Virtual Hugs: Can we survive?

The Human Touch

’Tis the human touch

in this world that counts,

The touch of your hand and mine,

Which means far more

to the fainting heart

Than shelter and bread and wine.

For shelter is gone

when the night is o’er,

And bread lasts only a day.

But the touch of the hand

And the sound of the voice

Sing on in the soul always.

– Spencer Michael Free

The inability to hug each other must be the most de-humanizing caution of this pandemic. So says absolutely every person I’ve met with in the past months: “I hate it that we can’t hug!” Forget masks. Nothing is more dissatisfying than a virtual hug. 

I skimmed Bible sites for thoughts on touch, but most quotes emphasize what not to touch. (Much like my high school teachers told us.) When a woman touched Jesus’ cloak, he felt power go out of him.

My birth family was loving, yet fairly anti-touch. One showed respect for another person by keeping a distance. Only in retrospect did I realize I had absorbed the unspoken rules concerning what distance was appropriate for approaching which category of person: aunt, cousin, friend, best friend, next door neighbor, neighbor two-doors down, unknown relative at a funeral, unknown relative at a wedding, shoe clerk, relative who married someone questionable. We practiced a refined culture of social distancing long before it became “a covid thing.”

Then I went to a college with Jewish students. Everybody was touching everybody. People I didn’t know, wasn’t related to in any way, hugged me. I was frozen in shock for at least one semester. I did manage to hug someone back before graduation.

Now I understand why there are more “Don’t Touch” warnings in the Bible, and not so many “Okay to Touch.” There are Biblical warnings about not touching because the people who wrote it were touching everything all the time! No encouragement needed.

So my life-long ease into the wonders of touching continues. Now I’d say that the power generated from a good solid hug, or back rub, or handing hands, is necessary for physical, mental, spiritual health. I’m guessing that is why we are covered, head to foot, with the sense of touch. Greeting each other from a distance is bad, but not hugging? How can we possibly keep our humanity?

Touch with our eyes. Look deep.

Touch with our voices. Speak gently.

Touch with our sense of smell. Breathe in deeply.

Touch with our ears. Listen carefully to each other. To birds, To music, To silence.

Touch with prayer.

–Alice Barrett

Prayer is Music

“We are a community of believers, questioners, and questioning believers. We strive to be open and affirming to all. We sometimes disagree, yet love one another as we wade through the joy and pain of spiritual growth. We endeavor to worship God together, follow the example of Jesus, embody the Holy Spirit, support each other, and serve our neighbors, near and far.”   Official Statement of 1st Congregational Church, Ashfield, MA, UCC

 

What does prayer mean to a congregation of “believers, questioners, and questioning believers”? Does God hear our petitions and decide whether to answer yes or no? Does prayer focus our energy on someone who is suffering and that energy aids the person? Does prayer do anything?

Each Sunday, joining in prayer is singing with each other. Regardless of the words in a song, “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” or “Ubi Caritas,” the music shifts our spirits and we join with each other. Prayer is music, it brings us to a place of sacred attention when we are alone or all together. However each of us envisions God, we yearn to align ourselves with Wisdom, Compassion, Justice, and Love. Wherever we seek God, in nature, in our neighbor, in church, in silence, we yearn to find the Source of All and trust that it is good. Prayer is an expression of that yearning, of our deepest concerns and desires.

While praying we release ourselves from the necessary questions such as “Who or What is God?” We enter the space that we want to understand more about and explore. Afterwards we read books and discuss and give our brains a good work out.

If nothing else, prayer allows us to open to each other. It gives us, as Buddhists would say, an opportunity to glimpse the Interbeing of all. Prayer is a map we both follow and draw as we go.

Those old prayers and hymns we sometimes recite and sing are the memories of those seekers before us. Something in those prayers opened their hearts, gave them courage, and urged them to follow their path.

Prayers are not recipes or formulae, they are love poems. They need not be factual, but they must be true.   

