Last evening, I was part of a remarkable conversation about hugs.
I’ve written before about my hunger for touch and the shame that goes with it. A longing for touch is always with me to some degree, ebbing and flowing with my social context, but I hide it and rarely speak of my need. Keeping it secret is, of course, self-protective. I’m ashamed of my need and what others will think of it, but we also live in a culture that distorts much of our rightful and healthy sexuality and sensual expression. A woman who craves physical affection and reassurance is exceedingly vulnerable and very likely to be misunderstood.
I’m also respectful of the boundaries of others; unfortunately, many people are badly wounded around unwanted and/or inappropriate touch. I myself am confused about the interaction of abuse, touch and sex, and I know many others are as well.
Yet I maintain touch is one of the core needs we all have, and I know touch deprivation is a condition that has been extensively studied. As human beings, we don’t develop normally if we’re touch deprived or otherwise dislocated from our neurobiological need for skin-to-skin contact.
This is an issue I deal largely with inside my own head, although I have mentioned it in writing. I haven’t discussed it among friends. If we reveal how ugly and pathetic we are, we won’t have friends, right?
Sigh. No. Not right. We all have secrets like this, and true friends don’t turn away from our warts and scars. Also, I get bored by my own fear and the tension between being real and being accepted. To hell with it.
Last night, I found myself standing outside in the early winter evening with two others talking about, of all things, hugs. The harsh light at the apex of the barn roof fell on us, making strange, stark shadows on our faces,
I was stunned (first) and amused (later) to discover a hug meant something entirely different to each of us. I’m constantly poking at the different meanings we have for words and concepts, and I’m acutely aware of the confusion and conflation of things like respect and agreement. Why should the experience and interpretation of either giving or receiving a hug be any different?
I suppose it’s such a deep, painful and private issue I’ve simply never given it enough airtime to realize touch, too, has many different meanings. The only meaning I’ve been able to see is my own, and I realize now my meaning is very unsophisticated and black and white:
Touch means love. If there is no touch, there is no love. If my touch is rejected, my love is rejected, which I take personally and make into a rejection of me, naturally!
So there we stood in the icy driveway, having just disembarked from the car. I said (and realized as I said it how true it is, though I never expressed it this way before) a hug is the best “I love you,” I can express. I’ve always been able to say (and hear!) far more physically than I can with words.
My friend (another woman) said she learned to think of hugs as a sign of weakness.
Another friend (a man) said to him a hug, or most other kinds of physical contact, are a threat of pain, violence or abuse.
Wow. The three of us stood there, looking at each other. I was reminded of how little we know or guess about what goes on below the surface of others, even others we know and care about. I was humbled by their honesty, touched by their vulnerability, grateful for the reminder we all carry around pain and confusion over something in our heads and hearts. I wanted (of course!) to take them both in my arms, but refrained (also of course).
It’s amazing to understand the best, most compassionate and loving gift I can give another might feel to the recipient like a threat, or endanger their sense of strength and independence. My intention may be completely lost in translation.
When I think about the times I’ve felt rejected or rebuffed as I interact with people who aren’t comfortable with touch, I suddenly realize their discomfort is likely not about me at all. I no longer get to be the star in my soap opera (nobody loves me, I’m old, I’m ugly, I’m untouchable). Maybe, in fact, others don’t want to make me feel weak, or threatened, or who knows what else!
I can’t help but giggle about this.
I can’t say more about my personal thoughts and feelings right now. It was one of those brief but amazing conversations I can’t stop thinking about. It didn’t lead me to a grand and glorious conclusion, it just revealed aspects of touch I hadn’t been aware of before.
Social touch is extremely complicated and essential to healthy human functioning. I discover, as I research, the discipline of psychotherapy is beginning to look at the importance of touch as a tool for connection and emotional healing. We know touch can play a role in physiological healing. Touch is an essential part of nonverbal communication. Different cultures have different social rules about touch. A couple of generations of American parents were taught to avoid holding or cuddling infants and children (don’t spoil your child); thankfully, we are changing our beliefs about that now, but that doesn’t help the generations of disbonded and attachment-disordered children who are now adults and struggling. Skin hunger and touch deprivation are a huge problem for elderly populations.
