Touch Me, Please.

Two things have been occupying my thoughts lately, and at first I thought they were unrelated. First is the murder of so many people in Orlando, Florida, and the social media storm that followed. Rainbows are everywhere. I am happy that so many people see themselves as allies, or at least, lacking the prejudice that many Americans, as well as people all over the world, still harbor. (And of course, Senate Republicans did everything they could to make sure there would be no change to gun laws, even though no one has a good reason for ordinary citizens to own an assault rifle.) After a while, though, the digital sentiments seem shallow and unconsidered, like so many things one sees on Facebook and Twitter. Clicking “Like” or ♥ is not exactly taking action. Well meant, for sure, but lacking tangibility.

Also on my mind is touch. I think about this a lot for my own reasons that do not belong in a blog post, but recently some women in my yoga class and I were talking about the voice in our heads that shows up when the teacher walks around the room–“Pick me! Step on my feet! Press on my back!” Do we want to feel special? Singled out? Maybe. I  didn’t think that was my issue, because all my teachers at the studio have a way of making me feel that I matter, that my practice matters. I think we are all hoping to be touched for the sake of that human connection, for whatever chemicals that touch releases in our brains. We know it’s important for babies, so much so that hospitals have volunteers whose job it is to cuddle the newborns. Does that need ever end?

Ray Williams of Psychology Today writes  in his post, “8 Reasons Why We Need Human Touch More Than Ever,” that more touch leads to less violence, more trust between individuals, stronger team dynamics, (non-sexual) emotional intimacy, and overall well-being, along with some health benefits. There is even a study by a French psychologist that shows students who got a slight tap on their upper arm from the professor when they volunteered to work at something on the board were much more likely to volunteer to do so again compared to students who received only words of praise.

Dacher Kerchner of UC Berkeley writes, “We … know that touch builds up cooperative relationships—it reinforces reciprocity between our primate relatives, who use grooming to build up cooperative alliances. There are studies showing that touch signals safety and trust, it soothes. Basic warm touch calms cardiovascular stress. It activates the body’s vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassionate response, and a simple touch can trigger release of oxytocin, aka ‘the love hormone.’” That’s it–oxytocin!

This neurochemical is released by the brain during childbirth to increase the motility of the uterus, and is also released when a mother’s nipples are stimulated, to help in breastfeeding. But, researchers say, its release into specific regions of the brain also affects emotional, cognitive, and social behaviors. It contributes to relaxation, trust, and psychological stability. Some researchers have found that it can reduce stress responses, such as anxiety.

I don’t mean to suggest that if the sick person who killed club-goers in Orlando had been hugged more as a child, this would not have happened. That is simplistic, and I know nothing of his childhood other than his religious upbringing and his homophobic father. Also, there are some perfectly nice people who don’t want to be touched–don’t want to give and receive hugs, for instance, or don’t like casual touches from people to whom they are not emotionally attached.

Those of us who do like that sort of contact, though, are deeply  and positively affected by it, I believe. There is comfort in it, as long as it isn’t in some way inappropriate. It offers reassurance, acknowledges that we are present and that others are aware of our presence and like it. It makes us feel safer and cared for. In some contexts, it helps us feel attractive and desirable.

There are memories tied to touch. I remember clearly what my mother’s cool, soft hand felt like on my forehead when I was a child sick in bed, and she soothed me and smoothed my hair back from my face. I remember exactly how it felt at a family event when she sat next to me and patted me on the back while we talked with everyone. I remember my father’s hugs as all-encompassing. I also remember exactly what it felt like when either of my parents hit me. Not just the physical memory–the feelings associated with it: fear and anger.

Touch, welcome touch, matters. Usually when someone touches us in a positive way, other things come along for the ride–a pleasant tone of voice, a smile, a sympathetic or empathetic word, laughter, congenial words. As a package deal, I have to believe this makes a difference in how we feel about ourselves and others and affects who we become. Maybe we ought to consider this  in our daily interactions. Our tone, the look on our face, the hand on a shoulder, might keep us more aware of the role we play in others’ lives and how interconnected we are.

