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Category: The Restorative Powers of Hospitality Series

The Restorative Powers of Hospitality — Epilogue

The three examples of which I’ve written were not the only instances of family and friends opening their homes and hearts to me over the past three years, but they were the most pivotal. I am fortunate.

But they say fortune is the residue of design. Over the last 10-12 years, I have done my best to do right by as many people as have given me the opportunity. Funny…before the kids, I did my best to avoid people altogether! What a difference a kid or two makes. I am grateful.

I find myself occasionally thinking of the less happy times that characterized these last 4 years. Increasingly, though, thoughts of good times with family and friends overwhelm that negativity. I am transitioning.

Nearly every day, I am improving my habits, honing my discipline, pounding the keys, hitting the gym, eating good food, getting good sleep, tying up loose ends, pushing myself to do more and fighting the fear of failure. I am determined.

Each new challenge I face drives me to research how best to handle it. Whether through conversation, email, text, Google, YouTube or just good old trial and error, I’m gathering information to apply to my new life. I am learning.

As I continue to fill in the portrait of my new world, I consider the connections and reconnections I have made while peeling my face off of concrete again. Every step forward I take is punctuated by a memory of someone who has been there for me. I am reflective.

Family and friends, grief destroyed the wall I erected to avoid dealing with the world. That’s a good thing. It was a poor strategy to begin with. The most remarkable thing is, as hard as I once tried to avoid bonding with anyone, you never gave up on me. When I needed you most, you were there. You have, in any number of ways, literally and figuratively, set me free. Through your support, encouragement, constructive criticism and, of course, hospitality, I am restored.

The Restorative Powers of Hospitality III

Less than a month after Memorial Day, I found myself wondering what the kids and I would do for the July 4th weekend. Maybe even a year before, a long-time friend had extended to me a standing invitation to take the kids out to his place in Suffolk County, New York. We had kicked around some possible dates, but nothing seemed workable…until he suggested a visit just days before the holiday. Done.

My friend and I have been in contact for better than ten years. He’s seen me go from Dangerously In Love to I Will Survive. I’ve seen him go through his share of changes as well. He has always seemed to handle his business with an admirable poise and I consider him something of a mentor. When he first talked of the kids and me going out to his place, I was pleasantly surprised, but I was in such a state at the time, I could hardly conceive of such a visit.

Months later, the opportunity to head out was staring me in the face like a hungry puppy. For me, there was nothing to think about: Eastward ho!

I think I suffer from a kind of neurosis that interferes with my ability to follow any plan I make for an outing. As carefully as I might lay out a schedule, there will always be some detail I have overlooked. During the execution of my plan, discovery of and clearing up that detail will throw me off schedule like a bucking bull does a cowboy.

Such was the case the morning the kids and I were to be on our way. Instead of leaving by 9:00 AM, clearing up details pushed our departure time to noon. I wasn’t pleased, but the kids, bless their hearts, were intrigued that we would be going some place new.

This was one of many hot, sunny days we’ve had this summer. There was hardly a cloud in the sky. I had no DVDs — yet another detail left unresolved for lack of time — so I hooked my phone up to the car’s audio and ran a playlist. Lucky me…for once, the kids were accepting of, or at least tolerated, my musical selections. We had been on the road about three hours before I even heard the first “are we almost there?”

When we actually were there, we felt as if we had invaded on-location filming of some family-themed movie set in small town New England. My friend’s town should be in a snow globe.

I had notified him and his wife, our co-hosts, that we were parking in front of their house. Seconds later, our hosts pulled up behind our van. Greetings, introductions and pleasantries were exchanged, then we were escorted inside.

Once the kids and I had our things set up in our sleeping quarters, we were treated to a tour of the premises. Our hosts’s home wasn’t so much a place of residence as it was a living exhibit of their family, their history and their personalities.

The tour ended at the backyard, and the kids set about exploring every square inch of it, especially the small antique barn on the property’s border.

Dinner time fast approached. It was a perfect day to dine out doors, so we chose to do that. There were a couple of picnic tables out in the yard, and we worked hand in hand to set one. In no time, our hostess was carrying from the kitchen a platter of burgers bordered with onions, tomatoes and lettuce, arranged as might be seen on a Rachael Ray TV show. Yes, it was special. We ate to our fill, then took a stroll around the neighborhood to walk it off.

Our hosts live within blocks of a lightly used beach and we made a bee-line to it. Beach combers, sun bathers, kids playing in the sand, boats off in the distance, all basking in the late day sunshine. Food for the soul? No…pistachio gelato. Back at the house, the grown ups — and I — sat on the wrap-around porch talking while the kids played on the lawn.

