I had planned on spending the evening on the sofa with a hefty glass of wine, frantically refreshing Twitter to see what fresh hell the Tory leadership contest has in store for us.
I was surprised to find myself stone cold sober at 8.15pm, lying on a padded floor in a fairy light-strewn room in central London, silently hugging a woman I’d met an hour earlier.
Lying behind me was a man whose name I’d completely forgotten, and who had his arms wrapped around my torso.
No, I hadn’t stumbled upon an unexpected threesome – I was at a mass spooning event.
Because in the midst of a seemingly endless news cycle of hatred, schadenfreude and unparalleled divisiveness, the idea of hugging a bunch of strangers felt oddly appealing.
I’m not sure what I was expecting: a sense of connection to my community perhaps, in a city which feels designed for self-insulation, a nice distraction from the day-to-day monotony or maybe just a short-cut to a serotonin rush which doesn’t require a spin class or a next-day comedown.
It didn’t go exactly as planned.
When I arrived at the House Of Togetherness, I was pointed to a room where the event would take place.
There were around 18 people, most in their late 20s or 30s, with an almost even split between men and women.
We were encouraged to share our reasons for being there and our feelings thus far.
People were shockingly honest – they talked about recent breakups and the craving for human touch, about mental health struggles and loneliness.
Others just felt a bit ‘meh’ about the whole thing, which was a relief.
I was in my element: listening to strangers tell their stories is one of my favourite pastimes.
I’m the person who will chat to people at the pub and end up at their friend’s cousin’s brother-in-law’s house party until 3am. Talking is my thing.
When we were told to stand up, walk around, make eye contact and shake each other’s hands, I felt pretty confident in my ability to get something out of the evening.
So when a man with kind eyes and an open smile asked if he could hug me after our handshake I responded instinctively and enthusiastically: ‘Sure!’.
It was only a few minutes later, when our facilitator Adam began to talk about the importance of active and cognisant consent in all human touch that it even occurred to me to question whether I had wanted to be hugged or not.
It’s perhaps problematic that I didn’t consider the possibility that consent could be an important part of an event based around touching strangers.
As soon as it did though, touch seemed to take on an almost sinister quality.
To me, the unspoken implication hung heavily in the air: that people – especially women – so often find themselves on the receiving end of unwanted physical touch that it becomes hard for some of us to differentiate what we want from what we think we should say yes to.
We were told to walk around the room and ask people if they wanted to be spooned.
Everyone had to say ‘no’, while the rejected party had to say thank you and walk away.
I felt so guilty that I completely disconnected, treating the ‘no’ as a script – like a language exercise where you have to repeat the same phrase over and over again.
Eventually, the sound loses all meaning, but the repetition makes saying no less horrifying.
Curiously, the spooning itself was much less fraught – it felt somewhat bizarre, as you might imagine, but inexplicably natural and sweet.
It didn’t take long for my type A weirdness to kick in though.
With all our toes touching in the centre of the circle, I became increasingly paranoid that I would inadvertently move a foot and kill someone’s zen.
I worried that a deep breath would disrupt the sweet man behind me whose arm would inevitably need to be readjusted (I breathe really heavily, apparently).
I have no idea how long the collective spooning went on for – perhaps 10 minutes, perhaps 40. It’s not exactly a context conducive to keeping track of time.
Afterwards, we were encouraged to share our feelings around the experience.
One man, looking relaxed and peaceful, eagerly told us about how he’d entered an almost meditative state.
‘HOW?!,’ I wanted to shout.
I’d been trying to counteract my boredom by planning out my week in my head, wishing I could whip out my phone to note down my thoughts in the moment.
Writing a mental food prep shopping list and pondering how much kale I can endure before I cave and make pasta is, I’m pretty sure, the opposite of what most people mean by ‘meditative’.
Then the woman I had been hugging tentatively put up her hand.
She was about my age, softly spoken, eloquent and open. She shared that during the spooning she felt emotional and teary, because it reminded her of her mother, whom she used to cuddle with in a similar way.
Her mother lived in a different country and she really missed her, she said.
My mother lives abroad as well. I, too, miss her a lot of the time.
This was it, I thought. I was finally going to have a deep and meaningful connection with a stranger through nothing but touch.
I smiled encouragingly and waited for the feeling to wash over me. It didn’t come.
All I felt was glad I’d decided against moving my toes, and a deeply inappropriate sense of achievement; if my spoonee actually cried, I must be the best spooner in the room, right?
Bizarre ego boost aside, I can’t imagine myself going back for more spooning events.
It has become clear that hugs just aren’t the way I prefer to interact with strangers.
There is however something deeply soothing about seeing that many people come together for the common purpose of making each other feel a bit better.
If you’re looking for something to remind you that there is kindness and togetherness in the world, I can’t recommend it enough.
As I headed home in the pouring summer rain, I pondered whether I felt more connected to the world.
The truth is, it’s hard to tell – but I didn’t check the news once on the bus ride home, and when I got in the front door and my significant other came over for a hug, I stepped back.
‘No,’ I said, for possibly the first time in my life.
‘I don’t think I fancy a hug right now, but thank you!’
I guess I did discover a new connection after all, but it was one I never knew was missing – with myself.
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