Sunday, June 06, 2010

"Christian Aesthetics"; or Thoughts on Apartment Living

I have been living in State College nearly two weeks. #12 Grimmauld Place (the code name for my apartment on Vairo Blvd) is clean and in order. 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 machines right by my room, and having/using/cleaning a kitchen. While there are overlaps and similarities between this kind of living and the life of a residence hall dweller (I have turned the living room into a kind of "office" that my old desk used to be), 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 period of res life existence, but one that has been brought to my attention 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. I'm not finished reading the book, but his remarks on the role of art and creativity as work in Christian life have been humbling and perspective giving. One thing he has discussed in the second chapter "Obedient Aesthetic Life" is the necessity and glory of a full, complete life faithfulness to Christ that includes a new way of experiencing and knowing even our bodily senses. That is what he means by an "aesthetic Christian life": a life where the things we choose to see, the things we choose to touch, the things we choose to hear, the things we choose to smell, and felt, are not only chosen "things" but are renewed by seeing Christ's creative and sustaining hand in them. This can be done, he suggests, by even seeking out the humor and comedy in life, in doctrine, in worship, rejoicing even as God rejoices in His creation. I've really appreciated that none of this gets and abstract head nod from him in the book. He backs it up with sections on very immediate areas that this can be practiced, places 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.

-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 craftmanship? 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?

These are simply leading questions and areas that we could consider how to give God glory in everyday things. 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 my friend Maureen (or Sarah!) made it in her ceramics class I would enjoy that tea even more than I would in almost any other container. Not elitism, which, as he points out, is an aweful offspring of humanism that espouses man's continual movement upward on our invisible tower of babel towards God. I whole heartedly agree with Seerveld when he says that this is not to take our time and attention away from other things but it is a practice to infuse all things, from evangelism to preaching to quiet devotions, teaching, etc. It is not to be an "either/or" between the question of sending money to world missions and making our worship places beautiful. And it is not, on the small scale, means that for poor college students we must go out and 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, buying, as we do, much of our food on coupons in the local paper and clothes by second hand and hand-me-downs from friends and dumpster diving to find our couches to glorify God in the made and crafted things.

All of this seemed to speak to the different way I've experience 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 we had a chance 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 valued the housing staff in Simmons Hall, there was 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 try by giving us the chance to paint our hallways or make us do bulletin boards (I can't believe I'm saying this!) 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.

My second response to thinking these things was feeling guilty and inadequate. I am not a very excellent person to craft a living space around such ideas. Going into Barb Baldner's home last week to make cinnamon rolls was itself a beautiful time, getting covered in flower and deliciousness, made possible by a very beautiful kitchen. She has many details in her home that communicate ease and hospitality from small pictures to the choice of her wallpaper, things that I would be very bad at choosing on my own. I imagine that making her house so easy and welcoming through sensual details has come over time and with practice.
( Barb Baldner, my Navs discipler, teaching me how to properly roll cinnamon roll dough!)

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

And it isn't just possible in one's own home. Again, I think of apartments that college students live in. It says a lot about values when you walk through someone's space. I visited another friend's apartment just yesterday and enjoyed how they arranged their shoes on the staircase going into the entrance, the color blue of their bowls, flowers in a vase, and pictures everywhere. The space wasn't huge but it was enough and they had clearly made an attempt to make it a good place to be in.

But as anyone who has lived with me can tell you, I am a terribly messy person. Not dirty, but my things tend to clutter up and my books fall over from their standing orders and my clothes fall out of the closet, and I tend to forget details in their entirety. Whatever am I to do? One thing I considered was that each has their own way of participating in this. Our WVA friend and faculty member, Mark Bertrand, does this through caring passionately about the production and printing of his Bible (http://www.bibledesignblog.com/). His wife, Laurie, through more craftiness than I've seen in anyone else I know (http://www.liquidpaper.typepad.com/)! I'm looking forward to living with my house mates for Patty's Place in the fall, with Sarah's care and attention for details and creativity, from making her own purses and welded and soldered bracelets (say "soldered" as "saudered", carefully and with attention. Isn't that a wonderful word?) and making each of the house inhabitants our own mugs, each colored to her interpretation of our personalities. Maggie cares for her appearance, for style and clothing; not in vanity but in wanting beauty in what she chooses to put on. It is very possible for part of this to be taking delight in the appearance of another, in the well chosen summer dress or head band or whatever.  My current house mate for #12, Jillian, does it not through visible details (I insisted on the candles) but through an appalling skill in the kitchen (ours is currently covered in flower, dough, and the smell of yeast from her bread baking adventures!) that feeds many college bellies almost completely out of her own pocket. Even the Duplex, a place not associated with care for details or aesthetics especially if you pitched it to them as such, does act on a desire for it in their expertly assembled sound system for our frequent movie nights.

