Trust, Love, and Peanuts

Although I don’t have statistics to back up the claim, I think it’s pretty safe to assume that I am one of very few people in this world who can say that they’ve gotten an EpiPen 2-Pak for Christmas. For some reason it just doesn’t seem to be one of those hot-topic items that jump off the shelves in the days leading up to 25 December each year. It’s not a common stocking stuffer. And what kid in his right mind would climb up onto Santa’s lap in the mall and say, “I’ve been real good this year—can I pretty please get a portable allergy medicine injection device?”

As a matter of fact, I didn’t really ask for it either; it was one of those gifts of necessity. My mission president’s wife told me—in no uncertain terms—that I was not allowed to conceal from my parents the severe reaction I suffered one evening almost a year after I arrived in Ukraine. For twenty-two years I had managed to live with my peanut allergy, toughing-it through the nausea, asphyxia, and hives by sheer grit or through Benadryl, no EpiPen needed, thanking heaven that my allergy was not as severe as some people’s. As the years went by I became more sensitive to the presence of peanuts, and soon I learned to prevent reactions from escalating too far.

But one night in a secluded village in Crimea a dear friend made dinner for me and my mission companion. She knew of my allergy, and swore up and down (even saluting for emphasis) that the cake balls she’d baked were nut-free.

They weren’t. I could tell as soon as the soft treat touched my lips. But I couldn’t bear the thought that poor Lyuba would know she had caused an allergic reaction, so I hid it from her, pretending everything was just fine. We had an hour-long lesson, and I even played the flute when Lyuba insisted on having a concert of hymns. My swelling lips stung as I pressed them into the correct embouchure, and my stomach heaved as I struggled to take breaths deep enough to supply the instrument with sound.

After a ninety-minute bus ride back to the city where we lived, my companion and I went straight home where we noticed the hives for the first time. My face and neck were visibly swollen, and my trachea was starting to close off. I lost control of my stomach. Ultimately, after prayers, a Priesthood blessing, and a phone call to the mission president for advice, I gave in to exhaustion and fell asleep. The next morning my poor companion admitted that throughout the night she had woken herself up just to see whether I was still breathing.

Sister van Bruggen told me that I absolutely had to tell Mom and Dad about the reaction and ask them to send me an EpiPen. Reluctantly, I provided an account of the experience in my weekly email home, and a few weeks later I found a small box wrapped in silver/candy cane paper tucked among the clothing and sweets that filled the Christmas package my family sent. Taped onto the shiny wrapping paper was a poem my parents had written for the occasion:


Not a typical Christmas gift, to say the very least.

To this day, nearly two years later, I’ve still never used an EpiPen. I’ve had nut encounters in that time, but the idea of stabbing myself in the thigh with a needle is less appealing than the thought of just willing my way through the discomfort and hoping for the best. And besides, the recent reactions haven’t been quite as severe as the one out in Nizhnyaya Kutuzova.

But the allergy is always with me, forcing me to pay close attention to the foods that I put in my mouth, insisting that I read menus and ingredients carefully, or requiring me to ask friends to taste a baked good before I become brave enough to give it a try.

One of the side effects of a food allergy is a strong element of distrust. In order to survive, I’ve got to be careful—I’ve got to employ every effort of caution and I’ve got to take matters into my own hands. The safest foods are the tried-and-true ones that I’ve eaten before with no problem, or the ones that I’ve made on my own. Control is also a big issue; the more I can control the production of a food, or the more knowledge I have about it, the more willing I am to trust that it’s safe, that it won’t hurt me, that I’ll be okay if I let it inside.

Which makes me wonder, sometimes, if there aren’t other allergies I’ve struggled with all my life. After all, food isn’t the only thing that gives cause for concern as I contemplate the consequences of letting something in.

I think I’m allergic to boldness. I think I’m allergic to love. I think I’m allergic to hopes, wants, and dreams—to anything that could break down inside of me and spark a crippling, painful reaction called fear or disappointment—and last I checked, there’s no medication to save me from anaphylaxis in these types of allergic attacks.

