Space Invaders (aka: A Touchy Subject)

A stranger hugged me yesterday. It was during the course of a group ELL conversation, and he was trying to illustrate some point. I stiffened, and patiently endured the awkward moment until the stranger pulled away. Later, he seemed to realize the faux pas he had committed and apologized profusely.

“It’s okay,” I assured him. But inside, I was thinking the opposite. It was really not okay.

I am not a hugger.

awkward-hugs

 

Not because I am cold and unaffectionate by nature. In fact, I am generous with hugs and cuddles with my kids, a strong maternal instinct at work. I offer the usual hugs and kisses to relatives or long-lost family friends when the occasion presents itself. But beyond that, I am not into being touchy-feely, preferring the safe virtual {{{HUGS}}} of internet peeps. (Even the obligatory handshake makes me want to reach for a bottle of hand-sanitizer, but that’s a different story).

Have I always been this way? It’s hard to say. I didn’t date at all in college before I met my now ex-husband. And when we married, I was the perfect gift — a chaste, untouched little Christian wifey. Just like that, I learned, my body was no longer my own. According to my ex-husband (and, apparently, the Bible), my body belonged to him, not to me. Translation: it was my wifely duty to do whatever he wanted, even when I didn’t like it or feel like it.

Unfortunately, I also learned that I hated sex. It was an always uncomfortable, mostly painful, rarely pleasurable event that I grudgingly accepted as my fate. The moment it was over, I couldn’t wait to scoot away to my own little edge of our king-sized bed, as far away as possible from the person who insisted on putting me through such torture night after night.

Okay, maybe torture is too dramatic of a word. But still, it was awful, and I hated it.

As the years passed, and nothing got better, I developed an aversion. Not only to sex itself, but to anything that might lead to it. That included kisses, hugs, and cuddling of any kind. But the bigger I drew my personal space bubble, the more my ex insisted on invading it. The more I expressed my discomfort with sex, the more he insisted we have it. The more we had it, the bigger my aversion grew. And so on.

Long story short, after seventeen years of yuck, I got divorced. (Happy ending).

But the aversion to being touched remains.

control yourself

I did learn, thanks to a fling with a guy we’ll call my “post-divorce experiment,” that cuddling, when it’s wanted, can be quite nice. However, something inside me freezes ice cold at the uninvited touch of another person. When other humans unknowingly step inside my bubble of personal space, panic boils up like a geyser, and I instinctively begin to search for an escape route.

So how do I avoid situations that may lead to the violation of my personal space? Maybe I should stop showering every morning. Maybe I could start a fashion line of barbed-wire accessories, and call it Every Rose Has Its Thorn. Or, more simply, avoid uncomfortable real life situations with strangers by staying home in my safe little cave, behind the glowing computer screen, where {{{HUGS}}} are totally acceptable.

virtual hugz

Have a Wonderful Day (aka: Paying Forward Happiness)

wonderful day“You have a wonderful day today.”

Startled, I glanced up from my Kindle book and into the face of a fellow train passenger. “Thank you,” I said, smiling. “You too.”

The stranger flashed a friendly grin and exited the train. I felt dazed, too distracted to read my book, the unexpected and kind words echoing in my mind. You have a wonderful day today. He could have aimed those words toward any other stranger on the train, but he’d singled out me, handing me the verbal equivalent of a hand-picked daisy.

Funny how such a small gesture can change your morning. Instead of drifting to work in my usual fog of random thoughts, noticing little of the world around me, I snapped to attention. The same old scenery came to life — skyscraper windows dazzled with sunlight while strange and lovely shadows played on nearby walls. And all around me were people — ordinary people, like me, clutching their coffees and cell phones and satchels while shuffling down the sidewalks. People who may have been stuck in the same fog of thoughts that normally accompanied me on a typical morning.

What if I paid it forward?

What if I took the burst of joy that had come from a stranger’s simple words and offered the same to the next person I saw? Could I do it? Could I dare to break out of my eggshell of timidity and brighten the morning routine for another person?

