I know that Wes closed the comments on his last post because Frau Luther had taken offence—and justly so. I wanted to weigh in, though, because I’m the writer for Spiritual Friendship who has the experience of being the lonely hausfrau and I think that talking about what hospitality looks like, not only from the point of view of single people longing for inclusion in family life but also from the perspective of people with families who are willing to open their doors, is important.
I want to say right up front that I get completely what Katharina is talking about. It’s not that she’s overwhelmed because she made bad choices or any of the other things that some people in the com-box seemed to imagine. It’s that she’s a mother with multiple kids, and being a mother is frustrating a lot of the time. I have six. Lonely single people often don’t appreciate the loneliness of being stuck in a house day in, day out with a group of people whose conversation consists primarily in blaming one another for the large hole in the fabric of your sofa (and you just replaced that sofa. Like a month ago. Because your autistic kid ate large holes in the last one), and in babbling endlessly about who is in love with whom in Artemis Fowl. Yes, I love them. Yes, I’m happy that I had them. Yes, there are times when they are just so cute it breaks your heart (my two year old, for example, has recently composed his first song. It goes “I love you! I love you too! I LOOOOOOVE YOOOOOOU!!!” He sings it with incredible emotion and vocal expression given his age.) But there are also times when you are sitting in a dark corner digging your nails into your pillow and wanting to die—or else kill the children/husband. But generally suicide looks like the more rational option. On those occasions if I read about the sufferings of my celibate brethren I think “The biggest problem you have is that you have too much time to yourself? Seriously? Poor baby. Why don’t you go watch a play and drink a frappacino until you feel better. I’m gonna go change my fifty-seventh poopy diaper of the day.”
Talking about who has the bigger Cross is, of course, an endless and fruitless pursuit. I think a more effective approach would be to imagine what hospitality, and the reception of hospitality, should look like. There are two conjoined vices that make the practice of hospitality fraught with danger. The first is Marthaism, the second is obliviousness.
The first is a problem that a lot of housewives suffer from. We feel like we can’t have guests over unless we have the house all prepped and ready for a posh soiree. Or at least until we’ve thoroughly cleaned up the cat poo in the mud room. We have to provide the food, the drinks, the roaring fire, the fresh roasted chestnuts and the glittering literary conversation. The children must be decked out in super-cute finery and coached in advance not to sing rickety-tickety-tin at the sing-along because it will frighten the guests. I admit that there have been days when you could have found me in the kitchen, trying to make roses out of pickled ginger and leaves out of wasabi to complement my home-made sushi while secretly resenting the fact that my guests were out on the balcony drinking an exotic collection of fine European beers.
The second is a problem with the guests. Single people are often just oblivious to how much work it is to look after a family, and they don’t realize that they’ve just walked into a staged production of “My Perfect Home” when they show up for a three course meal and a conversation about Heidegger. They sit down with a glass of mulled cranberry wine after supper, and they don’t notice that the dishes need doing and the kids need to be put to bed. In a lot of cases even if you ask outright, “Honey, could you and the guys maybe clean up the kitchen while I read the bed-time stories” they say something like, “We’ve just started a really interesting game of Warhammer. Maybe later. Oh, and could you put on another batch of this? It’s really good.” At this point the white-knuckled hostess goes off to read Green Eggs and Ham thinking of her guest as Sam-I-Am. (That Sam-I-Am, that Sam-I-Am. Man am I going to rip the teeth out of that Sam-I-Am…)
If we’re going to talk about community and hospitality, we need to acknowledge that what we’re talking about is a mutual and reciprocal exchange of selves. The hostess needs to lower her expectations of herself. She needs to be able to offer her family home as it really is, including the juice-stains and crayon drawings on the wall and the strange smell in the bathroom. The guest needs to act more like a member of the family and less a privileged VIP. The best occasions of hospitality are the ones where everyone takes the time, first, foremost and up-front, simply to enjoy each others’ company and be together. And where after that is over, everyone pitches in to make sure that the kitchen is not an inviting environment for fruit-flies and rats. The occasions where the adults have time to engage in some much-needed intelligent conversation, but the guest also takes the time to go off and teach something to the children or look at the Playmobil world that the kids built in Mommy’s closet. If hospitality is done right it provides an opportunity for single people to take some of the weight off the shoulders of married people and also an opportunity for married people to take some of the loneliness off the shoulders of single people. We have complementary needs and complementary gifts. In theory, at least, it’s a perfect solution.
Can this work? Not without frustrations. The fact is that living with other people is a fraught enterprise—even if it’s only for a couple of days. We go in with an expectation of relief and bliss, and then at some point we find out that we’ve really been invited to is a Cross-carrying party. We have to step up. We’re expected to sacrifice, and to offer solidarity, and to get outside of ourselves, and it’s nothing like the long-awaited vacation that we planned or anticipated. But if you can get into that vibe…if you can put yourself aside…if you can be there for the other, and make it into a form of Communion, then yes. It can work. But not without sweat.
Melinda Selmys is a Catholic writer, blogger, and speaker. She is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism and she blogs at Sexual Authenticity. Melinda can be followed on Twitter: @melindaselmys.