This year, I lived off campus for the first time. At first, I couldn’t believe I was still in college. Since I was living in a quiet neighbourhood, away from the intense activity that is the bread and butter of residence halls, school felt like “vacation” while I went about grocery shopping, doing laundry, and using my own kitchen for the first time. While there are overlaps and similarities between this kind of living and residence hall life, there are more significant differences and significant lessons I’ve had to learn. One that keeps recurring through living in an apartment is practicing everyday aesthetics.
The word “aesthetics” (especially when I say it with confidence) makes me feel smart and pretentious. However, my snobbish attitude was thoroughly dismantled when I read Rainbows for the Fallen World by Calvin Seerveld. A touchstone for artists of faith for years, the book came to me in the first few weeks of senior year off-campus living. Thinking about the role of art and creativity as work in Christian life humbles me.
The second chapter, “Obedient Aesthetic Life,” includes a discussion of the necessity and glory of complete faithfulness to Christ, which must involve new knowledge of sense. An “aesthetic Christian life” is one in which 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, Seerveld suggests, by seeking out the joy in life, in doctrine, in worship, rejoicing even as God rejoices in His creation. Nothing is abstract in Rainbows. Seerveld backs up his argument with much needed practices 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 Styrofoam cups, what are we saying about man’s craftsmanship? What about when we serve the food that keeps us alive on disposable utensils?
- How and when does eating food make us delight in that food, and not in its utilitarian uses?
Seerveld isn’t saying we have to go buy fine china, but he makes me consider why I would choose a mug over a paper cup if I could—and even more, a mug that has a nice handle and fits in my hand. Why, if my friend made a mug in her ceramics class, would I enjoy drinking out of it 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 “extra” work. It is an aesthetic practice that infuses all things, from evangelism to preaching to quiet devotions to teaching. It is not asking poor college students (such as myself) to spend heaps of money to have “beautiful” or “high end” things. 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, even as we trash-pick our living room furniture.
I am a student of aesthetics, a life in process, overwhelmed more often than encouraged. Through both space and housemates, my apartment experiences have begun the slow process of training me to live intentionally. Often, the process sheds light on what irked (or delighted) me about my three years of living on campus. The limitations of living in a long hallway kept my aesthetic awareness at a minimum. There is simply a lot more room for crafting an aesthetic space in one’s own apartment—something I discovered early on. One of my housemates and I unwittingly embraced personal aesthetics when the first thing we had to do when we moved in was clean the apartment like crazy women. 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.
My housemates and I take greater pleasure in having a clean place, with dishes put away and a lit candle. For three years, we had lived under the (wise) tyranny of a residence life candle ban. What a difference it made to light a match and warm up our living room! To their credit, Residence Life at Penn State wants to make life a communal and even “aesthetic” experience, but it isn’t always possible. Cinder block walls, no matter how cleverly concealed, still leave an echoey constraint and coldness. In an apartment space, I’ve been able to learn that 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.
My housemates in Patty’s Place (yes, we named our home after Anne of the Island by L. M. Montgomery) teach me by example: Sarah’s care and attention for details and creativity, making each housemate her own mug inspired by our personalities; Maggie’s graceful clothing style, acting as our advisor in ever matter of appearance and room decor. Jillian teaches me aesthetics through her bread-baking adventures, which leave the kitchen and us covered in flour and dough! Even our dear male friends practice this in their duplex, with an expertly-assembled sound system for frequent movie nights.
Where do I fit into this group? I am a terribly messy person. My life tends to clutter: my books fall over from their standing orders, my clothes fall from hangers, and I forget the details. Maggie and Sarah had to arrange the living room, and they insisted I hang curtains in my room. I’m bad at organizing. I have no ability to craft or sew or set up a sound system. My baking skills are limited to my family’s chocolate chip cookies (though they are tasty, if I do say so myself). Too often, I feel as if I have nowhere to begin.
Am I lost in a world without aesthetics? No. Surely not. This is a practice for all, and not simply for those to whom order comes naturally. I did not believe this at first. How can I be required to make things “nice” if I struggle to remember to put my own dishes away?
But aesthetic faithfulness starts with appreciation. I must begin by enjoying beauty when I find it. Noticing and valuing are important—a fact that I downplay a great deal of the time, especially when I’m most convinced of my own ineptitude. But when Jillian makes an exceptional dish, I can savour it slowly. When Maggie changes the light bulb in the living room so we have warmer lighting, I can thank her for making that choice. When Sarah decides that I should have curtains in my room and cleverly uses old scarves to make some, I can be thrilled!
And, whether it seems true or not, appreciation leads inevitably to participation. I want to enjoy and participate in beauty.
Recently, we celebrated Maggie’s birthday. At the end of her small surprise party, she asked me to read some poetry. I had not expected that request but obliged by reading Rossetti and Yeats and Hopkins. I read a poem about a spring break trip we both took to New Orleans. I’m rarely asked to read something I’ve written, and found that I enjoyed the evening a great deal more by 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!” When I am who I am—why am I more often frustrated by missing abilities rather than using the ones I already have?
Then, aesthetically faithful life is, as I think Seerveld would agree, less about meeting specific requirements and more about a way of seeing. Each person has different eyes, skills, and talents. I can use what I have been given—ability to write and see the beauty in wordcraft—and rejoice. I can rejoice in my strengths and the gifts that others share with me. I can live a gratefully aesthetic life. I want to enjoy and participate in beauty.
And while I continue to struggle in learning unique fashion, furniture arrangement, and cooking beyond pasta, I can, at least, make another mean batch of chocolate chip cookies.