Saturday, March 18, 2017

Someone Else's Music: A Missionary in Southwest France

When I first came out and started blogging (under a pseudonym) in the fall of 2010, one of the first things I did was write about my missionary experience in a way in which I had never been able to before.* I concluded a series of posts (since deleted) with these words: "It was important for me to write about my mission experiences because this period of my life was when I came the closest to accepting myself for who I truly was. It was in some ways a golden time, a time that has been validated through the process of accepting my sexuality and writing these memoirs."

I wrote the other day about how the French Wine Scholar course I am currently taking had brought up memories of the time I spent on my mission in the Loire Valley. Our next class covers Bordeaux and Southwest France, and it was to this area that I was transferred - to the city of Pau in sight of the Pyrenees Mountains - for the last few months of my mission. Once again, memories and thoughts have bubbled to the surface.

A square in Pau a few blocks from our apartment

Whereas Tours in the Loire Valley had been an area where, among other things, I came to some sort of terms with my feelings of attraction to men, the last area of my mission would be a time and place where I was confronted with larger issues of identity. 

When I had joined the LDS Church, I had, in scriptural terms, "become a new man;" or, in a metaphorical sense, I was "born again" - but in a sense not usually associated with that term. Upon my baptism, I had totally transformed myself with the goal of being a perfect Mormon. I left behind huge swaths of myself that I deemed no longer acceptable. There was of course the gay thing. Then there was the whole partying thing. But my transformation went far beyond these aspects of my personality and identity. 

With other missionaries in Bayonne, France in the fall of 1985

To provide a sense of what I'm talking about, I'm sharing below a passage, which I shall always treasure, from an email my younger sister sent to me after I came out in which she described what she saw happen to me after I joined the Church:
“I feel as if I am getting reacquainted with a brother I had lost touch with years ago. I've always known who you are: your delicate and refined elegance and passion, your profound intelligence and wisdom, your deep admiration and appreciation of beauty. This is the brother I have always loved. It is the one I feared losing all those years ago when you wrote me a letter, telling me you had converted to Mormonism … The memories I have of you are loving and fun ones. Driving with you from Mom’s house in Illinois to see Dad in Ohio in your chic red car and singing, eating, talking and laughing … Watching you laugh to the point of your sides hurting … Looking up at you smiling and talking with me about I don't know what... but loving to be with you. I remember laughing, remember you smiling … 
"When I saw you in later years, it was as if your life had been sucked out of you. You always looked unhappy. I felt that for someone supposedly so happy with church and family, you seemed so miserable. Instead of seeing what had once been a joyous face full of laughter, I saw instead Mom’s sour pout …”
My conversion was, in a sense, a replay (I now realize) of what had occurred when it suddenly dawned on me at age 13 that I was attracted to men, i.e., I consciously transformed my personality to fit my new reality. But during the course of my mission, I began a process of gradually reclaiming my sense of self that I had had before my conversion. This process reached its apogee during the final months of my mission in Pau.

Those months were difficult for me in many ways, but various experiences forced me to confront the question that had led me to the Mormon Church in the first place: 

"Who am I?" 

The Church had offered me a ready-made personality/identity and an off-the-rack moral code, and all I had to do was play the part, talk the talk and walk the walk, conveniently ignoring the key existential questions that had plagued me. But throughout the course of my mission, I became increasingly uncomfortable with and resentful of the decision I had made upon my conversion to so cavalierly cast my self aside.

In Biarritz, the Atlantic in the background 

It was while I was in Pau that I continued the process of coming as close as I would for the next 26 years to claiming my true identity - not just sexually but in every respect. It was while I was in southwest France, working in Pau and traveling to Bordeaux, Bergerac, Bayonne, Biarritz, Tarbes, Lourdes and the Pyrenees Mountains, that I started reading "extracurricular" (i.e., not missionary-approved) books and writing in my journal about what I was reading. 

Hanging out in our civvies. Man, I'd forgotten how hairy I was.

One of these books was, paradoxically (and interestingly) enough, Oscar Wilde's Portrait of Dorian Gray. It was recommended to me by my last companion, and I read it during the final month of my mission. I found it ... fascinating ... and copied numerous passages into my journal, including the following one which spoke so eloquently to what I had been going through in trying to recover a sense of identity:
"... because to influence a person is to give him one's own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else's music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him. The aim of life is self-development. To realize one's own nature perfectly - that is what each of us are here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty one owes to one's self. Of course they are charitable. They feed the hungry, and clothe the beggar. But their own souls starve, and are naked. Courage has gone out of our race. Perhaps we never really had it. The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion -- these are the two things that govern us."

A few weeks after I copied this passage, I returned home. During the next seven months, I continued to wrestle with who I was and which direction to take my life. I ultimately decided to stay in the church and the closet and to marry the woman I had met before my mission and to whom I had written while I was in France, once again opting for what was in many respects a ready-made life. Once again, I backed away from the seemingly terrifying option of finding my own way and chose - a choice which in hindsight is revealed for what it was - to be an "echo of someone else's music, an actor of a part that ha[d] not been written for [me]." 

Some of these things I knew before I sat down to write this blog post, but other insights came - even after all this time - only upon exploring these things yet once again. As I look back on my life, I am reminded of another quotation I wrote in my journal while in France, which is as true today, after all that I have experienced, as it was 32 years ago:

"Vivre, c'est naître lentement ..."

~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

[To live is to be born slowly]


* By way of quick review, I joined the Mormon Church in my early 20's and then went a year later on a mission to France.

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