Over the weekend, I read Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking, which (as her writer-husband Neil Gaiman put it) is part memoir of her life as an artist (from street performer to singer/songwriter) and part manifesto of her belief in the power of asking and all that it entails (giving, receiving, listening, seeing, gratitude). It was addicting.
Because the book was so rich with insight and experience, to write about it all in one post feels either too overwhelming or to simplifying. It would do the book (and Amanda) a disservice. So I am focusing on a sliver of the book here, and if I decide to write more posts on other portions, I will do so.
As a touring musician, Amanda has relied heavily on the generosity of her fans for anything from food before a show to a place to stay the night after one. Her descriptions of her couchsurfing experiences and her explanations for choosing them over staying in a hotel struck a chord in me– I have relied on the generosity of complete strangers to house and even feed me during my travels, and I love how much trust can grow when given the opportunity. There is nothing like sleeping in someone else’s house to make you aware of both the differences between you and others and of all that connect you at the same time.
Couchsurfing is about more than saving on hotel costs. It’s a gift exchange between the surfer and the host that offers an intimate gaze into somebody’s home, and the feeling of being held and comforted by their personal space. It’s also a reminder that we’re floating along due to a strong bond of trust, just like when I surf the crowd at a show, safely suspended on a sea of ever-changing hands. It can feel almost holy, looking at somebody else’s broken shower nozzle, smelling the smells of a real kitchen, feeling the fray of a real blanket and hearing the crackle of an old steam radiator.
In such an unfamiliar yet homey environment, the creative mind can find sources of inspiration that aren’t available in the well-known corners of one’s own home or even in the clean bareness of a hotel. I vividly remember the feel of the various bedrooms and living rooms I’ve stared out the windows of and how easily I could picture myself in new situations and in different lives, as if the change of scenery was not just the reason for a change of mood but also for a change of being. The empathic shift of perspective that couchsurfing invites can be drawn from long after the surfer leaves and can act as a much-needed catalyst for a formerly stale imagination.
Staying in your own home can be corrosive and stifling, especially for creative work. The surroundings can smother you with the baggage of your past and the History of You. Staying in a hotel can be a blissful blank slate. There’s no baggage, just an empty space onto which you can project anything. But staying in a stranger’s home can inspire like nothing else. You get to immerse yourself in the baggage of someone else’s past, and regard someone else’s mess of unsorted books piled up in the corner of the living room.
But aside from the fertile soil for creativity and relationship building that is couchsurfing, it also comes with plenty of awkwardness and uncomfortable moments, which Amanda touches on in a passage that made me laugh out loud with how true it is:
It’s not always all rainbows and unicorn bedsheets, though. Couches come with people who own couches. Sometimes people just aren’t good at the dance, and can’t tell when the performers need to stop socializing. In those awkward situations, you smile wearily, edge politely towards your toothbrush, and make the best of it, hoping the hint will be taken. I will hug you. I will love you. I will genuinely admire your kitchen cow collection. But when it is time, please let me go the fuck to sleep.
While my memories are almost entirely positive (or awkward), people often express hesitation and even fear when I bring up my couchsurfing experiences and intention to have more. Is that safe? What if something bad happens? They could steal from you or hurt you or rape you or something! And they’re always right– something bad could happen. I could get hurt or raped or stolen from. It’s never a guarantee that I nothing bad will happen ever, but especially when I trust someone during my most vulnerable moments, like sleeping on their couch and showering in their private bathroom. Yet, just like Amanda writes in her book, trust isn’t trust without the risk, without my choosing to trust while knowing that my choice could go one of two ways: well or terribly. And Amanda’s advice for when it goes terribly is perfect:
There’s an inherent, unspoken trust that happens when you walk through the door of your host’s home. Everybody implicitly trusts everybody else not to steal anything. We leave our phones, our wallets, our laptops, our journals, and our instruments lying scattered around our various mini-couchsurfing campsites. To my knowledge, I’ve never had anything go missing. I’m often asked: How can you trust people so much? Because that’s the only way it works.
When you openly, radically trust people, they not only take care of you, they become your allies, your family. Sometimes people will prove themselves untrustworthy. When that happens, the correct response is not: Fuck! I knew I couldn’t trust anybody! The correct response is: Some people just suck. Moving right along.
It also sometimes happens that the hosts have far less than the guest, and the discrepancy can be uncomfortable, if only because it doesn’t feel fair that the one with more should be relying on the one with less. But instead of guilt, which invalidates the host’s generosity and fails to acknowledge the profound gift that it is, Amanda writes about gratitude, which serves to humble the recipient and place the gift of generosity at the forefront of consciousness in such situations.
How is this fair? I thought. These people have so little. I’m being treated like royalty by a family living in poverty. It wasn’t guilt that I felt; that would have been an insult to their generosity. It was an overwhelming gratitude, more than I knew what to do with.
Of course, you get more than just graciousness when you couchsurf.
Things you get when you couchsurf that you don’t get in a hotel: The rattling sound of pots and silverware in the morning. Bathrooms with ratty, beloved mismatched towels. Leftover birthday cake. Dark hallways humid with the smells of baking. Looking at the weird shit people keep in their medicine cabinets. Cats to pat, who are at first standoffish then decide they love you at four a.m., when you’re finally asleep. Walls of Elvis plates. The recaptured feeling of having a sleepover party. Dodgy electric blankets. A chance to try on hats. Morning coffee in a wineglass for lack of enough cups. Children of all ages and temperaments who draw pictures for you. The ability to make your own toast. Record players. Wet grass in the backyard sunrise, where the chickens are roosting. Out-of-tune pianos and other strange instruments to fondle. Candles stuck to mantelpieces. The beautiful vision of strangers in their pajamas. Weird teas from around the world. Pinball machines. Pet spiders. Latches that don’t quite work. Glow-in-the-dark things on the ceiling. Late-night and early-morning stories about love, death, hardship, and heartbreak. The collision of life. Art for the blender. The dots connecting.
It’s hard to explain what compels me to continue to couchsurf after years of doing it, but it always boils down to connection and tightening the web of trust that is often invisible to those who haven’t experienced it. Amanda Palmer captures it brilliantly in The Art of Asking, which I would recommend reading for these reasons and more, wholeheartedly.