Portland, ME – Soakology, a place of retreat and massage. I went with some friends a while back, as a kind of joint birthday present. It’s not everyone’s idea of a gift – some folks don’t like their feet to be touched, or, to have a body massage in state of near nakedness. Me, I’m not one of them – I’m a big fan of massage, and so are my sons.  As we soaked and relaxed, one of my single women friends mentioned that something she missed in a close relationship was touch. In our society, with the unspoken rules of personal space, touch is a “touchy” subject, the when and why and how. I’m certain it has to do with so many folks’ infatuation with their pets, the permissible touching, petting, cuddling and stroking. Human touch, at its best, is art and medicine. At its worst, soul-destroying.

My family background was not especially warm and physical. However, as one of six children close in age, we were thrown together in bedrooms, church pews, and the back of the car – “squeezed in”. Really, I think it was college and California that opened the door for me to the pleasure and the power of touch. Acting in scenes, we had the reason and opportunity to touch, embrace, slap or kiss others, even relative strangers. Off stage, theater types tended to be fairly open and expressive, shall we say. Giving and receiving massages, often in a line. Hot tubs under the stars, often naked. Which, I learned, did not imply that sex was to follow, necessarily. And I learned there the language of touch, how to communicate what was acceptable to me, and what was not.

At Soakology, I asked the woman massaging my feet what had led her to that profession. Strong hands, she said, and a kind of gift that was pointed out to her by someone in alternative healing, an acupuncturist. Besides the retreat massage, the young woman had another vocation, pediatric therapeutic massage. It was for helping young people to heal after injury, but primarily it was to help children of abuse or neglect re-learn how touch others and be touched. For them, touch was a weapon, a source of pain and domination, although, even at its most destructive, it was about human contact. Therapy was permission-based, and proceeded slowly, with games and exercises. Touch rehab.

Touch is communication at the most basic level, and, the masseuse told me, babies without live, physical contact will die after 7 days, even if otherwise fed and sheltered. What she said brought to mind a movie, Lars and the Real Girl. In the movie, Lars is unable to make physical contact with others because of an early trauma – his mother’s death in giving him birth and his father’s subsequent withdrawal. The older brother does not know how to help, but Lars, intuitively, comes up with a solution – an anatomically correct blow-up doll that he deems his girlfriend. I won’t give away the conclusion, just that I was moved to tears, not really knowing why, realizing later, it was the profound loss of touch and its fearful connotation that hurt Lars, not lack of love.

My husband has learned that a sure form of comfort and happiness to me is a foot rub. My sons have been the recipients of many a foot, back and shoulder rub from me, so it is not foreign or “loaded” to them, but a gesture of love and care, which hopefully they will share with others. My son’s pre-school teacher told me this story: one day, she had gotten bad news of some kind while still in the classroom, and had taken a seat to compose herself. The children could see she was upset. My son went up to her and placed his hands on her shoulders. Did she want a back rub, he asked. That might make her feel better.