The sense of touch is the most intimate of all, because you cannot do it at a distance. It requires proactive movement by someone, reaching out to explore and embrace their world.
This is not a lecture on sexual touching – for that I highly recommend Mary Buckham’s Sexual Tension class, using the 12 Steps to Intimacy. This is just touching in general, textures, temperatures.
Think how babies explore their world – they pick up everything and try to put it in their mouths. They’ve got the right idea. Watch the kids on a field trip to a nature class, examining feathers and pine cones and snake skin – sometimes shed, sometimes with the snake still inside. The difference between an iguana and a salamander. When my daughter was just over a year old we went to Maine. Remember that rocky beach? (We went in July, not in November.) That baby sat there playing with the rocks for a good half-hour. She’d pick up one, pass it back and forth, turning it over and over. She didn’t go for color, she went with texture. She put the smooth ones down right away – too boring. She liked the rough, bumpy ones, and would trace the edges from every angle and giggle to herself.
There have been studies about how beneficial pet ownership is. Stroking something furry can lower blood pressure, especially (for me, at least) if it purrs. That’s why pet therapy is such a success. Read up on a dog named Skeezer, and what a difference she made in the lives of some REALLY messed-up kids.
Remember Linus? Most kids have a favorite blanket they keep for years. Whenever they get stressed-out, out comes the blanket. When our son Joshua was born he got a fuzzy white blanket with balloons on it. Once when my mom in Racine babysat for him, we picked him up but forgot the blanket. He screamed and screamed. Nothing worked. Slow first-time parents that we were, we were halfway to Milwaukee before we thought “blanket”. Turned around, drove all the way back to mom’s, woke her up, got the blanket. He conked out right off. Joshua is nine now and still has it. It’s a nearly transparent white rag now, can’t even see the balloons anymore, but don’t even suggest throwing it away!
Okay, so kids have blankets, but don’t be too quick to laugh. I’ll bet everyone here has a favorite sweater or old pair of jeans. How many of us whine about how we can’t wait to “break in” that new pair of shoes? How many of us have an expensive new outfit we never wear because it’s just not comfortable?
I love reading books. I love their smell, the sound of the pages turning, the way they feel in my hand. Joshua made these fantabulous little bowls in pottery class – l love every little dent and ripple. Tami made a pink clay elephant I have on my desk at work. Very stress-relieving. (Who can be stressed out playing with a pink elephant? When that colonel’s wife is hollering at me on the phone I just pick up Tami’s elephant and say “yes ma’am.”) I have a soapstone candle-holder that’s my favorite. I love the smooth, slippery feel. I have a small carved wooden box on my computer desk where I keep my business cards. I love tracing the carvings on it, the feel of every leaf edge and raised petal. I love standing under a really hot shower, and big fluffy towels afterward.
Go on – be a kid again. Explore your world with the sense of touch. A fun game we play at home is blindfold someone, hand them something and see it they can guess what it is by touch alone.
Size shape weight texture form substance temperature
Soft hard smooth rough bumpy scratchy sharp dull solid liquid hot warm cold frozen
Living or not, natural or artificial
Think of struggling across blowing sand dunes, your feet sliding with every step. Think of squelching through mud, it sucking at your shoes with every step. Ever lose a shoe in mud, stepping out of it and hitting the cold wet with your bare foot?
Gardeners know what the feel of dirt is like. Walk barefoot in the grass, on the beach. Feel the bark of the tree, the shape of leaves, the texture of flower petals. Even a bowl of mixed nuts – each is different – try the blindfold test on them. Popcorn. Chips. Can you feel the difference between merino, cashmere and angora? Feel the difference between Egyptian cotton sheets and the ones on sale at Walmart.
Now imagine your character doing the same thing. The first time I played with a pet raccoon, I was surprised at how soft their paws were, how much like hands. Give the characters preconceived notions and then surprise them. I remember reading a Battlestar Galactica book when I was young (the old series, not the new – when Starbuck was a GUY). They were riding unicorns. Now do you think “smooth, satiny, white” when you think “unicorn”? These were black, and their coats were harsh and wiry. And I thought “Wow, that’s different! COOL!”
Think of your skin. Parts that see the sun all the time are rougher, drier, more weathered. Parts that don’t see the sun so much (or ever) are smoother and paler. Compare a rancher’s hands to an executive’s. Think of the kind of man who gets a manicure. The type of woman who doesn’t.
In MOONWITCHED, Chapter 2:
The goods-laden camels of the Theressan slavers’ caravan halted, grumbling, on the eastbound trade road. Their cloaked and veiled handlers, monsters masquerading as men, herded them into the golden tall-grass for tonight’s camp. A dozen captive women stumbled into the negligible shade of a stunted, twisted tarja tree.
A salty tear trickled down Mari’s sunburnt cheek as she collapsed, exhausted, on the hard-baked ground a bit apart from the others. She reached up to erase her show of weakness afore one of her amoral captors noticed. Her fingers came away streaked with gritty mud. She frowned at her broken nails. Powdery red dust clung to all, stained her tattered blue gown like dried blood. Mari wrinkled her nose in self-disgust at the combined stench of old sweat and old fear. Oh, for a bath. I smell worse than those foul-tempered camels.
How had it come to this? Bands of men, ordered to capture innocent, free women for sport? For sale? And the one who did the ordering—the shadowy head demon who’d taken control of this land. Emandu, who’d sent Kotar, the rightful boy-king, fleeing for his young life.
She fingered the cool stones and crystals encircling the copper band about her right wrist. Her captors had not yet taken it from her. The minor unseeing ward still held, made others dismiss it as inconsequential. A square green peridot set in iron for earth, a jagged quartz set in gold for fire, a round aquamarine set in a point-down triangle of silver for water and an arrowhead of mica set in tin for air. The heavy cuff bound, stored and focused whatever elemental energy she drew in ’til she had need of its magic and called it forth. But the need here far surpassed her earth-healing powers.
Fear wore on her, the sharpness dulled over the course of three days under the burning sun to a constant bone-deep ache. Nightmares of bloodshed and atrocities haunted her slumber. She licked her chapped lips. The brutes rationed their drinking water, but tears and sweat gave hope she wasn’t dehydrated yet.
Flannel shirts. Satin sheets. Granite countertops. Steaming hot bubble baths. Brushing your hair. Typing on a keyboard. Hugging a child. Petting a cat. Warming your hands under a horse’s mane. Opportunities to mention, describe and revel in touch are all around you. Put them on your pages. Characters do not live in a bubble. Have them embrace their world. Clothing, their environment, animals, each other. See what works for you.