Back before the world turned into a sci-fi movie, back when I checked my look in the mirror each morning before I left the house for work (gasp), my office was based in a small town, in the small shire of Byron, on the East Coast of Australia. It’s called Mullumbimby, or simply ‘Mullum’ to the locals. It’s known as ‘the biggest little town in Australia’ and trust me, it is truly a place like no other.
Each day, I would sit at my desk, stare out the window and become fascinated with people-watching. From the cinema of my window, passers-by would sing loudly to themselves, dress like no one was looking and dance like no one was watching. Except, I was watching — It was better than anything on Netflix: the guy in a pirate hat and no shirt, the person in the giant furry onesie whose bare feet were all I could see from beneath the matted mass, the pink or purple suited poet in the large black cowboy hat … oh the hats and the hairstyles!
When I first moved to the Byron Shire from the humdrum of city life, I felt like I had fallen into an alternative reality (much like I do now). As the new COVID-19 universe is consumed with the fear of touching, the old Mullum universe was one where you feared being touched a little too much. This ‘heart-centred’ touching would take place in the shape of hugs, squeezes, long embraces. The exact definition of heart-centred in Mullum is a little fuzzy, but in the era when we could touch, it largely revolved around how long you could hold an embrace. The longer the embrace, the more heart-centred. The embrace with eye contact equalled double-connected-heart-centred.
A hug is always the right size! ~ Winnie the Pooh
This type of all-encompassing embrace is known around this area as the ‘Mullum Hug’. It does not take long for the Mullum Hug to catch on and become a normal part of life. And I’m sure this little town isn’t the only area where long hugs have culturally been embraced, afterall, it’s hard to deny the benefits: The boosting of the immune system; the reduction of stress, anxiety and fear; the sense of safety; the extra time to remember your hugger’s name. These are just a few of the bonuses of a long, solid, heart-to-heart hug.
At first, for this city mouse, these encounters felt more than a little awkward. But once I got accustomed to the embrace, comfort and beauty replaced the awkwardness. I relaxed into being held, tension released throughout my body, and a very human need for reciprocal connection was fulfilled.
Social Distancing and the Decline of the Mullum Hug
A month ago, if I ducked out to get a bite to eat on the streets of Mullum, I had to factor in hug time. But I haven’t experienced or seen a Mullum Hug in weeks. Maybe because I’m now locked alone in my house or maybe because the streets of the once eccentrically vibrant town are bare. Colourful outfits replaced with clinical face masks. People tentatively waving from across the road before hustling back into the safety of their homes. The Mullum Hug is now the Mullum Shrug. And I’m not ashamed to say I miss it terribly.
There is suddenly a gaping void in my life. I feel I have lost a precious possession I never knew I had. It’s like trying to recall a dream that is on the edge of your conscious memory, seeking out the matching sock that magically disappeared in the wash, or that change you know is jangling around in the depths of your bag yet keeps escaping as your hand flounders blindly for it. When I pass a friend on a walk or in the supermarket, a strong urge to reach out takes over me. I restrain myself. They restrain themselves. The interaction ends, and we sadly part ways, feeling unfulfilled, disconnected.
Surely this can’t be the new normal? Yet I wonder what the impact will be on human touch once this is all over. Will we simply click back into how we were? Will the Mullum Hug return with a vengeance, smothering and lingering for even longer? Or will we forever distance ourselves from physical connection with others? Will we sanitise pre hug? Will we adopt the awkward A-frame, butt out, back-patting hug?
We have all heard about the symptoms of COVID-19 and the possible long-term effects on our physical health. But what of the residual effects it could have on human contact and connection? Will a social recession ensue even after we are able to safely leave our homes and return to work?
Connection is so important to humans. However, as mental health writer Johann Hari reminded his followers in a recent social media post, we can be in the streets of a busy city, surrounded by people and still be lonely. “Loneliness is not the physical absence of other people,” Johann says. “Loneliness is the feeling you don’t share something meaningful with other people.”
Live-tweeting your bikini wax is not vulnerability. Nor is posting a blow-by-blow of your divorce. That’s an attempt to hot-wire connection. But you can’t cheat real connection. It’s built up slowly. It’s about trust and time. ~ Brene Brown
What is important in the absence of the Mullum Hug, and other forms of touch, is finding and creating meaning and connection with each other. Johann called people he hadn’t talked to for years, thanking them for their friendship and influence and seeing how they are doing in these strange times. In a world where many of us have become phobic of communicating in a form other than text, the faithful old phone call could be the vinyl of the future!
It is said that we should put love into hugs as well as love into words; so now we have double permission to verbalise and express our love and care. If phone calls aren’t your cup of tea, you can gift it, meme it, snap it, tiktok it, or go total old-school and write a letter… the possibilities seem endless, as long as you stay six-feet away.
In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it. ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
And once all this is over and we tentatively step out our front doors and into normal life (whatever that may look like for each of us), let’s remember to continue to reach out — to connect in however we feel comfortable. Let’s remember all the simultaneous clappings of gratitude we have witnessed all over the world. Let’s not take hugs and cuddles and proximity for granted. Let’s celebrate our choices and liberties. Let’s count our blessings over and over again. Let’s make a promise to look for gratitude in things we never even used to think about: toilet rolls, fresh air, human contact, and smiling faces.
Perhaps we will all find deeper meaning in how we forge and maintain Contact, Connection, and Love. Perhaps it isn’t a social recession we will see, rather a deeper connection on an emotional and spiritual level. A profound intimacy (in-to-me-you-see)
Moving forward in my own life, I will be making sure connection comes in more than just a physical sense and I’m excited to see how my relationships with those around me form far-reaching roots in all directions of connection. How do you think social-distancing will affect your relationships and interactions once the all-clear is given? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Sending you all a tight vibrational squeeze filled with the frequency of Love,
Ashleigh and Team Uplift