The spaces that make us
Thoreau & tiny house living, an article on unnecessary art, & new book club pick!
Welcome to the Just Beautiful Newsletter, where I share an exclusive essay, usually about making space for creativity, often in the midst of motherhood, links to just beautiful things, and a peek into our tiny house life. This month it’s more tinyhouse back-story heavy than usual. But thank you as always for trusting me with your inboxes, and scroll to the end for announcements & book club pick! You can always reply to this email with your thoughts and comments! xx Steph
“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”.
It was a brisk New England spring in 2016 when I stepped into my first tiny house. It held a fireplace, a bed, a few chairs and cooking utensils, and that’s about it. From 1845 to 1847, Thoreau lived in a 150sq foot house he built for himself on the shore of Walden pond, only half a mile from downtown Concord, Massachusetts. I had carried a caricature of Thoreau as an isolated, eccentric idealist before this trip. But standing on the gravelly beach that was only a few minutes walk from town, I realised perhaps it’s too easy for me to caricature and criticize him because Thoreau’s choices are a bit of a challenge to my own.
(pictured: Steph in 2015 at the Walden Pond replica trying to look philosophical?)
Many people all over the world live off of just a little, without the freedom of choice. Thoreau was interesting because he had choices. And yet he chose to live in a simple wooden house he built himself on the edge of town as an experiment. During a time when mechanization was booming, making it easier to live in relative luxury, Thoreau took a step back. In the American north, society was distanced from the immediacy of the slavery that produced the raw materials for their factories. It was easy to feel like this was luxury without cost. But Thoreau questioned this life. He questioned the way work was turning men into tools, the way people claimed so many things were necessities, and then the amount of life hours they spent to maintain these necessities.
He felt there should be a different way. He didn’t climb up a mountain and become a hermit - but he knew that in order to figure out what was essential - what needed to be held onto and what needed to be ignored, how to keep his conscience bright and his ethic of social justice firm - he needed to physically put himself in a different circumstance.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms...”
(Pictured: We did actually stay in a normal tiny house in New Hampshire on that trip. Putting our bodies in a real tiny house helped us know what it felt like).
We’ve outlasted Thoreau in our tiny house (he only lasted 2 years, we’re at 3.5). The 180 square foot wooden house we built also holds more people: there’s four of us. But it has taught me the same thing: our values shape our spaces, but our spaces also shape our values. And if we want to live deliberately, to live on purpose, in a noisy, chaotic world that is changing just as rapidly as Thoreau’s, perhaps we need to consider our physical space. I believe this. But sometimes, when we’re hitting our sixth day of rain in a row like we did this week, I question this decision. What are we really doing here!?
This question of what makes a life worthwhile, what makes a just and beautiful life, feels so much more confusing because of social media. There’s this temptation for me to live a life for the sake of how I can take pictures of it. Whether it’s my choice in how I parent, or how I dress your children, or what food I eat, suddenly it’s all filtered through the lenses of How cute does this look??
And somehow “how things look” becomes a much bigger motivation than how things feel. Or how things taste. How things smell. How things really are in physical space. How things look matters, I suppose, but matters as part of a whole package of senses, and when it’s divorced from the others it really warps our ability to live well. Here we all are, yelling at our kids to shut up while taking photos of food on fancy plates instead of enjoying the food. Here we are, driving a much nicer car than we really want to pay for, instead of the ratty one, because of how it looks to our work colleagues. Here we are, sitting on really pretty sofas that you’d never want to fall asleep on and our kids are not allowed to climb on. Here we are, building kitchen islands that no one ever sits at and you knock your knees into when you try, because they look so good on TV.
(Pictured: Plans from a college project where we had to design a building. We have always been thinking about this it seems!)
How things look -- this has always been a force in our lives, but before the internet it was just how we look to our neighbours. Now it’s magnified by the thousands. And isn’t that just another way of being conformed to the pattern of this world?
The part we don’t think enough about is that once you have the kitchen island, once you have the nicer car, once you have 1600 square foot house, it starts exerting a force on you as well. Once you take out the kitchen table and swap it for an island, you’re yelling to each other as you shuttle food back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room over your giant island. Once your bathroom is upstairs, you’re not cooking supper while your toddler is in the bath anymore, and you’re going to bed an hour later. Once your money is tied up in car repayments, it’s shaping what you do with your freetime. Once you build your house without a guest bathroom, you stop having guests. It works the other way, too. Once your couch is turned towards the sunshine, you actually sit on it, even though it looks a little funny by that window. Once there’s a safe bike lane, you start biking to work. Once the chairs are in a circle, everyone in the classroom starts talking more.
