I will admit that I had a hard time coming up with something to meet the requirements of this post. Considering that the idea is to imitate a writing style that I normally don’t use, I had my work cut out for me – or, rather, not cut out for me, and I had to do the cutting. For someone such as myself, with mood swings, a shift in academic focus, and unusual history in writing, it was actually hard to find a style that I hadn’t really used before. You’d find that whoever is responsible for my writing voice is nomadic at best, and “so-transient-as-to-imply-attention-deficit” at worst.
In other words, I experiment with a lot of different styles. I may not be good at all of them, but I am familiar with most.
As such, I’ve decided to imitate the essay “The Heart Has Its Language,” by Annette Lyon. In her essay, she gives an account of leaving home, growing up in Finland, struggling to master the language, moving back home, struggling to retain the language, and how sacred experiences still occurred to her because of how the experience of learning Finnish had been entwined with so many other formative and spiritual experiences.
Not only do I empathize with this subject specifically, and many of the specific details therein, but I realize that I haven’t given much thought to how learning someone else’s language has affected me. Not until I read this did I realize that some things can touch me more deeply in Spanish than they can in English.
The really unique aspect that I saw in this essay, and would like to imitate, in addition to the sentence structure and basic format, is how the author included specific experiences, writing the words in Finnish, and making those words fit in so well that you can tell what the words say simply by context, even before you read the translation. I have learned that in such instances, sometimes you need only hear the words to appreciate them, even before you are sure that you understand them. Somehow their intention innately shows through. As the title states, “the heart has its language.”
I was nineteen years old, and for most people, that truth in itself carries a sense of foreboding. I had only just arrived at the place that I’d been striving for my whole life. It was late, and the night had fallen dark long before I took my first step into this new place – not exactly a typical first day at the Missionary Training Center. But here I was, in a foreign country, about to adopt a language I couldn’t speak. I’d just begun my calling as a full-time missionary, called to the (now defunct) Utah Salt Lake City Mission, assigned to labour in Spanish.
It was a call that made sense; not only had I asked to serve as far from home as possible, I had thought in my heart that I specifically did not want to go to Utah. And then I was a budding English student, one who had taken to writing because of my difficulty speaking – in English. It only made sense that the first missionary from my family in this dispensation should learn a second language while he still struggled with his first. He would be a great missionary.
Granted, I had been excited about the prospect of leaving my home, my “friends,” and everything familiar to me. But now I knew I was about to encounter a new people, unable to understand a word they said. I knew nothing of Spanish; in school I had requested five times to be taught French, and submitted the same request twice for Spanish, but each time I was met with a figurative, “No para ti,” and I went on my way, speaking English.
From that day, those first months were hard for me, even with the help of Hermano Arredondo and Hermana Lovejoy, who helped me to transition to stop thinking in English.
The mission field came, and I spent long hours attempting language lessons with my teacher, the diccionario de inglés-español. When still I didn’t understand what people were saying or what was going on, which was nearly always, I’d swallow and boil my tears. In those first months I would stagger to my bed day after day with a spirit so overloaded that I could no longer think at all, let alone think straight.
But time went by, and as Hermana Lovejoy had assured us, I did pick up the language. In fact, slightly more quickly than average, I became quite fluent in it, even if practicing all my Spanish words that winter did make me continue from thence to speak like a Canuck with frostbite.
At the time, I would have said that the biggest influences on my life were these hispanohablantes – the people I was trying to talk to in my always-slightly-awkward-sounding Spanish. In spite of my communication gap and my inexperience at having real, nurturing relationships, I found friends among the people periodically.
While in the Rama 17 del Cabo de Lago, I bore my first testimony in the mission field – in Spanish. I attended sacrament meetings and learned just how sacred the words of those ordinances are – in Spanish. I memorized scriptures I never had before – in Spanish. I learned new hymns – in Spanish. I was asked to baptize one of the first people I ever taught – in Spanish. I faced up to my fear by declaring to Obispo Arroyo that whether anyone believed it or not, someone was waiting to receive God’s message from missionaries in that month – in Spanish. I heard and added to others’ the lessons and testimonies of comfort, peace, and support to be found in this gospel – in Spanish.
Two years went by that way. It was a miserable time the day I went home; back I went to a world that had forgotten me, to a family that no longer felt like one, and the prospect of going from declaring salvation on a daily basis, to chopping weeds on the side of a highway for a living.
It wasn’t fun.
And that was adequate excuse to speak Spanish whenever I could.
I’d feared, rightfully so, that once I was back in Canada and no longer walked through entire neighbourhoods speaking Spanish, I would lose that gift of tongues that I had been given. I panicked over the thought of forgetting that I was known as a zurdo when I wrote with my left hand, or not remembering how special it was that I wore a gorro canadiense on my head to keep out the viento árctico during winter storms. I feared above all that I would not remember how to say, “¿No sabes cuanto Jesucristo te ama?” Surely I could continue to ask in English: “Do you not know how much Jesus Christ loves you?” But I had offered that question to those who needed it in the language of my friends – in Spanish. I could not bear to lose that. And for that I continued to pray Spanish, to address my Padre Celestial while using words I had used when I first became my closest to Him.
It has been four years, four months, two weeks, six days, and sixteen hours since my special calling ended. Times have gone on. I have served elsewhere. I was called as a ward missionary, was asked regularly to translate at church for our amigos hispanohablantes. I was the most common resource for our misioneros españoles when they needed a third witness of the truths they taught. And last Christmas I was asked to help in singing another version of “Silent Night.” And for so simple a song, one that I have known and sung so often, this time it overwhelmed me. I hadn’t had sufficient cause to weep, the other times that I had sung the words:
Noche de luz, noche de paz
Reina ya gran solaz…
“Night of light,” it says. “Night of peace. There now reigns great solace…”
And it is true. A truth I hadn’t bothered to notice was only taught to me by this language I originally hadn’t known.
Now I think of it and see so many early experiences that helped to build my testimony. I have failed before now to notice how great a role the Spanish played. I had staked my honour on the line, in Spanish, before the first time I ever did so in English. I’d been in some United States of all the Americas, surrounded by Spanish. Never before had I felt so close to my friend Jesus Christ as when I called him Jesucristo, referring to Him in Spanish.
Perhaps I will forget someday that sometimes people couldn’t remember my surname and instead called me “Brincamontes” – “the grasshopper.” Along with triqui-traqui, uñero, or amatralledora, I may forget a lot of extraneous words I once knew.
But my heart will not.
I have thought, on nearly every September 17th and every November 19th, of a young elder who is in a panic that borders on despair, struggling to remember which verb will allow him to ask God for help in the language that said elder is trying to take on as his own.
I have thought to call out to that missionary of the past. If I could, I would whisper to him in the night, “Élder, no te des por vencido. Todo vale la pena. Dios estará contigo.”
But that missionary would not understand what that meant. And I would repeat, “Elder, do not give up. It will all be worth it. God will be with you.”
And I like to think that missionary, hearing such words, would understand the intention both times, and perhaps with fumbling lips and tongue would be able to answer simply, to his God more than to his future self: