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The Power of Physical Touch

Oh, hugging. When it starts to get colder outside, doesn’t everyone want to have someone to hug to keep warmer, or snuggle up next to inside? Well, almost everyone.

Some people love it. Some people can’t handle it. For others, it’s okay with select special people in their lives only. Here again, I am referring back to my previous post on making art and expanding upon one of the phrases I thought of after writing the poem published there. And in my Thanksgiving post, I mentioned that I once disliked being hugged, and promised to say more on this topic.

What’s the big deal about hugging? Why does cuddle therapy exist? Why was the hug machine (aka hug box or squeeze machine) invented? Why would two people have a four minute hug? And why do you see people on college campuses or in busy public places holding signs offering free hugs?

Alright, first, here’s a bit of my story. My mom once told me that when I was a young child and got hurt, perhaps running in from outside because I’d scraped my knee, I preferred to hug my stuffed cat, and shied away from her offer to hold me. Usually, however, I was okay with family giving me brief hugs, but beyond that, I was highly uncomfortable with someone I wasn’t close to reaching out for a squeeze. If anyone attempted this, I tensed up with hands stiff at my sides, a nervous soldier at attention. Thankfully I’ve had several turning points since then.

The first I recall was during a church youth camp. We did an activity blindfolded and at the end while I was still wearing my bandanna, one of my leaders hugged me. I was a bit caught off guard, but as she didn’t let me go for several long moments, I eventually raised my arms and hugged her back. I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience, but I didn’t want her to think I didn’t love and appreciate her. I believe after this point I started accepting more hugs and in high school if I’d built enough of a connection to a person emotionally first, I started enjoying being hugged.

When I was around 16, I even started initiating a few hugs. Wow, let me tell you that was a big step. When looking around at couples in school holding each other I thought, “Hmm, that looks nice.” I still very much appreciated my own space. One of my brothers loved to tease me by sitting very close and touching me. He received my invariable response of leaning away and telling him firmly to get out of my bubble.

My mom sometimes made comments like, “How are you ever going to marry if you’re like that?” Cue my best eye roll. It’d be different with someone I loved of course. Why? I realized I was comfortable with being touched by someone and maybe even touching them (I can’t say why that’s harder than the former for me) if we had first formed a deep enough emotional connection. It was very important that that came first. With dating experience later, my thoughts were confirmed. With an increase in emotional intimacy, an increase in physical intimacy was allowable and even desired. But they had to go hand in hand, with emotional intimacy first, or any kind of touching beyond, say, a high five was a no go. I attribute this mostly to my introversion, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing.

But why hug? Hugging for at least 20 seconds releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone. Hugging helps build trust, connection, calm fear, keep you healthier, even lower blood pressure! We can communicate through touch in ways we can’t with words. Even more good reasons to hug are expanded upon here: Benefits of Hugging. It can just feel really good!

I’m more comfortable now if a hugger I don’t know well reaches out. I’ll accept it, and if the occasion feels right, I’ll initiate a hug even to someone who’s mostly a stranger if we’ve built a little bit of rapport with a conversation. I might even reach out automatically at the sight of a friend to say without words, “I’m so happy to see you” or “I just adore you, my friend”. Although I do try to be sensitive to those I realize might be as I once was for various different reasons. This could be due to high introversion (here’s an excellent post about one introvert’s experience that is similar to mine: Please, Don’t Touch the Introvert), or hypersensitivity, which may occur in individuals with autism spectrum disorder, or in fewer cases, an actual fear of touch or being touched called haphephobia (you can read about it here: Fear of Touch).

So what of people who don’t enjoy being hugged? Or those who want it but are starved for it? Some have tried to address this. Temple Grandin, an American professor with autism, invented the hug machine while in college. Her inspiration was the cattle squeeze box. Hypersensitive individuals can be calmed by using a hug machine. Travis Sigley, the founder of cuddle therapy, discusses this fairly recent revolution to help individuals through nonsexual touch here: Cuddle Therapy

That can be expensive, and before cuddle therapy came around, an Australian known as Juan Mann started the free hug campaign, with a similar goal to help people who lack connection in their lives. The power of physical touch is real but in today’s world it can be complicated. I recall kindergarten children who reached for my hand during an internship at a Boys & Girls Club, but I wasn’t allowed to hold their hands. I had to lift my fingers up so we were still touching but not too much. And goodness, if any children needed the benefits of holding hands, which are similar to what you’ll find about hugging, it was those children.

Last year, the New York Times wrote about an issue of fear with men specifically in using nonsexual touch, how that was viewed differently in Lincoln’s day, and how in the US cultural trends have diminished the acceptableness of it: Gender and Cultural Norms Around Touch. The tintypes of male friends in the 19th century which the article links to seem to show that “bromance” is nothing new. There’s also a problem in the UK, as you can read about here: No Hugging in the UK

Gratefully there are some who have taken notice on this issue. Some have even conducted some fun social experiments. Glamour magazine asked people to participate in a four minute hug with a partner. It’s adorable. I love it, but the lack of a single pair of two heterosexual guys in this video does stick out to me.

Maybe cultural norms won’t change anytime soon. Even though it seems touch is needed more than ever. Especially during the holidays, many need and want to feel they are cared for. It should be a joyous time, and a few extra hugs a day can make it less stressful! So go ahead and hug someone who could use it, or, if they’re not okay with that, show your affection in another more suitable way for the individual. And if you haven’t yet, read about giving a heart-to-heart (or left to left) hug and try it out! You might be surprised about how different it feels. Happy holiday hugging!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thinking While You Chomp

Two weeks ago I promised to bring you along on a journey of self-discovery by elaborating on the words and phrases that came to mind from the poem I included in that post. One of the phrases I thought of was “mindful eating”. As we just passed Thanksgiving, and the holiday season is now in full swing, I deemed this as a relevant topic to start with. You can find plenty of articles online about mindful eating, and resources from The Center for Mindful Eating to help you engage in this practice. Benefits of mindful eating include an opportunity to gain more enjoyment from food, avoid binge eating, and be more aware of and in sync with your body.

Here’s a bit of my story. As a child, I was always the last person at the dinner table. I ate slowly, consciously chewing each bite. And I put my fork down in between bites. I don’t remember being taught to eat slowly or to pause in between and set down my utensils. I just did. Sometimes I’d be so immersed in eating, that I’d look up surprised to discover that someone had left the table!

Fast forward to one of my early morning jobs as a teenager. I had to get up before the sun before any hunger awoke in me. I forced myself to down something to avoid pains later. Around this time, I also began to read while eating alone, to save time. Because of course, I was always reading a novel I found so interesting that my brothers practically had to pry it away from me to get my attention at times. But alas, there were other things to get done besides devour the entire YA section of the library.

A few years later I was in China, where for the first time in my life, I felt pressured to eat more after I was full. This was a very consistent pressure. So I cracked a bit. My hosts were too gracious, selecting more foods for me with their chopsticks and placing them on my plate. If I was eating in their home, probably due to the language barrier and not knowing what to do with me, they would offer pre-dinner snacks. Of course, after the meal, the snacks reappeared. No one believed me when I said I was full, unless I repeated it a minimum of three times. I felt rude if I didn’t accept some of the extra nourishment.

Fast forward a few years and enter an obsession with music videos on YouTube. Yes, to be honest, sometimes bingeing on YouTube occurred. See what I did there? To put it more accurately, I have struggled and do sometimes still struggle with watching one too many YouTube videos, usually at night, keeping me up past my bed time I set for myself so I can get up for work. This bingeing eventually introduced a bingeing buddy that I did not intend to invite to the movie night. You know, popcorn. Not literally popcorn usually, but a snack to go with the video. And the scary part? If I finished the treat while the video was still going, I missed the fact that I’d just had something delicious and thought I needed to get more so I could actually enjoy it. If I gave in, I’d feel sick later and be frustrated with myself. And continuing the spiral, I could end up like one of Pavlov’s dogs, conditioned to salivate at the opening strains of every new song! What a nightmare! Let’s not go there.

This sometimes results in a problem on the other side of day. Yes, ignoring the alarm (I have a strange habit of avoiding the snooze button and turning off the alarm instead, meant to encourage myself to get up immediately or in just a minute more to enjoy my most comfortable memory foam pillow, but well, this isn’t guaranteed to have the desired result). This leads to sleeping in too long and not having adequate time to eat breakfast. This usually results in a very rushed meal that doesn’t include what I’d really like to eat. Maybe some of you can relate to this vicious cycle. Yes? Yes? Tell me I’m not the only one who ever has this problem. Oh, and guess what happens when you don’t get enough sleep? You tend to eat too much the next day.

Now, when I lived in China, while I sometimes kept eating when full to please my hosts, I still ate slowly and because many of the foods were brand new to me with interesting tastes and textures, I was full of curiosity. I took my time to explore the uniqueness of each, uh, chopstickful. I was full of questions about the food and paid attention to what I was experiencing while eating. Having this kind of awareness and examining your thoughts and reactions to food are important parts of mindful eating. I have better days, and days when I’m more mindless while eating. It’s something I’m working on.

One of the first steps is avoiding distraction, which can be difficult, but if you do you may be delighted with how you experience a meal. Have you tried a mindful eating exercise before? This one can get you started: Raisin Meditation. Note this could also work with a grape, or really any kind of small food. What about when you’re eating with others? I wouldn’t advise eating alone for every meal. Certainly, the social benefits, as well as the mental and physical health benefits of sharing meals with others could constitute an entirely separate post. But how can you still be mindful when eating in a group? Try these tricks here: How to Eat Mindfully With Others. What are your thoughts on mindful eating? What plans do you have to avoid mindless eating during the holidays?

Happy mindful holiday eating to you and yours this season!

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How Many Hedons?

There I was, scanning the ballroom for a table with an open seat, and someone new to sit by. The decorations at each table were certainly eye-catching. However, my eyes got stuck on a little treasure chest full of chocolate coins and bookmarks. I sat down and listened to the woman next to me explain a “magical writing practice” to better your mood. She gave me a bookmark with instructions on how to do this to increase your happiness, and the best part is that it was supposed to last all the way through 30 days. The commitment? Writing for just three consecutive days about positive moments from your life in three twenty-minute sessions.

Of course I had to see for myself whether this could really work. I fully believed that I would feel a burst of gratitude while writing. But would the good feeling really last for a month? The first day I wrote, I started with some of my earliest childhood memories. And you know what? Bam! A burst of hedonic nostalgia. And the second day? Boom! A spoonful of warming appreciativeness. And the third day? Well, how can I say it? I was harpooned by a sharp pang of indebtedness and thanksgiving. Yes, I am so glad I attended the writing conference put on by the American Night Writers Association earlier this year and got that bookmark.

But here’s the thing. No, my childhood was not bad at all. I ran around outside silently narrating my life in the third person (I guess I was destined to be a writer). I had good parents, and brothers to play with. I had good teachers. I had good church leaders. I enjoyed learning in school. I read for hours, and climbed the grapefruit tree in the backyard and made up stories about the neighbors. For all of these hedons, there were some dolors. For example, sometimes I was jealous about the things other kids had that I didn’t. Our family was never rich. And I always felt that there was something innately wrong with me because adults used this word called “shy” and even described me as “painfully shy”. My teachers at teacher conferences would give glowing reports but always tell my mother that I was so quiet in class. I often didn’t know what I wanted to say. Or how to say it if I did. That was painful. Sometimes I’d watch kids playing and want to enter into their group but didn’t know how. Sometimes the boys pulled my long hair. “You’re not very articulate, are you?” someone said to me once. That kind of hurt. Also, until I was around 16, I was a Temple Grandin, in the sense that I disliked being hugged. It just made me uncomfortable. More on this will come later.

Anyway, none of this was terrible or severe or alien. I can’t complain! It wasn’t difficult to focus only on the positive moments even if I remembered the moment before or after  was sad. It didn’t matter. What mattered was looking for the things to be thankful for. It didn’t matter how many hedons I could count or how many it seemed I had compared to others. In the month that followed, there were no especially exciting occurrences, and I had my share of unfortunate events. But at times I found myself smiling although there was no apparent external stimulus. When I got sad news or something that just wasn’t fun happened, I rebounded to feeling grateful quicker than I thought possible before. Sometimes I felt a warm fuzzy inside though I didn’t know why. I slept better. I’m not kidding. There are so many benefits to having gratitude. It affects your whole self. Does that sound unlikely? Well, check this out: Be Happier with Gratitude. This quote below really says it all.

