The sad seamstress
who stays with us this month
is small and thin and bitter.
No one can cheer her up.
Giver her a dress, a drink,
roast chicken, or fried fish
it's all the same to her.
( from “The House Guest” by Elizabeth Bishop, 1968)
Molly’s never been a very accomplished guest. For me it’s like being lost in a foreign country --disenfranchised, compartmentalized into Samsonite carry-ons, exhausted, dizzy from hunger with an upset tummy. I am an insatiable know it all who’s every desire is, at all times, to be in tight command of my every presence. To be a guest is to be lost on a straight driveway at the end of a pleasant cul-de-sac. Lacking bearings toward home or the airport. Chances are you came in on directions from a GPS and will leave reliant upon commands procured from this same device. I’ve often stayed at a place for days without knowing more about where I am than a vague “south” or “Western Pennsylvania”. How odd to be directed to a shop or attraction by hosts who use hand signals and begin their instructions with “you’re the end of the driveway”. You are at their mercy. A disagreement during dinner might result in misdirection. What if they refuse to give you directions at all? Like a baby waiting for its mother at the end of a long day at the sitter’s, you’d sit and weep, calling for someone to pick you up and carry you home to your warm bed, please!
Speaking of warm, who of us has not spent the night in a bitter guest room unable to locate the extra blanket that was earlier referred to as “in the chest” or “in the closet” and after stormy searching is found to be in neither? “Who turns off their heat at night,” you’ll mutter, making a mental note to return the favor if these lovely friends ever grace you with a visit. It’s possible you’ve wondered where the fuck they keep their toothpaste while trying desperately to brush garlic dressing from your tongue with a dry toothbrush. Ever gotten turned around on an excursion to the bathroom (after a glass of wine or two) and found yourself -- a full-grown adult taxpayer, voter, and driver of a car -- lost in the vast confines of a relative’s house? How many despicable meals will you eat? How many of you will settle your soft cheeks into cheap poly/cotton sheets, the staple of guest beds the world over? Why is this same bed’s pillow always older than the host’s dining room table?
The physical pain of a pleasant visit should make you rethink ever leaving the comforts of “home” ever again. An evening with a friend’s well-intentioned Chicken Picatta exposes you to the possibility of tenure in a strange bathroom, clutching a roiling gut while cinching your ass in a vain attempt to spare yourself the auditory embarrassment of ill health in the face of cheap construction. Ever stave off olfactory reflection of the dinner you were served by sealing off the guest room closet with your fetid gas, rather than release it within the appreciation of your host? Being a guest can mean coming to grips with the awful terror of not knowing where the simplest tools of the house are located; a toilet plunger, for instance (the horrific rising of the tide, the utter relief at its fall). And we haven’t even touched on the spinal predicament of the hotel room bed.
Yet, we continue to pack the very essence of who we are – a consolidated version of our belongings and clothes -- rolled, tucked, wrapped, stuffed into small bags, cases, and compartments that we wheel, lug, clunk into these “homes away from home”. Our most essential items kept in our clutches, too important a part of our integral selves to be left at home with the rest of the tackle. This stuff is our concentrate. Our BRAND of lotion. Our book. The perfect jeans with that whiskered creasing we shopped hours for. Our glasses and prescriptions. Our journal ( in case you say something clever). The gray pebble the dog nosed on that walk last June before he died. Our signature French perfume. The thin shawl that looks good with everything, the one with the fringe. All of this carried into the home at the time of arrival and never further away from you than a room or two. It is important to maintain a consistency of self when traveling; these pieces we carry help us achieve this.
Maintaining too much of this sense of who you are can be a detriment, though. For instance, I’ve been chastised in my small circle of friends for serving salad out of the bowl using just my bare hands. You might gasp, you might assume a lack of proper upbringing, you might shrug. It depends on your own values. I come from a long line of bare handed salad slingers. I didn’t even know what salad tongs were until I went to college. Once, while teaching at a faraway writing program, I stayed with friends of friends. These lovely people invited me to a home cooked meal with them on my last night. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was dining with bread-board, bread-knife, salad tong kind of people. It wasn’t until mid-way through fisting two handfuls of salad into the delicate wood bowl before me that I spotted the large, silver utensils laid out beside the salad. Had I even paused to look before plunging my hands into the blend of baby greens? I hadn’t even attempted to acclimate. My hosts were desperately trying to make me feel welcome. Both of them had served themselves out of the bowl with their hands, their brows glazed with sweat, their eyes flickering around the table – me – tongs – salad – tongs –me, but they would not make me feel the outsider.
I learned something about being a guest that night. Despite their stained futon, lack of coffee, and whiney toddler, I was enriched by my visit with them. To remain pleasantly under the worn lens of my own experiences was comfortable, but would deprive me of a sophistication one would not normally associate with those things. Good to have my eyes opened by way of visiting as a guest, if only just for a dinner, or a week.