catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 23 :: 2006.12.15 — 2006.12.29


Open arms

I once met two Muslim men who were traveling through New England during the month of Ramadan. This was shortly after the Gulf War, and these men were “walking for peace,” they said, wearing traditional Arab garments and spreading awareness that Islam preaches non-violence. Sometimes we use the phrase “second nature” to name a habit has become ingrained, interwoven into our lives, but oddly I would say warmth and affection, the habit of simple interpersonal touch has become first nature to me, a native tongue I came to, late, a native tongue I love so wildly that self-denial is hard and sometimes bitter.

So at the end of our conversation, I was quite taken by one of these men, and in the tradition of my church (we were standing in the church garden,) I threw my arms open and said, “The peace of the Lord be with you,” launching a step toward the man. I have never, never seen the kind of look the man gave me—it was fierce and not unkind at the same time. He threw up a force field of sorts, a powerful defense, and actually warded me off. Me! “We do not touch women. It does not mean we love any less.” He showed me how to offer a small bow, I believe, hands pressed together as if in prayer. I think I almost spoiled Ramadan for him; imagine, rendered somehow unclean, while walking for peace and awareness, imagine, rendered unclean by my sloppy affection. He offered me a word for peace and said again how much he enjoyed our conversation. I wished him godspeed on his way, and walked away shaken, myself. Taboos! What an ass I am.

I grew up in a family that was not affectionate. We were anything but cold, in fact quite tempestuous, but when it came to touch, we gave wide berth, sometimes with an “ew, cooties!” kind of flavor to interpersonal avoidance. As a teen, I joined a little country church—by that I mean a church more flavored by its rural locale than by denomination. Cinderblock, with crank-out windows. And this church was almost as informal as an old shoe.

When I walked in, I was befriended by a family with four children, all younger than me, and they all jockeyed for who would sit next to me in church, and who would occupy my lap. No child and barely even any friend had ever asked to sit next to me, and I was smitten with all of them, first the family, then the pastor, then the whole church. I could see many differences between my life and theirs: differences in trust, in enthusiasm, in hope, and this world of sweet difference—they were unafraid of one another, and they reached out their hands to one another and to me, housing great warmth in their simple ability to touch.

At that time, I had no idea how much I craved touch. I had been in dating situations which felt like being plastered with touch. (Imagine, a non-touchy kind of kid feeling suffocated, panicked.) I have since known some people, some church people, who hug way too much, with too little sensitivity. But then, at affection’s beginnings for me, I was enamored of simple kindness in a physical form—a hand extended, holding hands in prayer. I absorbed it, this kindness. And the laying on of hands: I recently witnessed this act in a Presbyterian church, high church-style service but the method of prayer moved me to tears. I have felt the power and love conveyed in that gesture. I have been the recipient, before, and it gave me strength in a unique way.

When I arrived home from my first summer camp experience, I brought with me the embrace of the whole world, as far as I was concerned. I remember re-introducing “please” and “thank you” to my family dinner table, where it seemed to have gone missing for awhile. I began reaching for my mother’s hand, and she began threading her arm through my elbow when we took walks. We hugged a little, here and there, as much as my family could bear, not being touchy people. I remember my mother making the shift from “you kids know I love you,” to saying, “I love you, Denise.” I remember, because I started it, bringing home direct expression of love from my church. And I remember because I had hungered for these words. I think my mother, too, had hungered for them, and her fear of that hunger had stopped her. Would my family have made this transition on its own? I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think so. I have heard it said that a functional family is the setting in which we learn intimacy, but my parents’ marriage was beginning to break down at this point, and we were learning about the absence of intimacy, with the exception of these one-to-one gestures and words.

I don’t mean to imply that I immediately became the great embracer of strangers and bestower of kindness, as a teenager. I was accustomed to living a life of self-protection. I had a great deal of hard shell to loosen. I remained convinced for many years that people who really knew me would reject me, and I had spent so much time in friendships that seemed fragile, ever-shifting. I felt lucky to have any friends at all.

