A joint effort of Amber Petiprin and Andrew Petiprin, with a few charming turns of phrase from Zack Guiliano
If beauty is going to save the world, how do we participate in it? We need people to deliver beauty on a large scale: a new generation of painters, designers, engineers, and especially architects. We need classically trained musicians, and money to support and deliver their talent to the masses.
But the most important place for beauty to flourish is in the home — in the daily life of the individual and the family. Henry Wadsworth Longellow’s poem “The Builders” makes this case. Longfellow notes that in art, order creates beauty on the smallest scale that reveals eternity:
Let us do our part as well,
Both the unseen and the seen;
Make the house where gods may dwell
Beautiful, entire, clean.
Else our lives are incomplete,
Standing in these walls of Time,
Broken stairways, where the feet
Stumble, as they seek to climb.
Reflecting on this poem provoked thoughts about all sorts of little things that matter to us in the life of our home and family. Here are some small practices that we have found helpful in establishing and maintaining a beautiful backdrop for daily life. The following items are easily achievable even in a small home or apartment and among people (like us!) of modest means.
1. Clean the floors.
Cleaning everything is important, but floors are essential. When you feel the tight grip of your foot against a wood floor or the soft feel of fresh carpet, you’re on the road to beauty. Run the vacuum or dust mop every day. “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Maybe not; but it’s surely next to beauty.
Certainly iron the vast majority of your clothes; but this is only the beginning. Think Downton Abbey. Iron tablecloths and napkins for meals with guests. And go up a notch: There is perhaps no single thing that indicates a curated home whose family is focused on beauty like ironed sheets and pillowcases. It pays to invest in a high-quality iron. We leave it to you whether to iron your newspaper, Lord Grantham-style.
3. Don’t have things “on.”
Televisions should never be playing to an empty room. In restaurants, ask if you can sit out of sight of screens. Music is a little trickier. It is nice to have something beautiful in the background sometimes; but choose carefully. A minimalist, ambient music is far and away a different thing than a Beethoven symphony. For things that demand attention, give it.
4. Put things “on” while turning everything else “off.”
This is challenging in today’s world, but adhering to it creates much more beautiful experiences. Leave your cell phone in another room when you watch a movie. Don’t have your laptop open looking at email when you sit down to listen to a record.
5. Commit to listening to classical music.
It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it. Read, research, and, most importantly, ask people who know about it. Prepare yourself to like it. And a related point: listen to as much music as you can on a good set of speakers instead of earbuds. It should go without saying that if anyone in your home is capable of performing beautiful music, it should be encouraged at every opportunity. As Roger Scruton has reminded us, music in the home used to a be a moment of ceremony: you “were giving and receiving life, sharing in something of great social significance.”
6. Keep it real.
Paper plates, plastic utensils, etc., should be used exceedingly rarely. When we arrived at our current church five years ago, we discovered a vast supply of perfectly decent china and metal cutlery, and an industrial dishwasher that had not been turned on for three years. We changed practices not only to avoid waste, but just as importantly to uphold a higher aesthetic. At home we use cloth napkins at every meal, even with our small children. Unsurprisingly, some of them are worn and lightly stained; but they preserve a dignity for even the simplest or quickest of suppers.
Best case scenario: work that you have done. If you have children, display their creations but change them often. Too easily a bulletin board or refrigerator can pile up and look messy. There is no reason why showing off children’s sweet labors should not also adhere to a basic aesthetic goal for the house.
8. Wear great shoes.
Of anything in your wardrobe (save underwear, perhaps), shoes are most important. Buy the best you can afford, and save up to buy better and nicer ones than your income would suggest you could or should have. Great shoes not only support true craftsmanship, but wearing them makes a statement to yourself and the world about your foundation and destination. You are standing on and walking on beauty.
9. Take drinking seriously, and ritualize it.
Own a tea set and use it (here’s some advice from George Orwell), have a decent bar (if you drink), use different glasses for different beverages. A little decorum goes a long way.
10. Have fresh flowers in focal points in your home.
“I must have flowers, always and always,” says Claude Monet. He’s on to something there. We take this point to be self-evident.
Longfellow’s poem concludes:
Build today, then, strong and sure
With a firm and ample base;
And ascending and secure
Shall tomorrow find its place.
Thus alone can we attain
To those turrets, where the eye
Sees the world as one vast plain,
And one boundless reach of sky.
Almost every decision we make in life has an aesthetic component to it. Choose carefully and find life enriched. We win the battle for beauty in God’s creation one home at a time.
Amber Petiprin has degrees in film and theater from Valencia College and the University of Central Florida. She is mom to Alex and Aimee.
The images were supplied by the authors.
P.S. This is one of many Covenant posts on beauty and aesthetics. We confess to an obsession with beauty. Here are a few direct reflections we’ve offered, not to mention innumerable posts on beautiful religion, liturgy, incense, art, and many other things.
- Sam Keyes, “On Beauty” (April 25, 2013)
- John Thorpe, “A unity around beauty” (November 20, 2015)
- Andrew Petiprin, “Beauty will save the world” (Feb. 1, 2016)
- Andrew Petiprin, “Infinite Beauty” (Feb. 23, 2016)
- Zachary Guiliano, “The beautiful architecture of faith: life-giving structures, power, hierarchy” (March 7, 2016)
- Andrew Petiprin, “Beauty in continuity” (April 11, 2016)