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The Art of Receiving

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During a visit to Paris, my mother bought me a gift and dropped it in the mail. I didn’t receive it very well. I tore away the brown paper packaging and, at the first sign of pink, let the package fall to the floor. She had sent me a gray cotton scarf with pink flowers. Pink.

When I told my friend Inge about the present, she squinted at me and curled her lips. “Doesn’t she know you don’t wear pink?”

Inge is a seventy-year-old artist from Europe, tall and long-fingered, practical, and willowy. She usually dresses in black and white, or the occasional beige. I met her only a year ago, but she seemed to know something about me that my mother didn’t.

In Inge’s gray, granite kitchen, waiting for tea water to boil, we discussed possible responses to the scarf, including accepting it with false appreciation, accepting it but not speaking much about it or returning it so my mother might learn my taste. As we spoke, I felt, in turn, disappointment, indignation, anger, and loneliness.

Inge sympathized. “I’m a terrible receiver,” she said, passing me a bowl of organic cacao beans. “The chances that someone’s going to give me something I want or need are just too slim, and I don’t like feeling trapped between the obligatory ‘Thank you’ and the instinctive ‘Take it back.’ So I just told people to stop giving me things, even on holidays.”

I carried the bowl onto the sun-warmed patio, and placed it on her picnic table—white aluminum covered with an old kilim rug that provided a red-and-brown backdrop to a plate of homemade frosted sugar cookies, a bowl of Turkish candy, nut bread and oversized cream-colored porcelain teacups. Inge followed me out and stared at the table, wondering where to place the teapot in the crowd of offerings. “I might be a terrible receiver, but I’m a pretty good giver,” she said, voicing my thoughts.

Giving and receiving are fundamental aspects of experience, connecting all life in an interdependent whole. Just as many of us long to experience moments of pure altruism, when we offer our hearts with no strings attached, we also long to receive deeply and freely, fully experiencing what it means to be given to—touched, nourished, and even transformed by life.


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