Unlearning the Art of Hospitality

Photograph by Kelli Campbell

The front door of our red brick farmhouse might as well be a revolving door so often does it open for overnight guests and drop-in neighbors and even strangers with stories of the great-uncle who once farmed on this land. Some visitors step inside with eyes only for the people. They shake hands, they hug, they exclaim over how the children have grown. Some are focused on the setting. They look past our smiles toward the original stone fireplace. They ask when the house was built and is that heap of rocks the foundation of an old barn.

There is a third category of visitor, and I am partial to them. They greet us, they ask the usual questions, but I can see how their eyes slide away. I sense the gap between the words that continue politely from their mouths, and the curiosity they havent yet voiced. 

They are distracted by the books. 

For these guests, a tour of the home is a tour of the bookshelves in disguise. This is the parlor (here youll find nonfiction and poetry). Over here is the family room (these shelves are for childrens books, adult fiction, and drama). This is the kitchen (and my small but growing collection of vintage cookbooks).

What I never do, however, is point out the three kitchen shelves given over to magazines. One magazine, in fact: Martha Stewart Living. Ive been a subscriber for fourteen years. Ive saved every issue.

You would be right if you guessed that I am slightly embarrassed about this collection, though it may not be for the reasons you assume. Of potential reasons, there are plenty. There is the fact of them. They are magazines, and I cultivate a persona of bookish intelligence. There is the number of them. At a certain point, does one need one more brownie recipe or tip for arranging garden flowers? There is also the personality. Im afraid jokes about prison time are easy picking. 

Truthfully, I have answers for each of these imaginary criticisms, but I am still embarrassed. I am embarrassed because the magazines prove how deeply I care about you. My guest. I care so much that for fourteen years I have hoarded ideas for the perfect dinner party appetizer, table décor for weekend brunches, and the most thoughtful ways to decorate a spare bedroom.

I have spent fourteen years studying the art of hospitality with the American queen of domesticity. I care. And now you know how much.

* * *

My husband and I have been married for seventeen years, and we have made hospitality a high priority every one of those years. We began with college students sitting on the floor of our tiny apartment before raising our culinary game through frequent weekend dinner parties. We lived through a glorious season of baby showers (when I perfected the ability to keep guests occupied without resorting to humiliating games) and have moved on to the orchestrated chaos of hosting families with many children.

Through each season of hospitality, I have relied on Marthas magazine for inspiration and instruction. And I continue to be something of a Martha-evangelist; her bestbrownie recipe really is the best. 

I value the domestic arts. I believe in the importance of beauty, whether that beauty is in the form of a poem or a childs first birthday cake. Yet, I have recently arrived at a place where the things I have learned, the skills I have practiced, and the supplies I have hoarded in kitchen cabinets and over-stuffed drawers are no longer helping me to create this precious thing called hospitality.

In fact, the hospitality I find myself practicing today has almost nothing to do with special desserts or freshly-ironed napkins or party favors or even, lets be honest, a just-cleaned home.

The hospitality I practice today is much less time-consuming but much more demanding.

* * *

I am learning to practice hospitality differently for a few obvious reasons. Not long ago, we moved to this 1880 farmhouse, and our project list is never shrinking. I have more children and less time. I have chickens and cats that need feeding and a garden that needs tending. This old house has more space for guests, but this also means more space for the proliferation of dust and toys and unmade beds.

I could continue to bake cupcakes. I could try complicated new dinner recipes. I could wear myself out maintaining immaculate cleanliness, but it would mean welcoming fewer guests. However, this is not the necessary compromise, the predictable lowering of standards, it might at first seem to be.

Instead, through necessity, I am learning practices that have never before seemed relevant to my role as hostess. These are practices that cupcakes and fancy meals sometimes hinder and never help.

I am learning to cultivate emptiness.

I am learning to embrace disruption.

* * *

Disruptions and interruptions break open our time-bound days. They are rifts in time, small fissures of eternity. I am learning to embrace the emptiness that comes when I am forced to set aside my to-do list. I am learning to welcome you into that space.

In part, I am learning the shades of difference between entertaining and hospitality. 

A well-executed dinner party is a beautiful thing. I am not interested in the kind of moralizing that would find no value in the time spent laying a pretty table. Rather, I have begun to see hospitality and entertaining as overlapping circles, like the Venn diagrams of my elementary-school math lessons. It is possible for entertaining to be all about the desire to impress, but there is a shared space in which hospitality and entertaining come together flawlessly. Still, despite my affection for the very best brownie, these days I am most interested in feeling out the contours of a third space: the space of hospitality that has nothing to do with prettiness or planning.

