Touch, Its Meaning and Importance

“To forge an untouchable, invulnerable identity is actually a sign of retreat from this world; of weakness, a sign of fear rather than strength.”
David Whyte

Register touch anew. This ability to intake information through skin, legs, toes, and, mostly, fingertips. And lips, which are the threshold to touch and taste, like ears are to sound and touch.

As humans, we take in so much through sight that the other senses, like touch, weaken. Touch is vital.

I sometimes strum walls. Brick walls scratch the flesh and curve around us everywhere, showing us where to go, what to avoid.

And then there is the heat of sun-warmed tummies. There are so many things to touch, ways to be touched.

Touch, Its Meaning and Importance
For this post, I visited London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. The greatest art and design museum in the world. This exquisite outer kimono (uchikake) is from the Japanese Edo period and was made ~1870-90. With silk and metal-covered thread it depicts scenes from well-known kabuki plays. It would have been worn by a courtesan. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

“I never had a sense that the ability to win came from me,” wrote artist Patti Smith in her memoir, Woolgathering. “I always felt it was in the object itself. Some piece of magic that was animated through my touch.” Smith imagined igniting latent power in her beloved marble collections, but only when she touched them.

At night, I’d pour my booty upon my bed and wipe them with a chamois. I’d arrange them by color, by order of merit, and they’d rearrange themselves—small glowing planets each with its own history, its own will of gold.

We touch, without thinking, the things most precious to us. We stroke them to release memory, to bring coolness or warmth, to engage. To love.

The first time I held my daughter, my hands were woefully inadequate. I felt a compulsion to lick her. (Although kissing sufficed.) To touch her with some warm, wet stimulating brilliance, the kind she had been used to before she came into the cold air. To enclose her again.

Touch, Its Meaning and Importance
There’s a cruel irony to museums. Behind plastic, glass, and warning signs are all these marvelous items. This pair of oak doors with ironwork dates from ~ 1250. A miracle of survival against elements, they would have been both protective and decorative for a home. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I’ll never forget reading Walt Whitman’s epic poem “Song of Myself” and his lines of rapture, held captive by joy:1

I mind how we lay in June, such a transparent summer
morning;
You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged
your tongue to my barestript heart, And reached till you felt my beard, and reached till you
held my feet.

This is touch. This is to be touched. Both physically and in some higher implication of what it means to be touched. Affected. To be wrapped in the presence of another being.

It’s the poetic version of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St. Teresa,” a monumental Baroque sculpture scarved of white marble of a woman caressed and brought to intense ecstasy by an unseen and violating divine hand. Her toes curl in affectation.2

“We are made for unending meeting and exchange,” wrote American poet David Whyte. Whyte believed that being touched – and moreover, being touchable – is something we desire, something we long for. Not necessarily as a sense or perception, but a feeling, an emotive act of understanding and being understood.

Whyte concludes:

To forge an untouchable, invulnerable identity is actually a sign of retreat from this world; of weakness, a sign of fear rather than strength and betrays a strange misunderstanding of an abiding, foundational and necessary reality: that untouched, we disappear.

Touch isn’t necessarily being around people, even when alone we commune through touch. It’s more than sensory; it’s exchange.

Consider Japanese novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, who navigated us through the materiality of Japanese construction—ceramics, walls, doors, wood—embracing the texture of paper that gives us “a certain feeling of warmth, of calm and repose.” Tanizaki’s 1934 essay on the Japanese aesthetics invited us to engage with materials, spaces and objects in a way hitherto ignored.

Touch, Its Meaning and Importance
With its vast collection of decorative arts, the V&A is a museum of things meant to be touched. This Venetian carved marble well-head stood in the courtyard of Tintoretto’s home circa 1490. The marble is worn from daily use. Note the notches on the far side where ropes cut into the stone. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Touch is a way to perceive the world. But it’s more than registering data. Touch is an extremely intimate and lasting form of interaction, of engagement.

The first time I held my daughter. Senses scrambling to make sense of the unfamiliar. Crying, a large sound that seems completely impossible given the small source. Seeing is nothing—a newborn body isn’t like anything I’d ever seen or ever will again.

Touch. It’s all there is. Holding her… It was the first time I touched her. She had, however, been touching me for nine months. She cuddled up and showed me how.

“The minute that comes to me over the past decillions / There is no better than it and now,” wrote Whitman.

That moment of first touch was such a profound engagement that it carved out a space, a memory, something I can reenter for the rest of my life. Something that will always affix me to her.

Touch, Its Meaning and Importance
This Mexican ceramic pot, circa ~1700, can be touched. Mexican ceramics developed when trade routes brought ceramics from China through to Europe. Imperfections in the pot can be felt on the inside, where the potter’s hands shaped the clay. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

David Whyte assures us that touch, though it makes us vulnerable, affects us positively.

Patti Smith wrote Woolgathering for her 45th birthday, from the depths of what she called melancholy and from the corner of her garden near a willow that blew on her shoulders.

Her reflections, including touching mementos in her home to a moment where she cuts her own hair, is full of touch. A way for her to break through an untouchable identity.

To touch and be touched. It is how we expand our vitality into the world and receive the world’s vitality. A power, a vulnerability. As we carry it ourselves, we must respect it in others.

Whitman’s majestic poem was a song of light and human connectedness. Our intense need to engage. To be affected.

I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

All the things in nature that long to be touched gently, noticed. Humans longing to be loved, to be shown kindness.

American poet Mary Oliver (who called Whitman “the brother she never had”) wrote about stones being touched by rain.

After rain after many days without rain,
it stays cool, private and cleansed, under the trees,
and the dampness there,
married now to gravity,
falls branch to branch, leaf to leaf, down to the ground

[…]

and soon so many small stones, buried for a thousand years,
will feel themselves being touched.

Somewhere, there is a part of all of us longing to commune. Longing to be touched.