Soon, bells could be heard in the distance. Not church bells, but the kind a child’s ear can distinguish at 1,000 meters. The kids ceased their activities at the first chime, their eyes scanning the surrounding streets. As the bell sounds grew closer, we adults suddenly drew their scrutiny. “The Good Humor Man is coming!”, they cried, the request for funding implied in the declaration. My friend picked up the tab the first night despite my protests. When I saw what that ice cream guy was charging, I was actually relieved.

We had had a full day. We retired to our beds, as well adorned and comfortable as any on display at Bed Bath & Beyond, replete with towels arranged atop the bed spreads. Wow. I read the kids a story, said my goodnights and sunk into my guest bed, which was like falling back onto air wrapped in velvet.

I woke up before the kids. I cleaned myself up, then followed the scent of freshly brewed coffee down to the kitchen, where a mug and preparations awaited me. Just then, my friend came into the kitchen and told me the action was on the porch. I joined our hosts there and we ran our mouths until we heard the thumping that signals to any parent that “the kids are up”. It was time for breakfast.

A platter of scrambled eggs, bacon and assorted fruits and berries was brought out to the dining room table. Soon, the platter was bare and we were off on a tour of the town and surrounding points of interest, including a lavender field like none we had ever seen. And the beaches: No obnoxious mobs, pristine and packed with shells ripe for the picking by tiny hands. Just ethereal beauty, the kind that leaves one appreciative of life with all its peaks and valleys.

The kids and I spent the rest of the day lounging on a hammock in the backyard, biking back and forth to the beach and generally enjoying each other’s company.

Our last supper was a platter of some of the finest fried chicken with which I’ve ever shared a table. Joss must have eaten enough to make up two whole chickens by her lonesome.

As the sun set, my friend treated us to a ferry ride across the Long Island Sound. The water, the setting sun, the swaying boat, the company. If the experience could be saved to a thumb drive for later implantation in the brain, there would be no need for anti-depressives. Once back at the house, we finished the day with outdoor showers in the garden. Incomparable.

The next morning, the kids and I prepared to head west. Before we piled into the van and engaged the after burners, our hostess suggested I take a trip into town with her to pick up some knick knacks for our house. Turns out both our hosts are avowed advocates of helping the less fortunate while helping themselves: they donate what they no longer use to thrift shops and buy quality goods for steep discounts at the same places. She took me to a local outlet.

Our hostess had me walking out of the place with enough dishes and glasses to fill a restaurant’s kitchen. OK, maybe not, but considering I had been eating off paper plates and drinking from plastic cups for who knows how long up to then, it was a startling, refreshing, homey kind of change. It never dawned (an accidental pun unless you think it’s good) on me how dishes give a sense of permanency to a kitchen. I liked it!

The time had come to say farewell. I can’t speak for the kids, but for me, something had changed in a definitive way. I had seen a flash of what I was striving for: A level of comfort for myself, a home packed with family history for my children, a new foundation on which to raise kids with a real chance of withstanding — and overcoming — life’s myriad challenges.

This trip represented for me the completion of the grieving processes for my marriage, for my grandmother…and for my life as it had been.

It was a long goodbye, but not a final one. Once again, our hosts had provided the kids and me a domestic setting in which we could be ourselves, less the drama. This time, however, we were all well on our way back to a sense of normalcy. See, we now had a house for the three of us as a unit, but the goal has become to make that house a home. And what an example our hosts set for us to follow.

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The Restorative Powers of Hospitality II

Several days before Memorial Day Weekend, I had a tough decision to make. Some of my cousins had planned a birthday party for my last surviving great aunt. The party was to take place the Saturday before Memorial Day at my aunt’s home in North Carolina. Many relatives wondered if I would be driving down, particularly my mother, who wanted to take the ride with me.

Up to the Wednesday before, I had no firm answer. My family had no knowledge of the factors I had to consider, but I wasn’t about to burden them with my worries. The least complicated issue was whether to risk not being around for my son Julien’s birthday, which fell on Memorial Day. If I were to take the trip, there was no telling when I’d be home.

Of course I wanted to see him on his birthday, but I knew that would be complicated with things as they are. I didn’t want unnecessary tumult to detract from the occasion, so I figured I might as well hit the road. As it happened, my cousin Kim and my mom also had birthdays falling on that weekend. Rather than sit at home ruminating about being separated from my son, I chose to celebrate his birthday and that of three other relatives with a legion of family. I made the calls and slapped together an itinerary.

You know what they say about the best laid plans. My mom was to take a bus from New York to a depot near my house. I was at the depot when the bus was scheduled to arrive, but she was not. About an hour later, she called me to ask where I was. Considering I was staring at the bus shelter and no one was there, this puzzled me. It turned out that she had taken a bus to another depot a few miles west of my location. I rolled my eyes, ended the call then got moving.

Once I had mom in the van, she confirmed that my uncle’s ex-wife, mother to one of my first cousins, would be putting us up. I punched her address into Google Maps and we set out for North Carolina. It was already after 3:00 PM, but I was determined to go and I would do the drive with minimal breaks.

