In Praise of Handshakes and Air Kisses

two hands shaking

When I was growing up, shaking hands seemed like a formal, old-fashioned custom to me, one I mostly saw in old movies. In real life it was reserved for introductions and making bets, rarely used by children or teenagers – until I moved to Germany during college for a junior year abroad. There a handshake was the customary greeting, and to my surprise I came to embrace it (pun intended).

Does this speak to a prudishness in me that I didn’t realize was there? No, I’m not a prude, but I do appreciate clear rules, and I liked not having to worry about what was appropriate. Are we familiar enough for a hug or a kiss? In Germany you didn’t have to wonder: the handshake was always right. It covered a broad spectrum of relationships from newly introduced strangers to good friends, including the gray area of acquaintances one might not feel comfortable hugging — polite and unobtrusive yet expressing friendly openness. 

Several years later I ended up in the Netherlands as an expat. While my knowledge of German helped me pick up Dutch, I had a new greeting etiquette to learn. Here, acquaintances quickly progressed from handshakes to air kisses, which I’d never encountered in real life and associated with superficial city socialites. I mastered the art about as well as I did speaking Dutch, which is to say, with an American accent. At first it felt awkward, but gradually I became comfortable with the three air kisses, left right left, the soft brush of cheeks. It made me feel sophisticated and continental. Even if I sometimes fell prey when kissing someone who was also wearing glasses to the nose-jarring bump of our eyeglass frames, at least I learned the Dutch phrase for this incident which assured me it wasn’t uncommon: brillen kussje, little kiss of the glasses.

I love the complement of ways our different cultures developed to express affection and connect through touch – from embracing to air kissing, from the handshake to its casual, hipper cousins the high five and fist bump. But what do we do now? In the same way that moving overseas dropped me into a dance of unfamiliar customs, Covid landed the whole world in a brand-new culture where none of us know the rules. We can’t learn by watching and doing the way I did in Germany and the Netherlands; we have to make it up as we go along. But just as we learned early in the pandemic to recognize the smile behind a mask from the crinkle in a person’s eyes, we are figuring this out too. 

Having grown up in a culture of hugging, I was surprised during my year in Germany by how much warmth and affection a clasping of hands could convey, so I hope Dr. Fauci was wrong when he famously suggested in April 2020 that Americans should never shake hands again. Sure, the way we make eye contact and our tone of voice when we say hello can reveal a lot of emotion, but I don’t think that’s enough for most of us in the long run. Human beings are mammals. We evolved to be in physical contact. As I emerged newly vaccinated from pandemic isolation, I quickly learned to ask friends when we met for the first time, “Are you hugging?” (Mostly the answer was yes.) Maybe our post-Covid etiquette will involve a more complicated ritual of asking How are you? and then waiting for a real answer. As much as I like a clear set of rules I don’t have to think about, sensitivity and mindfulness in the way we say hello is not a bad thing.

Sit With All Your Senses Alert

Thank you to my friend Kim Woodland for this guest post. I met Kim in Carolyn Flynn’s writing group and have had the pleasure of hearing her work for many years now. A naturalist and retired teacher, Kim shared the experience of outdoor education with kids from preschool to high school, and now I’m delighted to share with you a view of my garden through her poetic eye.

photo of garden

My Friend’s Backyard

the sun

bathes my skin in warmth

like the steam curling up

as I sip my morning chai

on this cool spring day

photo of chard

winter rains have resurrected

last autumn’s chard,

dark green leaves flutter

on four feet of ruby red stems

individual asparagus

stand like sentries

in the oblong wooden rimmed

garden bed

some tipping their heads

like snakes ready to strike

the oak titmouse,

a small gray bird

with a fancy crest,

flies proudly from tree to tree,

a chickadee visits the suet feeder,

turning like an acrobat

to find the choicest bites,

a golden crowned sparrow

flits nervously in a bush

waiting for its turn

while the Bewick’s wren

trills a daring song

and waggles its stiff,

upturned tail feathers

I sit with all my senses alert

photo of oxalis

as I observe the neon yellow

petals of the oxalis

reflecting the sun’s color

back to the giant star

the smell of jasmine

arrives on a warm breeze,

my feet are solid on earth

as I sit in my friend’s garden

breathing it all in

each atom  

vibrating its own story

connects me

to my place

within the infinite

and the microscopic

as they swirl and twirl

into one.

