Blind and deaf, Helen Keller developed a very refined sense of touch, even able to know that a person was approaching as she felt vibrations on the floor. She learned to “see” people and discern their character through touching different parts of the face.
Helen learned to understand speech through feeling the vibrations on a person’s neck, lips, nose and cheek. She gradually used this technique to learn to speak.
Helen Keller demonstrates how finely tuned the sense of touch can be. A doctor feels tumours and abnormalities. A musician’s touch brings out subtleties of the music he is playing. A carpenter’s fingers judge the textures of wood. A quilter knows the type and quality of fabric by touch.
As writers, we touch each letter on our keypads, or we grip our pen and feel the paper underneath.
Touch, the intimate sense, nourishes our spirit. We experience connectedness, health and well-being as we give and receive empathy, comfort and love. We cuddle babies and toddlers. We gather a grieving person into our arms. We love our spouses with the most intimate of touches.
Conversely, wrong touches violate our personhood and value. If we are survivors of physical or sexual abuse, we are at risk of becoming perpetrators ourselves, or we may turn to alcohol or drugs.
Even the absence of touch is detrimental. Studies have shown that touch-deprived children in orphanages don’t grow as quickly as normal children emotionally, physically and cognitively, and people who experience touch deprivation have increased stress and body tension, violence and sleep disturbance.
We respond to our environment: We get goose bumps when our room is too cool. Fingers and ears tingle on a cold day, while on a humid day our clothes stick to us. A breeze caresses our cheeks. If we’ve had hypothermia, we shiver uncontrollably, and can become confused and disoriented.
We respond to textures: How we love the soft sheets as we tuck our children into bed. A scratchy wool sweater irritates skin. Our bare feet connect with textures of the grass, the beach, or carpet. Our children love mud squishing between their toes. A pebble in a running shoe hurts when we walk until we take it out.
Pain impacts our whole body. A sharp pain causes flashing lights in our head, while stubbing our little toe makes us limp and sit down. Arthritic or cancerous pain can be debilitating. We lose sensation when an arm or leg “falls asleep,” or when we’ve received anesthetic while in the dentist’s chair.
I can’t imagine the excruciating pain my refugee students felt during initiation rites or while being tortured.
Touching—or lack of it—is part of greeting in every culture. Many of my English as a Second Language women kissed other women three times on the cheeks. My Latin American students of both genders hugged, whereas Koreans and Japanese typically bowed rather than touched. In Canada we shake hands; however, I’ve noticed that Canadians hug more frequently than they did in my parents’ generation.
All the above areas of touch—and more—can add new layers to our writing.
Now over to you: Think of other touches, or proverbs, clichés and imagery using the sense of touch. Journal a memory or scene, or add more touch to your current writing project.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gv1uLfF35Uw Helen Keller with Anne Sullivan—how Helen learned to speak
http://www.healingheartpower.com/article1.html Bridging the Great Divide: Touching Our Most Basic Humanity