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13 October 2006

Give free hugs

"We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth..." Virginia Satir

Free_hugs_wideweb__470x3230Stop. Put down that cup of coffee. Drop the busy business person façade. Before you read any further, watch this video (or click below on the embedded version).

Turn up your speakers. Loud. Enjoy the amazing song by the Sick Puppies.

I’ll wait. In fact, I’ll watch it again with you.

[Let me pause briefly for an aside in the manner of those operas where the chorus sometimes sings directly to the audience about what’s going on in the scene so as to build relationship and collusion with us. Please, dear reader, imagine this being sung in the key of C in the operatic style, of, like, oh, say, “The Marriage of Figaro”: I would embed the video into this blog because I’d like to have the picture of the opening scene actually show up here, except that I’m technically challenged and can’t figure out how to do it so if any 37days reader knows how to post the little picture of the video here instead of just provide a link, well just let me know! UPDATE - many, many thanks to Dan for sharing the Holy Grail of Embedded Video Knowledge with me - the video is below)

For those unable to access the video, a summary that will in no way do it justice: a tall young man named Juan Mann (pronounced “one man,” of course) takes to the streets with a simple white sign that says “Free Hugs.” People pass him by. They, like me, look at him trying to figure out his deal—what’s he up to? Is he unbalanced? Is this a joke? What’s the story? And so it goes—in black and white—until a small, old bent woman stops for a hug. To reach down to her height, tall Juan gets on his knees for the embrace.  The black and white film blossoms into color. People begin walking toward him instead of away, for a series of wonderful, joyful encounters—unexpected connection. Free exuberant hugs, hugs just for the sake of reaching out to another human being to connect, link.

It is joyous. It gives me hope. It lowers my blood pressure.

My friend, Madelyn, first told me about this video. “Emma might really like this,” she said. “I’m sure you can find it on YouTube.”

My daughter, Emma, did like it. She not only liked it, she loved it. “That really makes me happy,” she kept saying after watching it. “I just love that.” Her face glowed, sometimes a rare event in the universe of studied coolness that often marks these teenaged years.

Kuniko_and_emmaThe next morning, Emma and I left for the National Storytelling Festival in historic Jonesborough,
, where she videotapes interviews with Big Deal Storytellers for a school project. After a long day in which we forgot to eat—in our excitement to see Kevin Kling and David Holt and Kuniko and Donald Davis and Mitch Capel tell stories—we checked into our hotel and headed to dinner before collapsing.

“You know what I’d really like to do?” Emma asked as we ate our grilled cheese sandwiches at Shoney’s, our feet hurting from all the walking. “I’d really like to do that ‘free hugs’ thing at the Storytelling Festival.”

“Then you should do it!” I said.

We ventured out into the dark of night looking for poster board and markers. An all-night Walgreen’s provided what we needed. By 1 a.m., the sign was completed: Free Hugs.

Morning came, more interviews with storytellers, and then The Moment. In one of those circular moments of life, Emma decided to walk into the center of Main Street at exactly the same time as the woman who had told us about “Free Hugs” in the first place walked up.

“I can’t do it,” Emma said nervously. “I can’t do it.” She rolled and unrolled her sign nervously, shifting her weight from foot to foot. “I can’t do it,” she said again, biting the inside of her lip. “I can’t.”

“You don’t have to, honey,” I said. “But if you really want to, we’ll help.”

Emma has lived much of her life in a shy Self; she is not the Alpha Girl, but something else. This would be a big leap for her, far beyond her comfort zone, her own Apollo mission to the moon, that giant step. In some of the interviews she had done the day before, she couldn’t speak. “I forgot my first question,” she would say, looking over at me nervously, like a bird anxious to fall. “Mama, can you remind me of my first question?” “I think you wanted to ask why they believe storytelling is so important,” I reminded her, “or perhaps you wanted to ask if the pursuit of a story ever became the story,” and even after being prompted, she couldn’t speak to the storytellers. They all did yeoman’s duty to help her find her voice, watching as she struggled to get the words to come out, as if they were stuck in her throat on the barbs of her own anxiety.

