the gift of authenticity
years ago, a woman that i admired invited me to her home for coffee. this new friend owned a business i frequented and was wise and witty. she embodied both a sturdiness and flexibility that drew me toward her. she told funny stories in which she took herself lightly and yet didn’t shy away from sharing her opinions and knowledge boldly when asked. she lived her values and gave generously of her time and resources to her community, her friends, and the world. all of this made her extremely attractive and wildly popular to those around her. given her amazing ways, i made all kinds of assumptions about what a visit to her home might be like. her abode would be warm, i was certain, and yet it would also be immaculate. books about smart topics would be laying around, heavily tagged and bookmarked, and classical music would greet me as i approached the door. it was all going to be so perfect, i imagined, and, it was. in completely different ways than i pre-supposed it would be.
when i arrived, no music was playing in the home that looked little like i had imagined. leslie’s daughter was coloring at the table and a few toys were scattered about. muffins were baking in the oven and the bowl they were mixed in sat on the counter. i was greeted with a welcome that was genuinely gracious and ushered into a home that was beautifully warm, creative, and real to the core. there was no pretense of perfection or subtle direction to notice the tidiness of her home or apologies regarding the stuff of everyday that is always out at my home but never seems to be at others. there were no all-too-familiar comments about how sorry she was that she only had time to bake muffins instead of providing a spread of home made danishes and preserves. instead, she told me plainly and without any false modesty, “i decided to give you the gift of not cleaning up. i figured if i started by having you over to my house as it normally is, maybe you’d feel welcome to do the same.” later, when the kids were using the bathroom she sent me upstairs to wash my hands. with what i can only call incredulous relief i witnessed evidence of her honesty. a stray sock, a pile of accumulated stuff outside her daughter’s door, and a few random objects strewn on the stairs after having been tossed up from below peppered the floor. the bathroom mirror had water splashed across it and there was a toothbrush on the counter. she really hadn’t cleaned up. the deep sense fondness i felt for my new friend is hard to describe. to this day i think about that sock on the floor and the instant affection born through my friend’s simple authenticity when i think about connection.
every one of us has a story about “entertaining.” our mother’s and father’s were either uptight and stressed leading up to visitor’s arrivals or perfectionistic and militant. they either had events catered or vowed to have everything home made. they made chore charts and kept everyone home to clean or did all the cleaning themselves, pointing this out to us in ways only true martyrs can. they helped us create assumptions about what it means to open our homes and our lives to others. while with them we developed deep beliefs about how we must present ourselves and our real and symbolic homes to others.
i escaped some of these ways of thinking because, somehow, my mother knew how to make an impromptu snack out of whatever was in the fridge. she was confident that the smell of popcorn was an inviting (and cheap) greeting and that what was served always came second to the environment within which it was offered. she never had a clutter free home and yet our home never felt cluttered. both of my parents welcomed people and knew that their welcome was far more important than anything else. the emphasis wasn’t on the clean, well appointed home or the fancy food, it was on welcoming the people that entered it. i never knew what an art it was to fully welcome people until i began inviting people into my own home...and office...and life. even with a history of being a part of an authentic-living community, i struggle (don’t we all?) with strong unconscious tendencies to want to present that which is tidy, perfect, well crafted, and the rest. i want to win this struggle.
a friend of mine did a stand up routine recently wherein she joked about spending all day cleaning house in preparation for visitors only to greet them, vacuum in hand, claiming to be just starting to clean up. “wow!” her guests think, “her house is this clean to begin with and she’s still cleaning?!” we want such interesting things: to have a tidy exterior and to make it seem effortless; to seem perfectly “together” and yet deeply humble and mindless regarding compliments; to have meaningful connections and yet to maintain control over our schedules and time and the content of our conversations. we wouldn’t want to appear messy, to not have it all together, to be...authentic.
i think back to that sock on the floor. in that moment it was, concretely, a symbol that my friend chose to live life fully and still invite me in. that she chose to include me then rather than to wait until she could have the house clean and still have time to connect. today, in my mind, that sock has come to represent so much more. when i feel tempted to inflate my successes in order to control what people think of me, i think about that sock. when i’m feeling low but respond to inquiries about how i am with, “life is all sunshine and rainbows thank you very much,” i think about that sock. when i feel less than and let that motivate me to miss out on experiences where that might be exposed, i think about that sock.
an author that i’ve been enjoying recently says, “if you want your community to be marked by radical honesty, by risky, terrifying, utlimately redemptive truth-telling, you must start telling your truth first.” (shauna niequist, bittersweet)
i want that. i really do. i want that kind of community and yet feel tempted to hide the dirty sock behind any number of distractions in order to direct your attention where i’d rather have it...on the clean and folded laundry rather than the soiled and scattered less than perfect parts of myself, my home, my life. in so doing i tell not only you that cleaning up is more important than you are, but i tell any children in my life the same. and they believe me and tell their kids and they tell two friends and so on and so on and...
may we all take small risks, as we are able, to invite people in today. not when the house is clean or my reputation is sparkling or i can pull up in a new car or i’m feeling prepared; but now. and may you and i welcome the messes that are part of being authentic. part of being real. part of being.