A few more thoughts on hospitality

A few months ago, I mentioned that I hoped to share with you some of what I learned while writing an essay on hospitality. In May, a day trip to a mountain town with my neighbor’s family jogged my memory. My memory continued to jog, but only in place as the busyness of June took over.

Now here I am at last with my hospitality essay at my side. But my mind keeps returning to that mountain town…

As I sprawled out on the little sister’s bed during siesta time, my eyes roamed the room, spotting things stashed here and there. A rickety binder that looked as if it had been tossed on top of the wardrobe and promptly forgotten. Broken drawers in a dresser decorated with childish markers. An abandoned attempt at decor.

The untidiness spoke of things not cared for.

Yet there I was, a stranger to the family, welcomed into their home and offered a bed. Rather than buy expensive things and focus on protecting them from harm, this family created a space that said people mattered more.

The women set up a chair in the narrow kitchen doorway for me to sit and hold the baby and then spent the evening tripping over me as they bustled about. And they didn’t mind.

As we finished dinner around midnight, a deep weariness came over me as I looked around at the pile of people in the living room. As soon as they left, the cleanup would need to begin.

And then they left, and rather than being overwhelmingly dirty, the house looked almost clean. As I helped to stack the green plastic chairs and fluff the postage stamp pillows, I wondered why.

It was as if the people who had been in the room were the only decor. The room was serviceable not beautiful, because the emphasis was on the relationships of those who gathered rather than the things they gathered around.

I don’t believe that hospitality and taking care of things are mutually exclusive. However, coming from a culture that often values possessions more than relationships, I appreciate the reminder to engage the relational side of hospitality.

Oops. I’ve been rather long-winded and I haven’t even started my essay summary. Maybe next week? 🙂

With the best of intentions

I weathered another round of what I assumed to be food poisoning. Tired of hanging out in the bathroom, I put on a brave face to hostess visitors, babysit, teach an English class, and drop by the neighbor’s with a plate of crepes.

But when holes were poked in my food poisoning theory, suddenly my bright shades of resiliency and selflessness took on a contaminated hue.

I had been so sure I could trace it back to those fried sardines…

I took a too-late day of quarantine to keep me from infecting the rest of the world. The next morning I dropped by the post office and the grocery store. On the way home, I noticed I was being dogged by the persistent admirer who, after a clarifying encounter months earlier, had vanished from my life. Until now. And there he was, looking bigger, older, and maybe even a little more unhinged than the last time I had seen him.

My intention to weave myself into this community’s tapestry put me in his way. Or maybe he put himself in my way. Or maybe we’re simply two clashing fibers woven side by side, which is bound to happen now and then in every community. Just wishing him away rather than confronting him probably was never the answer.

Why do best intentions sometimes sour?

My recent decision in the best interest of all turned out to be in the best interest of none… and involved a fair amount of straightening out.

I suppose it’s fanciful to believe that sacrifice can validate decisions. Still, why do some of the decisions we make, even at our own expense, turn out to be the wrong ones?

Maybe it’s because we don’t understand the big picture. Or because our decisions are not the only decisions affecting lives.

When we take a spill on our good intention bicycle, the true measure of resiliency and selflessness may be found in our ability to stand up, gently brush the gravel from the crevices of our knees and continue on our way.

And be grateful when others forgive our mistakes and miscalculations.

And thank God for the neighborly shopkeeper who is standing in his doorway to watch us safely home.


Photo by Dmitrii Vaccinium on Unsplash

Mural: Passions Kill

As I prayer walked the streets of my city, I came across many murals, on the sides of businesses, on crumbling block walls, around the corner of an apartment building where there was no street and no one to see it.

Some of the murals were funny. Some were really odd. But then there were those that made me stop and wonder: What was the artist trying to say?

Over the next couple of months, I’ll share some of the murals with you. You can wonder with me or leave an interpretation in the comments below.

Mural of lipstick and pencils in bullet shapes with words Passions Kill

“The svelte brunette vs. her pimply cousin” or “Coffee vs. tea”

Last time I was Stateside, I confessed to two dear friends that I really liked tea. They smiled but disagreed. “Watery” was one of the agreed-upon adjectives. We sipped our coffee together, because at least we agreed on that. 