I tend to treat life much the way I treat food—that is, dolloped with heaps of doubt and distrust. The people and situations that earn my confidence are the ones about which I have the most knowledge, or the circumstances that yield to me the most sway. Place me in tried-and-true social settings and I’m comfortable with chatting and making new friends. Give me detailed descriptions of how things will turn out, and I walk forward boldly, with courage and pluck. Tell me how to best behave in a situation, and I’ll exceed expectations. I thrive in carefully monitored environments in which I can control all the variables. I yearn for clear guidelines. I seek for direction, like reading the ingredients listed on the side of a cereal box before placing it in a shopping cart.

But there just aren’t clearly marked allergy warnings in life. Not for inedible things, anyway.

Consider, for instance, another “allergic reaction” I suffered as a missionary. My companion and I had been teaching Sasha for months, and I loved her so much. She had confessed to us her belief that our acquaintance was not a coincidence, and I agreed. She had opened up to us about her past and her desires for a new start, a clean slate, a rebirth, a baptism. In so many ways, Sasha seemed like an answer to the prayers I had poured out to God, asking Him to lead us to those of His children who were seeking the truth of His Gospel.

Shortly before Sasha was scheduled to be baptized, however, she disappeared. She never answered the phone. She stopped coming to church. My companion and I were baffled, and we tried to reach her a number of times, even stopping by her home to deliver fresh-baked lemon poppy seed muffins.

It took a long time, but one night we finally found her. We had stopped by her house in one last effort to invite her to attend a special conference with us. The street was dark, so we almost didn’t see her standing near the curb. She was drunk, disoriented, she hadn’t eaten for days. She told us that she had planned to take her life that evening, sick of living with an abusive son who beat her and stole from her and starved her.

Feeling uneasy about being alone in such an unstable situation, my companion and I phoned some of the elders for backup. They arrived shortly before Sasha’s son came home—which was really poor timing. The presence of the elders sparked a conflict with Sasha’s son, who called his friends to come “take care of us.” Eventually the police became involved, and we spent hours standing in the cold outside a decrepit Ukrainian police station, ultimately being released on the condition that no missionaries would visit Sasha’s home ever again.

When my companion and I returned to our apartment at nearly 2:00 in the morning we were emotionally drained. We had prevented Sasha’s suicide, but now her son had a restraining order against us. We would never see our friend again.

I was too hurt to cry. My heart ached, my head throbbed, and a lump gathered in my throat. Despite intense exhaustion I found enough strength to pray, begging God to explain why the situation had unfolded in such a terrifying way. Why had Sasha—His daughter—suffered so much? Why had He not warned us earlier? And why, why was Sasha now forced to avoid the one thing that could have given her the comfort and peace that she sought?

In the weeks following our experience with Sasha I found it very difficult to hope for the best with the other people my companion and I taught. After all, I had poured so much faith and love and happiness into the relationship we had painstakingly built with Sasha—and for what? Just to have everything dashed apart in front of our eyes? Was that really worth it? I felt guilty for causing Sasha so much pain (since, after all, one of her son’s complaints against his mother was her involvement with “Mormons”). And I felt too battered and bruised to open my heart readily to anyone else.

My love for Sasha had resulted in a bitter reaction. I wasn’t too keen on the prospects of loving again.

Sometimes it just seems easier to avoid anything that might cause heartbreak rather than to endure the reaction when things don’t go well. If only each situation, relationship, or dream came with ingredients posted in bold on a side panel:

WARNING: Contains uncertainty.

ALLERGY INFORMATION: This product was processed on equipment that also processes disappointment.


Instead, we’ve got nothing. No warnings. No guidelines. No guarantee that everything will work out all right. – In fact, sometimes it just doesn’t.

But there’s one other lesson living with a nut allergy has forced me to accept: Sometimes survival requires a bit more than simply avoiding the things that could hurt.

If I were to insist on eating only those foods that I’ve tried once before—well, I’d probably only ever eat Ramen and Cheerios, which cuts out of my diet newly-acquired favorite meals, in addition to foods rich in nutrients needed to keep me hiking and running and thriving. If I demanded total control over my own food production, then I’d never have gotten to eat out at the new Chinese restaurant in Cambridge, or order pizza from Little Caesar’s, or enjoy home-cooked meals from Mom on weekend visits. I would have to live in fear every moment. And what kind of a life would that be?

Similarly, if I were to live life avoiding any possible pain, disappointment, or sting, I would give up the relationships that make me who I am. I’d stop loving and caring. I’d stop hoping and praying.

