Monday, August 17, 2015

On Hospitality

I am doing laundry. I am vacuuming. I am stocking the fridge. I am -- maybe -- going to clean the bathroom. If I have time.

I am preparing to host a friend from out of town for a night.

Did I mention that I live in a 350 sq ft apartment?

I am, at heart, a minimalist (as I’ve studied the Enneagram this summer I’ve learned that this is a characteristic of my type five personality, and my lifestyle choices make so much more sense now). I love my tiny apartment. It is plenty big enough for me. Sometimes it even feels like more space than necessary. It is more space than necessary, if I am honest, but it is good space and I inhabit it well, I think. There is plenty of room for books, if not quite enough for pots and pans -- but then, I own more books than I do pots and pans, so perhaps all is as it should be.

With the exception of a year and a half in which I shared a 950 sq ft two-bedroom house with a friend in grad school, I have always lived in small spaces (though 900 sq ft is small by contemporary standards too, it felt large to me). I dream about buying a bit of land and building a tiny house, or perhaps a cozy A-frame, and living out my days in stuff-free bliss.

People admire my small space. Or they seem to (sometimes I wonder if they’re just being polite). But even those who genuinely appreciate my choice to live small express reservations, lists of reasons why they could never do what I do. Most common is this: “I want to have enough room to have people over” or “I want to have a spare room for guests to stay in.” Ah. Hospitality. I understand the hospitality response. There are limited places to put people in an apartment of this size.

Ironically, such responses are sometimes voiced by people who are in my apartment.

I resist the urge to deliver a sarcastic “OH REALLY?” I do host people, though not perhaps as much I could or should, for reasons I’ll try to explain. Heck, two years ago I sold my bed and replaced it with an IKEA futon precisely because it is more hospitable seating for guests than a bed (and more comfortable for quiet nights spent reading on my own, to be honest). When people come from out of town, the futon sleeps two, and I can roll out a sleeping bag in the 70 sq ft space I use as an office, effectively transforming my studio into a quaint B&B for the night.

If I am frank, what I hear in this statement, “I want to have enough room to have people over,” is a subtle judgement. It stings when someone you have invited into your home implies that you don’t have enough room to host people well.

My apartment is not fancy. It’s not even particularly comfortable once you put 6 or 7 adults and 4 children into the main room for supper. But there is enough room to offer you a place to sit, a bowl of soup, a chunk of bread (and I don’t care if you get crumbs all over the floor, because I can just sweep them up after you’ve left, having never bothered to buy a rug).

Still, I’m not sure when it became normal to imply that one can only host overnight guests if one has a dedicated guest room. If you do, that’s lovely, but what friend in need of a free place to crash would argue with clean sheets and towels and a reasonably comfortable futon? If you’re lucky, I’ll even make you coffee and cinnamon rolls in the morning (though the cinnamon rolls might come from a can, because I can’t do it all).

I’ve hosted small parties, numerous deacons meetings, church dinner groups that filled my space with laughter and warmth. I once hosted my mom and sister for an entire week. (That was a stretch, I admit. But I would do it again in a heartbeat.) Somewhere along the line we confused hospitality with that thing we see in Martha Stewart Living and Dwell magazine. But real hospitality isn’t like that -- even if you do have a spare room and a guest bathroom.

Hospitality means that what I have I will share with you (or, in Merriam-Webster’s definition, “generous and friendly treatment of visitors and guests”). That this space, which is enough for me, has enough room for you, as well. Just as there is room for you in my life, when needed I will make room for you on my couch. I will wash my spare set of towels. I will do the dishes that have been piling up, if for no other reason than we can then get them dirty again cooking dinner together.

There are many reasons to want or need more than 350 sq ft. But I am tired of people pretending that hospitality is one of them, as if living small is a failure of virtue. Every time I hear this line of reasoning, I wonder again how to feel about welcoming people into my home. What is my hospitality if others reject it? If they declare that what I have decided is enough is not, in fact, good enough for them? (When I told a church friend about this conundrum, she suggested I call this piece “You need new friends.” Thankfully, I don’t actually need new friends...but I hope you see her point.)

It has taken me a long time to learn that my apartment doesn’t have to be spotless to welcome you into it. (I didn’t have time to wash the cat hair covered futon cover before my friend’s arrival for the night, and that is ok -- though it will still drive me nuts, because my mother raised me to be clean, if nothing else.) That even though “cozy” is used as code for “tiny” in craigslist ads, my tiny apartment really is cozy. That I don’t need to be embarrassed that I can’t offer my guests their own room and a private bathroom.

