On Being a Host

The past two months of my life have given me a crash course on hosting. For the first time, my husband and I have over nine hundred square feet that are ours for the upkeep and nesting. A small apartment overlooking trees and a courtyard, with a dining room table and six chairs (four of which are usually open for the taking), several ceiling fans (for days where the temperature ascends ninety) and two nice but not *too* nice cars. I’ve been working two days a week at the Museum for Contemporary Art Chicago, where I research upcoming exhibits, observe visitors in our galleries and talk to guests one-on-one about their experiences, thoughts and abstract feelings about art. Lots and lots of chit-chat. Many guests coming in and out of both home and work. Dinners for two, three, maybe even four or five on our table most nights. A very hot kitchen that friends sometimes stand in to talk with me, beads of sweat on the back of our necks while asparagus roasts in the oven.

Last fall, I took a course called Community Art with a woman named Leah Samuelson. It taught me some things about art and a lot of things about people and vocation and compromise. One of the things we talked about was the concept of guesting and hosting. Everyone needs opportunities to both guest and host. That’s why conversations involve listening and talking. It’s why you get invited to someone’s house for dinner and instantly start feeling like maybe you should buy some place mats and track down the homemade pizza dough recipe. It’s why, after a long day of talking to people and answering questions and listening to concerns, you just want someone else to pour you something to drink and give you a place to sit for a while.

I put together an action-focused experiment halfway through the course and implemented it among my friends – even the ones I hadn’t known very long at the time. I was living off campus, in a basement apartment, but I invited over people every night, usually one or two at a time. Some stayed a reasonable amount of time and others lingered until ungodly hours. I listened, I made food, I baked brownies. I avoided looking at the clock. I hosted for my life. It was exhausting, but taught me something about the relative discomfort of giving and how much I actually loved it.

This evening, I was filling out a brief survey answering some questions about my internship, specifically in regards to the concept of human flourishing within an institution. I began to think again about what the concept of “flourishing” might mean to me. Art is an institution in and of itself. It has rules, artifacts, roles and specific arenas. My home is an institution, with Timothy and I enacting the roles of husband and wife, good friends and hosts. But what makes these institutions unique and worth participating in are their unique abilities to connect people.

Every day that I work at the Museum of Contemporary Art, upwards of a thousand people may walk through our doors. Couples, teenagers, families, groups of fabulous senior citizens… I get to sit down with many of them and ask them personal questions about art and the gallery. Sometimes they give me vulnerable answers. Sometimes they try to act smart. Either way, it’s yet another moment of host and guest. Asker and answerer. Listener and speaker. Five minutes to say what’s on your heart or come up with something witty. A person who helped to prepare a place for you and a chance to reflect upon your time in it. It’s a silly thing, really. But also an intimate one.

Our home is quite the same. A humble one bedroom with space to share. Extra spots at the table if someone needs them. No strict bedtime. Free parking and extra servings. One summer to start with, but hopefully a lifetime to follow.

As I said, it’s been a crash course.

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