“Secretly I want to be ‘Amma’ a.k.a. ‘the hugging saint,’ the Indian spiritual leader who goes around the world giving hugs to millions of people. I want to midwife life after COVID-19, to bring people back into their bodies.” –April 20, 2020
When I wrote that in my journal in mid-April I was already grieving the loss of touch. I had no idea we were going to be “out of touch” for so long. No idea just how traumatic the loss of touch would be for so many. I never expected to mourn my dad’s death from cancer against the backdrop of a pandemic.
Now it’s mid-August. Last night was the first time since shelter in place that I hugged someone outside of my family bubble: Ryan Tacata, a collaborator and dear friend. Ryan, Erika Chong Shuch and I “Zoom” several hours a week. We have a performance-making collective called For You that has been very active remotely. But we have not been in the same physical space since February. Today Ryan is moving to Vancouver, British Columbia to start a new job. Last night Erika and I went to Ryan’s to wave goodbye. We gathered outside. “Can I have a hug?” Ryan asked through his mask. “Fuck yea,” I exclaimed through my mask, adrenaline rushing in.
This morning when I cheerfully announced that I hugged Ryan I was met with head-shaking disapproval from my husband Ed. To be fair, Ed adores Ryan. This wasn’t about Ryan, this was about Ed and I not always being on the same page when it comes to “proper” coronavirus behavior. A few weeks ago we went on an off-the-grid retreat. We gave each other calming massages. We took a long, sunny walk in a nature preserve where we encountered a group of ponies. A gray pony approached us and rubbed its muzzle against my outstretched hand. I patted the pony’s cheek. Then it bent down and bit my ankle. No blood, but totally alarming. I shielded myself with the umbrella I’d been carrying as a parasol and we swiftly backed away.
“Perhaps a fitting metaphor for the virus,” Ed later remarked. “Don’t get too close or it might bite you.”
Eli Nelson and Christian Burns were two of the last people I danced with pre-pandemic. It was during the Practice, an improvisation group that Christian formed. I go back to that last Practice often in my mind:
Six inches above the floor, my face exploring Christian’s palm / Draping backwards over Eli’s shoulder, one leg in the air / A teetering tango with Eli, falling into and catching each other / Breathing back-to-back with someone / On all fours, a hand between my scapula.
I reached out to Christian and Eli by email. I wanted to know if they were missing touch, too.
Christian, a faculty member of the LINES Ballet degree and training programs, responded that he has had no dance-based contact with anyone since COVID. But he has taught virtual classes and has experienced what he calls “direct inner contact” with students. For Christian, the sessions have been a way to help his students—and himself—adapt to these touchless times. “Teaching via distance has been strangely interesting and felt vital to support my students in such a time of need,” he said. He calls this remote teaching and inner contact a kind of “emotional triage.”
“All the moments of connection that we take for granted carry more significance now,” Eli, a dancer, composer and University of San Francisco educator, replied. “Someone brushed by me in the supermarket and my body had a mixed series of reactions: revulsion, upset, enjoyment, fear, nostalgia.”
Eli and I often join online Gaga classes taught by James Graham. Gaga is the movement language developed by Ohad Naharin/Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv, Israel. Gaga classes are guided movement experiences that incorporate a lot of imagery. I jot down things James says that I want to hold onto, like these images featuring the touch of natural forces or inanimate objects:
Slide your skin inside of your clothes / Dust can land on you / Grab yourself by that tight swimsuit / Move into air you’ve never touched before / Feel the sun on your back / Smear butter / Get taken by the wind.
Though James’ movement practices have fed him–and his Gaga classes have fed us–James shared via email that he was mentally and physically “hyperaware” of not touching or being touched for the first three months of shelter in place. He has been doing “research” on his own: could he feel touched by a loving smile through Zoom, or plants, or other living things he resides with?
James told me a story about our fundamental need for touch. Years ago, James wrote, doctors believed that not touching premature infants was best—to protect them from adult germs.
“They were kept in isolation in their protective beds,” James said. “But they noticed that babies in one wing of the hospital were living and the babies in the other wing were dying. They studied it and tried to find a reason until a nurse said, ‘It’s probably Anna.’ A local grandmother who would volunteer by walking around cooing and loving and touching the babies she walked by.”
James explained that Anna didn’t have time to go to the other wing to provide the same loving touch. The babies in that wing “were literally dying because of lack of touch,” James wrote.
I was so struck by James’ story that I looked into the topic of babies and touch myself. Indeed, a study earlier this decade found that premature infants who receive skin-to-skin contact instead of incubator care tend to thrive; this included having healthy responses to stress. Untouched babies were more likely to develop problems as children, including depression.
Eli and Christian are both dads, grateful to have their kids to be physical with. But for Eli, “That type of contact is qualitatively different from the informed touch that goes hand in hand with good Contact Improvisation. That’s a big piece that’s missing for me.”
Erika’s mom Suk lives a few miles away from Erika’s family and is like a third parent to her 7 year-old grandson Wakes. On the phone Suk told me, “Our family is very touchy with Wakes.” Quarantine prohibited Suk from seeing Wakes. So, Wakes made a pillow in the shape of his hand that attempted to satisfy Suk’s loss of all physical touch. Suk would place her hand on top of Wakes’ pillow hand and try to feel him. “Touch is like her first language,” Erika said.
Erika was afraid it was not only hurting Suk’s heart not to see Wakes, but her mind was getting cloudy. “Humans have brain pathways that are specifically dedicated to detecting affectionate touch,” Johannes Eichstaedt, a social scientist and psychology professor at Stanford University explained in “How to Hug During a Pandemic,” an article that appeared in The New York Times in June. Eichstaedt laid it bare: “Affectionate touch is how our biological systems communicate to one another that we are safe, that we are loved, and that we are not alone.”