I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite – only a sense of existence. Well, anything for variety. I am ready to try this for the next ten thousand years, and exhaust it. How sweet to think of! my extremities well charred, and my intellectual part too, so that there is no danger of worm or rot for a long while. My breath is sweet to me. O how I laugh when I think of my vague indefinite riches. No run on my bank can drain it, for my wealth is not possession but enjoyment.

-Henry David Thoreau

To go a step further, expressing gratitude makes it truly heartfelt. So thank you to the lovely lady who gave me that beautiful bookmark. And thank you for reading this lengthier post. And thank you to my excellent family and dear friends. And thank you writing chapter for supporting me. And thank you Lord for so many blessings on this Thanksgiving and for the 3 C’s I missed when I lived in China, namely, cheese, chocolate, and carpet, which I reunited with in joy and have loved again ever since. And thank you to the writer behind Wellness Mama, for the delicious homemade cranberry sauce recipe, which I have used for the third Thanksgiving in a row. You can find this incredible recipe here: Homemade Cranberry Sauce. What are you thankful for and how do you try to feel and express more gratitude?

How many hedons? Who cares?

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

Making Art

Late one night this week I penned these words just before drifting off to sleep:

Why do we get fatter

When we are starved?

Why do we get so bloated

When we are empty

Sometimes what we want

Is not what we need

There is a difference sometimes

Sometimes what we want

Is disguised

Sometimes what we want

Is out of reach

Or so it seems

So we reach for something else

But maybe what I really want

Is to feel the runner’s high

Maybe what I really need

Is to be heard

Maybe what I really miss

Is your embrace

And being with you

Instead of alone

I don’t know if I remember well

How that feels

 

When I read through the poem at the end, I asked myself what it meant. I wrote down several words and phrases that came to mind. Ten, to be exact. In the coming weeks, you will see posts on some of these. Through this method I hope to demonstrate a bit of the process of self-discovery that can occur through writing poetry. Sometimes a poem is the result of what I see, but other times a poem is the lens through which I begin to see. As a reader, you too are a large part of this process. If you read the poem and write down ten words or phrases it makes you think of, I doubt they will be the exact same as mine. That is a wonderful thing about writing. David Schildkret, the director of choral activities at Arizona State University (with whom I’ve had the privilege of working under) has said:

The composer and performers are not actually making art, even though we think we are. We provide the stimulus to the audience’s imagination, and they are the ones actually creating the art.

I believe the same applies to readers. The author may think they are making art, but it is the reader that makes it come alive in her own mind.

The Mercy

Writing in a journal is something I’ve done quite consistently for long enough that my original storage space is tight. It helps me to remember details I’d otherwise forget, to reminisce and laugh and shake my head at my younger self. Writing about the events of my life also helps me process them. However, when I write poetry the emotions bleed through, and I’m often surprised at what comes out. It’s like a journey of self-discovery.

Earlier this week after recent events in my life were swirling around in my head, some words came to mind and I began to write before I lost my muse:

 

First, the affliction of the body

And then of the mind and soul

The latter is far worse

And the mercy is

That which was easier to bear

Came first

In preparation

Though you thought

It was the end

And it was enough

But the mercy is

That you grow impossibly strong

And powerfully compassionate

And wiser than before

In preparation

And the mercy is

While some are broken now

Others can carry them through

Dark channels and hold them

So they won’t fall apart

And when these others have

A turn to be broken

Their own others will be there

And here is the mercy

Everyone breaks

But not all at once

 

This was a reflection on the struggles of several people I love who have gone through physical struggles and pain that were difficult to bear. But later they experienced and continue to go through struggles that attack the mind and soul.

One of my wonderful coworkers traveled to a magical place last weekend, where evidence of fall is found in the changing colors of leaves. I don’t see this where I live, but she brought back a bit of the season. It was such a small thing, yet it gave me a bit of joy when I needed it! While I haven’t endured challenges of the same type or to the same degree as the people who inspired my poem, I have watched the pain.

