Group hug

We’ve been in lockdown for a year now. More than enough time for Tanya Meeson to become a people person

Woman&Home SA, April 2021

There’s a scene in Love Actually that really struck me this year, just punched me right in the gut even after all this time.

It’s a scene I never paid attention to, not even after a dozen Christmas viewings over the nearly 20 years it’s been out. Maybe because it’s not one of the big scenes. It’s not that infernal ‘cards on the doorstep “say it’s carol singers”’ scene or the ‘Laura Linney kills her love life’ scene or the one where Emma Thompson breaks down in the bedroom to Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now.


The scene in question never stood out as particularly shocking or amazing or even deeply touching given the divine schmaltz of the preceding 130 minutes. But this year? Well, this year, it had me transfixed.

Midway to the kitchen to get another festive season choccie after dinner, I stood like a fool, mouth gaping, balancing dishes, unable to look away from the screen as it seethed with such raw humanity, such brazen beingness in the world, it mesmerised me. Unsettled me almost. It was, frankly, distressing how I hadn’t really paid attention to it before.

Go see for yourself.

It’s the airport scene right at the end, when the credits start rolling. Hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people streaming into an arrival hall, hugging each other, friends and family welcoming their loved ones home, happy faces wide and beaming, maskless mouths open to the world, smiling and laughing and talking close together, sharing air, eyes happy crying, while bare, unsanitised hands touch sticky faces, cheek squeezing up against cheek…

As people a lot cooler than me say these days: I was shook, friends. A small tear came to my eye, a tiny sob choked me up.

Oh, who am I kidding? I ugly cried for about an hour.

Because what a world we had.  

April marks just over a year since South Africa went into lockdown; a year since the scope and seriousness of the pandemic started hitting home; a year since we were ethically or legally able to run around breathing into each other’s faces, hugging indiscriminately, shaking hands and standing around the office kitchen eating birthday cake with colleagues like it’s no big deal.

The reason that airport scene choked me up wasn’t just that it was suddenly so clear and absurd how we took togetherness so for granted, it’s that I didn’t realise how much I needed or wanted it.

You see, I’ll confess something to you here, one of my less charming character traits, but presented for illustrative purposes: I have minor misanthropic tendencies. I’m a real softie for individual humans. But groups of them? Thanks, but nah. Skip me on the squashed stadium concerts and crowded sports arenas.

Even in prior musings on world-ending disasters (everyone should have a Game Over strategy IMHO) I imagined a sort of separate experience for myself. If a meteor should ever be destined for Earth again, I figured, I wouldn’t be the hero Tom Cruise (so much running!) or part of the hysterical mass trying to avoid the inevitable. No, I’d opt for the role of the extra who waits quietly at the ocean for the tidal wave to swallow them whole, poetically distanced from all the gnashing of teeth and collective wailing. I’ll sob and pray quietly on my own thank you very much.

But that was all before April 2020.

The start of lockdown catapulted me into a months-long struggle with a powerful, new idea: I like people. I want people around. Not just those I know and like, but masses of others, strangers filling the streets and restaurants and clothing stores and bakeries. I want the city to be full, the airports busy and the beaches pumping.

If this past year taught me anything (other than patience, so much patience), it’s that the interactions we share with others – all others, not just friends and family – is what creates meaning in our lives. Even the smallest exchange of humanity with a stranger makes being human so much more than just eating and farting and scrolling through Netflix.   

Just goes to show: there’s nothing quite like a good ol’ global existential crisis to really smash the philosophy of ubuntu right in your face. I am because we are. Without the people around us, who and what are we for?

So, sign me up for the next big stadium concert, book my ticket to a rugby game, save me a place at an over-forty’s foam party; bring on the coffee shop table-hoggers and the idiot drivers and traffic jams. That’s life. And it’s a good one with people around.

When that meteor hits, I may even plant myself in the centre of a group hug with a coupla thousand other people.

What a difference a year makes.

This column was first published in Woman&Home SA.