Consider yourselves hugged.

hugbirdsA hug.
We usually combine those two words with the concept of giving. “Give me a hug.” “Let me give you a hug.” “Need a hug?” Hugs are valued as a way in which we connect with other creatures to such a degree that we’ve had to invent the emoticon version of hugging: ((( ))). We do it in cyberspace and we do it face to face. Even over the phone, we try to hug. As a friend of mine says as we sign off from a phone call, “Consider yourself hugged.”
Traditions about hugging vary from person to person, family to family, culture to culture, but (in my life, anyway) hugging as greeting or farewell, or when deeply touched by the lives of others, is the usual. Hugs happen when we feel connected emotionally to another being and we are moved to act out the connection physically. Side by side hugs, full frontal hugs, neck hugs—we have a style for any occasion.
There are times when a hug is a perfect fit for me. The arms of another person, another shoulder to lean into, is like a womb where I can drop my shoulders, set my deep sigh free, and emerge refreshed. It may be a smidgen of me, but there is an ineffable energy within me that is reborn when I am given a hug.
But, there is a reluctant truth I grew into about this hugging business.
There are times when hugs aren’t given to us, but taken from us.
Nope, I’m not talking about an unwelcome grope, though that’s inappropriate, for sure. Ick. It’s clear with that slimy hug that a boundary has been crossed. The reluctant truth of the taken hugs to which I’m referring is more subtle. It’s emotionally slimy, though the person who’s purportedly giving the hug is probably unaware of it.
When hugs are taken, the action is more about the needs of the hugger than the huggee.
To know the difference, we have to tune in to our own emotional states and operate from a place of curiosity and openness. Otherwise, we’re liable to keep operating on automatic, doing what good little girls and boys do, too often at our own expense. Because we don’t want to hurt the feelings of the other person, out of habit, we let others into our close space and possibly tap into our energy. Our emotional boundaries, as well as our physical ones, are crossed before we realize what is happening.
I know, I know, this is indefinable stuff I’m talking about. We learn the difference only by experience.
My personal bullet points about boundaries and hugging:
• If the idea of wanting a hug from the other person hasn’t even crossed my mind, and I feel that person warming up to hug me, I can be pretty sure the need for touch isn’t mine.
• Hugs that feel nurturing and energizing are hugs of the giving sort; hugs that leave me feeling like I lost energy are about the other person. Without my permission, energy was leeched out of me.
• Others may want to hug me when they want tacit reassurance that things are okay between us, instead of bringing concerns into the open and talking about them. I am not The Queen of Tacit Reassurance.
• Some try to relieve their own anxiety by “giving” a hug. They need to do something, anything, to alleviate intense feelings that have come up inside them, so they reach for another human being, in the unconscious guise of giving a hug. When this happens to me, I feel as if the hugger tried to give me her feelings, instead of dealing with them herself. I cannot do her job for her.
• I don’t have to hug anybody or everybody. Neither do you. It is not an obligation. Only I know how much emotional energy I have and where I want to use it. I don’t have to allow myself to be touched so that another person can temporarily feel better.
• Physical and emotional boundaries are fluid and overlap. A hug that was welcome last week might feel invasive this week.
• I work to read the other person’s body language when I consider hugging another. Usually I go ahead and ask, even if I know the person extremely well. “Would a hug help?”
• I do not know the other person’s experience with touch, so I don’t touch from behind or unexpectedly. Has she been abused? Does he have PTSD? Is touch threatening, for any reason?
• There is nothing inappropriate about not accepting a hug from another person. It may feel awkward to sidestep a hug, but it may feel even yuckier to step into a hug that I don’t want. My body, my energy, my responsibility to manage it.
• BIG BULLET POINT: I ask a child before I hug him/her and I accept their yes or no, without question or judgment. I may be the only one in my grandchild’s life who asks, but I want her and every child to have the opportunity to safely say NO to an adult when it comes to boundaries about the body. Children cannot develop the role of saying NO to possible abusers if we’ve shamed them when they didn’t want to hug (and even kiss) others. They cannot grow into human beings who can say NO if we’ve pushed them into saying YES.
During this season of rebirth and nurturing, I’m especially thankful for those who can truly GIVE hugs, who provide nurture and emotional safe havens during times of transition. They are the Lights in dark times that bring me home.
Consider yourselves hugged. Every single one of you.
~~~Jaylene Whitehurst, the Ragged Phoenix

Family Beyond Family

Bad lighting and all, a text to a friend: family beyond family

Bad lighting and all, a text image to a friend: family beyond family

On my desk, in the “good stuff” stack, is a torn-out magazine page about how having diverse friendships enriches our lives. It’s got quirky illustrations and lays out the author’s ideas about connections that we each need. This article was, appropriately and unsurprisingly, tucked into a stash of items given to me a couple of years ago by my friend Margaret, who is exactly the kind of friend who keeps a “Jaylene” box in her closet. A couple of times a year, usually around my birthday and Christmas, I’m the recipient of a box of goodies that she knows I’ll enjoy.
This past Christmas it contained a charming framed card, jewelry making items, fabric with a fanciful bird print, markers and brushes, plus a separate box holding a story she’d written for my grandchild (a treasure, for sure) along with a throw pillow that looked as if it had been designed especially to illustrate the tale.
Margaret pays attention.
As do others.
Lois, who knows my love of making new baubles from broken odds and ends, thrills me occasionally with a jar of buttons and beads. Possibility in a jar! She’s also the friend who, twenty years ago, compiled poems I’d written into a book she decorated for me in the emerald green that I love. It’s a treasure still.