Long ago, back when we all still had Facebook, a friend’s sister posted that coffee was a svelte, rich brunette and tea was her pimply cousin, or something to that effect. “What a perfect description!” I thought and stashed it away in a mental file (not a verbatim mental file, apparently). I 100% agreed. 

Until now. 

I still love coffee but my intolerance to large doses of caffeine has curbed my zeal. That and the less-than-desirable church potluck coffee of my past which carried the distinct flavor of what a friend called “burnt Folgers.” In the meantime, I’ve grown fonder of tea. In fact, I like tea even more than I did when my friends called it “watery.”

Nearly every week, I visit a tea vendor at the local market. I ask for a bit of this and a bit of that until I drive her crazy filling tiny baggies. Then I go home with my loot and put the kettle on. 

I’ve never been one to branch out with coffee flavors. Yah, I’m the one who gets a plain latte practically every time she goes to a coffee shop. Now decaf, oh, and no sugar, please. But tea is different. With my little samples, I’m working my way through the tea vendor’s options. 

Rooibos is an acquired taste, I’ve decided, and I’m still working on acquiring it. I thought it was okay until my student said the vanilla blend tasted like a medicine from her childhood. The infusions also leave something to be desired. Flavor, to be exact. After my first cup of some sort of pomegranate blend I had to side with my friends on the whole “watery” thing. Apparently, infusions require a surprising quantity to achieve flavor. Blah. I picked out the now-soggy pieces of fruit and ate them to console myself. The piña colada infusion had to go too. Too coconuty, even for someone who loves coconut. 

Some of the teas that are planning to stay on my shelf are: Japanese cherry (green), black tea with rose, caramelized almond (black), green with pomegranate, and one called 1,001 nights, a green blend that is exotic, romantic, and not at all watery. 

What about you? Are you a tea drinker? If so, which flavors do you like? Any suggestions for non-caffeinated, non-watery-infusion, non-rooibos varieties?

5 things I learned about hospitality last week

Hospitality creates a resting place for those you love… and even those you’re still trying to love. It’s not boundary-less, but true hospitality grows our understanding of boundaries, sometimes stretching and sometimes reinforcing. About a year ago, I wrote an essay on this topic, drawing from the experience of others, experience I hope to acquire as time goes on. Maybe another day I’ll share some of those thoughts.

But today, I’m writing about what I learned last week in Córdoba with my Pakistani friend and her family.

Although the week had its ups and downs, I savored their hospitality. Hospitality is not cultureless and sometimes those hiccups caught me off-guard, like when someone ordered for me at a restaurant instead of letting me choose for myself. Still, hospitality transcends culture. It is resilient because love is resilient. 

Here are five things I noticed about hospitality during my stay in my friend’s home:

  1. Hospitality is selfless. The family adjusted their sleeping arrangements in the tiny bedrooms so that I would be most comfortable. The fact that the door didn’t close because the foot of my roommate’s bed was in the way was irrelevant. It really was the best arrangement and they were less comfortable for it.
  2. Hospitality is sharing the fullness of self. I heard a lot of stories. These women weren’t pretending to have it all together; they were vulnerable. On the lighter side, they also shared the specialness of their culture and background.
  3. Hospitality gives space for love to grow. It doesn’t demand love or care, but it shelters a space for them to grow. Time was protected. My friend’s mother took the day off of work just because I was there. We went out for churros instead.
  4. Hospitality wants you there. I’ve both hostessed and been hostessed out of obligation, but that’s not hospitality, at least not in its fullness. On this visit, I was welcomed and I was wanted. They delighted in my presence as I did in theirs. My friend’s little boy came calling my name whenever I was out of sight: “Come play with me!”
  5. Hospitality accepts as well as gives. The family refused to let me pay for our tostadas or bus fare or anything else. But they happily accepted the gifts I had brought them. Hospitality doesn’t expect reciprocity, but it graciously receives.

