Well-Crafted Hospitality, Part 1

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Have you ever spent much time standing in a closet?  It has more to recommend itself than you might think!  Closets are amazing spaces which, because they are intended to house diverse sets of stuff in a concentrated space, can have the impact of integrative concentration.  Do not underestimate the power, then, of retreating to one’s closet, turning out the light,  and shutting the door behind you when you are particularly frazzled and in need of recovering your own integrative concentration!  Many a monk has spent much time in just such a space for just such a reason, and with just such an effect.

Our last Oak Brothers project, the restoration of a “Gentleman’s Closet,” gave me ample time to experience this effect over the month-long period it took to complete the restoration.

A “gentleman’s closet” was the name given it by a friend of the client’s.  I haven’t been able to determine the history of the label, but it is a fitting description of the actual closet, which is used to house a gentleman’s wardrobe.  It has a built-in cabinet with dresser drawers on bottom and shelves on top that are neatly tucked behind cabinet doors.  A makeshift wardrobe rod and shelf used to hang from the other wall (but was replaced, as part of our restoration, with more fitting fixtures and open shelves above it).   There was space below for shoes.

Our work on this three foot square space was extensive, even including the rendering of a faux marble baseboard and shoe-molding!  But the details of the restoration  are  not the main point of this discussion which, as you can see from the title, will require several postings to integrate all the themes that presented themselves–hospitality, attention to detail, craftsmanship, and thoughtfulness.  Clothing will also figure prominently as well.

The place to begin, though, is not now,  but several decades ago.  Serendipitously, the event I have in mind also involved clothing, hangers, and a closet.  It is an event I look back on as having taught me a great deal about hospitality.

In one of my many foolish attempts  to fit my round-peg-of-a-self into the square boxes of the conventional world of work, I found myself on an airplane flying to New York for an interview for a position as a flight attendant with that same airline in whose plane I was flying.  Because the plane was not full, the agent who checked me in had bumped me up to first class seating.  This was the first and only time I have ever flown first class.

I was dressed for the interview, but took my suit coat off when I sat down.  Carelessly, I laid it on the seat next to me and forgot about it, turning my gaze to look out the window.  When I turned back around, I was alarmed to find my coat had disappeared.  Before I could panic, though, I happened to look up and saw it hanging in a nearby closet.  The experience was magical, as if my coat had floated of it’s own accord from the seat next to me to hang itself in that nearby closet.

Of course, you know what happened.  A flight attendent had walked by, seen my coat lying there, and had discretely picked it up and  hung it in the closet.

Hospitality recognizes a need the guest has that the guest may not even recognize as his own.  But Hospitality sees it, though attention is not draw either to the need or to the provision.  Hospitality acts discreetly to meet that need without drawing attention to the action.  Often this action requires not noticing or drawing attention to  what the guest lacks.  Such is the nature of Hospitality’s discretion.  In this case, for instance, the flight attendant did not berate me for my lack of neatness, my thoughtlessness in occupying a seat that might be required for another passenger, nor the fact that I wasn’t likely to get the job if I showed up for the interview in a wrinkled suitcoat!  (I didn’t, thankfully, get the job.  But that was for other, round-peg-in-square-hole reasons.)

No, what she did was recognize a need which I did not, perhaps even could not recognize for myself.  In fact, the airline had already anticipated my need by providing the closet.  The flight attendant merely followed through on the completion of this provision of hospitality.  But this is not to say what the flight attendant accomplished was not substantive.  In fact, the impact of her gesture remains for me a deep source of strengthening.  (Each of us stands as tall as we stand by means of many such neglected and ungratefully received gestures.)

We say of hospitality that it is intended to enable a person to “make yourself at home.”  What I think we mean, more deeply, is that hospitality enables a person to become themselves without hindrance, either the hindrance of having a need which that person is unable to meet or, by means of some lack in the person, a need which he might very well meet if he had the awareness of the means to meet that need.  Hospitality, then, can help a person achieve wholeness in a way that person is incapable of achieving on her own, even if she were at home in her own dwelling place; that is, by means of self reliance alone.

Everyone knows that a meal cooked by someone else tastes differently than a meal cooked by myself.  (Sometimes it tastes worse, but that is due to a failure of Hospitality.  When it tastes good, it nourishes one in a way that a self-cooked meal fails to accomplish.)  Why is this?  I think it is more than just a matter of having been relieved of the burden of cooking.  Something is given in the act of hospitality that cannot be achieved even if that same act had been completed by oneself.  (One could appropriately invoke the Jewish myth about a man who is given a glimpse of heaven and hell, both of which are banquets at which the guests are all incapable of feedng themselves because their arms are too long, the principle difference being that at the heavenly banquet, guests are feeding one another.)

