Potlucks, Paranoia, & Pumpkin Pie (part 2)

[In case you missed it, part one is here.]

Apart from my paranoia leading up to the potluck, it was a success overall. The day turned out to be warm, albeit a little windy. Okay, a lot windy. One of the college students who sat outside at the picnic table to eat had long hair, and when I looked out the window, her hair was blowing horizontally. But it was still good to have a place for the little guys who came to the potluck to run around. (And luckily, the previous owners of the house had a very deeply dug metal swingset that is at least safe enough our friends trust their kids playing on it.)

We had marrieds and singles, kids and adults, college students and middle-aged. All we really need to complete the circle are a few senior citizens to stand in as grandparents. I’m sure we can swing that eventually. Friends from church, the philosophy dept, the college broadly, and our neighborhood came, and it was nice that not everyone knew each other. Luckily, our friends are friendly and like to chat. That’s why they’re our friends.

In fact, our neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. A, came with their newborn, and they were greeted at the door by folks they didn’t know and welcomed to the party before I even heard them arrive. (Later, I saw their newborn being carried around by another one of our friends, even taken outside, so clearly they were willing to trust these friendly strangers.)

The potluck itself was “harvest” themed–and in addition to the butternut squash-apple soup and bread we provided, we had a pork and pumpkin stew, some fruit salad with nuts and cranberries, some baked mac & cheese with cauliflower in it, baked spaghetti, and then cookies, pumpkin pie, and ‘cushaw’ pie. (The latter is basically a pumpkin pie made with a big green and white winter squash instead of pumpkin. That might sound strange but since rumor has it that canned pumpkin in the store is often canned cushaw, we’ve probably all had our fair share of cushaw pie without even knowing it.)

I don’t know what next month’s potluck will involve–different folks? Different food? Different stresses and chaos leading up to it? Yep. But there’s one thing I can guarantee it will involve: a big batch of community.

Until then, go cook yourself some cushaw, and let me know how it goes.

Potlucks, Paranoia, & Pumpkin Pie (part 1)

I did attempt to end the last blog post on an “up” note, but as I look back on it, it was kind of a downer of a post in general. So let’s have a chat about the potluck, that “forced” hospitality as I called it, which brought on the whole bowl-crashing, bread-destroying chaos on Saturday night.

Sunday morning, as it turns out, was much better. J got up early and made an “easy no-knead what bread” recipe, which got rave reviews, and since it only rises once, we even made it to Sunday school. After church, we ended up with about two dozen people here for a potluck.

Here’s the background about the potluck situation: The goal eventually is to have sort of an open-house/standing-invitation potluck every week after church, but for now, once a month is about all we can manage. The more we think about community and consumption and food habits and fellowship and Sabbath-keeping (whew!), it seems that these all need to come together, somehow, in a concrete way. Eating out at a restaurant after church, as seems to be the tradition in both of the places we’ve lived since being “real” adults, somehow just doesn’t work for us. It feels wrong, and I tend to go with my gut instinct on these matters.

So, our solution: low-key potlucks.

So, my problem: I am not low-key.

You see, most days I love my house, and the grit and the grime and its unfinished-ness doesn’t bother me. But when my brain realizes that we’re about to have people wandering through, something in me seizes up. (And it doesn’t matter if it’s a horde of college students coming over for theology reading group on Thursday nights or if it’s my parents or my friends or what.) It kind of bothers me that one wall in our living room still has the cracked mud and plaster showing; that our mantle for the fireplace is still in the basement, not stripped of paint; that the baseboards are unpainted, chipped, and in many places, just missing; that we still have old-lady curtains hanging in the living room; that our leather furniture is flaking off…clearly not real leather. And that doesn’t even begin to get to the bottom of my issues–dirty sinks and toilets, sticky 50s linoleum, crumbs on the counter top, laundry piled in front of the washing machine… oh my goodness, I have such issues.

It is certainly paranoia. Shouldn’t hospitality be more than a clean house? At the very least, it shouldn’t involve pretending to have it all perfect and together. That’s not being very honest–and dishonesty and hospitality can’t go hand in hand. Or maybe I’m crazy. (Okay, we’ve established that already.)

