I drew my mom’s name this year, and on Christmas morning she opened my gift. It was a pair of Ugg slippers, the kind with the big Sherpa fuzz on top. She was thrilled. Just what she asked for. Later at home, self-doubt set in as she tried the slippers and awkwardly walked in circles around her house. “Is something wrong with me?” She thought. Not you, mom, just the slippers—you got two right feet.
I’ll admit I love a good deal when I find one. I bought the shoes on E-bay, excited about finding a few bucks off that I could toss towards another gift within the budget. In my family, we have a set spending limit. I like a lot of bang for my buck; hence the momentous joy of my too-good-to-be-true find and subsequent embarrassment of two right feet.
I rectified things with a quick new order from Zappos, and BRANDS 4 LESS accepted my return claim (I may have blackmailed them with a dramatic paragraph on granny’s ruined Christmas and an imminent bad review). They refunded my money AND let me keep the slippers. Bonus. Now I have a (good as new) pair of Ugg slippers that every time I put them on, I wonder what happened to the two left feet. Keeps me curious.
As I sit in my nook and write this blog, two right-footed slippers warming my feet, my three dogs sleeping soundly around me, it occurs to me that this moment and these slippers are the symbols of my year. We, like everyone else in the world, toasted goodbye to 2020 this week. Many raised their glasses and said good riddance to an awful year. Awful isn’t the right word for my year, and I am grateful for that, silver linings and all. AWKWARD is a better description. 2020 was an awkward-ass year.
The masks are awkward, especially for the hearing impaired (ok, bad listener) like me. “WHAT? CAN YOU SAY THAT AGAIN…?” That’s me behind plexiglass at Starbucks, feeling very anxious. My daughter translates, “Mom, she said they are out of the reduced-fat turkey bacon.” The masks are just the tip of the iceberg.
Standing six feet wouldn’t be so awkward if I had an ounce of spatial ability. I’m grateful to stores where the distance is marked on the floor. Otherwise, I have to pace it out real fast with my size six feet hoping no one sees me doing a poor example of mental math. But I will not be judged as a close stander.
Elbow bumps, fist bumps, standing six feet away from my mom in her kitchen when I haven’t seen her in weeks, no hugging ninety-year-old Meme or my sister Maggie who is certifiably the best hugger in the universe. No tap on the shoulder or pat on the back. No high fives or handshakes. I want to greet you. Should I bow or would that be politically incorrect? I’m constantly, awkwardly questioning what to do next with my body.
No touching presents the most awkward moments for me. Avocados are just one example. I refuse to buy one without checking its level of ripeness, and my husband reprimands me if he sees me touch one without putting it in my cart to buy. “You touch, you take, Beth.” Ugh. I monitor his vigilance, and if he’s off his game, I’m lucky. Otherwise, it’s ten avocados in the basket and guacamole for days.
Just last week I was checking out washing machines at Home Depot, and a super-nice associate asked if I had any questions. We started shouting at each other from behind our masks about how grateful we are for the return of the agitator, and excited by the common truth moment, I touched her on the side of her arm. Natural in moment of connection, I tend to reach out. It is usually not a problem, but during the pandemic, it feels like Tourettes. Awkward and embarrassed, I shouted, “Oh, I’m so SORRY!” Her eyes smiled at me, gracious. “Honey, don’t you worry about a thing.”
I’m trying not to worry. Culturally, touch is a THING, and I am no longer talking about avocados. I am talking about the kind of touching seen in the viral video first-grade teacher Ms. Blancas posted on Twitter before the pandemic–about the power and significance of a hug, a high five, or even that tiny touch to the outer arm for which I just apologized at Home Depot.
The acceptance, placement, and condition of touch vary globally, yet touch is relevant across all cultures for both interpersonal and social development. Here’s a recent study that shows slight differences but an overall significance of touch across eastern and western cultures.
