Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Confessions of a Hugger

For a thousand different reasons, I’ve been removed from the banquet schmooze circuit for quite some time. I recently attended an awards reception for a local women’s organization and was instantly glad that I’d changed my mind about bailing at the last minute. I had a chance to reconnect with past colleagues, introduce myself to future program partners and hug a long-lost mentor or two.

I’m back! I thought to myself. Time to re-insert myself into these worlds.

One of the faces I hadn’t seen in a few years belonged to a woman who runs a mentoring program for up-and-coming community organizers. I can’t say I know her particularly well, like we hadn’t “done lunch” or coffee or cocktails together, but we once had earnest ambitions of working together and it was good to see her after such a long time.

Our paths crossed, literally, as I was leaving the wine bar and she was moving toward the ballroom foyer. As we acknowledged and approached one another, I stepped in to greet her with a hug.

Big mistake.

As I cupped the back of her arms and leaned in to lightly brush our cheeks (the standard Social Hug for Professionals), I realized I was literally pulling her toward me. Her shoulders were stiff as planks and she waited a delayed moment to return a reluctant one-two back pat (the standard Stop Touching Me Hug for All Occasions)

With permission, I’m definitely the touchy-feely hugger-of-strangers type, but I’m not the brand of warm-and-fuzzy who assaults unwitting victims with my overflow of affection.

“I’m a hugger,” I typically warn, “is that okay?” I keep my distance, with one arm outstretched so the potential hug partner has the option of accepting my personal contact or just shaking my hand.

This time, unfortunately, it wasn’t until I’d already broken the barrier of her personal space that I realized I hadn’t afforded her the hand shake option. Pulling away, I felt her chest release a tiny, captured gasp of breath and noted a melting panic in her eyes. Only the outline of a frozen smile remained. I felt pretty badly.

Check that: I didn’t just feel badly, I felt a little creepy. Not delinquent staring-through-your-skin creepy, but more like the creepy great-aunt with too much hair pomade, too much volume, too much perfume, and too much eagerness to hug, pinch and smear bright lipstick on your cheek. Neither one of us mean any harm, but that doesn’t get the cherry bomb lip gloss from your forehead or the frozen smile from this colleague's face.

Returning to my table, I started to wonder why I’d garnered such a guarded reaction at all. Was I mistaken in thinking she liked me in the first place? Had I inadvertently done or said something to offend her or one of her colleagues over the past two years? Was I emitting an end-of-day funk? Did she find public displays and the people who commit them inappropriate? Was she a hardcore feminist stereotype who abhorred “soft” business women? Was she a wounded individual with profound intimacy issues?

Or maybe…

just maybe…

She didn’t like to hug people.

I’ll be honest, the last consideration didn’t occur to me for a few days. In an unrelated conversation with a close friend from college, part of the story she was telling me included the statement, “…and I don’t do hugs too much, anyway …”


With that, I chastised myself for searching out some brand of broken-ness to assign to my colleague. Who doesn’t like a safe, well-intended hug, I'd decided? It’s our nature, I know, to view our own outlooks and traditions and systems as premiere, if not “normal.” Of course, this is where judgment works itself into our lives. That night, I'd sipped on my wine trying to figure out what must be “wrong” for her not to want to hug me.

The nerve.

Of us all. I imagine it’s these same self-defined metrics that guide supervisors to mistakenly measure leadership in decibels rather than decision-making; for educators to assess students’ stability based on picket fences or neatly-packed lunches rather than even temperaments or openness; for lovers to calculate longevity on compliments paid rather than commitments kept. True, we’re inclined to see the world only with the eyes we’ve been given. Still, there are other panoramas to embrace and I appreciate being reminded of that.

Otherwise, there might be a poster hanging in your local post office about a Serial Hugger skulking through a neighborhood near you.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009


I teach at a writing camp for middle school students in the summer. Boys. Girls. Black. White. City. Outskirts. Comfortable. Underserved. All enamored with the sparks of magic between their pens and lined paper.

For the past three summers, Samantha has been one of the half dozen perennial students in the class. My first year, Sam’s name was one that I never forgot. Partly, because I’ve always thought boys’ names on girls was super cool. Mostly, though, it was her satirical humor and irrepressible spunk. Small enough to fold herself in two within the slim perimeter of table edge and plastic chairs, the small knots of her knees would peek above the table to balance her composition notebook. Above those pages, her brown hair dipped into a voluminous bob just above her ears and her large, dark eyes.

Sam was excited to share the industry happening inside her head, always asking questions to carve permissions for some outlying idea. She talked fast too, her S’s leaking through the sides of her smile. I recognized right away that the flare she kept sending up to her new teacher was to say I’m smarter than your average bear cub.
Indeed, she was.

Still is.

Sam’s writing is still clever and deliberate, now matured with a dimension of subtlety. This summer, however, I was not fixated with her descriptions or metaphors. This year, my attention was wholly seized by the bobby pin in her hair.

“Is that a bobby pin in Sam’s hair?” I asked the camp director. She looked and nodded. And so it begins, our satisfied smiles agreed.