We arrived at our host’s condo complex at about 2:30 AM. It was a gated community and the gate was unmanned. Ten yards before the gate was a kiosk where a driver could either punch in a code to open the gate automatically or contact a resident. I found its interface less than intuitive, particularly after 11 hours on the road. We couldn’t get in.

Eventually, another car pulled up behind us. I pulled out of its way. The driver of the next car drove up to the kiosk and punched in a code. When the gate opened, I slid in right behind that car.

The complex was fairly large. It took us a while, but we found our host’s building. She greeted us at the threshold of her condo with the warmest smile, as if it were 11:00 AM on a pleasant Sunday morning.

Before we got all the way inside, our host was offering us refreshments and a meal, even after she informed us that she had to work in the morning. Mom and I were exhausted, so we politely declined, but talk about a port in a storm!

Before our host bade us good night, she let us know that we had the run of the place, no questions asked. Once again, I knew walking in the door that all would go well that weekend.

Though I didn’t get a great night’s sleep, I woke up later that morning with unexpected vigor, no doubt the result of our host’s enthusiastic welcome. I slipped out of the condo, hit the gym, bought an outfit for the party and hooked up with my uncle, our host’s ex-husband. We cruised around in his Caddy and bonded like we haven’t in decades.

When my mom finally got herself together, some time around 3:00 PM, I swung by the condo to pick her up. By this time, our host had returned from work. I thought it was a good time to take her up on her outstanding offer of a meal.

We chatted over supper. The conversation was a terrific ice-breaker. I remember from childhood that she had been a straight shooter and she hadn’t changed. As the hour grew late, mom and I needed to leave for the party, but the three of us agreed to meet for a night cap at the condo later that evening.

The party was everything it should have been, enough to temporarily drive the thought of not being with my son to the shallows of my subconscious. Mom and I mingled, talked, laughed, ate, drank and I ended up dancing until I was absolutely drenched in sweat. Unforgettable. If I didn’t have my van, I could have grabbed my mom, jumped on a cloud and floated back to the condo.

And the party continued once mom and I rejoined our host. Over cocktails, the three of us yukked it up for a good 3 hours, touching on fond and not-so-fond memories, raising children and the aftermath of divorce. Our host also reminded us of her Mississippi roots, the size of her family and how she was raised to treat guests. “Mississippi”, I thought. I know at some point in my life, I’ve got to spend time there.

Mom and I were scheduled to leave the next morning, but I wanted to spend a little time with relatives first. A little time turned into a lot, and before I knew it, night had come round again. Mom and I returned to the condo with the expectation that we would be leaving that night, but our host and my uncle encouraged us to nap first. We were assured there was no need to rush.

I knew that napping before a night drive would be a smart move. I hunkered down on my cousin’s bed (he was away) and fought tooth and nail to fall asleep. I ended up dozing fitfully through 10 episodes of Breaking Bad on Netflix. Once again, I was victimized by anxiety about going home!

Sometime after sunup, I heard our host out in the foyer preparing to leave for work. I made sure to intercept her to say my goodbyes and to express how truly thankful I was for her hospitality, understanding and wisdom.

Though I was once again sailing into troubled waters, I could hang the memory of the last 48 hours around my neck like a talisman to guarantee safe passage to the next port, and maybe beyond.

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The Restorative Powers of Hospitality I

It was the kind of early fall afternoon Bob Ross liked to capture on canvas. The leaves had begun to turn and as many lay on the ground as remained hanging from the branches, the skies were cloudy with intermittent showers and there was just enough nip in the air to call for a jacket.

I had the kids for the weekend and we would be visiting the home of a dear friend. Within moments of picking them up, I loaded the kids and some light baggage into our minivan and we hit the road.

The drive down was easy. I popped The Adventures of RoboRex  into the DVD player to hold the kids’ interest. It was a lame flick and my fledgling film critics gave it the business. No stranger to the pass-time of skewering suspect cinema, I happily joined in. In no time, we were closing in on our destination, which I had kept secret from the kids.

The element of surprise is key to maintaining the twinkles in kids’ eyes, but keeping my kids in the dark about anything is a tall order. Their powers of deduction border on the clairvoyant and they always compare notes. They announced our destination even as we turned onto the street leading to it.

I called ahead to let our hosts know that our arrival was imminent. As we parked at the curb in front of the house, the kids noted that someone was already opening the front door. I hadn’t even turned the minivan’s engine off before I heard the kids unbuckling their seat belts preparing to leap from the vehicle like paratroopers.

By the time I slipped the key from the ignition, they were already tackling one of our hosts, the daughter half of a mother-daughter team that would shower us with affection for the next 40 hours. The kids and the younger of our hosts were already old pals. She was as thrilled to see them as they were her. Me? I was just the guy driving the van, a mere chauffeur.

