Viral Days

On Hugging

What we lose when we can’t get close to the ones we love

By Chloe Shaw | January 15, 2022
Dr. Matthias Ripp/Flickr
Dr. Matthias Ripp/Flickr

Remember hugging? Remember when it didn’t take risk (only love) to step toward a fellow human and hold on? Remember how different it feels to hug your mother, your father, your friend, your friend’s husband, your child, your dog? Inside the horseshoe of your outstretched arms, a whole herd of—wait, what is a group of humans called again? It’s a murder of crows, a pride of lions—oh, yes, it’s a possibility of humans, I think. At least it should be.

I don’t know about you, but I hold in my head a list of good huggers and bad huggers. We all have those people in our lives we hug and those we don’t—both because of personal preferences and societal norms. And certainly, over these past 18 months, because of Covid. We hug our close friends, but not our doctors—not usually, anyway. My friend Danielle hugged her husband Chris’s doctor (pre-pandemic) when he informed her about new options to treat Chris’s incurable blood cancer. “I’m going to hug you right now,” she announced before swooping in. We hug our children, but not their teachers—not usually, anyway. My daughter’s teacher recently asked if she could hug me after learning that my beloved father-in-law had died. (This before the advent of the omicron variant.) We wrapped our arms around each other and I cried.

Pre-Covid, we were already on our way to a more humane hugging plan. Just like we’re getting better at not asking people to smile when they don’t want to, many of us have learned to ask before hugging, Can I give you a hug? When my son was in fourth grade, his class used to line up at the door and his teacher would ask each child upon exiting, “handshake, fist bump, or hug?” She recognized that not all children want to be hugged. I can think of plenty of adult friends who are the same. In the age of #MeToo, hugs have become treacherous. We don’t just give them out the way we used to—and we don’t ask for them either. In the best-case scenarios, we offer them. And in the best-case scenarios, whatever the answer is, is okay. I remember watching my at-the-time three-year-old daughter barrel toward a favorite day-camp counselor only to watch his arms fly up in the air when she made contact so we could all see where his hands were. “Can I hug you?” my husband asks me when I’m sad. If I’m trying to hold it together, I say, “Absolutely not,” because hugs undo me. Kindness. Love. They break through the armor that I sometimes need to get through a day. Hugs bring my heart toward another’s heart, either briefly or for a long while—an acknowledgment of this shared echoey experience: existence.

During Covid, I have hugged: my husband, my children, my parents (during those few summer months when the numbers were down, we merged bubbles), occasionally a trusted friend. That’s all. Oh, and my dogs. My dogs have learned to bow their heads and settle in against my chest and not pull away until I’m done. Dogs: wolves ever adjusting to humans. I don’t know what they make of masks, except that perhaps our breath smells slightly, disappointingly muted. Why pandemic dogs? Because you can hug them. I’ve even remained connected with those many friends I’ve seen but not hugged by hugging their dogs. I hug their dogs and watch as it runs bright red neon all the way up through the leash.

Late in 2020, we were planning a reunion with our friends Randy and Todd whom we hadn’t seen in 10 years. “We won’t touch any humans!” Randy wrote before arriving. “As long as we can still hug dogs!!”

When they arrived, I wanted to hug them until our hearts broke all over and built back up again.

But we couldn’t.

Instead of hugging, we built a fire in the back yard and circled around and let the smoke soak into our hair.

Instead of hugging, I take baths. Really, really hot ones. Almost every morning. But don’t tell my mom. She’s funny about baths. “Oh, they’re my worst nightmare!” she told me the other day. “Just sitting there marinating in your own body grime!? Yuck!” My mom is funny. When I feel at my limit of marinating in my own body grime, I—Mom, look away—go all the way under, holding my nose like I used to do as a child, learning how to hold my breath, and so, remembering how to breathe. It’s not that we’ve failed our mothers, you see. We’ve become ourselves.

Instead of hugging, I write in shorter sentences, think in shorter thoughts, sleep in shorter increments. Not hugging makes me tired. Inertia.

Instead of hugging, I opt for no underwear under my leggings because underwear means more laundry, and, anyway, aren’t leggings just really, really, really long underwear? (I eat meals off the cutting board standing in the kitchen for a similar reason: a plate means more dishes.)

Instead of hugging, I watch videos of Zephyr the wolf at the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, Connecticut, howl like Aretha Franklin.

Instead of hugging, I stand in the shower before figuring out dinner. I have come to need water for transitions. Amniotic sac. Birth. Here I am! Again.

Instead of hugging, I have not learned how to make sourdough bread, but I’ve learned how to give up coffee. (Why!?)

Instead of hugging, I write while inside the hoods of my hooded sweatshirts because it makes me invisible and if you can’t hug, what is there to see anyway?

Instead of hugging, I feed the dogs their Dasuquin so that I can hug their bones even harder.

Instead of hugging, I linger on an ad for “the easiest to put on shoes.”

Instead of hugging, I let my children stay on virtual playdates long past when I would normally cut the screen, silently waiting for the other parents to make that call—if they ever do—because instead of hugging, the children are laughing.

Instead of hugging, I breathe into my dog’s breath, pretending I’m his mother, pretending I’m a dog, the way Charles Martin Smith pretends he’s a wolf in the film Never Cry Wolf.

Instead of hugging, I watch the Christmas wreath in March (yes, we leave it up that long) for finches making nests. Last spring, there were two nests, five eggs each. Over the past few years, we’ve housed 20 baby finches out there. We’ve seen it all up-close: nest-building, egg-laying, egg-hatching, growth, fledging, goodbye.