A friend, Marybeth, recently told me about gathering a group of women friends from around the country together to help her celebrate some occasion—perhaps a birthday?—to help her be more herself, to give her feedback, to embrace her. At one point in the weekend, Marybeth said to the group something like this: “I am trying to find my voice.”

Her friend Pat spoke up, giving the kind of real, honest, true feedback that Marybeth needed and wanted (and perhaps shocking the rest of the group who didn’t know Pat as well as Marybeth did): “I’m so sick and tired of middle aged white women saying they need to find their voice. I’ve heard that a million times. I just have one question for you: If you did have a voice, what would you say?”

If you did have a voice, what would you say?

Perhaps, like Emma, you would announce free hugs with that voice. Perhaps your voice would say something else—what?

Free_hugsMadelyn walked with Emma to the middle of Main Street as I stood with the tripod and video camera. As Emma tentatively held up her sign, Madelyn walked quietly toward her and hugged her. I was filming from a distance. As Madelyn stepped back, a bright flash appeared in the viewfinder from the left side—a brilliant, fast-moving, purple comet of arms with black dreads swinging behind in wild exuberance, that staccato of joy that serves as percussion for our days. Running, the woman swept Emma up into her arms and swung her around, lifting Emma off of her feet. And so, Emma’s free hugs experience began.

Some passersby were more tentative, walking past, looking back, wondering. Others walked silently toward her, hugged and walked away with a smile. There was no way to predict who would hug and who wouldn’t—I’ll admit that some of the people who stopped surprised me. I don’t know why. They didn’t look like huggers. How wrong we can be. I wondered as I watched what gifts we don’t put out into the world because we are afraid of the response we might get. It’s damned hard to walk out into the world with our “free hugs” sign and be ignored, passed by, laughed at, questioned, isn’t it?

Free_hugs2Emma ventured further; the sign held higher, she moved out of my viewfinder, out into the world of Main Street as I imagine she will one day, spreading her unique way of seeing the world. At first I panicked when I couldn’t see her, then relaxed, understanding how big a metaphor this was for our future when she does leave. She was in direct engagement with the world without my protection — and without, more importantly, my interference. A TV crew interviewed her, people passed her by, others stopped and hugged, smiling. She did it. She did it, the thing that was the hardest for her, the thing that brought her into direct engagement with the world.

We drove home, exhausted from the weekend. “You did a great job with your interviews, Peanut,” I said. “I know that was hard. I’m really proud of you. What was your favorite part of the weekend?” I asked, knowing that she had loved the storytelling.

“The free hugs,” she said without hesitation. “The free hugs were awesome.”

Pushing past that envelope of comfort—those edges we impose on ourselves—is where Big Stuff Happens, Stuff the Meaning of Which We Often Don’t Even Know At The Time.

Hugging has health benefits. I know it makes people smile.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Free_hugs_signJacques Prévert has written, “Millions and millions of years would still not give me half enough time to describe that tiny instant of all eternity when you put your arms around me and I put my arms around you.”  It feels as if we have lost some vital part of ourselves in a dense primordial forest of political correctness, awkward avoidance of other humans for fear of misunderstanding or offense, or the potential of sexual harassment charges, that siren song of “appropriate behavior.” Why is a hug so fearful, I wonder. Is it that we have given up our need or our capacity for direct engagement? What fear drives our disconnect from one another?

And what does free really mean? It means without condition, without expectation, freely given without cause or even without a determination of worthiness, without need or ulterior motive—how often do I really give freely? Are my gifts, instead, some odd expression of power or need on my own part?

The reason Juan Mann moved me so, I think, was that the free hugs were, in fact and in total, free. Give free hugs. At least four a day to survive. Aim for twelve.

Stop looking for your voice. Instead, start figuring out what you have to say.

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That was the best 3:38 I've spent today! I'm still smiling...

Thank you~!~!


What joy! We all need more hugs. You can never give or get too many hugs. Touch is such a wonderful language to communicate with and so simple really and yet so powerful. Thank you for always making me smile or think and often, quite often both.

This is wonderful! I feel like I just got a hug! Kudos to Emma too - how brave and beneficial!

Thanks. I shared it with my teenage daughter, too. She thought it was good. It made both of us happy.

