Last month, a Black woman held my hand for 2 hours. I held hers back. Though our hands cramped and tingled, we didn’t let go. We adjusted when necessary, giving each other a quick squeeze when the stories became too much. Our grip was steady and tender and gave without asking. We are still thanking each other for it.
Last week, as I sat in the house of the same Black woman who held my hand, I heard about another death. The week was full of snatches, deep grief and guilt. As this new knowledge grippedgreetedgutted me, I moved into a different room. In this room I sat, rocking slightly. Rubbed my hand against the table, next to the sweet potato pie.
Another Black woman moved into the room and held that hand. I hadn’t spoken about what happened and yet, she knew. The Black woman on the other side of the room from us looked me in the eye. We spoke and listened. We held each other amongst the spirits, vodka and food. I am thankful for these holds, the returnings to, these rituals.
let me declare doorways
corners, pursuit, let me say
standing here in eyelashes, in
invisible breasts, in the shrinking lake
in the tiny shops of untrue recollections,
the brittle gnawed life we live,
I am held, and held
Dionne Brand, Thirsty
One of my fondest and earliest memories of touch as doorway and connection is of my Bubbie offering us 50 cents an hour to rub her feet. She had a big tub of vaseline with a blue top and it never ran out. We’d dig in it, produce a big glob and rub our hands together to “get going”. I remember tracing the cracks of her heels, the similarity of the way they and her veins formed. This was a gathered ritual, a conjuring. This was how I learned to practice listening to her heart when her voice said another thing.
(Today my hands are raw from skin allergies and grief. I miss her terribly. I have always rubbed my hands back and forth when anxiety is at its peak. I like the way it sounds. Maybe there’s a connection in this. If there is, I’m not ready to process it anyway.)
In the asking of us to rub her feet, was an implicit acknowledgement that she needed touch. Wanted to be marked by it. Two New Years ago, my mama and I learned that she’d been raped twice. She’d experienced touch as violation, manipulation, violence and threat. Her asking created a new possibility/doorway/ passage: touch as connection, offering, vulnerability and service. And yes, touch as obligation, which she wielded when we said we didn’t want to rub them. And every now and again, she’d say alright with such sadness in her voice that at the time I thought she was trying to make me feel guilty. Now I know it was another thing.
Her ask was/ is a soft beckoning, a call, a marking that she had walked and lived and became many things over and over again. For us and rarely for herself. She had livedcreatedcrafted a life loneliness and it was often met with restriction death no. The cracks on her feet didn’t go away, even though I smothered them with vaseline and hope. And though I willed them with tenderness and they were surrounded by her children and all this fire and sometimes we had wood and water to put it out and would listen to her stories, they never faded.
I would like to ask her questions about this. I can’t ask her questions about this. Her feet are no longer here to rub.
Two months ago my fingers were in someone’s head who is no longer here. I found a list he’d written of how many books he borrowed from me. Below it is a list of the books he encouraged me to read. He signed and dated the list. I keep thinking about how his hair felt. How he is gone and my friend is single again. Single in a different way this time.
His laugh swayed you, made you believe in it. His sadness did too. He was so good with the kids. Loved what my mama does. Loved how she loved and noticed how he could’ve been loved as a Black boy. As a Black man. My friend loves him. Loved him. We have to say loved now.
The paper feels weird. I wonder what happened to that hair. My friend will come over on Friday night. And I’ll do her hair. And it will remind me of his hair. And we will both try to keep it together and fail. He was loved. Is loved.
Mama taught me to braid my hair when I was 7. By 8, I was doing other peoples’ hair on the block. One time, I braided raisins in the girl down the street’s hair. At first, I only knew how to do singles but mama had a doll from cosmetology school and let me practice on its head. She flat ironed our neighbor’s hair when asked.
Mama taught me a new type of touch. Touch that begins at the hair and ends at the neck, without breaking. Touch that builds anew. I fell in love with it. Washing hair, combing it, smelling it, the designs and ideas. The old and new conversations that people have with you and themselves. The soft and dedicated space we create in those moments. Everything. It’s a particular kind of cherished intimacy. History.