It might save us all.

 

Keep Going

My bright and beautiful, talented, funny daughter, now just a few inches shorter than I, came into the room where I was sitting, tears in her eyes and mouth down-turned. She crawled into my lap, curled up, cried, and told me she was scared.

I thought it might be the passing thunderstorms. Once in a while the noise still scares her. I asked, “What are you scared of, Monkey?”

“I’m scared that someone is going to hurt me just because I’m gay.”

What is one to say? She’s not wrong. I wish she were. I held her tighter.

I’m scared, too. Because we live in a country where people of all sorts have access to guns, and some of those people, periodically, get it into their heads that a bunch of us have to die. I do not understand this hate. I was raised to be pretty accepting of all people. I maintain no religious or political belief that tells me anyone is less, sinful, damned, or even just confused and misled because of who they love or marry or adopt or raise. I don’t believe that my “values” are threatened by what other people do. They’re mine. No one can touch them. I don’t believe that people dressing in ways that are different from how I dress or how “normal” people dress threatens the well-being of this nation. These are the ideas I teach my children. They know that the only bad people are those who don’t care about others.

Just last night my daughter and I attended a “MasQueerAde,” the first event of its kind in our area. The brain child of a local high school student, it was a prom for members of Gay-Straight Alliances at local schools, and any other teens who wanted to eat, dance, and socialize in a space that was safe–where they could be who they are, wear what they like, love who they love. The kids had a great time. There were prom dresses and tuxes, and lots and lots of beads. The guests danced up a storm, strolled along the water, made friends. My kid was a social butterfly, and even met someone to dance with who she liked a lot. It was an event so full of love and good feeling, we came home tired but truly happy. An evening in a roomful of people who accept you just as you are is an empowering thing, an experience I was thrilled my daughter could have, at fourteen.  This was not my youth. I didn’t even realize until last night how great it would have been for me to attend a party like that back in the 1980s.

It’s time to take away the guns. The problem is not the people who are responsible gun-owners, I know, but those people will unfortunately have to suffer as a result of other people’s actions. That’s just how it is.

But my child? It hurts, this worry and fear, this sense of vulnerability. How do I offer her comfort when the world is so scary? I can’t promise her that no one will ever try to hurt her, gay, straight, or otherwise. I talked about living her life, just fighting by living. Create, love, think, work. Keep going. Be you. You are the best example of you there is. I talked about how Israelis get up in the morning, go to work, come home to their families, make weekend plans–while constantly living under threat of terrorism. I don’t know how they do that, I really don’t. But we’ll have to learn, and quick.

Or take away the guns.

 

What I Learned in 2015

friends

I’ve lost a number of friends in my life; most in the “normal” way–years pass, our lives change, we grow apart. No pain. In my adult life, however, I have suffered some big losses in terms of friendship, and sometimes it takes years of perspective to see my part in the demise of the relationship or to see that the relationship was not a good one to begin with. Over time, as these endings have added up, I am convinced that I must be doing something terrible to my friends, or that I am just a very difficult person, or that I am so totally unaware of my self-presentation that I make the same mistakes repeatedly. I need to figure out what it is and work on myself, I say. I talk to my spouse about this all the time. He disagrees; he points out the differences in communication style (New Yorkers have a way about them–what can I say?), he highlights what he calls a lack of stability in the people I choose. “You’re an artist,” he says, “and your friends are artists.” “Artist” is non-artist code for crazy.

He loves me.

As “tough” as I pretend to be, I am really not. I hate confrontation. That is, I hate confrontation with people who are in my life—taxi drivers who refuse to be paid in coins, customers who cut in line at the store are a different story. I have been grateful to have friends who demand face time, who believe our relationship is worth that, and I have been learning to ask for that myself, even though I can feel every cell of my body urging me in the other direction. To my surprise, though, I haven’t been as quick to let go, cut people off, as I would think; I do ask for an audience or a chance to listen.