We also live in a #MeToo atmosphere in which the previously hidden pain of thousands of victims of inappropriate touch is becoming visible. As healing and validating as our recognition and outrage over this kind of abuse is, it leaves many people nervous about giving or receiving any kind of touch from anyone unless it’s sexual (as in consensual between two adults), making us ever more isolated, ashamed, and skin hungry.
I wish I had answers for myself and others, but I don’t. Somehow, we have to find a way forward with healthy boundaries, consent, communication and respect as we honor our deep physical, emotional and neurological need for nonsexual touch.
Crystal Casket by Rowan Wilding
Innocent, yet somehow run afoul of a jealous queen A sly drop of poison introduced A taint that can never be erased. So polluted, then, they built me a crystal casket, Protecting the world from my touch. I rise and clothe my outcast body, day by day Concealing shameful curse But at night I return naked to my crystal casket. The moon bathes me in her cool silver milk Ebbing and flowing like a slow heartbeat in the ravishing night. I lie with my hands folded on my chest (Their small warm weight comforts my empty heart) And watch the sky storm with stars Galaxies in my eyes. Neither shroud of rain nor quilt of snow can touch me, shut away But I love them from within my crystal casket. No faithful guardian watches over me, a lighted lantern at his feet. No prince arrives, seeking a poisoned kiss. I was never black as ebony, red as blood and white as snow. Now I’m spiderwebbed with age and moon-milk Cool inside my crystal casket while midnight passions wheel around me Dark flowers and fruits, musk and nectar, texture and taste and scent
It occurred to me this morning that, in general, I’m still confused about what I want.
I’ve had a tumultuous history with my own wants. At some point, very early, as I was learning to be a people pleaser, I gave up wanting anything because I thought it was bad. What I understood was that everyone else’s wants were far more important, and it was my more-than-full-time job to provide those wants rather than selfishly have my own. With rare exceptions, that’s been my modus operandi my whole life.
When I went through a life coaching and emotional intelligence program, my coach suggested I had a perfect right to get my needs met, and he defined some of my “wants” as needs, for example my longing for community and connection. I was enraged. Nobody had ever before made such an outrageous proposal. He clearly didn’t understand the terrible vulnerability of needing or wanting anything from anyone. Having the right to get needs and wants met was the most ludicrous, dangerous piece of heresy I’d ever heard.
That was four years ago, and I’m as angry about it now as I was the first time I heard it.
I also can’t leave the idea alone. I think about it all the time.
Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash
I picture my needs and wants as a snarling chained wolf with blazing eyes, nothing but matted grey hair over bones, backed into a tight corner, determined to go down fighting.
I grieve, literally, to admit I chained it there myself. I chained it without food, water or shelter, and walked away — for decades. During those years of neglect, it starved and thirsted. It suffered alone with no help, no hope, a solitary prisoner.
I’ve done a lot of animal rescue work in my time, and I know sometimes an animal is just too far gone to rehabilitate. Sometimes you can save their bodies, but the abuse and neglect they’ve suffered has damaged their will to live and their ability to trust and connect, and rescue comes too late. Sometimes, against all odds, some strength of heart or spirit survives and an animal accepts affection and care, but its body is too starved or broken to heal.
Part of what I’ve been doing since I’ve come to Maine is to try to rescue my chained wolf, this piece of self I rejected, denied and tried to destroy.
It’s a long process, filled with grief, shame and anger. It takes determination, patience, and the willingness to own my history, my pain and my choices, as well as consenting to my responsibility for my own self-healing. Overcoming internal taboos is desperately hard work, and Wanting is one of my oldest taboos.
Sometime last year I wrote a list titled “Things to Want.” It was short and consisted of necessities, mostly. After a lot of hesitation, I added two things that were not necessary but I just … wanted. It felt wrong. It felt shameful. I left the list on my desk and over the following days and weeks I looked at it as I went about my life. About eight months later I bought one of the unnecessary things, a perfumed body oil I love. It cost about $25.
It was like offering a little bit of bland food to my starving wolf, pushing it near with a stick so as to avoid getting mauled. Not so much food as to make it sick, but a place to start.
Photo by Arun Kuchibhotla on Unsplash
This morning, in the pause of winter and our first big snowstorm, my partner and I talked about our plans, our dreams, and our progress. Later, I went out to walk in the snow and I suddenly saw another layer to wanting, another step closer to making amends to my chained wolf.
