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In Touch

In 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.

“What 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.

“I 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.

“They 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 and dignity.

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 terror.

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 or faked.

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 touching.

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.

—Jo Page

You can contact Jo Page at

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