That was an awesome story. I admire Emma for being so brave, not many adults I know would be able to do what she did.

fantastic!!! i loved the video! thanks for starting my day off with a smile. and emma, you are so very brave, and open to life and love. great job! thanks again to both of you. i got behind on your posts and just read 4 in a row. a great start to my long week ahead. i also enjoyed the post about the outsider artists---george widener's work is amazing. i am also a fan of charles frazier, just bought 'thirteen moons'. thanks again for your wonderful writing.

Thanks again to Jylene and mom for reminding me to check your blog. Hope you don't mind Patti, but I had to pass this video along on my blog as well. Can't watch it and not share. I also put a link to your blog on there (hmmm since my family is my main source of readers and they're already here it might add another whopping two or three readers for ya ;) Lovely read. Lovely message. Lovely job Emma! Your uninhibited quest for spreading joy takes me back to my youth theatre days :)

I'm going to share this with my three-year-old when we get home....
The video reminded me of the end of the movie "Love, Actually," where the camera pans through an airport, catching people greeting each other in hug after hug after hug. Those last moments on the DVD always make me sigh and smile. [The commentary track is a scream, too.]

Beautiful. Just beautiful. Thank you for sharing the love. I sent your website address to my daughter this morning; she is at college and too far away for me to hug at the moment. She has put the video up on her MySpace to share with her friends.

It only takes one person...

Will you give Emma a big hug for me?

Kim is my mom. this story is so touching. i watched the video on you tube and couldn't help but cry. i linked it to my MySpace so i could share it. i love hugs. Emma is very brave.

Oh, this is just splendid. Emma is fabulous, just like her mama.

You find the most amazing things. Thank you so much, so so so so much.

When I first saw Juan's video awhile back, I was annoyed...but grew to feel quite moved by it. I'm not sure what annoyed me at first...maybe because I've spent most of my life in granolahead California, I assumed it was just one more goofy California thing...until I realized he was in Australia. ;) GOOD FOR EMMA! That was a BRAVE, BRAVE thing to do. And I can fully understand how despite interviewing some wonderful storytellers, the free hugs might have been her favorite part of the weekend. As moved and touched and tickled as we might be by stories, they're always once removed.

The hug story was great, but I was brought to tears by the "if you had a voice what would you say?" statement. For some reason that just resonated with me and is now like a burr in my head. A good burr. One that will help me to learn what I want to say. See, I'm one of those middle aged white women who wants her voice back. Maybe I've been asking the wrong question. Maybe all along I've neglected to know what I want to say so instead I say nothing and claim it's because I've lost my voice. Whatever it is I believe I'll be meditating on this idea and soon hope to know what it is I want to say to the world. Thank you for the gift.

The feeling I get from this post is akin to the moments of complete peace I feel at the end of yoga practice when you assume final rest position and just let go. The moment after that time of silent meditation is filled with thoughts and ideas and this internal feeling of bright light. I can really connect to the "if you had a voice what would you say?" statement. I see so many people daily (I teach 9th grade) stifling everything they are (the loudest ones have no voice, despite the oxymoronic state that creates). I like what happens when you stop saying "I can't" or "I don't" and you start thinking of all the possibilities. This post reinforces that for me.

Once again, thank you Patti! I am always so moved by the very personal stories you tell that always seem to connect on a universal level.

Your Emma is obviously wonderful. That shines great light on your parenting. Hugs to both of you.

A lovely post.
I just love that Jacques Prevert quote.
Thank you for sharing.


"Stop looking for your voice. Instead, start figuring out what you have to say." - this is probably the one answer that I am looking for, for past few months.

Next time, I hear a song, I will pay attention to the words too.


Dear Friends - I have responded individually to each of you, but wanted to post a public thank you for your exuberant and wonderfully kind words. Emma has been thrilled by your hugs and words of appreciation and buoyed by your support. From me - and, more importantly, from her - a simple, heartfelt thank you. Best, Patti

Patti, you know how synchronicity works and you always seem to hear what you need to hear, just when you need to hear it...well, this was just what I needed to hear today. My husband and I had just, not an hour earlier, been talking about 'finding your voice' and saying what needs to be said, without taking anyones power away from them.
Thanks again for your profound and humourous wisdom.

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