Guests, sentient and Otherwise
The next three stanzas offer advice on how to welcome visitors who have traveled a distance. It can apply to any visitor who is tired, distressed or otherwise out-of-sorts.
Greetings to the host,
The guest has arrived,
In which seat shall he sit?
Rash is he who at unknown doors
Relies on his good luck,
Fire is needed by the newcomer
Whose knees are frozen numb;
Meat and clean linen a man needs
Who has fared across the fells,
Water, too, that he may wash before eating,
Handcloths and a hearty welcome,
Courteous words, then courteous silence
That he may tell his tale
Old Jim was the family patriarch. I remember an incident from a large family dinner that was my first inkling insofar as today’s verses. A hobo had come by the house. Jim was a retired railroad man. Now, the old movies might make you think the railroaders were at odds with hobos. Actually, they had a cordial understanding between them. The only ones who treated hobos harshly were the railroad police, known as “bulls.”
Jim allowed the hobo to use a spare bathroom to wash up. The man was invited to stay for dinner. He sat at a separate table. Afterward, Jim gave the hobo a change of clothes and a few dollars. Our guest then went on his way. This had to be between 1959 and 1962.
I had many occasions to apply the lessons in these stanzas when I was counseling alcoholics and addicts. The wisdom behind the Havamal’s verses addresses some very urgent human needs. When I worked in a rehab, the idea was to let them clean up, feed them and give them a place to sleep. Usually, they felt like talking afterwards.
Back in the early 90s, I had a subscription exchange going with the Heathen editor of a newsletter from New Orleans. Over a period of months, his communications became strange. I discovered he had been deeply disturbed by the end of his marriage, among other things. There were other odd messages and then he went silent.
About two weeks later, we received a phone call that our friend had made it all the way to Staten Island. Audrey and I went to pick him up. We met him at the odd end of the Island. There were two surprises. First, he had hitchhiked all the way here from Louisiana. Second, he was nutty as a fruitcake and hovering on the edged of delusion.
Audrey looked at me quizzically, having no idea what to do. I knew. And it amazed Audrey how quickly I fell into the routine. We brought him to our apartment and let him clean up. Meanwhile, we put together some food and some clean clothing. Once fed, cleaned and clothed, his demeanor changed. It helped when we assured him he could spend the night at our place. It relieved him of a burden. He was still hovering on the edge of delusion and needed help on that account.
To make a long story short, I did not want to send him to the New York mental health system. Thankfully I had the knowledge and experience necessary to get him to the point I could send him to his relatives. Family is the better choice here. The thing that made it possible was what I did within his first hour of arriving at our home. That opened the door.
Three things are important to most folks: food, hygiene and appearance. People like to feel that they look presentable. People function best when they are fed. It also helps when they know they have a place to feel safe for the next day. Never underestimate the power of presentability, cleanliness and a full belly. Providing these things can make a road-weary person feel like he re-entered the human race.
The conversation that follows is your proof that it succeeded. When people get that feel of comfort, they naturally want to converse about themselves. In effect, they are letting you know that they feel as if they have regained respectability that was lost in the mess and dust of travel.
Folks can quote those Havamal verses up and down. I have my proof in many cases where folks came from out of the cold back to humanity.
Be advised that you cannot bring everyone into your own home. The safety of your family and pets comes first. You may have to refer folks to shelters, detoxes or other temporary lodging. I trust that you know your own situation and can make that decision. Yet even shelters and detoxes follow that same process of feeding them, cleaning them and giving them that footbridge back to humanity.