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How I got over my fear of touching and learned to love the hug again

Author: Editors Desk Source: The Washington Post
August 30, 2023 at 14:45
(Loveis Wise for The Washington Post)
(Loveis Wise for The Washington Post)
The post-covid return of the hug is an utter delight, and for me, there’s no going back.

Ross Gay, a poet and essayist, is the author of “The Book of Delights” and its forthcoming sequel, “The Book of (More) Delights,” from which this essay is adapted.

I am probably what you’d call a game, or even enthusiastic, hugger, and so the year-or-so-long prohibition on the act, for those of us who went along with those recommendations: bummer. (A bit of angelic, defiant, punk-rock graffiti that arrived in our neighborhood sometime in spring 2020, advice I was still too terrified to take, though I was glad to know it was out there: HUG YOUR FRIENDS.)

I recall the first time I hugged someone not my partner in the interim — I guess not my partner or mother or a friend who was feeling suicidal for a little while, go figure, and showed up on our porch in obvious and dire need of a hug — was in the co-op, and when we hugged, well, let’s just say my body noticed it.

And then a week or two later, during an official though short-lived reprieve from the previous year-or-so-long moratorium on hugging — before they realized not everyone was following orders and getting their shots, after which revelation the hugging had to slow down, or be only among an in-group; it was kind of like pre-Loving v. Virginia that way, hugging the wrong person would doom the race — I saw another friend, who seemed to have spent the previous year terrified, more frightened, or maybe differently frightened than me, but she had recently been protected and purified, and so, when she asked if I was hugging, I opened my arms and said, yup.

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And when we embraced, she leaned her face against my chest, and we melted into one another. Also outside the co-op. If I were to place pins on a map of my first post-moratorium hugs, most of them would be outside the co-op. Which, for me at least, recommends the place.

Anyhow, the return of the hug for that brief spell, the reprieve from unhugging, was a delight. And the next reprieve from unhugging will be a delight as well — this is an example of the deprivation of the delight making the delight light harder. I mean brighter.

I suspect that after the next prohibition on hugs, and the lifting of the prohibition, the hugs will again be that much more delightful. Though, I’ve made up my mind, I’m with that punk-rock graffiti: I’ve been terrified away from touching the people I love for the last time. As William Carlos Williams almost says about poetry, which I’d say is also a kind of touch: We “die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”

All that said, I was recently in the co-op picking up a few odds and ends for dinner, and a dude with longish hair and flip-flops and a relaxed manner came up to me and held out his arms as though to hug, and when I looked puzzled, like I don’t know if I know you, he reminded me he was the former principal of a school I’ve worked with, a great principal who told me at least two things that really stuck: Children whose teachers believe they are going to graduate will graduate; and he eats magic mushrooms every New Year. That’s the principal I want.

I went yo, or hey, or something to express my happiness, which was genuine, and deep, for dude kinda changed my life — the shrooms thing less than the believing in kids thing — and then he said I want to give you a good, meaningful hug, something like that — hippy-ish, men’s-groupish, untoxic masculinity-ly. And he did.

It was so meaningful, his head kind of tucked into my chest, his hands on my lower and upper back, a gapless torso to torso, several long breaths worth of hug, enough hug in fact that I thought, first, Damn, that’s a lot of hug — remember, I’m not shy this way — and second, when he wasn’t letting go, I thought, Well, I guess this is what we’re doing in the avocados and onions and potatoes.

And I kind of dug in, I relaxed into it, several more long breaths of hug, after which we had a brief but very eye-contacty conversation, still two-thirds, maybe three-quarters, arm in arm, and I remembered why I loved this dude.

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