And what kind of a life would that be?

To truly survive, we must learn to trust. It’s hard. It hurts. I’m a bit of a hypocrite for even daring to write it. But I really believe that it’s true.

Every time I put food in my mouth, I’m vulnerable. Every time I reach out in love, my defenses are down. Sometimes these efforts have turned out poorly, launching me into painful, suffocating reactions that put me on guard and make me question whether I can ever open up again, try something new, and expose my weaknesses.

But I believe that God planted in each of us a surprising amount of resilience—enough to pull through heartache or to wrestle with doubts. Enough to keep dreaming after our hopes have been sunk. Enough to convince us to pray yet again after searching in vain for an answer. And although there can never be medication to stifle our spiritual allergic reactions, at least God gave us other vulnerable, susceptible, weak human beings with shoulders to cry on and lean on and grow on as we all feel our way through the pains and discouragement of living a meaningful life.

Somewhere between caution and risk comes trust. It’s what makes new experiences possible. It’s what makes life worth living—not free of fear but coping with it, and bearing uncertainties, sorrows, and pain. I hope to develop the trust I’ve neglected in favor of safety and ease. I hope to lean more on God than on what I can see and control. In the joys, trials, peace, and fear of my life, I hope to rely on the One Whose hand formed the world and the structures that make up my frail, vulnerable body—the One Who inspired life’s breath in me and sustained me through my sickness, sin, and pain.

Like the prophet Alma, “I have been supported under trials and troubles of every kind, yea, and in all manner of afflictions; [and] God has delivered me . . . yea, and I do put my trust in Him, and He will still deliver me.” (Alma 36:27)


On A Candlestick: Confessing a Truth that I Frequently Hide

This essay was originally written in September 2013, and is reposted here with a few minor alterations.

dnepr skyline

Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men. – St. Matthew 5:15-16

In the heart of Ukraine there is a city called Dnepropetrovsk. It’s a beautiful city bisected by the winding, serene Dnepr River. There are skyscrapers and universities, private homes and street markets, synagogues, onion-domed temples, small churches. The city bustles with over a million inhabitants who jabber in Russian, Ukrainian, or some combination of both all at once. The streets are packed with thirty-year old cars and clunky marshrutky[1]. The air swirls with exhaust fumes, the scent of dried fish from the markets, and wafts of fresh air from the hills and the countryside. It’s an exciting, enthralling, remarkable place. There’s nothing quite like it in America.

In the heart of Dnepropetrovsk there are two shimmering towers. You can see them from pretty much any location—they hold a prominent place in the city’s skyline, and almost everyone knows where they are. Most Ukrainians call them “the Candlesticks,” and I frankly don’t blame them. Svechi (“candlesticks” in Russian) is much simpler to say than Dzerzhinskogo, which is the name of the street in the towers’ address. So if a person intends to visit the towers, it’s much easier to tell the cab driver, “Go to ‘the Candlesticks,’” than to spit out the address. This is especially true for any poor Americans who might find themselves making their way through the hectic, snaking streets of Dnepropetrovsk.

“The Candlesticks” are modern, high-class apartment buildings, and they’re known for housing two types of people: the mafia and the “Mormons.” That’s the joke, anyway. The mafia live there because the Candlesticks have some of the nicest apartments in all of Dnepropetrovsk. And, after all, the mafia have no problems with money. So why not live in luxury, eh? But for the Mormons it’s quite a bit different. In fact, of the hundreds of flats rented out of the towers, there’s only one apartment occupied by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So it’s really not fair to suggest that the Mormons are somehow a significant portion of the towers’ inhabitants. But the joke has foundation; the place does seem to be crawling with Mormons. You see, the one “Mormon apartment” in one tower of the Dnepropetrovsk Candlesticks is occupied by the president of the Ukraine Dnepropetrovsk Mission of the LDS Church. So it’s not that uncommon to see hordes of LDS missionaries trailing in and out of the towers to visit the mission president for conferences and interviews, or to spend the night before being assigned to work in a different city.

