Forks That Bend

Samuel Charles

          At this point, I know plastic forks a little too well. I know the sizes, designs, and how much they try to imitate real metal silverware. I often have salads for lunch with my dad, a college professor, and we know all the best places on campus to get forks. We also know that every time you get a plastic fork, especially the ones from his office, you have to get a couple extra because, without fail, one brittle, spindly spear will snap, leaving you with just a trident. Those are for ruling the seas, not stabbing lettuce. With every snapped tine, you have to pull wide thorns of clear plastic out of your teeth like bone out of chicken. Recently, however, I found a better fork spot, right next to the bagels in the university minimart. These forks are a little smaller and more cheaply made, but now I get them every time because of one absolutely crucial difference: they can bend. These forks are not imitating gleaming silver or the hardest of hard forks. When under pressure, the plastic will bend, stretch, fold out along edges and then straighten right back. It might be a little harder to stab the spine of a lettuce leaf without that faux-metal stiffness, but you can always try again, every time, because for these forks, there is no snapping under pressure. There is only a durable, malleable, optimal flex.
                                   Khabarovsk, Siberia, Russia 
March 18, 2020
Days in Quarantine: 1
Total Missionaries: 65
                                          We found out today that we’re going into quarantine 
from Coronavirus! We thought some of us were going home,
but I think we’re all staying. Though the Church is sending a
lot of missionaries home throughout the world, which is interesting.
Because we’re in quarantine we get phones! Mine is pretty nice—
first smartphone I’ve ever had! President Lamb called and said this
will last two to ten weeks, probably closer to two. We joked about
the ten weeks part. That would be crazy! It’ll be a little rough just
waiting through quarantine, but soon it’ll be over and we’ll get back
to work. I’ll probably play some guitar, draw, exercise. We might play
some games or watch some Church movies. Even though our phones
only have a few apps —even FamilySearch and Facebook are illegal in
Russia—at least we can practice Russian on Duolingo. I even bought
a few treats to ration for myself and help tide me over. I can do two
weeks. It sounds kind of fun!
          Though I am a human and not a fork, I identify with the salad pressure these forks are faced with. My parents, grandparents, and assorted great-grandparents, aunts, and uncles are university professors, many high achieving and prominent. In the midst of that, I am a college student: first year, largely in- experienced with life, school, relationships, and the universe. That’s like being a caterpillar in a family of butterflies, or a cadet at the front end of generations of five-star generals.
With that heritage comes many great things (a half-tuition scholarship being one of my favorites), but also a necessity for greatness in learning and academic achievement, in ambition and dreams, and, at BYU, in spirituality. That can be very hard. There is no easy option for me, no dream of kicking back my legs to relax. I push and I push to be better and better, to get this fat caterpillar to butterfly-level achievement, all on short, stubby legs and no wings whatsoever.
                                    Vladivostok, Siberia, Russia 
July 7, 2020
Days in Quarantine: 111
Total Missionaries: 40
                                            I had my first interview with our new mission president 
today. He’s cool, but . . . he wants us to start using social media
and things during quarantine, do more lessons with members, etc.
I want to tell him to just wait! Quarantine will be over soon—then
we can actually do the work. He wasn’t very impressed when I told
him I had made it to Diamond League on Duo- lingo. Maybe it’s
’cause he’s Russian, a real Moscow businessman. That’s probably
why he told us we have to wear our full suits in the house even
though we can only leave for an hour a day. Why?! That’s just making
us hot and uncomfy for no reason.
A mission is lonelier than I could have ever imagined, especially
now in quarantine. Today I was writing and wrote down “Lord, I’m trying
with all I have.” And then I started crying. I turned off the lights and
closed the door and just cried for like an hour. I want to want to be
here. I miss myself so bad. I haven’t been myself in eight months.
Every day here is the same, and I feel like I am not doing anything.
But I played guitar and talked with Turner and Kuhl. That helped a
bit. Even Zhivoy had some jokes in his broken English, and that was fun.
We laughed at the concept of “two–ten weeks in quarantine.” That
sounds like a breeze. We joked about buying an Xbox. We won’t, but
just . . . nobody would know. No one. President is more than 2,000
miles away—that’s pretty much New York to LA. The nearest missionaries
are in South Korea, I think, or maybe northern Japan. The closest country
is China and then North Korea—I could probably walk there in a day or
two. Nobody would know. No one.