Some of our closest friends in Texas always had an open home, always invited people into their apartment, no matter if there were dishes in the sink, books all over the coffee table, kids’ toys on the floor, dust bunnies sneaking around, cats crawling all over you.

I always wanted to be like that.

Always.

And maybe someday I will be. But let me tell you, when I am freaking out because guests are about to arrive and J gently reminds me, “Hospitality is not about having a clean  house,” well, most of the time, I am not happy to hear it. In fact, most of the time it makes me want to scream.

But I’m growing. Really.

[Potluck part 2 coming very soon.]

Sometimes “despair” feels like the last word.

Have you ever had one of those days when it is difficult to function? Lots to do, no energy to do any of it? The smallest of difficulties becomes an impossible hurdle. A minor annoyance is worth crying over. An irritation in the throat turns into a cold. A little tiredness becomes exhaustion. A little stress becomes full-blown anxiety.

For whatever reason, I’ve had a few of those days right in a row. It has not been easy to function.

But yesterday we had our monthly potluck scheduled here at the house after church, and when we finally began to prepare the promised soup and homemade bread on Saturday night in preparation of the potluck, I was not feeling very hospitable, to say the least. I was, in fact, quite in despair about my weekend, feeling like I’d been run over by a semi of stress.

Around 7, I started making the oatmeal bread (one of my favorite kinds of bread) and J began cutting up butternut squash for the soup. Around 9 or so, I was getting ready to shape the bread into loaves, the dough having risen twice. I was planning to put the bread pans in the frig and bake it in the morning. The dough was in my favorite Pyrex bowl (which I’ve written about before), and my  hands were oily from punching it down. This was not a good combination. As I grabbed the bowl to move it over to another counter, it slipped out of my hands.

Pyrex is supposed to be sturdy, and I’ve actually dropped this bowl before. But Saturday night, it must have hit the floor at just the right angle, or the dough had just enough weight behind it. Whatever the reason, it shattered. The shards of glass went everywhere, including into the dough itself. It couldn’t be saved. None of it.

How did I react? Let’s just say that this was a low moment. Very low indeed.

On a different day, on a different weekend, I could probably have handled it just fine. I could have shrugged, said a little “oops,” been a little disappointed about the bowl itself breaking, considering it was my favorite. But overall, I could have recovered. Not this time. Not this weekend. Not in the face of (what felt like) forced hospitality approaching the next day.

It was a low moment.

In yesterday’s sermon about the Joel passage from the Lectionary, our pastor mentioned a quote from Frederick Buechner. It was a simple idea, as most Buechner thoughts are, but it was something I personally really needed to hear. (Though I haven’t been able to track down the original source yet, I’m including it here as a belated Sabbath meditation.)

Buechner says that though despair often feels like the last word, it isn’t. It is rather the next-to-last word.

The last word, in fact, is hope.

Community is…

… driving other people’s cars.

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Last weekend, Clarissa (that’s our little black hatchback Focus, in case you weren’t on a first-name basis with her) began to sputter a little bit. J was already en route to Hilton Head with the Fall Break folks, and Clarissa began to sound like she had a cold. It’s Kentucky, so we all sound a bit like that right now, but this sounded different.

By Saturday night, she wouldn’t start at all, and I had to borrow A’s car to go help out a friend with babysitting duties. (In case you were curious, his car’s name is Maggie.)

Sunday bright and early, I e-mailed everyone I could think of who might possibly have an extra car available, realizing that if I didn’t find one soon, I’d be out of luck come Monday morning (and, little did I know, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday mornings).

Walking into Sunday school a few short hours later, I was greeted with “You can borrow my car” from a woman in my writing group. Really? That fast? Yep. That fast. Car taken care of for Monday. Check.

By mid-Monday we realized we’d need to borrow for longer than a day, and J remembered Pearl. Pearl is the name of one of our dear friend’s cars, and that dear friend is out of town on sabbatical. Hooray for us. Permission to drive Pearl for as long as we needed.