It is a truism of monastic hospitality that the stranger or guest is Jesus Christ. I have often thought of this and imagined it like a kind of mind game: I know my guests are not actually Jesus, but if I tell myself they are then I am better able to grasp the greater spiritual purpose of my hospitality. But I have been wrong. This approach to hospitality is no mind game. 

It is difficult for me to see Christ until I am knocked, even slightly, out of my usual competencies and routines. We must make room in our lives for a spiritual reality, but we rarely do this until our hand is forced. Sit quietly and listen never appears on my mental list of must-accomplish tasks, but when my child walks in the door crying or my neighbor lingers on the porch swing, I sit quietly and listen because that is the obvious thing to do. 

The guest (whether she comes in the form of a stranger, a neighbor, a long-awaited friend, or even my own daughter) is an interruption. To extend hospitality is always to open the door to disruption in some form. 

It is rarely easy, but it is good. In Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris shares an old story said to originate in a Russian Orthodox monastery. In this oft-told tale, an older monk confesses to a younger monk, Sometimes I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?’” (191).

* * *

I have too many memories of frantic last-minute sweeping and muttered curses when the still-warm cake turned frosting into a puddle. I can remember spending too much money at the grocery store and tears when the bread dough refused to rise. And I remember pasting a smile on my face when the doorbell rang because the very worst thing of all would be to admit that it had all been too much.

Today, I must still sometimes paste a smile on my face, but this is not usually because I have taken on too many tasks. It might be because the boys have been arguing or I just discovered the babys leaky diaper. It might be because the compost used by a neighboring mushroom farm is spreading its poisonous fumes on the wind. It might be for any number of reasons, largely out of my control. 

To open the door on my imperfect life is a sacrifice. It is less time-consuming than party planning and less expensive than grilled steak, but it requires the sacrifice of my pride. The sacrifice of my deep need to be admired. Sharing the glittery surface of life requires a great deal of effort, but, somehow, it is much less exacting; it is much less painful than welcoming you into the space in which I actually live out my days. This is hospitality that offers my life without gilding or glitter or decorative sprinkles. It isnt the only kind of hospitality, but it is the one kind of hospitality that I am coming to see as indispensable.

In Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen writes: The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free. . . . not a subtle invitation to adopt the life style of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own(72).

Apparently, and I think even Martha would agree with this maxim, less is more.

* * *

Looking back over our many seasons of hospitality, I can recall times in which daily life felt inadequate and entertaining became a way to try to make up that lack. This situation isnt necessarily wrong, but there was something out of balance about it. It looked like cloth napkins for guests and paper for us. It looked like fresh flowers only if company was coming and dirty dishes hidden in the oven just as the doorbell rang.

These superficial things are not the true things, but they can be revealing. Are we living our lives authentically all the way through or are we jumping in and out of small performances for a public we hope to dazzle?

A few pages further on in Dakota, Norris describes the hospitality she has observed in Benedictine monasteries:

True hospitality is marked by an open response to the dignity of each and every person. Henri Nouwen has described it as receiving the stranger on his terms, and asserts that it can be offered only by those who ‘have found the center of their lives in their own hearts.’ Monastic life seeks to provide the silence and stillness that leads to such awareness for the individual monk and then allows him to offer it, through hospitality, to others who seek it. (197)

My life in this farmhouse with four children is anything but silent. It is certainly not still. And yet, perhaps for that very reason, those are the things I find myself cultivating most intentionally in this stage of my life. Perhaps not on the surface (my kids are loud and there is not much I can do about that), but certainly in a deeper place. 

I am a work in progress, but I am trying, to use Nouwens words, to center my life within myself and not in whatever image I see reflected in the eyes of my guests. I am pursuing the stillness that results from an ordered life (though never a perfect one). In the midst of the expected noise and bustle, I seek to cultivate sustainable and sustaining routines.

To practice hospitality, I must first practice living well. In other words, I must live a life worth living. And then, only then, does that life become a life worth sharing. 

Despite its many imperfections, I am deeply grateful for the life and home I have been given. It is an inconvenience but also a great joy to share this life with you. Awash with gratitude, I am no longer so tempted to run around creating something that only exists during the time of your visit. Instead, I open the door. I set another place at the table. I release my desire to impress, and I say, Yes, there is space for you here.

Christie Purifoy earned a PhD in English literature from the University of Chicago before trading the classroom for a vegetable garden in southeastern Pennsylvania. When the noise of her four young children makes writing impossible, she tends zucchini and tomatoes they will later refuse to eat. Christie is always watching for the beauty, mystery, and wonder that lie beneath it all. When she finds them, she writes about them at www.christiepurifoy.com.

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