People in the South sure know how to hug. In our eleven years there, I don’t think there was a single time I went to church when I wasn’t wrapped up in a big ole bear hug and squeezed tight. Heck, sometimes I even got kissed.
Unfortunately, right around the time I learned to enthusiastically throw myself into gigantic hugs, my husband and I moved back to the Pacific Northwest. And boy, do people here love their personal space. Especially the church folk. Especially the male church folk.
There needs to be some kind of brochure or handbook, when you move here from other places. People shouldn’t be left to flounder on their own.
I remember the first time I went in for a hug with one of our pastors – let’s call him “Kenny”, because his name is Kenny – who would become a good friend of ours, eventually. That first time, I came at him from the front, as per usual. What happened next was a blur.
With the kind of grace and speed you normally associate with Olympic gymnastics, Kenny feinted, whirled to the side, and ducked under my shoulder. Now we were facing the same direction, with our arms around each other, like two people waiting for a bus.
What the crap just happened? I thought. Does he have a mild form of Tourette’s? Are we in the middle of a skit? Did one of us just have a stroke?
In time, I learned that he’d grown up in a strict pastor’s home where (to minimize funny business, I guess), he’d been taught what he called “The A-frame hug,” that strange sideways thing I’d encountered. Which was less like two people hugging and more like two people hanging out. With no essential body parts touching.
Sadly, having this experience with the A-Frame did not save me from an incident that occurred a while later, in front of the whole church.
It was a Wednesday evening, and I was singing on the worship team. Standing right next to me was a guy I didn’t know well – let’s call him “Jim” – who was also singing that night. In between two of the songs, the worship leader directed everyone to turn to their neighbor and greet them with a hug.
In retrospect, maybe he didn’t say “hug.” Maybe I improvised. Anything is possible.
I turned to Jim, smiled, said “Hey!” and threw my arms around him.
And Jim’s arms stayed glued to his sides.
Within a couple of seconds, the rational side of my brain started screaming “Abort! Abort! Abort!” And I had a small window of time here, where I could have done just that, with minimal damage to my dignity. I could have acted like I was just brushing chalk dust from Jim’s back, or something.
Unfortunately, because my brain is The Land of the Free and The Home of the Crazed, there was another part of me that argued for staying the course. Just hang on for a few seconds more! It’s going to get too awkward for Jim…he’s going to have to slip an arm around you, and then you can give him a pat, release and save face.
I mean, there is a Code of Civil Conduct, right? People just do not refuse a hug.
Evidently, Jim wasn’t aware of the Code. He stood as ramrod-straight as a guard at Buckingham Palace, and as time slowly passed, it began looking more and more, to the casual observer in the congregation, like Jim was a catatonic trauma victim, and I was taking advantage of his paralysis to molest him.
Eventually, it became obvious that Jim was not going to hug me back no matter how long I stood grasping him, so I reluctantly let go. For the rest of the song service, I busied myself with cataloguing the potential cities to which I could flee, under the witness protection program.
Of course, once I got to know Jim, we had a few good laughs about the whole thing. To this day, he acts befuddled about the whole thing, saying he wasn’t used to hugging virtual strangers and was just “caught off guard” or something.
Which sounds a bit sketchy to me. But whatever.
Anyway, the next time you see me at church, or on the street, feel free to offer me a hug. But don’t be surprised if I dodge your embrace, whirl to the side, and throw my arm around your shoulder.
I’ve learned from the best, people. And Toto, I don’t think we’re in Georgia, anymore.
Cathy is a published author, friend, wife, mother, literary aficionado and science geek extraordinaire. Follow her on twitter @cathylynnl and visit her blog at windowsandpaperwalls.wordpress.com if you want your mind blown on a regular basis.