When my cousin Emily moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood this June, it marked her 10th home in five years, a residential whiplash involving sweat, tears and 11 roommates.
But it was also a notable first: Emily’s first time living alone. Six hundred square feet, all hers.
Where to begin, what to do with that exclusive space? The prospect was overwhelming, so Emily mapped out the apartment, breaking it down foot by foot, complete with 3-foot-1-inch windows and markers for the kitchen sink.
At 23, Emily is one year out of college, working in marketing and development at a Catholic primary school. Her future, like her apartment, remains a work in progress.
She gave me a Skype tour Monday night, wearing a white tank top, a messy bun and a broad smile. She was sunburned and hot, perched between a box fan and her MacBook, planning to lug the patio table she had inherited from the previous owners into the kitchen later that night.
Settling in has been a slow process, she said. “I think I might still be searching for that feeling of being home.”
I spotted familiar elements amid the cherry hardwood floor: the big blue reading chair Emily purchased with babysitting money back in sixth grade, the Ikea curtains splattered with pink rosebuds, the quilted headboard she scored through a One Kings Lane mega-sale. But most of all, Emily’s new apartment is becoming familiar through the estrogen-laced act of decorating by tip toe — breathlessly, experimentally, Pinterest-ly, the kind that is done with a tilted head and a searching soul. Is this who I am? Who I want to be?
Among the young women I know — both the renters and the mortgage-bound — decorating is not just an exercise in aesthetics but in awareness and gratitude, an attempt to create a little beauty in the place where you hang your key, lay your head and stack your dishes. It’s not just an HGTV habit but a worldview.
“I think it has to do with Catholic social teaching,” Emily said, “that we believe there’s value and dignity in everything, there’s beauty everywhere. Taking a second to appreciate that goes a long way in valuing your own daily life and appreciating what you have.”
For Emily that means arranging souvenirs that make a small space feel as vast as her passport: masks from Venice, a starfish from China, a five-inch Eiffel Tower and a wooden necklace from Brazil. They’re piled on her dresser-turned-hutch right now, awaiting proper display.
It means buying herself flowers just because.
It means posting the occasional Instagram picture, like the bustling street scene she recently snapped while walking home from work, a way to pause and soak in the moment.
I have far to go in my spiritual journey, but my ability to recognize the beauty around me feels like a sacred one. I can’t help but marvel over the nearby Aspens, fluttering in the late-summer sun. They look just like the impressionistic leaves painted by the late children’s-book illustrator Gyo Fujikawa, sage and lime-green circles filling the page, spiraling toward the heavens.
“You were born to make art,” writes Emily Freeman in her latest book, “A Million Little Ways: Uncover the Art You Were Made to Live.” “You were also made to live art.”
Indeed, we were fashioned in the image and likeness of the Creator, and so we are called to create — with our sunburns and our one-year leases, with the borrowed and the broken, the reupholstered, the rearranged and the reimagined, with our feet planted in the here and now and our eyes looking up.
Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn., and editor of SisterStory.org, the official website of National Catholic Sisters Week.