During the years I was enrolled in my PhD program, student office space was a valuable commodity around which a whole culture of room assignment had emerged. When each cohort was admitted, we all shared one big room, each entering student with an alphabetically assigned cubicle; our program’s administrative coordinator, Lucinda, referred to this shared starting space (lovingly) as “The Nursery.” This term has resonated across student cohorts over the years since she was, truly, like a surrogate mother to us and this shared space felt like the crucible of our academic emergence from infant to toddler. My cohort was the first to introduce an inflatable air mattress into one corner of the nursery, for the inevitable all night work sessions that accompanied major assignments. As we successfully moved on through our first year of coursework, most of us graduated to shared desk space in the corridor of basement offices adjacent to the computer lab. Some were fortunate to secure professional lodgings in one of the funded Centers or research suites of our faculty mentors which were located on higher ground, some even with windows. Some people used their offices more than others; I ran a project located in a community agency and preferred to write at home, so my desk and bookshelves in the University basement were really more for storage, and to insure that I had a readily accessible place to meet with my students since I taught several adjunct classes. So, I was happy to use whatever space was allocated to me upon graduating from The Nursery. I remained in my old corner desk in the basement of Brown Hall through two floods, one renovation, and the passage of three subsequent sets of office mates.
I actually got along well with all my office neighbors over the five years I spent in that office. First, I shared space with Violet and Cathy who were several cohorts ahead of me and soon graduated to take faculty positions. Then, Stacey and Vivia moved in and we had much in common to chat about along the theme of mental health services research. Although they entered the doctoral program one cohort after me, these wonderful and wise academic women still managed to graduate before me. I clearly was taking the PhD road less travelled. During the final year of my studies, an academic couple moved in to take the remaining desks. Song-Iee and Hyun were students from S. Korea, both brilliant and delightful office mates. They used the office daily and settled in to make it their home away from home, even adding a comfortable reading chair. I felt almost apologetic when I needed to come in to the office because they were so settled and comfortable, and my rarely used corner was…well…transient at best. But, Song-Iee and I in particular would find things to talk about whenever I came in, and she was particularly happy when my daughter (who was only an infant at the time) would accompany me. I soon began to feel quite at home with my newest office neighbors in spite of how infrequently we actually interacted.
The November I defended my dissertation, my office neighbors invited me and my family to their home for dinner to celebrate. I thought this was a lovely and sweet gesture. The evening of the dinner, my spouse and I, and our then 2 year old daughter drove to their small, off-campus apartment. What followed over the next several hours was the most radical act of hospitality I have ever experienced.
Song-Iee, the brilliant and kind academic, had obviously spent days away from her studies, cooking in my honor every delicious dish imaginable from her Korean culture. She had spread cushions on the floor around their low table so we had ample space to sit and for our daughter to play. She prepared a gorgeous display of food…the tastes, the combinations, the specially prepared things that even a two year old would reach out to grab and taste…and each of them accompanied by a story, a history lesson on her family and the origin of the recipe. The whole evening to me is a blur of lavish, celebratory, radical hospitality. I couldn’t even find sufficient words to thank her, then or now. I was humbled, and awe-stricken by their lavish kindness. But as we closed the evening, it became clear: they understood the magnitude of this celebration. They were working towards the same goal themselves. And they gave lavishly and from the heart to share this celebration with me, because whether I was in that office with them for hours or days…I was still their neighbor. That night, we were all family, all celebrating, all beneficiaries of that lavish gift of radical hospitality.
Radical hospitality is a transformative gift.
This story is my response to Week 2 of the “Who is My Neighbor?” series at St. Thomas Episcopal Church. For more views on Radical Hospitality, check out the following blogs:
I love this ecumenical reflection from Christine Valters Paintner @ Abbey of the Arts on radical hospitality not as outward action, but as a contemplative state of welcome for all humanity, including ourselves. As she states, “Radical hospitality might be seen as hospitality that proceeds from the very core or root of who we are, an invitation to extend a welcome to the stranger that dwells inside of you.” She also begins this blog entry with an amazingly powerful poem from Rumi (take a peek):
Another great piece which is relevant across communities of faith is this reflection from United Methodist Bishop Robert Schnase on showing compassion and radical hospitality through hands, feet, and action:
This week’s theme of radical hospitality emerges from the biblical story of Mary and Martha, Luke 10:38-42
Please join in the conversation and share your own story. Who has shown radical hospitality to you? How do you extend radical hospitality to your neighbors?