Why we do this: On being taken advantage of

February 5, 2015 in Education, Guatemala


Ours is a busy household, always.

It can’t really be otherwise, with four kids, everyone schooling, three of us working, traveling more than average and endeavoring to build community and memories everywhere we go. That alone would be enough to keep the house humming.

Ages ago, dark ages ago, when we were newly married and trying to figure out what our family would look like and be characterized by, The Man and I opted to try an open door policy.

More than that, we decided it would be a useful pursuit to actively go looking for folks and invite them through the open door. At first, we designated a particular night to having someone completely new to dinner. Twenty years on, we now have to designated a night NOT to have someone to dinner. It’s a good problem to have.

  • Last night we invited two neighbours for dinner. Four showed up.
  • Three weeks ago, on a night I’d invited four to dinner, 35 showed up. THIRTY FIVE. I cannot make this stuff up. We just kept feeding people until the food was gone and then instruments came out and music nourished us instead.
  • Last week a boy came to the door while we were eating dinner, a complete stranger. “Is this the house of the musical family?” he asked… we replied in the affirmative and asked if he would like to sit down and eat, “Oh yes please! I heard you were a great cook.” Perhaps it was not an accident that he happened by at 6:30 sharp!
  • I was informed this afternoon that Gabe’s diving buddy is expected for dinner this evening. I forgot. Maybe I never knew. I don’t know.

At any rate, what’s one more? 

We’ve picked up hitchhikers and kept them for longer than the miles on the road. We’ve made fast friends of strangers we’ve found, map in hand, on a street corner. We once had a young couple we knew move in with us for a couple of months, they stayed eight. This winter we’ve got Hanna Lucia here virtually every day, learning math and reading, but also home care, cooking, and how to “do family” as she puts it. Right now she’s down by the shore with a guitar, singing to a young mama whose pregnant nerves are fried by the general craziness and who just needed a place to chill for the afternoon. I’m so glad she feels welcome in my garden. 

I’ve been asked two questions in the past month that have me thinking, in a new way, about our family culture and how it must look to other people. One was asked by a friend, the other by a stranger:

  1. Why do you do this?
  2. Aren’t you afraid of being taken advantage of?

Why do we do this?

You know, that’s kind of a great question.

My instant answer centers around the ways that having a broad spectrum of strangers through our home is a great way for our children to learn. It’s an educational strategy. They have new teachers on a variety of topics every night, or every other night.

No need to have the, “Say no to drugs,” chat when you’ve had enough addicts break bread with you.

The nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict come to the surface when captains in the Israeli air force are the history teachers du jour.

Psychologists, musicians, artists, doctors, teachers, believers in alien life, biologists, pirates, activists, Hollywood producers, hippies, border control agents, knights of the realm, rocket scientists, writers, photographers, business men, adventurers, world record holders, world cup boat designers, motorcycle gang members, drug dealers, mennonites, actors, millionaires and the penniless have all been our children’s teachers. That’s one reason we do this.

Another reason is that we are believers in community and building it where ever we find ourselves, for us, and as a gift to others. Food, music and good conversation have brought people together since time immemorial. They’re still the common threads that transcend culture and language barriers.

People sometimes wonder if we miss out, socially, because we travel. Having done both stationary and traveling life thoroughly, over a length of time worth measuring, I’d have to say… no. Community is different on the road, than it is where the people around you are rooted solidly, but it’s no less significant. In fact, in some ways, the traveling population seems to value community more and make more of an effort to conjure it, against the odds, for having stepped away from other communities in their past. Building community is about sharing life, about being willing to give and take; even when it’s messy. It’s an open door, a smile, and a glass of iced tea for a tired pregnant mama in the garden. It isn’t difficult, but it does require intention.

There’s one other reason that we do this, and it’s a reason that’s emerged quietly over the years. We do this, we open our home and our table, even when it’s inconvenient, because it’s how we can change the world, it’s what we can give.

I can’t fix anything big, or important in the world. I’m not smart enough, and I’m far too small. I have four kids, so I can’t dedicate my life to humanitarian aid work in Somalia. I can’t run for political office at this stage of my life, and really, I’d be terrible at that. What I can do, is cook, and smile, and sit and talk. I can do family, and I can do that pretty well… thanks to the solid education I received at the hands of my mother.

I don’t do any of it perfectly. I often burn the bread. I’ve messed up every single thing I can think of as a mother. We have nothing figured out and no answers, but we can feed people. We can love people. We can make our home a haven, a place of peace, a quiet place in a busy world, even when the house itself is noisy as all get out and positively buzzing with life.

A lot of the young people we meet on the road have hard stories and family wounds that are difficult. And then there are the young people who miss their families like crazy and are gaining a new appreciation with every day that they’re away. We meet older people who miss their hands-on-family days. We meet life long loners who just want to spend an evening laughing at the bullet they dodged by not having more kids than sense! Sometimes we meet an old bachelor who is brought to his knees by a loaf of bread. The point is that everyone has a story and all of those stories have their roots in a home of one sort or another. We decided, long ago, that we’d create home for those who need it, or want it, or just feel the need to try it on for size for an evening. It’s the gift we can give.

Aren’t you afraid of being taken advantage of?

The question was asked with sincerity, and so I almost felt badly about laughing in response.

“Of course I’m not afraid of being taken advantage, of, I fully expect to be!”

Here’s the thing: People are more important than things, for me. People are more important than my money. People are more important than my comfort or convenience.

Is there a limit to that?  Yes of course. We aren’t stupid. We aren’t going to support addictions, or enable unhealthy patterns, or give all of our money to a conman, or the daughter of a drunk here in town who would really like to go to college but her dad would instantly seize the money.

But, we have to be willing to take risks for each other. If our first thought is always self preservation, then it gets very hard to build real relationships, and real community.

  • Do people take advantage of the fact that they know hot bread comes out of my oven every afternoon? Yes.
  • Do they invite themselves to dinner, or just show up without an invite? Yes.
  • Do they overstay their welcome? Yes.
  • Do they wear me to an absolute frazzle? Some days, yes.
  • Do they take more than they give? Often, yes.
  • Do they make it hard to get any “work” done? Every danged day, yes.

The thing is, we don’t know people. Not really. We know only what they show us and sometimes, below that layer of bravado is something seriously needing love, or a cup of tea, or a cupcake with Hannah’s signature salted caramel icing, or just an open invitation to sit in the grass and think.

I’m willing to risk being taken advantage of to extend that love. 

So here’s the other thing:

Living life like this, with a parade of unwashed hippies, and amazed sexagenarians, and wild little children, and hungry traveling kids, and tired mamas, and everyone in between littered around the margins of life is not everybody’s gig. I get that.

  • Some people need their space.
  • Some people break out in a cold sweat inviting people they know and like to their house on a Saturday afternoon.
  • Some people would rather jump off of something high than even THINK about what to do with over twenty uninvited guests on a Thursday afternoon.

That’s okay. Truly. It’s probably very healthy, in fact. I’m quite sure I’m the alien on this front. But then, I was raised by aliens on this front, and so it’s what I know and what I can give. Other people give other things. That’s what makes the world go round. That’s what makes community work. We all do our little parts.

I make bread. I feed hippie kids. I wash a lot of plates. I create home.

Dinner’s at 6:30. Consider yourself invited.