Coming on this hosting journey to America isn’t easy. It’s a long trip to a house full of strangers who speak a language you don’t know well, with customs that aren’t familiar.
Even a faucet can defeat you.
After being here for 24 hours, I asked Peter Pan if he would like to take a shower. Other than the fact that he probably felt gross from all the travel, he truly stunk. Quite a lot. He was still wearing the same clothes he had worn while traveling. When we went shopping, I held his long-sleeved shirt while he tried some things on, and I feared that I would pass out from the fumes. He had to know it was bad.
But he was hesitant. He didn’t seem to want to bathe.
For the sake of the air quality in my home, I took him into the bathroom and started showing him where everything was, and how the shower worked. Shower fixtures are a little bit different in Eastern Europe, so they can be difficult to navigate—when I traveled there, it took me 20 minutes one day to figure out how to turn on a showerhead. So I wanted to make sure he felt comfortable.
But when we got into the bathroom, he surprised me. “I want ask you,” he said. “How this turn on?” It was the bathroom sink. Oh my. This poor child hadn’t been able to turn on the faucet for almost two days.
And so we started small. The sink. The shower. Step by step.
He showered that night. But the next morning, the shirt was back on. And it still stank to high heaven.
But here’s the thing. He came with a total of maybe four pieces of clothing. These are the only possessions that filled his bag next to my (very generous) gift. To turn over your only long-sleeved shirt to a stranger is a big deal. That takes a lot of trust.
I explained to him that I have a dryer—they are not common in his country, so washing and drying can take several days. I could have it washed and ready for him by the time he got up the next day.
The first day, I got one T-shirt. I made sure he got it back right away.
The next day, I received one pair of jeans, one pair of underwear, two pair of socks, and the stinky shirt! But he wouldn’t give me one of the other shirts because it’s blue, and his stinky shirt is black, and he was afraid I would turn his black shirt blue.
That’s not the way colors run, lovie.
I so wanted to say to him, “Look. I’ve been doing laundry longer than you’ve been alive. I think I can handle it.”
But that’s not how these things work. It’s about building, step by step.
So I scrubbed and washed. I had it ready for him, fresh out of the dryer.
He put it on and said, “I think you shrink this. It’s too tight.”
There it is. The sass that belongs in this family. And I laughed, and knew it would be a while before I saw anything else from him in the hamper. Well, I can hug a stinky boy just as well as a clean one.
So I will try again tomorrow. Because this isn’t about laundry. This is about learning and growing and knowing and being known.
And there are other kinds of laundry, too. More important things than shirts and stinky boys.
There are the dirty, horrible things that have happened to us, the laundry that we carry close. There are the things that we pack away. It may stink and we may know how much it stings our noses and our hearts, but it is not something that we just hand over to strangers. It is not laid out to be examined and cleaned by anyone. It is what we wear on our very souls.
To undress from these things and lay them out in words…that takes so much. When one has traveled through hell, it is not a simple thing to slough it off and be clean again. The stink lingers and cannot be simply washed away. It clings.
And it is in the living and growing together that we carefully unroll these things. A bit of his past comes out when we see a shirt in a store. Another piece is mentioned when a show comes on television. And more is revealed with the words of a song.
And sometimes, there is a great pile of terrible that is sifted through together because you find a person who can be trusted with the dirty and the hard.
Last night, we sorted and catalogued, and smelled the sweet and felt the familiar gag at the rank in our lives. We aired and we compared.
And as such things are, it came with a little bit of trust built here, a little bit there, and a testing of what it is that can be said and understood. I stripped down first and laid my painful things in front of him. And then his came, too.
And we said the things that we knew.
We know that there is sweetness in all the dark. There are good memories. People are not only the bad. Sometimes they are the good, too. And those things can be celebrated and treasured.
We know that things don’t always happen for a reason. Sometimes they just stink. They hurt incredibly and stain us permanently. And those things should never be passed over with pithy words or trite pleasantries.
We know that the things that brought us here should never have happened to us, and that they will always echo in the halls of the spaces that we create. They are not good—they are evil. They did not happen for our future good, or to make us stronger people. They happened because others broke the things that should have remained unbroken. But it is these never-should-have-happened broken things that make us fit together in snug ways. We found each other because of the pain that came before. We would not be here, in this good, without them. And these truths can exist together, somehow.
We know that not everyone understands these things. But sometimes we find people who do. Sometimes the paths that wind us through our lives bring us to an oasis. And that feels cleansing.
We know that the tribe that we gather around us can become family. This is life. This is the living in the broken together. This is the sad and the happy, the dark and the light. This is not the Plan B or the second choice. This is not the leftovers after a could-have-been. This is not second best. This is simply what comes after, and is meant to be as beautiful as it is.
I will never say that I am grateful for dirty laundry. I will never say that I am glad I have been stained. I will never ask anyone else to be thankful that pain brought them to this table either.
But we are here. This is the washing after the long trip to get here. This is the folding into one another. This is the beautiful scent that only comes after you have experienced the deepest of stenches.
And it is this beautiful that I am grateful for. It is what I will continue to build towards, step by step, word by word.