In the meantime, I received three more phone calls of folks offering spare cars to me. Three! And one of them a sports car. For real!

Isn’t that amazing? Yes. It is.

Sometimes I just sit back and think, “Golly gee, Beav. This town’s terrific.”

Driving Alone to Music City, part 1

When I drive by myself, even when I drive very long distances, I often don’t turn on the radio or listen to music. Even when I drove the fifteen or whatever hours from central Texas to central Kentucky, following behind the Penske in our little car, most of the time I just sat there, thinking. (I also took the time to memorize the Nicene Creed because I happened to have a church bulletin nearby and thought it was about time I’d done so.)

So last Sunday, a few short hours after posting a sabbath meditation about community memory and after drinking more hot tea than I should have, I hopped into our hatchback and drove down to Nashville to surprise a dear friend celebrating her birthday.

It’s a relatively easy 4-hour drive because it only involves two roads: the Bluegrass Parkway and I-65. Here’s the problem I encountered: I really had to go to the bathroom pretty soon after getting onto the parkway. For quite a long time I held out hope that there would be a rest area; this is, after all, a major artery across Kentucky. No such luck. At the point where I was finally willing to stop ANYWHERE–any shady-looking gas station even–there were no more exits with amenities. One of the last exits had one of the blue “food” and “fuel” signs but it was completely blank, as if to taunt me.

Needless to say, I was in dire straights. After merging onto I-65, I took the very first exit I came to and miraculously made it to the restroom. Emergency averted. I decided to go ahead and get gas at this station before getting back on the road.

As someone I know and love says, “I told you that story, so I could tell you this story.”

On my way into this gas station, I saw a pile of duffle bags sitting out by the pay phones at the edge of the parking lot. Propped on those duffle bags was a cardboard sign, “Headed to TN.” My bladder was controlling my emotions at that point, so this all barely registered with me. But as I got gas, I looked over at the bags again, saw the sign again, and felt a tinge inside my chest. I was headed to Tennessee. (I honestly don’t remember if there was an actual person near these bags or not–maybe he or she was on the phone? I can’t remember, and it doesn’t really matter to the story.)

So I felt this odd feeling inside me, and I quickly shoved it to the side. I’m a single woman driving alone for many hours. A hitchhiker might be a murderer or a rapist. My husband was sitting in church at that very moment, and if there was an emergency, I’d have nobody to contact. The person I was driving to meet didn’t know I was coming, since it was a surprise. It wasn’t a good time, I was in a hurry, and I’m not irresponsible. What kind of a person hitchhikes these days anyway, right? Right. I paid for my gas and then followed the signs to get me back onto I-65.

Almost immediately after I got back on the highway–remember that I tend to just sit and think when I’m driving alone–I started thinking about my sabbath meditation of the day, the Wendell Berry quote that ended with these two lines: “If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they know whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another.”

Moreover, they fear one another.

I don’t want to sound like I’m being dramatic about this, and it’s really pretty hard for me even to write about it at a week’s distance, but as I drove down I-65, my eyes filled with tears, my throat tightened, and I couldn’t help but cry. Right there in my car, driving down the highway.

It is hard to be the people we want to be.

It is hard to be community to perfect strangers.

It is hard to admit when you’ve been a hypocrite.

Now I know what you’re thinking. “E,” you’re thinking, “you weren’t being hypocritical. You were being sensible. I wouldn’t have wanted you to stop and pick up a perfect stranger. It’s just not safe.”

Well, for one, Jesus didn’t call us to be safe, not one of us.

For two, being community can mean a lot of things. Saying hello, offering a cup of coffee, just not pretending that someone doesn’t exist. That’s what we usually do with hitchhikers or people asking us for money. And we make excuses about how unsafe it would be to help someone, how the money would just go to alcohol or other bad habits, how they’re probably making tons of money on the side and choosing to pretend to be poor.

Well, maybe so. Maybe so.

But If [we] do not know one another’s stories, how can [we] know whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another.