I’ve felt a tiny slice of it. I’ve shed tears over how long and deep the pain and fear can be. I’ve been frightened with them, surrounded by unknowns. But then I remember again when I can’t fix it, even the smallest things can help in between, in that period before healing, before answers, before comfort. We all go through our own trials. When they escalate, sometimes we even break and stay that way a while. A smile or a hug or a listening ear can mean everything in those moments. And that is a mercy.

Saxicolous

Last week while enjoying a hike with a friend, I spotted many little clusters of tiny wildflowers sprouting up in the rocky terrain. White, yellow, lilac and lavender heads of joy greeted me. One of the hikers we continued to pass by secured two of the smallest golden blooms into his beard, and it made me laugh inside. Unlike on the streets, people on the trails are much more likely to give a friendly smile and hello. We have one thing in common, folks! Bring on the camaraderie!

Towards the end of our journey, what I suspect were queen butterflies flew in front of us for at least a minute or so, as if to encourage us forward.

Not so surprisingly, I forgot about the troubles on my mind. I felt more relaxed. And I felt inspired to write. My anecdotal evidence shows again and again the positive effects of nature on the mind and wellbeing. Science corroborates this. Articles such as this outline how it can make you Kinder, Happier, and More Creative.

During poetry month this last April, I produced this poem:

Floral Hues

Goldenrod the hue of a flower mistaken for weeds,

Lures fair pollinators that it needs.

Violet irises, royal and sure,

For my sad heart a most vibrant cure.

Pink fairydusters bring swallowtails around,

Hummingbirds too for its sweet nectar are found.

The blue Birdbill Dayflower growing on mountains fades soon,

But the climb to see is a price not too great for this boon.

Yes, even the sight of the smallest wildflowers uplifts me. But another thought struck me later. Isn’t it amazing how flowers can grow in desert terrain? Take a look at the conditions here. I assumed these were wildflowers and not weeds!

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Some plants are really good with obstacles like this. Saxicolous plants are specifically adapted to grow among rocks, such as the T. Pamelae written about in this article: Saxicolous Plant. The key is deep roots. May I suggest some biomimicry?

When life brings sorrow, fear, disappointment, or frustration, look for pieces of beauty. Seek for moments of peace. Search for memories of mirth. Spend time in nature. And make sure your roots are deep. Don’t let the rocks and hard places in life be impediments forever. Even people can be saxicolous.

 

 

Fear and Creativity

 

Halloween is coming up so let’s talk about something scary!

Back in 2016, I read My Year with Eleanor: A Memoir by Noelle Hancock. Noelle took Eleanor Roosevelt’s advice to “do one thing every day that scares you” for an entire year. What did I do after reading? No, I didn’t vow to scare myself every day for one year. But I did start taking voice lessons for the first time in my life and shortly after started performing solos in church and in private settings for friends. And the results were surprising!

As a shy introvert, getting up and doing anything in front of others is uncomfortable at best. A series of increasingly devastating fears about making mistakes swirl around inside just at the thought of doing anything for an audience. Believe me, the fight-or-flight response and I are very familiar with each other. I suspect many can relate. However, I’ve had small successes here and there with taming that response and growing my confidence when singing for an audience. I expanded my range, I got through songs without shaking, I received compliments and accepted them and occasionally even refrained from responding with a self-deprecating comment.

With anything creative, including writing, you must let go of the fear to push through. Setting up a website and sharing my work is a little spooky for me, but here’s one thing I’ve learned. When you choose to be vulnerable, some of your best, most honest, and most relatable work is born. Check out this blog post for ideas on why fear isn’t a bad thing when it comes to creativity: Fear is your friend. I’d also suggest reading this article about why we fear creativity if this topic interests you: We we fear creativity

I found that the things I’m most afraid to write are also the most satisfying to write! And while they seem to gain the most appreciation or praise from others a majority of the time, the joy from sharing them is the true prize. Below is a rictameter I wrote after practicing a song I was about to perform:

 

Rictameter

What scares you? How do you overcome fear to pursue your passion, whether creative or otherwise?

 

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