Fighting back the butterflies, I studied the people who passed me on the sidewalk. One looked away. One was chatting on her phone. One marched forward, eyes trained ahead like the eye of a bullet train. My courage faltered. Maybe the timing was wrong. Maybe this wasn’t my thing. Maybe I had to find my own way to brighten another person’s day. Perhaps I could just try smiling at other people as they stepped onto the elevator. I could bring in fresh produce from my flourishing garden to share with other employees. I could be the first person to say, “Good morning,” instead of passively mumbling in response. kindness daisy giving

The point, I think, is to be mindful. The point is to keep from drifting into my fantasyland reverie and stay in the moment a little more often. Only then will I see people as they drift through the fog, and be able to offer them rays of sunshine at just the right time. Just as a kind stranger did for me on an otherwise ordinary morning.

For anyone out there who happens to be reading these words, I hope that you will have a wonderful day today.

Stranger Danger (aka: Remember the Milk Cartons)

 

missingLike most kids who grew up in the 1980’s, I was terrified of strangers. The idea was drilled into our heads by paranoid parents and teachers: STRANGER = DANGER. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t accept candy from strangers. If a stranger asks you to help him search for his missing dog, run away and tell a trusted grownup. Because if you go with a stranger, you may end up with your face on a milk carton, just like poor Etan Patz.

Remember Etan Patz? He was a cute 6 year-old kid who disappeared one morning in 1979 as he was headed to school. His disappearance shocked the nation, and started the milk carton movement. Suddenly, that carton of milk next to our morning bowls of Sugar Crisp cereal became a daily reminder to kids everywhere: Talk to strangers, and you will wind up kidnapped.

Adam Walsh 1981

Adam Walsh, who disappeared from a shopping mall in 1981. His father, John Walsh, later became the host of the television show, America’s Most Wanted. 

Kidnapped. To an 80’s kid, it was pretty much the scariest thing that could happen to you. Besides the news stories filled with sobbing parents and neighbors scouring their communities with flashlights, there were cartoon episodes, chapter books, and school assemblies training kids to be aware of their surroundings, and to act in self-defense if a stranger tries to grab you. There were after-school specials and even full-length movies about real-life kids who got kidnapped and murdered while playing, like Adam Walsh, the boy who went missing without a trace. The names of the kidnapped kids haunted us as we walked to school — Michaela Garecht, Kevin Andrew Collins, Polly Klaas.

face on the milk carton

Was there a single girl who grew up in the 80’s and didn’t read this book?

Now some would say that the whole Stranger Danger safety campaign went a little overboard. After all, the actual risk of a child being abducted by a stranger is pretty low. But thanks to media overexposure (and a ton of commercials reminding us to drink milk), we 80s kids grew up in a culture that compulsively promoted child safety, just short of locking us in the house and making us wear bubble wrap. Today, we try to be a little more relaxed than our own parents, easing off on the phobia-inducing Stranger Danger fear tactics with our kids.

Most of the time, I feel as though I’ve struck just the right balance of educating my kids to be stranger-aware. However, just the other day, my 10 year-old nearly gave me a heart attack. While out riding his bicycle in our neighborhood, he suffered a small crash and scraped his elbow against the pavement. In tears, he called me from a concerned stranger’s cell phone to inform me of what had happened. prevent child abduction

“Wait…whose cell phone?” I asked.

A stranger. And not just a stranger…a strange man who got out of his car and offered a cell phone. Those familiar feelings of childhood panic rose to my throat. My kid did not have proper Stranger Danger training. What if the stranger had been one of the bad guys who steal kids? My little guy’s face could have ended up on a milk carton.

And so, after we’d had a chance to clean up his scraped elbow, I sat my kid down for a good old-fashioned 1980’s fear tactic lesson on the danger of strangers and wolves in sheep’s clothing. It went something like this: If you are away from home and absolutely need help, and there is no police officer, security guard, teacher, or other trusted adult, then this is how to regard strangers:

Green Light: A mom with kids.

Yellow Light: A woman (older women, like grandmothers, because you can outrun them).

Red Light: Men. Just no. Run away.

Stranger Danger

Perhaps some people will consider this type of training to be over-the-top by 2015 standards. But I know that I am not the only grown-up child of the 80’s who still remembers what happened to Kevin Collins. Adam Walsh. Michaela Garecht. Polly Klaas. And many other unfortunate kids whose childhood was stolen from them. In memory of those kids, and of their families whose lives were ripped apart, I would rather pass on such safety lessons to the next generation, so that we will see a lot fewer kids’ faces on milk cartons, and a lot more outside, playing and riding their bikes.