The Practice of Hospitality

Many years ago on a trip through London I bought a copy of The Rune of Hospitality in a cathedral gift shop. Even then these lines rang true to me and I knew they were a call for the direction of my life. Once I was back home I put the small card in a 1930’s vintage frame and since then it has been up in the kitchen of each home I’ve lived in. This framed piece has never been on display as decoration or part of a kitchen theme; it’s for me. It’s always been in my work space, usually near the sink or by the coffee pot, out of the way, hanging low. I keep it where I can see it when I look up from some task. The thoughts are real and ever present for me.

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Not long ago I read a modernized definition of hospitality. It said something like: Hospitality is making people feel welcome, safe, comforted, and even loved. I think that’s true. Food is usually a part of the hospitality picture, but it doesn’t have to be. In public, or in stressful situations that can occur anywhere a mindset of hospitality can bring peace and calm.

In my day job I routinely go into the homes of people who are very sick, some of them are near death. That first visit is usually quite stressful, meaning that the people were already feeling a great deal of stress before I arrived. They are worried and overwhelmed, and always a bit fearful. I pray before I walk through their door, put a smile on my face and do my best to make them feel welcome and comforted in their own home. Sometimes as I’m leaving they tell me (with some amazement) that they felt safe and comforted; it’s always a quiet thrill to hear that I was able to put the right thing in the right place at the right time.

In the last month I was given many opportunities to put this Practice to work—at work, comforting and encouraging an employee in very difficult life circumstances, at church welcoming a hungry stranger, giving him all the dinner he could eat and enough space to feel safe, and in my home preparing an impromptu dinner for exhausted friends who needed encouragement—It meant pulling groceries straight out of the shopping bags to make salad and chicken and cheesy bread, late at night. In these instances I felt grateful for the opportunity.

But there are times that I miss my cue, times that I’m tired with seemingly nothing left to spare, and sometimes that I’m maybe even a bit fearful. I’m still learning.

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Encouragement

A year or so ago I accepted a challenge to write 500 words a day for a month. It was not difficult to churn out that many words—in fact I’d made it a successful practice for years at a time in the past. Writing every day was not the problem, it was figuring out what to write that was the biggest hurdle. The thought of stringing together a cohesive batch of 500-words-a-day entries was simply more than I could consider; it was like pushing my head against a brick wall. I finally landed on the idea of writing about the Best Thing that Happened Today; it was something I could do, and did do for the 30 days. It was a good series and occasionally I return to the idea when I just need to write something.

Fast forward to August 2015. In spite of this being a full week with several remarkable experiences I have a new Best Thing to write about for this post:

While I was at work my personal cell phone vibrated with a new message alert. It was a co-worker, and the voice message went (mostly) like this:

“Hi, it’s me. I want to talk to you about that poem you wrote this spring. That is such an important piece of writing—it made a deep impact on me. I want to share it with a woman I know, she writes for a local big-name organization and has a writing group. I told her all about it and she’s very interested in seeing it, and in meeting you. But I need your permission. Would it be alright for me to share with her?  Call me.”

Here’s what made that message a Best Thing:

  • For the first time in a while I had written a poem that felt complete.
  • It took courage to confidently share my work with my peers (non-writers who were not guaranteed to “get” what I was doing).
  • My poem resonated with this person, enough that she felt compelled to share it (and was asking permission!).

The third point is the best part for me. It will be great if I get to meet another writer, and maybe other writers as well, but the golden, glittering, glowing moment is to hear a voice saying, “What you wrote matters to me and I know that it will matter to others as well.”

That friends, is Encouragement with a capital E.

In Praise of the Interesting Obituary

For most of my reading-life I’ve read obits nearly every day. In my early grade school years I learned the word succumbed from my daily reading and knew right away that it was a serious and sorrowful situation, which was more than a little intriguing. Obits of the day were somber–survivors were left to mourn the passing of the person; wakes, masses, and funerals were held with interment following. It was an odd vocabulary for an 8-year old, and it took me some time to figure out what the writer really meant.

Years later skimming the daily obits was part of my job working in the library of the Oregon Historical Society. I was looking in particular for members of old Oregon families, or more importantly for descendants of Oregon pioneers. Along the way I learned about names, families, and occupations and came to truly appreciate the accurate and creative obit.

Now I collect obituaries, snipped from papers or printed from online listings. And in the margins I often start lines of poetry about the person or their life, about the phrases that made my heart clench, or about the questions, intentional or otherwise, that were raised. It’s not unusual to find pieces of my collection tucked into my cookbooks or used as a bookmark in my Bible. And just last week I came across one in a side pocket of a purse that had been put away for the season.

When I use the words accurate, creative, and interesting I don’t necessarily mean the great and small accomplishments that are so respectfully listed, but rather I appreciate those unexpected true-isms offered by someone who really knew the decedent and understood their quirks and joys or those written by a person who probably didn’t understand the rules of regular obituary writing and instead wrote what they saw as the straight scoop on the circumstances of the passing.

So here’s to the thoughtful writers who give to us those perfectly poignant and poetic bits of real life—and to those who just had to get the job done.

Today I memorialize Elna, born on her mother’s kitchen table on a remote ranch in Eastern Oregon, and Lydia, who passed peacefully while playing a game of pinochle with her lady friends, and Omer who left for Glory while sitting in his church pew on a Sunday morning. And finally I think of a loving nephew’s Aunt Liz who passed peacefully and without incident, in her own bed at home.

All of these and more. I think about them sometimes, as if they were part of my own story. And Aunt Liz’s nephew, I often wonder just what kind of incident he might have been expecting at his aunt’s passing—maybe a roomful of feather-winged angels or someone asking her to change her will. Whatever it was I hope he’s satisfied with the way it happened.

*As always, names have been changed.