The first big loss that comes to mind is B.K., a woman with whom I traveled across the U.S., settling in Seattle. We were both at a time of upheaval in our lives and could think of nothing better than chucking it all and heading west. To this day, I believe all people in their 20s ought to do this (not the direction we chose, necessarily, but the trip, the distance, the dive into the unknown). After two years there as roommates, the tension between us was heavy. I was terribly immature and unhappy. B. had made friends in our new city because there were plenty of young people at her job; I had made almost none (I worked at an all-male securities firm). B. had even dated a guy; the one man I thought had shown interest in me actually called me to ask for someone else’s number. I was dependent on B. for companionship. I had no plans, no view of a future me, so I packed up again, headed back to New York. I tried to keep my friendship with B., but she wasn’t having it. To this day, I’m not sure what happened, except for the enmity in our relationship over our respective experiences in Seattle. The last time I heard from her was just after I’d gotten married, more than fifteen years ago. My fiance and I agreed we’d pay for her ticket to come to the wedding. At one point, before my Judaism took over, I thought of having her perform the ceremony. She never responded to the wedding invitation. For years afterward I felt sad and confounded. I knew I had hurt her, I must have hurt her, but I didn’t know how, and she wasn’t talking. She lives across the country from me, so except for noticing when it’s her birthday, I rarely think of her.

Then there was W.D. We had become very close during graduate school, so much so that she had become part of my family–my kids expected her to be at our table for Friday night dinner. She was funny as hell, smart, sarcastic, maybe somewhat lacking in self-awareness, or maybe incredibly self-aware. Honestly, I’m not sure. I loved her, loved hanging out with her. I was the only one of our mutual friends to help her move, I made her a birthday cake, I made her a bed in my living room when she was too drunk to go home, I took care of her rodent when she went away. Then one day we went off to a professional conference together, and that was it. She got a cold (it must have been a bad one, though she looked okay), and the conference became a misery for her. Unfortunately, from my point of view, it seemed she thought it should then be a misery for me and our other hotel roommate, too. In a plot line that would become familiar to me, I became the target of her wrath, the one who didn’t seem to care about her. I have tried to apologize (I don’t even remember what for) a number of times, and my attempts at reconciliation or even just détente have all been rejected, or seemingly purposely misunderstood. She lives a continent away, and so it is easier to figure out how to move on, which, finally, I have.

D.S.’s relationship with me was short-lived. She and her girlfriend are very smart, well-read, interesting people who are devoted to social justice. I loved being around them, because I always learned something from them and they made me laugh—a lot. D. and I got into an argument on social media about something very, very stupid, and she broke up with me in a text. I was sad, but only for about as long as the relationship had lasted. And I have given thought to her perspective since; I still don’t think she’s right, but it matters a whole lot less to me now. I assume the problem began before this particular argument, but I don’t know what it was. Someone who can’t tell me to my face what the problem is doesn’t need to be in my life. She lives nearby, but as I have removed myself from many of the circles we have in common, I rarely see her.

But now there’s M.I. She is a mother, a leader, a poet. She has been a teacher, a journalist, a boss lady, a fundraiser, a stay-at-home mom, and probably other roles I’ve forgotten or haven’t learned yet. She is a loving person who seems to have endless room in her heart for everyone, even people the rest of us might think were lost causes because of the evil they perpetrate. In solidarity with her, I quit a job at a place she’d been mistreated. I was in fact the only one to do so. Together we made a plan to help others doing what we love. We gathered around us like-minded women, but I was the one who continued to be her rock (and she mine), to actually perform the task we set out to perform, while everyone else did nothing. Our vision and motivation may have been slightly different, but only enough to give our goal needed energy.

