making paradise

Posted by on November 1, 2008

I am changing, and I don’t know precisely what to blame. Motherhood would be the most obvious; that and time–plain old aging. I used to stay up late and almost never–couldn’t–nap. These days, I can fall into a deep and long one any afternoon that allows for it.

I am getting over my general surprise over how demanding family life has turned out to be, although sometimes my imagination does venture down routes of escape. A priest recently told me that no one’s ego wants to be bound by responsibility. Children are really hard work. All spouses have annoying habits, he said. But genuine love, Christ himself, is precisely in the ordinary and tedious things we do for them daily.

I’m still reflecting on the first trimester of pregnancy, which turned out to be a trial. I don’t know how well I did. I hated being weak and incapable of managing quotidian demands. I disliked the fact that all my body wanted was a spot in the shadowy bedroom, under a rumpled quilt, with no two year old romping, climbing my head, and wanting constant and positive interaction. It all turned out to be illusory, of course, as I wasn’t, in fact, dying. But even though I knew that and could reasonably expect a reprieve in a matter of weeks, I indulged in despairing thoughts, succumbed to the irrational sensation that I had been permanently banned from the frozen pond of life where everyone else was briskly rounding corners in their iceskates, going from one task to the next. I dramatically imagined myself having fallen through a thin patch of ice in an out of the way slough, where the healthy skaters couldn’t see and didn’t care.

Well, as said, it all turned out to be illusory and a trial, as most sicknesses are. But while I am sick I think about health as a thin–not thick–slab of ice, whereas those who are up there skating around don’t think much about the thickness or thinness of what’s beneath their blades. So maybe sickness and weakness are just practice for something more serious, which we will all face. Each bout of weakness dips us and soaks us further in the liquid of reality.

The first time I understood that pregnancy was not going to be business-as-usual was during my first trimester of pregnancy with Esme, the winter of 2006. I went to the Notre Dame gym, thinking I was going to do the usual stuff I do at gyms (which–ha-I now haven’t actually done for several years). As soon as I got on the elliptical machine my legs felt weak, I couldn’t muster up even a measly heart rate, and had to get off. Notably, there was an undergrad student on the machine in front of me wearing a Dr. Seuss shirt that said: “Oh, the places you’ll go,” and in that moment I looked at that t-shirt with a certain wisdom and loathing. These optimistic undergrads swarming the campus of Notre Dame, going places, in excellent health, with shiny hair and toned bodies, really had no clue about the places they’d be going, just as I didn’t when I was in college, years away from true adulthood, and, moreover, childbearing.

But it feels like a precious gift to be functioning again, to make meals, walk in the strange and frustrating land of potty training, get persons and stuff up three flights of apartment stairs, and all the other endless stream of hassles that make up family life with a young child– hassles that feel as if they are building muscle when they are not depleting muscle. But the motherhood muscle isn’t a literal thing, but a figurative toughness and perseverance, which, I admit, I did not have upon first becoming a mother and have had to acquire gradually, only as the general shock subsided.

We had a magical, wonderful Halloween. The graduate student housing, which is always trying to bring the community together for seasonal events, finally went beyond the mundane and did something really great by bringing in a petting zoo, a horse drawn wagon, bails of hay, lots and lots of pizza, and a bonfire–all in one evening, on which, coincidentally, the weather cooperated beautifully. For Esme, this Halloween was the first holiday she has been able to understand and participate in somewhat. I think I now know what it means to experience life vicariously through a child. And this vacariism is so much fun, it must form at least one of the major, possible human motivations behind having children, which, as stated, is really, really hard work.

Something I keep hearing and/or reading from Orthodox people and books is that while we live here on earth, we are called to make life a paradise for those around us. It’s a really beautiful thought, and I’ve been turning it over a lot in the past weeks.

Esme’s birthday is in September, and it landed this year right on the cusp of when I began feeling sort of bad, but not yet terrible. I was grouchy that day, but tried to hold it at bay, and did manage to carry out my plans to make her a sunflower cake, put up a few decorations, and stay positive. Six days later it was Jeff’s birthday. By then my pregnant misery was all happening in earnest, and I think we ended up getting take-out and no homemade anything, which I felt badly about. Once again, Jeff, the spouse, had to bear the worst of me, the spouse. He did a pretty good job during my worst weeks, and although I would not describe the final weeks of my first trimester as any sort of paradise, it is true that without his willingness to pick up all of my slack at home, things would have quickly become hell for us all. He kept hell at bay.

Right after I started feeling better, he got sick, and I tried to keep hell at bay for him too.

These are amazing words to me. It’s an amazing human potential–to prevent hell from enclosing around another human being. It takes energy-poured-forth, attitude, and will. But I do think that anyone can do it for anyone else, and I think that it’s even possible to do from a state of weakness, although that achievement is so far beyond me. I wonder if, in the future, I’ll learn to create paradise for others even when sick, but that is really the glory of saints, like Mother Maria Skobtsova, who was a light to the people around her in a German concentration camp, even as her body was giving out.

In any case, I am learning to recognize this at its most basic, to feel it when others are doing it for me. I am beginning to understand that when I am exerting myself on behalf of someone else and tempted to resent the effort or pity myself, that I am diminishing the importance of what is happening. I want to train myself to recognize my own work for what it is–something important– not trivial: the making of paradise for another. I am starting to suspect that this is the only work of true importance in the world.

  1. anna j
    November 3, 2008

    Dearest Julia,
    it is sweet to hear your voice via blog land . . . and sad to hear it from to far away. but i rejoice in your depth of wisdom, as bittersweet as it has been for you. you are my inspiration, my dear–in faith, in motherhood, in writing, and in life.
    till i get to be with you again, you have my friendship and my love.

  2. Kate Hale
    November 3, 2008

    Julia Lee,
    It is funny that although the miles and age often seem to make me believe we are so far apart, there are times when I realize we have much in common. I had the same conversation today about doing for others with kindness in heart and that is all that matters. I am constantly amazed at what an incredible writer you are. I am so proud of you!

  3. Jenny
    November 5, 2008


    You totally inspired me with this one. I can’t stop thinking of this idea of making paradise for others–and how this really captures what motherhood is–or can be. Thank you for bringing your blog back. Bless you. I think you’ve inspired me to do the same!

  4. Julia
    November 7, 2008

    Thank you, sweet friends, and even sweeter big sister.