Touch, it is our earliest and our most communal sense. Whether we are a tethered embryo, a tumbling toddler or an ancient tribal elder, we sense touch. Even if blind or deaf, we still perceive touch. If we are deprived of the sense of smell or taste, we know touch. From Bali, to Bahrain, to the Balkans, touch is regulated and sanctioned by every religion, by every culture. Of course, humans are not the only creatures that experience the giving and receiving of touch. Chimpanzees wrestling, parakeets grooming, dogs sharing a nose-to-neighbor greeting; the examples are endless. Touch is integral to the experience of all sentient beings.
The ability to perceive touch begins early in prenatal development. By the time we were the size of a small lima bean, our nervous system was starting to relay information about touch. What is it like to be a pre-born and feel limbs bob away from your core, or fingers (your own) brush past your face? What is it like to feel a hand (Mother’s? Big sister’s?) pressing unto your womb-room? Think about it; we all experienced touch before we were born.
Of course touch is experienced by infants, children, teens and yes, even adults. The sexual aspect of touch is a source of endless haggling by different societies, municipalities and religions. But, without the politics, without the haggling, even without overtly sexual activity, touch between grown humans is still important. It can be healing, expansive, even sacred. Stephen Gaskin, husband of Ina Mae Gaskin, describes marriage as a relationship of “touch partners”. What wonderful images this phrase ‘touch partners’ evokes, images of couples curious and trusting, exploring touch for a lifetime together.
Touch Is not just another’s presence on our skin. It is also, maybe more importantly, our own experience within our own skin. Our most common experience of touch is our own body moving in and through space. With movement, skin tugs skin, muscle pulls bone, joints revolve and flex, hands swipe sweat from soft, moist cheeks. We are our own touch partner.
For most of us, touch has been both pleasant and painful, playful and terrible, tender and cruel. As a midwife, a mother, a wife, a human, I have experienced touch in all these nuanced variations. Sometimes I have healed. Sometimes I have hurt. To all I have touched, I offer these words from a Hawaiian prayer: I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.
May all babies be born into loving hands