It’s evening now, the end of Memorial Day. We had rain for much of the weekend, which made life easier for farmers, plants, flowers, and gardens, and harder for children and people who love to go on walks.
“We need the rain,” we remind each other all the time, “the soil is so dry.”
But who’s the we? When does everybody have the same need, the same want? Tt’s those moments when needs arise and I can’t fill them that require my attention. Loving attention. Tender attention. Not shutting my eyes, not crouching in a defensive mode (Do you know everything I’m doing? Do you know how tired I am?)
I remember well after Bernie’s stroke being confronted again and again by his needs that I couldn’t fulfill. His need for more presence from me, more physical touch. I did so much, but I couldn’t meet all those needs. I also wanted my own life, I needed meaning that wasn’t just defined by taking care of him.
Those moments were filled with such helplessness. But they also humbled me, as if they were saying: Take your place in the line of all those who can’t avert losses, who see gaps wherever they go. And pay attention to them. Tender, loving attention.
And now, it’s my turn to miss physical touch. Not sex, though that would be nice, but the feel of a body, an arm, a hand. Rolling towards a familiar body, the feeling of the chest hair, the contours of legs, body, arms. Warm, physical touch.
Get a massage, someone suggests.
Everyone knows how important physical touch is for infants and young children. Is it any less important 60 or 65 years later? When we become adults it seems to get subsumed under the need for sex. We’re busy going out and conquering life, reproducing our genes, imprinting as much of ourselves on the world as possible. Maybe it’s only after that that we admit to ourselves the need for touch for its own sake, flesh to flesh, warmth to warmth.
The Northeast has been cold this past weekend; I shut the windows and put on the heat, remembering how much Bernie complained at how cool I kept the house. I finally let myself admit how much I need the physical presence of other people. Sure, I enjoy talking to folks on phone and by Zoom, reaching out to invisible ghosts in the digital world who mean so much to me. But I want to return to basics, and basics include physical warmth, physical touch.
I had no idea I’d be writing this this evening, the words just jumped onto the page all by themselves.
I haven’t checked physics lately, but my memory is that our molecules are formed by atoms which bond with other atoms through a constant exchange of electrons. The things we consider solid are not solid, they’re bonding and re-bonding all the time. We’re permeable; we permeate others, and they permeate us.
Bernie used to lead a meditation in this way:
“Pay attention to your inhale. Now pay attention to your exhale. Notice that whenever you inhale, you are inhaling the exhalations of everyone else. And when you exhale, it’s your exhalation that others are inhaling. The air you breathe is everyone’s air, and their air is yours. The air they breathe has already gone through your entire body and the air you breathe has gone through theirs.”
Even our breath isn’t strictly our own. It’s been all over the world and we give it back to the world.
I covered up our Kwan-yin with a blue tarp. It’s silly, she’s made of wood, she’s rotting already, but we were going to get lots of rain and I wanted to protect her from it while we clarify if she could still be stood up, and more important, if she can keep standing.
You can always stand somebody up for a moment or two, you can stand up yourself for a short while. But how many of us stand steadily and reliably day after day? Of course, like her, we’ll fall back at some point, she’s old, she has a right to rest. But how I miss that gaze from afar!
I used to enjoy touching her, feeling the crevices and cracks, feeling how used she was. Our bodies, too, get used up. They’re tired from the daily grind of muscle and bone, the work of holding us up as we go about our business. Again, I often think of how Bernie had to put heavy black shoes on in order to walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night. He couldn’t go barefoot, he couldn’t put on slippers or sandals even on the hottest summer nights because his right foot didn’t work, he could only rely on those black, heavy shoes to keep him up. I’d hear him sigh a little as he sat up in bed in the darkness and bend down to put those shoes on to carry that fragile body.
We don’t find bodies that need to be held up attractive; it’s not what movies or TV show us. But, like Kwan-yin, we all need to be held up somehow. Some things, some people, hold us up. When they’re no longer there we realize they’ve always held us up, we were never alone, we were never really that independent, we depended on so many things, including on a warm body getting weaker and more fragile, an arm that lost its way trying to finding you.
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