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Science has proven that a hug provides health benefits but how long does that hug have to last? Right now the consensus is 20 seconds. (www.forbes.com/sites/alisonescalante/2020/06/09/how-to-give-the-perfect-hug-according-to-science/?sh=792336d05f9ff)
Thinking back on my hug journeys, I certainly did not intentionally hug anyone for 20 seconds. At the most I kept it to 5-6 seconds. 20 seconds is a LONG time for a hug, just ask my kids. At the time I believed that 5-6 seconds was enough to receive health benefits and honestly I still do. Perhaps that's not enough time to release oxytocin, but it is enough time to make a connection, heal a hurting heart, feel more self-assured, receive affection and love. All of these things provide health benefits. I should know, my cross country hug journey was the healthiest I have ever been in my life regardless of the 8 hours a day I spent sitting in a car driving to my next location.
But, my curiosity got piqued. What more could I receive in a 20 second hug? In putting it to the test, I reached out to my children first. When I asked my 15 year old if I could hug him for 20 seconds he instantly gave the perfunctory no, but surprisingly quickly changed his answer. I counted out loud so he could hear where we were at and his response was, "you're counting so slow." As the 20 seconds was nearing, I swear I felt it. I swear I felt the rush of oxytocin flood through my body, but I figured maybe that was wishful thinking or an expectation that I needed for validation so I tucked the experience away to reflect on at a later time.
When I approached my 12 year old for the long hug I didn't say anything as I went in for the hug. He is my more affectionate child, but I still wasn't sure if he would attempt to squirm away before the 20 seconds was up. It was first thing in the morning, he had just woken up and was quickly attending to his morning ritual so he could jump on electronics to see who had posted new videos throughout the night. I stopped him as I wrapped my arms around him. He welcomed the hug and I began to silently count in my mind. He didn't try to let go as he began laughing at the dogs antics. He didn't try to let go as he told me about what he was looking forward to that day. I can't speak to his experience but by the time the 20 seconds was up I was elated. Was that the oxytocin or was that the love of a mom whose almost teenager let her hug him for 20 seconds? Was there a difference?
As so happens in life, like attracts like. It was no surprise to me when I entered my yoga studio last night that I ended up in another 20 second hug only this time it was not initiated by me. The yoga instructor (and friend) greeted me in a hug and asked how I was. I was feeling the weight of the depression that settled in to my body about a month ago but I didn't want to give it voice so I said I was good. She continued to hold me and asked, "really?" I responded, "why do I look that bad?" She comforted me as she told me I was radiant but that recently I had been looking tired like I had forgotten my radiance. I felt tears instantly spring to my eyes as the truth of her words hit home. I let her continue to support me in her embrace even as my mind tried distracting me with all the thoughts that usually keep me from hugging or being hugged for this long.
"I should probably let go now." "Oh, she's not letting go, ok." "Do I really look like I need that much help?" "When will this ever end?" "Should I be the one to end it or let her?" "Does this make me seem weak or less than?" "I don't want her impression of me to change." "Would it be weird if I just want to keep hugging her through the whole class?"
The longer the hug went on the more I wanted it to continue. This time I know I felt the oxytocin, only rather than it being a rush of good feeling emotion, it was a letting go of all that I am not and that felt just as good. I surrendered in to the moment and allowed my Truth to shine through. The Truth that said, "I am a mess right now and I'm also radiant just as she said. I need to rest right now but I know that rest doesn't come from sleep which is why I am here at yoga rather than at home in my bed. I don't feel ok right now and I am so proud of myself for showing up for myself in this moment.
Sure, 5-6 seconds probably could have brought me to a place of peace before settling on to my yoga mat, it certainly would have been enough to bring me a greater connection with my yoga instructor, but 20 seconds brought me an even more profound connection, the one I have with myself.
I remember being heartbroken when I was 15 or 16. I would put on sappy love songs and wail. The pain was so acute.
I also remember telling friends that I enjoyed the heartache. I would tell them that the greater the pain I was experiencing, the greater the joy I knew I was capable of. Even as I said those words I knew they were far too profound for someone my age to really grasp. But, I couldn't explain it, there was a sweetness to the sadness that felt cleansing, whole.
I still believe that to be true but somewhere along the line I stopped focusing on the sweetness and only felt the pain and judgement of my negative emotions.
Heartbreaking experiences became the opposite of what I experienced back then. The greater the joy I experienced, the greater the pain when the experience was over. I stopped believing that the pain meant another new amazing experience was possible that was even greater than the one I just lived.
When my year of hugs was over I sank in to a depression that felt like loss. Loss of the connection and belonging I had experienced during that year. When my cross country trip was over I was distracted by my divorce, the ending of both compounding the heartbreak I felt from the ending of each bringing me back into the feeling of disconnection from humanity.
Now, I find myself once again navigating the depths of depression as all of humanity is physically disconnected through this pandemic. The writing of my memoir is a lifeline. A reminder that no matter how disconnected I may feel, that disconnection can not be real as we are all one. It is a reminder that the experience of embarking on the hug journeys as well as the adventure of a failed marriage encompass the highs and lows that life is made of and what we are here for.
I can only hope that by the time I have completed my book I have had the opportunity to take all of the experiences, the extreme highs and devastating lows and alchemized them into something that helps each of us to move forward in embracing it all, remembering the sweetness in the sadness, and choosing it all over and over again. Together.
