Welcoming the stranger

I have been mulling over this idea of “welcome” and “hospitality” and recall an incident that happened when I was seven years old. Here is that story.

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The late afternoon was humid and hot, as it often was in South Texas. I had been sitting at the kitchen table doing my homework. My mother was cooking supper, kneading dough in her floured hands for tortillas, while beans and rice boiled on the stove.

A knock came at the back screen door. Dad was at work and nobody visited us, except my tias who always barged in whenever they felt like it.

I followed my mother to the door, peering from behind her skirt.

man's handsA man stood there, holding a hat in his hands. He seemed sad, his face patched with stubbles of hair. His shirt was ripped and his pants, baggy. His shoes were worn, with holes in the toes.

He looked down and finally spoke in a soft voice.

“Ma’am, I’m wondering if you could spare a bite to eat?”

My mother was silent for a few seconds, then smiled. She told the man to wait and then made him three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and poured a tall glass of milk. She placed it all on a tray and took it out to the man.

“Much obliged, ma’am,” he said. “God bless you.”

I remember asking my mother about that man and who he was. She said he was a hobo and when I asked her to explain, she said he was someone who didn’t have a home, who perhaps couldn’t find a job. I then asked her why she had given him food.

“Because he was hungry. And you never know when you might entertain angels unawares,” she said, and went back to making the tortillas.

doorknob shadowsThat incident has stayed with me all these years for many reasons. Not only was my mother showing a great kindness to a stranger, but she was showing hospitality and welcome.

In the 1950s you could open your door to the unknown. But today, we lock up our houses, our cars, our very lives in fear. We have lost the grace of hospitality and welcome, and in the process, we have lost who we are.

I have no answer to this because at times, the level of our lack of welcome to the “stranger” or to the “other” feels all too accepted and commonplace. We cut off another person in traffic; we are curt with the cashier when she’s slow; we gossip at work because it relieves the tedium and boredom. And yet, all spiritual practices ask us to treat each other with an open and welcoming heart.

So what to do? Perhaps we start where we are, with who we are.

We can only welcome others as much as we are welcoming to ourselves — to all of our being. So we begin by offering hospitality to those parts of ourselves we have distanced.

In her book, “The Artist’s Rule,” author Christine Valters Paintner writes:

“We have forgotten how to welcome and accept those parts of ourselves we reject — those parts of ourselves we resist and numb — even though they keep knocking and simply want to show us they have gifts to bring us.”

What gifts? The fearful edges of our being that need smoothing; the inner child of old wounds that yearns for comfort; the workaholic adult who needs to give herself permission to rest. Indeed, we can learn to welcome those orphaned parts of ourselves with gentleness, without judgment. How? By becoming aware of them in the present moment.

When we start to slam the door on our own faces and hearts, we need to step back and pause. That lack of welcome or acceptance is usually our first sign — my first sign — that we need to “be with” and sit with whatever we are avoiding. Psychologists and 12 Step Programs have long offered a wonderful acronym called HALT and it’s a good one to remember when we feel off kilter: Am I too Hungry; Angry; Lonely; or Tired?

If so, we need to be gentle with ourselves. And when we learn to be more present and hospitable to whatever is happening in our inner world, I believe we then can more freely extend a welcome to our outer world.

handshake-recruiting-sepiaAnd indeed, just as I see lack of welcome around me at times, I am also blessed to witness many acts of hospitality on any given day — a man opening the door for an elderly woman with a walker as she struggles with her groceries, and he, helping her to the car to load them. Teenagers volunteering at a soup kitchen. A woman in church, weeping for some sorrow, and a woman behind her, resting a hand on her shoulder.

At their heart, these are all acts of love. They say, “You are not so much a stranger, but you and I, we are alike.” 

As Paintner writes: “… our encounters with strangers — the unknown, the unexpected, foreign elements that spark our fear — are precisely the places where we are mostly likely to encounter God.”

Such encounters are indeed then, with angels … and they give me hope.

 

rumi guesthouse

 

 

Showing up

Why are you reading this blog post? How did you find it? And does it matter? This is not so much a story for the journey, but some thoughts about writing and the creative process. And why it’s important to you. And to me.

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blogWhen print was king, I remember feeling guilty about all the piles of magazines and newspapers I wanted to read but knew I’d never get to. Now, it’s digital. Links to articles, blogs, Twitter. It’s exhausting. I never get to them all.

Which led me to thinking about what claims our attention these days. It seems everyone has something to say. Yep. I’m guilty and among those entering the digital fray with this blog. The Internet has opened a world where everyone — but especially writers — finally has a platform, a place where we can say, “Here. Read this. You might like it.” Or not.

See, that’s the problem. There are a gazillion of us out there writing and blogging our little hearts out, knowing that a gazillion people will never find this blog, and if they do, even read it. We live in a world where we drop into a piece, scan it, move on. The hit-and-run of a society never in the moment.

Granted, some topics are of more interest to us than others. We can’t be expected to read “everything” (refer to the first sentence in this blog). Still. Why do we do this? Why do we want to be read? Why do I do this?

Let me back up to the second question: Why do we want to be read? I want to make a joke here, something like, “If a writer writes a piece and no one ever reads it, is it still writing?” along the lines of “If a tree falls in the woods and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

The truth is, we write for many reasons. And one of them is indeed to be read.

