Austerity: it was the word of the last decade, wasn’t it? Carried over from the decade before, from the infamous crash of 2007 when we (or someone on our behalf) over-stretched and over-spent until under we went. And after that, I only ever thought of the word ‘austerity’ in terms of fiscal policy; I associated it with phrases like, ‘deficit reduction’ and ‘spending cuts’. A nip and a tuck to the budget, a slice here, a gouged-out hole there: austerity hurt people. Usually, it hurt those who were hurting already, capping housing benefits, squeezing libraries, closing youth clubs, giving the NHS a buzz cut. Many services we once took for granted were assigned to history altogether, all in the name of reducing the deficit.
Please don’t assume I am dismissing all of that, for it remains important, but it’s not what I want to get into right now. Right now, my point is that austerity is back, but in a very different form. I’m speaking of the austerity of social distancing and its attendant pain. The scarcity of hand holding, the shortage of hugs, an economy of touching, a famine of physical connection, an austerity of closeness.
Last week J. called me and was able to give me the precise date when he had last touched someone. He said he would love to hug his daughter, his grandchildren, his partner whom he doesn’t live with. I know exactly what he means. My last hug – tentative, but a hug nonetheless – was when I met M. in Café Royale six weeks ago when she was up from London. If I’d known it was to be the last, I might have hugged her for longer. In the old times of austerity, the one thing you could be sure of were that hugs were free and shaking hands cost nothing. Now, we draw huge invisible loops around ourselves when we go out for a walk and no one is allowed near the ‘island of me’.
Of course, if you live in a family, you’ll be getting hugs and kisses (I hope), but so many people aren’t, and whilst I’m sent regular hugs in the post and kisses on email and even a hand to hold in a song, it’s just not the same thing, is it? Who would have thought we would ever live through days of grandchildren waving through plate glass windows, of new babies being introduced via zoom and, maybe the most painful austerity of all, of not being able to hold the hand of the sick and dying?
So, when this is all over, and when we hug and kiss and hold hands until the cows come home, we might also address the other shadow of austerity and spend money where it matters: in helping each other. And I think we might just, because we’ve suddenly remembered that without the help of other people things can get very tough and very lonely.
The Touch, by Anne Sexton (abridged)
For months my hand was sealed off
in a tin box. Nothing was there but the subway railings.
Perhaps it is bruised, I thought,
and that is why they have locked it up.
You could tell time by this, I thought,
like a clock, by its five knuckles
and the thin underground veins.
It lay there like an unconscious woman
fed by tubes she knew not of.
The hand had collapse,
a small wood pigeon
that had gone into seclusion.
I turned it over and the palm was old,
its lines traced like fine needlepoint
and stitched up into fingers.
It was fat and soft and blind in places.
Nothing but vulnerable.
Then all this became history.
Your hand found mine.
Life rushed to my fingers like a blood clot.
Oh, my carpenter,
the fingers are rebuilt.
They dance with yours.
They dance in the attic and in Vienna.
My hand is alive all over America.
Not even death will stop it,
death shedding her blood.
Nothing will stop it, for this is the kingdom
and the kingdom come.