Summers tend to evolve girls her age. After three summers together, basic biology would have dictated the elongated limbs, the stretching height and rounded brassiere. But this was a bobby pin, and it came to camp with Sam everyday to hold that new panel of hair into place above her eye. Her spirit was still wonderfully irreverent, even though she was less assertive than summers past. Her sense of fashion was still stitched counter culture, although the belt buckles, hoodies and bracelets seemed placed with more strategy. She still reads aloud at lightening speed, but her hand does not thrust anxiously into the air these days. That hand, instead, was occupied with her new hair, tracing the contours and twisting the straightened brown length around her fingers. I imagined numerous experimental hours in front of a mirror with that bobby pin and fist of hair.

Once I adjusted to the shock, I took note of how aware she seemed to be with this new girlified version of herself. I wonder if she has embraced this new moon, or if its afterglow is engulfing her unaware. Maybe this nascent femininity washed over her in indecipherable degrees. Maybe her bathroom mirror doesn’t articulate the softening of features and delicate curvatures in her face. Maybe she’s already lost count of the times her fingers have raked through her hair or adjusted her sk8tergirl tee.

Sam is distinctly pretty now. I wonder if she sees that. Personally, I remember stumbling awkwardly over each seemingly abrupt new terrain of woman: training bras, mascara, sanitary pads, exchanging phone numbers, shaving, gossip, perfume, endless investments into nail and hair products and earrings that dangled. These requisite milestones were easy. It was the nuanced stroll from young girl to young woman that tripped me along the way. Had I rolled those pop rock moments across my tongue, delighting in my own mini bursts of newness, I’m confident that my arrival into womanhood would have felt less like a crash landing.

Fairly confident.

I can see, now, how getting lost in the fingering of curls or renegotiating the mechanics of long, heavy limbs would have helped me actually exist through my transformation, not simply emerge disoriented from the butterfly process. I’m wishing this for Sam right now. More than crisp stanzas or plot arcs, I hope Sam feels the thin wings that are yawning open behind her and that she’s stamping permanent memories with every new marking. I hope she’s aware of the young, vibrant woman inside preparing to take flight and dance metaphors into the wind.

Dancing, with a bobby pin in her hair.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Connecting Dots

I’ll admit this: it started as a coping mechanism. In the same fashion of woosah, gopher, and nam-myoho-renge-kyo, the phrase tucked itself beneath my tongue as a quickly dissolving serum for any moment of ramping panic.

Everything happens as it should.

As much of a truism this phrase has come to be in my life, the words have not always been lovely in the trenches. Instead of a melodic serenade or pulsing theme music to signal hope and rescue, the words come through gnarled, wadded and torn. At those critical moments, I had to chew through them and grind them down with my back molars, waiting for a slow release of calm.

Honestly, the mantra didn’t have the industrial power to soothe every flaring anxiety. Eviction notices, emergency rooms, conference room combat, phone numbers hidden in back pockets, black dresses and somber limousines. The chant did not temper every edge.

But I kept saying it.

I said it aloud to someone else, recently, smiling to myself as I offered over my homemade remedy. I was visiting Charlotte for a performance and hanging out with one of my hosts, JC, one of the big engines in Charlotte’s internationally-acclaimed spoken word scene. We were grabbing a late lunch at the city’s historic Coffee Cup, and I asked him to tell me about the poetry house that Charlotte built. As I had him guide me from dot to dot, I made mental notes about the life happening around him and his core team along their way. For instance, he became a poet-turned-promoter because he was frustrated with the chronic gone-tomorrow uncertainty of the poetry sets at that time. He just wanted a place and handful of people to share words. By the time he printed up their first flyers back in 2001 and gotten some momentum under them a few years later, the city of Charlotte had just officially wrested the Gotta-Get-There crown from Hot-Lanta. African Americans were MapQuesting their moving vans toward Charlotte and hauling a movement of community- and culture-consciousness with them.

JC described how this influx of new residents came to the city seeking out black-owned operations, businesses, institutions, traditions and events. Every resident with entrepreneurial spirit wasn’t able to meet and sustain the demand, so the population was quickly trained to only attach itself to entities with proven staying power. By the time the pilgrims arrived, JC and his crew were well on their way to proving just that.

Ten years later, he’s supporting his family with his work and playing a major role in helping this same family of performers begin to export their Bull City energy and talents around the world. More, of course, is yet to come from them all and I gobbled up his dream-catching excitement with every bite of my lunch.

We shared hilarious stories about our common experiences. Without a doubt, both journeys have been a grind. Still, we agreed that every sharp rock in the pavement was supposed to be there. Swerve to the left, or puncture a heel and be forced to move a bit more slowly for a while. However the mishaps happened, they happened with some universal purpose.

Everything. As it should.

