For as long as I can recall, I have been keenly aware of the power of touch and all the associations and emotions it evokes. From the harsh sting and indignation of once being spanked by a babysitter for something I didn’t do; to the purr of delight at the sensation of my mother simply repeatedly stroking my hair from my temple to behind my ear, as I drifted off to sleep; to feeling the cool summer breeze seek me out through the wavering branches of my favourite willow tree as I sat hugging its smooth bark, I have collected a trunk full of touch memories.
We were not a particularly “touchy” or huggy family, in my childhood. Perhaps the types of upbringing my parents both had played a role. My mother was the youngest in a very large family - with a father who spent much of the year away with work. Her mother may have been rather touched out by the time she was born, or simply too busy to spend much time cuddling. My father’s family were simply trying to survive WWII, and I imagine that eight dangerous months spent fleeing the Ukraine in a wagon train of villagers, and then six years living in a Displaced Person’s camp in Austria, did not predispose his parents to much overt display of affection when their focus was often simply survival.
So perhaps my mission to explore the importance of touch in my own life, began as a way to compensate for the lack of touch in my ancestral line. I must point out that – other than perhaps being pinned down a few times and tormented by relentless tickling - I am fortunate to have not been a victim of any unwanted or malicious touch or force – apart from that one childhood spanking.
In fact, my sub-conscious need for more touch did not fully come to light until I read an article as a teenager – in a year when I happened to be living apart from my family at an International School in Malaysia. It said that psychologists had determined that human beings required at least 13 hugs a day, for optimal health. In retrospect, it may have been 13 touches a day, but since I was suddenly aware that I was starved for hugs, I immediately started a Hug Club at my school. Not being anything formal, the rules were simple; members needed to give/receive at least three hugs a day, but once collected, they were welcome to continue saying they had only had two. It went over well, with the artsy crowd I mostly hung around with, and thankfully did not appear to be taken as an invitation to flirting.
At the time, I also became aware of the distinct differences between the cultures of touch within the nation I was living. Being primarily tri-cultural, with Malays, Chinese and Indians, and religions including Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism and Islam, it was fascinating to observe the different ways touch showed up, or was avoided. I noticed that many Chinese absolutely doted on their children, and were very hands on, especially while young. Muslims would never be seen walking hand in hand with the opposite sex, but small groups of young men were commonly seen walking down the street in a row hanging off each other’s shoulders. Hindus paid great respect to elders and teachers by touching their feet, while receiving a blessing on their heads. ( I later explored the more scientific energy exchange of this.) If you accidentally touched someone with your foot, you then touched their shoulder with your right hand and then your own forehead. The left hand was considered unhygienic for the most part, and was not even used while eating.
When I was reunited with my family, it seemed only natural that I include them in my hugging practice. It was a little bit awkward at first, of course, but once I explained to them why I had started hugging more, they all “embraced” the idea. It may have been especially welcome for my brother, who was attending an all boys, boarding school at that point, so we only saw him on holidays. After Malaysia, I joined my parents to live in Lebanon, where, with a heavy French/European influence in addition to the Arab culture of true hospitality, the kiss on both cheeks with friends, family and even strangers, was very much the norm. This fell in line with what I had always seen my Ukrainian side of the family do, and so I, of course, began to integrate that into my hugs.
In time I noticed that I had fallen into a distinct hugging style with each of my family members, which even seemed to reflect that relationship. My father and I would always include a mutual, light patting on each other’s upper backs. Sometimes he would even jovially say “there, there” in the kind of voice one would use to calm an infant. These days, it has become harder to remember the soothing yet tentative quality of his hugs, as he has been gone for almost 12 years now. In retrospect, I can now see that up until that time, at least once I hit middle school, and he began to call me “young lady”, his only overture towards touch between us had been to ask me to scratch that evasive itch on his back. I recall doing so grudgingly at first, sometimes giving him only a single finger scratch, with a laugh. I now recognize this as a touch request that was still therapeutic in several ways. He later acknowledged that once I grew too big for his lap, he was hesitant to touch, apart from occasionally tucking a strand of hair behind my ear. I wonder how many fathers of that generation found themselves in the same quandry? My mother and I evolved from a hug to more of an all-around squeeze of joy, as if we are trying to take in as much of each other as possible. With my brother, we actually vocalize a light goofy growl, to accompany our hug as we rock from side to side with our whole bodies, in a “wow, it’s been a long time” kind of way – because it usually has been. We have not lived in the same city for many decades now.
I kept up the Hug Club tradition even as I began university - which came easily, as I was studying theatre. We studied movement and did trust exercises, practised yoga and, as a group, were generally more body aware and comfortable with incidental and intentional touch. I once even named a “Hug of the Month” but then soon realized that judging hugs was not the precedent I wanted to set, and let it slide.
Living alone, while not in a romantic relationship is often the most difficult circumstance in which to find regular touch, unless you have a pet. Once I left home and was living on my own, I knew there was again a touch void, especially in my year of post university backpacking. It is interesting to look back and recognize, more than any other time in my life, that void was filled with food. Minimal budget, lack of variety and healthy options were a common problem when constantly on the move and perishables had to be avoided, but I recognize there was a need to fill an empty space with comfort food, where loving touch was missing. When I returned from abroad and moved to Toronto, my Ukrainian grandmother was more than happy to fill the void, with both food and touch, although her hugs had an almost desperate quality to them, that perhaps reflected the lack of touch in her own life at that point. The frenzied joy that we smother babies with is not always met with equal enthusiasm in a twenty-something year old. (I try to remember this, as a mother of two young adults myself now.) However, within a few years she would be on the receiving end of the soothing touch she had imagined.
It seemed that, as I lived a life of letting opportunity knock and serendipity tap me on the shoulder, I was drawn to study shiatsu therapy, a type of massage originating in Japan. My biggest adventure in touch was just beginning.