re·cep·ti·bil·i·ty n. the quality or state of being receptible.
re·cep·ti·ble adj. [LL. recptibilis < L. receptus, pp. of recipere] able to receive or be received.
re·ceive v.t. 1. To take into one’s possession (something given, offered, sent, etc.); get; accept; acquire 2. To encounter; experience: as, she received much acclaim. 3. To undergo; submit to; suffer; have inflicted on one: as, h ereceived punishment. 4. To bear; take the effect or force of: as, all four wheels receive the weight equally. 5. To take from another by hearing or listening: as, his confession was received by the priest. 6. To apprehend mentally; get knowledge of or information about; learn: as, they received the news. 7. To accept mentally as authentic, valid, etc. 8. a) to let enter; admit; hence, b) to have room for; hold; contain: as a cistern receives rain water. 9. To give admittance to or greet (visitors, guests, etc). v.i. 1. To get, accept, take, or acquire something; be a recipient. 2. To receiveguests or visitors; be a host. 3. In radio & television, to convert incoming electromagnetic waves into sound or light, thus reproducing the sounds or images being transmitted. 4. In religious usage, to receive the Eucharist. 5. in tennis, etc., to return or prepare to return, a served ball; be the striker.
On My Mess or Life Refuses Containment
I have a confession. Every now and then when I’m at the drugstore or the supermarket, I pick up the magazine Real Simple. Pretty much everything about that magazine appeals to me. Its clean simple font, its crisp lines, its excess white space. The title indicates what the magazine promises: how to make your life not just simple but real simple. The cover guarantees ingenious organization techniques you’ve never heard of before, how to do more with less, how to add color and light and beauty to your home. Really, it is the same exact magazine each month with slightly altered material.
I buy it and I read it, but the magazine never satiates me. On occasion, reading it when I am in a mental or physical space of disorder actually has the complete adverse reaction of what I want: I feel like even more of a mess when I finish reading than when I start. I look at the smiling ecstatic faces of the “after” homeowners (who own their home, unlike renting me) beaming after the clutter experts have come in to declutter their homes and with every fiber of my being I feel this thought: my mess is unredeemable. Read: my life is utter chaos.
Most often, however, I close the last page and feel absolutely nothing. Or perhaps nothing twinged with slight disappointment but not an unexpected disappointment. I have come to this magazine for answers on how to fix my life and the answers are not in this magazine. The only one who has the answers: me. And not all at once, not right now. Over time, the answers are delivered and sometimes the time frame feels achingly slow.
Author and social work researcher Brené Brown said in her TED talk on vulnerability that she comes from the social work community, a school of people who say, “Life’s messy: deal with it.” Whereas, her way of being for most of her life was more: “Life’s messy: clean it up, organize it, and put it into a bento box.” “But,” she says, “it doesn’t work.” Any attempt we make to impose structure on our lives fails before we begin because life is not predictable, life is not organizable, life is not neat. Life spills over and out of the containers we have so carefully made for it. Life refuses to contain itself in the parameters we have set.
Last week, in a moment of desperation, I called out to facebook friends for advice when I was in the midst of trying to clear space and get rid of stuff in my house. I was sitting on the floor of my living room surrounded by stacks of paper and files and books and all kinds of other ephemera and, overwhelmed by the barricade of stuff surrounding me, I found myself wanting to pour a glass of wine and watch Netflix for hours instead. The responses were ones of solidarity and suggestion. People offered their own struggles or ideas of what works for them. And I was very grateful for everyone’s input. But one particular piece of advice, offered by several people, was unexpected to me and jolted me back to my intentions. Several friends suggested I scan old notes and photos so I could keep them in digital form and let the physical copies go.
While I’m sure this works for many folks, this mere thought raised my degree of anxiety and panic. My goal is to become less attached to these things instead of changing my form of attachment. Even in digital form, these objects and items would continue to fill my psychic space. I don’t want them to change material form. I want to let them go.
I want them to go because I feel like there is only so much I can contain internally at one time, although I am constantly working on growing more space. There are more experiences to be had, more words waiting to enter, but if I hold too tightly to the ones that have led me here, there is no room for the new to rush in.