I'm left asking the question of what my role in all of this glory giving to God is in this new area of apartment living. I'm not good at any of the things I just listed, so I suppose I can begin by making sure that I am paying attention enough to enjoy and point it out when I find it. But that seems like it is not enough. I want to not just enjoy but participate in the making of such a living.

Perhaps I can start with making some of those Ray classic chocolate and butterscotch chip cookies!

Friday, June 04, 2010

Bear Story

As you know, this story will include a bear. This bear, as the title of the story, will play a central role. Sorry for spoiling it but you must know that this is one of the most magnificently absurd things I have experienced.

I received a text from Mooney saying that there were folks going camping. I was immediately in on the plan and went back to my apartment after filling out work paper work to throw a sweatshirt, socks, and my glasses in a backpack. Mooney and Robbie appeared outside of #12 Grimmauld (code name for where I'm living this summer) and we visited Walmart to purchase the obligatory smore foods. While there, Mooney and I again discussed how we would handle being attacked by a bear. We had gone on a short trek up the side of a ridge just the week before and had heard strange animal noises down the ridge the other direction and this had sparked a long and humorous imagining of what it would mean for Dana to drive stick shift to get Mooney (who had valiantly defended her from attacking bear) to the hospital for severe mauling. Robbie laughed at said at least we should try not to mock anyone like Elisha and get bears called out on us. Mooney didn't know this story and it was shared with gleeful violence attached.

After many delays, we made it to the Firetower in Rothrock State Park at 9:45 or so. We sat in the dark for a long while until some other came. Started the fire, took a short walk in the woods to an overlook (which was, as I'm sure you can imagine, rather dark and gloomy with very little to see), and enjoyed not saying much of anything and eating. Our company was this: Jason Hunter, Eric Mooney, Robbie Parks, Carren Stika, and myself. Jason cooked some excellent chicken in tin foil in the fire. Carren had brought hotdogs and we ate them off of sticks since there wasn't any bread. Lots of chocolate was consummed. And then, heavy with food and warmed by the fire in the heavy, storm promising winds, we decided it was time to bed down.

The chose spot was in front of a small cabin near the base of the fire tower. It was locked but we thought that if it really did rain we could get on the porch pretty easily. One place that was considered was under a pine tree away from either of these locations and toward the start of a trail, but it was rejected when we realized that most of us didn't have ground mats. Here is the location: Jason and Robbie were by the cars. Mooney and Carren were moving her hammock over to the cabin. I was ahead of the lot with all my things in my hands moving towards the cabin. And just as I got to the edge of the trees, the cell phone tower blinked in just the write way to illuminate a moving shadow. My heart caught but I was certain I was seeing things (having just scared myself silly by thinking about the book "No Country For Old Men"). I turned on Jason's head lamp and there indeed was a black bear caught in walking right across the grass where we would have been sleeping in five minutes. I backed up and got back to the cars yelling "Guys! There is a bear!"

Jason and Robbie dropped what they were doing and tried to shine the light on the bear. Mooney and Carren didn't seem to hear though and kept walking towards the cabin. We all started yelling and they stopped. My heart was racing and I had no idea what we were going to do next. So we just stopped and watched it for a few moments. Mooney and Carren finally moved over towards us and we had the cars between us and the bear. But the bear wasn't going away! It just stayed there even while we put lights on it and talked and yelled and had no idea what to do. The food had just been put away and we could only imagine it had smelled things cooking and had come to find us.