How have you seen hospitality in others? Have you noticed any cultural differences? How has hospitality transcended culture, even sub-culture? What are some bits of wisdom that you have gleaned along the way? I’d love to hear and learn. 🙂

Belonging where I thought I’d never be

Today marks a year in Mytown. One whole year. I baked cookies for my landlord this morning and she gawked at me. “One year already?” I’ve always been here, I think. And yet with every past event, why is there that conflicting perception of time? My years in North Africa and Immigrantville have faded into black and white mental photographs unless I pause long enough to remember them. 

Today, I paused over some ISU memories.

When I heard about the study abroad program in Andalusia, Spain, I wasn’t interested. I was heading to the southern border, not overseas. I tilted my college projects, volunteer hours, and self study toward my goal. 

Within my program, there was a clear divide between those who had studied abroad and those who had not, the “in” and “out” groups (as much as students are “in” and “out” at state universities). Those who had studied abroad re-lived their together memories and savored their “thaythayo” (what to the rest of us just sounded like a bad lisp).

Latin America was my first love and always will be. First loves don’t change. But they lose a bit of their potency when you fall in love again. And I have. This time, ironically, with Andalusia.

How did that even happen?

The other night, I met a Peruvian lady in the park. I delighted in her gentle Spanish and warm, generous culture. A year ago, that interaction would have stirred in me a longing for where I was not. But now?

I could spiritualize this. I could say that God has tuned my heart to contentment, even if my life isn’t what I had pictured. But that isn’t true, at least not the whole truth and nothing but the truth. 

My acceptance of where I am right now is more about familiarity, belonging.

Years ago, I found my place in Latino culture. I never planned to rupture that sense of familiarity, safety, and home. But then I moved to Andalusia where the blend of cultures in this huge immigrant community reinforced my outsider complex; it showed me my “un”– how un-Andalusian and how un-North African I was. How “un” everyone else around me.

But time marched on, as it usually does. I began to taste the many flavors of my community and realized that I simultaneously do and don’t fit in on account of my being different, just like everyone else. 

The blend of us–Spaniards, North Africans, Sub-Saharan Africans, Pakistanis, Russians, Romanians, South Americans, Chinese (to name the most prominent)–can be overwhelming sometimes, but each culture adds a subtle note that the community would miss were it not there.

On Sunday, three of us neighbors stood in a neighbor’s kitchen, chatting about our far away families. I belonged just as much as they did. And this belonging is my new familiarity.

No, my life is not what I had expected, but I can say that it is essentially what I had hoped for.

So today marks one year in Mytown and more than four years in Andalusia. I cradle this fragile bit of geographical belonging in my hands and am grateful. God has given me this earthly gift not to distract me from Him, but to direct me to His heart where I find belonging that will “belong” me no matter where I am in the world.

What I love about you, small boy

Your face fills with bright delight when you spot me, unexpected in the park. “The look he gives you! He’s in love with you!” says Mommy. I know and so do you. Your arms swing open as you barrel toward me. I stoop to meet you, and you press your face close to murmur the secrets of your day–the joys and sorrows of a life well-lived, however young. I understand nothing, but you don’t mind because I listen and that’s enough.

When I knock on your downstairs door, you wait for Mommy to unlock it but you are the one who pulls it open with that expectant grin as if it were only you I came to see. You take my hand and lead me inside. Or if I say, “Not today,” you keep my hand in your tiny one as you step out the door onto the round, red welcome mat. “No problem. We can play at your house if you prefer,” you want to say. When you toss Mommy a farewell glance, she says, “The look he gives you! He’s in love with you!” I know and so do you. I give you a hug and you smell like nothing, sweet nothing except maybe a bit of sticky and sometimes crackers.

When I pick you up, you quiet as if you’d like to stay in my arms forever. When you get too heavy, I slide you down my hip and then my leg, one jolt at a time, a game to make you giggle. But then you stretch your arms up again.

