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 ( His wife, Laurie, through more craftiness than I've seen in anyone else I know (! 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!

1 comment:

  1. Yes, you are an English major. I love your way with words :)

    And I love this post!! I've been thinking about this idea, too - maybe because I like to pretend I'm an artsy person, though I'm really not - and just what it means to glorify God with our creativity and making things beautiful, just as He does.