By Kim Woodland

Brigit’s Cross on Saint Patrick’s Day

Green plaque with gold Brigit's cross

Clock vines cover the wooden arch my sweetheart built in our garden, and this March, on a sunny Saint Patrick’s Day following storms that flooded rivers and knocked down trees, a few orange blossoms peep bravely from the lush greenery. Back when this jungle was just two small starts from one-gallon pots, back in the early days of the pandemic, a friend sent me a green stone plaque with a golden Brigit’s cross to lift my spirits. We hung it on the arch, and at first, the plaque stood out in the wooden latticework, but within a year vines caressed the edges and leaves curled provocatively around its corners. Then leaf and vine went wild, and now the flamboyant growth almost hides the human-made artifact, but even if unseen, Brigit’s cross hangs there still.

Hallow this arch, ye Irish saints. Make it today a portal, more than a gateway from path to garden. Let it harbor the stone boat that will take me to my great-great-grandmother’s hearth, she who knew what it took to keep the fire stoked during a long winter and how to bake bread in a stone oven, who could milk a cow and churn butter.  She knew too the secrets of bog and well, flower and fern. Like her I want to practice lectio divina on what the cedar preaches to the sparrows and transcribe poems the sweet pea bush proclaims to the rock rose.

Come, let us walk through this Brigit-blest arch to the wedding of heaven and earth.

Written after listening to a passage from Dreamtime by John Moriarty

At the Edge of Spring

All fall and then all winter

I meant to prune

the spent asparagus ferns.

Now, hidden beneath the dry stalks

and lush encroaching oxalis,

Tom and I discover fat spears

pushing up from the earth.

A white tulip peeps from under the hopseed,

and jasmine shares the first fruits

of its fragrance with the bees and me.

Workdays that began and ended

in the dark two months ago

are now bookended by light,

and the slate blues of my winter doldrums

are yielding to pastel hues.

Within me optimism stirs

like a chick inside an egg

who hears her mother’s chirps and coos.

This school year,

my last as a college librarian,

is exactly half over,

and I feel change coming

like the light

slowly swelling the days.

What used to weigh heavy

is starting to slip away.

Already I delete incoming emails

that no longer apply to me.

Soon I will shred papers,

give away office curios,

and on the last day

surrender the keys

that have been for twenty-one years

in my safekeeping.

For now, though, I am waiting

as I started to wait

when I planted bulbs last fall.

What colors will bloom?

Which flowers will flourish?

With gratitude to Lea Haratani for the title

Each Dawn a Surprise

oxalis blooming in a garden

From the dark place despair dropped me

may I rise up like oxalis

after the first autumn rain,

push through

wildfire ashes and

soaked cedar bark mulch

into this enticing

day-following-night world.

Let me sip sunlight

and feast on my own green,

unfold cloverleaves as if

the sun would return

tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

All winter long


I dream of flowers

so yellow they might be worthy

of this light.

December Drought

In weeks with no rain, 

the lime tree and roses sip

rinse water from the shower,

as eloquent in their distraught and drooping silence

as a languishing invalid in a romance novel.

Meanwhile the bougainvillea, 

that strapping hero of the garden,

shamelessly flaunts a riot of red bracts,

and the clock vine winks back,

allowing coy orange starbursts

to peep from her curtain of green.

It is December, and we poets must be brave.

Bake cookies and trim the tree,

sip eggnog at the holiday masquerade,

but if you happen to see,

as you sign and stamp

one more Christmas card,

a monarch butterfly go by,

take in the flutter-dance

like Renoir instead of Wordsworth.

Flaunt your own finery

and wink back at this season’s

swaggering would-be suitor. 

He doesn’t need to know

what you are saving and savoring,

that you are a succulent

with poems in your cells.

