The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. ~ L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between
When looking back at my family during our days of patriarchal fundamentalism this opening line in the novel The Go-Between often comes to mind. In the last decade we have journeyed so far from where we once were we may have well have moved countries entirely. In the beginning of our journey we were like refugees, clinging to our past forms and beliefs while trying to figure out what part of this new culture wouldn’t damage us. For we had read and been preached to and fervently believed that our now adopted culture–The World–was one of poison and sure death to family bonds and values. And yet, we could not go back. Like refugees we were now unacceptable to what had once been our home, unacceptable for the same reasons many seek refugee status: religious and gender persecution. The U.S. Immigration department defines it this way:
Refugee: A refugee is a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her native country due to a well-founded fear of persecution or because the person’s life or freedom would be threatened.
We could no longer co-exist in our old world of quiverful families and sincere bible believing fellowships. Our freedoms.. so small and invisible to The World.. made us unacceptable and increasingly the subject of harassing phone calls and cold looks in the street. My children were grilled about their mother’s behavior when they tried to continue past friendships, and looked down on for their clothing, schooling, reading and entertainment choices when they tried to connect to those who they had once loved in our old homeschooling circles. The World on the other hand did not notice us at all and there were times when this was quite a relief despite the gripping loneliness and confusion.
With time we adapted and grew to love our adopted country. The World, it seems, grew to love us back as we discovered that it was full of joys and kindness and creativity and amusements which far from destroying the family bound us together with common interests. We lost our fear of The World and came to see that fear was actually the language of fundamentalism and we had been well trained in it. And so I take a brief tour here through the (carefully scrapbooked) snapshots of our family long ago in the foreign country, as refugees and as we are today.
Memory Page #1 Schooling
With carefully braided hair the little girls sit at the dining table, their Rod and Staff Bible Readers open before them, pencils poised above the workbooks. Why did Esau sell his birthright to Jacob? Why was Jacob especially chosen by God? The boys are doing math and it is quite a struggle as each Rod and Staff lesson has seemingly hundreds of questions. The baby swings in her special chair, she has to keep quiet so this lesson can be completed. My children struggle to finish their lessons so they can run and play a bit before chores and I keep looking at the clock.. we have to finish these lessons by a certain time so I can start the dinner, fold the cloth diapers, hang out the washing, clean the house, make the children pick up all the discarded toys in the yard, get everyone bathed and in bed and silent and clean so that when my husband finally got home at some late hour there was nothing for him to complain about. Because if he stepped on a toy on the path or found some unfolded clothes on the couch or was disturbed in any way when he got in the front door we would all pay for it. Many a night he would drag a child from their bed screaming and lecturing and belting them for something being amiss in the house. If he got extremely worked up he would continue this tirade at me, long into the night. And so it was very important to get the lessons done on time, to keep the day’s schedule ticking along, to make sure I had enough time to think about every possible problem that could make my husband enraged with us. Even as my beginning reader labored over the bible story I felt the tension in how long it was taking her. Often I was very impatient because so much rested on getting whatever we were doing done so we could move on to the next thing and the next.. and we had to do our schooling well because God had called us to homeschool. We couldn’t just slack off about it. God was watching.
When my children went to school for the first time they really needed to make friends. Their friends in our old world had been other children from big homeschooling families. They saw them at homeschool picnics and seminars, Creation Science meetings and infrequent family to family dinners which were always difficult to arrange. One family they were very close to and we saw frequently. As refugees all of these people were instantly and completely inaccessible to us. Most of them we never saw again. Even if they cared for and thought of my children these families were not going to visit me, a divorced woman, and expose their own children to this kind of sin. I know my daughters were in deep pain at the loss of some of these friends. In school the first year was very hard work. I sent them to a church school to try and minimize the culture shock but my children were so different from their classmates that I might as well have sent them to the public school.They had no cultural reference points at all and did not understand what the other children were talking about. They were also just plain scared of what the other children enjoyed, movies they believed were “bad”, nail polish and other makeup for the older girls, Pokemon cards! They came home every day whispering to me of these evils. They dressed and talked like.. refugees, completely at a loss as to how to fit into the culture they found themselves in. It would be a year before they made friends.