          Those clear, snappy forks are designed after harsh, unyielding metal, but that’s not what plastic is made for. Plastic, if made in a certain way, can yield, can change and adapt to varying situations. I have seen people—adults, my close friends, and even myself—keep pressure in and on themselves and force an unyielding, rigid, white-knuckle hold on life and their journey through it. That’s not necessary. God made me the way I am, with interests and hobbies and needs, so that I can bend. That is a strength. Adaptation in the face of adversity is often seen as weakness, submitting before pressure, but a facade harder than diamonds often hides fragility, subsurface cracking, and a deadly, searing brittleness. I don’t want to crack. I don’t want to break. If I limit myself to a rigid hold, I will actually be more vulnerable than if I can let go, glide with the pressure, and slip myself back together every time.
                                   Novosibirsk, Siberia, Russia 
January 30, 2021
Days in Quarantine: 318
Missionaries Left: 25
                                           I’ve learned to love the time we spend out- side. There’s 
not a lot of it, so it becomes really special. I love the snow, and
the streets—every- thing is muffled and calm. It’s -27 degrees C
today. I wore my black striped scarf, though I like the purple knit
one more. I felt like an anime character with just my eyes showing
between my scarf, mask, beanie, hood, and fur. I’m just glad it’s
not -40 again—President makes us stay inside if it’s below -30.
I bought a yogurt and Bounty bar at the store today. I’d never
had those before my mission, but that little treat every day makes
me a little happier. I’m learning to cherish that little bit. We walked
through the park before our hour outside was up, and the frost from
my breath crystalized on my eyelashes and hair again.
We had a couple Zoom lessons today, and Elder Dart’s Russian
is getting better. It feels a bit like having a trainee (not that I’d know
what that felt like) even though we were in the MTC at the same time.
We get roped into three-hour-long philosophical discussions about
nonsense (today’s topic: why I need more male friends. Elder Scott
laughed at that one) but honestly, passing the time between lessons
with something I think is bonding us isn’t the worst. It’s better than
sitting on Face- book watching videos. I’m trying some new things to
stay focused, and I’m excited to see how they work. It’s hard to focus
on anything with so much time.
I remember Elder Williams saying it was so hard to get up on
time in quarantine because if you sleep in, there’s less day to deal with.
I almost cried when he said that. There’s always so much day to deal with.
          If God is the master, then we are the tools. While quoting Zenos in the allegory of the olive trees, Jacob writes, “And it came to pass that the master of the vineyard went forth, and he saw that his olive tree began to decay; and he said: I will prune it, and dig about it, and nourish it, that perhaps it may shoot forth young and tender branches, and it perish not. And it came to pass that he pruned it, and digged about it, and nourished it according to his word” (Jacob 5.4–5). We are given the opportunity on this earth to be those tools in His hands to help other people. Well, I believe God wants me to be a fork, and I want, with all my heart, not to snap; God didn’t ask me to be a trident. If I can only bend, twist, and roll with the punches, then I can perform my function again and again. Not by being hard or stoic, forcing upon myself the rigid and brittle characteristics of a gleaming metal silver fork, but by embracing my plasticity and using it to my advantage. A silver fork can’t do what I do. It wasn’t made to. I was made to bend, and that al- lows me to serve God to the fullest. God’s got plenty of silver- ware and I assume He has tridents. But God wants me to bend.
                                          Novosibirsk, Siberia, Russia 
July 27, 2021
Days in Quarantine: 496
Missionaries Left: 9
                                                  Today was a little rough.
I talked to President about going to an art museum today.
I thought that, since we only have nine missionaries and it’s been,
I don’t know, sixteen something months, that we could finally go?
It would be the first Russian . . . anything we’ve seen since the
beginning of quarantine.
When I came here, I thought I’d get to go to the opera. I
thought I’d get to go to the Russian ballet. I wanted to go see
museums, monuments, memorials. There’s an awesome planetarium
outside the city, but public transportation’s not allowed, so that idea
got nixed pretty fast. They even have a Soviet firefighting museum
here! You never know you’re interested in Soviet firefighting until you
can’t go to that museum. The St. Petersburg missionaries sent me a
video of them at a basketball game.
So my plan was to go at 10:00 a.m. on a Monday, the whole
mission or district or what- ever we are would all be in masks, it’d be
super safe, etc. The museum is across the street from the mission
home. I gave him my district leader/AP/whatever-I-am-now honor
bound promise. Y’know what he said?
“Elder Charles, what would be the benefit of that?”
Are you kidding? It’s been sixteen months in quarantine. I have
worked with these nine missionaries for months and months, with
some of them for almost two years. Everyone is struggling. I
couldn’t even find the words to question or respond. How can he
not see?
Later I told him that quarantine was the hardest thing I’d ever
done. He laughed and said that when he was on his mission, his
mission was the hardest thing he’d ever done, too. Looking back, I
would have said, “No, my mission is fine. I love my mission.
Quarantine is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
I’m humbled as I remember Leonid, who just got baptized.
