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A Portable Hospitality

May 23, 2023

hospitality (n.)

late 14c., “act of being hospitable,” from Old French ospitalité “hospitality; hospital,” from Latin hospitalitem (nominative hospitalitas) “friendliness to guests,” from hospes (genitive hospitis) “guest; host” (see host (n.1)).

also from late 14c. — from hospitality | Etymology, origin and meaning of hospitality by etymonline

It is spring, and I’m thinking about livelihood. Spring invites the question, because spring occurs to the land, within the land, as the land. Spring is when the land unfurls her most ecstatic generosity.

But it just occurred to me that my thinking about livelihood has escaped the way—or mode—of thinking I was taught to do in school. And not just a little. I’m thinking about livelihood with my whole being, all of my faculties — thinking, feeling, sensing, intuiting, imagining … and others. I’m thinking about livelihood with a deep skepticism toward the way we’re taught to think in schools. I’m thinking the way the land thinks: soulfully.

In recent days I’ve been thinking about nitrogen in soil and atmosphere. I’m thinking about soil fertility, what it is and how it is created — or, rather, nurtured into being. And while I was thinking about this it occurred to me that I’m deeply, deeply wounded.

I am wounded in that I am displaced in just the way I wrote of displacement in my recent essay on livelihood. (Click on the word livelihood to read this essay.) I live in place, but the place in which I dwell isn’t the principal source of my livelihood, and I experience this now as a wound.1 The wound feels like prison. I’m incarcerated. I’m in jail. It’s an open air prison. There are no bars, no guards, no guard tower. But I have no back yard to speak of, and my front yard is much too small and shaded for a decent garden. I can’t keep chickens here, not really. Maybe one or two. Maybe.

My access to livelihood should be right here … in my neighborhood, in walking distance. And it is not. I want—I need!—my livelihood to be rooted just outside my front door. I long for this in the sense of longing which is a wound, a profound injury. A deep hurt. A brokenness of heart and soul.

I just had some toast made from green chili cheese bread, with butter. I’m pretty sure the bread was from Sage Bakery. I’m cheering up slightly, thinking of this. Sage Bakery is a three minute walk from my front door, and they use wheat from relatively nearby, here in New Mexico. I could visit the wheat farm where my toast came from. I could listen to the wheat blowing in the wind! But I don’t know where my butter came from. It came from the grocery store. I could find out where it came from. But I am wounded. It hurts. I don’t feel up to checking on the butter at the moment. I’m ill. I’m sore all over. Something has gone terribly wrong. I feel estranged, uprooted—, apart. I feel the wound of displacement. There are real, salty tears.

I have been torn from the land, ripped up. But I’m not just speaking as myself here. Nor am I merely speaking about you and your friends. This is prose, but you will have to read it as if it were a poem or a song. It is a story of longing, of woundedness, of being torn from the land. I’m speaking of the enclosure of the commons.

I’m grateful that I can feel that I am torn from the land, that it hurts — that I can acknowledge this pain, tend to it, care for myself in it. I’m grateful for the knowledge of my wound.

I dwell in a tiny rented casita in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It’s a small city, and not all bad as cities go. It’s both very different from most American cities and also just the same. Its streets are choked with automobile traffic, and they are paved in asphalt. Most of the land between the buildings has been paved in asphalt for automobiles, either for their driving or their parking. Few bicycles are seen on these streets. Few people are walking to visit a friend or for groceries. You know how American cities are. The land is a passageway, a means to elsewhere, a kind of conveyor belt for The Machine.

The Machine dissociates (dis-associates) us from our food, our water, the soil, the rich patterns that connect. No wonder no one can get any rest around here. Oh, sure, they can take a siesta, but most cannot achieve true, real, deep rest — because they are uprooted. The land between the buildings is a passageway, a means to elsewhere within The Machine. Elsewhere has names, but we don’t really know these places where our butter comes from. Elsewhere places are also generally uprooted, displaced, fragmented, broken. Some sort of catastrophe has happened! The soul of humanity has been uprooted, displaced. We’re all so terribly lost, so homesick!

