I love the dictionary.

“hug [v]: (1) To clasp or hold closely, especially in the arms, as in affection; embrace. (2) To hold steadfastly to; cherish  (3) To stay close to.” 

That’s the definition my dictionary gives for the word “hug.”  I was especially captivated by the second and third explanations.  You see… while I haven’t been the recipient of any earth shattering hugs in awhile,  I’ve felt as though I’ve been hugged by invisible arms all week. I looked up the definition of the word, in fact, because the feeling was strong, yet I wasn’t “embraced”, and I was curious to see if there was an emotional definition alongside the physical one.  My thoughts were validated by seeing definitions two and three under the word “hug.” 

You see…  I’ve been on a mission for the last week, a mission to repay kindness. I’m not done yet, there are a few names on my list for whom I haven’t thought of the right surprise. I’ve given out random copies of the book with Starbucks gift cards inside, I’ve taken people to lunch, I’ve mailed very, very special people interesting things, I paid for the fast food meal of the stranger in the car behind me because strangers have often been the ones to uplift me, I’m voluntarily bringing food and sitting through the Super Bowl, which is a massive statement, I’ve just… I’ve made a conscious effort to think of the people in my life who made a difference and to say thank you in a way that I haven’t before. I know my words get old, I know that sometimes I it feels like I’m saying the say things with different words.  I can’t tell you how often I’m told these days that I’m too emotional, or that I need to relax and learn to have fun, that I’m too serious. I already know that being near me can be a strenuous experience because I never stop thinking and use words a lot—so it was time to stop talking and start demonstrating. And it seems as though every time I do something very small, something happens that makes me feel…. well, hugged.

Just a day or two into my week of repaying kindness, I found a child I’d mentored on Facebook. He’s now thirteen years old (he was five when I knew him) but he still remembers “Ms Tiffini”  in a humbling way.  (Hug). Another day or two passed and I took a special teacher to lunch. It was supposed to be a way of saying thank you, but it turned into an uplifting and sweet experience for me. She still has a poem I wrote her eleven years ago, and it’s in a family photo album; she still has a golden, engraved apple I gave her for Christmas one year and it’s prominently displayed in her home. She really hadn’t forgotten me.  She loved her students, and she missed her students, and that included me. (Hug) But it got even better. Just before leaving, I recounted to her a story of another special teacher. I have spent years looking for this particular teacher, but had been unable to remember her first name, thus, was unable to find her. After recounting the story, my teacher said, “I know her” and gave me her first name. I went home and, lo and behold, she, too, was on Facebook, and I was able to connect and say thank you. Isn’t it odd that that happened on the very week that I was trying to say thank you to important people in my past and present? (Hug).  I prepared and readied a present for a sick friend who, even though is sick, told me she’d come find me in my class than have me just drop the gift off at a place more convenient to where she needed to be. This person makes me feel like I have a friend—even though I’ve done nothing. (Hug).  Another day passed, and I mailed a very special thank you to someone who means a lot to me: this person responded by saying that the gift I mailed would provide a needed break for the family;  I felt special and remembered. (Hug).


Do you remember the last “real” hug you’ve been given, the last one that lasted longer than a moment?  As much as I use, cherish, adore and believe in words, the fact of the matter is that a real hug can sometimes do what words cannot: they can make you believe you’re cared for. The year I moved to Memphis in high school, we returned mid year to get records from the school, and I decided to surprise Stackhouse, one of my most influential and special teachers. He wasn’t in his classroom, so I had to trek to the library to find him. He didn’t see me approach him, so I just touched his shoulder. When he turned around, the look on his face, without a word being said, instantly healed a small piece of my heart. As he finally wrapped me in a hug, he said, “Wow.” The man was happy to see me. He was happy to see me.  Not many people are happy to see me, frankly. Most have walls that go sky high when I walk in the door;  some have been known to run for cover. I scare people. I don’t really know why or how, but I do.  I analyze everything, I think a lot, and I write on scary issues that I truly get emotional about (just wait til the day you hear me talk about the holocaust).  But, that day, Stackhouse was happy to see me. I believed it, without his telling me, because of his hug.

