Touch

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Last evening, I was part of a remarkable conversation about hugs.

Yes, hugs.

I’ve written before about my hunger for touch and the shame that goes with it. A longing for touch is something that’s always with me to some degree, ebbing and flowing with my social context, but I hide it and rarely speak of my need. Keeping it secret is, of course, self-protective. I’m ashamed of my need and what others will think of it, but we also live in a culture that distorts much of our rightful and healthy sexuality and sensual expression. A woman who craves physical affection and reassurance is exceedingly vulnerable and very likely to be misunderstood.

I’m also respectful of the boundaries of others; unfortunately, many people are badly wounded around unwanted and/or inappropriate touch. I myself am confused about the interaction of abuse, touch and sex, and I know many others are as well.

Yet I maintain that touch is one of the core needs we all have, and I know touch deprivation is a condition that has been extensively studied. As human beings, we don’t develop normally if we’re touch deprived or otherwise dislocated from our neurobiological need for skin-to-skin contact.

This is an issue I deal largely with inside my own head, although I have mentioned it in writing. I haven’t discussed it among friends. If we reveal how ugly and pathetic we are, we won’t have friends, right?

Sigh. No. Not right. We all have secrets like this, and true friends don’t turn away from our warts and scars. Also, I get bored by my own fear and the tension between being real and being accepted. To hell with it.

Last night, I found myself standing outside in the early winter evening with two others talking about, of all things, hugs. The harsh light at the apex of the barn roof fell on us, making strange, stark shadows on our faces,

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I was stunned (first) and amused (later) to discover that a hug meant something entirely different to each of us. I’m constantly poking at the different meanings we have for words and concepts, and I’m acutely aware of the confusion and conflation of things like respect and agreement. Why should the experience and interpretation of either giving or receiving a hug be any different?

I suppose it’s such a deep, painful and private issue that I’ve simply never given it enough airtime to realize that touch, too, has many different meanings. The only meaning I’ve been able to see is my own, and I realize now my meaning is very unsophisticated and black and white:

Touch means love. If there is no touch, there is no love. If my touch is rejected, my love is rejected, which I take personally and make into a rejection of me, naturally!

So there we stood in the icy driveway, having just disembarked from the car. I said (and realized as I said it how true it is, though I never expressed it this way before) that a hug is the best “I love you,” that I can express. I’ve always been able to say (and hear!) far more physically than I can with words.

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My friend (another woman) said that she learned to think of hugs as a sign of weakness.

Another friend (a man) said that to him a hug, or most other kinds of physical contact, are a threat of pain, violence or abuse.

Wow. The three of us stood there, looking at each other. I was reminded of how little we know or guess about what goes on below the surface of others, even others we know and care about. I was humbled by their honesty, touched by their vulnerability, grateful for the reminder that we’re all carrying around pain and confusion over something in our heads and hearts. I wanted (of course!) to take them both in my arms, but refrained (also of course).

It’s amazing to understand that the best, most compassionate and loving gift I can give another might feel to the recipient like a threat, or endanger their sense of strength and independence. My intention may be completely lost in translation.

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When I think about the times I’ve felt rejected or rebuffed as I interact with people who aren’t comfortable with touch, I suddenly realize their discomfort is likely not about me at all. I no longer get to be the star in my soap opera (nobody loves me, I’m old, I’m ugly, I’m untouchable). Maybe, in fact, others don’t want to make me feel weak, or threatened, or who knows what else!

I can’t help but giggle about this.

I can’t say more about my personal thoughts and feelings right now. It was one of those brief but amazing conversations that I can’t stop thinking about. It didn’t lead me to a grand and glorious conclusion, it just revealed aspects of touch I hadn’t been aware of before.

Social touch is extremely complicated and essential to healthy human functioning. I discover, as I research, that the discipline of psychotherapy is beginning to look at the importance of touch as a tool for connection and emotional healing. We know touch can play a role in physiological healing. Touch is an essential part of nonverbal communication. Different cultures have different social rules about touch. A couple of generations of American parents were taught to avoid holding or cuddling infants and children (don’t spoil your child); thankfully, we are changing our beliefs about that now, but that doesn’t help the generations of disbonded and attachment-disordered children who are now adults and struggling. Skin hunger and touch deprivation are a huge problem for elderly populations.

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We also live in a #MeToo atmosphere in which the previously hidden pain of thousands of victims of inappropriate touch is becoming visible. As healing and validating as our recognition and outrage over this kind of abuse is, it leaves many people nervous about giving or receiving any kind of touch from anyone unless it’s sexual (as in consensual between two adults), making us ever more isolated, ashamed, and skin hungry.

I wish I had answers for myself and others, but I don’t. Somehow, we have to find a way forward with healthy boundaries, consent, communication and respect as we honor our deep physical, emotional and neurological need for nonsexual touch.

Sharing hugs. My daily crime.

