A photo of a small wooden church in a field.

First Person

I Used to Live in Paradise

Growing up in a Christian utopia of her parents' making, Lyz Lenz eventually realized the hubris of paradise is the idea that we can create it—and destroy it.

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“To live for one’s principles, at all costs, is a dangerous speculation; and the failure of an ideal, no matter how humane and noble, is harder for the world to forgive and forget than bank robbery or the grand swindles of corrupt politicians.” —Louisa May Alcott

I used to live in paradise—a long, low ranch house, sheltered by the tangle of cottonwood trees that lined the creek. But as with every Eden, we were soon kicked out.

My parents rented the house on Cottonwood Creek for several years in the mid-1990s. It sat on an acreage in Allen, Texas, horseshoed by a white gravel driveway. Right next to the house was a barn that was rented out to the people in this swiftly growing suburbia who owned horses. In the morning, through the broad bay windows, we could see the horses, copper, and coal against the swell of green that rose up in the summer from the creek. The yard was always unkempt like the hair of a wild sister.

For us children, the house itself was a wonder, with expansive windows, salmon-colored carpet, a den with dark-paneled wood, a cool brick floor, and an entire wall of bookshelves. The shelves were filled with fairy tales, Bibles, thick tomes of Greek myths, Emily of New Moon, Five Children and It, stories of children lost in magical lands—Narnia, the western prairie, out on the sea. The children in these books were always lost, and the adults never seemed to notice. As a mother now, the premise of these books worries me. But as a child, it made perfect sense that your world would be separate from your parents’. That there would only be small overlapping pieces—when you ate, when your mother made you do your homeschool math worksheets, prayer time, when you snuck down the hall and listened to your parents scream at one another in their room, hearing every word, understanding nothing.

The house also had magnificent bathrooms, holdovers from the early 1950s, when the home was built as a luxurious dude ranch for visitors from Dallas, a place for the wealthy to think they were escaping it all. One bathroom had bright blue tile and silver-foil wallpaper burnished with peacocks; another had pink tile and a pink tub. My siblings and I loved the garish beauty and would fight over who got to shower where. To me, the blue tile and luminous peacocks were sheer opulence. I’d run my hands over the wallpaper, naming the peacocks after the knights of the Round Table—Galahad, Tristan, Lamorak, and Lancelot. Right before we left the house, my mother obliterated the peacocks, stripping the wallpaper and then sponge-painting the walls peach and blue.

But it was the backyard that was truly our promised land. Behind the house, just beyond the crushed chalk of the driveway, the ground quickly dropped away down a steep hill that led to Cottonwood Creek. In the spring, when the rain washed down from the housing developments a few miles away, the creek surged up to the top of the hill. We were not to go near it then. We didn’t have to be told. We watched the water rip away the trees and weeds, terrifying us with its anger. But in the summer, when the creek was just a golden trill against the sandstone and shale, and the creeping Charlie returned, and the thistles were as high as my head, it was easy to forget the violence of the spring. And we did, blissfully building houses from the springtime debris—consequences of the water’s rage.

We believed in the magic of that world down in the creek, where the greenbrier curled around trees and scratched our legs and the water oak tipped lazily over the stream as if in a constant half-state between dreaming and awake. We believed so fervently, so completely, that the trash tossed down from the nearby overpass became heavenly gifts—oil cans, garbage bags, tires, empty cups from Carl’s Jr. and Sonic, all hidden among the scrubby willow oak. We collected them like greedy misers. My brother Zach collected pieces of glass in a discarded Ziploc bag, and they shone so brightly that we believed them to be tiny pieces of falling star. And in our desperate belief, we made our paradise.

Sometimes, when our mother told us not to go in the creek, or when the clang of her Texas-shaped wrought-iron dinner bell brought us back up for meals, my brother and I would talk about living forever by the creek. I had been reading books about edible plants and how to catch rabbits. My brother had been practicing starting fires with sticks. And though we had never eaten a wild plant besides honeysuckle or even made one small spark with those sticks, we agreed that all we ever needed was down in the creek.

Inside the house, our lives were spent living out the simulacrum of someone else’s Eden. Our mornings began with all of us seven children around the table. Later, when my youngest brother was born, we would become eight. But back then, before it all collapsed, we were seven children. A holy number. Seven days of the week. Seven parables of Jesus. Seven arrows in my parents’ quiver. Seven sets of eyes circling the broad oak table in the kitchen that our father called the aircraft carrier.

The dishwasher hummed and rattled, and the counters were wiped clean. The floors were swept, and all that remained of our breakfast of biscuits and gravy and milk was the white crust around my sister Ruthie’s mouth. She was 4 then, with dark, mischievous eyes and curly pigtails, which she would let down the first chance she got. She sat next to Cathy, who was 7 and had curly blonde pigtails she always left in. Then there was Becky, 9, with a valence of blonde hair above her gray-green eyes. Zach and I sat next to each other. Our freckles, brown hair, and crooked smiles often got us mistaken for twins. He was 11, I was 12. Caleb, the baby, was in the high chair, while Jessie, the oldest at 14, was wearing makeup.

