“Hospitality is an invitation to enter into the ancient art of the healer and bring people together despite our differences so we all can be nourished…There is something so visceral about knowing you are needed that warms the heart and keeps you safe in the larger sense.”
Growing up in a family with 12 children, I learned that anything significant happened at the table. We had a huge table that was originally my great-grandmother’s. My parents had rescued several chairs from a nearby school, so everyone, including visitors, had a place at the table. My mom would say, “we’ll just add space for more.” Everyone was welcomed—neighbor kids, relatives, even kids from far-away lands I never heard of but who had no place for the holidays in between college break would find a room at our table. A few rules—don’t sit in your brother’s spot lest you get a punch in the arm, clean your plate for there are people in the world who are starving, and for goodness sake, if you want something to eat, you better not be late!
The table was the center of our celebrations and life experiences. I will forever remember that spirit of sharing and welcome growing up. We kids would hang on the words of any visitor because new ideas were as exciting to us as a second serving of dessert! I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a mover and shaker, so older people had me transfixed—what was out in the world and how can I grow up quickly so I can be a part of it? Like Jimmy Stewart’s character in It’s a Wonderful Life, I wanted to “see the world!” I also wanted to change the world because in the 1970s and with 8 brothers, I had been fighting for human rights from the very beginning!
The gift of Hospitality was more than offering a second helping, it was about the invitation to be with one another. As the traditional symbol of “breaking bread,” it was a time to put odds aside and share in an ancient ritual of feeding more than just the body, but also the larger purpose of connection. Hospitality became an original art for me. Opening my heart and home to make room for a friend or even a stranger is great fun. My husband and I enjoy hosting events throughout the year at our farm—around a big table that I had built to resemble the one of my childhood. To us, there is always room at the table.
Then consider the world Hospitality and its roots—it shares the same roots as the word hospital, which is a place where we go to be healed. How often can our tables be a place of healing for the weary soul instead of an area of argument, upheaval, and judgment? The spirit of Hospitality asks us to look again at the stories of old—where the one who welcomed and cared for the foreigner was revered and praised. Hospitality is an invitation to enter into this ancient art of healer and bring people together despite our differences so we can be nourished. In my tradition, the idea of the loaves and fishes was both a miracle of the teacher who shared it as much as it was of the people who opened their hearts to give what they had to the larger whole that all were fed. We are always blessed when we welcome the stranger (even if it means welcoming someone whose opinion we don’t share) and make room at our table (even if that “table” is a park bench or the willingness to listen with an open heart of curiosity).
Hospitality is the first of the Civil Graces because I believe when we come together in a place to heal, we open ourselves to the abundant Universe which always gives despite our mishaps. I remember hearing a quote from Wayne Dyer of an ancient poem by Hafez, “Even after all this time, the sun never says to the earth, ‘You owe me.’ Look what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky.” We are invited to light up the world by this quiet grace of Hospitality and make room in our hearts, our minds, and our spirits, so we all have a place at the table where we will find the beautiful gift each of us brings. These gifts become the balm to a world that needs each of our medicines.
One of the most amazing moments I had at a restaurant was at Gramercy Tavern in New York City. I deliberately wanted to see what was there because I had read Danny Meyer’s book on Hospitality and thought there was something magical about the way he saw his business. It was an extraordinary experience to behold—everything was done in the art of caring for the patrons right down to the real fresh towels in the bathroom. In the fashion of a Disney, “be our guest,” every need was met with a smile. It left such an impression to me in a world where efficiency and cost-effectiveness almost always rule the way business is done. On top of it all, you didn’t have to pay extra for service, it was included.
We are in a world that is so quick paced and driven that we miss out on the subtly of the spectacular. Too many people rush in the door and race to the next event all in the name of being well-rounded and fulfilled. Sometimes we forget to make time for Hospitality. It is a well-known fact that our oceans and environment are full of islands of plastic—signs of a “life of convenience.” Often we forget the grace of setting the table and using the real dishes, the silverware, the linens, the elegance, and the grace. I don’t always get to iron my napkins, but seldom do we use paper napkins anymore. There is something special about feeling like a guest at dinner and to savor an excellent meal. It is as Vince and I say, “another way of making love.” We give what we have and enjoy taking the time to really experience the moment. Having had loved ones pass all too quickly, we learned early on how life flies by and if you don’t slow down to savor such moments…then what is life about?
Turn off the news, set aside the phone, get rid of all distractions, and treat yourself to real Hospitality. If you live alone, it is okay. Lavish it upon yourself and dream of the life you imagine. When I was alone, I used to sit at the table and imagine what it would be like to share that experience with another, and often, when they were available, I would have a dinner party with friends into the late night. The laughter and stories we shared trail back to my early childhood memories…the hours lingering luxuriously around a table, just feeling the heartbeat of the rhythm of the hours.
As a mom, I subscribed to the idea that having dinner together would keep my kids from trouble, so dinnertime together was mandatory, much like it was for me growing up. There is a sense of connection with the day that cannot be captured any other time. Being a single, working mom for many years as they were growing up, life was less than what I would call perfect, but I still tried what I could to bring everyone together. Sometimes dinner was mac & cheese, and sometimes it was spectacular if I had time and money, but dinner was always a sacred thing before the day came to a close. It was a ritual that let them know “I see you” and “I want to know what happened in your day.” My favorite questions were to ask them what they saw that was beautiful…and usually, they would say something to be funny, but it also let me know that we were doing okay. The gift of Hospitality is the genuine connection between human beings that keep us going. The idea of someone waiting for you lets you know you always have a home. There is something so visceral about knowing you are needed that warms the heart and keeps you safe in the broader sense.
Imagine a world where we all met each other with such Hospitality. Where we found curiosity and excitement in meeting someone new and hearing their view of the world without being offended. Imagine hurrying to not be late because we knew our presence was essential to the party of life and knowing you were wanted and needed! This is possible when we embrace the Civil Grace of Hospitality and see what happens when we make time and space for one more!
Challenge: Set your table. Use real dishes, silverware, glasses, and napkins if you have them. If not, improvise! What does it feel like to treat yourself and those you cherish with a little extra special? Add an additional place setting to symbolize being open to having space at your table for the stranger or the one who needs healing. See what happens…maybe someone will stop by and join you unexpectedly. And perhaps just having that awareness will remind you to remain open to life and to anyone who comes to you in need of healing. Life is all about savoring the moments, so no matter what you have, let it heal those places in your heart.
photo credit: Vince Moro