While visiting a friend in the studio on Wednesday night, I spoke with another Black man about the importance of touch. Touch as a presence and touch that is absent. We spoke about death, barbershops and intimacy. We talked about those of us who are no longer here, those who helped us learn to know and appreciate touch. Touch as experimentation, sensation, grounding.
He said that he knows when his barber is angry with a person, even when that person is not him. He can feel it in the ways that his barber places his hands. I closed my eyes and listened to him describe the pressure and weight of the barber’s hands, imagined the language between the words he didn’t say. The quick knicks he got because his barber was not focused on touch as interaction and care. The energy we bring with how and where and when we touch folks.
I told him about my uncle’s hand holding mine. How he died 23 years ago and I still feel him. Have always felt him and my family has never made me feel weird about it. We talked ghosts and phantom limbs, what our hands do when we’re/ they’re tired, triggered, angry and/ or afraid. We talked about lost touch and what we do when we go searching for it, how sexual and intimate touch are not interchangeable.
I asked when he first noticed the shifts and nuances of touch. Asked when was the last time he received touch that felt good, without being sexual. He said that he lost two people in quick succession when he was young. They were 11 and 13. They’d been the first people besides his grandma and grandpa to touch him in ways that honored his spirit and voice. He said puberty landed on him soon after these folks died. And he jumped into sex because he was trying to find the touch he lost, touch that would hold and love him.
I talked about how I’d experienced touch as violation, from multiple people who did not have loving touch on their bodies and hearts. I talked about the sadness and disappointment of this. How I am welcoming more non-sexual touch in my life because I/ we need it. I mentioned all of the times that people touch my hair without asking. The times when I’m afraid to request or offer touch. How all touch does not have to match up, that it is okay to ask for what we need.
Touch and sounds may produce similar reactions while operating differently. It’s possible to receive and/ or give a massage that produces similar sounds that one makes when orgasming. This is not wrong. We do a disservice to our spirits (and bodies) when we relegate everything to sex. We do a disservice to our commitment to ourselves when we do not name what’s missing. Touch is appropriate outside of the bedroom. Play with touch, learn what you like and don’t like.
A friend says that they sometimes scare people instead of hugging them because they believe that they can’t ask for multiple hugs in succession.
Loneliness is happening around and within us and this article may bring up feelings about the ways that we have not been touched. That is okay. You are not defective. All of the voices inside of you deserve attention.
-Learn what feels good to you. Build a community that will meet your asks with honesty and compassion.
-Spoon and cuddle with your friends.
-Rub other Black folks’ feet.
-Ask for massages. hold and rub hands.
-Send and receive nudes if you feel comfortable. (I’m grateful to all my friends who have praised my booty. It helps.)
-You get to ask for what you want and have your requests honored. Even, especially when the answer is a no.
-Pay close attention to what your body does when it wants touch and does not receive it.
-Touching other folks (with their consent) is okay.
-Be mindful of what type of energy you’re holding when you touch others. When you touch yourself.
We do not experience touch enough. We overcompensate for the lack of touch in other ways. I’m especially thinking about the absence of/ impact of touch on poor Black, single, queer elders and/or disabled folks. I’m thinking about those of us in offices all day surrounded by folks we do not want to touch us. Who may touch us anyway. About touch in welfare lines, shelters, performances, as wars on the body. About touch cravings that we are not able to name yet. About those of us who have lived our entire lives without experiencing touch that feels good. Touch that makes us feel most like our best selves.
Touch and touching are complex. The presence/ lack of it can be situational. Strategic. Protection. It can lend itself to seeing and opening up. It can break and harm. It can cause withdrawals, shock, fear, mood changes. It can connect, love, shape.
I feel most alive when my ears are held and rubbed softly. When I get a warm hug that ends with eye contact and hand holding. I feel most thankful when I recognize the ways that I have been afraid of touching and being touched. When I bravely ask for it again.
What makes you feel alive?
Touch is revolution. Touch is apocalypse preparation.
For Aaron, may you be touched as lovingly as possible in this new realm. May you rest, finally.