Hot Mess Hospitality: Against the Art-Directed Life

Hot Mess Hospitality: Against the Art-Directed Life November 22, 2016

original art by Tom LaMothe
original art by Tom LaMothe

There are two truths I must tell you.

I have to tell you that I have wept with laughter over #PinterestFails and things of this kind. I simply adore them. They are one of the best, most concrete examples of “real world meets fantasy world” that I know of.

Putting cellphone shots of failed Pinterest projects alongside the professional-quality images that inspired their creation is like taking a random male model and putting him next to one of the dads from the bus stop. It reminds me of Bill Murray’s parody account, which tweeted this summer: “every Olympic event should include one average person competing for reference.” It’s like a transcript of an actual conversation put side by side with a page from Eugene O’Neill. In short, Pinterest fails demonstrate concretely that what we may be aspiring to is not real.

Neither is that mom blogger you read and admire and secretly are sick with jealousy over. (Should I say “mama blogger” instead? They often seem to refer to themselves as “mamas,” and they never refer to their children as simply children, but always as some adorably diminutive name that sounds like it might be a new brand name for mini-oranges, like “cuties” or “littles” or “bitties” or “sweeties.”) You know the kind of blogger I mean – so social media savvy, so skilled with a camera that you gaze into the screen and forget that everything you’re seeing is as manufactured as any glossy magazine.

Sometimes, in a nod to plausibility, the mama-blogger will show you the editing process by which she crops out the messes that her “cuties” have made, but the mess is always crushingly minor and in no case even close to as bad as what’s happening on the other side of your closet door. In some cases, even mama-blogger’s messes appear to have been art-directed to be as cozy as possible, as if someone merely forgot to KonMari their Pottery Barn stuff. Never is the mess of the kind you might see when you’ve had a violently ill child home from school on the same day that you had to finish a freelance project and tear apart the house to find winter hats and mittens for the other members of your family because you have never, never managed to organize accessories into separate, monogrammed baskets for each family member.

The mama-blogger may assure you that she, too, is a mess (or perhaps a hot mess, a phrase which always calls up in my mind the image of a fresh dog turd steaming against the snow) or else she announces that she is “just a…” something. “Just a miserable sinner relying on Jesus!” “Just an ordinary housewife and mama to 8 little Delites™!” Girl, please. If you have gaggles of grown women hanging on your every tweet and loving your every post, then you are a savvy marketer, which is not a bad thing. Just own it.

But here’s the problem: mama-blogger can’t own the fact that she’s a brilliant businesswoman because that would break the fourth wall. People gaze at her stuff because they (we, I) like to willingly suspend my disbelief, look away from my actual messes and into the screen, imagining that this could be us:

  • Children doing wholesome craft projects that are associated with the season (extra points for correlation with the church calendar) or playing nicely with wooden toys
  • Artfully crumpled quilts, a fire, coffee, devotional literature and peace and quiet first thing in the morning
  • Holiday tables with namecards and/or menu cards and flowers and candles and beautifully mismatched vintage “pieces” of crockery and silver and no tipsy relatives making inappropriate comments and mocking your vegetarian child

But wait, I promised to tell you two truths, and I’ve nearly forgotten the second, which is that I am drawn to all of this like a magnet.

I have always wanted to be that mother – the one who makes her own Advent wreaths and actually remembers to light the candles at the right time and in the right order, the mother who, in accordance with every season and holiday, provides nature-inspired crafts, activities, and well-chosen picture books and themed meals and traditional songs that I will strum on my guitar like Maria von Trapp. I want to be that person with the artfully decorated table who actually has a place to put her guests’ coats where they might not be slept upon by her ancient cat.

I like the calm and comfort suggested by a beautiful and organized home. I love it all. And I do not think it wrong to love these things. But I cannot convince myself that the pursuit of Pinterest-perfection (or even regular exposure to it) is good for my soul. I cannot be persuaded that a beautiful holiday table is a solemn necessity. I don’t think that covetousness is a Christian virtue. It’s a capitalist virtue.

We are headed into holiday time, and expectations tend to run very high. Every commercial, every ad, every song, movie, Pinterest idea and blog post sells us a certain idealized version of this time. It’s never the melancholic, reflective, inward waiting of Advent. It’s one long “celebration” about which we’re supposed to be “joyful.” Who wouldn’t feel down during this time? We feel ourselves the lone average person on a field of Olympians.

I set out to say something about hospitality. Hospitality, like mommy-blogging, has become an industry. It has been commodified. There are a million products expressly designed to provoke your sense of inadequacy, to send you to Target, credit card in hand, to make yourself and your home and your family seem more than what you are afraid that they might be.

Certainly, hospitality calls for some sacrifice. Dorothy Day wrote of how joyful it was to “ignore the price of coffee and to go on serving the finest bread to the long line of the destitute who came to us.” There’s no thought here of Dorothy caring what the long line of the destitute thought of her; her joy is in giving the best to people who expected little better than the worst. It’s an instance where the world that is truly Real – according to the Gospels – meets the world as it usually is.

I would not presume to tell you how to practice hospitality this season. Only you know what you happen to be up for. But may I suggest stepping back from social media, consciously rejecting commodified forms of what passes for hospitality, and seeking what is Real?

RachelStoneCatRachel Marie Stone teaches English at The Stony Brook School in New York, and is the author of several books, including Eat With Joy: Redeeming God’s Gift of Food, and, most recently, the 40th anniversary edition of the More-With-Less cookbook, just out from Herald Press. She’s pictured here with her elderly cat. 

(Her humanitarian service includes creating the No. 1 trending hashtag #AddAWordRuinAChristianBook. Do yourself a favor and search some of the results. –Ed.)


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