Not only has Suk spent much of the pandemic unable to touch Wakes, but unable to see him. She doesn’t do Zoom or FaceTime. And the toll has been high. Suk told me that when she couldn’t be with Wakes physically, “I would tend to not get dressed and just sit. Seeing Wakes and Erika is the only thing I have going right now.” Suk’s struggle brought into focus just how many elders are suffering from lack of contact.
The two tenets of For You are to bring strangers together for shared, intimate encounters, and to think of performance making as gift giving. Erika, Ryan and I wondered how we could pivot our methodologies and resources to serve vulnerable elders like Suk during the pandemic.
With awareness that many elders are struggling with isolation For You launched “Artists & Elders.” We pair one artist with one elder — from granddaughter to grandmother, young artist to mentor, both the familial and new — for a bit of virtual conversation and creative connection. We ask the artist to create a gift for the elder specific to what emerges from their exchange. Since May we’ve launched 40 dyads and are in the planning stages with organizations in Chicago and Oregon to generate Artists & Elders in their communities. For now we are indexing these poetic exchanges on our website. We dream about these gifts coming together, in some form, on the other side, as a portrait of our creative mutual-aid.
According to the article “How to Hug During a Pandemic” the safest thing to do is not hug. But if you’re like me, you need a hug. In the article aerosol scientist and airborne disease transmission expert Linsey Marr spells out the safest way to do that:
Wear a mask / Hug outdoors / Try to avoid touching the other person’s body or clothes with your face and your mask / Don’t hug someone who is coughing or has other symptoms / Point your faces in opposite directions — the position of your face matters most / Don’t talk or cough while you’re hugging / And do it quickly / Approach each other and briefly embrace / When you are done, don’t linger / Back away quickly so you don’t breathe into each other’s faces / Wash your hands afterward / And try not to cry. Tears and runny noses increase risk for coming into contact with more fluids that contain the virus.
I visualize hugging Ryan this way, though in reality I did not. My neck gets stiff, and I feel anxious and robotic just thinking about the scientifically sanctioned style. Now I visualize the hug I actually gave Ryan, cheek to cheek, and I can feel the warmth rising to my face. When you visualize your movement with the same intentionality, and in the same amount of time it really takes to execute an action, that’s called motor imagery. According to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) measurements, when you’re in this dynamic state the same brain circuitry, including those areas responsible for the emotions you are expecting, light up. Meaning, we can actually strengthen and stimulate our hug circuitry by imagining real hugs.
To Have To Hold is the most beautiful performance art piece I’ve never seen. Except in my imagination thanks to an evocative description by its Arkansas-based creator Cynthia Post Hunt. Cynthia told me about her performance when Erika, Ryan and I were in Arkansas last fall developing First Things First. In To Have To Hold Cynthia lies passively, eyes-closed, carried supine, or cradled in the arms, or slung over the back of members of the curious public. The work asks: Whose job is it to care for this body? Yours / Mine / Ours / Other? I fantasize about gathering personal protective equipment and volunteers to ritualistically remount this piece, me in the role of held, me in the role of holder.
Whose job is it to care for this body? All of these: Yours. Mine. Ours…
Other: “Every night I wait until my dog is exhausted and then use her as a weighted blanket,” Rose Huey wrote me. Rose is an Oakland-based artist and educator I invited to share her thoughts about touch in the time of corona. She gave anecdotes about isolation and taking advantage of her “pooch” and professional resources. Last week, after tweaking her knee, Rose got professional body work for the first time since March (“outside, masked, lots of hand sanitizer”). She felt vulnerable after not having been touched this way in months. She felt “out of practice.” “At one point I worried that I was ‘doing it wrong’ — as if it were possible for me, laying on a massage table, to receive body work incorrectly.” On the drive home all the emotions and sensations she wasn’t able to feel in the moment rushed in. She felt “the joy of having someone…help heal me.”
My dad had this epiphanic vision a few days before he passed, like something from a Gaga class: a silk scarf slowly floating down and completely covering him. He lowered his hand fluttering his fingers gently to illustrate. “Total healing,” he said when I asked him over FaceTime what it meant. He wanted us to bring him a silk scarf to the hospital. Mom and I put one in a plastic bag with his name and room number on it and dropped it off at the front door of the hospital. Because of COVID we weren’t allowed to visit him. The silk scarf ended up symbolizing the permanent kind of “total healing.” Leaving the bones on the earth.
But he didn’t go alone or untouched. His attending nurse Stephen put his job on the line to let us all into the hospital– my mother, my parents’ pastors, my brothers, their wives, siblings, in-laws, grandchildren – my dad receiving us all like Amma, “the hugging saint,” to give us the comfort of hugging him goodbye. He squeezed my hand so hard I was wincing, but I knew it was the last time so I didn’t want it to end. We had the privilege of receiving the touch of Dad’s last breath.
And maybe that’s the thing that has been so hard about coronavirus. We didn’t know it was going to be the last touch or hug or dance or time or trip. We still don’t know when it will end.
As shelter in place wore on Suk worried that Wakes might have outgrown hugging her. Four months into shelter in place, after gradually introducing safely distanced visits with masks, Suk and Wakes had their first hug. Erika captured it on video. I was so moved watching it. I’m getting goosebumps now remembering it. From the second they spontaneously roll into each other on the mat where they have been playing 6 feet apart, Wakes chirps with joy, “The first time we’ve gotten to hug in a long time!” He beams, arms slung around Suk’s neck. Suk laughs and hums and squeezes him long and tight to make sure she’s not dreaming.
Coda: Watch the Artists & Elders “gift” that emerged from the exchange between Suk and filmmaker and dancer Gabriel Diamond