Last year, I had the great joy of interviewing Andi Ashworth, author of “Real Love for Real Life,” and her husband, Charlie Peacock, for IAM Conversations. We talked about the art of hospitality, which is also the topic of Andi’s book and many of her articles for Comment Magazine and Art House America. Andi, who credits Edith Schaeffer for much what has formed her understanding of the art of hospitality, helped to give language for much of what I had learned by osmosis, growing up in a home with a mother who is generously gifted in the art of hospitality.
Last week, I attended a New Year’s retreat at Laity Lodge in Texas, where I spent some time with Jan Peterson, whose husband, Eugene, is a well-known author. One morning during the retreat, Jan led the morning devotions, and her topic of choice was hospitality. Once again, I was thinking of this often-overlooked, yet vitally important-to-the-fabric-of-society aspect of culture. Once again, I was mulling over what it means to be intentionally and successfully hospitable.
As it happens, I have been the recipient of many acts of hospitality in the past several weeks. I left my home in Staten Island on December 22 and have been a guest in five homes and one retreat center since then. My time in each place has looked different, yet each person I’ve visited, whether I was an overnight guest or just popping in for an afternoon or evening, has been a model of hospitality.
I have begun making some notes about what, exactly, made each place hospitable in its own, unique way. I have stayed in a small two-bedroom apartment, a few good-sized houses, and one sprawling mountain lodge. Some have had no yard, some have had large yards, and some have had nearly 2,000-acre yards. Yet, regardless of the size or monetary value of each home, the things that made them hospitable were the same in each place.
Here’s my shortlist of what makes someone (or some place) welcoming and warm:
- Food. Of course I have to start there! Food is fundamental to good hospitality. Now, that does not mean that the host him-or-herself needs to be a great cook. But food in some form must be present. Whether a full-on feast of lasagna, salad, bread, wine, and dessert, or a simple selection of cookies and chips, good hospitality seems to always involve people crowding around a table. (Of course, this explains the six pounds I have gained while traveling.)
- Beverages, hot and cold. This might seem to go along with food, but I would say it is a separate thing. I recommend keeping a bottle of wine on hand for guests, or, if they don’t drink alcohol, some juice or sparkling water. My boyfriend’s parents had read on Facebook that I like Pepsi, and they made sure to have some when we arrived. That thoughtfulness and intentional hospitality left a lasting impression with me, and made me feel instantly welcomed into their family celebration.
- A cozy place to sleep. While in Seattle, I am staying with friends of my cousin’s. When I arrived at their home my first night in town, I was shown to the room where I would be staying. I was exhausted and could not wait to hit the sack. Imagine my delight when I peeled back the covers and discovered that my host had turned on the electric blanket for me about an hour before I arrived! It was cold, wet, and rainy in Seattle, but my bed was toasty and welcoming. I slept like a rock. Of course, many people do not have guest rooms, or even spare beds. In those cases, a well-blanketed air-mattress or even camping pad can serve as a cozy, warm sleep spot.
- A “Mi Casa es Su Casa” Attitude. The first thing I noticed at one of the places I stayed in Phoenix was the baby grand piano in the living room. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on that thing, but wasn’t sure about how the family would feel about me retreating to the piano. All I had to do was hint that I’d love to give it a spin at some point, and I was given an all-access pass to tickle the ivories. What a gift! We ended up having a couple of hymn-sings, where I took requests from everyone in the house, from the five-year-old to his grandparents. Along this vane, I was given free-range use of peoples’ computers, cars, kitchens, ping-pong tables, laundry rooms, and coffeemakers. That freedom to “make myself at home” made me feel, well, totally at home.
- Conversation. Unless you happen to be on a silent retreat somewhere, offering conversation is integral to hospitality. Each place I went involved people getting to know one another, asking questions, being good listeners, and sharing some genuine laughter. You can be a hospitable talker or listener; both involve being thoughtful, intentional, and considerate. I find that certain games can serve as catalysts for great conversational banter, particularly my family’s favorite, Quiddler. I keep a pack of Quiddler cards in my suitcase at all times for this very reason.
- The freedom to disappear. I love people. I love meeting new people, seeing old friends, talking into the wee hours of the morning about topics big and small. But the truth is, I tested “introvert” in the Meyers-Briggs, and that means that when I am around people all day long, I need a little “alone time.” That is often hard to do when you are guest in someone’s home. I often fear appearing rude if I retreat from the group. For this reason, I am so grateful that in each place I have stayed, I have been given “permission” to not be present for every minute of every day. One day, needing to get some work done, I went to a coffee shop for a few hours. Another day, I had a long work phone call to make, which caused me to miss a family meal. In each case, no one seemed offended or annoyed that I was not around. Instead, they fixed me a plate when I got back. That freedom to have a bit of autonomy while being a guest was a huge blessing.
- Invitation into family life. Yes, it’s great to be given freedom to not participate in family life. However, it’s even better to be invited to participate in family life! On this trip, I met many people for the first time, and, in fact, crashed their family holiday celebrations! Yet I never felt like an imposition, because I was invited into every aspect of family life. This included a family trip to the Grand Canyon; a hike in the White Tanks; the family ping-pong rivalries; meals at favorite restaurants; participation in the family Christmas gift exchange; and much, much more. Offering outsiders a warm, clear invitation to participate in some way – even things like setting the table, peeling potatoes, or pouring water into the glasses – can make a huge difference.
This is in no way a conclusive list; that might come later. The art of hospitality takes on many forms. This is just a bit of what I’ve been thinking as I have been giving thanks to God for the hospitality I’ve been shown recently.
How about you? What makes you feel welcomed?