We were all moving and confused and weren't sure what to do. When the bear wouldn't leave, Mooney finally said, "Get in the car." I didn't move and at that moment the bear started coming towards us. "Dana! Get in the car!" I ran to Jason's car and the doors were locked. "Jason!" I yelled but Mooney's door was open first and I lept in and kept my eyes on the bear. I heard Jason yell, "Dana, you have to get in or no one else can!" I realized that I had stayed in the driver's seat and moved over. I don't know how Robbie got in so fast behind me and climbed to the back. Carren was in a moment later on my lap and we were laughing and clinging hands. I had not been too frightened until I saw Mooney and Jason get nervous. but we were all in cars.

That was when Mooney realized that Jason had his keys and so we were stuck for the time being with two packs outside of the car and the door wouldn't shut.

Umm...

Jason called someone's phone and we were trying to come up with a plan. There were way too many plans going around when we realized that we no longer knew where the bear was. Jason thought he saw it by the fire. Then Carren and I screamed because it walked on our side of the car within four feet. Jason turned his car and and began to flash his lights. The bear backed up and began nodding its head and looked like it wanted to run at us. Jason revved his engine. The bear moved forwards and then back and then we all started the car horns at once. It ran off into the woods. We grabbed the packs as soon as we could. Mooney was quite brave in getting out the car at all in order to put out the last of the fire and get the backpacks. We were going back to State College.

We were about twenty feet down the road when this bear appeared again. It ran along side us and then out in front of Jason's car. It was big and lumbering. Mooney (a hunter) guessed 350lbs. It kept up at 20 miles an hour before disappearing again. We were flying now.

Jason took his time coming down the mountain after us. We stopped on 322 without a sound of cars in any direction. It was strange to see the busiest stretch of road in State College so empty. I got out of the car and laid in the middle of the road laughing. It seemed safer than anything else from the past hour had been and I was so relieved that everyone was safe and laughing at the ridiculousness of how we had all behaved in our fear. Jason caught up and called Mooney. "What is Dana doing?!" "Umm... I think she is letting out some jitters."

Seidle was still up when we got back to the Duplex. Mooney lept into his arms and started telling him how we had all almost died. Then he backed up and attempted to tell the story in a way that emphasized his manliness and defense of the helpless. Jason made it a comedy where he attacked the bear with a hatchet and Carren knocked it out with her maglight. Robbie just thought people were funny and wasn't scared at all. I was alternately the hero for seeing the bear in the first place or the brunt of much teasing because of how fast I got in that car. It took us til 2:30 to fall asleep in the backyard of the State College neighborhood. We were still laughing until suddenly we weren't and everyone was asleep.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

State College

My life this summer is a strange one. I'm used to running off to various, crazy activities over the summer. I'm used to living somewhere completely new and strange to me. But this summer, I am returning to a place that is very familiar and beloved: State College. For those who might not know, this town is where I live during the school year. It is the home of Penn State University.

What am I doing here? Not school exactly. I will be living and working up here for a variety of reasons: mostly I just love this town. I forget how much sometimes during the school year because there is just so little space and time to enjoy it but I've always heard that summers up here are a well kept secret. The locals like the break from us, or so I understand.

Some definite perks:

1) The green and the rain and the sun. All in perfect proportions (finally!).
2) Mountains and hiking.
3) Websters in easy access.
4) Living in an apartment with an awesome roomie (Jillian)
5) More writing and reading than I've done in months and months and months.
6) Sleeping without duty nights.
7) A job! I'm waitressing at the Nittany Lion Inn.
8) An internship! I'm writing success stories for the Penn State Cooperative Extension (a community development/urban planning/agriculture project group)
9) Oakwood Presbyterian Church, where I'm becoming a member in a week!
10) The Duplex continually offering hospitality, food, and frivolity.
11) Friends hiding around every corner, even in the library.
12) Profs who still want to talk to you and help you work on projects.
13) Writing buddies (hurrah for Jesse and Becca!)

I'm very much looking forward to living this life in the coming months. India is also coming very soon (July 27th-August 17th).

What is happening with you this summer? Can I write you a letter?