I had the privilege to be one of those young missionaries in the Dnepropetrovsk Mission. But I spent little time in Dnepropetrovsk itself. After three months of training in America I lived in the Crimean Peninsula for the duration of my service as a missionary. Fifteen glorious months in a city called Simferopol—an eight-hour train ride south of Dnepropetrovsk. So needless to say, considering the distance between my area of service and the “mission home” (our name for the mission president’s apartment), I was not a frequent visitor to the Candlesticks.

But I still consider the Candlesticks to be a sacred place in my life—a place where I learned several valuable lessons, a place where God spoke to me in powerful ways. I’d like to share one experience that stands out to me as being especially formative. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s important nonetheless. It’s a time when I learned the truth of Christ’s phrase about hiding a light under a bushel—when I learned that I’m awfully good at concealing one of the brightest, most vibrant lights in my life. I’m quite comfortable under a bushel, it seems. Here’s the story:

It was late March, this year. My eighteen-month mission had come to a close. I had spent every hour of every day trying hard to help others come closer to Christ. My companions and I had walked off the soles of a few pairs of shoes treading the streets talking to all the people we met. We had somehow learned Russian so that we’d be able to tell people in their own native tongue, “God lives! He loves you! His Church is restored!” We’d seen miracles, trials, acts of kindness and mercy. We’d made friends, we’d made changes, and—most importantly—we’d made many people more aware of Christ’s love and His role in their lives. We’d become more aware of His role in our own lives as well.

My mission was perhaps the one period of my life when I can say that I lived out Christ’s commandment to “let your light so shine before men” as fully as He probably meant it. Although I’m a fairly shy person, I soon learned to speak rather boldly to let others know how I thought, how I felt. What a significant change from the girl I had been only eighteen short months before! I learned how to recognize truth from the Spirit of God, and I learned not to swallow back all those promptings to speak; I learned how to overcome fear with my faith, and it was a positively liberating sensation.

And then it all ended. It was time to go home. I was a little bit startled to find myself standing in Dnepropetrovsk, gazing out of the spacious window in the mission home, peering over the city and the beautiful river. Thousands of thoughts cluttered my mind as I tried to cope with the fact that my mission was over—and most of those thoughts ended with hesitant question marks.

Fortunately for me, there’s a splendid tradition: When missionaries are about to go home they are given the privilege of talking with their mission presidents in what some call an “exit interview.” I had heard great things of these interviews. Missionaries reported them to be moments of spectacular personal revelation, a time when the mission president—knowingly or not—seemed to speak just the words the out-going missionary needed to hear. Some said that the poignant questions President van Bruggen asked highlighted new possibilities they’d never considered. Others claimed that the special advice that he gave changed their lives and their mindsets. The prospects excited me greatly. After all, who couldn’t use a bit of personal guidance—particularly when that guidance is sent through an authorized servant of God?

That’s how I saw things as I walked into President van Bruggen’s office. All righty, I thought, let’s do this. I’ve prepared and I’ve prayed, and I’m ready to get revelation. Goodness knows I could use some right now.

And it’s true. I had put a great deal of thought and prayer going into the interview. I had lists of concerns I had taken to God, pleading with Him to open my mind and soften my heart through President van Bruggen’s brief words of counsel to me. My life was about to change drastically, and that was awfully scary to face. Something I’d worked for and lived for since childhood—the dream to serve Christ as a full-time missionary—was about to become a thing of the past. What was I supposed to hope for and work for and live for now?

What were God’s expectations for me?

I sat myself down on a comfortable chair in President van Bruggen’s small, book-filled office. The setting was lovely. The Spirit was strong. We prayed, then commenced a remarkable conversation. President van Bruggen was supportive, validating. He asked me to reflect on my mission experience. I cried a great deal, and he cried a bit too. All the while I could sense God’s direction and guidance flowing gently into the open receptacles of my willing heart and clear mind.

But then something happened—something I wasn’t prepared for. Something I thought I’d already overcome. President van Bruggen asked an innocent question: “So, Sister Bates,” he smiled his kind smile. “What are your plans for when you’re back home?”

And that’s when I did it: I committed a sin. That might sound a bit harsh, but please let me explain. At the instant he asked me this powerful question, an answer—a truth—came promptly to my mind. I felt that familiar, remarkable feeling that comes when the Spirit speaks to my heart. I felt Him convey the answer to those questions I had—all those doubts about what God expected of me, about what I should work for and do and become. My prayers had been answered. I knew what to say.