There are real benefits to having a bigger space, this I have learned from living in a tiny house. But I’ve also learned the solutions to problems I face might not be the solutions being sold to me. Everyone who walks into our tiny house says, “Oh! But it’s not that small! It actually feels quite big!”
“We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.” Churchill said this in his arguments to rebuild the House of Lords, arguing that the shape of the space actually impacted the political party system in England.
So who am I listening to when it comes to solutions for living a just and beautiful life? Sometimes maybe we don’t need more floor space, we just need more windows.
The Just Beautiful Links
This article on owning unnecessary art: “As a couple in ministry, it can sometimes feel that we’ve been caught untoward in the act of owning art. Thirty years married now, I still feel I need to explain…”
I loved Phaedra Taylor and her husband theologian David Taylor’s talk on the virtues and practices of a flourishing artist at the recent online conference I went to. I also have been loving her instagram account for her honest depictions of creating while mothering! (And these advent cards look super cute).
This story on parenting while being artistic from Humans of New York already got loads of sharing, but if you haven’t seen it yet… maybe it can inspire you!
Please just go take a deep dive on Amy Bornman’s site. I discovered her poem Postpartum Depression but was quickly taken with her essays on creativity and motherhood (like this one) on her substack newsletter. Also, I’ve sampled her book of poetry and you will love it. (Furthermore, she’s obsessed with Gerwig’s Little Women, and I HOPE IT IS CLEAR TO YOU BY NOW that this is just a Little Women fan account anyway).
South Africans - sometimes it is hard for me to find quality books featuring diverse languages, illustrations, and authors. This is a useful account! They import a lot internationally, but also carry South African authors.
NEW! November book club pick - Feasting & Food
Join me and some of your fellow Just Beautiful readers this November to discuss this mash-up of literature and sociology all around food and feasting!
The beautiful words: Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesin. This is a short story, and it’s also a great movie. I’d seen the movie but never read the short story. I’d recommend both!
Date: Thursday, 18 November - We’ll confirm time, but last time we did 8pm South African time which will be 1pm EST.
Also, these quotes from the book I wanted to pick but didn’t because of SA postal service: “Food is the daily sacrament of unnecessary goodness, ordained for a continual remembrance that the world will always be more delicious than useful…
“…Real eating restores a sense of of the festivity of being. Food does not exist merely for the sake of its nutritional value. To see it so is to knuckle under still further to the desubstantialization of man, to regard not what things are, but what they mean to us - to become in short solemn idolaters spiritualizing what should be loved as matter. A man's daily meal ought to be an exultation over the smack of desirability which lies at the root of creation. To break real bread is to break the loveless hold of hell upon the world, and, by just that much, to set the secular free.”
― Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection
WANT TO JOIN? Hit reply to this email & I’ll send you the discussion guide & meet-up details! :)
Ahem- some announcements:
Have you seen my simple advent resource for families with kids? When I say simple, I mean - I’m sending you a Word document. But it’s a word document with all the daily references for Advent readings already typed in. It’s a Word document with some ideas for super simple activities for things to do to remind your kids of some of this season’s core themes: preparation, waiting, giving and light. And it’s there as a scaffold to make it easy for your to slot in your own pre-existing family traditions. It’s $3.50 on the site as a way to help off-set my website hosting fees - hope it can serve your family this season! You can watch a very long run-down of what it’s all about here. SA friends, reply to this email & I’ll send you info.
I’m going to be going on a long hiatus from social media for the next 3 months. This is kind of a crazy thing to do while in the midst of pitching a book proposal, which is all about “platform”. But this is South Africa’s summer break and I’ll be with my kids a LOT and need to cut some things. I’ll still be writing this newsletter though! And having a bit of pre-scheduled content on instagram, but not doing too much networking or commenting. I love connecting with people. So- you can help me out by reading this newsletter, and sharing it with someone you think would enjoy it.
Related to this - I’m exploring the option of a paid subscription option next year as a way to offset some costs of creating. If you have 5 minutes, I’d love it if you could reply to this email and let me know: Do you do any paid subscriptions (to podcasts/newsletters) such as substack or patreon? What do you like about what those creators do for their “paid subscriber only” communities ? What sort of items would you want if you were paying, say $5 a month? More of the same? More community/live interaction? Or an actual product, like a monthly digital children’s story, or family devotional resource? I’m interested to hear what you all think!
As always, if you got this far- thank you for taking the time to read & think with me. Writing is very isolating for an extrovert-ish person like myself, so please know I DO read each and every comment ;D. Until next month!