It’s a strangely chilly August morning and I’m on a train in southern Belgium, waving goodbye to a tiny, grinning woman and her two teenage daughters. I’m hoping the dirty window obscures the tears streaming down my cheeks. As the train pulls away and I can no longer see them, I sit back and take a deep breath. I am alone. Despite having lived in Belgium for almost two years during my early twenties, it is only now, more than a decade later, that I’m alone here. The train picks up speed and the graffiti gives way to rolling green hills dotted with brick farmhouses. I’m writing in a journal, and I can’t stop repeating, “I’m free. I’m finally free.”
After my junior year of college at Brigham Young University, I packed two huge suitcases full of long skirts, button-up shirts, nylons and tights, and said goodbye to my family and friends. I was a squeaky clean, virginal, fifth-generation Mormon heading out on a mission. My shiny black name tag, which I wore at all times, declared that my name was “Sister Wells.”
The first Belgians were baptized into the Mormon church in 1887. Missionaries’ “success” there has never been incredible; today the church’s official count is just shy of 7,000 members, but when I arrived in 2003, only about one-third of the local members were actively attending church.
For eighteen months, I lived in apartments with a “companion” (another female missionary) in the southern half of French-speaking Wallonia. Half my time was in dirty, crowded Charleroi and half in upscale, suburban Waterloo. Nobody was getting baptized in either city. My companions and I spent every day proselyting, knocking on doors and accosting people in the street until the cracks in the sidewalks were as familiar as the lines of our young palms, which were always gripping a Book of Mormon or bicycle handlebars. Before flying home, I threw out three pairs of shoes, having literally walked through their soles. In my memory, Belgium was a dark, depressing country, which broke me and broke my faith. I returned to BYU shell-shocked from the onslaught of unanswered prayers, unanswerable questions, and the shameful, “weird” attraction I’d felt for a couple of my female companions. Everything shattered soon after and I left Mormonism when I graduated from BYU.
Fast forward ten years. I live in Portland, Oregon, where I wake up next to my girlfriend, drink French roast coffee, put on regular underwear (not sacred garments), swear at cars as I bike to work, and know if I’m in the mood for an evening of craft beers, pinot noir, or whiskey. It is an unexpected but lovely life full of things I used to consider sins.
I returned to Belgium in August of 2015 to complete a manuscript I’d been working on for years, trying to tell the strange story of that immense life-shift of being a Mormon missionary. Tentative title: My Underwear Will Save Me.
This time in Belgium, I spent the first couple days with Liz and her daughters. When I met them at the Brussels airport, Liz’s smile was the same, and she was flanked by two taller, beautiful teenage girls with great style. I couldn’t believe these were the same girls who had screeched at me to play princess with them and let them cover my face in bright shades of make-up. We chatted awkwardly in the car, and I was relieved that their smiles still held the same mischievous hints (which they definitely inherited from their mother).
As we drove into Charleroi, I couldn’t help myself. “It’s so green!” I exclaimed. “And clean! It’s beautiful!” Liz just giggled. “Yes, it’s changed,” she said. “But so have you.”
We exited the highway and drove into her neighborhood. It is hard to explain the intense emotion without sounding hyperbolic; this was a place where I have been more miserable, more self-doubting, more anxious and frustrated and disillusioned than I have ever been at any point in my life, and now everything that had caused those emotions before had become impotent. It was like discovering that I could walk on broken glass, but still remembered what it felt like to be sliced and bloody.
I am someone who remembers things through association; I had to make up a story about my social security number just to memorize it. For me, locations become haunted by my experiences in them. So when something bad happens in a place, I either have to avoid it entirely or make a new memory in that place that is stronger than the previous one. I replace it.
I went back to Belgium to re-place it.
Liz and I cracked open a bottle of red wine that night and laughed and talked until late. The next day, we took a walk around Abbey D’Alune, a bombed-out gothic cathedral covered in vines. It is hauntingly beautiful.
We talked for hours about our journeys out of Mormonism and into authentic lives. Neither of us could stop repeating, “I can’t believe we’re here!” and laughing. We were talking about location, sure, but also that our lives have gone down such unexpected paths.
Wordsworth said that “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”
This idea of poetics coming from emotion plus time is fascinating to me—that we can only create something as elevated as poetry when our emotions are aroused later. In the middle of it all…I guess we produce journal entries and pithy tweets.
On my last night with Liz, there is a fireworks show outside. We joke that they’re celebrating our reunion. We drink more wine. On the stoop outside, as we laugh and take videos of the brilliant explosions in the sky, I feel a part of me that loathed this city soften and give way. It feels like forgiveness, for the experience and for myself.
After saying goodbye to Liz and her daughters, I took a train to Brussels, then Ghent, where I spent an afternoon wandering by myself. It was so good to be alone, anonymous, and with no pressure to talk to anyone. (Mormon missions are hell for introverts.) This time, I didn’t have to accost strangers. This time, no one glanced at my outfit and then moved away from me, or crossed the street when they saw me coming. This time, I paid no attention to doors—just architecture, pastries, and canals.
My next train took me to Deinze, a small city in the Dutch-speaking countryside, where I then took a cab to Dickinson House. I was there with two other writers, both British, and the American host and her Flemish partner. Each of us had our own rooms, and I won’t bother explaining too much, because the online photos really do justice to the gorgeous setting. There really are ponies and wildflowers, but what the photos don’t capture is the tranquil yet industrious feeling of the place. It was absolutely perfect for writing.
Mormon missionaries are required to carry a pocket-sized booklet of all the mission rules. These include no contact with family other than email. No music, other than hymns. No books, other than church tomes. No movies. They also follow schedules that have them studying or proselyting from 6:30 a.m. until lights off at 10:30 p.m.
This time, I am reading whatever I want, eating whatever I want, going for solo runs and bike rides along the jaagpad, and having meals with so-fast-not-strangers where we discuss our work, and politics, and religion (often thanks to me), our favorite books as children, and our passions. I am finally authentic with strangers. We drink beer and I tell them about the secret temple handshakes. They cannot believe who I used to be. Neither can I. And as we drink beers and they laugh at my stories and help me feel like a normal person with a really strange past, I finally know that I have finally re-placed Belgium.
Mel Wells has been published in Salamander Magazine (2012 fiction finalist), Pathos Literary Magazine, Boneshaker, and the anthologies Spent (Seal Press 2014) and Untangling the Knot (Ooligan Press 2015). She is a writer, surfer, and doodler whose most recent project can be found at www.myunderwearwillsaveme.com. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and works at Literary Arts.