He never said much, but his testimony grew. Big Mike still hadn’t
stopped drinking (“Only two bottles. It’s for good dreams!”), but
he’s reading his scriptures every day, so that’s good. Best of all,
Yaroslav is speaking in sacrament meeting next week! This might be
the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s also the best.
I messed around with Williams and Edvalson a bit. They’re
hilarious. A couple rounds of chess and singing a few of my new
songs helped me calm down. They’re not all sad songs any- more. I
had some of that Russian apple juice I love. I wrote in my journal. I
remember feeling a similar way yesterday evening, and recognizing
then, too, the calming and refreshing nature of these little routines.
Tomorrow I can start again, and hopefully fix something I messed up
Elder Williams cooked something delicious and Edvalson
taught me some more kinesthetics—archer push-ups today. I’m
trying to get to a one-armed push-up, among other things. I still
haven’t beaten my 8-minute 30-second plank record, but I’m getting
close. I went 7 minutes the other day. I drew a self-portrait the other
day, too—it was me on the Red Square in Moscow, a
conglomeration of a few different pictures I have. I wish I could go
there, but, y’- know, a drawing is good enough for now. I’m getting
pretty good at it, too.
          This life was never made to be a one-time thing. We don’t show up, do one cool deed, and then qualify for heaven. Christ’s Atonement enables us to try again and again so we can learn and grow and adapt. If I shatter on the first go, I’m finished. “I can’t do it,” I’d say. “Those beautiful silver forks over there are so good at stabbing salad, but not me. Now I’ll have to rule the seas.” The seas are overrated, and so are metal forks. Instead, I’ll feel the pressure, adjust, and move forward. After that, I’ll do it again. I’ll learn and become better over hundreds of thou- sands of trials because every time, after every one, Christ gave me a chance to learn, a chance to pull back after bending, slip into place, and move forward again.
                                            Novosibirsk, Siberia, Russia 
October 12, 2021
Days in Quarantine: 573
Total Missionaries: 9 + 14 = 25!
                                                    I had my final interview with President to- day. We talked
about going home. My brother, Ben, leaves in a week or so for his
mission to Moscow—I can’t believe he got called to Russia, too.
I’m gonna get to see him for about a week before he leaves. There
will be two Elder Charleses for a day. The decision to see him and
leave three weeks early was humbling–I realized it wasn’t because I
wanted to leave. It was to see Ben and to help him. And I know he’ll
struggle, we all do, but, I mean, Moscow with no quarantine? He’s
gonna have a blast.
There’s been a weird feeling recently since the new
missionaries got here. We haven’t had new people in nineteen
months, so we don’t to- tally know what to do with them. We’ve
been training Elder Pond on the financial stuff and trying not to
speak Russian too fast for him and Elder Billings. Watching them,
I’ve had a weird sense of passing the torch, like God’s telling me
my work here is done. This will continue with- out me, with new
people going through new challenges and dealing with it in their
own way.
I think on Monday we’re actually going to the zoo! I didn’t
believe it at first. That’ll be the first time I’ve been . . . well,
anywhere, really, since March 2020. I’ll head to the airport and
fly out just a few hours after that. Nineteen months . . . nineteen
months and we’re finally opening up. It’s weird to be leaving
home. I’m glad the new missionaries can street contact now, and I
hope they go to the museums. They are starting to go to church
again, and I think soon they can actually live in the cities they in
serve for the first time in years.
I don’t really feel prepared for what’s ahead, but I’m excited.
I have albums to record, plank records to shatter, art to create, and
(finally!) people to meet. More importantly, I’m closer to God than
ever before. I’m okay. No, I’m re- ally good, actually. I’m happy. A
year ago, I couldn’t remember what that means.
        Even those plastic forks, when left under pressure for a long time, will settle in that pattern. They begin to revert to that form, not the regular parallel-pronged shape. They’ve forgotten what it was like without the pressure, and can’t initially move back to where they are supposed to be. But with time and patience, skewed curves can be straightened and perform their re- membered function, always over and over and over again.
My dad laughs at me when I stare at forks too long and tell him how I relate to them. He laughs harder when I speak to him in a Russian accent or praise the salty Russian seafood salads. I’ll make some for him one of these days, stabbing shrimp and scooping cheap caviar with a flexible fork that bends against my plate. He started learning Russian on Duolingo since two of his sons have been called there. I help him with his pronuncia- tion and we laugh when it seems like the stress is always on an unexpected syllable. Vla-DI-mir, BA-bush-ka, Bor-IS. These lit- tle things bring me happiness, those tiny moments. He still prefers the faux metal forks (the closest to his office) and takes several in case of an accidental trident, but I always make sure to go grab my one flexible plastic fork because I know it won’t break on me. Instead, it’ll just bend.