On summer nights when I was a child,  my brothers and I ran loose in the dark cool fields in front of our cinder block  house. Children chasing after each other at night  is a delicious unrestraint,  like dragon flies darting over smooth water or wild horses running free in open spaces. We lived on a campground which my parents oversaw, and during the summer months the camp filled with wild children, rounded up from unsafe neighborhoods in Kansas City and bused to the Ozarks in rural Missouri.

One magical summer night when the campers were out, playing tag, which is just another of the many activities of life that we make up so that we can touch each other, I rounded the corner by a lilac bush, and there she was.  I had seen her a few days before in the dining room, where we all ate together. I was smitten.

What makes something cute? Puppies, kittens, baby elephants – cute is cute, big eyes, pug noses, long legs, curly hair. Whatever cute is for girls, she was that, and I loved her, so  I kissed her on the cheek. At the moment it seemed right, the most natural, innocent, wonderful thing in the universe. A summer night, a lilac bush in a grassy field, a game of tag, the most darling little girl, a pounding heart — a darting kiss. It was the perfect touch for what I felt.

I lived to regret it.  She went back to her cabin that night and told the other girls. There was a mole in her cabin; word leaked to the outside world, and my brothers found out. If that wasn’t bad enough, when she went back home to the city, she wrote me a letter. My brothers ferreted this out too, and the letter became a public discussion in my house. It couldn’t have been worse.  It was a mystery to me: Why would she do that, be kissed and tell — everybody?

And when my  brothers sang the  song, I knew then that life as I had known it before waw over.

 Randy candy, puddin’ pie, kissed the girls and made ‘em cry.
When the boys came out to play,
Randy candy ran away.

I fell in that moment, like Adam, and I knew the difference between good and evil.  If you liked a girl, you shouldn’t let it ever be discovered. And  kissing – it was a certain catastrophe.  Why? I wasn’t sure.  At ten years old I couldn’t figure it out. I couldn’t bring it to light. I couldn’t fathom it, the mystery of girls. And so, very young, I learned to stick  to cats, mostly, and dogs.  I still like them, a lot.

I rub my cat’s ears in the morning, the friction ridges on my finger tips sliding over her soft black fur,  the epidermal ridges on my finger tips amplifying the vibrations rising from my contact with her edges. I love ruffling her fur, smoothing it down again. I run the backs of my fingers over her, then I rub my finger tips over her head.  I luxuriate in her softness, and I enjoy my skin ridges, my high places that link me to her fur. My corrugated skin is so useful, so alive, so well-designed, so pragmatic, allowing me to sooth myself and my cat, grip my food and hold onto the hands of my people.  

Touch is  ancient. In our beginning, we were all touched. Our first bits of reality were experienced inside of our mothers skins, in sacred spaces where we differentiated and became sentient. I believe that we all have neonatal memories. We first heard our mothers’ voices while embedded in their bodies. We may not be able to access  the cognitive memories of neonatal life, but we do have physical, tactile memories of it. I think that we  remember it in primal, chemical, neurological ways. Our bodies remember cell division, and so our bodies how to do things like replace our own skin about every two weeks. And our livers know; they know how to regenerate from as little as 25% of the original. And we all experience the physicality of memory when we come very close to another person.  “I’ve been here before,” our skin thinks, because we have.

The other day one of my daughters put her head close to mine. Our skulls bridged. Our checks touched. I almost couldn’t stand it. It is always like this for me when I get to close to my grown babies: I experienced an overwhelming chemical-electrical storm of connectedness — powerful, familiar, close. It’s my past; I’ve been here before, I will be here again, de ja vu and foreshadowing, at the same time, my neurons remembering and my brain anticipating more.

We were constructed for tactility. Our  arms were made long enough to care for our toes, and long enough  to  steady our babies riding on our necks. And our fingers were constructed as perfect baskets to ferry strawberries and cats and other loved things closer to us. I licked some guacamole off my fingers recently. The soft, delicious slickness of the green ambrosia slid from my finger tips and into my mouth. All good food is essentially tactile, texturized, mouthable – the velvet, lightness of cool whip melting on our tongues, the chewy edges of caramelized coatings on meat gluing our teeth together, the liquid flow of milk soothing our dry throats and acid stomachs. Our experience of life’s resources is essentially tactile.

Closeness was the first thing with my babies. Every night when they were infants, my wife and I held them to put them to sleep, lying on our backs on the couch or floor, our stomachs and chests their human mattresses. I remember their little sweaty, baldish heads lying sideways, against my chest, sleeping, the smooth soft down on the top of their heads against  my lips. I breathed them, their baby fragrance; they breathed more deeply and heard my heart beat. We bonded, our rhythms in sync.  These moments — something deep in me knows them, the heart beat, the breath in and out. I began here. You too.