Now that I am outside the great circle of warmth and friendship she creates, I can see the persona she has quite carefully constructed, built and fortified over time such that she has lost sight of the fact that it is just a construct. Her heart bleeds blue upon her sleeve. Her clothes are a costume; she embodies the word “poet,” she is earth-mother-warrior, she is a victim. Everything that happens or is said is about her. She has decided that I am an angry person. In some ways, it reminds me of the roles I always felt my parents had constructed for their four children–nothing we ever did or said was going to change us in their eyes. This is actually not quite true, but it is how I felt. I know there is nothing I can do to change her mind about how she has characterized me. My frustration at that is eating me, and I need to let it go for my own sake. Anger is not my state of being, but I am angry at her, for sure.

Shortly after M.’s father died, we went out for drinks, and were eventually joined by a mutual friend. M. got very drunk. And while she was drunk, she proceeded to verbally attack me in ways that were both ludicrous and prejudiced. It was crazy. I felt unable to defend myself against the wall of nonsense before me. The friend that was with us tried to get M. to see that what she was saying was out of line, but drinks plus grief had won the night. The next day, I made a fatal error. I wrote a lot of what I could not get across to her the night before in a Facebook post. No one knew what I was talking about except M. and my husband, but it was too much for her. It was the second time in our friendship that I had been bluntly honest about her privilege (a word she uses readily with others but doesn’t like to hear applied to herself). And I had done it “publicly.” Faced with reality, embarrassed by her own flaws and hypocrisy, she rejected the source of that truth. Does it matter that our mutual friend made the same arguments to her? No, the bile and venom is all for me because I put it on Facebook. There have been other times she has “forgotten” things she said to me when she was drinking. I have learned that she cannot be wrong. I have learned that my friendship is not worth much to her, that even though, in her mind, murderers and rapists deserve our sympathy and understanding, I do not. She has been so cold to me, I’d actually be impressed by it if it didn’t hurt so much. And so I feel I’ve been on the losing end of a great injustice, that I’m calling out my pain, only no one hears me, no one is listening. I have been sad ever since, though the direction of my sadness has been all over the place. My social life has taken an enormous hit, that’s for sure.

So, you could say I’ve learned some important things. I need to use social media differently; that is to say, I must use it cautiously. The temptation these days is to do all our communicating with a keyboard, and even as I yell at the kids to put down the phone or the tablet or the laptop, I have become utterly devoted to the fluidity, speed, and immediacy of typing and clicking. Bad idea*. Some things don’t belong on social media, and among them are personal conversations between friends, whether those talks are full of love or full of anger.

I’ve also learned that you can’t change someone’s opinion of you, and more importantly, you shouldn’t try. What people think and feel is not under my control. I don’t get to have a say, so allowing myself to be so upset and wrapped up in it is a waste of my time, my energy, my health. This is easy to say, less easy to do, but I am trying. I can only be responsible for my own crazy.

The common thread in these losses? Not one of these women would talk to me. They refused to tell me what I had done or said, or what their own issues were that required an end to the friendship. Upon reflection, I see that is very odd indeed. Schoolyard-level behavior, in fact.

Now that I am nearing 50, I am also learning what a friend is. A true friend. I am not as good a reader of people as I have always liked to believe. Because I can be used and abused for quite a while before I realize what’s up. I’m so pleased to have someone around who seems to like me, you see. The key to avoiding that pitfall is to learn that I am deserving of people’s admiration and affection just as I am. I don’t have to do things for people, nor do I need to hide what I think. If someone is my friend, she will love me because I’m me, and not because I can be manipulated or because I keep my mouth shut. Not because I fill a quota. Not because I embody something envied or something pitied. I think if I keep those things in mind, I can be a better friend, as well.

*I am aware of the irony that I am posting this essay on my blog.

