“Let’s get in touch.”
“I feel like I’m losing touch with you.”
“That was a touching tribute.”
The English language is littered with metaphors of touch that tend to revolve around connection between people. Such word use creates an almost psychic understanding that communication, even when conducted over Wi-Fi and satellite transmissions, can still allow us, as the old AT&T commercial had it, to “reach out and touch someone.” We “touch” each other even when we are a thousand miles away.
Many of us have rediscovered this during the coronavirus lockdown, reconnecting with friends and family over the phone, Skype, and Zoom. We see and hear those we love through a screen, and we are touched. Of course, this experience has also shown us the limitations of communication, that ultimately, our metaphors are not reality.
We’ve been craving touch. And we want more than what AT&T promised. We want actual physical touch: a hug, a hand held, a kiss on the cheek, a casual brush of the finger on the back of the hand. Touch begs us to move beyond the metaphorical. It is a sense that needs to be fed, and when there is a shortage, we get what researchers refer to as “skin hunger,” while lack of touch in infancy has dramatic effects on human development. If touch only remains in the symbolic, linguistic realm, we eventually get out of touch and go hungry.
Even so, human touch is not the only touch we need. Human-human touch, in one form or other, is crucial to human flourishing, yet we also touch objects, things that are seemingly inanimate, and those experiences shape our spiritual and social lives.
In an essay on Medium, my colleague Jodi Eichler-Levine points to the new activities many of us have taken up during the coronavirus lockdown—baking bread, gardening, crocheting, playing guitar. She makes the astute observation that these activities directly relate to our hunger for touch. Since we can’t physically touch so many of our loved ones, we are turning to other practices that get us back in touch. She says, “we are re-learning touch, buildings nests of soft blankets, clutching our warm coffee mugs.”
In a brilliant new book to be released this fall called Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis, Eichler-Levine has explored contemporary Jewish life in the United States, and the ways Jewish identities are “crafted,” through quilting, paper collage, carving, knitting, amulet making, as well as the communities that often form around the physical activities. In a discussion of the importance of handmade gifts, she says, “Objects are not just objects; they are objects that have touched other hands, carrying with them the essence of another living being.”
I, too, have long been impressed by the ways human senses are enacted in, by, and through religious traditions. In my book A History of Religion in 5½ Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses (Beacon Press, 2014), I look at the role of various objects—stones, incense, drums, crosses, bread—and how humans sensually engage them in spiritual ways. In reference to touch, at the start of the chapter “Stones,” I suggest:
Stones are set, cut, clutched, chiseled, and hurled. They ride in our pockets for luck on journeys, or climb into our boots turning travels into travails . . . . Stones solicit attention, usually subtly, almost inaudibly. Among the vast number of stones, rocks, pebbles, and gravel on the planet earth and beyond, a handful are occasionally selected, unearthed, transported, and repurposed for sacred means, becoming talismans, amulets, altars, or memorials . . . . In each case, stones are objects sensed, felt with fingertips, seen with the eyes, and felt deeply within. Stones show us the way.
Touching a stone might strike one as contrary to what we need when we have a hunger for touch, as if stones could begin to speak and respond. Yet, history tells us a different story, and across time and tradition stones have rooted people in memory, stood as markers of our sacred spaces, and connected us with others.
Buddhists set stones in meditation gardens. Jews place them on gravestones. At the geographic center of Christianity, in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is the “Stone of Anointing,” and the faithful travel to touch and kiss this stone. At the geographic center of Islam is the Black Stone, in the eastern corner of the ka’ba in Mecca, and during the hajj, Muslims aim to touch and kiss it as they walk around in the Great Mosque.
Stones, and our endemic need to touch them, has become a vital, if often overlooked, component to religious life across the world. As I note in the book, “People feel connections with stones; they fondle them, touch them, kiss them, and tell stories by them.”
From human hands to knitting needles to stones, humans crave touch. There’s a time to touch the plush fur of our cat, a time for a warm hand of another, a time to feel the soil as we plant tomatoes, and a time to hold firm our stones. We clutch and caress and carry as we reach out and touch something, reaffirming our interconnection with the world.
Which brings me back here, and now, alone in a room in rural Central New York. As I write this, I touch keys on a keyboard, a familiar feeling at the edge of my fingertips. For me, writing has always been a profoundly physical sensation: sitting in a particular position, at my desk, fumbling for words and sensing the location of keys on the keyboard, from eye to screen to brain to muscles to fingers to keyboard and back again through cycles of stroke, sensation, and significance. Writing keeps me in touch.
About the Author
S. Brent Plate is a writer, editor, and part-time college professor at Hamilton College. Recent books include A History of Religion in 5½ Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses (Beacon Press) and Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-creation of the World (Columbia University Press). His essays have appeared at Salon, the Los Angeles Review of Books, America, the Christian Century, and the Islamic Monthly. More at www.sbrentplate.net or on Twitter @splate1.