E is for Embrace
Updated: Jul 24
2020-21 has been a year in which embraces have become Events fraught with contrasting emotions. Forbidden to the point of illegality, the value of each embrace was elevated to becoming something memorable: dangerous and filled with a silent “what if” even as the warmth of another body brought the feelings of safety and comfort that we all craved. Embraces started to need consideration: we hesitated to put ourselves forward for them, and stumbled awkwardly through new processes of asking for mutual consent before they could be carried out.
A warm embrace does something to your brain. I’m sure that if I looked into the science, I’d find evidence that during a hug, I am taken off 'high-alert' and made to understand that on some level at least, I am ok. Air hugs, and saying the word, "hugs", while conveying the intention, have been simply no substitute. To be necessarily deprived of this physical reassurance translated for so many of us into a continual fear that at times reached bewilderment and even terror.
Seeing people begin to embrace again has filled me with relief. This was a part of the ‘old normal’ that I loved - and yet I am simultaneously aware of the risks. Will we ever be able to hug again without the memory of trepidation, I wonder.
The Last Hug I wasn’t conscious of
The hug that transitioned me into this new era was with a colleague. I was working in the kind of school where hugging was a standard greeting for anyone you hadn’t seen in a while, or were grateful to, or happened to feel affection for - or for when you needed a pick-me-up after a difficult morning. I don’t remember what it was that she had done for me, but I was full of gratitude, and flung my arms around her body with my face over her shoulder, exclaiming, “Thank you so much!”
There was a fraction of a hesitation in the way she returned the hug that usually came so freely. In that half a second, I realised, “I shouldn’t have done that. What if I have the coronavirus everyone’s been talking about? I should have asked her permission.” And simultaneously I was hit with the understanding that what had been so frequent, instinctive and free was about to become rare; more thought through; more conscious; like one who’s taken rain for granted for so long heading into a drought. In that moment, fear and grief flooded my system. It was coming.
The Cautious Hug of Parents
After two weeks of self-isolating, I made my way in my purpose-bought car to my parents’ house; my first time of seeing them in months. Self-isolating does a funny thing to the physical space around your body. It feels impenetrable somehow, the air dense. Your skin starts to feel like hydrostatic fabric, impermeable; your physicality unreachable; other people cannot touch you - it is as if you are allergic to each other.
Into this space came my parents, breaking the bubble of impermeability, marking the beginning of a holiday. Despite my precautions, I couldn’t help the thought, “Please may I not kill them by doing this” - which met the overriding logic,
“You know you’ve been careful. It will be fine.”
“But what if…?”
“Just put the kettle on!”
It was neither the first nor the last silent argument I had with myself over an embrace that year.
The Secret Hug of a Colleague
"Oh my dear!" She proffered her arms.
“Please, thank you, yes!” I gasped, and was immediately enfolded into her garments.
I left my job in the school in February 2021. They gave me a party full of balloons and packets of crisps and wrapped chocolates and 5 people spread two metres apart seated around the edges of a classroom, while the rest of the staff were “present” on Zoom. Ordinarily, we’d be in a large circle around the hall taking turns to give speeches for and about each other with a hundred hugs and tears. But this was going to be a non-contact goodbye: I readied myself.
That Zoom session was filled with tenderness. And yet despite all the kind words, my insides were tight, full of all the emotion that could not be expressed through my body. Later, packing up the last of my belongings, I found myself two metres from one of the hijabi teaching assistants, who was looking at me with all the warmth of one who’d gone through the struggle and intensity of class teaching together with me, just a few years before.
She hugged me tight, my face buried into her hijab. That day, and my career in that place, would not have been complete without it. Finally, after nearly seven years, it was all over. Now I could leave the school filled with peace.
The Enfolding Hug of Friends
“Look. If you want an easy life, you’ll follow my advice…”, I’d been told by the one who’s life oozed chaos.
Now I was on a farm having a moment of fury and frustration. Everything was not as it should have been. We were being treated unfairly, I felt, and if they weren’t going to say it then I would.
And then I’d said it. I’d stood up for myself. The anger was fading away and a sense of fragility was creeping into the space that it had filled.
“Can I have a hug?” I asked a fellow volunteer. We were in a ‘bubble’ anyway, yet I was aware of what felt like the magnitude of my request.
“Of course!” And scooped me up in his arms, holding me tight.
Then unexpectedly, all my uncertainties were swept away as suddenly from behind I was squashed by the other volunteer coming to join the fray. And there I was, completely held in a ridiculous, furious, hilarious group hug, feeling fully safe and made whole by the kind warmth of these two wonderful people. In that moment, all the months of untouchability wore away. I was engulfed and made right, right in the middle there.
I love that the word, ‘embrace’, while appropriately used as a synonym for ‘hug’ is not limited to human contact, but applies more broadly. You can embrace life, for example, embrace existence, embrace the world. Volunteering on farms, for me, has been a practise of all these kinds of embrace. I have thrown myself into the metaphorical arms of life, not holding back. It has been physical: I have put my body in new places where I have touched earth and sheep and shit and puppies and plastic. I have put my muscles to work.
This embrace, like any, has included both giving and receiving. I have opened myself up to disappointment and criticism, learning again as a beginner, and receiving in exchange the rewards of my work: eating the food I have grown and cared for. I have not always known where the receiving would come from: a can of cold cider thrown from a van on a hot day; a camp out with music organised where two rivers meet; a surprise tea party in a truck after hedge-planting.
And when the grass finally dries out enough to lie down in the sun, I know I will discover that just as I thought I was embracing the world, I am in fact the one being embraced constantly, day by day, even by the earth herself.