by Madonna Hamel
A few years back, while staying in a backroom of a friend’s house in downtown Toronto, it was pointed out to me that I had built a moat of books around my bed. While it may have provided an illusion of safety, it could take months for a sought-after book to resurface again. Even after committing to bookshelves I still find books forming columns in various parts of my home, like sentinels or stalactites. When I first started writing this column, which I abandoned for mysterious reasons, I was hunting for a quote, and I came across a book I started reading last year at this time. It was on the bottom of a pillar of books tucked away in a corner.
The book I found was Henri Nouwen’s “Reaching Out: The Three Movements of A Spiritual Life.” I was reading it and taking copious notes while my nephew Dan edited his poems. We were in Medicine Hat, ‘hanging out’ in coffee shops, reading and writing, occasionally looking up and reciting aloud to each other. I was impressed by how his poems moved, like a dance across the page, effortless like play, the way kids get caught up in making things. They are not planning their arrival on The Scene, nor hoping they’ll get discovered or write a hit tune or garner praise and fans. They were like good hosts opening the door, I told him, reading selections from Nouwen’s book.
I’m still reading the book. In fact, I started it seven years ago. It’s not that it’s difficult or boring; it’s just that every thought is so uniquely expressed that I’ve had to pace myself, biting off not more than a couple of paragraphs at a time. The book had been cycled down to the bottom of a mountain pile that was peaked by despairing and somewhat cynical expositions on the state of humanity. Not only were these books chipping away at my decision to hold a loving view of humanity, they were bloated and wordy in their verbiage. They had no poetic spirit. I couldn’t imagine their writers grinning with delight at the ways words played with each other, making loop-de-loops on the page, like Dan and I were, those afternoons in coffee shops.
“Reaching Out” is not about measuring the ‘levels of success’ in a spiritual life but about becoming aware of the “different poles between which our lives vacillate and are held in tension.” According to Nouwen, movement between poles can take us from a lonely, life of hostility and illusion to a place of hospitality and the life of the Spirit. “Paralysis, “ he assured me, “May just be an invitation to search for deeper sources of vitality.” His words reminded me of a time I was feeling completely defeated by my own bad behaviour and my mentor suggested I stop being a perfectionist. “Perfectionism,” she said, “Leads to procrastination and procrastination leads to paralysis. Don’t be paralyzed by your failure to live up to your own unrealistic expectations.” She wasn’t letting me off the hook; she was reminding me I was all too human. She was suggesting that somewhere between perfect and hopeless there’s a place where life is vital, alive and fluid and positive change becomes possible.
A few days after I found the book, Ervin and ‘the boys’, showed up with a dolly and replaced my broken washer with a new one. As quickly as they came they left- there was feed to be moved and cattle to tend to. My gushing thanks, although entirely sincere, felt insufficient gratitude, but they weren’t looking for any, I couldn’t even make them coffee or serve them some fresh apple crumble. The look on Ervin’s face said: ‘we’re just doing what needs to be done.’ These moments of ‘hospitality’ create a feeling I can only describe as “being suddenly cared for.”
“A good host,” writes Nouwen, “Believes the guest holds a gift”. Today hospitality is an industry, but the word goes back to an ancient concept of welcoming the stranger into our home because our guests carry the precious gift of story. They give us their story; we give them a listening ear. “We will never believe we have something to give unless there is someone able to receive.”
When I think of people who open their lives to allow strangers to feel free to ask for help, or a cup of coffee or assistance of some kind, I think of a term a United Church pastor once used: Radical Hospitality. She explained to me that she considered it her job to make sure that nobody felt abandoned or afraid. Although the goal is never reachable, the point of it is to stay open to others-not just members of her congregation, but the street kids and their dogs on the curb outside, and the ranting guy who obviously didn’t take his meds this morning and the retired man recently turned atheist who showed up every afternoon for coffee because he liked the pastor’s laugh and her choice in cookies.
I think of Radical Hospitality as any act of charity that doesn’t expect a reward, be it a compliment or an ego-boost or payment in kind. I imagine it springs forth from one’s being like one of Dan’s poems or child’s play. It’s focus is on whomever needs a hand or a smile. I sometimes wonder if we even know how, as a culture, to be hospitable. Or if we view the kindness of others as the actions of suckers. We hear so often: Everyone has a motive, a price, or a hidden agenda.
As various times in my life I’ve worked in the hospitality industry. For an artist it pays the bills while you squeeze your real work into the remaining hours of the day. I grew up in a resort town and have worked as a waitress, a chambermaid, a tour guide, a cook, a gallery sitter, a gift shop clerk. On most days I was friendly, even interested in giving people quality service. But there’s always that one unhappy soul who vents their disappointment on you, or worse, assumes ordering about ‘the help’ comes with the territory. Hospitality, they assume, is a one way street: you the employee are meant to absorb their rudeness. The customer is always right.
I remember travelling with a friend in the States and after a cozy lunch in a modest cafe she turned to our server and asked: What is it about the service industry in America that makes it so exceptional? “I don’t know” shrugged the young woman. “I guess, I’m gonna be here anyway, I might as well make the best of it.” Her “service with a smile” did seem genuine. Unbidden, even. Her face wore the same expression that Ervin’s bore when he installed the washing machine in my apartment: It’s just something that needs doing. I wonder what her life is like now, living where hard-working people in her income bracket are barely taken into account, indeed: are counted out of the prosperity machinery. Has her smile gotten a little fixed, a little frozen? Or is does she consider it even more essential these days? Why would we even expect so much from someone who has so little say?
I imagine true hospitality means showing up for others and for our life, for our work, for our day as it stretches out before us. Our commitments, once made, might as well be heartily engaged. The perfect host, says Nowuen, creates a space, “a friendly emptiness”, where friends and strangers can “enter and discover themselves” without speeches, suggestions, or “educated intimidation”. A true host hopes the guest will “feel free to speak their own language, feel free even to leave.”
Yet, I fear, the ‘powers that be’ seem to be exhibiting more hostility than hospitality. It’s hard to open the door let alone listen to what the worldly world has to say. I often wonder if I am up to the role of the ‘true host’. I’ve had a winter of writing in my room, a tiny portable, fake fireplace heater next to me, the snow falling outside. I squeak by on my savings. I like the solitude. Even if Nowuen reminds us that solitude is not a destination, but a respite, it’s easy to want to stay in your room forever.
And then, my nephew calls and asks me to listen to something he just wrote. He tells me the waves are crashing on the shore where he lives on an island. He saw a whale today, and now his new friend is gone and the silence is a bit sad. I find myself quoting Nowuen, about how our lives move back and forth between poles, between anxiety and honesty, between loneliness and solitude, between what feels like work and what rushes by fast, like play. How suddenly, its next year, and we’re reading each other poems again.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie home.