Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Don't get me started on words. They're profoundly beautiful."

I've been thinking a lot about the word "touch" lately. I think it's a particularly fascinating and revelatory title for a play. It is so many things, and all of them are viscerally engaging.

It's a noun: a touch - this can (like any noun) be modified and changed drastically by adjectives, to illuminate the specificity of it. A gentle touch, a passionate touch, a rough touch - and on and on.

It's a verb: to touch - the act of coming in contact with something or someone or of yourself. The pedestrian physical act - I am touching the keys on my keyboard. I touch the elevator button to get to my office, I touch the railing on the back of the seat on the El - think about how many things we touch each day.

Then there's touching other people. I feel like one of the privileges of my life as an artist is the gift of people who are as needful of touch as I am - hugging is part of my rehearsals. It's part of company meetings, it's part of networking. But also handshakes, touching a friend's arm when she's upset or when something is too hilarious for words, bumping into strangers on the El, on the bus, in the street; life in the city is full of accidental touching.

Then there's very purposeful touching of people who are not strictly strangers - how is it different to touch the hand of the person you've just discovered you might have a crush on (this is related to moments of "Hmm," a subject that would require its own post), touching someone you've just started dating, touching your boyfriend, your fiance, your husband - all of these things are different and move past the pedestrian to the intimate in very short order. Think about how strange kissing is - touching lips and tongues and (in unfortunate and usually awkward instances) teeth - these things that we use to consume and communicate. How strange. Whose idea was that? But isn't it sort of the best idea ever?

I'm setting it up to look like physical touch is always a good thing - but we know that's not true. Touch can be painful, it can burn, cut, scrape, and scar. It can be dangerous.

And what's the difference between touching and feeling? Can you touch something without feeling it?

Then there's being touched as a verb in the emotional sense. Finding something touching, being emotionally moved, engaged, changed by the experience. I think an emotional touch can be more intimate, more pervasive, just more than a physical one sometimes.

It's also - structurally, semantically - a command. Touch. It's a threat - both in the speaking and the execution. It's a promise. It's shared experience. It's something that we use generically - "keep in touch" - as verbal shorthand. What if you really meant that when you said it? That you wanted someone to literally keep in touch? To stay engaged in touching - it's different from keeping in contact. It's so specific.

Is it what ultimately makes us human? Our need for it? I don't know. When I worked for the State of Nebraska in foster care placement there was one especially tragic case of a baby that was experiencing "failure to thrive." And it was explained to me by my lovely and patient co-workers who found it amusing that I was an actor and not a social worker that failure to thrive comes down to a lack of touch. That babies have to be touched and held in order to grow. That they can die if they're not. How awful and beautiful. How tragic and inspiring. It seems to be the universe's way of saying that we cannot get through this life without touching each other. It is impossible. Touch is essential. It keeps us alive. It is that simple and that complex.

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