On striving to be guestly

On striving to be guestly July 30, 2019

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend to whom he goes at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, for a friend of mine has arrived at my house from a journey and I have nothing to offer him,’ and he says in reply from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked and my children and I are already in bed. I cannot get up to give you anything.’ I tell you, if he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence. And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?

Luke 11:5-13

The last time I took a vacation with my parents was in 2011. We traveled to visit cousins in Los Angeles and San Diego. One morning, as I was washing some dishes I’d used, my father gave me what I found to be a rather odd compliment: “You know, you are a really good houseguest.”

I frowned, wondering what he meant. I never thought of being a houseguest as a talent. Sure, I try to remember the guidelines my parents taught me: to bring a bottle of wine or other treat for the household, to either cook or pay for a restaurant meal for my hosts at least once during my stay, to clean up after myself as much as possible. There are definitely times when I’ve failed at this – neglecting to spend sufficient time with my hosts, accidentally breaking a glass, mishandling shower curtains and spilling water all over the bathroom floor.

But perhaps the “talent” my father was referring to was simply this: I really, really love being a guest in someone’s home. It’s a natural extension of my passion for travel, which is in part made possible by the tremendous generosity of the friends, acquaintances, and occasional strangers who have welcomed me into their homes. I’ve only recently come to realize that many people feel uncomfortable when staying in the homes of others. But for me, it’s a delight.

Over time, I’ve come to enjoy serving as a host as much as being a guest. Alas, there have been fewer opportunities to do this. (For reasons I still haven’t been able to understand, I am much more keen to visit my friends in places like New York, Toronto, Montevideo, and Cambridge, UK than they are to visit me in Dubuque, Iowa. Dubuque is awesome, folks. Come and see for yourself!)

But when I do have the chance to be a host others, I relish it. I’ve learned from my mother to always provide an abundance of food; I’ve learned that usually, as long as the kitchen and the bathroom are clean, most people won’t judge me if the rest of my space is a mess. I am grateful to the two friends who have indeed made special trips to visit me in Dubuque as well as the smattering of people who’ve stayed in my home while passing through the vast US Midwest.

If I had to point to a source for my love of being both a guest and host, I’d place it in my Polish heritage. There’s a lovely Polish word that doesn’t translate directly into English: gościnny. It’s an adjective meaning “hospitable,” but I feel compelled to invent a new word for it: “guestly.” Someone who is gościnny doesn’t just open their door out of a sense of obligation; they truly relish the chance to share their home with others. And there is an implication that they enjoy being a guest as well as a host.

This kind of warm hospitality has been my experience when traveling in Poland. I enjoyed it feasting on cheese-filled crepes and homemade pickles in the home of Pani Teresa, a warmhearted woman in a small town who hosted a Kenyan woman and me during 2016 World Youth Day in Krakow. I experience it singing into the wee hours of the morning with Krzysz and Daria, two bohemian artists whom I visited most weekends while studying in Poland in 2007. And I experienced it when Leszek, my friend’s brother-in-law, once woke up at 5 a.m. to drive me to the airport after a vacation in Gdansk.

From the few stories I’ve heard, this hospitality was a characteristic of my great-great-uncle, Father Jan Pitass, a Polish priest who migrated to the US in the 1870’s to establish Saint Stanislaus Church, the first ethnically Polish church in my hometown of Buffalo, NY. It is said that he personally would greet new Polish immigrants when they arrived to Buffalo on the train; he would welcome them into the neighborhood around his church and help them settle in.

And, while my parents grew up without learning the Polish language or practicing most of the cultural traditions, they too have demonstrated this tendency to be “guestly.” When out for dinner with any group of people, my father always insists on paying the bill. It’s hard to remember  a Christmas or Easter meal when we didn’t find our table graced with at least a handful of distant relatives or casual family acquaintances with nowhere else to go.

When I, their only child, turned eighteen and left home for college, my parents decided to alleviate their empty nest syndrome by hosting exchange students from around the world. Many of these were short-term visitors, French or Spanish or Chinese students visiting the US for a summer or just a few weeks. But they also hosted Mel from Brazil for a full academic semester and Zari from Pakistan for a full year. Now that these young women are adults, I have been able to visit them: in 2006 my parents and I stayed with Mel’s family in Recife, and a few years later I visited Zari and her husband in the UK, which is the country she now calls home.

It is these values received from my parents – the joy of sharing one’s home with others, of reveling in community and fellowship – that have shaped my own desire to be gościnny, to give and receive hospitality with delight. And most recently, it was their lifelong influence that led me to the decision to become a legal guardian for a young Guatemalan immigrant applying for a path to US citizenship under a USCIS program called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status.

While being a guardian is mostly a legal formality (it does not entail financial or really many other obligations), I decided to invite this young woman to come and live with me so that she could reduce her personal expenses and attend the public high school in my district, which has better resources for ESL speakers than her previous one. Since she joined me on June 1, 2018, she has enriched my life greatly. As someone who struggles with mild depression and anxiety, I am not well-suited to living alone. Now, when I return from work and find her solving math problems, tending the vegetable garden she has planted in our backyard, or joyfully singing the evangelical Christian music she listens to each day, I realize that my little apartment has finally become a home.