It’s likely that this sounds judgmental, and that is probably because it is, a bit. I feel my capability at offering hospitality is judged based on my lack of space, my thrift store pots and pans, my worn but clean towels, my apartment that lacks those shiny, matching items you may or may not have registered for at Bed, Bath, & Beyond. There’s not room for the “beyond” in my apartment, so it’s just as well I’ve had no reason to register for it. And so, if I come back at this perceived judgement with a little judgement of my own, so be it.

In Works of Love Kierkegaard discusses how mercifulness is a work of love, even if it is able to do nothing and give nothing. The short explanation of how I understand this playing out in the book is that a person’s ability to show love is not limited by his or her circumstances -- material, emotional, or otherwise. I am, here, discussing hospitality rather than love, and yet the Kierkegaardian in me thinks there’s some connection. My ability to offer hospitality isn’t dependent upon looking like a page out of Dwell. I don’t need a pretty, or large, space in order to welcome you. If I had such a space, I could welcome you there too, but hospitality is not made of granite counter tops and matching towels. I’ve worked hard to make my space welcoming, even if most of the time I am the only one in it. I like to be comfortable, so I try to make my space as comfortable as I can with the limited means at my disposal. I’ve lived in this apartment for five years; it is no longer just another apartment to me, it is my home.

At the risk of being trite, or self-righteous (not to mention totally out of liturgical season), I cannot help but think of Mary and Joseph, of the story of an unwed mother making room for a child, of an inn with no room, and of a dirty, smelly stable in which God was welcomed, born of Mary’s messy hospitality.

I’m not asking you to sit in straw and animal shit. I’m offering you a cup of tea and a cat hair covered futon. And that is enough.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for this great reflection, Meghan, for numerous reasons. As someone who 1) used to have a guest room and a decent sized house, who has now moved to a considerably smaller place sans a guest room, and 2) who very well may be one of those folks who questioned the possibility of hospitality in a small space precisely *when* you were offering me said hospitality, I really appreciated this (and also, apologize for appearing/being judgmental!)…

    In thinking about my having potentially made such comments or intimated towards them, one thing I was thinking about was, I wonder if part of that seemingly/potentially judgmentl sentiment that is expressed is (also) the inverse inability to receive/accept hospitality? Again, I am not sure what, if anything, I voiced when you hosted me, but I do recall feeling bad/guilty/rude at even taking you up on said hospitality. I mean, I think (ok, I know) that I am generally predisposed to struggling with receiving hospitality/help/etc… , but i think the feeling was exacerbated by the fact that your space is small in that I felt like I was especially intruding on your space/in your way. Which doesn’t make said judgmental comments any less problematic or anything, but just wanted to throw that out there as something I was thinking about after reading your post!

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    1. Oh, this is so interesting! So, first off, I actually don't remember you saying *anything* problematic prior to staying with me. Actually, interestingly enough, it was the opposite: I remember MYSELF prefacing my response to your query about a place to stay with something self-deprecating like, "Oh gee, you're welcome, but my place is tiny..." because I tend to self-protect like that, like I just assume people won't want to stay with me, so I want to preempt any awkwardness/rejection, which is actually an interesting aspect of such situations. Because, in contrast, you showed up and wouldn't even accept the futon but insisted on sleeping on the floor! Anyway, we're an interesting case study between the two of us in the challenges of both offering and receiving hospitality, I guess. I actually started writing this post before your visit, because I think that having thought through these things was part of why I thought, okay okay Meghan, get over it, you can host someone, it will be fine! It's BRANDY! :)

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  2. Oh wow--I really needed to hear this today. My husband and I live in a 400-square-foot apartment and recently got rid of our couch (it's a long story). It's easy for me to feel like I have nothing to offer people.

    I'm reminded, though (and convicted by) the story of the hospitality of Abraham, whose icon is really important to the idea of Orthodox hospitality and openness to God's will. ( there's a nice one here: http://www.acrod.org/assets/images/Iconimages/holytrinity224.jpg) Abraham and Sarah didn't hesitate to open their household--and entertained angels unaware.

    I LOVE living in a small space. We have the least stuff we've ever had, and I'm noticing that the more we get rid of, the happier I am. But I feel like I have to pretend to dislike it and be apologetic around guests. How ridiculous is that?!

    Thanks for your lovely words, Meghan. I needed them.

    -Elyse B.

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