Wanting is just the beginning. Making a Christmas list is only the top step. What’s the list under the Christmas list, and the list under that? What is it I really want, independent of anyone else? What about the dreams I hold in common with no one, that are just about and for me? If I was free — If my wolf could bound through the snowy landscape and disappear into the Yule forest — what would I want? If we could escape judgement, our own and others’; escape for a moment our stories and labels and self-definitions; escape family, social and tribalexpectations; escape our ideology (most imprisoning of all) and want, honestly, nakedly, with all our hearts, what would that Christmas list look like?
In other words, it’s not about the perfumed body oil (Aphrodisian Fire, by the way, from Kate’s Magik). It’s about touch, scent and caring for my thinning skin. It’s about deliberately honoring my own feminine sensuality.
I don’t need any particular product, cosmetic, clothing, gizmo or piece of technology in order to honor my own feminine sensuality, although there are plenty of things to buy that might support that want, including Aphrodisian Fire, but I see now those are really just symbols. I have the power to honor my sensuality in the way I live — in the choices I make about who I connect with and how, and how I treat myself.
Photo by Caley Dimmock on Unsplash
Santa hasn’t got my choices in his sleigh.
I’m very attached to the dreams my partner and I hold in common. I love our vision, and I’m invested in it. It’s going to take a lot of money, and we don’t have that right now.
Maybe we won’t ever have it.
Maybe I was a damn fool (again) and I should never, never, have listened to someone who says it’s okay to have needs and want them met. Maybe I should walk away from my wolf again, and this time never come back. Let it starve to death.
But maybe our grand vision and plans are only the top layers of what I really want. Maybe the plan is the wrapping paper around the real treasures of self-reliance; living as part of a complex, self-sustaining system; building independence from the energy grid and a culture I largely can’t support; fostering community and trusting in my greatest joy … writing.
I don’t have to wait for the plan to happen to have those things. I don’t need money. I don’t need to wait for someone else. I don’t need to brutally imprison or eliminate my wants and needs. I can be learning, building and transforming my life right now, today, from the inside out. I can, day by day, draw a step closer to my wolf with food, with water, with a gentle hand and with compassion, and maybe, one day, come close enough to remove the chain and let the poor creature go free and wild into the world, wanting and needing as it will.
So, I’m making a list and checking it twice. Or three times. I’m peering underneath the items, things, objects, stuff on that list. What is it I really want? What am I really longing for? And if I look under that, what do I find? What are the deepest wants and needs?
This morning, as we cooked breakfast together, My partner informed me about the new trend of buying dirty jeans at $425 a pair.
Photo by Andrew Loke on Unsplash
As usual, I feel painfully out of step with the culture. I feel angry. I feel lonely. I feel flawed in some deep, irrevocable way because of what I want. I grieve for the loss of connection with what I can touch, smell, taste, look at, hear and be held by.
Yet there was a significant response to last week’s post, which indicates to me I’m not as alone as I feel.
It seems to me we’re increasingly distanced from one another, increasingly divided. The culture says we’re more connected and have access to more information than ever, and in a manner of speaking that’s true. We’re more technologically connected than ever. We’re more connected with word and symbol than ever. In fact, our heightened connectivity is creating new languages of emojis, emoticons, like and dislike buttons, and shortcut language that accommodates the limitations of tweets and texts.
Yet we live in technological enclaves that are every bit as rigid as physical neighborhoods and districts in a city. If, like me, we don’t have a cell phone — well, we’re out of the texting conversation. We’re invisible. We don’t count. We’re silenced. Ditto if we don’t have access to Internet or aren’t on social media, or don’t have an email. If we don’t play on the technological playground, we’re depersonalized and disconnected — literally.
But words, pictures, profiles and emoticons can lie. Language includes communication that only occurs with physical presence. Without physical presence, we can’t discern lies from truth. Our power is so damaged we routinely swallow just about everything the culture, media, advertising and our “friends” tells us.
For example, professional women can’t succeed if they don’t adhere to social standards of businesslike attire, clothing and makeup. If you don’t believe me, look it up on any of your tech devices. It’s not hard to find this “fact,” both directly stated and implied. Let me just repeat that, to make sure you got it.