A good hug is warm, strong and is accompanied by no demands. A hug that doesn’t ask for anything, a hug who’s only purpose is to display caring, is an amazing gift. I’ve been the recipient of hugs in the past that have made me feel safe, that convinced me their only purpose was to show me they cared.  A real hug makes me lose sight of time, makes me forget to erect the walls that are typically built within seconds of the first sign of physical affection. A true hug is one that tells me thank you for being you: emotional, serious, over-analytical, deep, scarred you. Arms wrap from one side to the other, pulling you into a cocoon of strength, warmth and peace. There have only been a handful of people who have ever been able to hug me in a way that made me believe they didn’t want anything from me, they just wanted to be near me. Those people convinced me of that by displaying remarkable respect and silent thoughtfulness.  When it’s a true hug, it makes you feel special, without having done a single thing, it tells you that it’s okay to take a minute and just breathe. Someone once told me, “there are no kids within five hundred feet from here” as a way of trying to make me understand that there was nothing I had to do, no expectations.  A hug, then, is supposed to make you feel cared for, looked out for, protected, at ease.


What I’ve remembered this week is that a hug isn’t always a physical embrace. Conversations that are meaningful, real and warm can be a hug.  A smile can be a hug.  An unexpected or thoughtful gift can be a hug.  Any act that makes you feel cared for, cherished, important or special is a heart-hug, a hug of the emotional sort that heals or motivates or believes;  an act is a hug when it tells you that you are cared for. My daughters and I went to a sleepover last night at their gymnastics school. There were an astounding number of girls there, and 90 percent of them were between eight and twelve years old.  There were zero five year olds and 1 four year old: Alight.  She is – fearless.  I was initially concerned that she would be scared or intimidated because, I mean, the girl only came up to everyone’s else’s waist.  But she wasn’t. Instead, she started walking around, holding her arms out, and taking turns hugging all of the girls whose names she did not even know and whose faces she’d never seen.  Standing in a line, they all held out their arms. They wanted her to hug them.  The whole thing lasted maybe two minutes or so but it warmed my heart. She was showing that she cared, that she enjoyed them, and they were accepting and returning the hug.  Breathe isn’t quite as fearless: in fact, she’s rather scared of heights and fast rides. But she is a natural born leader.  The coaches told everyone to find their friends and sit down in a group with them.  We’d all found our spot and were sitting down when I saw Breathe  get up. She walked over to one girl who was sitting by herself and said,  “hey, come on, you wanna be in our group?” She led the girl to where our group was sitting, then went and pulled over another lonely child. Once we all were all seated, she smiled at them and said, “How old are you?” to each one, inviting them to talk. She was hugging them;  when I was a kid in school, — I – was the lonely kid sitting by herself, I know what it would have felt like to me to have someone else notice me.  Then, later during the talent show, she led Alight by the hand up to the lead coach and, when she was given the microphone, sang the song Alight wanted to sing, making sure that Alight had the chance to sing too. Afterward, she said, “I wanted to sing American Honey but I knew I had to sing a song that Alight knew too.”  So they sang Twinkle Twinkle Little Star instead.  Hug—one to sister Alight, and one to Mama.  I was so proud of the kind of girls they are, and I was so happy to see them giving and receiving hugs.


