“The Hug” by Tess Gallagher

The Hug
Tess Gallagher 

A woman is reading a poem on the street
and another woman stops to listen. We stop too.
with our arms around each other.

Suddenly a hug comes over me and I’m
giving it to you, like a variable star shooting light
off to make itself comfortable, then
subsiding. I finish but keep on holding
you. A man walks up to us and we know he hasn’t
come out of nowhere, but if he could, he
would have. He looks homeless because of how
he needs. “Can I have one of those?” he asks you,
and I feel you nod. I’m surprised,
surprised you don’t tell him how
it is – that I’m yours, only
yours, etc., exclusive as a nose to
its face. Love – that’s what we’re talking about, love
that nabs you with “for me
only” and holds on.

So I walk over to him and put my
arms around him and try to
hug him like I mean it. He’s got an overcoat on
so thick I can’t feel
him past it. I’m starting the hug
and thinking, “How big a hug is this supposed to be?
How long shall I hold this hug?” Already
we could be eternal, his arms falling over my
shoulders, my hands not
meeting behind his back, he is so big!

I put my head into his chest and snuggle
in. I lean into him. I lean my blood and my wishes
into him. He stands for it. This is his
and he’s starting to give it back so well I know he’s
getting it. This hug. So truly, so tenderly
we stop having arms and I don’t know if
my lover has walked away or what, or
whether the woman is still reading the poem…

Clearly, a little permission is a dangerous thing.
But when you hug someone you want it
to be a masterpiece of connection, the way the button
on his coat will leave the imprint of
a planet in my cheek
when I walk away. When I try to find some place
to go back to.

The Definition of a Friend 

“From day to day, nothing so surely defines the quality of our lives as the unwavering affirmation in the eyes, in the voices, in the presence of our friends. It is through them that we truly begin to know ourselves; and it is their affection that assures our dignity and worth.”

             – Robert Sexton 

Photo found at: www.myspace.com/hugperformance

I was looking for an analysis on the The Hug by Tess Gallagher, which is on the curriculum for the Leaving Certificate 2013. I came across this sermon, which I’ll leave here until I’ve learned the poem. It has a lot to say about the meaning of the poem. I’ve never come across it or the poet before so am thrilled to discover both, as the poem is simply amazing. I would recommend it to everyone. There is such as big moral to be learned from the homeless person who says ”Can I have one of those?”. There was no falsity about him at all. He was up front. Just like a sneeze or a yawn that becomes allergic, and everyone around starts to do the same. He became allergic when he saw the lovers hugging each other and wanted to be hugged too. He was partial to a hug, and why not. So what if he didn’t have the proper etiquette. It was a spur of the moment thing and not a lurid preplanned action on his part. Besides the boyfriend was around. So that cancelled out anything of a wrong nature. I was going to use snippets of the sermon only, but it would be a pity to break it up. I have no affiliation to this church whatsoever but find that the message in the poem is universal. I don’t think the religious only should have the monopoly on the preaching of its contents. However I shall enjoy reading the take of the pastor. The poet has already done that herself with her artistry. If there is anyone out there who can analyse this poem for study purposes I would really appreciate the feedback, as it’s hard just battling with oneself in trying to decipher the poem. I know the central theme of love is obvious, but, it would be helpful to have it teased out with other minds. I cannot find an expert analysis on the poem. I was blown away with these lines in the very last stanza.

But when you hug someone you want it to be a masterpiece of connection, the way the button on his coat will leave the imprint of a planet on my cheek.

The masterpiece of connection, just like in a painting when its finished and the whole thing makes sense. The imagery of the button making an indentation on the cheek and its association with the planet is so metaphorically powerful.

Or when we read this line

 Don’t you realize that my partner’s love is for ME alone? That it’s exclusive, like a nose to a face?”


There are two things that strike me about the scandalous hug in Tess Gallagher’s poem. The first is the desperate want of the man who asks for it. He’s homeless, perhaps. A stranger who sees a couple embrace and has the audacity to come up to them and say, “Can I have one of those?” I mean, it’s one thing to ask for some spare change, isn’t it? But quite another to ask a complete stranger to hold you in her arms. The nakedness of his need is something that we — with our middle class propriety and pride — would rarely allow ourselves to reveal.