This tendency to warmth, to trust, this tendency to actually find warm and trustworthy friends grew through my summers living in communal work situations and through college. I lost a set of important friends after my college graduation—they felt I saw myself as “less than,” as unworthy of them. (I did. I had never known people of such incredible caliber, let alone been friends with them.) These three friends said I would ask to spend time in ways that were indirect, such as “Would you like to go for a milkshake?” rather than to honestly say, “I pretty much just want to spend time with you, any way you want to spend time.” I don’t think they reckoned with how far I had come, or that I had held so few friends up to that time. I had never endured real conflict with friends, barely knew how to be honest with anyone, to express anger or disappointment. And their anger had festered too long—the friendships were over.

I vowed I would never lose another friend that way, and that all future friends would hear clearly my gratitude, and my hope to work through misunderstandings. I would work to invest my friendships with a feeling of reciprocity, and I would ask for more, ask for time, and feel I was worth that time. I vowed that I would find a way to “check in” when conversations seemed strained. And I vowed that I would learn to be the best friend I could be, the most honest I could be. I worked so hard to be the kind of warm friend I had hoped for, and it was hard to believe my effort seemed less than enough. A circle of warmth and warm regard was not enough. I would need to loosen some shell, a bit more, show more courage, ask more.

The next friends I would make in my life were the best friends, the friends who have lasted. And the friends who lasted beyond those college years hold a particularly close place in my life. We endured much. And I expected much from them.

I still know people who are much more comfortable with touch than I am—people who pile on couches with friends, and one outrageous friend my husband and I share who pats everyone she knows on the rear end. This behavior would be crazy from anyone but Val, but from Val, each of us found it quite dear. Many of my friends skinny dip together, and some part of me is sad that I will never be among them, not for all the wine-plying and cajoling in the world. And I had a good many single friends in Washington State who became rather physically involved with one another, only to say later, “Well, that sure was ridiculous,” and then returned to the regularly-scheduled friendship. These scenarios are beyond my stretch, I’m afraid. Though I appear less than careful to many people, I am hardly reckless.

Much of the hard shell I worked to shed in college, and beyond, fell away after childbirth. There is something about living as a seeming biological experiment that reveals the body in a new light, something in the act of breast-feeding that makes partial nudity more mundane, more simply useful to nurturing a baby. And there is something about my first birth that broke my heart clean open to all of the babies I will ever meet—the palpable desire to hold every one of them, to make the world a lovelier place for them. I boldly pet the peachfuzz on their heads and breathe in their newness, every chance I get. I love how newborns are the shape of a crumpled bag of potatoes, how they curve right beneath my neck like a warm puddle. The rhythmic dance step I learned putting little ones to sleep returns at a moment’s notice.

And somewhere in there, too, I began to flirt with really old men and women—I say “flirt” but it’s more about seeing the beauty of their faces, sensing how little they experience touch, embrace. “How long since you have had a good backrub, Althea?” “Why, since the last time I saw you, my dear.” Perhaps it is the response to being harmless, to being maternal. Perhaps it is the response to being required to give so much, so that I want now to give to those who truly appreciate my affection. And perhaps because I am not a full-time professional anything—I have time. I move more slowly to the next task. And I take my joy where I find it. Perhaps I see the path before me, and I am no longer a part of any sort of beauty pageant. I see myself like these elders, so far from the fast lane. Perhaps also, they never say no, they take great delight in me.

It’s not a concerted effort on my part, to offer warmth to others. I barely realize I do it, it is barely intentional. First nature, native tongue—it’s how I live and move and have my being. I have a friend from the Midwest who tells me she decided she will “be hospitality” in this part of the world, where hospitality is a lesser-known quantity. Perhaps I will be warmth and affection in a cold and unaffectionate part of the world, too. Without thinking too hard about it. I only hope I can be sensitive and not sloppy about it. Especially if I meet any more Muslim men, who love without touch, during the month of Ramadan.

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