The Art of Touch
For the last two years I have had the great fortune to receive bodywork from an extraordinarily talented massage therapist named Desiree Sandoval. I believe bodywork, whether it’s as subtle as cranio-sacral therapy or as aggressive as (good) chiropractic work, is not simply a cultivated skill; it is an art. As with many arts, it is fairly easy to become familiar and basically competent in almost any bodywork modality, but it takes true intuitive vision to really effect change in a body.
Desiree is this sort of artist. She is tiny, and one the most soft-spoken and humble human beings I’ve ever met, but when she is engaged with a client she clearly works from a place of both profound knowledge and deep compassion.
A few months ago I had a vertebral injury so painful it prevented me from sometimes taking a full breath. After working with Desiree it was gone within three days; this felt like a miracle but really it was her artful – and firm – skill.
Desiree works out of a lovely small house on the edge of North Cherry Creek in Denver. I have come to so love our sessions together that I now have a rather Pavlovian response of softening and letting go upon just seeing the place.
I have studied bodywork, both at a massage school and through my yoga trainings. One of the most common commentaries one hears in these environments is that touch is lacking in our culture. Ours is a culture of distance, and this distance is made far greater with all the devices and technical innovations that supposedly bring us closer together. It’s as if the more inventive our digital world of communication becomes the less emphasis we allow to the art – and it is of course an art – of intimacy.
Giving and receiving touch, whether it is the touch of a lover, the touch of a child’s hand, or the touch of a highly educated bodyworker, requires a simultaneous focus (this person’s hand, this person’s body) and a conscious, trusting letting go. Other people, after all, are inherently reflections of uncertain ground, and to embrace, sometimes literally, this uncertainty demands a bravery and a release.
I remember many years ago walking with my father down the streets of Tangier, Morocco. Everything about that city, that country, that culture was remarkable to me, and left impressions indelible; one thing in particular I noticed, however, was the manner in which the men of Morocco interacted. Yong and old, seemingly related or not, the men would walk down the street holding hands, or with linked arms. The touch was casual, automatic; it also seemed utterly ingrained into the very fabric of the culture.
So, too, when one travels in France: although the French are a deeply formal and finely mannered people, the touch of hands, and often a kiss upon the cheek – or both cheeks once the smallest friendship is established – is commonplace and expected. It seems almost a way of saying, “Yes, we’re alone in the world, yes the boundaries of the body make union with another impossible, but let this touch be a daily consolation; let us be alone… together.”
Artful, refined, and compassionate touch is especially profound for those who have suffered, as I have, physical or sexual trauma. For such people, and we are of course sadly legion, being touched is at first a terror, then a courageous willingness to remain present within a violated or damaged body; and then, finally, a healing, even a salvation.
After I was assaulted many years ago, it would have been unimaginable to me to ever receive touch, of any sort. My body closed in on itself like a dying sea urchin. Love, food, human company, human touch – it was all an impossibility. Terror of the other dictated and defined my life.
For many years I lived as if my body itself could recede from its very skin. Finally, either through luck or strength or time or a combination of the three, I found an acupuncturist who slowly began the long process of bringing me back to the surface. It took a long time. But her work taught me not only trust, but also that just as touch can traumatize and create unspeakable damage within one’s body and self, it can also heal and, dare I say it, bring a connected pleasure not available in any other context.
Now I cannot imagine life without bodywork. It is an essential part of taking care of the pragmatic physical needs created by a body much worked over by ballet and intense yoga asana; it is also an essential ingredient to reminding myself, over and over and over again, that my body, that every body, deserves love, deserves intimacy, deserves touch.
I am so grateful for the beautiful hands and intuitive mind of Desiree. In an ideal world, we would each of us have a Desiree, and we would each of us be more willing to engage with the art of true touch.