I do not think I am overstating the case by saying that this small gesture on the part of the flight attendant added stature to my being.  She honored my standing in the world by re-establishing uprightness to my being.  She did this symbolically, through the act of hanging my suit-coat in the closet.  Had I, myself, recognized that I might have hung my suit-coat in that closet by myself, I would not have received us much benefit as I did from having someone else do this for me.

Now I am not saying, of course, that it is a good thing that I did not recognize and act upon this possibility that I might have attended to this need myself.  I know, of course, even as I sit here now, with a pile of clothes next to me on the couch that need to be hung in my closet–I promise I’ll attend to it as soon as I am done composing!–that I should be a neater person.  But that is beside the point.  (“Yes, dear, I realize it is precisely the point.  Yes, I know I am not a guest in this house.  But that is a different point than I am concerned about right now. Can you cut me some slack for just a few more minutes, please?”)  The point is that Hospitality accomplishes something that the guest is lacking, not because the guest is not at home but, rather, because all of us are lacking many things that are essential to the necessity of “coming home to myself.”  Hospitality, then, is the means by which what is lacking in myself is made up for by the discrete graciousness of the host.  I would not be the first person to suggest that hospitality makes dwelling possible.  (See, for instance, Emmanuel Levinas’ discussion of the absent host in his discussion of dwelling in Totality and Infinity.)

Another way of saying what I have just said is that Hospitality pays attention to a particular kind of detail.  But when we speak of “paying attention to detail,” we more often think of craftsmanship than hospitality.  This, then, is the next presence which pressed its head over my shoulder while I was working.  In the next posting, then, I will say a little bit about why craftspersons attend to details and what this attention actually accomplishes.  The surprise will be in the discovery of how consonant is the phenomenon I will observe with the practice of Hospitality I have just described.

To Get a Better Grip on Life’s Baggage, Meditate.

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Here’s one variation on a commonplace experience.

Let’s say you are late for an appointment and you have a number of things to carry with you–your briefcase, a lunch, several more books you didn’t stuff into your briefcase because you only picked them up as you were rushing out the door, your gym bag, a shirt on a hanger, and the pair of running shoes you forgot to stuff into your gym bag.

Because you are in a big rush, too big of a rush, you have grabbed all these things in the most helter-skelter, awkward way possible.  There you are, stumbling to your car, hoping no one is noticing you as you try to grab your car keys while this or that item keeps slipping out of your grasp.  But it isn’t working and finally you stop, dead in your tracks.  Dead, I say, because you have just quit yourself.  You have given up the fight.  Thrown in the towel. In fact, it is not too dramatic to say you have repented of this foolhardy self-in-haste.

(And it’s a good thing you did…  Maybe nothing would have happened.  But maybe your haste would have snowballed and you would have ended up running a stopsign or driving too fast down a residential street, thus causing something worse to happen, something bigger to repent of.)

You have stopped, though.  You set everything down.  You consolidate your mass of  awkwardly grasped stuff in balanced packages, tuck in your shirt,  button your coat properly, and you settle yourself down inwardly for just a few seconds.  Maybe you are even kind enough to yourself to let out a big sigh that causes the beast-of-tension clinging to  your back and shoulders to fall to the ground.  Then you pick your stuff back up in an orderly, balanced way and you walk methodically, even a bit contemplatively,  to your car.

This is a reason for meditation–to stop, set down life’s baggage which you have been carrying in an awkward way, let out a sigh of relief from pent-up pressure, and get a better grip on yourself and the stuff of your life.

Calm energy…that’s what we need to do our best work.

Circulatio of Onion

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It was at a family holiday gathering, watching my nephew stir onions over heat in a frying pan,  that it hit me–the epiphany, that is, not the frying pan. I was witnessing alchemical transformation before my very eyes!  He was subjecting those onions to an alchemical process of circulatio!!! Oh blessed wholeness of cooked onions!  Oh divine flavor of savory goodness!  Why have I not realized this before???  Of course, COOKING IS PRIMAL…ALCHEMICAL!  Circulatio, that alchemical process of the circulating of substance within the retort (containment) for the sake of bringing it to completion and wholeness,–that is just what he was doing.  He was “stirring the pot” of life!  So here is my prayer for all of us in 2012:

May the heat of our desires so be directed by the stirring of our juices through the diligent practice of our routines  and the inevitable suffering of our ruminations in whatever frying-pan-of-a-life we’ve been given so that, by means of these circulations, our imperfections may be sweated away that we may be quickened with that concentration of being whereby we become translucent with light and both as savory and sweet as cooked onions.  Amen.