And now for the international perspective

A few weeks ago, an announcement was made in church about a choir concert that our church would be hosting. Called the Voices United Choir, it consisted of a dozen or so Moroccan young people and a dozen or so Kentuckians. Our church was one stop among many, and housing was needed while the group was in town.

J & I were thinking about volunteering to be a host home, when I thought we should probably ask A what he thought, since, you know, he shares our house and all. When I finally remembered to ask him, he said, “Well, yeah,” as if it were obvious. “I just assumed we would.” I like that about him.

So we volunteered to host. The concert was last weekend, and it was really quite fantastic, but that’s not what I’m going to talk about. Nor am I going to write about how I didn’t really feel like having strangers in our house since we just got the bathroom usable upstairs, we had company the night before, we had a lot of plans the rest of the weekend, I had just survived the second week of school, etc. But I got over myself eventually. (I wrote earlier what a grump I’ve been.)

Originally, we were supposed to host two members of the choir from Morocco, but for various reasons, only one stayed with us on Friday night. He was quite a character, and we enjoyed talking with him, despite somewhat of a language barrier. He told us about the town where he lived, and we drove him around our little town (he found it startlingly quiet). He told us about his family, we told him about ours. He took pictures of everything–even took pictures of our pictures. He ate our pancakes and put lots of sugar in his tea, a man after my own heart. He gave us four Moroccan placements as a “thank you” gift for letting him sleep there. He stayed on Facebook and Skype until the wee hours of the morning, and changed the language on our internet browser to French. All of that to say, I’m really glad we got to spend some time with him.

But, really, even that’s not the main point of my post. This is: on the way home that first night, I asked him if he’d ever been to the US before, and he hadn’t. Then I asked him what he thought of it so far. His answer? “It’s just like in the movies.” Really, I thought? Can that be? So I asked him what his first impression of Americans was, and he answered, “There really wasn’t a first impression, because they are just like in the movies.” Then he proceeded to give an example–their “bus” driver (who was really driving a big white church van) who picked them up from the airport was driving along and eating at the same time. “Just like in the movies.” We laughed and talked about how it is true that Americans do all sorts of things when they’re driving that they shouldn’t, and he told us how much more attention you have to pay to the road in order to drive in Morocco because there are so many people around all the time. As a result, this feature of American drivers really stood out to him.

Saturday morning, we drove downtown to walk around for a few minutes before he had to be back at the church, and since it was a last-minute idea, J and I took our hot tea “to go.” We grabbed our ceramic mugs and got into the car, it being such a short jaunt over to town. After a few minutes, our guest piped up from the back seat, “See, just like in the movies, you are driving and drinking your tea.”

Oh dear. I hope we’re not just like in the movies.

Dinner Tables: Food and Community, part 3

For pretty much as long as I remember, the dinner table in my house growing up was always a place of conversation. Long after the plates were cleared, the leftovers were dished out into individual portions, the pantry was raided for some kind of dessert, even if it ended up being a Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pie, we’d sit and talk and talk and sit.

Then I went away to college.

On breaks, when we’d sit down for a meal together, the sitting and the talking got even more involved. Of course I had to find out what was going on in every branch of the family, every long-lost friend’s life; I had to hear every “you’ll never believe when I tell you this” incident.

Now, in my grown-up life, I still like to sit and talk after meals. J likes to get the dishes done. This used to be a point of contention between the two of us until we worked out a compromise: I sit and talk; he clears the table and does the dishes. It might sound like he gets the rough end of the bargain, but the truth is, (a) it makes him happy to have the dishes done and (b) it makes me happy not to have to move after I’ve eaten (and (c) I do get up and help after awhile–goodness gracious). It’s not just about sitting after I’ve eaten, though I suppose there’s something about good digestion in there, too, but the real “work” of the sitting is the conversation. So for us the conversation continues as he stands at the sink in his food-and-dish-soap-splashed apron. (This has gotten slightly more difficult in the new house, since the kitchen and the dining room are separate, but we’re managing.)

And I really like this time we have together, talking and sitting, doing dishes and talking.

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