The second thing that strikes me is the response of the narrator. At first she is predictably shocked and annoyed. I imagine we’d all be. Here she is exchanging an intimate embrace with her lover, only to have some stranger interrupt it. It’d be like someone coming up to you and your mate on the last dance of the evening and asking to cut in. You just don’t do that. So she says to herself, “No. Don’t you realize that my partner’s love is for ME alone? That it’s exclusive, like a nose to a face?” And yet for some reason she can’t say no. And she puts her arms around this strange, large man and tries to hug him like she means it. And before long she does mean it. She snuggles in and presses her face so tight against his winter coat that when she lets go his coat button leaves an imprint in her cheek. Love — it turns out — isn’t so exclusive after all.

I have a hunch that it’s not just me who can identify with BOTH parties in this awkward embrace. I can relate to the man who feels so alone, so empty, so devoid of love that he’d ask it from a complete stranger. I know because I’ve felt that alone. AND, I know that sometimes I am so full up and brimming with love that I can dole it out freely and unconditionally. What IS this love, that — when we’ve got it — obliges us to pass it on? To give it freely, and give it good? What wondrous love IS this?

Last week I talked about how coping with the reality of our death and coming to a healthy understanding of what death means for our LIFE, is one of the fundamental tasks of the religious life. I suggested that death, properly understood, focuses our attention back on the preciousness of life and its most important value, love. This week I want to talk about love. About where it comes from, and how we pass it on.

Let me begin, though, where so many of my sermons begin, which is in my office, listening to the concerns that you all bring to me. For those of you who haven’t been there, there’s a box of tissue in my office that rests on the table beside where we sit. If you were Catholic, it’d be more fancy. You’d get the confessional and the rosary beads and the Hail Marys. Here it’s just me or Shana or Gabrielle, a hug, and the little box of Kleenex. In my office, at least, that Kleenex gets the most use when people are talking about the absence of love in their lives. It’s the middle-aged man who just buried his only remaining parent and now feels utterly alone. The young man whose low self-esteem always gets in the way of him letting others love him. A woman, neglected as a child, who still can’t trust enough to let others in.

It seems we all LONG to be beloved. We all NEED to be assured of our loveableness. There seems to be this nagging suspicion that lurks within all of us. That whispers in our ear, “You are not worthy to be loved.” “You just aren’t quite good enough to deserve it.” You’d be surprised how prevalent this tape is. Sometimes playing most often in the heads of those who overcompensate with arrogance and cool self-assurance. Unitarians are famous for their belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but when we say, “every person,” it seems we rarely mean ourselves. We rarely say to ourselves: “You are worthy. You are loved. You are a child of the Universe, a son or daughter of the living God.”

We do say this to our infants when we bless them on Sunday mornings and welcome them into our church family. And everyone wonders later why they were crying during the baby blessing. No matter how many times we’ve heard those words, we each need to be reminded of our own original blessing. The blessing that is our birthright: which is that we ARE worthy, we ARE loved, we DO belong. Each and every one of us. This is true in SPITE of all the messages we get to the contrary. No matter how our former spouse made us feel. No matter what our supervisor down in L’Enfant Plaza or Federal Triangle says. No matter what our boss on Capitol Hill, or our colleagues out in Tysons Corner say. No matter what the racist or the bigot says on the street, or the op-ed page. In spite of ALL the ways the world tries to take from us our original blessing, it is not theirs to take. Don’t let them take it from you.

We need to reach out to the places and people in our lives that remind us of our belovedness. We need to get in touch with the source of this love in our lives. Last Sunday as I was shaking hands with folks after church, a woman came to me and said, “Rob, I see you’re talking about unconditional love next week. Don’t forget to talk about the pets!” Raise your hand if you are or ever have been loved unconditionally by a family pet. Good, me too! What wondrous love indeed!

One day a few years back, Robert Fulghum set out to learn more about the source of this wondrous thing called love. The Unitarian minister and author of the popular book, All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, decided to bundle up people’s love stories and publish them in a book. (See Fulghum’s book, True Love). So he went out into the coffee shops and bars and public markets of his native Seattle and put out a sign that said, “Tell me a love story and I’ll buy you a cup of coffee and make you famous.” The only requirements were that they be short stories, and true. At first people hesitated, he said, they’d “roll their eyes and laugh and say they had a love story all right, but it wasn’t short and it wasn’t sweet.” But with a little encouragement from Fulghum they told it anyways. Drawn by the sign, people gathered ’round his table and listened to one another’s stories. Story led to story and often they drew applause from the sympathetic crowd.

The shortest story came from a four-year-old girl who had been standing next to Fulghum’s table sucking her thumb and holding a yellow blanket against her face.

“Do you love your blanket?” asked Fulghum.

The little girl nodded her head, “yes.”

“Does your blanket love you?”

The child shook her head coyly, “No, silly!”

