Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Et tu, Brute?

One of the great advantages to being a single person living alone is that you get to feel like a mostly good person. It’s great: when your only interactions with other human beings are by your own volition in the times you’re feeling most on your game, it’s quite easy to be generous, friendly, and hospitable. The single life is a fantastic nurturer of oblivious pride and almost inevitable self-centeredness, and you can look like a saint in the midst of it. It’s quite the ego-trip, let me tell ya!

Married people, on the other hand, have to work their schedules and desires around another person, and their selfishness is bound to bump into the selfishness of the other person. By the time kids come around, there is no longer the faintest vestige of that rather appealing facade that the single person takes for granted. As a loving aunt, I remember holding my infant nephew in my arms as he wailed with colic, and I found myself filled with an inexplicable urge to throw the miserable baby across the room. It’s amazing what other people’s needs bring out in generally amiable people. Seriously—parents never cease to amaze me!

But recently, due to a hapless whim of generosity a couple months ago, I have been finding my single-person facade begin to crumble from beneath me.

It all started on a(n unseasonably warm) Sunday in April when I sat on my porch to enjoy some Sabbath rest in the midst of crunch time. A chorus of neighborhood girls on the porch next door were singing a gospel song and choreographing a rather involved dance to go along with it. I rocked on my rocking chair and enjoyed the sunshine and song, smiling at them whenever they looked my way, and it suddenly dawned on me that I had a package of Oreos in the kitchen that someone had left at my house. Never a fan of Oreos, I decided to offer them to the girls in appreciation for the performance.

I was swarmed by vultures as soon as I did. The five girls shouted into the house and a veritable army of (about ten) children emerged. I allowed them each two cookies, and returned to my house feeling generous.

What I had not planned on was the inevitable change in my relationship with my neighbors that came as a result. I went from the nameless lady next-door to a vending machine, and when any of the children saw me outside from that point forward (and with ten children in the small house, several are always outside), my presence would never again go unnoticed. Eventually I gave them all my Oreos. Then I came up with a few boxes of granola bars I had bought on sale but didn’t like. Then as the attention continued and I neglected to refill my pantry, I had to start getting more creative. I made Chinese tea for them, cringing as the squirmy kids precariously handled my fragile pottery. I invited them inside to make brownies or popcorn. I got out my colored pencils and let them draw. I let them “help” me mow the lawn and weed the garden. And sometimes, my hospitality quotient waning, I merely let them jump around on my porch while I tried to continue reading.

One evening last week, contentedly finished with my Greek homework, I made some couscous and put it over a bed of salad greens, contemplating taking my dinner out to the porch to eat. When I heard the shouts of rambunctious children on three sides of the house, I thought better of it and decided to eat inside. But before I could sit down, the voices unmistakably congregated on my porch, and right as I was deciding to pretend they weren’t there, the doorbell rang.

I identified the ring-leader as a girl who lives around the block whom I had met the day before via the kids next-door. She was distinctive in my memory because she was always filthy—filthy like a country girl, almost caked in mud. I also remembered her because she had tried to keep the neighbor girls from telling me that she hadn’t had dinner because her mom was too drunk to cook. This evening four equally filthy children were with her, and I was not in the mood to be compassionate.

“Can they see your house too?” the dirty girl asked with hardly any greeting.

“No, not right now,” I tried to say in a friendly voice. “I’m just about to eat dinner.”

“Oh, well, we haven’t had any dinner. Is there anything we could have?”

“No, I don’t have much of anything.” It was close to the truth, unless they wanted the last of my salad and couscous that I was trying to stretch for another week.

“Do you have any other snacks?”

“No, I haven’t been to the grocery store, and I don’t keep many snacks on me normally.”

“Can we have some tea?” She was clearly getting desperate, and there was no way I could claim to be out of tea. But I was not in the mood to referee another tea party with my fragile Chinese pottery, so I turned her down again.

“Can we sit here and have you read to us? Can you play some Irish music?”

In my college years I used to fanaticize living in the intercity with children gathered around me, reading and drawing and cooking and playing music. But that evening, with the muddy children gathered on my porch and my dinner getting cold on the table, with the next day’s homework entirely finished and with no other looming projects, I turned them down. I could not pretend not to have tea or books or Irish music or time. This time, it was generosity that had become depleted from my shelves.

The image of the children peering through my porch windows as I began my dinner until I closed the blinds haunts me. The kids next-door have provided many opportunities in the proceeding days for me to exercise my weakened muscles of hospitality, but the dirty kids from around the block have not returned. I hope I get that chance to read to them on the porch one day, but in the mean time the memory haunts me.

Husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, you have my undying respect, as I slowly learn the humility that you can’t sneak your way around. Ironically, hospitality is one of the best teachers of ones own selfishness, and I too am selfish. Here’s to the hope of redemption, redemption that requires the gift of humility to begin.

1 comment:

Mary S. said...

Em, I certainly can understand your position here. One must draw boundary lines in one's life. Sometimes people impose themselves when one is simply unable to help.

Perhaps I am reading into your post/projecting on to it my own thoughts, but I think I see an implied, honest question on your part: How does one deal with these types of situations? Maybe I am wrong, but I offer the following with no criticism in any way, shape, or form; just a suggestion of an answer to what I see might be the implied question.

I have learned to follow two rules I have made for myself. One: If I want to know where Christ is actually/*really* in this world, he is in those who come into my life and tend to "stick around". Second: I'd rather be "taken in" than miss an opportunity to help someone who really needs help.

No criticism of you intended here; please don't think that. Instead, I learned these approaches to just the kinds of situations you describe the difficult way: having failed. And having thought about things, I decided to govern my life using the above 2 guidelines for myself. I can't say they are the right ones to use; but they have helped me in these "sticky" situations when one just is not quite sure what to do. MCS