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My husband was not surprised to find a mariachi band staying in our basement. (There are worse things, after all. Last month – a flood; between bug sprayings – well, you get the idea.) He took it all in stride – seven extras at meals, no hot water left for his showers, a house full of people who didn’t speak English or German, men he’d never seen before playing with his babies, and his house reverberating to a Latin beat.
There was a time, long ago, when he would have been more than surprised – in a state of shock, more likely. That was back when my home was my fortress and casual visitors seldom breached the walls. A time when drop-ins were despised – greeted by my stepping outside the front door as a clue to the extent of their welcome. (In Alaska, at 30 below, this clue is seldom misinterpreted!) My own family, in fact, was barely tolerated as inevitable intruders in my space.
I suppose growing up without a house full of siblings contributed to my queenly sense of dominion over all I surveyed. It didn’t help that I saw people as entertainment – to be collected in carefully matched groupings of manageable numbers for planned dinner parties at specific times of my choosing. Woe to the guest who didn’t keep up his end of the implicit bargain by being cheerful, interesting and witty, and mixing well with the others. He’d likely not be invited back.
So how does an inhospitable woman move from shallow mingling to mariachi bands? It was a long, hard haul! First, I came home. When I decided ‘full-time mom’ was to be my only career, what had been my house began to become my home. Though I fell far short of being an excellent homemaker, there were subtle benefits to having someone actually living in the house rather than stopping there to sleep between evening fast food and morning day care. It began to feel (and look!) lived in – to have our interests and activities reflected in the books, crossword puzzles, homeschooling magazines, unfinished afghans, toys and drawings strewn all over the place. Meals began to be eaten there more often (the new, lower budget helped here) – actually cooked and shared at our own table.
As I grew more mature in Christian faith, a parallel openness of heart began to develop. Henri Nouwen describes a major and necessary shift in the spiritual life as the “movement from hostility to hospitality.” This movement, this heart opening, showed up in an increase of desire for fellowship with friends from church – potlucks, evenings playing games together, Bible studies – and a growing feeling of community and extended family. By this time, I could recognize that the need to control everything and everyone was holding me back, and ask God’s help to release it. I could see the fears of failure and rejection that were tied to my tension about having people see me in my home, and receive His help to overcome that crippling vulnerability. What was happening in my heart was more and more reflected in our home. I longed to be the kind of person in whose home even strangers could feel welcome and comfortable.
The nearly constant disorder and dirtiness had to be dealt with for this dream to become a reality. On a big income I had hired help and had little housekeeping talent beyond throwing the family into a last minute frenzy of “Get ready for company, NOW!!!” whenever that was necessary. I needed skills that would bridge the gap between my being a day-to-day slob and a periodic slave driver. The desire to be more open to spontaneous hospitality provided the motivation.
I embraced Homemaking 101 with a zeal that has tempered somewhat with the addition of four children since then. I de-junked and uncluttered with manic abandon. A great boost (Sorry, not everyone gets this advantage.) was our move to a whole different house. The change of scenery was invigorating, and starting fresh in a clean house gave me confidence I could keep it that way. I welcomed every opportunity to have people over, kept the house routinely neat enough that my family no longer cringed at the word ‘company’, eased way up on my expectations of how things had to look before letting people in the door, and learned to keep meals very simple to focus on the fellowship instead of the food. I relaxed and became part of the fun instead of providing it.
So you see, Russ really had years to get used to the idea of a mariachi band in the basement, and so did I. At the impromptu farewell concert, as we clapped and danced and enjoyed the crazy scene, I realized with joy that my kids couldn’t even remember life any other, or imagine it any better way.
Update: This article originally appeared in Canticle magazine. Since then, I’ve continued to be hospitable, and still thoroughly enjoy it. Come to our every-Friday Open House any time! Really…just drop in!