If you clean it, they will come

Why saying yes to hospitality is as easy - or as dangerous - as pulling out the hoover

My mistake was that I cleaned the office. Though to be fair, it was a catastrophic mess bordering on apocalyptic. I spent many weeks (months?) walking by it, nagging my husband about it, chastising the kids for eating in it and sticky-ing up the keyboard and desktop, and lamenting our general state of untidy affairs.

Till one day, armed with podcasts and a deadline I was procrastinating, I went to work. Hoovering, washing slipcovers, cleaning every surface and relocating the dog bed. It was a relief really, a domestic act of stewardship. We barred the kids from entry and delighted in regaining an extra room. For one afternoon, I smiled every time I walked past it. 

And then the emails came.

No less than 12 hours after the tidying of our office (did I mention it's also our guest room?), we had an email from an acquaintance across the world, who herself had acquaintances without lodging in Dublin. Could we host two young people for a couple of nights, my husband asked me?

I was out of excuses.

Well I guess so, I said. The next night we welcomed two girls from America into our home, brought them to church, and cooked them a barbeque dinner. 36 hours later I dropped them at Heuston Station, just a little bit sad to see them go.

Hospitality isn’t for supers; it’s for servants.
— The Serviette

Sometimes the act of hospitality seems very weighty and proper. We assume that it involves glowing woodwork, chocolates on the pillow, and zero cultural faux pas. We think that people aren't just looking for a friendly face, but the perfect environment. And we let this unattainable ideal keep us from saying yes and inviting someone - anyone - in.

Last year around this time, our neighbour's teenage daughter was locked out of the house. I found her sitting on the brick wall, waiting for her mum to arrive. I unlocked my own house and stepped through the door into a moderately disheveled state of family life. Pausing, I thought of inviting her in.

Should I...?

No, it's too messy.

Well, maybe...

I don't know. 

Their house is just so... nice.

I'm ashamed to say it took a couple of long minutes before I gathered my harried courage and walked back outside, asking her if she'd like to come in and wait with us.

'Ah, no. I'm grand. Thanks.'

After a few back and forths of the requisite 'are you sure,' I left her there. And, I'm embarrassed to say, I was relieved. No matter what I write or say or hope for, I was not yet ready to invite this gorgeous girl into our mess.

'Hospitality isn't for supers; it's for servants,' says Julie at The Serviette, an anonymous blog on cross-cultural hospitality. 'A lot of my traits don't lend themselves well to being someone who opens her home regularly... But the more we practice hospitality, we realize that our guests aren't running their fingers along the countertops to see if I wiped them down, or questioning the size of our dining room. They're just glad we showed some un-super hospitality and invited them in.' 

I'm learning from my mistakes, I think. I hope. I had no intentions of visitors last month, but for some reason I felt that urge to clean and the joy of readying a space for whatever or whomever might pop up, even if it was just my kids and their homework. And I'm pretty sure that's all it takes: saying yes to the urge to hoover. Walking past my road with a mum from school. Letting my kid invite a friend home from school.

A few small, simple yesses may very well guarantee a few surprise guests and a heart happy to have them.

So will forgetting to clean the family toilet... or so I've heard.

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Karen Huber

Originally from Kansas City, Karen is a freelance writer and expat mom now living in Dublin, Ireland. Together with her husband and three children, they work in community development, the local church and creative arts.