Sometimes Different is Enough
Sometimes Different is Enough: July 15, 2017
Over Spring Break, Jack’s science teacher assigned a project on caves. He’s had this teacher for two years, and it went really well for the first, say, three days. It’s been a long two years.
Spring Break happened to occur in the midst of Dad’s recovery from back surgery, and I was already juggling logistics to get to Montreat so Mark and I could open the house. When we got home Sunday night, I asked Jack to pull out the project. Let’s just say it wasn’t a moment of gratitude. The project was way more involved, and Jack had done way less, than I’d anticipated. Luckily, we both had Monday off. We sketched out a plan of attack, found a shoe box for the diorama (the friggin shoebox diorama), and called it a night.
Monday we hacked away at the project and by the afternoon we were both flailing. Nous avons été aggravés. Did I mention that his science is taught in French? Thank goodness for the forbidden Google translate. Still, needless to say, the laundry wasn’t getting done.
I finally took Jack’s hands, looked him in the eye, and said, “Jack. I believe you, Madame Maier, and I can all agree that you need not to fail third grade. You’re ready to move on, and we are sooo close to the end of the year. You need to turn something in. You’ll have a different teacher next year, and I don’t know whether Dr. Muller will be better, but she will be different. And right now, I think different is enough.”
He thought a bit, grimaced, said, “You’re right," and picked up his pencil.
Sometimes different is enough.
This year, June was different.
We had a delightful house guest for a few weeks, and I began to think anew about hospitality. In my 20 years with Quakers I experienced all sides of the Ministry of Hospitality that is so central to the shared life of Quaker community. I hosted traveling Friends often. But more tellingly, while volunteering and then working for Friends General Conference, I was hosted by Friends in Toronto and 14 different states. Often the people I was going to solicit for a donation were the very ones who, sight unseen, offered to house and feed me during my stay in their area. In all my Quaker travels, unless it was for a large gathering, I never stayed anywhere other than a local Quaker’s home. It was what we did.
Spiritual hospitality is larger, though, than just offering shelter, important as that is. I believe hospitality is an overall generosity of spirit. It’s an openness to the other as an equal, as a(nother) beloved child of God. Hospitality is an attitude.
Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. ― Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life
I experienced lavish hospitality in my dear friend and mentor, Wayne Bryan. Wayne was my first boss, and everyone should be so lucky as to have such a wise and patient teacher shape her early career. He not only taught me how to work ecumenically; he taught me to think and live ecumenically. That, too, was hospitality.
In response to the blog preview, Deborah wrote that hospitality “has a lot to do with calming people down.” She always thinks of the time a friend drove her to the Emergency Room:
So, we go to the ER and I was holding it together until the nurse started asking me all the routine questions they ask at intake. I start babbling about how I'm in grad school, which is hard, and my boyfriend just broke up with me, and I'm late to my shift at Delaney's and I need the money, and I can't exactly tend bar with a patch on my eye, and so everything is just a mess. At which point that sweet nurse put down her clipboard, put her arm around me and said, "Oh, honey, you know it's not always going to be like this, right?"
It was such a combo of "duh" and "ah-ha." for me….Just being reassured that life does get rough sometimes and when it does, it sucks, but it doesn't (typically) stay that way forever, especially for someone with the many blessings, friends, faith, and privileges I enjoy.
So, hospitality for me looks like a friend like Jody and an ER nurse in Columbia, calming me down when life got a little nuts.
Sometimes knowing that different is coming is enough.
Deborah also reminded me of this gem: “Wasn't it Wayne Bryan who said, Beware little old ladies in white sneakers, for they shall change the world?" I happen to believe that those little old ladies—and I’m fast becoming one—are changing the world out of their desire for, and commitment to, radical hospitality.
Hospitality is welcoming the stranger, caring for the orphan and widow, ensuring access to quality health care for all people. One great example is Sister Simone Campbell, an American Roman Catholic Religious Sister, lawyer, lobbyist and executive director of NETWORK. Maybe you’ve heard of the Nuns on the Bus? If not, click that link right now and watch the three minute video.
For the past week my family has been visiting our cousins in western Massachusetts. It’s a mostly-annual trek well worth the 17 hour car ride. With two small children, that is a large endorsement. Their hospitality includes gardens, blueberries, beer, tennis, cards, hiking, swimming. And the best part is always the conversation. What have you been reading? How are your kids and parents? What’s next for you?
All of those conversations turn on the axis of: how is your life affecting the world? How are you making a difference? How are you offering and receiving hospitality?
On Wednesday we hiked up to the New England Peace Pagoda. It is “a monument to inspire peace, designed to provide a focus for people of all races and creeds, and to help unite them in their search for world peace.” In other words, it is a physical manifestation of Nouwen’s hospitality: the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy… to offer [people] space where change can take place.
We went for the hike and to see the pagoda and frog pond at the top; but, when we arrived we were met by Brenda, a volunteer who was fixing lunch for the three resident monks. The monks exist solely on the offerings of visitors. Brenda graciously offered to open the temple for us, and she patiently answered our questions and gave us origami peace cranes.
I hadn’t carried much on the hike, but we wanted to leave an offering, so Jack and Emma rummaged through the snack bag and came up with a fig bar, some peanuts and a handful of peppermints. The kids put these on a small tray that Brenda placed on the altar, and then, in a formal act of gratitude, she lit incense. Small gestures of hospitality.
My intention to embrace hospitality as an attitude challenges me to welcome whatever is present. I’ve come to appreciate that this is less about slogging dutifully through another life lesson, and more about appreciating the fleetingness of each moment. Greeting each moment (or at least this chunk of moments here in front of me) with recognition that it will pass.
In the times that are pleasing, be grateful without grasping for permanence or improvement. Knowing that it will change, savor it for what it is. Suck all the juice out!
In the times that are trying, be grateful without grasping for release. Knowing that it will change, seek the lesson in the moment. Be strong enough to suck up my small self (ego) and surrender to the Godself in the deepest part of me.
When Jack was an infant, a friend told me to notice every stage because in two weeks it would all change. This, for me, was not charming. It was devastating. It is the worst possible biologic reality for a planner. But her advice was helpful, because throughout that difficult first year I could remind myself to pay attention. With the funny or endearing stages I felt a poignancy, wondering if this was the last day for those bubbles or that mispronunciation. With the maddening stages I felt a resignation and dogged determination to stick it out because I knew it wouldn’t last.
A week or so after turning in the science project, Jack and I were outside talking. I said, "I know you've had a hard time with Madame Maier, but I've been really proud of you, because I know it's been hard."
Jack said, "Wait, what? You knew it was hard?!?"
"Of course," I said. "And I know you can do hard things. Daddy and I are proud of you, and it's good to start learning these hard lessons now."
"Oh," he said. "Hmmm."
Last night I smiled imagining a monk’s happy surprise when, after supper, he was offered our peppermint. I hope he sucked all the juice out, savoring the pleasure, all the more poignant for its brevity.
Letting it be enough.