Glenda and I share a love of all things “housey.” I walk from room to room with the striking ceramic bowl she sent me for Christmas, looking for an ideal spot where I’ll enjoy it and be reminded of my friend. Last summer, when I was particularly pleased with my arrangement of colored glassware in the kitchen cabinets, Glenda was the person to whom I texted a photo. Yes, I did. A picture of nothing but glasses in a cabinet. She’s the one who won’t shake her head and make the cuckoo sign that this image tickles me silly, while I don’t even want to think about whether I might be a little over-the-top about goblets and tumblers.
Donna, the high school friend with whom I reconnected a decade ago, surprised me last fall with a package of iris rhizomes, sent from a plant nursery in Texas, after my comments about the brilliant golden and orangey irises she’d posted on Facebook. We hold between us the lightness of a picture of flowers, but we also hold the other’s story from our teen years in ways that can’t be explained: the holding is a precious and inexplicable fact.
On a shelf in my studio are several hefty candle jars, each one empty of everything except a spent wick in a quarter inch of wax and a lingering aroma, given to me at one time and then another by Brenda, the friend who, more than once, has prayed for me all day long. These candles are what remain of times when we couldn’t manage a visit with each other, but when Brenda would sit beside the light of our friendship, and lift me up in peace. When we were finally face to face, she’d put the used up candle in my hands to remind me that I am loved.
Without the thoughtful conversations about music, art, poetry, and relationships that occur with Jim, Tim, Susan, Derrick, Phillip, Lee Ann, and Charlotte, my life would be less full. The generosity with which they each share their knowledge and interests creates a constantly changing texture that I can’t construct on my own.
Only a couple of my hodgepodge of friends are related to me by blood. Mostly these are the broader family I have, the family I choose and who choose me.
The family beyond family.
These are the people who, in ones or twos or half a dozen, simply show up and prop me up.
That’s the difference an adequate social system makes in our well-being; it is the framework that, in a real way, supports us and shapes who we are. We are healthier emotionally and physically when we have those in our lives who know us and who allow us to know them, who show up in the doldrums of life, as well as in our tragedies and comedies.
We need companions who can meet us where we are, even when we’re not exactly sure ourselves where that is.
At one time or another, we’re each going to need a safe place to bring sorrows and disappointments. When I’m on rock bottom, I don’t need someone who’s going to shame me or give me unsolicited advice about how to get up. No, what I need first is someone who can simply meet me where I am and sit beside me, someone who won’t try to distract me from my reality.
Friends who have the ability to sit beside us when we hurt, friends who don’t try to fix the irreparable, are priceless. Simply by their presence, they keep us from pain-driven isolation, which exacerbates depression, anxiety, addiction, and weakened immune systems, among other conditions. These people are, literally, lifelines.
As much as I need friends who can hang with me during tough times, I also need friends who will rejoice with me. These are kind souls who are neither threatened by what others achieve nor envious of what others have. Friends who are genuinely happy and celebrate with me, who have my best interests at heart and show it, are keepers. Without friends, celebration is like a party with leaky balloons.
I need friends who are similar to me in age and interests and friends who aren’t.
Friends who are older than I am are informal mentors. They may not be doing it with intent, but they are modeling for me how to grow into the next stages of my own life, by their regrets as well as by their successes. Older friends are gifts of experience we offer ourselves without having to live through it firsthand.
Younger friends nudge me along. Being connected to younger people engages me. I learn as much from them as they do from me. But it’s a two way relationship, as all of these are. Having younger friends can keep us on our toes: we are modeling for them and our behavior is a pattern we are likely to see them repeat. Tread gently.
If my friends were clones of me, I’d never grow. I’d never have to be uncomfortable in the face of disagreements or have my ways of viewing the world tested. I’d also be bored to tears. We need friends who are different enough from us to make us question our assumptions: people who come from dissimilar backgrounds, cultures, or belief systems. Their presence is an opportunity to engage our critical thinking skills and expand the ways in which we connect as human beings.
We need friends who have the wisdom to step in and stand between us and the world—and the timing to know when to act.
The messages have been powerful for many of us that we should be able to arise above every circumstance. Well, I’m not always that person. Few of us are. There have been times when I needed friends to circle the wagons around me as a buffer until I could get back up.
And, on rare occasions, we may need the courageous friend who will step in and hope to save us from ourselves.
This just might be the most judicious friend any of us can have; this is the one who will risk losing a friendship rather than do nothing and watch us lose ourselves. Yes, this friend will take me by the shoulders, look me straight in the eye, and shake me to good sense with “What in the world are you thinking, woman?”
Finally, as I’ve been reminded by Barb (one of my farther-along-the-road-friends), we need folks in our lives who are simply fun. I have a disparate crew who protect me, inform me, challenge me, and are happy and sad with me, but that crew wouldn’t be complete without those engaging folks who enliven my world by their very presence. Light-hearted friends balance the intensity of life with humor and good grace. Yes, ma’am, Barb. I was listening.
The gifts that surround me, buttons and beads, books and bowls, are tender reminders of these relationships that prop me up: my stability in a crazy world.
My family beyond family.
Bless ‘em everyone.

Alcorn County resident Jaylene Whitehurst is an artist and professional counselor. She may be reached at 662-286-5433 or jaylene@heartworkccl.com. She contributes to Crossroads Magazine and the Daily Corinthian.