There was more to say. About missed opportunities and our strange broken legacy. But instead we ate some more strawberry Twizzlers and started a hilarious pantomime, a sign language for freaking out—fingers clenched as if holding onto a cliff, the fewer the fingers, the more severe the freak-out; and a sign—arms encircled, then a little wave—that meant, I'm sending you a hug.
During the 8,000 years I spend in therapy learning to express the feelings that were forbidden in my family, there were days when I sat on the couch, shredding Kleenex while my therapist looked at me with compassion, and I wished I could crawl into her lap. At times like these, it struck me that psychotherapy was too much work and too little comfort. Being able to name my most primitive feelings seemed a gratingly cerebral approach to what were almost physical sensations. Words, no matter how well-intentioned, bounced off me like hail.
None of which is to say that I harbor many illusions that a hug could have changed my life. Or anyone's. (I grew up near a large Italian clan to whose house I would flee when I craved the noise and heat of another kind of family, where the mother, a former masseuse, was a hugger without peer. They all turned out to be as crazy as bedbugs.) But in the moment, I have no doubt, a hug can ground you. Pull you back from the edge. Or our of your head. Into a circle of arms and the sturdy comforts of the present.
"Language is a skin," wrote Roland Barthes in A Lover's Discourse. And so is skin a language. It speaks when words fail us and communicates to parts of ourselves that are beyond the reach of words. The simple fact is that we are, first and foremost, mammals. We thrive on touch. Grooming is part of our social behavior, which may explain the relationship we have with our hairdressers. (A friend once asked her shrink, "Is it a love problem or a hair problem?" "I think it's a hair problem," he said.)
And while I am easily put off by indiscriminate hugging—the New Age promiscuity that robs gestures of their power—still, I can be moved to tears watching baseball, when the batter rounds third, race down the baseline, and the entire dugout charges out to embrace him. Granted, it's an occasion of triumph, not tragedy. But the message is the same. You're one of us! it says. You're home.
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