I am spying from my kitchen window on the first day of the New Normal.

My elderly neighbour is sitting on her front lawn. Her healthcare worker, still in uniform and lanyard, sits on the bonnet of her Starlet. Two family members arrive and as I watch the three visitors begin to Tik Tok dance. Auntie gets up, joins in. They all laugh at each other’s antics, review the footage, do a retake. I leave them to it.

Later I look back; the sun is setting. They’re eating fish and chips now. Still physically distant but collectively close. They’ve adapted, picked up where they left off, found ways to share time and place without being in each other’s space.

I’ve never been much of a hugger, but now that it’s gone I miss it. A while back the 20-second heart hug blossomed in my circle and we all tried it on for size. It went into our repertoire and we got used to the initial awkwardness of holding someone for what can feel like an awfully long time, to get that oxytocin flowing … that ‘Happiness Hormone’. I adapted and became a reluctant cuddler.

Solar plexus to solar plexus, cheek to cheek, palm on upper arm, arms around waist, whichever way you do it, that ability to touch another person does wonders for your wellbeing. In fact when it’s not there, real issues can arise. Touch deprivation can lead to eating disorders, anxiety, attachment disorder, depression. The Touch Research Institute at Miami’s Miller School of Medicine has found a lack of touch in teens can lead to increased aggression.

Nordic Cuddle in London, run by the saccharine but infectious Rebekka Mikkola, holds cuddle therapy sessions, hires out cuddle buddies ($NZ130 per hour) and runs professional cuddling training programmes. (Ted Talks will enlighten youCuddling can make us better human beings). Hugging is in hot demand …’til now.

This’ll teach us of course. Shouldn’t have let tech take over, shouldn’t have gone virtual, leaving our IRL touch opportunities to fester. We should have clocked up as many hugs, handshakes, hongi, high fives as we could before the rules changed. Jive guys used to say “Slip Me Some Skin”. I bet you wish you’d banked some bear-hugs so you could use them now when you need them.

It’s that skin that’s needed most. Skin Hunger is an actual thing. It affects people when they don’t come into physical contact with another someone. We need shelter and warmth, food and water, oxygen and touch. If we don’t get it, it can send us batty. From Kangaroo Care for preemies to Therapeutic Touch for those with dementia…skin-to-skin is a basic requirement of being human. For many it’s quite trite, a quick handshake at the top of a meeting or at the pub –but that’s still delivering to an essential need.

About a year ago I began stressing about my lack of abilities on the handshake front. I started forcing my hand on people just to get the practice in. The Power Shake, The Bone Crusher, The Wet Fish, that patronising Two-Hander, The Finger Vice, The Pusher, The Brush Off and the Lobster Claw…when you’re a newbie there’s a lot to cover off.

I’m already 40 years down on men in terms of hand-shaking. By my reckoning, men get in 30,000 handshakes before the age of 40; that’s shaking twice a day from five-years-old (with about 15 extra a year for celebratory shakes).

I’ve been shaking for 6 months and due to reluctance on the mostly male receiving end I’ve probably had a decent 12 where I’ve really pulled it off.

I’ve had some nasty experiences. I got nervous a couple of times and retracted the shake too soon leaving only the tip of my index finger in, limp and pathetic. I practice on my children, but they say I stick my thumb in too hard and they have bruises to prove it. Now with this pandemic pandemonium I can’t keep my reps up and I’m worried I’ll go stale.

The hariru line has changed too. I was at a powhiri last week and the hongi had been replaced by the Kahungunu eyebrow flick. It’s swagger but it’s not the same. We want to breath each other in, hold on tight.

I know some have adapted already, adopting the Wuhan Kick, The Elbow Rub, The Butt Bump, Prince Charles’ awkward Namaste. They’re fun, but not good enough. You can trip each other if you don’t get the timing of your Kick right and with all of us coughing into our cubital fossa rubbing so close to the Sneeze Zone brings hazards of its own.

The bugs might get us but we won’t be able to control ourselves. We’ll reach out and touch somebody’s hand just like Diana Ross taught us to. Until then we’ll socially evolve: we’ll potluck on the lawn (Nana on the porch, all of us out on the grass); we’ll hug it out in hazmat-suits; Watch Party Yoyo Ma playing in his kitchen (facebook.com/YoYoMa). Arias on balconies might not be your thing, but what about a Skype singalong?

We need social contact to survive. We need to be close to each other even if ‘close’ as we knew it is closed for now. We need to find our own ways to keep it together. We’re getting good at adjusting to New, then adjusting again, but our hunger for each other needs to be met. Find your ways, be tender, hold one another in your hearts, until we can hold each other in the flesh again.

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