Crystal Casket by Rowan Wilding

Innocent, yet somehow run afoul of a jealous queen
A sly drop of poison introduced
A taint that could never be erased.
So polluted, then, they built me a crystal casket,
Protecting the world from my touch.
I rise and clothe my outcast body, day by day
Concealing shameful curse
But at night I return naked to my crystal casket.
The moon bathes me in her cool silver milk
Ebbing and flowing like a slow heartbeat in the ravishing night.
I lie with my hands folded on my chest
(Their small warm weight comforts my empty heart)
And watch the sky storm with stars
Galaxies in my eyes.
Neither shroud of rain nor quilt of snow can touch me, shut away
But I love them from within my crystal casket.
No faithful guardian watches over me, a lighted lantern at his feet.
No prince arrives, seeking a poisoned kiss.
I was never black as ebony, red as blood and white as snow.
Now I’m spiderwebbed with age and moon-milk
Cool inside my crystal casket while midnight passions wheel around me
Dark flowers and fruits, musk and nectar, texture and taste and scent

But not for me.

Unconditional Love

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I’ve noticed that I’ve been using the term “unconditional love” in some of my most recent posts. I wondered why. I’ve never thought much about the term, or what it means, until the last year or so.

One of the things I most appreciate about life is the fascinating journey of it all. When I came to Maine, I knew exactly what I wanted. I was sure it was here, waiting for me, the love I’d been looking for all my life.

I was wrong.

Rather, I was not wrong. What I was wrong about was how that love would present itself, how it would look and feel and be expressed. I realize now part of what I was searching for was unconditional love, and it is indeed here.

But it was there, in my old place in Colorado, too. The possibility of unconditional love has been with me every day of my life, and my inability to understand that meant I also did not recognize unconditional love that others gave me.

You see, it had to start with my ability to extend it to myself, and I never was able to do that until recently.

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Unconditional love is best defined by its opposite—conditional love. Love is “an intense feeling of great affection (Oxford Online Dictionary).” Conditional love is the intense feeling of affection we give to others as long as they are compliant with our expectations.

In other words, as long as the one we “love” behaves in a manner we approve of, we “love” them. If our “loved” one makes choices, develops beliefs or expresses themselves in ways we disapprove of, we withhold or withdraw our love. Conditional love always comes with iron chains attached to it.

Much of the confusion around what unconditional love is has to do with our individual beliefs about how to express and receive love. “An intense feeling of great affection” can probably be communicated in as many ways as there are human beings, and that’s where the trouble starts. We don’t just want to be loved. We want that love to be communicated in specific ways, or we reject it. We also want to demonstrate our love for others in specific ways they may reject.

A further layer of confusion occurs because sometimes we identify our desire for power, control, codependency, romance and other benefits as “love.”

Conditional love is a manipulative tool used to benefit the one who claims to be the lover.

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Unconditional love is a state of being in which love is extended to others selflessly, with no thought of reciprocity or benefit to the lover. Unconditional love is free. It’s not payment of a debt, and it doesn’t have to be proven. It’s a spiritual practice, an offering we choose to make over and over. Sometimes it’s completely invisible and unappreciated. We can unconditionally love people who don’t meet a single one of our needs.

When we think about love, are we thinking more about giving it or receiving it? I admit I’ve spent most of my life thinking about receiving love (or not receiving it in the form I wanted!) rather than giving it. I also admit I haven’t always recognized the love I have received. Further, I haven’t always recognized the difference between toxic relationships and giving and receiving healthy love.

On the other hand, I know a lot about codependency!

I don’t want to admit that unconditional love is impossible to give others if we can’t give it to ourselves, because the truth is I just figured out how to do that and I was a new parent (the parent-child bond is the most important place for unconditional love) 30 years ago. I have never experienced the depth and intensity of the love I felt as a new parent, either before or since, but I’m only now growing into my ability to extend truly unconditional love to my (now adult) children.

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When I was a new parent with young children, I took it for granted that the love I felt for them would always be returned in a way I could understand and appreciate. It wasn’t a condition of my love that they do so, but it certainly was an unconscious and deeply-rooted expectation. Since the moment of conception, they were my priority and the center of my world, and I assumed, without really thinking about it, that we would remain the most important, intimate and trusted people in one another’s lives.

My love for them was not and is not conditional. I know that now that I’ve received some brutal and much-needed reality checks! As they have stepped into their adult lives and the inevitable challenges and journeys life brings to us all, I’ve understood that they are not responsible for responding to my love in any particular way, and I’ve also understood the fact of their continuing love for me, expressed in their own unique ways rather than the ways I expect and want!

Our longing for love can be all-consuming, and sometimes we sacrifice everything we are and have in order to find it. Unless we can unconditionally love ourselves, we become absolutely dependent on those around us to convince us we’re loved. Our dependency leads us into pseudo self, self-destructive choices, enabling and despair.