But despite all those months I’d engaged in bold testimony, despite all the lessons I learned from opening my mouth to proclaim God’s great truth, I faltered. I failed. I said something else, too afraid, too ashamed, to bring the truth to full light. I consciously chose to ignore that strong prompting.

Now, I didn’t lie, per se. I guess I just hid under a bushel of sorts. My answer was carefully calculated to conceal the most precious, most personal parts—the parts that, in fact, were the most inspired. I told President van Bruggen all about my “life’s goals”: There were two years of study still waiting for me, my major was history, my minor was English. I had a student job all lined-up and I’d start right away. After graduation I had hopes to attend some grad school, either furthering my historical studies or else branching out to theology. I’d be pretty happy with either of those. And then there were all sorts of occupational goals, but I wanted to see first which direction felt right for my graduate studies. On and on I went, babbling about academics and internships, mentors, careers. And to a vast extent, it was all very true.

But locked deep in my heart—its light smothered and veiled—there remained an even greater truth that I just wouldn’t say.

And President van Bruggen caught on.

He smiled at me patiently, sensing my discomfort as I struggled to hide my omission. When at last I’d completed my minutes-long rant, President van Bruggen had a sly spark in his eye. “That’s all very good,” he said quietly. I smiled with a sense of relief, thinking for an instant that I’d somehow escaped. But then he went on with a condemning question. These are words I will never forget:

“But aren’t you forgetting something important?”

——Why, yes. Yes I was. And by George, I had done it on purpose! I knew what he meant; I knew what I ought to have said. There I sat for a terrible instant of silence, guilty, embarrassed, and somewhat annoyed with myself for my cowardice in such a sheltered environment. I shrugged and looked down, and I probably blushed. I proceeded to give an astoundingly lukewarm response to President van Bruggen’s perceptive question: “Oh, well, yeah,” I began, gulping back all my guilt. “I mean, of course family is my priority. But, you know, it’s just sort of hard to . . . well, to bank on that, you know? I mean, it’s not really something I can . . . well, control. And so . . . yeah.” Then I nervously laughed and silently prayed for a quick change of topic.

And so, there you have it. A lackluster close to one of my final opportunities to testify as a missionary. It’s pitiful, isn’t it? I had spent eighteen months proclaiming truth boldly, unapologetically, with conviction and light. Countless times babushky[2] had stopped me on the street to inquire after the light in my eyes and my face. Women walking their dogs would stop, turn their heads. And when they heard our message, they knew where this radiance came from. It’s an inescapable trait that marks all who endeavor to follow Jesus Christ. It’s the “light” that He gives in the form of His truth. For eighteen months I had carried that light as a good Christian should—set atop a bright candlestick, out in the open, where all could see it and enjoy its warm glow.

But then—in one of the bitterest ironies of my life—when I sat in “the Candlestick” I searched for a bushel. Rather than boldly declaring the truth, I chose instead to say something safe, something dull. Rather than testify of the paramount importance of family, I chose to speak only of secular things, of “success” as the world quantifies it.

Perhaps all this stemmed from a fear of some kind. After all, I’ve developed a certain loathing to conversations in which people ask about my dreams for a future family. Maybe some of you girls have had similar experiences. As soon as I mention wanting to raise children, people will generally laugh just a bit—a pitying, slightly condescending chuckle. And then there’s that dreaded question, “But what else?” as if to highlight a narrow-minded naïveté embedded in my dreams. “You poor girl,” they seem to imply. “Don’t you realize what you’re missing? You’re bright. You’re successful. You’ve already gone far. Just imagine what more you could do with your life! Sure, have a family someday, if that’s what you want. But become a professor as well as a mom. Be a world-famous author as well as a mom. You don’t have to settle for one or the other. Go ahead—take the best of both worlds,” they declare.

But in all honesty, that’s just not how I feel. Please allow me the privilege to express now in writing a truth I’m too timid—or perhaps just too proud—to discuss with most people face-to-face. Although I love history, writing, and theology, although I’d be thrilled to become a professor or author or researcher of some kind, none of that is what’s really important to me deep inside. More than any career or degree I could work for, my priority is family. And that’s what it always will be.

