I have a morning rhythm, one that keeps me sane in the ever present demands of the guesthouse. I start my mornings much as I did when my husband was still alive. Except, now I’m alone. I’ve made peace with the solitude. More, I suppose. I’ve found my sanctuary in it.
Retreating to our refuge
When I moved to the guesthouse, I chose what I think was meant to be the staff quarters; two small bedrooms, pressed against a rough hillside on the back of the villa. I claimed the rooms as my own, calling one my bedroom and the other, my sitting room. Everyone should have such a space, particularly if their home is always full of guests.
The bedroom has a small single casement window, just big enough to permit a bit of sunlight and a fan-assisted breeze. The second room is larger and so I chose that one for my sitting room. Its double casement window opens onto an area of the hillside that was once covered in deep green scrub. I cleared a small patch and planted periwinkle starflowers, white sea daffodils and tiny white rockroses with tender yellow eyes.
A young man from town helped me set bright white stepping stones into the hillside and an equally white stone basin with a gently flowing fountain. I added two green plastic birdfeeders on wrought iron poles and called my little Maltese garden perfect.
That same young man installed my kitchenette. It’s not much, just a camper sized refrigerator, a single burner, a sink, and a coffee pot. It’s exactly what I need. Morning coffee, a gentle garden, feathered guests, and the solitude that I so enjoy.
We find strength to respond
I wake up early, settle into my wicker butterfly chair, sip my coffee, and watch the birds. I don’t need much time, really, just a few moments to breathe in the beauty and prepare my heart for the many planned and unforeseen tasks before me.
I was putting the milk back in the fridge when I saw the envelope lying on the doorway carpet. I might not have noticed it at all, except the color, so closely matching the yellow flowers, tore an unexpected rectangular corner in to the carpet’s blue background.
To the unexpected
I did not like the intrusion. Still, I was intrigued. Who isn’t fascinated by a package?
I set my cup on the glass topped wicker table next to my chair and retrieved the envelope. The heft spoke of a book inside. When I turned the package over, I saw my name written in messy script, raspberry red, bright and striking against the yellow. I also found a Post It note. “Dear Helen, thank you so much for welcoming my family to your guesthouse. I forgot to give this to you before we left. I think you’ll find a note inside.” Signed, “Amy”.
Amy’s young face along with her voice appeared in my rather confused morning thoughts. I smiled. I love most of my guests and I especially adored her; a young mother from the States, stopping on their way back to Asia. A husband who spoke little and three small boys who managed, with very little time, to explore every corner of the guesthouse, including my little private garden. The boys were a noisy treat and the parents, relaxed and attentive enough to enjoy immensely.
Watching the boys encouraged me to purchase an inflatable pool for the northwest patio. I often learn from my guests, especially the little ones.
The envelope, though, puzzled me. Occasionally, travelers brought books to be added to our library, but I couldn’t remember someone sending one directly to me. Still, I didn’t want to rush into the package. It was morning, and I felt myself torn between curiosity, coffee, and a small yellow breasted bird perched on the rim of the shallow stone fountain in the middle of my little garden.
Perhaps we hesitate
For a few moments, I sat in my chair, the envelope flat on my lap, a cup of coffee in my hand, and simply watched the bird. It stood, tentatively on the edge of the fountain. Swung its head left, then right, then up toward the sky. It shook out its feathers, then looked around again. Suddenly, it plunged its little gray head into the fountain pool, and threw a spray of tiny drops over its striped brown back. In a flash of satisfaction, it flew away.
I put down my coffee, turned the envelope over, and pulled the flap open. There was a book inside, but no note. I fanned the pages, but found nothing. I laid the back of the book on my lap, retrieved my reading glasses from the table beside me, and searched the cover for the author’s name. Kate McCord. Her face appeared immediately, then her voice, floating a fragment of song through the guesthouse rooms. I smiled.
The book’s title, though, troubled me. “Why God Calls us to Dangerous Places.” Inelegant, I thought, but apropos. A flock of stories crowded around me. Wars and rumors of wars. Disease. Hunger. Refugees and soldiers. In the middle of each story, a tender face. Amy, her husband, and three beautiful boys. The Dutch family, Lars, Noa, and their children. An American Southern gentleman who remembered Sarajevo far too well.
I shuddered. This was the traffic of my life, the guests to whom I offered respite, beauty, and a few hours of peace. I prepared their rooms, fed them well, and held their stories with as much gentleness and strength as I could muster, careful to set them down on the side board before I retreated into the solitude of my rooms.
I remembered Kate’s story, or really, a succession of stories. The first time she visited; four days. Silent the first. Absent the second. Then the third and fourth, full of conversation and song fragments. Her last visit, sallow skinned, dark eyed, and clearly exhausted. She slept on the veranda for two days, then mustered the strength to travel back to the States.
Until a kind hope stirs
I held her book in my hands and wondered what answers she’d found and if they were enough to help her make sense of the losses that had so clearly haunted her journey. I hoped she had. Still, I wondered what such a book might say to me.
I definitely haven’t moved to a dangerous place. Malta, sitting in the middle of the Mediterranean, is lovely from one end to the other. Sometimes a little too hot, and often, things don’t work the way they’re meant to, but lovely. I may be on a quest, but I certainly don’t have the kind of recognizable antagonist so necessary for any hero’s journey. Suddenly, I resented the weight of the book in my hands.
Against our resistance
I dropped it on the table, and startled at the snap of binding against glass. It was nearly time to enter my day and already, I was engulfed in the presence of weary guests. I wasn’t ready.
I leaned back in my chair, sipped my coffee, and stared out the window at the garden beyond. Three fat little warblers perched on the edge of the shallow fountain. One looked straight at me as if to ask a question. “Can you receive the gift I have for you?”
I closed my eyes and let my head fall against the soft wicker. Cardamom, I think. Cumin. The warm smell of turmeric. I smiled, recalling the scent of spices Kate brought into my kitchen on one of her visits. “We all eat the same bread,” as she scooped spiced rice into a bowl for me to taste. I added her recipe to our menu, much to the delight of many of our guests.
“God’s gifts come to us in strange, unexpected places.” What was the story? I remembered. The loss of a precious friend, not through death, like my husband, but simply through the end of another’s journey. Still, I thought of my husband. The shock of waking up beside him, the shell of him, empty, cold. The dark months that followed. The slow awakening, and then, a new journey. Malta, the guesthouse. Guests from all over the world.
Jack would’ve hated it, but I imagined him smiling. I finally had a full house. I’d found a purpose, and in it, joy. Yes, gifts come in some very unexpected places. Through that heartbreaking year, I’d found God. I never blamed him for Jack’s death, and at the time, couldn’t see him in it. Later, when I caught my breath and found the strength to look back, I could see him there.
I looked at the book and wondered, had Kate found her own gifts? Had she unwrapped them with words and images? Was that what she was sharing with me?
I picked up the book off the table beside me and flipped through the first pages. Handwritten script caught my eye. “Dear Helen. God is present in all our stories. I hope you see him in mine.” Signed, “Kate McCord.”
I smiled, inhaled the scent of printed paper and binding glue. A book is a wonderful thing. Yes, God is present in all our stories. I knew I look for him in the pages of Kate’s book.