Touching is a part of our DNA. Non-human primates use excessive grooming to build their social network and connections. Watching my Jack Russell, Ruby, clean the innards of terrier companion Ray’s ears grosses me out, but it is essential maintenance in their social structure. The first step in building a bond after birth is when the mare licks her foal clean of the placenta. You have seen monkeys at the zoo lined up like 12-year-old girls in a sleepover back massage train. They pick debris and insects from each other’s fur and not just for good hygiene. Their touch is how they socialize.
Human touch is just as necessary. Touch allows for affirmation, comfort, and the connections we build between us, the very ones that help us collectively move through difficult times.
Think about a time when a simple touch made a difference. I started writing about touch over two decades ago after a powerful experience in a physician’s office. At first, I was surprised. Typically for me, physician touch associates with something cold and metallic. Yet, I could feel my anxiety slow as she lightly touched my forearm, caressing it the way a mother does a child’s back when it is time to go to sleep.
My daughter used to play with my hair as she fell asleep for her naps. That’s a touch I will never forget.
When I taught English, I used touch to build comfort and affirmation for my students. As I leaned over to read the first paragraph of her paper, I might touch her shoulder or give him a little pat on the arm, nothing major, just a tiny touch to say, “Don’t worry; I’m just reading your topic sentence.”
I am among those who manage disappointment more stoically if I am NOT touched. Give me a hug when I’m already upset and the flood gates open. Why is that?
At the risk of going full-on Brene Brown here, I think the power of touch correlates directly with a sense of belonging. Back to the herd again–we are animals, you know. A pat on the back, a nice, big hug, or a high five says “I am WITH you. You are not alone.” During the pandemic, we have barely managed to stay connected through social media and technology, and while I am grateful for the moments of reconnection, a digital community does not feel as powerful as one with the touch experience.
Or maybe I’m just really bad at online gatherings. For me, Zoom is a practice in awkwardness. Non-verbal clues are huge for me. I talk a lot and don’t hear (ok, listen) very well. I worry about interrupting, and I worry about being interrupted. I find multi-tasking during Zoom both tempting and offensive. And the worst is the Zoom pause. It’s when everyone is waiting for someone else to say something. The screen looks like a scary, post-post-postmodern, bobblehead version of an Andy Warhol painting. Awkward.
I’m not willing to give up the hug or the pat on the back long term. I’m so tired of the side-step greeting that combines a wave with an awkward verbalization of what’s about to happen. “Hi, Sally! So good to see you…ELBOW BUMP!” Did South Park invent the elbow bump or SNL? Please let’s return to the handshake. After all, I’ve spent decades trying to get it right. Not too weak, not too strong. Eye contact for days. I am ready to re-implement.
A friend of mine sent a Christmas card with her dogs on the front that said, “Best. Year. Ever.” Best year for dogs, indeed. Everyone is home, so they get to stay inside and hang out with the loved ones who feed them. They get extra treats and more walks than usual. They greet us with jumps and hugs, and we pet them. And, I might add, they get to clean each other’s ears as often as they like. Nothing awkward there, not in the dog’s world.
On the human front, my year wasn’t awful. As I generated my Shutterfly photo book for Christmas, I reveled in the many memories I had forgotten: the mother-daughter trips in January and February that feel like years ago, the walk n’ wines around the farm with my girlfriends, family time at the lake, the many U-haul trips moving our adult children to and from their various housing situations, the renovation project, indoor camping with Dan, and DIY with my mom and sister. We were lucky. We were surrounded by people we love. The sum in total–it was a good year.
But make no mistake. It’s been awkward. I am over fifty and have “maskne”. I talk about Pelaton instructors like they are family. “You won’t believe what Cody did today!” I’m in a fight with PayPal, Amex, and “Shu Shang” over an internet scam that cost me $69.30, my nephew’s Harry Potter Lego set is sitting in a container somewhere outside Philly, and I’m wearing two right feet. And I haven’t even mentioned the Presidential election…yet.
Here is my New Year wish: everyone gets vaccinated as soon as possible so we can get back to hugging, high-fiving, shaking hands, and talking about something other than COVID-19. A personal goal, decidedly, is to wear these right-footed slippers long enough that eventually, the right feels like the right and the left feels like the left, like normal. Symbolic, you see. Let the “old normal” resume!