Today in our New Country
The children ran out the door this morning for the bus to school. One of them moaned about having to go, he was still tired from staying up too late. One of them left half an hour early so she could buy hot chocolate and sit with her best friend at the bus stop drinking it and watching the morning unfold. Off they went and off I went, a flexible agenda to my day. I have never recovered the intense need to schedule every minute of my life and to leave no task undone that was such a driving part of my QF days. I am actually very lazy when it comes to domestic tasks. There are so many other interesting things I could be doing.. cooking fun food, having coffee with friends, writing, researching.. things I would have once deemed wasteful of my time, bad stewardship. And yet from these things real relationships have grown, both with others and with my children. Maybe I will meet them at the bus stop and take them to buy ice cream after school.. I no longer fear household tasks undone and dinner late to the table. When they do come home the children are full of stories and I have to stop whatever I am doing and listen. Shakespeare, sports, dramas with friends, tests they are excited to show me, hilarious science lab disasters.. they have had a day filled with activities and learning. They have thrived in school. And yet I remember very clearly the fear I once had of sending my children off to the care of others, the fear they would hear a bad word or be exposed to something that harmed them. The fear that the slippery slope would pull them down and their very salvation would be lost, crushed into pulp by the evil machinations of “socialization”.
Memory Page #2. Entertainment
“If you sit VERY QUIETLY at the table while you eat your lunch you can listen to the bible story tape.” Eating their sandwiches on homemade bread my children are at first absolutely silent, as expected. One of them starts to open their sandwich up, no doubt to lick out the home made jam inside. I glare at that one, licking out jam gets it in the hair and that child is not scheduled for a bath this evening. I can’t give them all baths because we don’t have enough hot water. We don’t have enough hot water because.. well there must be a very good reason for it since my husband becomes quite enraged if this topic is ever brought up. I’ve picked these bible story tapes out very carefully, there are no extra words added to the story. There are no giant blue songbooks giving their worldly interpretation, no vegetables making cute songs up about matters of life and death. It’s so much easier to just have biblical entertainment rather than trying to vet television and movies, for even G movies often feature children behaving disrespectfully. And with biblical entertainment the standard is clear:
“Every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. Do not add to His words Or He will reprove you, and you will be proved a liar.” Proverbs 30:5-6
We had heard these tapes many times but I sat at the table and glared at any child that did not appear to be enjoying them. Being entertained is serious work. When we visited with others who did not have our standards my children reacted in a way I considered completely appropriate: with fear. They were truly afraid of having to watch movies that were louder and more modern than what they knew was correct. They were afraid of having to listen to rock music. They were afraid of a room with a TV on and children watching unsupervised. One of them was particularly fearful and would come creeping out to me to whisper that there was something.. “wrong” on the television. I considered this to be evidence that I was on the right track.
The first thing I did once I was out of fundamentalism was start listening to music. Loud. I listened to classical, folk, country.. all either forbidden because my husband had disliked them or forbidden because they were not Godly. My children were quite disturbed by my musical tastes and they worried about their mother’s dive into the gutter. Music was my one big splash out into the world. As a refugee it took me a lot longer to watch a movie or enter a store with items that I had been taught could have demonic influence (Indian handicrafts.. anything that looked Goth.. references to magic..) I wrestled with my fear triggers all the time. Even as I reacted to what was simply diversity in the world I also reacted to past biblical enjoyments. I could no longer listen to preaching tapes because all I heard was the condemnation. I could no longer listen to praise music because I knew that God did not want my voice. I could no longer read any of my many testimony books because the protagonists had all suffered far more than I had in my abusive marriage and they had not taken their hands from the plow. The message I had gotten from my church had been a powerful one, I had sinned and they no longer wanted me. Every time I picked up a love from my past life that message drummed steadily through it, “this is not for you Arietty”.
I remember hearing a song by Melissa Etheridge during my time as a refugee. The chorus went..
“Angels.. never came down
There’s no one here
They want to hang around”
I cried my eyes out because I believed this was now my truth. To this day these words still make me cry. As a refugee I had no past when it came to music and books and I had no idea how to navigate my future.
Today in our New Country
My children are your typical teenagers. And no, the word “typical” does not mean “wasted lives, indulgent, going to hell”. They download tons of music, watch youtube, play computer games and go to the movies. The readers among them have read half the library. They still don’t like television but not out of fear, just because they prefer more interactive entertainment. All of these things I do with them, not to impose myself or to censor their choices but because we often have the same interests and tastes. We’ve gone to concerts together, played computer games together and laughed our heads off at funny youtubes together. We’re a big family and if one person discovers something wonderful it is soon seized upon by everyone else. Our tastes are oddly intersecting and much family bonding has taken place over shared enjoyments. They have good taste and it is easy for them to dislike exploitative lyrics or movies that are puerile. It’s been a joy watching their tastes and critical thinking develop. And it has been a joy to develop my own tastes and critical thinking as I look at the creativity of entertainment without fear.
Real life is very good. I am thrilled to explore and embrace it! If there is such a person as a Creator God then that creation is not the narrow interpretation I once had. The past is truly a foreign country to my family now (the youngest don’t even remember it) and everything we do is different, richer and content to accept uncertainties. We are all kinder to each other. It took a long while to get here and I do wonder what my family will look like ten years from now. I suspect the difference will not be as dramatic.
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