If we’re a woman who doesn’t buy and use makeup, we can’t succeed in the business world. Everybody says so. Everybody believes it. Everybody makes it true by enforcing it each and every day with words, buying choices, advertising, blogs and articles, all courtesy of technological connectivity and manufactured consent. In 2015, the United States was considered the most valuable beauty and personal care market in the world, with a market value of 80 billiondollars.
I’d say that’s pretty successful manufactured consent, wouldn’t you? Pat yourself on the back if you wear makeup, because your hard-earned money is somewhere in that 80 billion dollars. Well done. Do you feel successful and powerful now? Someone does.
If we’re on Facebook, we have friends, a community, a popular vote of “likes.” We don’t have to deal with morning breath, a wet spot on the mattress, different schedules and rhythms, dirty bathrooms, greasy stoves, or any of the small idiosyncrasies and habits real people have. We don’t have to reveal our physical bodies, our insecurities and our wounds. The worst rejection we risk is being blocked or unfriended. We don’t have to learn how to accept, live with and perhaps even appreciate (perish the thought!) different points of view or opinions. We don’t have to be challenged, stretched, or have our dearest beliefs threatened.
Pressing a button is so much easier than all the messy consequences of authentic connection.
Photo by Alessio Lin on Unsplash
We never have to risk being real at a technological remove. No one can blow our cover. We never have to face ourselves; take responsibility for our words, views or choices; or endure the difference between the way we wish to be and the way others actually experience us. Or, alternatively, we can come out of hiding, feel safe behind the screen, and finally allow all our hate and rage off the leash.
Our culture tells us power and success equal carefully constructed pseudo self profiles, the latest technological gadgets, social media accounts, likes, followers and “friends.”
The culture teaches that power and success are achieved by buying things and the possession of money. Now there’s a circular game of empty addiction we can never win and sellers never lose!
Power and success are ours if we participate fully in manufactured consent. Would anyone like to buy a pair of dirty jeans? Guaranteed power and success!
Yet how many of us truly feel powerful and successful? Are we there yet? If we’re not there, we will be after we buy just one more thing, right? Or perhaps we need to make just a little more money, or lose a little more weight, or finally find the “right” mate.
If we’re well connected technologically, our needs are all met, yes? We have a tribe, a community in which to laugh, cry, celebrate, mourn and share our authentic selves. We have physical reassurance and bonding. Our relationships are based on authenticity, reciprocity and respect. We feel seen, heard and known.
Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash
I don’t think so. I don’t think tech meets all our needs for authentic connection. I think it more often swallows us up and absorbs us. It’s a toxic mimic for the real thing, more controllable and less risky, and we the sheeple have been groomed to buy every toy that’s put in front of us. We’ve forgotten to look up and notice there’s another human being in the room, in the bed or at the table. That’s the power of manufactured consent.
It doesn’t surprise me that Baba Yaga spoke to so many last week. We’ve sterilized what she represents right out of our modern culture. All her outrageous, provocative, profane, rebellious, insubordinate, irreverent, passionate, authentic attributes have been pushed underground, where her spirit lurks, watching, cackling, stirring her cauldron, sucking on bones and waiting for us to remember her and summon authentic power and connection again.
Authentic connection has a scent of living tissue and breath. It’s texture and heartbeat. It communicates with word, action, and the silent language of the body. It doesn’t allow us to shut our eyes, stop our ears or press a button and dismiss uncomfortable tension.
Authentic connection reveals us to ourselves and to others. It isn’t muffled, sterilized or distorted by keyboard or touchpad. It’s defined by visible action and choice. It demands priority and time. It requires real participation, with heart, body and presence. Authentic connection makes us weep. It makes us bleed. It makes us laugh. It awakens our rage. It heals us and makes us whole. It’s messy, unpredictable, confusing, demanding, imperfect, and reminds us at every turn of the limits of our power. It forces us to communicate and then holds us accountable for what we say — and what we don’t.
Most of all, authentic connection is not something we can buy — ever. No one and nothing can give it to us. Our only access to it is through ourselves. We’re a nation of prostitutes, viewing, clicking, scrolling, buying and surfing, but the only ones profiting are the pimps who cash in on our hunger for something real and our addiction to everything not-real.
Yet Baba Yaga is on the move, sowing seeds of divine rebellion into the cancer of manufactured consent and patriarchy, deprogramming one woman at a time. Even now she’s flying on the spring wind in her mortar, using a pestle as a rudder, searching for all those women who long for something real.