You remember, although perhaps you don’t, but then so much goes unrecognized, doesn’t it? I’m beginning to think most things have been unobserved. The age of exploration and discovery  isn’t past; it hasn’t happened yet. Magellan wasn’t one of the few at the right time and place; we are all voyaging, out to sea in a small boat, peering over the horizon, looking for next place where we might port, where we might touch. But we can so easily lose sight of this and come to see ourselves not at boats but as islands. I think that this begins to happen right after birth. In those first magical moments, we begin to sail away from touch.

Our births were one of the most startling experiences of our lives. When we were suddenly and shockingly out, and then held in someone’s grip, held from the outside, then set  aside in a cradle, in a nursery, wrapped in a covering, not a skin, our first moments all alone, not touched by flesh. Wham and bam —  birth — what a rude shock and an awesome thrill. Our first taste of autonomy was intrinsically lonely; our first taste of  freedom — it was exhilarating! We must have startled, and begun a startle pattern that has not stopped – each moment of responsibility since then a startle, each moment of opportunity to choose is another startle, the steady forward-jerking freedom to decide to be touched, or not.

Autonomy is rocket fuel, projecting us both into and away from the tactile world. Very soon in life we learned to flip over on our backs, we discovered the crawl, we got up on our own two legs and cruised the edges of the couch, we took our first unaided steps into open space, we tottered, we landed on our behinds, we got up again and walked! And in those moments, those incredibly mobile, ambulatory moments, we were empowered, and we looked back at our mothers, and gloated, “I am free of you.” Don’t you remember this? Yes, you do, for with this power, you  have carried your body away from the touch. Most of life is an effort to get back.

 I remember Teresa, in  elementary school. She was the most exquisite thing in my fifth grade class. She had long golden hair, a cute nose,  slender legs, and she was wicked smart. I’ve always liked smart. My wife is smart.  I fell in love with her brain. I still can’t predict what she will say on any given topic, but I know it will be worth hearing, not the crowd’s mantra. But in school, I was afraid of Teresa, and of my classmates, and I was very afraid of telling  her  how I felt. I knew that what I felt was good, but  I was afraid the ridicule that might come from embracing the good.  So I worshipped her from afar. We do this, secretly, throughout life, adore others from a distance.  I think she liked me back, but how can one tell these things in grade school? She used to smile at me from across the room. When our eyes met, I gave a shy smile back and  in that moment of connection, I received electric shock therapy. Our eyes would touch, across the room, and lock. Jingle, jangle, emotional tangle — it is more than my circuits could bear. We always unlocked, fast.   

One day in the seventh or eight grade, I could stand it no longer. I wrote her a note on a small bit of paper I carried it with me as I exited the room to get on the bus. I dropped it on her desk as I went by. It said, “I love you.”

I was an idiot. I had done it again. I was playing tag, and in another unguarded moment, I had gone too far. A note! It was a document, like the letter that my brothers got their grubby, touch-stupid hands on.  Someone might get their hands on this.  I  had to be more careful. So I was careful: I didn’t follow-up. I kept it to “Hi” when I passed Teresa on the playground.  I loved her from a distance — all the way through highschool, and adulthood, and I never  asked her out or told her again how I felt about her. It couldn’t have been more agonizing. Other guys took her out, and I was jealous, but I didn’t. Negotiating affection had become a mystery to me. The whole dating and kissing and talking thing had totally eluded me, and it even came between me and the possibility for the expression of infatuation and affection and physical closeness. If one didn’t do this the way everybody else did, going out to eat and to a movie and to kiss hard in the car, then what did one do?

I have total and complete recall of several dates in high school. They were so awkward that it physically hurt. I remember going to a basketball game with a very attractive girl and not talking much. The first thing you noticed about her wasn’t her eyes. Afterwards we  parked in a secluded spot and kissed each other fiercely. She got me down in the front seat. That was interesting, but she was kind of aggressive, and there wasn’t much room. The steering wheel seemed to grow bigger than it ever had been before. You can kiss for a long time, but eventually it can make your lips hurt, so after a while we gave up and went home. We were trying to connect, but we just didn’t know how. Not enough talking. I didn’t learn how to talk to girls until much later in life, when my wife, who was more experienced than me, schooled me in the art of conversation with women.

Looking back, I can see now that other things besides scary girls come between me and  the possibilities for affection, for closeness, for safe touching. There is so much working against us holding hands. The other thing, besides girls, that keeps us from each other  is the love of dead things. Dead things come between us and people, the first of this order being pacifiers, blankies and toys. These things  are wonderful, helpful, magical, but they also intrude, cut us off, substitute, become essential to us, multiply endlessly, clone themselves, take over —  food, clothes, books, cars, houses endlessly. By such dead things we come to live and to isolate from human touch.  Touching things is magic, but it may become dark magic, making people disappear right in the middle of a bright room, plate glass between us and those who have come to talk to us and hold us.