Nothing and no one can replace our love for ourselves. No one can love us and express that love to us in a meaningful way better than we can, not a child, not a lover, not a family member or friend. Our desperate external search is a waste of time and energy. It also exhausts and depletes the people around us and results in a painful pattern of broken relationships. Nothing is more futile than trying to prove our love to someone.

Unconditional love does not mean love without boundaries. It doesn’t mean relinquishing the power to say no (or yes). It doesn’t mean there’s no physical distance between ourselves and those we love. It doesn’t mean we agree on everything. It doesn’t mean we accept abuse or manipulation, or enable destructive behavior.

Unconditional love is clear-eyed; it doesn’t argue with what is. We accept ourselves and others in all our weaknesses, wounds and struggles. However we need to be, we love ourselves through it. However others need to be, it’s okay with us, AND we reserve the right to take care of ourselves, whatever the circumstances.

Sometimes unconditional love requires the hardest thing of all—letting the loved one go.

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My practice of minimalism has helped reveal to me my desire and ability to extend unconditional love. In order to practice it, I have to release expectations of myself and others, my grievances and grudges, my scorecards, my pseudo self, and some of my stories and beliefs. I need to give up trying to control others, being a victim or a martyr, or being concerned about what others think of me.

Most important and difficult of all, I must take responsibility for my own needs and choices, choosing to love myself, day by day, unconditionally, because I know I’m doing the best I can in life and I’m worthy of the same compassion, kindness, respect, loyalty and support I give to others.

As adults, it’s not the love and recognition we long for and demand from others that makes us whole, heartful and soulful. It’s the unconditional love we give ourselves that allows us to make positive contributions, shape healthy relationships, and lead effective lives.

We are on the threshold of a new year. We could approach this fresh start with unconditional love for ourselves, for some of those around us, and for life in general. We could release our fears and expectations about the future and retain a simple intention of unconditionally loving whatever the new year brings to us, difficult challenges and changes as well as unexpected opportunities and joys.

Practicing unconditional love. My daily crime.

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A Winter Blessing

I went for a walk today in the cold sun. The dirt road led me up and up; my feet slipped on treacherous patches of ice lurking invisibly under a thin layer of earth and sand. Water ran in the ditch alongside the road under winter skin, thin and glassy in the sun and opaque and layered in the shade.

The bones of the trees show clearly during this thin and aging time of year. We’ve had heavy wind in the last few days, and new, jagged wounds show where trunks and boughs snapped and splintered.

Winter Solstice is a strange time of year. Spending time among the bony, sleeping trees under the pale light of the low sun is such a contrast to the frenetic human activity accompanying the holiday season. The fields and forests sleep, letting the long dark hours and cold do what they will.

Nature has always been my best teacher, leading the way to faith, trust and renewal—the endless natural cycles of life and death. Even from my small, ant-like perspective, I find comfort in the ebb and flow of life.

I’m in need of comfort. Our woods are beginning to fall silent. Our bird feeders are full, but we see very few songbirds now, and when they do appear, they’re in small groups or single, rather than in flocks. Many insects are vanishing, which means the avian insectivore populations are diminishing fast. It seems to me we’re losing so many kinds of life—so many lives—as well as other things like trust, respect, dignity and integrity.

But I know that loss is just another word for gain. The dark is another kind of light. Good-bye is another kind of hello. All we know now is loss; our inability to imagine what might come into the empty spaces of our loss does not mean nothing will.

It’s easy to forget about the light in the darkness.

Yet I welcome the longest night of the year with my whole heart. Something in me loves the deep, cold darkness, unlit by flame or star. The darkness is like a womb, and in that womb is a glowing seed containing rebirth, transformation, and the new cycle.

As I celebrate Yule, I sit in the darkest place I can find and open myself to it. I call up the shadows in my heart and mind and embrace them without fear or resentment. My eyes are blind, but inside me something old and primal listens and watches, waiting for guidance or wisdom, waiting for the light to return.

This time of year I do the ancient women’s work of sorting one thing from another. How do we discern the difference between natural cycles of darkness and light and the frozen, unending darkness our choices and behavior can lead us into? What habits of thought and action keep us groping, blind and despairing, without a star to light our way?

What offering can we make to the dark? What can we let go of? What is ready for recycling and transformation? What do we need to do in order to greet the dawn of the new cycle less burdened?

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When I have rocked in the cradle of darkness long enough with these questions, I light a candle and tell that small flame of all my gratitudes, great and small. Each one is like a prayer of thanks, an offering, a guiding star in the dark night.

The candle flame is a spark of life cupped tenderly in the hands of the dark. What might grow out of it? What new paths might we tread; what terrain might we explore? What new intentions have rooted in our hearts? What can we call into birth and being within ourselves? What undiscovered guides and friends wait in the year ahead? How can we keep the flame of our courage, love, and strength alive?

What is waiting to be born in the next cycle?

A winter blessing on you, my friends. May your Yule be dark and the following dawn be bright.

For each of us
There is a desert to travel
A star to discover
And a being within ourselves to bring to life.
–From an Iranian Christmas Card

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