So … touching
There I was. At dinner with a group of friends. Chatting with someone about the importance of touch in my line of work. And to my surprise, he recounted observing how touch-oriented I am. I confess that it was to my delight that he seemed happy about said observation, and that I’ve been thinking earnestly about the importance of touch in my life ever since.
I did not grow up in a physically affectionate family. I always knew that my parents loved me dearly. But they manifested this love in acts of service, vocal praise and unlimited learning opportunities and experiences. I don’t even recall any of my early childhood friends being very physical with their parents, except one. And since her mother was Hungarian, divorced, and a stewardess, I just thought it was part and parcel of their exotic life.
And then there was my next door neighbor Trish. Trish was a couple of years older than me, and my protector, as I was the youngest in our not entirely cohesive block coterie. Trish was my protector. Unless, that is, she took it into her head to tickle me. I was pathologically ticklish back then, and it didn’t take much tickling to reduce me to helpless tears. Good natured tickling. But I learned to be especially fast when she got a certain look in her eye.
It was with not a little surprise that I entered junior high school and was initiated into the requirement of hugging between friends. All my friend hugged like mad. At first I thought it was very strange … hugging hello at the start of the day, hugging when meeting in the hallways, hugging when parting in the hallways, and hugging at the end of the day. It all took up so much time, that I’m not quite sure how we never got excessive tardy marks. But I soon learned to love it. And started hugging all of my good friends, even as they exited the school bus. The extra time expended for people to hug me before exiting the bus (good thing I sat toward the rear of the bus) may have slightly irritated the driver, but Mr. Peoples was very cool and understanding, and let me work through my hugging issues until I had narrowed it down to just my extra-close friends by the end of the 3rd year.
In high school, I was able to go to Italy during my junior year for a brief exchange program with a high school in Rome. We spent a couple of days in Venice, and a few days in Florence before we arrived in Rome and were put in the care of our host students and families. We were all so excited and nervous. But the Italian kids seemed so cool and friendly and happy to meet us, that we hid our initial discomfort when they kissed us … once on each cheek. And then they kissed each other (even the boys), and we departed to the various homes, where there was much more kissing. Again, it seemed so peculiar. Not just to me, but to all the other American students, regardless of how much physical affection they received at home. But it seemed like such a joyous Italian tradition, that we all just threw ourselves into it. By the end of the week, we were kissing more people than even the most fertile mind could have imagined back at our American high school. And, when I came home, I brought the love of Italian physicality with me. No, I didn’t kiss and hug my parents all the time, but I introduced it, and the traditiona has grown gracefully in my second generation asian home.
In college, I was introduced to the wonderfulness of a good back rub. It took a lot of effort, but with the calming effects of hot tubbing, and good friends close at hand, I was able to quell most of my ticklishness and just revel in strong hands that could ease the stubborn knots that formed in my shoulders.
After college, healing touch became especially important. I was very ill for a period of two years. And I remember the touch of my father’s hands during the many pleading blessings for healing he offered on my behalf, even if I can’t remember the exact words he uttered. I also remember my mother performing accupressure along my back, along with soothing caresses to help me deal with the pain that seemed my constant companion.
As I recovered from that challenging part of my life, I started my career in nursing, specializing in pediatric critical care. And I was amazed at how the slightest touch of a loving parent’s hand could soothe when sometimes the drugs could not. And I became aware of how my touch was able to help heal and comfort, both physical and emotional pain. It is not always possible, bu I try to do as much of my care without the barrier of gloves. And to this day, one of the most thrilling sensations is to have an infant or toddler touch my hand in trust.
In the movie Crash (which I really loved), Don Cheadle’s character recites this really cheesy set of lines, “It’s the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.” I can even remembering inadvertantly giggling because it sounded so simplistic. And yet, when I was recently in Boston (just prior to the Exponent II Retreat), I can recall wandering around the city, walking and being on the T, being surrounded by people. And I commented to Jana about how many attractive men there were in Boston. But as I reflected, I understood that it wasn’t that Bostonite are more attractive, they’re we were just physically closer.
As a single adult woman in the church, opportunities for touch sometimes seem few and far between, as have been previously blogged by more articulate fingers than mine. For what it’s worth, I add myself to the crowd. There are times that I just hunger to touch and be touched. Not always in a sexual way, although I sometimes crave that too. But just to feel the warmth of another person’s hand intersecting with mine.
As an adult, I’ve incorporated more touch into my life. I get Thai massages on occassion. I enjoy all varieties of partnered dance. I love wrestling with my nephews. I’ve helped my family become more physically affectionate. And I try to make contact with people in ways that are appropriate and warm, especially after reading the last section of the chapter on touch in Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses. She discusses the beneficial effects of subliminal touch. Those who were unobtrusively touched were more likely to give higher rates of satisfaction, bigger tips, and even return money that they’d pocketed from a telephone booth.
And so, I wonder about how touch affects women. Is touch an important part of how we relate to other people? What are our favorite touch moments? Do we feel more comfortable touching others, or more comfortable being touched. Do we feel comfortable with the level of physicality in our lives? Or do we want more? And if we want more, do we feel comfortable asking for it?