I remember being given a portable radio for Christmas one year. I still remember the shiny green plastic case, the chrome handle, the black speaker, the row of defining numbers, the tall silver antenna. Voices came to me through my radio, hit songs, local baseball games, other worlds. I went to my room, lay on my bed, I treasured it; I have always had a love affair with technology. I kept it for years, long after I stopped using it. I’m not sure when that happened. Those aren’t memorable moments, when we throw a mobile phone in the back of a drawer in the laundry room or  unload a TV at the Goodwill. I remember occasionally seeing the radio again while going through its storage box in the garage, looking for something else and there it was – Christmas, a connection to a larger world, life. But it ended up getting dusty in a cardboard box like so much other stuff does. Its dials and buttons lost their intrigue.

Dead things don’t eventually cut it. They have a golden touch, a Midas touch, but it is a cold touch, not enough. We want something warm, living; we want to get back to first things, to unrestraint and summer nights and lilac bush kisses. What to do? It is complicated. I was born by the means of a caesarean section. The knife, one of those dead things, saved me. But I assiduously keep knives away from my skin now. The knife is necessary, but I don’t love the knife. I don’t have the pocket knife that I treasured when I was a boy. Things shed. The knife the doctor used to remove me from my mother is probably in a landfill now, rusting away with other trash.  

Stuff seduces us then rots. I love stuff and I always will, but I have learned to speak more bluntly now to new and shiny things, to cameras, phones, TV’s, cars and houses. I take them by the chins and I say to them,  “Look at me. I know you; you little traitors. You are so hot now, young and smooth-bodied, but someday you are going to sag and rust on me aren’t you?  You are all fixed up and cute tonight, but after we kiss, you little rotters, you are going to let yourselves go, aren’t you? And someday you are going to leave me, aren’t you?” And they nod because they know they will, and hang their heads in shame and are afraid. For they know what they are, and they know too that if they hang around too long, we will leave them.

We hunt and we gather and we move; we clean house, have a garage sale, empty boxes, give to charity, put things in the recycle bin, abandon things. It it isn’t easy. We  need the soothing touch of dead things, but more deeply we want and need the warm touch of living things. We need useful things, pot and pans and toothbrushes, and so we get them and dance with them and loose them from our grips and get more. We are addicted to things. We are not. We are. We are bag ladies, shopping cart people. We push stuff in front of us, we pull it behind us, we cram it in with us, we hang it off of us. It doesn’t make up for not being touched by creatures.

A lady came to my office recently. She was hung with white, plastic grocery store bags. They were wrapped around both her wrists, full of food, hanging heavy on her, pulling her down. She asked if she could leave her bags with me. I was immediately confused. It isn’t uncommon for me.  Why would she be giving me all this food? And then it came out that she was coming home from the store to her nearby apartment.  She had ridden the bus to this point, but now that she had to walk, her strategy was failing. The bags were cutting off her wrists. She had to have another plan.  She would go get a cart from home, and bring it back to my office, so she could ferry her groceries home. Could she please just leave the bags with me for a few minutes?

It was obvious what I should do. I helped her take the bags off, holding them up, loosing their tight grips on her, freeing her red skin. My fingers gently touched her wrists. I was the dermatologist, removing the plastic growths, restoring her mobility, healing her wounded skin, setting her free. We put the bags in my car and I drove her home. I helped her carry them upstairs, and then I left. She never came back to my office. I wonder what has happened to her and her disabled son. When we opened her door, he was sitting at the table, surrounded by stuff, waiting for his mother to come back home.

This will keep happening. Exactly this scenario. We will stock up. “My God, we have to eat.” We will drape ourselves in goods, we will attempt to carry too much home with us, we will not be able “to get these stupid bags off” our wrists. We will need help untangling. 

And we will touch things briefly, “Your it!” but our touches will be short; they will be bit parts that we play in a childhood game, and we won’t know what to do after that with real, living, sweating human beings.  And we will wait for our mothers to return, but when they do we will only look up briefly, busy with our distractions at the table.

I don’t know exactly what to do with this.  I’ve never met anyone who did.

My daughter sat beside me the other night while we watched a movie late, and she rubbed the hairs on the top of my arm. It was soothing , a magic moment at the end of a day. A bit of the stress of the day was conjured out of me. Skin to skin— I don’t want to get away from this. None of us should.

One of my friends, who is lives in a tent down behind Target, or when it gets too crazy down there, up under the overpass where the 805 and the 54 connect, told me the other day, “The worst thing is the loneliness. I sit by myself in my camp and wish I just has someone to talk to, someone to be with.”

The other day, a guy who lives in a group home came to a food line that a friend of mine oversees. I know him. He is big, tall, dresses like a skin head, but is not in any way racist. He is a simple person, with a simple understanding of things.  She gave him a hug. A few minutes later he came over to her again and said, “I just want to thank you.”

“Why? she asked.

“For hugging me,” he said.

No one touches him.

If we knew how to fix what is wrong with the world, I suspect that we would have to begin by making sure that everyone on earth was hugged by someone safe and good every morning, and that just before every person lay down to sleep every night, someone loving and tender would gently rub their backs and kiss them goodnight on the top of their heads, even if just for a moment, close enough to feel their warmth.

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