I’ve spent a lot of time staying with my colleague-turned-friend Foobing. When my living situation got a bit stressful, she put me up for a night to get a break. When I was between apartments, she insisted I crash in their spare room. When I come for dinner, she offers me to stay, like it’s not a big thing. She’s a mother of two, with a part-time job in the city, helps out at the school, her husband is a high powered doctor with the schedule to match and she is always the most welcoming person, regardless of what’s going on. Last weekend she had the flu and her husband was working, so I went round to make dinner and help out a bit. Even dosed with the flu and half dead, she was warm and inviting, just like her home. She’s not superwoman, but she is super.
This is the antithesis of how I host. And how I approach hosting.
Typically, I get a bee in my bonnet about Having People Over. My stress levels are already out of proportion. What will we eat? How will I cook it? Where will we sit? What if I don’t have enough chairs? Why don’t I create a signature cocktail? When am I going to buy cocktail glasses? Oh my god, none of my napkins match. How am I going to answer the door, take coats, give people a drink and talk to the people who are already here? I hate EVERYONE and want them to leave already, before they get here, but first I must handcraft the invitations, despite having already spoken to everyone about this shindig and the price of stamps rising exponentially every four minutes.
Some friends and I have a chilled movie-and-pizza night once a month or so. It hit me while I was ruminating over hosting, that my evening was not especially welcoming. Yes, there were kale chips and matching glasses and too many snacks, but my whole attitude was off, as though it were a hassle to have these lovely, smart, hilarious women in my home, rather than a lucky delight. I moaned about having no cloakroom, fussed about the kale chips (which, to be fair, are just roasted cabbage. What on *earth* was I thinking?) and generally hustled my friends around. I aggressively fussed over them insisting they needed more drinks and blankets and cushions and did not pay enough real, focused attention to them. I feel quite ashamed of myself.
Wimbledon Library is currently blessed with a good selection of modern books that could be shelved in the feminist section. I’m working my way through Spinster, by Kate Bolick and have just finished rereading Carry On Warrior by Glennon Melton Doyle and Big Magic by Elisabeth Gilbert. They’ve prompted a lot of thinking.
Glennon (I’m going to call her Glennon, because I feel we’d be friends if we met. If not, I would pursue her until I wore her down) has a chapter in her book called Hostressing. She writes about how she is not a natural hostess. She does orders takeout for her family, so doesn’t know what food to give to guests. She doesn’t have the right glasses, so guests drink out of mugs, she’s not good at juggling the elements of hosting, so she opts out. She tells the story of Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary. Here’s a quote that I lifted straight out of the Internet, because it’s easiest:
“As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
My whole life I didn’t really understand this story. I mean, I do, yes. Obviously listen to Jesus, it’s more important that chores, etc etc, but at the same time, Mary, JESUS IS IN YOUR HOUSE. Jesus! Come on, Mary! Get up from hanging around and get him a drink and some snacks and make him welcome. Also, why aren’t you helping Martha! It’ll take her twice as long without your help and she’s missing Jesus! If you bothered to help, everyone would have a story to tell down at the temple later rather than just you!
Additionally, I can’t help but think that Jesus would probably like a few moments of not having to work miracles and tell parables. He might enjoy a few minutes to himself. Those 12 apostles and all that donkey travel probably take a lot out of him.
However, whilst Glennon would agree with me a bit (maybe not about Jesus needing some time to chill), she’s thought about it more than I have and has a slightly different take on this. She wrote:
Is it possible that true hospitality is not about perfect food or fancy furniture? Could the better part of hospitality be listening? And if you can’t do both, could the better part be focusing on your guest instead of trying to impress or even feed him? …Maybe hostessing is not really about the host, but the guest. Maybe it’s a sacred spiritual practice because every single person who crosses our doorsteps is a gift, is Jesus really. And each guest has something to teach us if we’re present enough to learn. Maybe hospitality is not about my home, or my food, or my lack of stuff. Maybe it’s just about soaking people in.
And this is absolutely not what I do. I’m not valuing the gifts I have been offered when my cherished friends come all the way to South West London (on the District Line!) to see me. I’m fussing about trying to make the evening perfect for ME, not for them. I’m not actually present with them, but mentally rearranging things and planning dinner service arrangements. I’m trying to impress them with how “together” I have everything, which is not the point.
Elisabeth Gilbert quotes Rebecca Solnit in Big Magic and I think it applies here: “So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else, because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.”
I don’t have fun when I have people over because I’m trying to make everything perfect. People don’t want perfect, they want fun and laughter and decent-ish coffee. I’m missing things trying to be perfect, which is inachievable anyway.
Foobing’s house isn’t “perfect” – it’s a family home. The glasses are mismatching, there are foldaway emergency chairs, the cruet set isn’t a pair. But it’s warm and cosy and everyone who crosses the threshold feels truly welcomed. She is friendly and puts you at your ease. It helps that she is basically 80% cuddly puppy and her kids are adorable, but I imagine there are days when she’s tired after work and commuting and homework and cooking that she’d find it difficult to radiate 100% joy, but she’s still cordial and good natured. I’ve never felt out of place there. It’s never a problem for people to stay for dinner or the night at her house – there are plates in the cupboard, sheets upstairs and cheese in the fridge. It’s all manageable and flexible. Even when she’s doing five things at once, she’s still friendly and warm and you feel gladly received.
Unexpected guests at my house would not be met with such grace.
This realisation is not going to magically transform me into Martha Stewart. Practically, I need to reconcile my perfectionist personality with putting generosity and attention first. I’d like to break down how to make someone welcome in my home and the practical ways to actually do that. The whys and the hows. I’ve been making things harder than they need to be in the past and I just need to get over myself. As usual, I’ve been making it All About Me and that is absolutely not the point.