 

Burned

The door is gone; all is blackness inside. A cardinal darts across the porch, a bold contrast of life and color. The dogs have stopped to smell everything around a nearby tree, so I stand looking, from across the street, at the devastation of the house. There is a tarp on one part of the roof which lifts gently and rattles a bit in the cold wind. There are boards where the windows were, and the only view inside, at least from where I am, is the black hole of the front entrance. I see that there are burned items inside the house, but I don’t know what they are–furniture, perhaps. The rocking chair and its cushion still sit on the porch. There is still the small table with a brightly colored cloth.

And now I know–there is something about a burned house, one I am familiar with. I think of the retriever puppy who played under the tree in the front yard in warmer weather, now an adult dog who was carried out amid the flames by firefighters. I have seen things like this on the news, have heard before, “they lost everything,” but I have never seen what that means. This is physical, tangible. More than a loss of things, this is somehow a violation. To lose everything means so much more than stuff, money, mementos–it is to lose one’s sense of place, of safety, of home. A deep breath. The dogs are ready to move on.

Inside my own little house, I hang up the leashes, put my coat on the hook by the door. One dog curls up on the couch for a nap; the other runs to his favorite sun-drenched spot in the backyard. Their habits. My things and their places. I am away from the cold weather, safe from any harm that could come to me out in the wide world. I am enveloped in the sense of ownership, selfhood, belonging. What a terrible feeling to lose.

I Gotta Have Friends

Do you know who your friends are? I thought I did.

That is, I don’t.

My husband tells me that one of my characteristics that leads to pain is that when I make a friend, I’m all in. I’m devoted. I’m loyal. I don’t see much point in relationships in which I need to remain guarded. If I can’t talk to you, really talk to you, what’s the point? After all, I can drink by myself. I believe he’s right; when I make a friend, she becomes a part of my life. She is not a satellite orbiting my “real” life with my kids, husband, dogs. I am also told that I’m quite honest, and that some people can’t handle that. I see where someone might think I’m honest and straightforward, but I suspect that’s mostly a matter of tone.

My tone really is a problem for me. I try to be aware, try to be sensitive, but I am misinterpreted a lot, and that can’t always be everyone else’s fault.

How well I know my friends is tricky, because I’m not sure anymore that I’m right about what I should know. I have a sneaking suspicion that I put far more weight on this than other people do. My oldest friend in all the world and I have been friends since we met at age four. So that’s forty-four years and going strong. We’ve been close, we’ve pulled apart, gotten back together again, and so on–forty-four years is a long time. I know a lot about her, and she knows a lot about me–at least each others’ pasts. I believe I know her character, and I’m guessing she believes she knows mine. But our adult lives have been at quite a distance; do we know the people we’ve become, or is our love for each other based on that shared past? Does that matter?

OldFriends

A real friend

I have also lost friends, and I admit that several of those losses remain a mystery to me; they cause me a great deal of pain because of the combined grief and inscrutability. I understand I must have contributed, but I remain in the dark about how I did so. It isn’t for lack of trying. I am not hopelessly lacking in self-awareness, or unwilling to admit fault, or even a person who cuts others dead rather than deal with conflict. And I’m neurotic enough to obsessively go over and over everything, to develop nervous compulsions while I try to figure it all out.

I suppose not every woman needs this, but I need women friends–to talk to about spouses, children, books, sex, art; to drink with, to laugh with, to argue with. There are few things more comforting to me than a shared tmi. I am all ears as soon as a friend says, “this might be an over-share, but….” Recently I was at a party, and a woman I had just met was telling people a story that involved the words “my sexual awakening.” I knew immediately that I liked her, and scooted forward to listen in.

My husband tells me that I am always making friends with crazy people. Isn’t that sweet?

 

 

Uncomfortable

I’ve been thinking about history. The work of Martin Luther King, Jr. is history; his life and his death are blMLKack-and-white pictures and lines of text in schoolbooks children read, as remote for them as World War Two or the Mesozoic. That’s natural, of course. Jewish organizations expend a lot of energy on Holocaust remembrance because it is human nature to move on, to dilute the past as we do so, so that we look back at images reflected like ripples on water. So MLK has a day on the calendar. As he should.

