Not too long ago I was a wandering and weary graduate. Having been in school for over half a decade, my identity had become subsumed with being a student. No one warned me I might feel purposeless and lost after graduation. My story had taken a twist, and I felt disconnected from the plot.
Years before starting my Master’s program, I was confident I was going to rock at grad studies, smoothly transition into a PhD program, and end up teaching. But that didn’t happen. Instead, grad school was hard. I mean, really hard. I was academically and emotionally unprepared for the challenge.
When the last paper was finally turned in and the program was officially over, I felt numb. I stuffed my loyal beater car with the contents of my mildew-y basement apartment but I wasn’t ready to return to my hometown. Feeling too defeated to feign well-being, I decided to make a pilgrimage of sorts, since sometimes sadness can be better processed in a foreign place.
Just me, my stuff, and my owl-y rescue cat.
I had no agenda, destination, or timeline, and only meager funds for accommodation. I mostly stayed at rest stops, gas stations, and truck stops, pulling into campgrounds when I felt particularly generous with myself. My companions were music and a few audiobooks. I spent much of my trip feeling ejected from my story.
After crossing the border of my native Canada into America for the second portion of my trip, nearly a thousand miles from home, I lost access to my bank account.
That’s how I met Kevin.
Kevin was how I imagine a twenty-year-old African American Huckleberry Finn. With long legs, a lithe torso, an impossibly disarming smile, and effervescent eyes, Kevin breezed into my tornado of panic with a supernatural calm.
“Hey there, girl,” Kevin, all teeth, tweedled to me across the Money Mart parking lot. “You look stressed. You want some company?”
What he gave me over our subsequent drive from Wisconsin to North Dakota was more than company, though. In addition to entrusting me with his story, he made space for mine.
And the sharing of stories changed me.
Just as I was shocked to hear accounts of his childhood and encounters with policy makers and enforcers, he was shocked to learn of my type of exposure to them. Perhaps our communion of stories was possible, in part, because we were so completely unprepared for each other. There were no well-worn crevices of prejudice into which my mind interpreted his tales—nor his mine. He whistled in between stories of his Baptist mom, his brother dubbed Stinky, and the father he never met (his father was stabbed multiple times by a pregnant ex-girlfriend when she found out about Kevin’s mom, who was pregnant with Kevin at the time). He told me of food stamps, the crack culture in his neighborhood, and of his dream to talk on Oprah. He spoke about the freedom he found in wandering from city to city (with nothing on him but his clothes, not even ID)—always dependent on the good nature of the people who would host him.
He ate heartily, lived lustily, laughed with gusto, and sang with colossal life force. He was stirring to be around. Kevin’s storytelling was amazing.
His ability to elicit stories was remarkable too. He wanted to know what it was like to grow up in the country in Canada. What color was everybody there? What color were the majority of people in our prisons? Did we have twelve years of school there too? Did the law unfairly penalize crack users in comparison to cocaine users like they did in America? Why weren’t we just part of the United States?
But he also wanted to know about me. About my experience as a human being who happened to live in Canada.
I didn’t have the vocabulary for it then, but I’ve come to learn a word for it now. Kevin practiced hospitality. In the midst of my dislocated sense of meaning and purpose, Kevin made room for my story. He acted as a healer, of sorts.
Henri Nouwen says this about the sharing of stories: “In the telling of their stories, strangers befriend not only their host but also their own past…The story can be hard to tell, full of disappointments and frustrations, full of deviations and stagnations, but it is the only story the stranger has, because it is his own and there will be no hope for the future when the past remains unconfessed, unreceived and misunderstood.”
Kevin received my story. And as Nouwen predicted, Kevin’s reception helped renew my hope for a future. He honored me by sharing his story too. Our lack of prejudices and preconceptions allowed us to be good hosts to each other. In a sense, our naivety, our willingness to take each other’s experiences for what they were and not assume motives or agendas, helped us connect. Helped us be human beings in relationship to each other.
Nouwen puts it like this,
Someone who is filled with ideas, concepts, opinions, and convictions cannot be a good host. There is no inner space to listen, no openness to discover the gift of the other. It is not difficult to see how those “who know it all” can kill a conversation and prevent an interchange of ideas…The more mature we become the more we will be able to give up our inclination to grasp, catch, and comprehend the fullness of life and the more we will be ready to let life enter into us.
Kevin taught me what it was to listen, what it was to share, what it was to let life enter into me more fully, and what it was to—even if momentarily—share in that fullness with someone else. In a sense, by sharing his own stories and being receptive to mine, Kevin gave me room to begin imaging the reconnection of the threads in my own story’s plot. Kevin taught me the potential of genuine connection when I practice hospitality, and in our uncertain times, that gives me hope.