The late John O’Donohue, a wonderful Irish poet and mystic, wrote a book of blessings titled To Bless the Space Between Us.I discovered O’Donohue via Anam Cara, perhaps his best known work, more than ten years ago. This idea of blessing the ground between us has stayed with me, especially this summer as I’ve worked with boundaries. See the first posts in this series here, here, and here.
It’s a beautiful autumn day in Maine, and I find myself alone, which rarely happens.An old stone wall borders one perimeter of our 26 acres here, and I decide to walk it.
The wall is really just a hump of stones now, covered in moss.It runs through thick growth, so there is a lot of dead wood to maneuver around.The neighbor has posted signs on the trees on his side of the wall every few yards, yellow signs saying “No Trespassing.”The relentless message follows me all the way down to the river.
The ferns are golden now, responding to diminishing light. Brush and bracken are a mixture of dried flower heads, sprawling vines and fallen leaves.It’s been very dry, so numerous small stream beds are empty, but I can see where water runs when it’s present.I slither and bushwhack all the way down to the river, where a handy fallen tree makes a bench above the water.The river hardly moves, low and clear, and I sit for a time watching leaves fall onto its surface.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
The ground between one person and another, one property and another, can’t exist unless there are defined boundaries.I appreciate our neighbor’s desire to keep his land inviolate.Even without the signs I wouldn’t trespass, not being that sort, but something about the repeated warning above the old disintegrating wall disturbs me in the context of the patient trees and turning season.The wall, like a hedgerow, is probably home to many.It’s a beautiful boundary, that wall, much more interesting than a fence, and at this point much more organic, too.You might say it’s a beautiful blessing.
Photo by Robert Hickerson on Unsplash
I’ve been in relationships where the ground between us was perceived as a threat, or even a rejection.This particular boundary issue quickly damages connection if I intend to keep that sacred ground between us and the other tries to eliminate it.I don’t want to trespass, but I also don’t want to be trespassed upon.Yet I don’t want to live in an armed fortress.I don’t want the ground between us to be a military zone, seeded with landmines, soaked in blood and tears, noisy, dangerous, ugly and foul.I don’t want to build a fence with glass and razor wire between us.I don’t want the ground between us to be a toxic dump, or filled with shattered shards of broken integrity and betrayal.
Then there are relationships where lip service is paid to the ground between us, but the phenomenon I call boundary creep comes into play.Slowly, inevitably, a tide of invasion inches over the boundary.It might be in the form of noise, or in the form of things like clothing, mail, dirty laundry and personal possessions.It might be in the form of toothpaste in the sink, hair in the drain and grease on the stove.It might be in the form of detritus generated by an addiction, like beer cans, cigarette butts or drug paraphernalia.
I’ve also been in relationships where I’ve tried to make dates with people, with the two-fold intention of being fully present and available at a certain time and place for connection and managing my own time and energy effectively, but this can be very problematic.Some folks are chronically late or intermittent no-shows.Others are highly offended at having to make a date, preferring to have access to me whenever and however they want.Then there are people who only want connection on their terms.I’m not allowed to reach out in any way and can only wait for them to initiate contact and set the boundaries.
When I think about blessing the ground between us, I envision a park, or maybe a garden. A place with trees in it, and birds, and leaves and maybe some moss.I imagine a place we both create and care for, a safe and sacred space in which we experience reciprocal respect and affection.I like the idea of a stone wall or some kind of fence, but I want a gate in it.
Photo by Colin Maynard on Unsplash
At this point in my life, after years and years of confusion and pain around boundaries, I’m finally getting crystal clear.I know what I want, and I know what I don’t want.Observing how people handle boundaries and the ground between us speaks volumes about their priorities, their choices, the state of their integrity and self-esteem, and their level of functioning.Notice I say observation, not listening.Actions are always more telling than words.Someone with broken boundaries is certainly not going to help me maintain mine.
I can’t control what others do with the ground between us, but my choice is to bless it with growth and kindness, respect and safety.I intend my boundaries to be both intact and beautiful.My boundaries have doors and windows and gates so the light of my healthy relationships can bless my life, but those doors and windows and gates can be locked if the need arises.
I am not you and you are not me.Together, we are greater than we are individually.We can choose how to create and decorate our boundaries.We can choose to bless the ground between us.