Earlier that morning, while we were getting dressed, I had asked her who she was putting it on for. She told me, “It’s important for a young woman to look nice. That’s how God created us. Maybe you should try it.” I licked my hand and used it to smush the cowlick on the back of my head and told her to shut up. She ran to tell Mom that I’d said “shut up”; it was a forbidden word, along with “get,” “got,” and “thing” (because they are examples of lazy language), as well as “gee,” “gosh,” and “darn” (because they are too close to “Jesus,” “God,” and “damn”).

From the kitchen, I’d heard Jessie begin her story, but Mom wasn’t listening. “Start the gravy,” she said.

After breakfast was over, our lessons began. Our mother sat at the head of the table. The Bible was open in front of her. Behind her, taped to the wall, were laminated pieces of paper, some with Latin words, others with Bible verses. In the middle of this patchwork of our education was the spoon. A large wooden spoon with Proverbs 13:24 written in my mother’s careful handwriting on the bowl: “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.” There was a long crack that ran through the verse, from where the spoon had met Jessie’s behind. (We didn’t say “butt” either.)

“Let us pray,” my mother said.

School began. Every day, our first and last lesson came from the Bible. First from our mother, who read to us at the head of the table after breakfast, and then from my father, who read to us before bed as we squeezed together on the couch, spilling over onto the salmon-colored carpet.

That day, as we balanced on the squeaking wooden chairs with our notebooks, worn, torn, and hand-me-down, in front of us, my mother read with her head tilted down as if in prayer. She was trying to teach us to pray the words from the Bible. She wanted us to “hide God’s word in our hearts.” And she told us stories about people persecuted, enslaved, and ruined, people who, in their misery, would recite God’s word out loud and find comfort.

“People who are in misery,” she said, her voice tense, “can call out the name of the Lord, and he will deliver them. Corrie ten Boom, who was placed in a concentration camp for trying to save Jews in Nazi Germany, found strength from the word of God that she had memorized and hidden in her heart. I, too, know the power of God’s comfort every morning when I have my quiet time.” She closed her eyes, raised her hands, and recited Psalm 56:10–11: “In God, whose word I praise, in the Lord, whose word I praise—in God I trust and am not afraid. What can man do to me?” We children sat on our hands, listening to her voice cry out to God with the words of Psalm 68 over the thunking of our ancient dishwasher: “God sets the lonely in families, he leads out the prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.”

This house was our holy land. The place where we lived out the Biblical mandate to be in the world but not of it, citizens of heaven before we ever held allegiance to Texas or the United States. But we were kids, and what did we know of heaven or country? All we knew was each other. So we were a separate nation of squirmy, half-dirty troglodytes. How could we seek first a kingdom we never saw? We tried, of course. Praying. Talking to God. Debating over whether we could cast out demons. (I believed I could. Zach and Jessie flatly refused to even consider the possibility.) But no matter how hard we tried, heaven was always some version of Cottonwood Creek and the hot Texas sun winking through the trees.

Even now that I am older and don’t believe in paradise, I sometimes let myself imagine what heaven would be like, and again I think of our scrubby lean-tos, shaped against the base of assenting oaks. The hours spent sweeping the dirt with dried leaves and how proud we were of all the little poisonous berries we collected.

In her short story “Transcendental Wild Oats,” Louisa May Alcott (more famous for her novel Little Women) writes a thinly veiled satire of her father’s failed utopian dream. Bronson Alcott, like many transcendentalists, believed heaven wasn’t in the afterlife—it was here on earth, if only we would create it. Together with his friend Charles Lane, he created a communal society called Fruitlands just outside of Harvard, Massachusetts. At Fruitlands, no animal labor was used, and no artificial light. The inhabitants vowed to drink only water and to eat according to a strict vegan diet. The experiment lasted just seven months. When the winter came, a lack of food and sufficient clothing drove the inhabitants back to the warmth of animal products.

My mom spoke often of Fruitlands and the Alcotts. She assigned us to read biographies of the Alcotts and every book Louisa May had ever written. Transcendentalism was an interesting choice for my mother, a woman committed to living the Bible as purely as she could. Transcendentalists were largely agnostic, not to mention influenced by Hinduism. Perhaps it was this small hole in the armor of her belief that let us children eventually see a way out.

But we never spoke of the end of Alcott’s utopia. Only that he had created it and he was happy. Nowadays, when we gather for holidays, still around that same oak table, we talk of the creek, of peacock wallpaper. We never speak of the end. We don’t speak of my father’s absences or eventual return. Or why we suddenly moved to South Dakota to try again.

Was this what it was like for Adam and Eve? Did they ever talk about the snake? I imagine them sitting in their small tent made of animal skin, hot dry air blowing outside, their crops failed again, their children fighting. They say nothing, but the lush, easy richness of the lost world haunts them. And in not speaking, they forget the oppression of the beauty. The horrid expectation of paradise—our own incorruptible perfection.

