To Hug or Not to Hug
The acceptance letter to be a visiting artist at Albion College and the documents that ensued after my positive response to the invitation, did not include any reference as to how to approach greeting people in town. If anything, I was the one who, prior to leaving home in the South Bronx, underwent a self-training to prevent myself from hugging anyone I would come across in Michigan. It was a way of programming myself not to go beyond shaking hands, thus keeping a safe distance with those I would meet.
Having been born in the Dominican Republic, where it is customary to salute not just close family members, but also classmates, friends and colleagues, and in my case, yes, some of my mother’s neighbors, my dentists, respected professors and devoted mentors, with a friendly embrace, I thought it necessary to remind my arms to stay put in Albion. To make this work at a bodily level I mentally brought up the image of the classmate at an East Coast graduate school whose body froze like a tree trunk when, upon returning from our summer recess, I went to hug effusively. This was the same person who had helped me consistently with computer programs and whose assistance I still recall with great gratitude. Still unscathed, my hugging upbringing actually managed to be nurtured in New York City, where I learned to make a distinction of when and who to hug or when to put my hand out for a more distanced greeting.
Prior to moving to Albion, where I had proposed to travel from the Boogie Down Bronx to listen to people, hear their stories, learn first hand about their day to day, assemble an archive of objects representative of who they might be or what they do, and experience life in the community at large as an embodied undertaking, I clearly set my own rule: hand-shake only. However, this would change as I found my way to an Eggs and Issues breakfast, where Linda Kolmodin, one of the two women behind the restoration of the fading 5 cent Coca-Cola mural, mentioned that people in the area are huggers and that this in turn translates into connectedness, socially speaking. I listened attentively and figured I too would give it a try and eventually have gathered the courage to ask some of those I encounter in Albion whether to hug or not. In other instances I have had to intuit the answer. In these moments being fully present with the other person is a must.
In reflecting on Linda Kolmodin’s brief comments on hugging, weaved into her three minute pitch about the importance of revitalizing the downtown with two murals and a sculpture, I thought about the importance of touch at a time infused with fears of contact. The skin is in fact the biggest organ of the body. Understood as a barrier and protection against extraneous threats, and that which wraps around other organs, as well as tissues, cells and so on in our bodies, it is nonetheless inseparable from one’s sense of touch. More importantly, it serves as a connector with which one perceives the outer world, acting also as a learning tool responsible for experimentation and survival, and as a bank of memories; much like another brain. It is the skin that seems to set the boundaries between one and others, but that similarly has the capacity to bring us close together as parents, partners, friends and community. The skin is as much the site of pain as it is locus of healing, and so a hug might be the first step in the right direction.