Wikipedia says that while the clitoris has “8,000 sensory nerve endings – more than any other part of the human body,” fingertips have approximately 2,500 nerve endings for every 2 square centimeters and that they “contain some of the densest areas of nerve endings on the body, are the richest source of tactile feedback, and have the greatest positioning capability of the body.” You probably have ten fingertips so, in terms of overall sensitivity, perhaps the hands have it.
I’m one of those people who has to touch. In clothing stores, I wander around like a blind woman with my hands outstretched so I can feel the fabrics. In grocery stores, I’m fondling fruit. If one of my kids hurts herself, I have to put my hands on her for comfort; really, I don’t know if the comfort is for me or her, but I feel relief as soon as I hold her in my hands. My hands are how I express my feelings and if I like you, I’ll probably touch you. I can’t help myself. I don’t mean that I’ll hug or grope or grab you by the arm so you can’t escape but that at some point while we’re talking, I’ll have to reach out and put at least one polite, friendly finger on some innocuous part, your arm or your hand, for just a moment, so light and fast you might not even notice. I think the touch is meant to convey something my words can’t. Just one tip of one finger, even if your arm is covered in cloth and all we feel is a brief warm pressure, a tiny bit of physical evidence that says yes, we are connected. If we’re new friends, I worry what you’ll think, and when I taught high school, I’d worry every day about touching students, especially the ones who seemed to need it the most. I learned to always keep my hands in my pockets when I walked from desk to desk.
Once, when John and I were dating, we broke up. The plan had been that we’d apply to east coast grad schools together but I had dropped the ball. I don’t know why I didn’t apply; maybe I didn’t want to leave my houseboat or quit my crappy but fun job running the personals section of a small weekly newspaper. Maybe I wasn’t sure he really wanted me to come or maybe I wasn’t sure I really wanted to go with him. I was a girl who smoked clove cigarettes, wore Doc Martins, and lived on a houseboat on an illegal dock in Sausalito, California where you had to walk past the “condemned” posters and under the police tape, down a tangle of waterlogged, rickety boards, and alongside homemade shacks floating on mildewed blocks of styrofoam to get to my houseboat: a cement block topped by a 40 ft. boat with canvas tarps for a roof. Sewer lines and electricity and phone service were sketchy and I had a propane tank strapped outside my window to fuel my stove and hot water. The sump-pump was always on, sucking out the water that leaked in, and the leather soles of my shoes would grow green fur if I didn’t wear them, but I loved that houseboat. My bed was in the captain’s cabin, surrounded by three large windows, and in the morning I’d open my eyes to water sparkling in the sun, sparks dancing across my bed and walls, the sound of seagulls creeching and seals barking, the gentle rocking of the water. I had a battered but sturdy canoe tied outside my bedroom window and whenever I wanted, I’d slide out to explore the bay. East coast ivy league with a very nice boy who wore glasses and button-ups and was going to get his MBA just seemed so unlikely and remote. So when he was accepted to a school in Wellesley, Massachusetts, we had to say goodbye.
We lay on my bed on my houseboat. He wiped a tear from his eye, took my hands in his, and told me how much he would miss my hands, the way they felt in his, how they fit so perfectly. He kissed my hands and told me how nice they were, how gentle and good and strong, and that’s when I knew I had to hold onto him.
The expressiveness of hands is underrated. In Italy, I liked to sit at a café where I could hide behind my sunglasses and watch the Italian men talk to each other with their hands. I don’t speak Italian but I felt like I understood every word those men said. Some people use their hands like sharp instruments or bludgeons or puppets or tango dancers or exclamation points. Some imagine the thing they are talking about in the air in front of them, as if they might sculpt it out of thin air and show it to you. Some people’s hands get so excited their gestures speak louder than words. Watching deaf people talk to one another is an amazing performance — all the inflection and emotion and personality can be seen there in the hands.
I have a habit of writing things in the air with my index finger. It’s sort of like air guitar, only geekier. During conversations, I find myself tracing certain words over and over. I didn’t know I was doing it until one day during an argument, John looked down at my wiggling finger and asked what the hell I was doing. I had to admit that I was writing the word “angry” because that was the word we were talking about. Perhaps writing the word in the air diminishes its power, or maybe it puts the power of the emotion under my control. Instead of reacting to a word, I write it in the air, and this diffuses my reaction.
But my hands are no pristine instruments. I rub in the butter, pull meat off bones, dig in the dirt, scrub toilets, feed scraps to the crows, pet the cat, deal with the compost, shop at thrift stores, wash my own car, blow my kids’ noses, and clean out the refrigerator. My hands also caress, squeeze, and hold. In The Hand, part one of his trilogy “Handkind,” Raymond Tallis writes, “This hand — this professor of grasping, seizing, pulling, plucking, picking, pinching, pressing, patting, poking, prodding, fumbling, squeezing, crushing, throttling, punching, rubbing, scratching, groping, stroking, caressing, fingering, drumming, shaping, lifting, flicking, catching, throwing and much else besides — is the master tool of human life.” Without hands, I wouldn’t know how to feel, literally or figuratively.
My mother was born in an internment camp in China. I leave out the word “almost” because it mitigates the impact of that sentence although in truth, she was about 5 months old in 1942 when the Japanese took Shanghai and gathered up all the unsympathetic foreigners (Dutch, British, Americans, Australians, missionaries, nuns, and others: teachers and political, medical, and business people, many of whom had been living there for decades), including my grandparents, my aunt, and my mother, and moved them to a big building. Adults were put to work but my mother was left tied to a crib all day long. She has no memory of this but once, during a session of body work many years later, she remembered lying on her back and looking up at a high gray window, a memory that filled her with desperate yearning.
After a year in the camp they were traded for Japanese prisoners of war. I have many questions about what happened, but my grandmother never wanted to talk about it. When I brought it up, she’d always graciously, elegantly deflect the topic. Mostly I wonder about things no one had answers for, about the lasting psychological repercussions of an event like this. But it wasn’t until I had my own children that I realized I have no memories of my mother touching me as a child. When I hold my daughters in my arms, I feel like something wakes up inside me and fills like a balloon. When I touch my mother, she always reacts with surprise. When I hug her, I feel her body get rigid in my arms and then relax into the moment.
They say that babies who are not touched, die. I wonder if my mother came close to dying, or if something in her died. And when I think of her tied to the crib, all alone, I want to pick her up and squeeze the life back into her.
What do you think? Do you have any stories to share with me?