I’m thinking about belonging. I’m thinking about solidarity and hospitality. It isn’t enough merely to belong with our fellow humans in our neighborhoods, but we must — if we are to have access to deep rest — belong also with the butterflies, the earthworms, the trees, the water, the lizards, the honeybees … all of the life around us which are beings in our neighborhood—, neighbors. Only then can we truly fall into a deep rest siesta. To the extent that neighborliness is a variation on the theme of hospitality, to have deep rest and to belong is to become neighbors with all of the nearby living, including birds, trees and insects. Excluding none.

To belong is to be a neighbor, to be alive, to live. But to be fully alive is an act of generosity, of kindness, of love. To receive the gifts of the land we must become giving itself. That is, we must release our desperate grasp on “property” and welcome the other with hospitality.

Hospitality isn’t charity. It is belonging. Only those who belong with soil, people, animals, plants and fungi are ever truly at home. Only those can truly rest. For these, the streets are not merely a passage to elsewhere, but they are a song of aliveness. Every real place is a song of aliveness. But we have to listen. And to listen we must — somehow — come to rest. Settle into the land’s aliveness, become rooted. Become non-other to the land. Both other and non-other at once!

I’m talking about the kind of rootedness which can move. It can travel. It isn’t stuck. It isn’t nailed down. It’s portable! But it is the only way to belong in place. To belong in place one must practice the arts of belonging.

For many who practice these arts, it is natural and isn’t a difficult practice at all. For we who have been uprooted, displaced, coming back home to land is tricky. There is the wound to contend with.

We’ve been living in this uprooted way for so long now that those who are rooted will see our sorrow, our fear, our pain, our confusion. They can feel it. It’s palpable. It’s obvious. They know how we smell. They can smell our wound. They know we’re not yet capable of a simple hospitality. That we must practice — and practice long, but gently. You cannot practice this “hard”. Belonging isn’t actually an effort. It is what the Taoists call wu wei. It’s “effortless effort”. It’s a kind of letting go and falling into home. Nothing here is forced. The effort is the letting go. That’s all.

* * * * *

Then, long ago now, as I ate the berries of summer the berries (which were living sunlight and daylit moon) ate me. The sunlight drank me. My feet had been naked in the creek where the salmon would run. The loamy soil of the garden smelled like home, as did the windrows of grass and clover hay, drying in the sun. I had planted fruit trees in some of this soil. I knew the aliveness of my place, which pulsed like inbreaths and outbreaths, like days and nights, like seasons, and each of these were connected with the same land of a hundred years prior. I could see and feel a hundred years back and feel its aliveness then. I could feel it a hundred years after my death. I belonged. At least within the land I did. The land’s aliveness was my own. The land’s welcoming was utter, simple, palpable, ecstatic, wondrous, alive! I was alive in this aliveness, not apart from it at all.

The land’s aliveness and mine were non-other in relation to one another. And one could feel it in one’s bones and breath, or not at all. That’s where Welcome is known — in bones and breath. One belongs with rivers, with creeks, with salmon, fern and air, simply on account of one having been born. It’s really that simple, that ecstatically generous and kind. You see, the land itself owns nothing. Its door is always open to us. It has no door to shut!

I’ve been talking with some far away friends2 about passages, doorways — “the significance of the literal threshold, the doorway that marks the boundary between ‘outside the house’ and ‘inside the house’”. We’re talking about hospitality, and how hospitality is related to the distinction between charity and … well, hospitality. My friends are practitioners of the subtle and mysterious arts of hospitality. Each have giving at the core of their lives. They are curious about what it is they are doing. They have invited me into this inquiry. It isn’t perfectly clear. After all, the present world — its language and its ways — emerge out of displacement, uprootedness from land. Land which is always giving. Land which can only give, which never takes. Land which is generosity itself. Land which is water and sun, nitrogen and earthworms.

When I write, I usually don’t know what the title will be until some bit of magic happens. That magic happened just now, so I put a title above these words: A Portable Hospitality.

It may be that we can only truly rest, settle—in place, in belonging, in land — when we have become, ourselves, a “portable hospitality”.

My mind is presently muddled about this notion of portable hospitality. Surely there must be the alterity of the house, one’s own house, its unique otherness.

The most simple, least technical, definition of alterity is “the state of being other or different; otherness”. The literal threshold, entrance and exit, doorway, to your house (tent or apartment) isn’t the same as the passage into my tiny rented casita (which, being rented, is only vaguely ‘mine’). There cannot be hospitality without honoring and recognizing the alterity of otherness, the uniqueness of others — and thus of one’s self. Hospitality is a generative generosity. If it is my house, then others welcomed into it are guests. So how can our guests then rest? Are they not at home here? Can anyone be a guest in their very own home?

