an even deeper knowledge and testimony that light truly does have the power to dispel all darkness, and I think that's one of the greatest truths I'll be taking home with me. Light, for me, and answers to my pleading prayers, have taken countless forms, forms I never even knew light could take prior to this wild adventure. Other missionaries and members and complete strangers on the street. Wildflowers bursting in unorthodox places and breathtaking sunsets painted across the sky. A favourite song playing in the supermarket, or a handwritten letter in the mailbox. Placed perfectly, timed perfectly, exactly where and when they were needed, to get me through, every time. Testifying to me, that I am known and I am watched and I am loved, by my Heavenly Father. And so are you.
I had two goals for my mission. The first, to leave with a broken heart because of the deep and abiding love I have for the people living there. And the second, to go home changed. Whatever that would end up meaning.
And I can tell you, that I have reached and exceeded both goals: I am going home with a heart torn in two, right down the middle, because I love this land more than I ever knew possible, I love this language more than I could ever comprehend- it is the language I will sing my children lullabies to sleep in, and I love these people more than words will allow me to articulate. To me, the rewards of missionary work are the relationships one builds and leaves with. And I can tell you, that I will be boarding the plane a rich girl. I have met people here that I can't fathom, and refuse to accept, a life or an eternity without. And I love them. Deeply and unfeigned.
And as for going home changed, I aways knew my mission would change me and would change my life. It was inevitable- there can be no other way when one is dislocated from all forms of familiarity, thrown into a strange place with a foreign language and a people new- with a schedule shaped by the hands of the prophets and experiences orchestrated by the master composer himself, for 18 months long without a breath of air between. Right from those first introductory moments of consideration to even go in the first place, I knew the change would come. But I never knew how, or just how much. But now I do.
I expected so much from my mission. And received one-hundred fold in return. To say it was a sacrifice in any regard, would be a lie. The opportunity to serve a mission is anything but a sacrifice. I have done nothing to deserve all that my mission has given me, and I will be forever indebted for these matchless experiences.
I will ponder deeply, with a gratitude-filled heart, upon my mission for the rest of my life- and right through the rest of eternity. Becausethe northern region of Germany is my very own sacred grove. It is where I came to know, that the heavens are indeed open, powered by the prayer of pleading desperation spoken by a 14-year old boy in a grove of trees on on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty. It's where I came to know, with a surety, that we can return to our Heavenly Home through a combination of our own best efforts, and most importantly, through the Atonement of our Saviour. Though without Him it would not be possible. That we can not do anything on our own, and we don't need to, because we have a Father in Heaven who loves and knows us completely and personally and perfectly. And as Bruder Schäfer said to me in the middle of a big, loud conversation with all 6 of the Schäfer kids, with his finger pointed to the sky and with an Indian-flavoured accent speaking English, as he served there on his Mission, he said to me in his deep, booming voice, 'He will provide.'
He will provide. I know it. I have felt it. And I have seen his hand too many times to deny it. And I won't. Ever.
The work of salvation doesn't end when I go home, when my favourite accessory needs to be unclipped from my collar and held in my palm, a perfect token of a life I'll never forget. The goals will be slightly different, but the gospel is the same and so is our God, and every day for the past 18 months has prepared me to deal with these next ones.
“The Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done”
My dear, sweet, faithful everyone: It was an absolute pleasure to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, and to do as he'd have done, had he been here. At the same time it was an absolute pleasure to run in the pathway before His- the Bridegroom's- return, rolling out the red carpet and tying strings of wildflowers to the orderly pews with silky white ribbons, sounding a cry of warning with my loudest trump and calling the people to repentance- by inviting them to change. And to prepare the righteous to receive their crowning glory, when the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done. A pleasure. Truly.
I have absolutely loved my mission. And I will treasure it, forever.
Your Sister Annette Sarah Wilson
Germany Berlin Mission
6. May 2014- 27. October 2015.