But it wasn’t actually that long ago that he was murdered, shot down because he wanted brown-skinned people to have the same rights and opportunities as white people. Think about that–killed in cold blood because he didn’t think anyone should have to drink from a “colored” fountain, use a “colored” entrance, struggle to find a polling place, or sit in the back of the bus.

In 2016, the Oscar nominations have overlooked the work of African Americans in the film industry. There is talk of a boycott. I am torn between supporting a boycott and hoping that brown people show up and make speeches that make everyone wriggle in their seats. In my heart, I don’t care about the Oscars issue, because I long ago tired of all these wealthy people having televised self-congratulatory events at which they receive thousands of dollars worth of gifts, just for breathing. They believe they do important work (listen to their impassioned speeches!)–and they do, as far as we need the arts. We need these expressions of beauty, of political and social rebellion, these records of culture. But I can’t help feeling that most of the people in the shiny outfits have lost sight of the real work of this world, of the way non-famous, non-wealthy people live and struggle.

The exclusion of brown-skinned people from the Oscars, though, has made me wonder about the way that racism persists. How does it go on and on in this country, when so many of us believe it is wrong-headed, see ourselves as “not racist,” have a diverse group of friends? What is the mechanism that keeps it alive?

First, there are plenty of openly racist Americans–just read any comment thread on the internet. But the rest of us, those who acknowledge privilege, examine our own thinking, edit our speech, I think we are the people responsible for the fact that police kill black people at an alarming rate, for the jails being full of brown faces, for the schools in certain neighborhoods facing challenges they cannot hope to meet.

Think about it carefully, white people and Jews. Just privately, just in your own head. What would your life look like right now if at every turn, African Americans had had an equal shot–at getting the same attention (quality and quantity) from your kindergarten teacher, at getting into the specialized high school / college / graduate school you went to, at securing the job you have now, or the promotion you earned last year? How would your life look right now if the jails were not full of black men, or if whites guilty of the same crimes were also in jail? How would your neighborhood be different if there never was another side of the tracks?

Now, just to yourself, imagine all of that has happened, there really is this sort of equality. Maybe that makes you uncomfortable, because maybe you wouldn’t have gone to that school or won that position. I am not suggesting you didn’t work hard to get where you are; I am only saying the deck was stacked in your favor all along, as compared to others.

No doubt I am being too simplistic. Not long ago, though, I had the opportunity to see what happens when even the most liberal person is forced to see his privilege. It is different when someone points it out to you–much more icky than when you think of it on your own. Such a person is very quick to cut ties with the source of his discomfort. Even those of us who truly believe in equality are maybe not so ready to give up the enormous power that comes with being light of skin. Look at how stupid and crazy that sounds! And yet there it is. I know for sure the color of my skin has served me well, even if it’s just how I get treated in a store. Twenty years ago, I enjoyed the privileges of being an attractive young person. I don’t think I feel guilty about how I have been treated. Should I? Maybe. I’m really not sure. But it does make me feel uncomfortable in my own skin to consider how my world would look if all the systemic racism were gone.

And that’s why it doesn’t go away. Because quite simply, if you’ve always been handed the bigger slice of pie, what will motivate you to give that up? Your sense of fairness? On this blog, I have in the past written about belief, and how difficult I find it–I would like to believe in a God, if only for the strength this belief appears to give people of faith. But now I wonder if belief isn’t actually pretty easy. I believe people should be treated equally, without regard to race, religion, gender, sexuality, hair color, you name it. What practice do I engage in to support that belief?

It’s not enough to recognize your advantages. You must actively work to level the playing field, and you must do it not because of the way it makes you feel, and not because of how it makes you look to others, but because it is right. It is only right.