Image created by Jennifer Prince and shared under Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 4.0

Tug and Sigh

Datura blossoms, also known as angel's trumpet

Like the datura’s yellow trumpets

I am waiting for the breath of angels

to perfume the twilight

of this ordinary day

and play the vigil hymn

reminding me

that heaven and earth

wed long ago.

I too am married

to the unseen

sigh and scent,

filling and returning,

thus never full –

always longing,

often failing,

yet ever blessed

with heaven’s pull.

(Title from “The Silence Now” by May Sarton)

Look As Though with Your Arms Open

A sarus crane with its wings open

I sometimes wonder about Saint Paul’s admonition in his letter to the Thessalonians to pray without ceasing. Did he mean this literally? Surely not. Maybe he thought that by setting a ridiculously high standard, he was giving his readers a worthy if unattainable goal to aspire to, one that in real life only monastics can come close to. Or perhaps those early Christians who believed the end of the world was nigh could detach enough from the cares of daily life to devote every waking moment to prayer, but for me, caught up in all the demands of 21st-century life, it seems impossible. I feel impressed with myself when I find twenty minutes a day to meditate.

One foggy summer morning while on retreat at New Camaldoli in Big Sur, I took a walk as usual on the road that winds steeply down from the mountaintop monastery to Highway 1. This question of how to pray unceasingly lingered in the back of my mind as the mist and morning sun teased and flirted with each other up and down the mountainside. Along the way is a magnificent oak tree bearing a plaque with a verse from Psalm 34:

Here I was startled into stopping. A spider web hung between the oak’s branches, each silk festoon precisely limned with delicate droplets, and sunbeams pouring through the canopy above lit them up like jewels in a tapestry. This same glow highlighted each mote of mist wafting around the tree, and I stood transfixed, watching until the fog completely dissipated. With my mind empty of thought and my heart full of gratitude, an answer to my question came to me.

In her poem “Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?” Mary Oliver explains how she reaches for things, like the idea of God, that cannot be reached:

I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.

Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around

   As though with your arms open.

In my moment of wordless wonder that foggy summer morning, it was as if I were embracing the scene with open arms, and I realized suddenly, this was prayer. My attention was my praise.

I wish I could say that ever since I’ve been a model of mindfulness, but no, I’m still working on this not-so-secret trick to blessing the Lord at all times, still aspiring to pay constant attention. As always, I’m grateful for Mary Oliver as a role model. Like her, may I morning to night never be done with looking as though with my arms wide open.

Gray-Haired Woman under the Harvest Moon

full moon

Sixty summers I’ve seen ease into autumn,

and I recognize this patient tug 

of nighttime on the days,

gentle at first like my own hand

easing a ripe tomato from the vine,

then insistent,

darkness yearning

for the tomb of winter.

At sixty a sprain is slow to heal,

and vigor wanes

before day’s work is done.

Tonight, though, last light

like the scent of apples

round the cider press

lingers on summer’s wake

as the orange belly

of this pregnant season

peeps over the horizon.

What will I gather

in the gloaming?

Paint on the cavern wall

the hieroglyph for patience,

And plant me as a seed,

for sixty years have shown me —

winter is a womb.

Feast me now with hazelnuts

and pour a cup of mead

to seal the promise

of a distant spring.

Like crickets and tree roots,

I am beholden to darkness

and care not 

what the world in me may see. 

Touched by harvest moonlight,

I know my silver beauty,

and novice though I am,

surrender to the night.

Image courtesy of C.E. Price

Hold Us in the Great Hands of Light

photo of garden at New Camaldoli

Touching the outside,

you make the inside glow.

Drinking my coffee

by halogen light,

I may not see it,

but the fig tree knows.

It all began with you.

Fiat lux,

and so it was 

that first day.

This morning

light on leaf

draws my eye

as a chipmunk 

nibbles the fig I left

last night on the fence rail,

dainty as a lady at a tea,

all of us beholden

to you,

one of countless,

but in this blue sky

our one, our only.

Title from “Why I Wake Early” by Mary Oliver