Handshakes, Hugs, and a Kiss on the Cheek
She approached the front door of Fresh Market slightly ahead of me and from a different angle. Her head was up. Mouth set in a defiant line. Eyes straight ahead, she marched past the “mask required” sign and entered the building.
She did not wear a mask.
In keeping with my “six feet apart is better than six feet under” philosophy, I considered the risk, doubled the required distance and followed her into the store. I was curious to see what would happen.
She moved into the produce section with a determined yet expectant look on her face. Ready to be challenged? I looked around the store, curious to see if anyone would speak up. The place was busy but in the quiet, distanced way we seem to have adopted for our shopping in the time of COVID.
At first, I thought nothing was happening. The open layout of Fresh Market makes it easier to see around the room than other stores, and I had a good vantage point. Everywhere I looked, patrons in masks, apparently deeply absorbed in the shopping experience, studiously avoided staring at the woman.
Then slowly, nonchalantly, shoppers widened the distance around her. From the corners of their eyes they cast discrete glances in her direction, expressionless behind the fabric covering their faces.
She moved off into the store, repelling people in the same way alike pole magnets repel one another.
The mask-less woman’s expression stayed with me long after I left the market. Other than opening up the space around the woman, I had no idea what anyone else in the store was thinking.
I couldn’t see their faces.
Our subconscious mind reads micro-expressions like a book. Eyes alone reveal much, but we forget how much meaning resides in every tiny twitch and shape change of the mouth—or depend upon a combination of both.
Fear, surprise, anger, sadness, disgust, happiness, and contempt can still be recognized from the eyes alone. But it’s not easy. I suspect it takes more practice than I hope we will have need for in our present state of affairs.
I have lived for more than 30 years in downtown Rehoboth Beach. For most of that time, Steve and I had dogs—first Sam and later Pete. After 16 years Pete passed away this past March. I bring up the dogs now, because walking them was as much a part of our Rehoboth experience as CAMP Rehoboth. Walking a dog is an excellent way to people watch. Pete, with his well-groomed mound of fluffy white hair was a favorite of kids—young and old.
Without a dog I’m not out on the streets as much as I once was. When I do venture forth, I understand the world is changed in more subtle ways than I first observed when social distancing and mask wearing became an inevitable part of life in the time of pandemic.
Not being able to see beaming smiles or even angry frowns is disconcerting. It creates another kind of separation. It creates confusion, and even suspicion.
The last time my father visited Rehoboth Beach, we strolled through downtown on a beautiful summer morning. Everywhere we visited, we found hugs, and handshakes, and kisses on the cheek. Smiles could be seen up and down the street. People waved.
“This is the friendliest place I’ve ever been,” he said, with amazement in his voice. “The people are so open.”
That’s what I miss the most. The comfortable, easy way people in our town greeted each other, welcomed strangers, or dropped by to see us for no other reason than to say hello.
The necessary pandemic mode we now inhabit reduces our ability to properly communicate with one another. It cuts off our ability to touch one another.
My father, the Methodist minister, speaking from the pulpit, once recounted the story of a woman who told him she came to church for the moment in the service titled, “the passing of the peace.” Traditionally, the time church members greet their neighbors with handshakes and hugs.
“It’s the only time in my week,” she explained, “when another human being touches me.”
I was startled as I typed those last words, by the sudden realization that because I now live alone, I had not touched or been touched by anyone since mid-March.
Air hugs, air kisses, a wave goodbye on a Zoom call. Such is life in the year 2020.
Except that’s not always the case.
For me, for the people in my life, social distancing and mask wearing is, at least for now, the norm. For a multitude of reasons—politics, no cohesive national pandemic response, or simply mask fatigue—that is not true for everyone.
Personal mask-wearing habits aside, dealing with the added daily stress of an out-of-control COVID-19 pandemic, economic hardship, vast political divides, racial injustice, and all in a critical election year, leaves us exhausted and very much in need of human contact.
Bars, churches, parties, dances, concerts, sports, theatre, community centers—all the places we go to relax and connect to people—are the most unsafe places to be.
Our brains know what we have to do to stop this pandemic. Our hearts cry out for human contact—for a smile, a hug, a hand to steady us when we fall.
What saves us in these difficult days, is the same thing that always gets us through rough times. Hope, love, family, friends—doing what we can to help our neighbors and community.
That is why Sundance 2020 will make small donations this year to PFLAG, Immanuel Shelter, and the Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice. That is why the theme of Sundance this year is United in Love. Strength in community has always been a part of the mission and vision of CAMP Rehoboth.
Much has happened this year to expose the worst part of humanity. Also, our best. And at our best, we humans shine as bright as the sun.
There is goodness still, and joy, and kindness. And always love. And the best way to find them comes when we give them away.
Even if we can’t see the smile through a mask, that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Hugging is nice, but it is not a measurement of how much we love. A kind word has consequences beyond knowing.
And a kiss on the cheek? Well, for now, that air kiss will just have to do.
Murray Archibald is an artist and CAMP Rehoboth co-founder. Email Murray at firstname.lastname@example.org