We’ve been home from our Epic Road Trip just about two weeks. Life has returned to its normal brand of chaos.
The laundry is piling up, cycling through, sitting on my bedroom floor for days and days before I finally get around to folding it. The deadlines are coming fast and steady, like those yellow lines on the highway.
I finally took off the nail polish from my Chicago manicure. I’m almost finished with my bag of coffee from North Carolina. This weekend, I finally gave up hope that the Poop Phone was ever going to start back up and got a new one. (There are some things that not even a bag of rice can fix.)
It’s the season of Lent, and I told myself I’d do something this year. That I’d pay attention in some specific, mindful way. But of course I haven’t. Ash Wednesday came and went, and I was busy managing temper tantrums and preparing for an unexpected interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation at an NPR studio downtown.
When I crawled into bed that night, thinking about heaven and hell and Jesus and Love, I felt relieved that I hadn’t had a chance to choose something. That maybe, in the end, that was it’s own kind of gift.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the road trip lately. When people ask about it, I say that it was so good but so intense. I came home, and I slept for twelve hours straight and still felt tired.
In two weeks, we drove for more than 3000 miles and nearly 60 hours. At every juncture of that journey, there was someone we barely knew taking us in.
And I can’t explain the healing of that. For so many years, my faith was marked by a profound kind of loneliness. The struggles that I had with God and with the Church felt so intensely personal and individual. I felt so disloyal and so irreparably broken as I warred alone in my cavernous heart – my prayers echoing in the emptiness.
For a while, I’ve known that this isn’t really the truth. That I was never alone, really. That Depression was a cloud of locusts, blocking out the Light, but it was still there. God was there, teaching me in his quiet, gentle way that faith was not what I always imagined. And there were others – so many others – fighting their own silent battles in the same hard days that I fought mine.
I got to meet some of them on our road trip. I met them at restaurants and coffee shops and school libraries and bookstores. I found them at churches and in hotel lobbies, telling me, Go ahead and pack your car, honey. We’ve all been there – on our own with babies. Go pack your car – we’ll get them some waffles.
They took us in, again and again, into their homes – and this was the most beautiful, humbling, holy part of it all. Because when you’re traveling alone with kids, you can’t offer anything of consequence to the people whose homes you invade. We’d show up, tired and crabby and greasy from all the fast food and car snacks. I’d lost whatever control I had over my kids’ behavior 200 miles ago at some gas station in a fight over a bag of M&Ms.
And yet, never once did anyone give me side-eyes about the running, the screaming, the bedtime crying. We showed up, and the doors flung wide open, and we were ushered into someone else’s family. We were greeted with freshly made beds and Domino’s pizza and a post-bedtime glass of sweet, Georgia wine for Mom after her phone fell in the poop-water.
At restaurants, strangers bought our breakfast. People I’d never met got down on the filthy floors of coffee shops to play with my kids. A reader’s husband stuck around after his wife went to work to tell me where all the Vampire Diaries highlights were as we idled in Covington, Georgia, hoping to catch a glimpse of television stars.
We showed up to the homes of near-strangers, and we found new toys and unguarded friendship. We showed up to gifts wrapped in paper bags, to freshly brewed coffee, to Book Readings that people I’d never met took the time to organize, publicize, and attend.
And in all of this, I learned something really profound about hospitality. Not one, single person has it all together. There are parts of each of our homes that we’re a little embarrassed of. Quirks we’d just as soon not show anyone. The hot water and the cold water are switched. The wallpaper in this room is outdated. The kitchen needs an update, the guest room is too small, our kids are their own special kind of mess.
In the past, I’ve usually been on the giving end of hospitality. I prefer it that way – it means that I get to do the offering, not the receiving. And yet, even then, I spend so much time worrying. There’s so much that still needs fixing. That needs cleaning. So much about our life needs WORK.
But for two weeks, we were the visitors, the travelers, the strangers. And it might have changed my life…receiving so much, being able to offer so little, living in the light of other peoples’ grace and love for so many days and nights.
And in the end, what I learned is that it’s not about the house at all. Never once did I think, Wow, this room needs some work. Or, This bathroom is filthy! I couldn’t see the imperfections. All that mattered were those luminescent faces, opening the doors, their eyes full of gladness. Their homes bright and open, their children shifted around to different bedrooms to make room.
When all is said and done, hospitality has very little to do with a “guest room” or a big house. Hospitality is the man who plays us a lullaby on his saxophone on the River Walk in Savannah. It’s the old, worn towels, clean and folded on the bathroom sink. It’s an air mattress blown up, waiting for our tired bodies, offering rest.
I learned on my Epic Road Trip that I’ve been thinking about hospitality wrong my entire life. That it’s not about perfection. It’s about love.
The season of Lent is here, and I didn’t make any plans. I’m still recovering from our Epic Road Trip, after all. I have my hands full.
But I think that’s okay. If Lent is about anything, its about our inability to be perfect, and about how we don’t need to muster it up. We don’t have to try so damn hard…because it’s not us at all. It’s the Love of Christ that makes us perfect. His sacrifice makes us enough.
I can’t think of the story of Jesus this week without thinking about strangers’ guest rooms, friends’ couches, homemade pancakes, restaurant tables full of laughter. I think about the gift of being loved and taken in — no matter the mess, the temper tantrums, the giant bag of laundry.
I never understood it before, but the Gospel is both: we are welcomed, and we are welcoming. At different times in our lives, we are home or we are wandering. Sometimes we are both at once. But wherever we find ourselves in all of this movement – it is grace.
May we each learn to recognize it in ourselves and in one another. May we learn to show up at each other’s doorsteps; may we learn to take each other in.