In the longing in the foretaste
comes the telling of mind and heart
that ourselves are not a waste
when self ends and God doest start.
Early in marriage and motherhood I had a consistent–albeit hidden–fear that the endless repetition of homemaking would squeeze out who I was. I thought that my writing in particular would meet a quick death beneath diced onions and dirty diapers–and it did…for a time–but just as the home and motherhood changed (and I think) improved my writing, so too it transformed me.
My fears were rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of writing, the arts, selfhood…life itself. I had unknowingly internalized Virginia Woolf’s ideas, that a woman needs a “room of her own”, a space separated from the demands of others. I had come to believe that one must have an escape from those things that ask too much, and to instead bend the world to meet a sense of self in order to create, to find meaning. In this ideal, motherhood cannot possibly coincide with creativity. But I believe Woolf was wrong, and maybe her life-long dissatisfaction was less rooted in what was imposed upon her, and more in her own twisted views.
What Woolf didn’t realize, and I had forgotten, was that writing, the arts, the self, are only improved by the necessary monotony of life being lived, and demanding something from us. Or as Stephen King simply puts, “Life is not a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
It is the pressing physical needs: filling up empty bellies that will be empty again, putting to bed to wake again, clearing dishes to be dirtied again, weeding the garden to return to more weeds, earning money to spend and give. An endless repetition, a cycle that offers opportunities for imprints of the eternal to be glimpsed as we stoop and serve, love and are loved; as we give and sacrifice and learn to empty ourselves so that we can be filled by the One who did far more for us.
Our words, paint strokes, melodies are merely an attempt to catch hold of this. No portrait, symphony, nor sonnet can fully encapsulate the actuality: a heartbeat within a womb, childhood laughter, the way of a husband with his beloved, the wrinkles and grays of a life well-lived. We try to touch these realities, to turn them over in our hands to understand them, to close our eyes and remember, to reflect their beauty, and this is art. But if we flip things, if we think Art is somehow the substance instead of the shadow, we crush the butterfly’s wing instead of observing her flight.
Like art, our sense of self is not primary, as an independent thing it is not substantive. We exist and were created for the Other. We find our self, not through some undefined actualized self, some unshackling from expectations, or unrealized dreams, but in someone else. Not just anyone, but the One who made us, and knows exactly what makes us whole. Just as art is trivialized, broken even, when it is elevated from the life it seeks to reflect (how trite is the sonnet of a man who has never loved, the photographs of those who have not lived), so too, we are broken when we aim at being central and unmoored from our Creator.
As it is, we are designed that we might discover, and delight in knowing that, “in my end is my beginning. (T.S. Eliot)” Where the seed dies the tree grows. Where we put to death our silly delusions of self-importance there is life. And we must lay ourselves down again and again and again. In Soren Kierkegaard’s estimation, infinitely so, “in the infinite resignation there is peace and rest and comfort in sorrow.”
Our art, or self, or purpose, or meaning…whatever you want to call it, it can only be found when we turn ourselves over to the One who is central. We, who think ourselves god in our daily doings, must die, but we do not end in the grave. For faith-filled death leads to resurrection.
I’ve seen this in friendships, in work, in marriage, but most clearly in motherhood. The giving of self is a necessity for small, needy lives to thrive. Our bodies give at conception, we give of ourselves and life grows, literally. And pregnancy is only the beginning. “Motherhood requires self-giving, sacrifice, suffering. It is going down into death in order to give life, a great human analogy of a great spiritual principle. (Elisabeth Elliot)”
Labor pains and scars; waking when we want–even desperately need–sleep; loving when we are weary; creating safety and shelter and peace when the world is chaotic and our own hearts are restless; foregoing our wants to address another’s needs; offering our bodies, our time, our mental and emotional energy every day. Others live by our dying, and paradoxically, so do we. This is where we find joy, beauty, life. This is love. “He said, ‘love as I have loved you.’ We cannot love too much. (Amy Carmichael)”
The demands are never too high. What we give will never exceed what Christ has given us, and in a great act of grace, what we give is never a loss. We cannot “lose ourselves” in motherhood, or anywhere else, for who we are is rooted in him. When we resign ourselves to be transformed to be like the one who gave all, our time is too, the moments of our life are resurrected from duty to opportunity, from drudgery to love. And love is never lost.
Love took up the harp of life,
and smote on all the chords with might,
Smote the chord of self that,
trembling, past in music out of sight.
-Lord Alfred Tennyson