Monday, October 18, 2010

Apartment Living: or thoughts on the aesthetic life

Taken from previous summer post.

This summer and fall, I lived as an off campus student for the first time. Jillian and I are settling into a routine of very different work lives and cooking and eating and cleaning and spending vast amounts of time at the Duplex in town. Much of it has felt like "vacation" to me and not like living in a real place at all but it begins to feel less and less so as I go about grocery shopping weekly, buying my own milk, doing laundry in the basement, and having/using/cleaning a kitchen. While there are overlaps and similarities between this kind of living and residence hall life, there are also some significant differences. I think comparisons will grow as I move farther and farther through time away from that brief three-year residence hall adventure, but one clear difference is the way hospitality and aesthetics are considered.

The word "aesthetics" (especially when I say it with confidence) makes me sound really smart and pretentious. However, I've had my own fear of that word carefully and thoroughly dismantled as I've read "Rainbows for the Fallen World" by Calvin G. Seerveld this past week. It has been a touchstone book for artists of faith for several decades now, and I am coming to it for the first time in my senior year. The role of art and creativity as work in Christian life has been a humbling perspective. One thing he has discussed in the second chapter "Obedient Aesthetic Life" is the necessity and glory of complete faithfulness to Christ, including a new way experience and knowledge of physical sense. An "aesthetic Christian life" is a life where the things we choose to see, touch, hear, smell, and feel are renewed by seeing Christ's creative and sustaining hand. This can even be done, he suggests, by seeking out the humor and comedy in life, in doctrine, in worship, rejoicing even as God rejoices in His creation. Nothing is abstract in "Rainbows". Seerveld backs it up with immediate practicable suggestions, areas we desperately need to consider how God would have us live in this world, without giving a new list of "laws" for us to follow. For example, he asks:

-What do our clothes say about God's delight in the created world?
-When we use styrophoam cups, what are we saying about man's craftsmanship? When we serve the food that keeps us alive on such utensils?
-How and when does eating food make us delight in that food and not in its utilitarian uses?

He isn't saying we have to go buy fine china, but it makes me wonder exactly why I would choose a mug over a paper cup if I could, and even more so a mug that has a nice handle and fits in my hand over just any mug, and why, if Maureen made it in her ceramics class, I would enjoy that tea even more. This is not elitism, which is an offspring of a humanistic story where man moves continually upward on his invisible tower of babel towards God. This is also not to take us away from other work but aesthetics acting as a practice to infuse all things, from evangelism to preaching to quiet devotions, teaching, etc. And it is not asking poor college students (such as myself) to spend heaps of money to have "beautiful" or "high end" things. That is consumerism.

I think it has much more to do with taking what we do have and making of it what we can in the moment: glorifying God for made and crafted things as our food comes from coupons in the local paper and our clothes come by second hand and our furniture from dumpster diving.

All of this seemed to speak to the different way I've experienced apartment life than residence halls, and even shed light on some of the smaller things that irked (or delighted) me about those three years. There is a lot more room for crafting a space around this kind of awareness in one's own apartment. Jillian and I unwittingly participated in this desire when we cleaned like crazy women the first day in our summer home. There was greater ease, greater pleasure in having a place when it was clean, the dishes were put away, and we had a candle lit on the side table. While I value the on campus housing staff, there is something important about cleaning the place myself and feeling responsible for its appearance and atmosphere that I couldn't have sharing a building with 600 people. Res Life at Penn State, to their credit, really wants to make life a communal and even "aesthetic" experience though I don't think that last word is on any of their res life goal sheets. It isn't always possible in a res hall, but they tried by letting us paint hallways or bulletin boards or door tags or at least getting the trash into the trashcans!

An aesthetic life is, in its truest form, a life of considering others better than yourself. Possible anywhere, I hope.

Hospitality is key aesthetics. In late May, I went to my Navigator minstry discipler's home to make cinnamon rolls. The day was wonderful, covered in flower and deliciousness, all made possible by her beautiful kitchen. She has many details in her home that communicate ease and hospitality from small pictures to the choice of her wallpaper. I imagine that her hospitality through sensual details was a skill that came over time and with practice.

(The flour was flying and ended up on my nose!)

I think of apartments that college students live in. Using space a certain way communicates value. I've enjoyed the shoe arrangement on an apartment staircase, blue bowls in a cabinet, flowers in a vase, and pictures carefully chosen and hung. The space isn't spacious, but well loved.

Aesthetics is in the details of what we have and make as well as in the spaces we live. Mark Bertrand, writer and facultry member at Worldview Acadmey, does this through caring (and blogging) about Bible production and printing ( His wife, Laurie, has more craft skills than anyone else I know (

My housemates in Patty's Place (yes, we named our home after "Anne of the Island" by L. M. Montgomery) continue to teach me every day about this life: Sarah's care and attention for details and creativity, making each housemate her own mug, colored from interpretation of our personalities; Maggie graceful clothing style, acting as our advisor in ever matter of appearance, or even the expert of placing the vase of flowers just so on the kitchen table. Jillian does it through an appalling skill in the kitchen, which is currently covered in flower, dough, and the smell of yeast from her bread baking adventures! Even our dear guy friends practice this in their duplex, with an expertly assembled sound system for our frequent movie nights.

But as anyone who has lived with me can tell you, I am a terribly messy person. My life tends to clutter: my books fall over from their standing orders, my clothes fall out of the closet, and I forget the details. Am I lost in a world without practicing aesthetics? No. Surely not. This is a practice for the world and not simply for those to whom order comes naturally. My first response the "aesthetic life" was defensiveness. I simply felt inadequate to do anything that somehow made life more beautiful. My baking skills are limited to my family's chocolate chip cookies. I'm bad at organizing. I have no ability to craft or sew or set up a sound system. I could begin by making sure that I am paying attention, enjoying beauty when I find it. But that is not enough. I want to not just enjoy but participate in the making of such a living.

I continued to feel this way as apartment life turned from a few week into five months, and Maggie's birthday arrived. We threw a small party for her, and at the end of it, she asked me to read some poetry. I was surprised, but read Rossetti and Yeats and Hopkins. I read a poem that I had written about a trip we had taken together to New Orleans a few spring breaks ago. I'm rarely asked to read something I've written and found that I enjoyed the evening a great deal in sharing those words with the party. In a note, Maggie said, "Thank you... for the poetry reading. What a blessing it is when you are who you are!" Why do I more often attempt or experience frustration at my lack than my reality?

Perhaps, then, it is, as Seerveld would agree I think, less about meeting specific requirements and more about a practice or a way of seeing. Each has a different set of eyes/skills/talents. I can use what I have been given and rejoice. I can live an aesthetic life, grateful.

In the mean time, at least I can bake more cookies.


Chelsea said...

Thank you! I've been wishing you'd start writing again...and both of these spoke truth to me on issues that have been floating around my head. As a 2nd year teacher, I find myself peeking out of the whirlwind of to-do lists and "survival mode," grasping at beauty and laughter and just-because-ness. And for my students' sake as much as for my own, I want/need to practice being fully alive. Time to go listen to "Add to the Beauty" again...

dana said...

Chelsea, that is exactly what I did yesterday while revising this post. Thank you, Sara Groves!