When I lived in San Francisco, I worked for a nonprofit agency serving low-income and homeless citizens. There was a woman who came to our dining room who was working with someone from our agency to clear her home. Deidre had fallen off a bunk bed when she was a young girl, which resulted in a traumatic brain injury and one of the repercussions of that injury was her impulse to hoard. She couldn’t bathe because her bathtub was full: of clothes, old recipes, newspaper clippings, canned goods, books, old correspondence. Magazines and newspapers were stacked up so that she had very narrow pathways through which to navigate her small apartment. This coworker Ben befriended her and gained her trust and slowly she began to allow him to take things out of her apartment. At some point though, the process stalled. She stopped returning his calls. Letting go was too threatening.
My Maw Maw was Cajun and lived through the depression. She and my Paw Paw ran a general store. He died first and when she died, our family found enough stuff inside their home to start up another store. There were stacks of tube socks in cabinets, dozens of canisters of shoe polish and boot leather stuffed in drawers. There were knick-knacks and glasses and cleaning products and pajamas. She had Alzheimer’s for the last ten years of her life, but it was clear that this process started much before. She needed these things, just in case.
While these are extreme examples in comparison to my own desire for order and inability to clear away, I think they reveal something about our humanness. Our compulsion to hold onto objects reveals our desire to concretize life. If only we have these things, we think, we will be protected, okay, safe from death. If we take all the right steps, maybe that will ensure our security. If we can control what we have, we can control who we are. If we can control who we are, we can control whether or not we get our heart broken, we can control whether or not our body is injured, we can control our own death.
In an episode of The Golden Girls, Sophia becomes addicted to shopping at bulk store Shopper’s Warehouse. She buys 10,000 toothbrushes. “Half blue, half pink,” she says to her daughter Dorothy. “So you and your brother won’t have to fight over your inheritance.” At one point, she says to Dorothy, “Say you have ten cases of sardines—” Dorothy interrupts saying, “This better be hypothetical.” Following the revelation of the situation’s reality, Dorothy becomes infuriated and asks her mother why she would do that. Sophia says, “It makes me feel immortal. You think: God wouldn’t make me waste good sardines. He’ll wait until I’m done with them to let me die.”
We have seen time and time again that what we possess has no bearing on what choices or challenges life will bring us. Appliances break down, cameras are stolen, computers crash, photographs burn, old letters are flooded underwater. Even our bodies, the vessels that carry us through life, betray us. Muscles tear from bone, vessels burst, bones break.
I think less important than the things of life themselves is our ability to receive them and let go of them with a degree of understanding that these things do not ultimately matter. One of the great lessons of my life in relation to this was when my childhood home flooded during Hurricane Katrina. Was it awful, seeing so many of my family’s memories underwater? Do I wish had my childhood journals to look back and see who I was at thirteen and what I thought was important during my study abroad days when I was twenty? Of course it was. Of course I do. But the fact that my parents were able to rebuild their lives and that we have lived without these things that made up our lives for so long reveals to me that what is most important about life is retained inside of us. If we have connections with the people in our lives, we can rebuild the collection of our memories together. And these moments of connectivity allow for even more memories to be made.
What if we were to let go of our old definitions of order? What if we were to care less about attainment and containment? Would this make room for us to better receive the words of the loved one sitting across from us? Might we learn better how to be in touch with the sensations in our own skin?
In her Letter in the Mail for The Rumpus, Lidia Yuknavitch wrote about hands and death and dying. She wrote, “Well here’s the deal. We die all the time. I think maybe we are supposed to. I think when you let yourself fall all the way into art that moves you, for example, you experience a little death, and yes I know the other meaning of the phrase ‘little death’ so it just makes even more sense. Maybe if we stopped being scared to talk about dead things and hands we could get somewhere beyond the nonsense and violence of cultural poisons–capitalism and the cult of good citizenship and car ownership and house ownership and fame and money and image culture and rape culture and kill the planet culture and conquer culture and erase the indigenous and ‘insert your poison here.'”
I love that she says nonsense. I love that she says violence. Because these ways of being are both: violent and nonsensical. They take away from our own authority, and they drain us of what it really means to be fully and deeply alive, in all its messy and beautiful glory.
Is it possible in acknowledging our own mortality and our own vulnerability that we could truly see one another?
That we could allow ourselves to receive one another?
That we could allow ourselves—as we truly and fully are, without control or expectation—to be received?