I get hugged a lot. Every day,  the girls get morning hugs. I do too, then a couple a hugs every other hour or so.  And people hug me too. But isn’t it funny how sometimes you can be physically embraced but left emotionally untouched?   We give hugs, even casual ones, to show affection and because we love or care about someone. How, then, is it possible that we get in such a rush or come to think of a hug as a substitute for a handshake, some sort of automatic greeting?   If the purpose of a hug is to show someone we care about or love them, shouldn’t we take enough of a minute to make sure that our physical hug is simultaneously an emotional one?  If we are thinking about something else, if we are in a hurry, but we go ahead and give them a light embrace — I can’t help but wonder if that’s not cheating them and ourselves out of something warm, uplifting and special?  Real hugs — physical or emotional – take place when we put the person we’re with first on our list of priorities, when that person is more important than what time the clock says it is,  or the fact that our cell phone is ringing. There is a salon nearby. I’ve never actually been inside it but the name of the salon is A Moment’s Peace.  To me, that’s what a real hug – emotional or physical – is all about: providing someone else (and ourselves) with a moment’s peace from the outside world, a moment of quiet, a moment to rest and re-group; it’s about exiting the busy world with its stress and demands and relaxing in a warm and cozy cove for a minute, it’s a reminder that we still matter to someone. 

To cherish something is to value it, to hold it dear, to believe in it: to cherish something is to first pay enough attention to it to know what it needs to thrive and then to spend time taking care of it. We can cherish good things or bad things, people or objects, or both. We can cherish time, we can cherish ideas, we can cherish just about anything. But most of the things we should cherish we actually take for granted. We take for granted that we’ll receive a hug from someone today. We take for granted that the person we hug truly believes we love her.  The only thing that has helped me re-write some of the painful and degrading internal dialogue I’ve used on myself most of my life has been people: my family, my children, perfect strangers who lived on the streets.  People have been the ones to help me re-shape my thought patterns, and they are the ones who deserve my time and my affection. The most precious jewels anyone will ever have draped around their necks are the arms of their children, or their loved ones. When we learn to cherish a hug, to savor it, and to recognize the acts of kindness that surround us as hugs, then it becomes almost impossible to see life itself as anything but a gift.

I have been fortunate enough to have been the recipient of a handful of life-changing hugs, hugs that convinced me someone really cared, hugs that made me believe I was important enough for them to stop what they were doing and hug me. This entire week, I hope I’ve given those hugs back. I haven’t physically hugged all of the people that I’ve given time or gifts to but I hope I have shown them that I do “hold steadfastly to” and “cherish” the friendships and relationships we have.  Ultimately, life is about more than bank accounts, classes, schedules, work or school—it’s about the people we’re surrounded by. Day to day life has a way of making it hard to feel special—hugs are meant to counter that, to be the momentary haven where we remember that we matter because of who we are, not what we do. Ultimately, in our heart of hearts, we’re all craving an unshakeable belief that we’re worthy, that we’re important, that we’re not just another body in a sea of bodies: hugs, both physical and emotional, have the potential of reminding us that it’s okay to be who we are.  I have a core need to know that it’s okay if I’m sentimental or emotional or serious or over analytical, I have a core need to know that I don’t have to change or adapt who I am in order to be loved, or respected, or liked.

This week, I’ve been blessed with multiple hugs. Though they haven’t all been physical in nature, they have all tugged on my heart, made me smile and made me proud of everyone I know. Thank you to everyone who’s taken a moment to stop and give me a small piece of their minds, hearts, time and energy;  for those who have smiled at me with warmth, expressed concerned about whether or not I was rested, who stopped the work they needed to do to check on me or who took the time to write a note about a book I wrote—I want you to know that your hug has been received, and felt and that you help keep me grounded in the present and that you deeply matter to my life. In the end…

Life is about praising God and appreciating the fact that He gave us others with whom to surround ourselves, to laugh with, to cry with, to jump on trampolines with, to run in the hot sunshine barefoot with, to throw snowballs at, to love…. and to hug.  We hug God when we read His word, when we pray, when we worship… and when we pause to hug those who He has put in our lives. The belief that we are loved and cared for can often motivate us to positive action, and strong, positive actions lead to strong hearts, minds, families and communities. Just like  a breeze is gentle as it dances across our faces, lifting our hair, and urging us to tilt our faces to the sun, a hug – be it a physical one or an act of kindness that touches us – refreshes and invigorates us, teaches us and, ultimately, loves us.

Who have you hugged today?