The Fine Art of Hospitality

Written by admin on Sep 26, 2014 in - No Comments
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The Fine Art of Hospitality

Abigail Carroll

I recently attended two poetry readings as part of the Burlington Book Festival, one by a famous Pulitzer Prize-winning poet from New York City—which left me entirely cold—and the other by the much less well-known poet Anya Silver of Macon, Georgia—which I found rich and deeply nourishing. How, I wondered, could two readings have such distinctly opposite effects when, after all, both featured the same kind of writing? I knew there was a lesson for me here not just about how to give a good poetry reading, but also about how to live the gospel, and it centered on hospitality.

Hospitality is something I’ve been thinking about continually since I listened to Krista Tippet interview cellist Yoyo Ma on NPR’s “On Being” a few weeks ago. In the interview, Yoyo Ma shares his philosophy of musical performance as a kind of hospitality. When the man widely considered the world’s most famous classical musician puts bow to string on a stage, whether in a small town auditorium or at Carnegie Hall, he sees the audience members as his guests. “It’s not about proving anything,” he says. “It’s about sharing something.” For him, there is a kind of communion between performer and audience member that takes place during a performance.

That communion was distinctly absent in the first poetry reading I attended, and I felt it. The poet seemed more interested in creating and maintaining a persona than in connecting with his audience, in proving himself to be a great poet rather than edifying his reader. Anya, on the other hand, made herself vulnerable in her poems and in the stories she shared about why she wrote them: she invited you into the living room of her life and seemed to want to make sense of the joys, pains, and puzzlements of the world with you—not for you or in spite of you.

Anya shared a lot about those joys, pains, and puzzlements. Over the course of her reading, it became apparent that she grew up in a Russian Orthodox family, married a Jewish man, was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer while pregnant at age 35, started attending an Episcopal church shortly after becoming ill (and ran out the door of the church in tears on her first Sunday), went into remission after treatment, then received the dreaded news a few years later that her malignancy had recurred. Though she appeared youthful and energetic, almost dancerly in posture, her long, smooth red hair falling over the shoulders of her blue plaid dress, she was living with a terminal diagnosis. And though she had found her place in the family of God, she candidly admitted that she often felt closer to Him while sobbing in a bathroom than sitting in a pew. Her honesty was arresting.

Because of their subject matter, many of Anya’s poems were painful to listen to. She interwove imagery from the rich religious traditions in her life with stories of surgery, illness, and fear, often apologizing that she was about to read “yet another cancer poem.” But because she let us in on her grappling—practicing not only the fine art of poetry-reading, but the finer art of hospitality—her reading was edifying, refreshing, and ultimately hope-giving, and it got a hold of my heart.

Why am I writing about poetry readings on a church blog? What does a poet or musician’s hospitality (or lack thereof) have to do with the Christian life? Hospitality is a biblical theme that surfaces in Scripture over and over. Paul tells us: “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality” (Romans 12:13).  Here, Paul is likely talking about practical forms of hospitality—inviting others into one’s home for a meal, loaning a needed possession, perhaps offering a bed to a traveler. However, Anya’s poetry reading, combined with Yoyo Ma’s insightful musings, leads me to consider this verse on another level, makes me wonder what it would look like to live hospitality. What if hospitality were less an act than an attitude, a way of approaching everything we do rather than merely a category of community we occasionally engage in? What if we considered our job, our words, our demeanor, our art—all as forms of hospitality?

After the poetry reading, Anya signed books, but I misunderstood the MC’s directions about where she would be signing and waited for her in the wrong location, inadvertently missing my chance to meet her. So I drove home and did something I would not otherwise have done: I wrote her a letter. I wanted to complete the circle, to return her hospitality by offering her the same gift of communion she had generously, and in a way quite courageously, offered me. I hope she smiles when she reads about me looking for her after the reading and that she finds my response to her poems edifying. But more importantly, apart from my words, I hope that the letter’s gesture carries with it a small taste of God’s own profound and redemptive hospitality—of which, through her reading, Anya unknowingly taught me something new.