– Kate Braestrup, “Beginning Grace”

 

Touching the Water: A Poem

Rev. Kate Stevens led a prayer circle in solidarity with Standing Rock Water Protectors. A bottle filled with water from the Missouri River at Standing Rock and local sacred waters sat in the middle. Kate put her hands on the bottle and everyone touched someone who was touching someone who was touching the water.

Touching the Water

For our ancestors, wise and unwise

..

Their blood flows like water through time

and settles for a while in our veins,

warm and nourishing and

with a long blood memory.

..

There is no “my blood” to sacrifice or

“my water” to drink,

no “this blood”

“this water,”

only blood

only water.

..

The Jew said,

Hath not a Jew eyes,

organs, dimensions, senses,

affections, passions,

healed by the same means,

harmed by the same weapons,

warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer

as a Christian?

If you prick us do we not bleed?

..

Only one blood to spill

One water to sail upon

One blood remembering all as it flows through us,

as we struggle to forget.

One water aware of all as it flows around us,

as we flounder in forgetfulness.

..

One sacred duty for our very brief time here:

Remember.

 

Using the Wound to See

A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

May 14 is the 2nd anniversary of my accident. On that date in 2012,  a car hit me as I was crossing the street. Against the odds, I did not die. A surgeon who was skilled in repairing “filleted” ribs was at BayState Hospital. Medical staff and an amazing array of tubes, blinking lights, beeping machines, and knock-out drugs kept me alive through septicemia. I’ve written before about the community of comfort, prayer and song that accompanied me. And needless to say, the gift of my vigilant, loving wife Jeannine.

What about now?

You’d think it was time to let go of the past and resume my Alice-ness. However my old Alice-ness is altered. And I’m still discovering the nature of my altered Alice-ness.

This winter I shoveled snow. Afterwards I was on the floor and couldn’t get up, the pain was so bad.  Yesterday I lifted a tray over a coffee table and the same thing happened. The pain is located just below where my body had six surgeries. So I’m writing this on ibuprofen and an ice pack. My body has changed, but what about the other essential parts?

When I meditate, scary memories arise. When I pray, the space is empty. But I meditate and pray anyway, in some form or another. Is that what people call “faith”?

Something still feels amiss. Sarah Pirtle helped me describe the feeling: part of Alice is still on Maple Street, getting hit by a car. Another part is struggling against wrist bindings. Another is having the horrifying hallucination that I was paralyzed for life. Other bits and pieces of Alice lay strewn between Holyoke, Linda Manor, and home. My body sometimes forgets it’s not in a wheelchair.

I am trying to coax all the pieces back, to get reunited with myself. Some people refer to the process as “Soul Retrieval.” The people in the Prayer Medicine group at church have helped so very much. Praying for Kate O’Shea in the group pulled me up and out, allowing me to send energy, with others, to her healing. Praying, sending energy to another person helps me become whole. Perhaps praying for someone sends out a call to all our parts, “Come home, parts, Kate needs you.”

Someone asked her minister, Kate Braestrup I think, to pray for her. Braestrup was dubious about the effectiveness of prayer. After praying, she realized that, no matter the effect on the person’s health, she herself was changed and blessed by the act of prayer. Having been on the receiving end, I know that prayers have an effect on the pray-er and the prayed-for.

Unexpectedly, Emily Dickinson has taught me many lessons. She confronted pain and grief head-on, no walls. She was not given to comforting thoughts, but to examination of these feelings under a scope. She changed my definition of “healing.” Is the work of healing actually keeping the psychic wound open? Not in masochistic pain, but to transform the wound into a opening. Or, as David Brooks said, “…turning it [suffering] into something sacred.” Perhaps a wound of any kind can become another sense with which to experience the world. Emily used that sense.

My Alice-parts are trudging home in fits and starts, what Emily calls “That precarious Gait.” I am trying to coax all the pieces back, to get reunited with myself.  As my physical gait and snow shoveling improves, I also cherish the parallel journey: continuing to walk with that precarious gait, recognizing how many of us walk with that gait, and using the wound to see.

-Braestrup: Here If You Need MeBeginner’s Blessing

-Brooks, “What Suffering Does” New York Tmes Op-Ed April 7, 2014