Coffee. I needed coffee. Mid-morning, I headed south on I-65 to Nashville for the Rabbit Room loveliness known as Hutchmoot. I’d been driving for several hours already and my eyes were tired. Huge backlit numbers on a gas station sign ahead boasted cheaper prices than I’d seen in months.
“Do I have time to stop?” I wondered aloud. “Tank’s half empty . . . I might as well.”
You know those stories people tell about this or that hole-in-the-wall restaurant or backwoods gas station that has the world’s best chimichangas or whatever? I was kind of hoping that I was on the verge of such a discovery. Cheap gas and cheaper coffee — a latte, in fact — in a single pit stop. Quite an accomplishment, really, I thought, as I situated myself for the remainder of the drive. Back on the road with a full tank of gas, I took the first sip from that cup of coffee and coughed. Too sweet? Can’t tell. Too hot? I set it in the cup holder and waited a while.
Another sip. Definitely too sweet. Not just a little bit, either. My teeth were singing. Or screaming — hard to say which.
I suffered through that cup for what little bit of caffeinated sustenance it might contain. Another attempt at coffee would make me late for my pre-Hutchmoot plans. I had counted down the days to visit and experience the Art House, and being late wasn’t anywhere near a consideration. But Nashville is on Central time. As much as I’d like to say that I knew this before the drive down, alas, I did not. Apparently, the clock on my cell phone didn’t know either, until I pulled off the freeway and stopped at a traffic light.
So I was in town earlier than I’d expected to be, even after that fateful stop for cheap gas and sickeningly sweet coffee. With extra time on my hands, I wandered the neighborhood near the Art House in search of free Wi-Fi. I found one place: McDonald’s. The Wi-Fi was indeed free, if you don’t count the cost of the Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad, which I am told packs more “nutritional content” than a Big Mac. The network connection was good and the salad edible, even tasty, though made with bits of very processed chicken, a consistency only vaguely resembling that of anything you or I might pull hot off a grill or campfire. It was cheap and convenient, and work was accomplished.
Two hours later I was sitting on a couch in the Art House, a disco ball hanging overhead, enjoying conversation, sweet tea, and oven-warm chocolate chip cookies with Andi Ashworth. The conversation during our visit pulsed with questions of what it means to live an artful and hospitable life. To live artfully, Andi mused, is to see the world and live in it attentively, creatively, and personally. It is to notice those tiny things that matter to a person — what kinds of things they like or are interested in — and to let those bits of knowledge lend grace to the gifts we give. It is to create experiences for the people whose lives mingle with our own. It is the choice to see the world as it is, put our hands in it, and set ourselves about making it into what it should be. These musings made way for something like wonder in my mind: What would it look like to live a more personal life? Can artful living mesh with an already full schedule? Can it be done in ways small enough that artfulness and daily to-dos might give substance and meaning to each other?
When I knew I’d be in Nashville for Hutchmoot, I started shopping around for cheap hotel rooms. Another one of those places where you just might find the world’s best scrambled eggs or waffles or, if you’re lucky, good coffee. I was spared another opportunity for a potentially hazardous discovery when my friend Stephen offered me a place to stay. On my first morning in Nashville, he asked if I’d like an Americano.
“Sure, thanks,” I said.
I don’t know that I’ve ever turned down any hot, caffeinated beverages. But this Americano was made from fresh-ground and locally-roasted coffee beans, served in a handmade Rabbit Room mug. I savored it and smiled. My teeth must have sighed with relief.
There’s something to be said for practicality and convenience. There are times when a McDonald’s meal or gas station coffee is just what we need to do. There won’t always be an out-of-town friend to crash with, and we might need to find a Comfort Inn with average coffee. But those times needn’t be swallowed by the exclusion of intention towards a creative and nurturing life. Living artfully requires intention — that’s what it is, living in the tension between the daily humdrum and our identity as creators made in the image of the Creator. Living out the two requires us to reach for threads from both sides, small and seemingly insignificant strands of color to weave together in the space between.
On the opening night of Hutchmoot, I experienced my first Square Peg Alliance concert (“first” because I do not anticipate that it will be my last). And what an experience it was! Andrew Peterson, Randall Goodgame, Ben Shive, Andy Gullahorn and Jill Phillips, Andrew Osenga, Jason Gray, and Eric Peters — all on stage, sitting in the round, gifting the work of their hands to a room of eager recipients. Jill Phillips sang a song that, for me, set the tone for the rest of the weekend and still has my ears:
You don’t have to save the world. All that hero talk is only superficial stuff. If you want to change the world, all you gotta do is show up, show up, just show up.
No great things have I done, no great things have I done, only small things with great love.
Small things. Sweet tea and warm cookies. An Americano, fresh and local. Simple gifts with a profoundly Eucharistic quality. They are the work of another person’s hands; acts of attentiveness in the creation of a personal and communal experience. Simple gifts, but rich and nourishing.
Bread-baking is one of the small things I’ve found that allows artfulness to give substance to my dailiness. After some years of pestering my mom for her bread recipe (if it could be called that, full of estimations and sensory cues as it is), she finally wrote it down and e-mailed it to me. Near the end of the summer, I set about making it my own and have since baked a loaf or two every Saturday. The very act of making that bread opens a much-needed space in my schedule. Yeast, sugar, and water mingle and move; salt and oil prepare texture and flavor; flour enters to be whisked and then pressed in with bare hands; the dough grows as the yeast spends itself consuming sugar; the heat of the oven kills the yeast, caramelizes the sugars, and somehow coaxes the dough into the molecular shape of bread. And all I have done is put a few ingredients into a bowl. Such a small and simple gift, the bread my hands have kneaded, punched down, and formed. Giving this bread to be broken for the Eucharist by a community of faith, the personal and communal nature already inherent to the ritual, is somehow enhanced.
When I’m rushing out the door to get to work on time, the giving of “small things” needs to be even smaller than bread-baking. Hurry may leave little room for artfulness, but those moments are not doomed to banality. There is the curious attentiveness of sneaking a well-loved treat into a housemate’s lunchbox. The playful delight of toothpick-scratching a message into a banana skin before slipping it into a child’s lunch sack. “Small things” can be very small indeed. On my way back to Michigan from Nashville, I stayed a night with friends in Bloomington, Indiana. As I carried my bag out to the car in the morning, I found a sticky note on the front door of the house with a scribbled invitation to coffee before the drive. It wasn’t an e-mail or a text. It was something made by the hand of a friend. I still have it tucked into my bag. Such a small, lovely thing.
I arrived safely home at the beginning of a whirlwind few weeks that have had a hefty share of coffee and clashing work schedules, quick PB&Js and late nights catching up on the miscellany that piles up during a weekend away. But there’s a stash of sticky notes handy. And come Saturday afternoon, bread will be baked.
Barbara Lane is an editorial intern for the Art House America Blog, a graduate student, and a companion to Sir Gibbie, her parrot. She blogs at This | Liminality and is learning to live with imagination.