However, we humans are complex creatures, full of contradictions. While my great-great-uncle Father Jan Pitass may have warmly greeted new immigrants at the train station, I’ve also heard that he was a harsh, judgmental, moody man, even being so insolent as to strike passersby with his cane. I have certainly missed opportunities to be a hospitable host, and sometimes as a guest I’ve worn out my welcome. As for my parents, it is hard for me to fathom that these two incredibly generous people are die-hard supporters of the current US president and vocal enthusiasts for the proposed US-Mexico border wall. But they are.

When I ask them their reasons for voting for Donald Trump, they express relief that he is “not a typical politician.” My father points to the surging stock market and lowered unemployment rate. My mother says that he “speaks directly from his heart” rather than cloaking his ideas in the language of the educated elite. And when I discuss the immigration issue, they simply say that a country needs secure borders. My father asserts that today’s newcomers are not like our ancestors. In his view, they do not seek to “assimilate” by learning English; many of them are “criminals”; the economic and political problems leading them to migrate in the first place are not our country’s responsibility. Our arguments over this topic usually get so heated that we often prefer to avoid it.

Once my legal ward – or as I prefer to call her, my pseudo-daughter – came to live with me, I had a feeling that while my parents felt frightened of “immigrants” as an imagined group, they would not be so scared if an actual immigrant came to their door. When they visited me in Dubuque and met my ward, everyone got along well. My parents were happy to hear that she was learning English and earning A’s in school. Together, my mother, my pseudo-daughter and I sat down to watch the Greta Gerwig film Ladybird; together we went shopping for a cake to celebrate my father’s 79th birthday.

I’d like to say that this meeting was a tremendous moment of encounter and transformation for my parents, but alas, it was not. As cordial as they were to my pseudo-daughter, they have let me know more than once that they do not approve of me being a guardian and housing someone who is undocumented– a stance that causes me much sorrow. But this brings me back to the question of hospitality.

In many ways it is easy to be gościnny with a young woman who, through her many practical and spiritual contributions to my little home, makes my life so much more fulfilling than it would be otherwise. But it can be harder to show that kind of hospitality to two people who are on the opposite side of our country’s increasingly tribalistic political divide: in this case, my own parents, whom I love dearly and thank endlessly for giving me the values I try to live by.

I’ve said before that it would probably take an invasion of extraterrestrials to bring about peace among our human family (this is obviously not my original idea – check out Ursula K. Leguin’s The Lathe of Heaven for one of the more beautiful fictional portrayals of such a scenario). Since we hopefully won’t have such a powerful common enemy to unite us, we need to seek other means. Could hospitality be the answer? How can we be “guestly” to those who are truly different from us, particularly when they are also unsettlingly similar? How can we be good hosts and guests with those who challenge us, irritate us, and make us painfully aware of our own flaws?

One answer lies in last Sunday’s Gospel, which I have partially quoted at the beginning of this essay. I heard this reading from the Gospel according to Saint Luke during a special ceremony for a dear friend who has just professed first vows as a Dominican sister. For this lovely woman, the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience – which at first glance might seem restrictive – offer a new freedom, a chance to be radically available to all who are in need. For as long as I’ve known this passionate young sister, I have watched her share herself widely, always ready to offer a listening ear to a friend in need, to share beauty through a poem or a song, or at times to march in the streets against injustice.

Her relationships with family, friends, other sisters and people beyond that immediate circle are not perfect, but they are solid and hold at their basis a kind of unconditional compassion that is stronger than any petty grievances or irritations that might also be present. As in Luke’s Gospel, it’s not exactly fun to be woken up by a neighbor in the middle of the night; we may not be thrilled at every moment with our relationships. But even though we fail, it’s never to late to be kind.

I often wonder what Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, would think if she saw today’s world. Day was an anarchist who marched for women’s suffrage even though she herself did not believe in voting, who adored her soldier grandson even though she was a pacifist, who took care of her ex-partner Forster’s new love, Nanette, when she was dying of cancer. “Don’t call me a saint,” she famously said. As impressive as her life story is – an itinerant childhood, a bohemian adolescence and youth, a child born out of wedlock, an unexpected conversion to Catholicism, and the founding of an international movement for justice and charity – she did not see her choices as exceptional. “Give recklessly,” she urged those around her. This is what we are all called to do.

I will always love my parents, no matter how much our political ideologies threaten to divide us. And I know that they love me too – probably more than I love them. They were the ones who taught me to be both a guest and a host. I watched my mother hold large parties and make sure no one was ever excluded from the conversation; so many times I watched my father, never a passive bystander, come to the aid of a stranger who needed his car jump-started or dug out of the snow. Like them, like my great-great-uncle, I am full of mess and contradiction, as are we all. Maybe it’s hard to get along all the time. But we can still try to be gościnny – making the effort to enter the homes of people radically different from us, opening our own doors to people we never thought we’d meet. Graciousness and courtesy are rather boring virtues; they hardly seem like they could change the world. But they might be just enough to occasionally dig us out of the snow, or give us that much-needed jump start.

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