When I play distracted, you tug my hand or pat my face to remind me that you are the most important person in my life right now. Mommy says, “The look he gives you! He’s in love with you!” I know and so do you. But my heart still melts a little more when you wave your arms in the air as we sing “A, B, C, D, E, F, G…” Or when you shriek laughter during peek-a-boo and hide & seek. Or when you pick the chocolate chips out of my granola and leave Hansel and Gretel trails across the tile and between the couch cushions.

Small boy–for you are still small though you fancy yourself a man–you have stolen my heart, this sad auntie heart so removed from her biological adored ones. You too, far from most who love you, in me find a resting place for the big love of your mini heart.


Photo by Guillaume de Germain on Unsplash

To thine own self be true: introverts overseas (part 2)

If you haven’t read Part 1, please do that before embarking on this ship of rambling thought.


Even after recognizing that I was equipped for my calling, I could not reconcile how I could be authentically me when much of my work required extroversion. We have all heard the mantra “Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do,” implying that those things are the best things after all, a sort of taking up of our ascetic cross. But is this the answer? Is long-term ignoring of self what God expects of me? And why would God call me to be someone He hadn’t created me to be?

Years ago, a friend recommended Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012) by Susan Cain. Cain claims that introverts need to take Shakespeare’s advice of “To thine own self be true.” In a culture or workplace that demands extroversion, that seems to leave only two options: become someone you aren’t or resign. In other words,  live a lie or remain inflexibly yourself. 

When I am inflexibly “true to self” in the context of ministry, I require those I am trying to serve to climb over the wall that I have been called to climb over, essentially boiling ministry down to my needs. Although I prefer to think of my personality inflexibility as “authenticity,” sometimes it’s plain old selfishness. Or worse, disobedience.

So what is the answer? I kept reading. Although Quiet is not written from a Christian perspective, I plugged away, chapter by chapter, hoping to find a ray of light. Then: lightbulb! Cain reconciled my Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde musings with one concept: the pseudo-self.

Introverts acting like someone they are not–what Cain calls acting within the “pseudo-self”–should not be labeled as inauthenticity when it is done “in the service of love or a professional calling” (Quiet, p. 210). When we see and serve the bigger picture, we can also see that acting within our pseudo-selves is a different form of being true to self.

For example, that introverted social advocate who occasionally needs to get loud and aggressive with her adversary is able to step into her pseudo-self because doing so serves the work she believes in. For me, it could be attending a North African party (I really hate those) to show my support for a friend. Or knocking on doors and passing out literature because–although I am quivering inside–I know my work contributes to the bigger vision.

As important as a pseudo-self may be, we introverts risk burnout unless we intentionally step back into our own skin and offer the world the gift of our introversion. Introverts and extroverts may have many of the same traits, but a few come more naturally for introverts. Most of us love deep relationships. We carve out time for reflection that helps our personal growth and our work performance. We’re okay with that behind-the-scenes work if it’s for a good cause. We are in tune to others’ feelings and adjust our approach accordingly. We attract the other introverts in whatever culture we live in, calling them forth with our quiet rather than plastering them to a wall with our charisma. 

This list is not exhaustive, of course. And of course, we have plenty of our weaknesses too. But I’m learning to notice my gifts instead of drooling over the fence on the green, extroverted grass. Because, really, for the sake of our callings there are times when both sides–introverts and extroverts–need to step over that fence and draw from the strengths of the other side.

Sure, I still sometimes wish I were an extrovert. And there are times I feel inauthentic when I run on adrenaline to act like one. But when I focus on God and what He has called me to, operating temporarily within my pseudo-self is not a display of hypocrisy, but an expression of love.

Note: Recently, A Life Overseas published a blog on the same topic. Apparently, I hadn’t been the only one who took almost a decade to get around to this book. Some of what I say in Part 1 and Part 2 overlaps with Craig Thompson’s post, but go there too, because it’s worth a read. 

Questions? Comments? I’d love to hear from you! Maybe you would even like to guest blog a part 3…

2022 haze

Hazy. “Is it even worth going up to watch the fireworks?” my neighbor asked. “Will they even set them off? It’s so foggy.”