In short order, the kids were introduced to the mother half of the tandem. They were polite as always, the corners of their mouths turned up in gentle grins and their eyes looking up at her face, which was absolutely aglow. I knew walking in the door that only the sudden and total collapse of the house could possibly spoil that weekend.

We got settled and preceded to Wii, chase, eat, bake, snack, and laugh our way into the good night. Our last official act was to fall asleep on a cushy sectional in the spacious family room as some animated variation of Star Wars played on the TV. I wanted the kids to get a good night’s sleep, so I pulled myself up by the back of my collar, grabbed them then carried them off to their sleeping quarters. It was like old times. It felt like home.

All smiles remained broad the next morning. It was a sunny day and immediately after breakfast, the kids charged through the patio door into the backyard. We did everything from tossing a football to a little horticulture to setting up an obstacle course and actually running a race!

We followed this up with a visit to a local park for some tennis and a little bike training. Afterward, our hosts privately — and gently — scolded me for being too much coach and not enough playmate. I took the criticism in the spirit in which it was offered. Anything to sharpen my daddy-game because time with the kids is so limited.

Back at the house, our younger host baked us a positively succulent turkey meatloaf for dinner. I must have had three helpings. As usual, I had plans to somehow squeeze in a work out, but after all that meatloaf, I could hardly muster the strength to sneak upstairs for an occasional glimpse of the Jets game being played that day.

As the sun set, our hosts loaded the fire pit in the back yard with logs preparatory to a farewell s’mores roast. The kids were psyched. I was psyched to see them psyched, then psyched again on my own. The next morning, I would be dropping them off at school and we would return to our lives, but that night, we would enjoy the combined warmth of our hosts and a roaring fire, and scarf down a bunch of s’mores in the bargain.

I awoke early the next morning to the anxiety that had been my near constant companion for months on end. Resigned to my fate, I prepared myself for the return to the oppressively familiar. But it dawned on me that I now had a formidable weapon to combat those feelings of dread. All I had to do was think back on the 36 hours we had just enjoyed. It had been fantastic. It had been absolutely a beacon in the darkness.

The time to hit the road had come. The goodbyes were heartfelt, the thanks expressed profound. The kids and I had, for months, been forced to do overnight visits at motels. That weekend, our hosts graciously provided us the domestic setting we needed to feel like ourselves again, less the drama, and we all had come away with an experience both rare and sublime.

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The Restorative Powers of Hospitality — Introduction

My recovery from the trauma of divorce has been aided in no small way by three instances of hospitality gifted me over the course of the last year. I have wanted to publicly acknowledge this for some time, but things kept getting in the way.

The situations of which I will write have the commonality that my hosts gave me and, in two cases, the kids opportunities to escape the drama that absolutely draped the last days of my marriage. I got a window into what life could and should be less constant reminders that the good life I had known for years was no more. These getaways were well-timed reminders that a new, potentially better life was just beyond my fingertips and that all I needed to do was keep moving forward.

Another commonality was that four of my five hosts were women. That was helpful to me in a different way: After what I’ve gone through, I needed to bond with females in order to remain appreciative and respectful of what they have brought and continue to bring to my life. In my youth, I’ve observed several examples of men embittered by divorce and grown hateful of all women. I have no intention of joining their ranks. I wouldn’t want to poison my kids with sexist ideology or ruin the great relationships I enjoy with women to this day.

“Hospitality” is a word used far less often than I recall from my youth. It is defined at mirriam-webster.com as the “generous and friendly treatment of visitors and guests”. I don’t challenge this definition, but it seems a woeful oversimplification of the term. I would define “hospitality” this way: The temporary exposure of the human spirit, via the opening of one’s private space, to others hopefully observant enough to appreciate and benefit from the gesture.

I pride myself on being a great guest. My grandmother wouldn’t have it any other way. God forbid I should have visited someone and word got back to Mrs. Ruby Russell that I didn’t carry myself like a total gentleman. I can hear her phantom tongue-lashing bouncing around inside my skull like a .22 slug even now!

But a conditioned aversion to grandma’s 60-minute harangues isn’t my sole motivation to behave myself in the homes of others. Call me old fashioned, but I see an invitation to spend time in someone’s private domain as a profound gesture of kinship; it’s tantamount to saying “welcome to my world”.

As difficult as it is to find and connect with people who genuinely value the bonds of blood and friendship, I could never be so bold as to step into the realm of such a person and not treat her or his space as I would my own. It’s simple. And these days, I value simplicity above nearly all else.

So I have been invited into the homes of people about whom I care a great deal. What proved most important to me during some really dark days was the realization that they care about me as well. Knowing that people see me in such a positive light as to give me and my children free reign in their homes? If I never gave my personal worth a second thought, I can guess at it based on the the love I got from my hosts.

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