Most people that know me will assume they know my answer to this question. We Bought a Zoo is my favorite movie of all time. I watched it for the first time after I had completed My Year of Hugs but that wasn't significant to me at the time. I certainly did not associate the two nor anticipate that the movie expressed the inspiration I feel for choosing to go on hug journeys.
The first time I watched it with my family and I cried like a baby at the end. The second time I watched it by myself and I cried like a baby at the end. I was a bit embarrassed when my husband came home at the tail end of this viewing to find me crying (sobbing, to be honest) by myself on the couch as the credits rolled. "Why are you crying?" All I could express in that moment was, "I want to buy a zoo!!" He chuckled and said, "no, really?" I became emphatic. "no really, I WANT TO BUY A ZOO!"
I truly believed that is why I was getting so emotional. That embarked me on my path of animal healing and a desire to one day have a healing farm, but that is a story for another day.
I have watched the movie countless times over the years and I never don't cry. The thing that has changed is my curiosity around why. Sure, I want to surround myself with animals but I felt something deeper stirring within me.
As I was drafting the first iteration of my memoir, I rewatched it as I do when I want to feel inspired or hopeful or just plain happy. As I once again found myself grabbing for the tissues at the end of the movie, the connection was made. I was crying not because I want to buy a zoo, but because I choose people.
If you have not seen the movie, there is a scene at the end where the zookeeper and her niece are sitting on a bench enjoying the fruits of their labor as the opening day of the zoo unfolds quite successfully. The niece turns to her Aunt and asks, "if you had to choose, would you choose animals or people?" They both turn in the direction of the people they love and begin to chuckle as the niece acknowledges, "yeah, me too." Not only had they both found love, but they found community.
That moment gets me every time because it's the truth of how I feel as well. Animals bring me the greatest joy. I have a passion for offering them healing. They inspire and teach me every single day.
But, people? They are what make life worth living. They make my heart swell in sizes I didn't even know I was capable of. Even though they may escort me to depths I am not sure I will survive, they also elevate me to heights I didn't know exist. In the midst of it all I find myself and stretch myself to the point that water leaks out of my eyes and I feel I will burst with love for all of humanity, myself included.
Every time, I choose people.
MYOH - My Year of Hugs. It's the journey that began it all. Many of you reading this joined me on that adventure. Many of you have no idea what I am talking about and my dear reader, this post is for you.
My Year of Hugs came about in 2011 and was a year in which I decided to embark on a daily adventure to hug the people I encountered throughout my day, whether they were friends, acquaintances or perfect strangers. I wanted to share love and appreciation for those who were in my life including the grocery store clerk, ups driver or anyone else placed in my path. But, the reach was too small in my mind. I wanted to be able to hug people who were outside of my limited physical reach so I chose to blog about it as well in an attempt to virtually hug people too far away to embrace.
Every day I would gather up the courage to ask the people around me for a hug and end my evening writing about who I hugged, how many people I hugged, and my thoughts about it all for 366 days. (I got a bonus day thanks to the leap year!)
Why did I do this? Well, I have answered that question numerous times and I am pretty sure the answer has been different each time. It's one that I have continued to ask myself ever since that year ended. Ultimately I hope to have the most accurate, satisfying answer for you in the memoir but perhaps, it will prove to be an ever evolving, multi-faceted answer that continuously leads all of us to a greater understanding of human nature.
And, it's a shit show. Great way to start out the blog, huh?
Actually, it's exactly what it needs to be. Apparently, this is the way it typically goes. There is a reason why Anne Lamott calls it the Shitty First Draft, or as we like to call it in our book writing group, Raw First Draft. That feels more accurate. It's a getting down of the ideas, concepts and things that are burning inside, aching to be given voice. Ultimately in my case (as in many author's cases) about 90% of it is unusable for the purpose of this memoir.
Rather than feeling defeated, I actually feel relieved. Those concepts are no longer rattling around in my brain taking up space. I now have room to allow for the true direction this book wants to take. I have clarity where there was just chaos before. My dream of this book being a great big hug for you; a feeling of coming home makes so much more sense now.
I am still terrified. I am afraid I won't do the book justice. I am afraid I will disappoint you, my reader. I am afraid I will get in to the 2nd draft and once again feel lost and aimless. I am afraid I won't have the guts to see it through to completion (probably the main reason why I made sure to hire a book coach). Most of all I am afraid the vision of what I have in my head will not be accurately translated in to this physical object that will be shared with you.
Setting the fears aside is a process and a practice in itself. It reminds me of my year of hugs. Every morning I woke up I had to practice finding the courage once again to ask strangers for hugs. Now the practice will be finding the courage to face my fears and write anyway. One thing I learned through both hug journeys (I will share more about these to give you context in future posts) was that my determination and stubbornness to achieve my desire was greater than any obstacle. May that be so for this book.
I'm actually doing it. I'm finally writing my book. (insert giddy giggle here) Of course, now I see why this book waited so long to arrive, after all, a hug memoir depicting a journey that was taken pre-pandemic would only have held up until 2020. Now, I get the joy of exploring these journeys taken pre-pandemic in a post-pandemic world. Ultimately, I hope this book envelops you in a great big hug that feels like coming home.