He was, in fact, navigating around piercing stones in his work around the time of our visit. So, I told him about my mantra. I felt I owed him that little talisman, because he had no idea how much I’d needed to hear his story, too. The universe was constructed with precision engineering (I mean, what else would you expect from God?) The collection of dots that placed me at that lunch table, for instance, would certainly amount to a tedious tale. Thousands, if not millions, and there’s no way I could account for them all. Nonetheless, there I was with JC and his fish and me with my chicken and waffles.

Wanting to inventory each and every dot is what tends to make us mortals a little nutty. Simultaneously torturous and beautiful is the fact that we won’t always decipher the dot patterns until some divine force connects them into a portrait of Martin Luther King, the Mona Lisa or the print from your grandma’s infamous Christmas sweater.

Still, we wanna know.

We want to know so badly because the unknown is inherently a terrifying place, especially if “unknown” is where we’re tossing a lot of energy: relationships, enterprise, faith. We would all be a little less neurotic if we just knew. Listening to JC’s journey, however, and all of seemingly unrelated forces that influenced his dots into their current constellation, reminded me that focusing on dots is all that we we’re required to do. Yes, plan for the future, but not at the expense of our present. JC would not be experiencing his current success if he had not been ready once serendipity flooded his city. For another Charlotte native, their dots assembled into place because they weren’t swept up by the same migration.


I left lunch with a full stomach and a light heart. Still laughing and enjoying the Carolina sunshine, I was less worried about publishers and bills and itineraries and prescriptions. I was able to return my focus to the elements and efforts inside my control, focus on keeping the dots in my palm and sweep away the rest.

Everything happens as it should.

The chant can withstand practically any force of shrapnel for me now. Even when the words seem dwarfed inside dire situations, I know they’re there. The universe has proven time and again that, eventually, the dots will reveal their impressionist image. In fact, there’s a breathtaking design being assembled around us all. Whisper this reminder to yourself and you’ll be able to see it when the dots fall into their divine lines.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Honest Truth

"You can't catch me! You can't catch me!" a preschooler sings in front of the house next door. I can't see her, but i remember the bouncy pitch of that age. Words still a gooey in some spots.

"You can't catch me...!"

I walked away from the screen door and picked up the dustrag I'd left on the floor. I oiled and wiped and oiled and wiped, mindful to "clean under and not around" the frames and figurines and such. My mother had to remind me of that often as a kid. After a while she took to emphasizing "around" by stretching the vowels all the way out. "Arouuuuuuuuund," like this was the part of the directions I wasn't getting. Well, I learned that having to re-do chores --in a word-- sucked. So I stopped making my mother stretch her words out of shape and, now, I still clean under the knick knacks.

Truth be told, cleaning always feels more satisifying when you've done it well. Especially since I usually only find time these days to "tidy." Cleaning like this tends to happen in sporadic, Olympic bursts. Out of the blue, in between the basic maintenance, for instance, I might power wash the shower walls. It could happen. It could. Today, dusting happened. Probably because my spirit needed it more than the bookshelves. If there's a zen to cleaning house, I can get there: music, rote and methodical mechanics, plenty of wide open mental space for my thoughts to stretch and move around.

The new family of thoughts moved in today. Awkward. Tentative. Even though I expected them. I didn't know which post-divorce emotions would come around, so I've been braced for the worst. I mostly anticipated pangs of guilt. Without a doubt, I wrestled with the tonnage of my decision and how it would forever affect the people I cared about, including my husband. At the end of the day, guilt is not the emotion that seems to be settling in. Instead, it's an unnerving sense of vulnerability. In between the emotional grooves of "how," "why," and "what next," I feel infalliable and morbidly flawed inside the same breaths.

This weekend, I spent the day in Chicago visiting old friends, Crystal and Randy. Crystal and I worked together at a swanky bar when I lived there. She was a bartender; I was a cocktail waitress; and Randy was one of the regulars who eventually became one of Crystal's biggest fans. They reconnected some years later, flirted, dated, married, struggled, renewed, prospered, reproduced, rejoiced and, now, we're Sunday driving -literally- through tony Chicago neighborhoods imagining which houses could be theirs in five years.

These are the random moments I don't yet know what to do with. Sadness is the default assumption, but sad is not quite how I feel. What goes through my mind, instead, is "I don't have this anymore." There's no slow violin music, no mournful glance skyward, no heavy lids, no clenched fists. I just don't have it anymore. A co-dreamer. Bracelet-fastener. Hand-holder. Attitude-checker. Getter-of-my-jokes. I don't have it. This is called "coming to terms," I suppose.

Still, I'm monitoring myself objectionably close these days, staying alert for crippling side effects. I don't think I would become bitter, lonely, distant or depressed, but what would I know about the aftermath of ending an 11-year marriage? Nothing. What I do know is that my decision was unquestionably the right one. I do know that I'm cushioned in a new sense of peace and that I'm giddy optimistic about the future. But there are days when I don't feel so solid in this new footing. Those days, like today, are great for cleaning, especially when the promise of summer is gliding on the breeze through my new screen door and precious little girls are singing challenges from the sidewalk. Oil and wipe. Oil and wipe. I'll be one hundred percent again soon.

Oil and wipe. You can't catch me. You can't catch me.