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First Chapter

One |


Will you keep to the old way
which wicked men have trod? (Job 22:15, NKJV)
t burned, dripping down my back, scathing tender flesh. The stench crept through my nostrils and landed on my tongue. My eyes watered. “Hold still,” Mom ordered, one hand rooted in my scalp and the other poised above my head. The ivory walls of that old, claw-foot tub restrained my frantic writhing as I held my breath and braced for liquid pain.
     “It will kill the lice,” Mom said, swishing my hair in kerosene. She poured it slowly from a metal cup. I lay in it, drenched, my body on fire.
     I know her hands burned, too.
     Grandma Millie, our neighbor, said it worked because that’s what they did in the old days. We wanted to live like they did back then, because that’s when life was simple. When people walked uprightly and followed ancient paths, for the old ways taught values that our current world disdained—of sacrifice, hard work, and family. Of living frugally and biblically, which meant not relying on the conveniences of modern culture, but welcoming hardship—“For in the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.” (Gen. 3:19)
     An agrarian life became a holy life.
     I remember our first little goat. We named her Nellie and when she gave birth one spring, we watched, horrified, awestruck. When those two little kids bleated and dashed around the pen, leaping and flinging arabesques off each other’s backs, we shrieked with laughter and wondered why people needed television. We cuddled those soft vibrant creatures, barely the size of cats; we named them Jacob and Esau and wondered why people went to school “in the real world”. We speculated how poor were they, while we were rich, for we witnessed things that could not be taught in any classroom.
     Then came the sweat of summer. We killed those creatures, Jacob and Esau, and hung them from a tree. We hacked and ripped and shredded, covered in flies and blood; then we gathered acorns and put them in gigantic white buckets that used to hold peanut butter bought in bulk. Dad covered the acorns with a mysterious toxic liquid, and plunged the soft furry skins into murky depths to sit for weeks. He wanted to tan them, he said. That is what the Indians did. And then we could put them on the floor, so our feet wouldn’t freeze in winter.
     We divided flesh in pieces and wrapped them in white. Butcher paper, tape, and marker: jacob, shoulder, Sept. ‘91. “Organic,” they said. “Hormone-free, all-natural,” which meant we’d taken another step closer to being self-sustained. Back to the land, like Laura Ingalls. Independent of the System, and closer to God.
     We took the fat and chopped it, trying not to retch. Grandma Millie had the cauldron, so we stood behind her trailer and stirred that slimy fat for hours. “Cook it down,” she said. “It’s gotta be smooth.” Our arms grew tired. The coals glowed red and the pot went ashen. Steam? Smoke? Fog? What hovers over melting fat? The wind blew it in our faces, and our stomachs churned.
     We mixed in lye—but Mom and Grandma Millie did that, for lye could burn. We added a little peppermint and poured it out in boxes—thick gooiness the color of oatmeal, but smooth in texture. We covered it so flies would not get stuck, and let it sit for days.
     Then we put it on our faces.
     “This is the best kind,” said Grandma Millie.
     “Hey! We just made soap!” said Mom. “Isn’t that neat?”
     When things like lice come to live, and when you live in a world where modern, traditional treatments are expensive and considered unnecessary, we remember those who have walked the old paths and can tell us about old-timey ways of doing things, like making lye soap. Or how to get rid of lice with kerosene.
     And yet, it didn’t. Kerosene didn’t kill the lice.
     Still, she tried. She meant well. My Mom’s a good mother; she works hard and loves us. We were desperate. And we burned.
     That’s the funny thing about the ancient paths. Everyone talks about them like they are The Way to God, the biblical way; how to become righteous and holy, how to be a true Christian.
     And yet, so many of us just get burned.
ometimes we can see it—see the burning that leaves us nearly lifeless, with hardened skin and eyes, with toughened scars. Sometimes we feel it as our hearts ache with the weariness of trying to measure up but knowing it’s never good enough. Or from wondering why we struggle to hear God and understand His love and grace, while secretly wondering if He’s worth following because the burdens seem too great.
     These wounds of soul and spirit run deep. Honestly, I never thought I’d write about them because I grew up writing love stories and poems from the word lists Mom tapped onto the blackboard with crumbly white chalk. She homeschooled all of us; our text books came with pictures of Mennonites wearing simple dresses, hair tucked into caps that, to my eight-year-old eyes, looked like coffee filters. And when I wasn’t writing or doing school, I’d roll out sheets of paper from the big ends they threw away at the newspaper place and make my sister lie down, and draw around her. Then I’d cut her out and make dresses from the pattern. Sometimes we would chop out rectangle sheets and sew them together to make books, illustrated with Victorian women in colorful array—our dream gowns, full and elegant.
     At first we could have all the paper we wanted for free, but later they made us pay so we didn’t get them anymore.
     Such was life.
     Things are different now—for me, for my family. For all of us, things have changed over the years. But for some daughters, they have not. Some girls, like Sarah, struggle with guilt and exhaustion and worry. She writes,