Perhaps that’s ego. Perhaps. But ask any creative person and I believe that the participation of the observer is what it’s all about. It’s about relationship. We want to relate on deep levels with the world. We write, or paint or create music in the hopes that someone out there, somewhere, is taking in what we’ve created, otherwise I believe it is a selfish, ego-driven task.  We yearn for the “other” to be present in some way to the gift we’ve shared.

Ah. But more often than not, it doesn’t happen. So what to do? We still show up. Even if the observer, reader, listener,writer-300x207 whomever — doesn’t. No matter what. To be writers, we show up at the blank screen. To paint, we show up at the canvas, or if we’re musicians we show up at the keyboard. And then we hope someone ponders it, loves it or hates it, but participates in that process with us — and then we let it go.

So why do I do this? Because, to paraphrase singer Joni Mitchell, “writing is in my blood like holy wine.” My soul yearns to share. Or, to paraphrase writer C.S. Lewis, “I write to know I am not alone.” And writing is a gift I’ve been given. One for which I’m forever thankful.

I’m always reminded of the Gospel story of the man who buried his talents. Or of the late and wonderful Wayne Dyer who said “Don’t die with your music in you.” I don’t want to die with any words left in me. I want to share them and shape them so that they will inspire, uplift and give others hope. Because we are a people desperately in need of hope.

In a world where countless others are writing and blogging,  I often feel a lone voice crying in the wilderness. But I’ll keep voicing and writing and showing up. And if you’re reading this, hey there, kind person — thanks so much. Thanks for being part of this creative relationship. Without you, these words mean nothing. Really. Like the tree falling in the woods, these words falling onto this page are just words until you take them into your heart.

When you do that, you give them life. And then I know as reader and writer, we are in relationship. We are not alone.

 

Our holy flaws

Don’t ask me why I did it. I was in college. It was only for six months and I needed the money. My intent was to shift my career from writing to psychology. And a deeper part of me really did want to be of service. So at that time, it seemed a good idea to become a houseparent for 12 chronically mentally ill adults. That experience was one of the most challenging — and growth-filled — of my life.

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Vincent-de-Paul-with-poor-at-tableCharlie sat at the dinner table with the other 11 — the apostles of “things not quite right” — as I put out the bowls of vegetables and salad, the plate of chicken. He reached for the bread and stuffed two slices down the front of his shirt.

“Charlie, there’s plenty of bread. You can have more if you want,” I said.

“No, that’s OK. I need these.”

I learned not to argue. Charlie had just been released from a lifetime of institutionalization and was now in this group home. In his mind, grab what you could now or there wouldn’t be any at all.

Carla started babbling in her German accent about the year 1945, and how on this particular day, she had been taken to the park by her mother, but it had rained. She was a savant and had the most uncanny ability to recall what had happened in detail on any given date or year.

The rest just chowed down, even as I tried to teach them to use the correct utensils and a napkin. Again, fruitless. They did the best they could given their challenges and backgrounds.

Often, in the middle of the night, Rita would pull the fire alarm, just for kicks. She liked the attention and excitement and even better, the firemen rushing to the stately three-story mansion, now converted into this group home. I think we eventually installed some kind of device that made the alarms accessible only to those in charge. But I don’t remember.

I do recall Mary, though, who would knock on my door in the middle of the night. She was an infantilized adult woman, who wore gobs of lipstick and makeup, drowning in jewelry around her neck and wrists, and always had questions for me about sex. I would tell her to go back to bed, that we’d talk in the morning and she would meekly walk away. Perhaps she just wanted to know I was there. To protect her.

Why do I share these stories? Because for whatever reasons, I’ve been thinking about the people I was serving — and the rest of us — and asking myself: Is there “really” a rest of us? Yes, they had unusual behaviors and mental challenges to the extreme. Some were heavily medicated. Others had spent lifetimes being shuttled from psychiatric hospitals to institutions.

But Charlie, like most of us, just wanted to know he would have enough. He lived in a world of scarcity and so often aren’t we caught up in the same? Will there be enough money, food, time, health? Fill in the blank. Like Charlie, many of us reach out in fear and lack when abundance is right in front of us.

Carla had an uncanny gift to tap into a dimension that seemed to have no time. And if we live in the present moment, indeed there is no time. Rita simply wanted attention. Granted, she took it to drastic measures, but who of us in our lifetime hasn’t pulled some “stunt” to get what we felt we needed? And Mary simply wanted reassurance that the “little girl” in her was safe.

I believe we all carry parts within us that we often would rather not acknowledge. That we would like to push away. We would rather not see what we call the “crazy” in us because that would be all together too unacceptable. But the truth is, we are a combination of many graces and blessings as well as curses and flaws.

And even that word “crazy” is a misnomer because who is to say what is sane and what isn’t? How can we say what is “whole” or “holy” and what is not?

Yes, the individuals in that group home were flawed — at least according to the hopepsychiatric world — but aren’t we all flawed in some way? We all come to the table of life with our struggles and challenges, some with more severity than others.

In hindsight, I am thankful to those with mental difficulties at the group home because they became my teachers. They revealed to me an honesty of spirit in their mental and emotional challenges, one that was authentic, painful and struggling.

And they came to show me that the Divine is always saying “yes” to us with great love — over and over and over again — no matter our limitations. No matter if we are scrounging for a piece of bread or setting off a fire alarm. Or simply trying to get through another day.

This, for me, is cause for great rejoicing. And great hope.