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Michelle Phillips

Many years ago, before I became an editor and subsequently jaded by “humanity,” I was a super hugger. I hugged everyone and everything all the time. It’s my family’s fault, they are all huggers and kissers and cheek pinchers. Gradually, though, I became more of a handshaker because people in a professional setting become troubled when you walk up and hug them at introduction.

I still hug strangers, often, or at least I did. I almost always, at very least, offer my hand to strangers and of course people I know through work. That has all changed in 2020.

Back in March people stopped touching each other. I remember being at the International Mustard Competition at the National Mustard Museum in early March and at that time people were bumping elbows rather than shaking hands. Then that came to a halt as well, replaced by a brief wave or nod from behind the disguise of a mask.

The last person I hugged outside my home was my husband’s cousin in early October. We were both masked and it was very brief. But the last stranger I hugged was at Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Madison this summer. I wrote about it in my column at the time, and how scary it was to hug a stranger, but the emotional circumstances surrounding the encounter made it necessary in spite of my fear. It was a moment of human connection that I had been deprived of since COVID-19 took hold of our lives, and honestly did not realize I had missed.

Last week I received an email with a rough draft of an essay my niece, Keyla, wrote for AP English, a class I very much enjoyed, myself, at her age. She is like me in so many ways, one of which is being a cheerleader. You see, among cheerleaders, even back in the dark ages when I was on the sidelines, there is a camaraderie, in many cases even with the opposing team’s squad.

Keyla wrote in the essay about an encounter in a deserted hallway with a cheerleader from another team that had given an outstanding performance. She wrote about how they walked up to one another and hugged quickly in a quite hallway during the chance meeting afterward.

She explained the feeling of hugging a stranger after so many months of only touching members of a tiny circle of people. How it seemed to suddenly humanize them and connect them if only for a brief moment in time.

It then went on to say that we should embrace our masks as a means of solidarity during a shared experience. We should wear our masks as a symbol pride knowing that we are all in this fight against the virus together.

Those of you who read this column regularly know that I have written about masks and their politicizing from the beginning of this pandemic. To see my 16-year-old niece make this same assessment on her own makes me proud to know she is a critically thinking young woman. It also makes me proud that she believes in science, humanity and the shared human condition. I think that is the most you can hope for the children in your life, that they become thoughtful, thinking, kind and humane individuals.

It is amazing that sometimes something as small as one chance encounter with a stranger during a shared experience can mean so much to another. Maybe that’s what we need to remember as we kick off the 2020 holiday season–we are all human, we all experience the same things albeit from different points of view.

So, Happy Thanksgiving, everyone, and fair warning, once this pandemic is over, I’m hugging you all!

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