I have nine brothers and sisters, and as the firstborn, I was always so tired and desperately needed a break! But I could never leave; my friends always came over to our house because I had to help with the kids. Most of them were from Quiverfull families too, but their mothers weren’t able to have as many kids as mine. They always said my siblings were “just the cutest things,” and were jealous that I got to have so many!  I wished I were them. It was not that I didn’t love my siblings—I did! I adored them; it was just so much responsibility on me that never, ever let up. I dreamed of waking in the morning and having my daily quiet time like I was supposed to do, religiously, instead of being awakened with a baby on my lap and being told I needed “to help.” I apologized to God over and over for not reading my Bible and praying like I should, but I was so busy with the kids. When I tried to set my alarm early for Bible time, one of the kids would wake up five minutes later.
I can relate to Sarah. For I, too, was tired and yet I adored my brothers and sisters. I, too, apologized to God—agonizing because I’d grown weary in doing good and felt guilty and selfish for needing a break, a relief from responsibility.
     Over thirty years ago, beneath a full December moon, this firstborn drew her first breath. I have ten siblings, all with their own eyes, their own perspectives on life. All with stories—and they can tell them if they wish. But the words I write are my own and the ones given to me by others. They are secrets spilled from hidden places, entrusted to me by trembling souls—because sometimes it hurts more to tell secrets than to keep them. It’s hard to talk about the brokenness, the pain, and the messy parts of life we can’t see. I’ve made mistakes, many of them. I have regrets. I’ve been accused of many things. And yet, acknowledging the truth of pain is the first step to healing from it.
     Paul reminds us, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Cor. 1:3-4) This is why I write, and why I write how it was for me, as I remember them, felt them, believed and understood them. I write about the secrets held within the hearts of women just like me, and I share what I’ve learned. My journey is told through the eyes of that moon-drenched child whose spirit burned and who desperately needed the promise of Jesus—“I have come,” He said, “that they may have life.” And as He-who-brings-life stood before me with outstretched arms, my spirit stirred. His voice pleaded, Come. Come to Me and find rest for your soul.
     I needed life—but even more, I needed rest.
     My hope and prayer is that somehow through these pages, a quivering, tired, ashamed daughter might find hope and healing as she follows Jesus on the new way—the narrow way that leads to life.  
     The night my journey began was the night I left home.
y family gathered around the old white Buick I’d bought with tips saved from my job at the cafĂ©, watching every move as I stuffed a box beneath piles of books and dresses. When I shut the car door, its tired click was somehow very, very meaningful.
     A little sister’s lips trembled. “Are you coming back for my birthday?”
     I bent to hug her four-year-old body, frail and yellow against the sallow porch light. “Of course! I’ll come over all the time.” Her eyes met mine with the contagious flash of disbelief, confusion, and grief reflected in those around us. My brothers and sisters watched in eerie silence as I, Judas, straightened to go.
     “I don’t know why you think you need to do this.” Dad thrust his fists beneath his arms. “This is a Bad Idea.” He said it like that always—you could see the words stamped across his thoughts like a brand.
     Mom leaned against him; tears flowed from her lashes to my heart—burning, sizzling despite the shuddering chill. They looked old then, older than they’d ever been. I fought the spreading fog that choked me every time I faced disapproval or disappointment. I’d tried to explain this a hundred times, prepare them, and get them used to the idea. “It’s not like I just want to move out. I have to. And I’ve prayed, hard.”
     My soul added, “For years,” but I kept it in, flooded with sadness as my siblings huddled together against the enemy—me. Not Judas. Me. Worse. How could I do this? Doubt, guilt—they sunk scorching blades into my heart.
     Although I wanted to collapse into the clumps of weeds that left sharp miniature daggers clustered in the frayed hem of my jeans, waiting to pierce my fingers and draw blood when I’d pick them out, I managed to keep standing. We hugged each other and it felt weird. Because it wasn’t really goodbye, like the farewells you give to grandparents who live halfway across the country. But how to explain that to little ones? How to make them understand why a familiar face is absent from the pillow in her bed? Especially when everything looked fine and breaking up didn’t make sense—but sure hurt a lot.
     Just try to go on living after that.
     Driving away sure hurt, too. Our long driveway seemed to last for miles. Clay stuck to my tires as though the earth itself clawed at me, begging me to stay. In my rearview mirror I watched my childhood home grow smaller; I watched my family slowly trickle towards the porch where we’d sat a thousand times.
     My family.
     Suddenly they looked lonely. Lost.
     How could I do this? I loved them. Loved them all so much. I wanted to reach out, touch them like one touches a Thomas Kinkade painting—with reverence, with warmed-by-illusion awe towards scenes of peacefulness, perfection. I wanted to run back, pleading for forgiveness. To say I never meant it; that yes, it’s a Bad Idea and I’ll never leave again. I wanted to take them with me. I wanted to steer my car into an oak and end everything.
     A still small voice restrained me, and I burst into tears.
     The choice to leave my family and be “on my own” was made many years ago. I was nineteen. It was hard on all of us. Sometimes choices hurt, and we don’t know whether to go forward and fight new struggles, or stay behind and face familiar ones. Sometimes things don’t make sense at first. Sometimes we have to close our eyes and just keep moving forward, knowing in Whom we believe—He who calls and bids us, Come.
     Because it’s a journey, this faith we claim. Of becoming, obedience, and life. And love.
     This really is a love story—just one I never thought I’d write.
     God is surprising sometimes.

© 2010 by Hillary McFarland