A generative hospitality requires the literal and the figurative threshold of alterity to exist! And so there are guests and then there are guests. The two are different, but they go by the same name.

When Sean3 welcomes his guests, he knows that his guests are other. He honors their alterity. He doesn’t invade their territory (interiority, self, soul, psyche…), muddling himself overly much with the other. And yet — simultaneously — Sean knows in the depths of his heart the non-otherness of the other whom is his guest. Sean knows it’s all a paradox.

The sacred presence of the other is made sacred by a literal and figurative threshold, the literal and figurative gap of difference and the paradoxical refusal of alterity. A radical embrace and refusal of otherness!

That’s what I felt in the land, that long ago, when in eating the blackberries along the creek where the salmon spawned and ferns grew I was also being eaten. I was drinking sunlight as the sky and sun were drinking me. I was non-other and other all at once. There is as profound honoring of the mysterious and sacred souls of beings here. It is this which my friends were pondering together.

To love another is to deeply join together with him or her, while honoring his/her utter uniqueness and otherness. What my friends seem to be wondering about in their inquiry into hospitality is how to avoid confusing hospitality with charity. And this all ties in with what we call social classes. It’s complicated! Charity is basically what those “above us” offer down to us. They are above us, and are offering down. There is no generosity in that. My friends have generous souls. Or, rather, they are generous souls with a love for the land. They give only what they receive.

The land never does this. The sky never does this. It (or, rather she) never hands things down to us. She is not above us. She gives because she is. She is because she gives. She would certainly not have it be any other way. Salmon and berries she gives, and ferns and osprey. How can one not weep with gratitude? How can one withhold one’s many gifts?

The land belongs to no one. It (she) offers Her ecstatic Geenerative Hospitality to all alike! And the longing I’m having now is to use my Door only when it is needed, to shut it only when it is cold in winter — or merely to keep the mice out of my cupboards and the flies off of my sandwich. I’m willing to Share, but I require the door, the passage, to fully belong. I am human, after all.

I am other. (!)

But the land welcomes me into non-otherness. It’s an open invitation. It never expires. It’s always open. I’m always welcome to come home, where I have always belonged.

But we can only come home together, we humans. We can’t do this alone. Some hospitality will be required.

If we want to learn how to practice hospitality, we’re going to have to turn to the land for that wisdom. The land owns nothing. Nobody owns Her. Land is the Generative Hospitality. We are Her Guests.

She is the one who empowers our generosity and kindness. It is Hers alone to Give.

1Some years ago, after a long land search, my partner and I decided to “purchase” an acre of land in a nearby village. It had good soil, lots of sunlight and plenty of water. But that’s when the fellow who was going to loan us the down payment money said he’d suddenly gone broke. This was one in a series of similar disappointments. But I know, nevertheless, that no one can genuinely own land. Land is not property. Land is a generative hospitality, an offering to all who dwell, an open space of belonging and rest. My being landless and placeless is both true and not true. The land belongs to us all, in that we all belong to the land. Land isn’t property. It is commons.

In the future, we humans will live in common again. Let us nurture this into being.

2Dare I proclaim these two wonderful men as my friends? I’ve never met either face-to-face. Friendship is an agreement which people come to together. It cannot be forced or issued by fiat. It arrives, and there it is. You are friends. I would love to be nearby friends with either of these men who have inspired this essay. My door and my home is always open to them. (This is because I trust them. I trust them because they are worthy of it.) I have nothing but gratitude to both! Tearful gratitude, quite literally. In their keeping their metaphorical and figurative door open for me, the knowledge of the ecstasy of the land has bloomed in my heart. Am I then an animist? Is all of the land alive? You bet it is — or she is! Of course she is!

3Sean is a fictional character named after one of my dearest childhood friends.

Image: Meadows Farm, by Dave Dunford, Creative Commons

James R. Martin

I'm an eco-cultural philosopher -- which is a fancy way of saying I am obsessed with trying to understand our human relationship to ecosystems and the biosphere in relation to philosophy of culture.

Tags: hospitality, interbeing, right livelihood