my favorite picture of Linnea she is still only a nursing
baby, lying in my lap. My hand is on her bare belly. Her hand
is on my heart. My other hand is lying on a pillow above her
head. Her fingers reach out toward mine. Our mouths are parted
as if we are breathing some shared delight. The circuitry
of the energy is almost visibly arcing between us.
Everything needed for living is there: touch, breath, shared
vision, heartbeat, belly and skin. All that is essential.
Mark Nepo, in The Book of Awakening, writes of seeing
two monkeys sleeping in the Central Park Zoo.
. . they were both in deep sleep, their dark heads bowed to
each other, their small frames limp.
was amazing was that their small delicate hands were touching,
their monkey fingers leaning into each other. It was clear
that it was this small, sustained touch that allowed them
to sleep. As long as they were touching, they could let go.
envied their trust and simplicity. There was none of the human
pretense at independence. They clearly needed each other to
experience peace. One stirred, but didn’t wake, and the other,
in sleep, kept their fingers touching. How deeply rewarding
the life of touch.
looked like ancient travelers praying inside a place of rest
made possible because they dared to stay connected. It was
one of the most tender and humbling moments I have ever seen.
Two aging monkeys weaving fingertips, as if their touch alone
kept them from oblivion.”
I have always been intrigued by the strange and varying ways
we are connected in touching.
But not all touch is like the joining of the aging monkeys.
So much touch is really grasping—maybe for power. A lot of
our language carries just that sense.
We touch base. We manipulate data. We handle a situation.
We get a grip. We take matters into our own hands. If we’re
really in a sorry state, we clutch at straws.
It all sounds like an adrenaline-driven need to dominate in
a win-lose world. And those phrases from the business world
shape our personal lives, as well, so that even love can seem
a zero-sum game.
No wonder that in touching we can fear the loss of power,
when so much touch is really coercion, a chokehold on freedom
But such an intimate chokehold!
In the movie Death and the Maiden, Sigourney Weaver
plays a woman who had been tortured and shocked and raped
by her captor, who, throughout, played the Brahms piece for
which the film is named.
That movie lays bare the unrelenting horror of touch that
is designed to wound, aimed to terrorize. And
is so effective chiefly because there is no form of touch
that is not intimate. Terrorizing touch is intimate
Whether one touches another in love or in hostility, the intimacy,
the ingress remains the same. The mother’s lips on the baby’s
head, the doctor moving the stethoscope down the wrinkled
back of an aged patient, the withholding husband resentfully
dancing with his wife, the forced hand of a frightened child—all
touch is, literally, close to the bone. And perhaps more than
words, strips us of any kind of bravado, causing hearts alternately
to cleave or break.
So I come back to the aging monkeys, to the photo of Linnea
and me. And I recall the timeless tenderness that Nepo saw
in the monkeys, as their sleeping hands joined in a touch
that “kept them from oblivion.”
It’s kind of odd how we fear the intimacy of love’s closeness;
we fear it signaling our loss of self or loss of independence.
Oblivion. Mark Nepo’s monkeys argue just the opposite.
And maybe they are more than just an image, but are an invitation
to reconsider how we live out our lives.
Because it is the history of human aggression and conquest,
not the acknowledgement of our need for each other, that leads
to oblivion. All those chokeholds, all that death: the dying
civilization, clutching weapons, pillaging booty; the necrosis
of sexual exploitation where coercive touch kills souls; the
agonal intimate partnership where touch is abusive, or forceful
I got thinking of what it would be like to try to release
a grip on all holding that is not about a kind of convivial
It seemed a risky business, even to think about. We are so
cloaked in the fear of each other it is hard to remember that
before the mythic fig leaves, there was fearlessness and freedom.
Still, the images came to me fresh and fast:
The baby’s hand waving outward like an underwater sea flower,
as if to reach the thick promise in the air around it;
The older couple, side-by-side on bleachers, their legs in
shorts touching, the skin a little flaccid, the muscles a
little declined with age;
The lover’s hand, reaching in sleep to beach on the flank
of the beloved;
The therapist massaging the forgotten crevices and hardened
calluses of a stranger’s lonely skin;
The hands that offer and receive the bread and wine or the
Thruway ticket or the grocery store change and, touching,
send an unscripted greeting, a fleeting warmth of communion.
Maybe in these repeated images, these repeated experiences—each
staked on the single truth that we are linked beings—we will
discover that our need for each other is always more redemptive
than the fear that drives us to be free from each other.
And maybe in the unabashed touch of the aging monkeys we can
see the daring and primal freedom of connection.
can contact Jo Page at