Sunday, December 23, 2007


Though I am a Northwesterner now, I spent my first 7 years in the South, and my mother's people were all Southerners. So when I saw this hotel verandah in St.Petersburg, Florida, it spoke to me immediately of Southern Hospitality. My Nanny K in Suffolk, Virginia, had a similar verandah (though smaller, of course) with the same green wicker chairs and glass topped tables; the same broad columns and slow-turning fans.

But there's more to Southern Hospitality than wicker chairs and mint juleps. I think it has to do with a slower pace of life, a willingness to "stop and set a while," something we Northerners do rarely, if at all. And in the Northwest (as we discovered when we moved here from Vermont almost 20 years ago), it not only happens rarely, but you also need two weeks notice!

So you can imagine how delighted we were, as former East Coast folk, to move into our new home and discover our neighbors were the sort that were not only inclined to "stop and set a while," but also to do so on a moment's notice. This morning we got a call to say our neighbors had put up some soup and would be delighted to share with us, so this evening we enjoyed, not only their soup, but also their wine, and their stories of their recent visit East.

We showed up armed with a good old-fashioned lemon meringue pie, like the kind my mama used to make, and a few stories of our own, and shared a lovely time with these dear friends. And over the course of the evening other neighbors stopped by, and good friends called, and everyone listened to one another's stories. Stories of plane rides included thoughts on which airlines were more hospitable. Stories of families included discussions of which kinds of families and family constellations were more hospitable. Stories of movies included opinions on which movies were more hospitable to men and which were more hospitable to women.

It was as if hospitality, like Plato's concepts of Truth and Beauty, has some absolute form that we all understand; a form that includes, not just openness and invitation, but also such essentials as humor, and paying attention, and sharing something that will feed, either our bodies or our souls. Hospitality involves a willingness to set aside our own concerns and listen to those of others. And with that comes an acceptance that though we may dress differently or think differently we each have value that extends beyond what we say or do. And, above all, there's a reciprocity, an exchange: I listen to you, and you listen to me; I feed you, and you feed me. It's not a score card; it just ... is.

As I began writing this, I was thinking that meditation is like making time to sit on the verandah, to "stop and set a spell" with God, something I tried to do every morning we were at the hotel in this picture. We make time for God by stepping apart from our everyday concerns, and God makes time for us as well, paying attention to our stories and showering us with acceptance.

But what I find is that when I'm in the steady habit of doing that, it frees me to notice all the other times when God offers to feed us, to fill our souls with signs and stories. And then I am reminded of Henri Nouwen's thoughts on Paul's admonition to "pray without ceasing." In Clowning in Rome, Nouwen says "To pray, I think, does not mean to think about God in contrast to thinking about other things, or to spend time with God instead of spending time with other people. Rather, it means to think and live in the presence of God..."

Perhaps that is the essence of hospitality: that somehow this conscious effort to make time to sit with others is unspoken acknowledgement that each of us is a sign and symbol of God; and that God, the love of God, the message and story of God, moves in and through each moment, and each person -- if only we stop and take the time to pay attention.

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