But it’s just so hard to say that to people sometimes. I’m afraid of offending those whose circumstances differ from my own. I’m afraid of eliciting a far too personal discourse with a stranger. I’m afraid of the judgment others might pass if they deem my dreams shallow or somehow naïve.

And perhaps I’m afraid of the disappointment that might come if I set my sights too high, hoping and working and living for something that’s beyond my control to obtain.

None of this is a justification, mind you. I know that Christ never said, “Let your light so shine before men—unless, of course, they just won’t understand. Or unless they’ll just laugh in your face. Or unless it just doesn’t make sense to shine at the moment. Or unless—heaven forbid—you might give offence. Under those circumstances, by all means, find a bushel and make use of it until situations improve.” Christ never called for “fair weather” disciples. Thus, I know that there’s no good excuse for my silence regarding my dreams of family and motherhood. And yet, goodness knows, it’s sure easy to keep quiet on those precious subjects.

That’s the trouble with candles. Once the flame has been lit you’re exposed, vulnerable. You can’t hide in the light.—

—But still, I suppose that it’s worth being seen. It’s worth being seen for Christ’s sake and the sake of His truth.

Now, it might be easy to think that the story ends there, with my shrinking away from the light of my testimony of marriage and family. But it seems that God hasn’t quite given up on me yet. The story is far from a final conclusion, and it recently took a turn that I didn’t expect over five weeks ago when I sat down to start writing this essay.

Fast forward a bit—about five months after my experience with President van Bruggen in the Dnepropetrovsk mission home. Much had happened throughout those five fleeting months. One event in particular stands out to me: An apostle of Christ[3] gave a powerful speech in which he commissioned women to be bold and to “bear [their] testimonies of the truth of all things”—most especially in defense of the family.[4] Sitting in the large auditorium during this talk, I cringed and remembered my interview back in Dnepropetrovsk. With resolve to repent of my former omission, I committed there and then to write an essay expounding my thoughts on the matter.

And so I began. But a few weeks soon passed and I found myself mired in the muddle of strong writer’s block. There’s no ending! I realized with troubled dismay. A beginning and middle—but no way to end. What’s the point if there’s no clear conclusion? So I struggled and stalled, wrote, revised, and rethought things, all without making much progress.

That’s when God intervened, offering me redemption with a strikingly similar situation to the one at the start of this essay.

Once again I found myself seated on a comfortable chair in a small, book-filled office—this time in America on the campus of my university. I sat directly across from a brilliant professor who had graciously agreed to meet with me to enlighten my mind and offer direction for my studies and goals. The conversation was pleasant, edifying, and warm. Dr. Gaskill offered splendid advice, and he seemed to legitimately think that I showed some potential for success as a scholar (a notion which, frankly, surprised me a bit, considering how little he knew me). As the discussion reached a close, Dr. Gaskill leaned back in his chair and remarked, “You know, I’m really anxious to see how this turns out. We could really use your perspective,” he went on with a smile. “There just aren’t enough women in this field.”

My heart jumped. There it was again, that feeling, that powerful truth from the Spirit of God in a soft, unmistakable prompting to speak. Once again, I knew what I needed to say—the exact words, it turns out, I had kept under a bushel six months prior in Dnepropetrovsk. I looked down at the laptop that perched on my knees. I thought of this essay, of the thousands of pixels I was struggling to arrange into some comprehensible form with no ending. The unfinished thoughts filled my brain. All those words I had written flowed into my mind. “On a candlestick,” “it giveth light,” “Let your light so shine” seemed to ring through my ears as adrenaline coursed through my veins.

Then I felt the right corner of my mouth twitch up into a half-smile. I took a deep breath. “Well, you know, to be perfectly honest,” I began. Then I paused. Then I sighed. Then I made direct eye contact with Dr. Gaskill.—Then I finally smiled completely.

“To be perfectly honest, more than anything else, I want to be a stay-at-home mom.”

Then I basked in the wonderful light of that truth.



[1] Маршрутки: small bus-like vehicles used as a form of public transportation.

[2] Бабушки—the Russian word for “grandmother,” colloquially used in reference to older women in general.

[3] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is patterned after the organization of the church Christ established during His life on the earth. Just as He called 12 apostles, the LDS Church also has 12 apostles.

[4] See “Let Us Think Straight,” by M. Russell Ballard,