It’s worth a try, we decided. So shortly before midnight, four of us traipsed up to the roof to look over the strange haze that illuminated the city. Why does it feel brighter on foggy nights, like someone turned on a yellow lamp in the next room?

Midnight came. 2022. We didn’t cheer, just stood expectantly. The fireworks popped, a couple here and then there, muted by the fog. 

Last year had been wild–fireworks blasting everywhere as people waved goodbye to 2020. Had 2021 disappointed? With this new wave of restrictions, had people lost hope?

“Maybe everyone is tired this year, tired of being in crisis,” suggested my neighbor.

In his daddy’s arms, their little boy cried, “Tah! Tah! Tah!” after each burst, delighted. He didn’t seem to notice the lack of enthusiasm for the new year. He would be enthusiastic if no one else would.

We peered over the edge of the apartment building. The haze seemed to represent more than I wanted to process at midnight. 1 Corinthians 13:12 floated into my mind and stuck: “For now we see in a mirror dimly.” I didn’t even try to remember the rest of the verse, it felt appropriate stolen from its context and tacked onto this eery new year.

But after a good night of sleep tucked in my bed (with visions of sugar-plums dancing in my head, of course), I remembered that the verse is a comparison and the emphasis isn’t on the hazy mirror, but rather on that moment when we see “face to face” and “know fully, even as [we] have been fully known.” 

Once again, I had been distracted by the haze of the present.

My prayer for this year is not we become “so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good,” but that we live fully in today’s haze because we remember to reach out in hope.

This haze is not all there is.


Photo by Mehmet Bozgedik on Unsplash

Mi casa es tu casa

My neighbor’s hands were slick with oily meloui dough when the doorbell rang. “Could you get that?”

I opened the door and gave a cheerful “Salam walekum!” The young mother greeted me but backed away with popping eyes and an apology. 

“No, no, no, you came to the right door.” I grinned. “Welcome.” I had dropped by to play with my neighbor’s little boy. Soon I had three little people to play with and a mother who stood beaming over me, incredulous that I was there on the floor stringing monkeys from the doorknob and reading about 1-2-3 with Winnie the Pooh. The new little girls wanted laptime too.

Amid the chaos of the younger generation, I heard snippets of the visitor’s story, a story that didn’t match her sparkling eyes. Then we ate meloui, tiny cooling pieces at a time. I ate mine, trying not to sprinkle crumbs on the smooth little pigtail bobbing just below my chin.

“This is such a great day,” my neighbor sang as she shuffled us around the table in order to reach the fridge. “My friend came and my neighbor!” She smiled and began sorting through last week’s cilantro. 

If I hadn’t known, I would not have guessed that her son had been sick, refusing to eat and wailing day and night for several days straight. In desperation, his parents had hauled him to the ER where he got the medication he needed. 

Low on sleep on top of a distorted schedule, would I have been cheerful to have my house overflowing with people?

You could argue that hospitality is required in Islam and therefore, whether or not they feel it, North Africans are hospitable. True. But most North Africans are not just hospitable because they’re required to be; it’s less of a conscious choice and more of an integral part of life.

Another night, my neighbor, her friend, and I walked to the park. There, we joined up with several other women. Our bench seated three and squished four. We were seven.

Had we been American, we would have chatted briefly and then half of us would have moved to a nearby bench to sit. However, North Africans value relationships much more than they value comfort… and relationships require time spent together. So three of us stood or chased renegade children while four sat hip to hip. Every now and then, someone wedged themselves out of the line-up and gave another the chance to sit for a while.

I came home from that outing, over-stimulated and linguistically exhausted. The sound of my key turning in the lock was absolutely musical. I am American and I value both personal space and comfort. I will probably always value those two things. Those values and solid relationships aren’t mutually exclusive when others prioritize the same values.

But what about when they don’t?

I’m still pondering what it means to be an introvert in my line of work–What does that look like practically? (Maybe someday I’ll be brave enough to explore this on my blog.) But I will say this: even in my exhaustion, I also rejoice in the beauty of a culture that decidedly values relationships and community, even at the expense of individual preference.