We love having guests. We always have, I guess. We would usually rather host something than have it elsewhere. We consider a week with people to dinner is a richer and better one than a week without. I have experienced a series of breakthroughs in my ideas of hospitality over the years—the first one came when I realized the hospitality I best enjoyed was often the least perfect.
Somehow it occurred to me then that cleaning my house and putting it in order because that makes a better environment for everyone to live and relax in it is different from frantically perfecting the angle of every last sofa cushion so it appears a gleaming showplace. That small touches that make others feel celebrated and welcome are different from a crystal perfection that makes others feel intimidated. The most hospitable family I know taught me that one. This lady always has a candle burning and something freshly baked (or on a busy day, still in the oven). If you’re staying overnight, she just might iron your pillowcase. But the house feels like people live there and every person that walks in the door feels like a part of things right away. Questions like shoes or no shoes and whether the dish you brought to share burned could not seem less important. I think they probably have trouble getting people to leave (they did with me).
I realized from them that if I’m going out of my way to make things nice in order to bless you, that’s still about you. If I’m trying to make them perfect because it reflects on me, then it’s about me. That sort of hospitality has left the realm of service and entered that of show-and-tell.
This revelation in my ideas of hospitality is still underway. It has deepened as we moved overseas, especially the second time. It’s happened as I’ve realized what it means to share your salt during rainy season in the tropics. Do you know what happens to salt when it’s wet? Sometime we’ll talk about what happens to clothes, furniture, human hair, bed linens, and bath towels also. For today we’ll stick to salt. It’s slush, people. My first intimation of this was when a new friend and I were shopping in a little store and I said, “I need a salt shaker.”
“Don’t bother,” she said. I didn’t understand why. The rainy season hadn’t begun yet.
Our salt is slush. No matter how it is packaged or stored, it’s the consistency of sandcastle-able sand all the time. Salt shakers are out of the question—I now have one and large beads of water collect on top of it. When you shake it, you get water droplets. Not salt. We take pinches of it with our fingers and try to sprinkle it over our poached eggs, where it mostly drops in a clump and refuses to disseminate itself. (“Mommy, there’s no salt on my . . . OH. THERE it is.”) We still gladly share our salt. But sometimes it’s not quite what we feel salt should be.
We had a houseguest due this week. It’s a friend from our organization in the States who befriended us during our summer training and happens to be in country for a trip just now. We have looked forward to his arrival, which occurred late Monday night. We don’t have a guest room but we have already purchased an extra single mattress for Wally one day, that usually resides underneath Hugh’s mattress, thus making it seem more like a bed. We pulled that out and put it in a tiny room off the kitchen that we are calling the Study. It is studied in by the man of this house. But it also functions like a closet in a house with no closets, housing suitcases, Alex’s clothes, carseats, hardware, and anything we need to store. I dragged an empty crate in there for a nightstand and put a lamp on it. The room is frequently overrun with lizards but so is the rest of Southeast Asia, apparently, so we can’t help that one. We don’t have top sheets because they don’t make them here and I haven’t contrived a way to get them. We have exactly one extra blanket, which of course smelled and felt damp until the neighbor let me use her dryer. Perhaps you are starting to see what I’m getting at.
Then an hour before our guest arrived I suddenly became very ill. I could not leave the bathroom floor to welcome him and spent the entire night vomiting. At 5 am Wally woke up vomiting. At 6 am Norah did. Alex began to feel very sick by morning and staggered around helping the children because I couldn’t get up. We now think it was food poisoning. It’s not our first bout with this malady since arrival but it was the worst one. I’m going to skip the story of the next 48 hours but let’s just say we had to find another place for him to stay. Now we’re recovering—our friend is still in country so we get to have a visit after all, starting tomorrow. But now there is something wrong with the toilet . . .
You see? I’d like to have a nice, cozy place to welcome a guest. Including (dry) sheets on the bed (and an actual bed). Perhaps even reptile-free, if we’re really dreaming big. I’d like an appetizing meal on the table. These are all things we should provide if we could—and it would be a joy to do so. But what if we can’t? What if what we have is what we have? Why should it be difficult to just offer the best of what we have, regardless of how it compares to someone or somewhere else?
Reader, I think it’s pride. It’s difficult to say, “Sorry the back toilet is broken” or “Our internet is down right now” or “These are the only sheets we have” (or “Hey, I’d like to welcome you but I’m vomiting right now”) because it’s humbling to do so. It’s humbling to say, “Welcome, come on in to my life just as it is” and not strive in some way to make it appear somewhat better. I think probably true hospitality says, “Here is what I have now, you’re welcome to share in it.” (I do believe in offering the best of what we have, making things as nice as we can to honor those that come through our door. But maybe sometimes our best means soggy salt with a smile.