The air was cool and fresh. Ten thousand brilliant stars arched across the sky. But what transfixed us was the phosphorescence. Every little wave rolling into the cove was crested with cold fire. The anchor rode was a line of fire going down into the depths, and fish moving about left trails of fire. The night of the sea fire.
…Neither of us spoke, not so much as a whispered word. We were together, we were close, we were overwhelmed by a great beauty. (69)
A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken
The wind, so elusive on the calm August afternoon when we left the marina, picked up by the time we reached the other side of the lake. This was our first time on a sailboat, my sister’s and mine, and we were delighted by the novel feeling of leaning into the wind, our sails and selves askew, tacking around the edge of Lake Washington. A new language tickled our ears; here, ropes were called “sheets” and the words “port” and “starboard” echoed back from childhood Peter Pan viewings. My hand on the tiller, I learned to feel the wind above and waves below, so unfamiliar to this mountain-raised child of the Cascades.
We skimmed the surface of the sun-brilliant lake, and the boat’s owners told us the history of the boat, intimately linked to their own history as a couple and then as a family. They told of John’s buying the boat, before they were married, of dates on the boat that almost ended in nautical collision. They recalled leaner times, when moorage was costly and the boat lived far away, visited by the young family on summer weekends, “boat camping” with two small children. They remembered fondly how they considered selling it, again and again, but held onto it in the hope that they could, someday, share with others this experience that their family loved so much.
And as we turned again towards shore, the sun setting over this city I’ve grown to love, I recalled a phrase that comes to me nearly every time I’m in a stunningly lovely place.
More beautiful than it has to be.
Up on a glacier with my siblings, enjoying a sunrise. Riding the train home from Frankfurt Airport, under wide skies heavy with summer clouds I’ve missed so much. Watching the sunset from a series of attic windows, the glory not spoiled even by the telephone wires that bisect it.
I’m struck in these places by the extravagance of beauty lavished on them by the hand of a liberal Creator. Even though almost no one sees the glacier, few people bother to look at the clouds, and plenty of us go to the movies instead of watching the sunset, still they are beautiful.
And whether we’re created to love and notice beauty, or God created beauty for us, the ones He loves, either way it’s a gift. A luxury, but not in the frivolous way we talk about chocolate and Lexuses. A loving luxury, this gift from Creator to created ones.
I remember this today as I return to my classroom at Black Forest Academy and prepare it for the new school year. A professor told me, a long time ago, that decorations in a classroom didn’t need to look nice. How a classroom looked didn’t matter, she said. It was to be a place of function, not beauty. The message was clear–and chilling–to me at the time: education is serious, and beauty is not.
I laugh about it now as I fix the curtains and arrange the pillows on the seats below my tall classroom windows. I cover the bulletin board with blue paper and decorate it with string and pages from old books. I hang up quotes that inspire me next to bright canvas landscapes of nowhere. I hang paper birds on a tree branch and stick magnetic words to the closet door. More beautiful, this place, than it strictly has to be.
Of course there are poetic device posters that will go up later, rules that I will dutifully print out and post. They’re there, part of the classroom like pencil sharpeners and white boards, and not one notices them. But the quotes begin conversation, the paintings rest eyes tired of words. I’ll hang up their work on the decorated bulletin board, and a few times a year they’ll bunch up in the back to read and admire one another’s work. My students will come in three weeks and sit in the windowsills, where they’ll look out at falling leaves or snow, back in at the classroom, where they’ll read or squirm and invariably pull down the curtains I put up so carefully.
Sometimes I think of the time I put into setting up my classroom as a gift to my students, and other times it seems like a foolish luxury, the chocolate or Lexus kind. Mostly, though, I do it because I’ve learned more how God loves me from the grandeur of a glacier, or the perfect green of an avocado, than the function of a service or intense study. This creativity is love, extravagant love, new every morning.
My decorated classroom, prepared for a new set of eleventh graders, is just a pale copy, not to be compared with glaciers or even avocados. But it’s what I have for now, the time to invest in this love for students I’ve not yet met.