come on over to my place
It is a broad generalization to say this, but a person’s home is a reflection of their economic status. Sure, there will always be a few rich guys living in trailers or poor folks living beyond their means, but in general, I think, people make the best home for themselves that they can reasonably afford to. This applies to the structure itself and to the way it is furnished and maintained. So when guests come ... there it is ... a display of how far I’ve “made it”.
A week and a half ago MSL and I held a dinner at our home. We don’t do a lot of entertaining - partly because we’re a couple of quiet introverts, and partly because it’s awkward asking our guests to listen to each other use the bathroom. We don’t ask them per se, but effectively, that’s the way it works out. We have a modest sized home that’s great for two people and a few cats, but there’s only one toilet, and it’s just a few steps from the living room. The whole party can see who goes in. Everyone knows exactly how long they’re in there, and can smell what they did when they come out. That’s not a great position to put our guests in.
It’s when guests are coming that I notice the imperfections in our home: there’s that stain on the siding where the evergreens rubbed against the house, there are cracks with weeds in the sidewalk, every room could use a new coat of paint, the rug in the living room should have been replaced long ago, and the fridge is an abomination. In my mind, I see the place as it used to be, without the weeds and the disgusting rug, but some of these guests will be seeing how we live for the first time.
So we have our house, and we have our toilet which isn’t exactly in the living room but is close enough, and we have six people coming for dinner. It’s a varied guestlist: two students, an American attorney, his wife who operates a therapeutic riding stable, a Nigerian seminary president, and his wife, a nurse-midwife. All of these are people of accomplishment, or in the case of the students, aspiration. But, their lifestyles and living accommodations are different from mine. Maybe it is competitiveness, maybe it is insecurity, maybe it is just plain curiosity, but I wonder what each one thinks about how my house compares to theirs.
We bypassed the whole toilet-in-the-livingroom thing by eating outside on the patio, picnic style. The slope of our lot and a low retaining wall make the patio feel sunken, private, and cozy, and MSL’s flower pots make it pretty, too. I made carnitas (which I should be famous for) and MSL had a couple of killer salads. Limeade, a couple bottles of wine, and some ice cream from the attorney. Everyone was welcome to wander around inside the house as they wanted or needed to, but mostly we stayed outside, on the patio.
The two students are in that “everything is temporary” stage of college life where apartments, dormitories and room-mates come and go with the seasons. They probably saw that our couch didn’t have an empty pizza box on it and thought it the height of luxury. They may or may not have noticed that we don’t have a TV.
The attorney and his wife live on an acreage outside of town and although they could live more opulently, they are quite down-to-earth. Their house is larger than ours, has a much better kitchen and a sweeping view of their pastures and pond. It is comfortable and well-lived-in and not at all ostentatious. They are two of the most genuine and gracious people I know and when they sat on our small patio and said “this is really nice” I have total confidence in their sincerity.
The seminary president and his wife agreed that the patio was nice, but I imagine their perspective on how I live is completely different from the other guests. I have been a guest in their home in Jalingo: electricity comes whenever the power company feels like sending it, so John keeps a generator. A truck or a handcart brings water once a week, and they fill their jugs for cooking and washing, which are often done outdoors. When we met at their house, we ate outside on their patio too, because it was Africa-hot and air conditioning is only for the super-rich. An indoor toilet, no matter how close to the couch, would be extreme luxury.
John has been to the U.S. many times and he knows how we live with our easy wealth, and how our status is often judged by the trendiness and gadgetry of our homes, and he invited us anyway, fully aware that his basic, cinder blocked, tin roofed place isn’t in the same league. His invitation was a confirmation that our relationship has surpassed superficial materialism, and that we genuinely like and respect each other.
Americans may look at my home and say “where’s the TV and the dishwasher?”, and feel sorry for us and our low standard of living. Conversely, my African friends may marvel that my wife and I, who are simple employees of a local church, have a fiber-optic communication line and a gas fireplace with remote-control and that clean water comes when we turn on the tap and that our poop goes away down the pipe and that the lights work at the flip of a switch. We can even turn all of them on at the same time if we want to. A machine in the basement washes our clothes while we watch Nexflix and that ugly fridge is full of more food than we will eat, and some of it will be thrown away. The lawn is lush with grass and weeds, and a shed in the backyard holds our extra stuff that doesn’t fit inside the house, and I wonder what the Africans think about all of this. I wonder what I think about all of this. The disparities of our economies and our standards are hard to fathom from either perspective: why do I have so much, and why do they have so little?
I have a tendency to feel apologetic to my upscale guests - that I can’t offer them perfection. And, I’m self-conscious in front of my friends who come from a place where living is harder - it seems unfair that my home is clean and sound and the utilities all work, while they, with their degrees and titles that far surpass mine, live in a home that is much more basic.
The dinner was a great success - the food and the company mixed very well. Relaxed conversation flowed easily at both ends of the table. Everyone seemed at-ease in the surroundings. Nobody from the richer side of the spectrum mentioned that our garage is not attached to the house and only holds one car, and nobody from the poorer side made a big deal over the fact that our estate contains a completely separate building to house a vehicle and our lawn-care equipment.
Wealth, I guess, is a matter of perspective, and displaying how well I’ve “made it” isn’t the point of having guests for dinner. John and Titi, and Mark and Nancy are the dearest of our friends. Our relationships, as good ones tend to be, are based on respect for intentions, accomplishments, and goals, and not at all on paychecks, living conditions and the economies in which we exist.