One of the most telling stories came from a woman named Rita, from Denver. Rita was in her early thirties and had just gotten a divorce from her husband who had abused her. Like so many who have survived a harmful relationship, she emerged from it feeling pretty unattractive and unlovable. She told Fulghum: “[One day] on my way to work, I pulled up at a stoplight and a gray car pulled up to the right of me. In the car was the most handsome man I have ever seen… no one has ever looked that good.”

“I looked at him to see if he was going to turn at the red light. He didn’t. He looked back at me and smiled as though looking at me had made his day worthwhile. I was instantly in love with this gorgeous gray-haired man, but a minute later he turned right and I turned left. But I knew then that there was life after divorce, even if for only a moment at the stoplight.”

A family pet, a stranger at the stoplight, the declarations of our lovers, the baby blessing at church. All of these are reminders of our belovedness. Of our original blessing. They call us back to the source of love in our lives. Now I know Unitarians well enough to know that we all have different names for the source of this love. I know that we could quarrel over whether God is that source or whether God is just a name that some of us give for the love that permeates the universe. I’m not sure that’s a quarrel worth having. Because I think that we can all agree, that love is both utterly sacred and profoundly human. What we CAN do here is help EACH person come to experience and name the source of love in their lives. The source of their original blessing. And once having entered into relationship with that source, to act on that love in ever-expanding circles.

You know, that is one of the stated purposes of this church. Nowadays even churches have mission statements and goals and objectives. The fist stated goal of this church is exactly this: to help every one of us discover the source of love in our lives and cultivate the ability to act on that love in ever-expanding circles.

You see, I believe that all of the love in the world comes from one source. The source of our original blessing. We carry that love around inside of us and that’s the love we have to work with in the world. But I think of love almost like a currency. I remember my first economics class, when I learned that there was this finite amount of currency in the world, but that if the currency were exchanged, then everyone’s wealth would grow. So if I start the day with a dollar and give it to Rose and she gives it to Ralph and Ralph gives it to Carol, well, then we all got a dollar richer that day. I hope I didn’t totally butcher that Econ 101 lesson, and the metaphor isn’t perfect, but the point is that love grows when it’s passed along. When it’s exchanged. And everyone’s the richer for it.

The poem this morning was a little snippet of love’s expanding circle. If you’ll recall the very beginning of the poem, the narrator receives a reminder of the original blessing. Maybe it was the combination of hearing the poet on the street corner and walking hand in hand with her beloved, but she is overcome by an upswelling of love inside of her. An energy which is uncontainable and which needs to be shared or else it’ll just get wasted. So spontaneously she gives her lover a hug. And then, virus-like, it spreads. A stranger sees the love, is drawn to it, and asks if he can have a little. It turns out there’s more than enough to go around. And by the end of the poem, we are left wondering who else may have witnessed this unsanctioned act of love, and to whom will they pass it along. This is how the circle grows. Through this act and millions like it, larger and smaller, this is how the circle grows until it encompasses all of creation.

Maybe my sermon today is not as politically sophisticated as some would’ve liked it to be. Maybe this sounds a little naïve. Maybe I sound a little too simplistic. For those who feel this way, you’ll be happy to know that I’m preaching about power in a few weeks. And what I’m talking about IS a different way of thinking about love than some faiths teach. When Unitarians and Universalists first started to say that love and justice come from our grateful response to the love that was first offered us, Calvinists said, “that’s not gonna work. You can’t do religion that way. People don’t behave justly or lovingly because of love, they do it because of fear. The fear of God’s eternal judgment. You wishy-washy liberals are gonna take all the justice out of religion if you keep talking about love like that.” And there are a lot of people who would say that still today. And there is some truth to what they say. There must be a component of judgment in religion. Something that says what’s right and what’s wrong. But I’m gonna stick to my guns here. And stand by the legacy of our ancestors who said that we can be convinced by love, not just by guilt and fear, to act for justice and peace in the world.

There’s an Italian restaurant in Robert Fulghum’s neighborhood in Seattle that has a sign on its door that reads: “We reserve the right to serve only those in love, those who have been in love, or those who want to be in love.” God bless the Italians for doing stuff like that. The restaurant, of course, is always packed. I’ve been thinking we could probably hang a sign like that out on the church’s front door. Because at the center of the religious life is a love given freely to us all. And religion is not for the guilt-ridden and the afraid. Religion is for lovers, plain and simple. Lovers who have received the good news that they are a child of the Universe, that they are worthy, that they belong. Lovers who, in grateful response to this love, share it with others and make it manifest in the world through acts of justice and compassion.

May the blessings of this love be yours and mine now and forever.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s