Instead of hugging, I assume a child’s pose at dinner, which we now eat at the living room coffee table.

Instead of hugging, I have napped in my tween son’s bed when he’s at school because some days it feels as close to a hug from him as I’m going to get.

Instead of hugging, I wonder about things like this: Can you faint lying down? Might baby goats be good therapists? Is crying every day okay? How much is too much crying? How much is not enough? Who tells you these things? Who knows?

Instead of hugging, I get to know our resident stinkbugs better—by personality, name, favorite ceiling nook.

Instead of hugging, I smell my dogs’ heads to move through the grief of all the animals I’ve loved and lost. Just the other night my eight-year-old daughter saw a picture of her with our late dog, Booker, and burst into tears, saying, “I know him when I see him, but I just can’t remember him.”

Instead of hugging, we’ve been walking. Instead of using our arms to connect to something vital, we use our legs. Earth. We’ve been walking with friends and we’ve been walking just us four. We’ve been walking with dogs. Of course we have. Dogs invented walking.

On my last “normal” day, March 9th, 2020, I dropped my kids off at school and took my 15-year-old cat, Tito, to be euthanized. I didn’t tell the kids what I was going to do after their cheery drop-off. I would wait for pickup, when we could head home and be in this as a family together. We were sad, but so quickly swept up in the shift to quarantining, masks, and remote learning that we barely had time to mourn. Then I accidentally burned the clay paw print that unexpectedly came home with Tito’s ashes. Then I blinded myself with eyedrops: hugs for eyes.

Last spring, I went for a distanced walk with a friend who has spent much of the pandemic inside her tight little family of four and her daily Zoom professorial meetings and lectures. By the time we’d returned to our cars, we’d both been crying—about the loss, the loneliness, the erratic, unpredictable behavior of our kids. I looked at her as we remained six feet apart and said, “Do you think we can do that quick look-away hug?” Before she said yes, though, I was already closing in. I rubbed her back for a few seconds, my cheek on her shoulder, staring into the woods at the Porta Potty. Porta Potties: bathroom hugs away from home.

Remember hugging? Walking through the sealed air toward your mother or brother or friend or like a rafter of wild turkeys through a back-yard picnic toward the next hug and the next and the next?

Remember pants? I walked into the kitchen yesterday morning and my daughter shouted, “Mom, you’re so fancy today!” I looked down and realized that I’d slipped on jeans instead of leggings for the first time in months. (Years?) It felt like I was walking around in the empty cardboard delivery boxes that line our garage. Though to her, I looked like a queen.

Remember hugging? Remember what it took to step toward a fellow human and become cephalopods together?

One spectacular February afternoon, my kids masked and distanced in-person at their school, my husband tucked away behind a door, conducting tele-psychoanalytic sessions, I found myself in an unusual pandemic family state: alone. Due to the unpredictable nature of the pandemic clock, on top of the unpredictable nature of the mom clock—a positive test result, a malfunctioning Zoom classroom, a child’s sudden, desperate, animal desire for snacks—the state of alone these days, like everything else, is different. Whenever I’m alone, I’m still in sprinter-start pose. Always ready. Always available. Is that even alone?

But this one afternoon, I felt it. I had two hours until I had to pick up the kids. The sun on the snow was scorching and brilliant. As always, I had a million little tasks to take care of. The line that runs through my head often as I walk through our house these days is: I clean, therefore I am. But what if I didn’t? What if I stopped? What if I laced up my winter boots and walked outside instead? I know. Rebel.

Reader, I did it.

A few years after moving into our house, we discovered a brook not a quarter of a mile into the woods behind us. It winds around the trees, splits off into different branches, not often more than about eight inches deep. Over the years since the discovery, we have found animal bones, car parts, bobcat tracks, and freedom. We can still see our neighbors’ houses from that stretch of woods, but it feels as remote as anything I’ve known. It feels like a place, as Raymond Carver writes in his poem “The Best Time of the Day,” “where no one can reach us now, or ever.” Until we found it, I only knew that place to exist while falling in love and within the brown dusk of my dogs’ eyes.

Our visits to the brook picked up once the pandemic set in. As with just about anything during this eternal homebound stretch, my kids used to balk at the idea of walking down there. But once we get going, once we can hear our feet on the leaves or snow, once we can hear the trickling brook and my kids can poke at it with the sticks they picked up along the way, the excursion always feels worth it, even to them. Because, in the end, in the great, wide open, what you find is you.

But I’d never been there alone. With 45 years of anxiety and triple that in episodes of the My Favorite Murder podcast under my belt, I’ve always been scared of the woods. The woods are where humans and animals become the most feral versions of themselves. Right? To walk in the woods is volunteering to get eaten. But down at the brook that day, alone, I saw the frozen water littered with the snowballs my children had tossed the day before, making it look like the dappled, gray surface of the moon. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t feral. I wasn’t eaten. I was home.

Remember hugging? Will we all be awkward huggers when this is over, or will even the least likely hugger now come barreling out of this bodily solitude like a lost dog found?

Last winter, we had a back-yard Valentine’s Day celebration with Danielle and Chris and their twin girls, who go back to preschool with my son. Our kids don’t remember life without each other. I’m not sure we adults do, either. We had a fire, huddled as close as our masks would allow, and exchanged cards. The twins made one with hugging instructions inside for us to consult when we’re ready to hug again: “How to Hug: You may have forgotten by now … 1. Stretch arms out. Streeeetch. 2. Embrace your partner. 3. Repeat. (Just in case you have forgotten.)”

All they left out was step 4: Don’t let go.

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