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There was a weekend when one of my oldest friends and her good man who had been deployed more than he’d been home the last few years and their three kids came to visit. They came several days earlier than we expected. And there it was. The choice.
Panic or delight.
Fear of appearances or fully opening my arms to one of my favorite friends.
Picking up the backyard or inviting her boys to join the well-loved chaos.
Stressing the stains or surrounding ourselves with toys, kids, and enough time to catch up.
Frantically planning something to cook or ordering pizza and slicing a watermelon.
After five years in that small house with all the brown paneling, I had learned a lot about big hospitality. No matter how much you clean or remodel or move or rebuild, hospitality will always be more a matter of the heart than the architecture. And your guests will only feel as comfortable in your house as you feel in your own skin. And there’s no shame in paper plates if they’re heaped high with delight in each other’s company. And kids are great role models when it comes to the un-self-conscious art of explaining the ins and outs of each other’s toilets.
And no one ever did actually die of embarrassment.
But missing out on community is a kind of dying, and what if I’d said no to catching up on two decades and three kids since we shared a dorm together?
So, it’s later, after we’ve said a hundred good-byes in the space of 10 minutes and after the boys have all agreed they’d like to be brothers and next-door neighbors and after I’ve wiped down sticky counters, chairs, and sofas that I discovered that dirty pot in the microwave.
I stood and stared at it. Looked like it was from yesterday’s tacos. “Pete,” I asked over my shoulder. “Did you know there’s a pot in the microwave?”
There’s a pause before he answers.
And then his laughter rolls back from the couch with his words, “Yeah, I guess that’s where I hid it before they came over.”
I wonder if my mom ever did that? Shoved dirty dishes in the stove or a cupboard? I don’t remember us having a microwave. But on Sunday afternoons in South Africa there were always watermelons bopping in the swimming pool. It was to keep them cool till they could be split for dessert. But to us kids they were just a challenge to ride, to raft, to water polo between ourselves until a grown-up finally noticed and yelled to quit it before we turned the insides into pure pulp.
Sunshine on the watermelons and their green-striped skins and our shoulders and legs all gangly and growing up living large on the hospitality of our parents. I can still feel the water running down my back from wet hair as we stood dripping around the table under the thatch roof pergola as Dad cut into the melons slice after juicy slice.
We’d stand and bite and suck and spit seeds, and there were always more people than chairs. My mom could make an ordinary afternoon an event. So much goodness dripping down our chins and still feeding my memory tonight—twenty-three years later—in a small rental house in Northern Virginia. It’s a long way from my Southern Cross childhood and that swimming pool in Pretoria.
And I think about how Mom used to burn the beans because she wasn’t paying attention, or run out of mashed potatoes because the kids helped themselves to too much, or flip the brown sofa cushion over where it had split a gut right open.
But she always opened the door. She always pulled out one more chair. Kids were always included in the charades, the impromptu Bible lessons, the cleaning up. And there was always watermelon for dessert.
Today, Sunday afternoons are messy at our house. And I like them that way. We’ve usually let the weekend play around us with all its Legos and dolls and light sabers and blanket forts and leftover pizza. We’ve let the dishes pile up and a pile of, well, everything really, accumulate in the boys’ room. At least one of our children is wearing only underpants. And Pete and I usually nap, then drag our bedheads up and back into the land of the living when Zoe wakes us up. The late-afternoon sun pours in the windows across the brown sofas, showing every single spot or stain or trail of old milk.
It is very hard to open the door when someone knocks on afternoons like that.
When someone arrives without calling or planning, simply showing up to say hi or to ask the boys over for a play date or to drop off hand-me-down clothes for Zoe, the last thing I want is for them to catch me right in the middle of my real life.
There’s panic and a profound desire to hide. Then the reflex to kick everything into the boys’ room and try to wedge the door shut. To fix my hair, rush on a layer of makeup, kick off my mismatched socks.
There’s an instinct to hide who I am at my messiest behind a volley of words, excuses, explanations for why the backyard looks like the place where toys go to die. How I’d been watching Peter and Jackson swordfight their way across the dirt and in between the discarded plastic swords that were everywhere except in the toy bin. How I’d cracked open the window to yell that swords must be put away before new games are started, but instead just stood and watched the two of them whack and laugh their way across the sunny afternoon.
But here’s the thing. If I wait for my house or my life to be perfect before inviting someone into it, I might never let anyone come through the door.
A few girlfriends and I were discussing this, and we talked about how we want to let each other deep into the layers of our real lives, selves, fears, hopes, and desperate prayers. It seemed fitting that at the time I was still tired from a late flight the night before, with hair thrown up on my head and no makeup, no ChapStick, no camouflage.
We get to choose this kind of intimacy. Or not.
I never feel more vulnerable than when a friend is stepping over the threshold and picking her way in between the layers of chaos that say, “We live here. And we’ve never got it perfect.” I still prefer the days they drop by when candles are lit and carpets vacuumed. But if I believe what I say about friendship, then that includes the messy days. The ones where I’ve been too tired to catch up on much of anything.
It includes welcoming my people into the nooks and crannies of my ordinary and remembering not to be ashamed. Remembering that to become real, friendship more often than not requires becoming comfortable with the snapshots of life often taken at an unflattering angle. I love how my friend Sharone puts it: “I don’t care about the good pictures, really. The world can have your avatars. Give me the pictures you’d never want anyone to see. The things that are unpublishable. Let’s be just us, in the space between photos.”5
So I open my front door, wearing the jeans that always fall down without a belt. And my hair pulled back in a ponytail. The red shirt I’ve just discovered has a long thready pull. And no makeup.
My son complains about his afternoon, and my daughter’s hair looks like she’s slept in a haystack for two days. There’s a pile of yesterday’s dinner dishes in the sink, and a load of laundry chugging around in cycles. I haven’t had time to force the boys to pick up their room yet, but you’re welcome to sit down with feet up on the ottoman cover I just washed, again. Only this time it was because of orange, drippy, ice cream stains.
Because I want you here. Whether I’m ever perfectly ready or not. I want you.
Just the way you are. Which will likely mean most days, I must open the door just the way I am too.
Excerpt from Never Unfriended: The Secret to Finding and Keeping Lasting Friendships by Lisa-Jo Baker. www.neverunfriended.com
Image Credit: Thinkstock/lorenzoantonucci
Lisa-Jo Baker is convinced that the shortest distance between strangers is a shared awkward story. She has been the community manager for www.incourage.me, an online home for women all over the world, for nearly a decade. She is the author of Never Unfriended and Surprised by Motherhood, as well as the creator of The Temper Toolkit and her writings have been syndicated from New Zealand to New York. She lives just outside Washington, DC, with her husband and their three very loud kids, where she connects, encourages and champions women in person and through her blog, lisajobaker.com. She’d love to connect with you on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.