by Jodi Eichler-Levine
I wrote this essay in April, six weeks into the pandemic in eastern Pennsylvania. I wrote it as a memorial to a world that already seemed lost. At the time, I wondered if it was hyperbolic. Now, as winter looms and the case numbers skyrocket across the United States, I suspect that I underestimated the vast rupture of these changes. My hands are now chapped but still bereft. I feel them tingling, and my body thrown into a vertiginous lightness, whenever I see a friend or family member on the screen. It is my magical window to the outside world. Yet the neurons in my fingertips tingle for the touch of their hands in mine, like a phantom limb.
Over dinner last week, my nine-year-old daughter shared the title of the essay she was writing for school. “Stuck in the Screen,” she called it. Here in the Zoomscape, those of us fortunate enough to shelter at home have morphed into digital, sensorily-starved wraiths. When we enter our online meetings, have a virtual happy hour with our friends, or Instagram our lunches even more than usual, we are pixels, two dimensional faces floating disembodied on a shining flat screen. I am grateful for this digital tether to community. But what about touch?
I suspect none of us will ever take what Pablo Maurette calls “the forgotten sense” for granted ever again. We have lost the ability to grasp anyone but our most intimate family members, or, for millions of people, anyone at all. I fear that even whenever we are again “open for business,” this loss will linger. The invisible hand of the market will return. The real touch of our friends’ hands will not. Even when we can return to our offices and stores and restaurants: what will life be, without close proximity?
We are all mourning this gap, this irrevocable alteration of our sensorium, daily. As a result, touch is exploding in the activities we seek to soothe us. The sourdough starter craze tells us just how much we crave tactility. For every hug we don’t get to give, there is another loaf of bread to bake. The feel of bread dough assures us we are here; the yeast, while not human, is alive, our kneading provoking a feedback loop, multiple beings intermingling. We press the silky smooth mound of dough and it springs back at us.
But we cannot fill our sensory gaps by bread alone. Many of those isolating at home have reached out for other tactile, embodied pastimes: crafts, exercise, music. The pain in my fingers as they fret the steel strings of my guitar is real, here, now. My friend on the Zoom call, showing me a new finger picking pattern, is real too, but she is in Canada. She can be gone at the press of a button. The calluses on my fingers remain.
I have spent years studying how Jewish women craft resilience through embodied practices: knitting, sewing, quilting, ceramics. Art is our great salve in this dark age. But our access to other humans’ art always has a time delay — the time from creation to a photograph to the screen; the time it takes to send a hand sewn mask through the mail. In contrast, when we hug other people, we are saturated in simultaneity. “To touch,” Maurette reminds us, “is to be touched.”
The longer we live in the Zoomscape, the more I notice what’s missing. Sometimes embodiment is not just about the touch of skin on skin. In a Zoom happy hour, we raise our glasses towards the camera, a pale echo of a real toast. My skin aches. Why? When we toasted before, the clink of the glasses was not just a sound effect. You felt its reverberation in the tips of your fingers.
There’s a reason our smart phones and watches have haptic features. Humans and other primates crave touch. If we are lucky, we are comforted by touch from the moment we are born — babies thrive on skin-to-skin contact. We have shoulders to lean on when we are struck with illness or terrible news. We are able, sometimes, to hold our loved ones hands when they are dying. Or at least, we used to be.
Two years ago, I underwent an eight-hour surgery for metastatic colon cancer. I found myself lying on a table in a chilly operating room filled with technology that seemed, with my glasses off, a bit like a spaceship.
Just before the anesthesia kicked in, one of my surgeons, a woman, came over and held my hand. I felt like I had suddenly been transported from that cold outer space venue to the best kind of medical show. The human touch is so small, and yet, sometimes, in my experience, it is in fact rare in clinical settings — particularly a touch that is one of solidarity, not probing, palpating, poking. In that moment of fear, touch granted me a sense of safety. My surgeons are human beings, too. I am not alone in here, I thought. I felt the solid weight of her hand. And then, fade to black.
And so, I feel the same fear and horror everyone else does when they read of the loneliness of a COVID-19 death, bereft of touch, but with an extra frisson of grief provoked by that memory: the memory of how medical care could feel, once felt, under better circumstances.
Touch, of course, is not always a good thing. Any claustrophobic person who has suffered the press of other bodies in a crowded subway car, any victim of intimate violence, anyone who for myriad reasons is just not comfortable with touch, can tell you that physical contact wounds, not just heals.
It is also culturally and temporally contingent. Hugging a friend in greeting is much more common than it seemed to be when I was a child. Americans might hug often, but our level of open physical affection is dwarfed in some other countries. During the weeks when the pandemic loomed but we were still able to see other people, it was an Italian friend who first expressed how awful it felt to substitute an arm bump for a hug and two kisses. Now I would give anything to have the arm bump back.
How will we survive this loss? Perhaps the answer is back in the yeast. We will keep on touching, but become more attuned to non-human life forms, even to non-breathing life forms, and to the ways that objects link us to the living and the dead. Philosopher Jane Bennett calls this vivid materiality and expanded sense of life “vibrant matter.” Maybe, fifty years after the first Earth Day, we will we stop and touch the grass, the stones, the bark of trees. Maybe, as she challenges us to do, we will expand our circle of care beyond the human.
In my research, I found that all objects, and their making, mattered, grounded, sustained. Ellen Broude, one of the leaders of the Jewish Hearts for Pittsburgh craftivist project, told me: “This is what crafters do. They make. They create. They comfort.”
All of us are crafters now. Even if we are not sewing or baking or gardening, we are re-learning touch, buildings nests of soft blankets, clutching our warm coffee mugs, feeling our phones vibrate as we text friends and loved ones. The power of our objects has expanded even as our horizons contract to the walls of our little boxes, whether they are made of plywood or pixels.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
Jodi Eichler-Levine is the Berman Professor of Jewish Civilization and associate professor of religion studies at Lehigh University. She is the author of Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community, as well as other popular and scholarly writing on what it means to be human on our fragile blue marble.