I spent time in Old Town, Alexandria on Sunday afternoon, which is where I took this photo. I really like little scenes like this, and wonder how often passersby think on what happens above all of the little storefronts—the lives of those unfolding in little apartments, the second floor storerooms for ground floor retailers, the abandoned spaces above some shops, etc. It also reminded me of two pieces from from John Cuddeback that I had read last month. The first is Cuddeback on Aristotle and on a deep aesthetic purpose of home:
Aristotle suggests that the beauty of our home is a way that we serve those around us. And he goes further: building for permanence is an aspect of building for beauty. Perhaps this is one reason that there is always something about a stone house.
Many of us are not in the position to build a new home; and among those that are, financial considerations will often be a real limiting factor in what we can do. Yet it seems Aristotle has given us a special perspective, one from which to appreciate styles that endure, and materials and construction that endure. For the sake of beauty, and for the sake of others, as well as for ourselves.
Regardless of our financial situation we can bear in mind this wonderful, even if challenging aspect of what our houses can be and can mean, right down to their furnishings.
Not long ago, the household was a context of daily life. The arts that provided for the material needs of human life were largely home arts, practiced, developed, and passed on within the four walls, or at least in the immediate ambit of the home. Food, clothing, shelter, as well as nonessential items that gave some embellishment to life, were commonly the fruit of the work of household members, often produced with an eye for beauty as well as utility. This carried into the industrial era. For decades, Singer sold sewing machines to housewives, who bought patterns and made their own clothes. Men built backyard toolsheds. Grandparents put up raspberry jams in Mason jars.
The household involves more than just work. Porch times, lawn times, and by-the-fire times punctuated the more serious endeavors, and were often occasions of leisurely work, too, such as carving, fine needlework, and other hobbies. Meals called for setting aside work, as of course did prayer. These habits were times of mutual presence. To a great extent, family life meant being with at least some other members of the household for most of the day.
Recounting these things, once taken for granted, highlights how remote a household is from the home life of today. Even those who intentionally seek to have a “traditional” family life, in fact, often lack the ability to comprehend the reality of a household that is not simply “traditional,” but ancient and profoundly human. They set out to start a family in a virtual vacuum. The husband and father usually sallies forth to a remote job, and the wife and mother attempts to manage the day-to-day work of child-rearing—a project the real nature of which is elusive—while wondering what place she too might have “out there.” Intangible pressures on parents and children seem inexorably to draw their attention and their time to activities outside of the home. Junior gets taken to soccer practice. Mom goes to a spin class.
A renewal of family life will require a renewal of the household, especially as a place of shared work and a center of shared experience and belonging. We are missing out on truly human living because we fail to live together. …
Because the need to restore households is not separable or even really distinct from the effort to protect or restore families, those concerned with the plight of the family today undermine their efforts when they lose sight of the household. Not thinking in terms of households misconstrues both the family and the broader societies to which it belongs.
I’ve been thinking about the physical structure of American communities for a few years now, particularly in the context of what a more life-affirming and more human American society might look like. That is, how much of the badness and error in our politics is a result of the physically and structurally deficient nature of how we’ve built both our towns and neighborhoods as well as our daily family lives?