We moved from the house by Cottonwood Creek to a new one in South Dakota. But that was the beginning of the end. Soon Jessie and I attended public school, soon my mother stopped insisting we keep the house television-free, soon the morning lessons ended. Soon I left for college and got married and learned that the utopia we children lived in was really just the opposite for my parents, who created it.

I was taught that it was Eve who ended paradise with her hunger. But lately, I have begun to wonder if it wasn’t all over from the very moment it was created. All paradise is doomed to end. And yet we keep trying to create it. America is a country full of failed utopias. The Oneida Community. Thoreau’s Walden. The Puritan colonies. And our own Cottonwood Creek, which we were forced to leave. In South Dakota, we spent the first winter inside, shivering, building a new little world in the basement of our townhome, but it was small and there were walls and we fought so much that eventually we abandoned that town. The hubris of paradise is the idea that we can create it.

I didn’t learn my lesson, though. I tried to make my own utopia once. Along with three other couples, my now ex-husband and I started our own church. The idea was to leave all the bureaucracy and legalism of religion and create a place of pure faith and community. The reality was our church in a long, low brick building that had once been a train depot. It was adjacent to a park and right behind a coffee shop, one of those charming places where there are bright overstuffed chairs and piles of knickknacks on the wall.

Our church building was drafty and the floor uneven. There was a small hole in the floor near one of the doors, which we just carpeted over. We set a chair over it so no one would trip, but the chair was always being moved. I often found myself feeling the floor beneath me go soft and begin to give way.

Our chairs were secondhand, with mauve fabric cushions on dirty, cream-colored plastic, and our sound system would often seize up into high-pitched squeals. The coffee pots always leaked. There was one wall bisecting the building, separating the children’s area from the adults’ with glass doors that often stuck and a small window for a coffee bar that didn’t shut. The sermons were always being interrupted by the happy shouts of kids, so eventually one of the pastors found a large piece of Styrofoam to put up in the coffee-bar window. I covered the Styrofoam with fabric to make it look nicer, but it was always falling out of the hole with a loud thunk that would interrupt the service.

The church lasted for five years, until one of the pastors quit, accusing the rest of us of not being committed enough to our faith. What really happened was that we just didn’t want to move buildings, we didn’t have the money, and as I pointed out at one of our many meetings, moving wouldn’t fix what was wrong with us.

The collapse didn’t come out of nowhere. It had been destined from the beginning. Small fights that we ignored, terse emails from our pastor that were never really dealt with. Finally, when the pastor tried to take over another local church by going in and demanding they give us use of their building, I forced the issue, bringing everyone together for a series of meetings where we could talk about everything. I thought honesty would fix us, but it only brought about a quicker end. We are no longer friends with those couples. I am no longer married. That fall led to so many other falls.

Is that what Eve did with the apple? That first bite the wrecking ball to an already ruined building. That first bite the ruination of the truth.

I wonder why I did it. I had seen one utopia fail. Why did I try to create another? But then, that is the model of the Christian God. Creating a heaven. Then an Eden. And when Eden failed, he opened the rest of the world. “This time it will be good,” he said to himself, before erasing humanity with a flood and starting over. And he will try again, or so Christians believe. The promise of Revelation is that God will set up a new heaven and a new earth. I can’t wait to see how those fail too.

That is Christianity, waiting both for the end and for paradise—aren’t we foolish to think that the two will ever be separated? We never leave this cycle. We cannot separate the failures of creator from creation. We can never stop hoping that this time it will be good.

In the aftermath of my church’s collapse, I tossed cans of powdered lemonade into a Dumpster and donated our pounds of coffee to a local women’s shelter. Our plastic coffee stirrers found their way into my daughter’s room, where they became the backbones of homemade puppets. When all of that happened, I realized how my mother could read about the failure of Fruitlands and still try to make her own heaven on earth—because not trying, not believing, not attempting to change the world is a far more dangerous enterprise. It requires looking into the darkness and saying, “This too is good.”

I don’t believe in paradise anymore, but I miss it. We can only be nostalgic for fictions. This is why we never talk about the end. This is why we cannot trace every thread of failure. To do so would mean holding it and ourselves up to a scrutiny we couldn’t stand. It would mean confessing all those dark parts of ourselves that paradise couldn’t redeem. It would mean understanding that the evil we were trying to avoid wasn’t outside, but within.

But that doesn’t stop us from trying. Five years after the church closed, I ended my 12-year marriage and moved out of the house I shared with my husband. I rented a small cottage where the yard is unkempt and wild like my daughter’s hair. And despite knowing better, when I moved in, I thought, This time it will be good. And when that too is over, as it will be, I will try to create another and another. Every good thing is dangerous speculation. Each place is a small fortress of hope.

“Cottonwood Creek” was originally published in Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church (2019).  Copyright © 2019 by Chrissy Stroop and Lauren O’Neal.  Used by permission of Epiphany Publishing.

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