I have an image in my mind of an unknown film or tv programme I saw when I was a child. I think it was set in the mid-West and the mother or grandmother of the family set a place at table for the ‘unexpected guest’. (I also have a gut-wrenching feeling it could have been ‘The Waltons’ or ‘Little House on the Prairie’, but I remember it being something less formulaic.) It was possibly quite a sentimental film, where a family member or friend returned from a long absence. The woman knew he was coming back – either because it had been a date set much earlier, even a year or years in advance, or just that feeling of intuitive expectation. If anyone knows what film that was, let me know.
This image has stayed with me and I’ve always been interested in the tradition of the ‘unexpected guest’. It has its roots in at least two very different cultures.
In Poland there is a tradition called Wigilia which takes place on Christmas Eve. Preparations for the meal include laying a place for ‘wandering travellers’. A lighted candle in the window symbolises the hope that the Godchild, in the form of a stranger, may come to share the Wigilia. This belief stems from the ancient Polish adage, “A guest in the home is God in the home.” Zofia Kossak, a renowned Polish writer, has explained, “Whoever arrives at a Polish home on this holy evening, will occupy this place and will be received as a brother.’ The empty seat at the table is also there as a remembrance of family and friends who have died but live on in memory. Apparently the patriotic duty to remember people who are in exile or far from home originates here. It seems that the first casualties of French soldiers from Napoleon’s failed winter attack on Russia retreated to many of these open seats two centuries ago as unexpected guests.
In Hindi culture the unexpected guest is called the atithi, meaning ‘without a set time’. Householders are urged by the Scriptures to treat the atithi as God. Whoever the guest is and from whatever background, they are due three things: welcoming words, somewhere to sit, and refreshment. Even visiting enemies are offered a respectful welcome, and this may lead them to shed their animosity.
In the world of Jungian psychology, the ‘inferior function’ or the shadow side is sometimes known as ‘the unexpected guest’. This is the part of your character that is there – but is least available to you. If you don’t welcome it, it can take you over, especially in stressful times, and overwhelm you. If you figuratively lay a place at table for your inferior function and remember as best you can to include these aspects of yourself in your daily life, you may be less likely to fall foul of the arrival of your unexpected guest.
I have a soft spot for unexpected guests, and I think all blogs need to keep a place for them. I like the idea of the Well House Circle being an open circle, and there always being space for one more unexpected guest – and another… People who just turn up here are welcome, whether they are familiar or unknown. I like the idea of surprise and unpredictability which the unexpected guest captures for me.
My first experience on a blog nearly a year ago was when I felt drawn to ‘just turn up’. I guess I must have been wandering. I didn’t actually know the person writing the blog, although I knew his work, and I found it really difficult to post my views at first. It felt – well, just so public. And it felt like I was turning up unexpectedly – what kind of a welcome would I get?
But from time to time, I experimented with putting up my thoughts and ideas, and I persevered – it was kind of interesting for someone like me, working so much of the time with human communication and interaction and relationship-building. I had stumbled into a whole other world with huge potential for exploration. It was a mixed experience – in some ways it was quite liberating to be able to just comment and not worry particularly about consequences, impact or relationships. I was a ‘wandering stranger’ so I could do what I liked within reason, I would be gone soon after.
At the same time, it was a little confusing, like there was a convention of blogging that I didn’t really fit in with or understand. It was kind of like not being able to speak Polish or Hindi when in those places. I wondered why people didn’t seem to want to talk to each other and build on each other’s comments, instead just staying in the comfortable space of their own thoughts. I had a picture of a blog conversation being like improvisation in jazz, with all of our different voices coming in at different times. This is how Simon R described it in a recent conversation. But it wasn’t happening. Then I found that participating in this blog and a couple select others I had discovered, was giving me insights. There were unforeseen consequences. Ideas would appear on my screen, randomly yet with serendipity. I could take them into my day or my work, and there was at times an intriguing synchronicity between my internal world and the blog messages.
I don’t know if anyone else out there can identify with any of the discomfort around blogging that I’ve described; or with the serendipity of ideas coming at you at the right time to prompt your thoughts and creativity. Or of a blog somehow linking in with your day, as with Chris and Walking to hear the music. If you’re sitting there reading this and thinking how excruciating it is to put your ideas up in public, take my word for it, it has an interesting effect on you. Rather like hearing your voice say something aloud gives that thought a different reality, so writing something on a blog also can give it another resonance which can be refreshing, exhilarating, challenging and liberating. It can also make you challenge all sorts of expectations you might have about two-way or multi-dimensional communication.
I’m suddenly transported back to childhood and remember in the summer vacations creating a newsletter/broadsheet, it was called The Informer, with a leafy tree on its cover drawn laboriously by me. It featured neighbourhood news stories, poetry and a serial novel I was writing called The Children of Tanglewood Tower modelled after books by Noel Streatfield. My father helpfully copied it at his office using pre-Xerox technology. A couple of friends contributed articles too though I did most of the writing. I then took it door to door selling it for 5 or 10 cents. It was horrible but also exciting knocking on neighbours’ and strangers’ doors – would somebody want my prized product that I had laboured over? Would they be friendly even if they didn’t? (Being a child helps!) Would I feel rejected if they didn’t? For some reason, I just had to go out there and find out.
Going out there on a blog is both easier and harder. It’s easier because you just push a few buttons, you don’t have to ring doorbells! But you do have to wait. It’s harder because who knows where it’s going or who’s there? And the possibility of no response is even greater. You don’t get to see the people who might visit. If they think it’s dull or a waste of time, you’ll probably never know. And equally you might not know if they’re enjoying it.