On our vacation this summer, we did most of the usual Northern CA touristy things. I wanted to re-introduce children who had been too little to remember the area when we left to those things that had been enjoyable and educational to me about growing up in the Bay Area (and that we hadn't already done, like Muir Woods and Golden Gate Park, etc.). We went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium (though I have to admit, we have been there many times), Carmel's beach and art galleries, to Hearst Castle and the Marin Marine Mammal Center, to the Bay Model and Marin Headlands, to Columbia, Moaning Caverns and Half Moon Bay, Filoli Gardens, Black Diamond Mines, Meekham Arboretum and even the Oakland Zoo. We went to the Drive in Movie theater and the It's It factory, we took the train up to Old Sacramento and went to the Train Museum. We took the Ferry from Vallejo to Pier 39 and Fisherman's Wharf. Some of us went to Santa Cruz. We hiked down from Mt. Diablo on a long night hike and we spent two days hiking around Yosemite, up the falls, around Glacier Point, etc. We heard a talk in Yosemite by Mountain Climber Ron Kauk and spent time afterwards talking with him about Restorative Justice. We were active, busy, learning, seeing, experiencing.
Everywhere we went I was struck again and again by the reality and realization that those things that were touched, not just seen or heard, but touched and experienced physically - those were the things that had the most impact on us. The things I held or experienced (hiking, breathing in the trees' scent, feeling the waterfalls spray on my arms and face), those are the things that will remain with me. The things I just saw or heard? Not so much.
In education we talk a lot about those who are visual learners vs. those who are audio learners. I remember taking a test in one of the education classes at seminary on which kind of learner I was. Interestingly, while they said that most people are visual learners, and a few less are audio learners, they also acknowledged that there is a small group of people that are something else. I was part of that "something else" and came up as a "kinetic" learner. It's true, I am. I learn by doing, by being in a place, by moving and acting.
As we walked around all of these special places, I was struck by how much all people, and especially children, actually learn more through touch. In every Museum we went to, and every outdoor place and every garden and every...well, every place we went, the young children especially were trying to climb and touch and handle and learn through their hands and bodies. They yearned to explore, to feel, to hold, to climb on and around everything we saw.
What was equally true, though, was that as much as all of them wanted to touch and explore and experience, the universal mantra and the signs on everything instead yelled at these young people constantly, "Do Not touch!" "Do Not climb!" "Do Not Pick Up!" And as I watched the kids with more rule-abiding parents work hard to restrain their kids and keep them from doing what was natural, learning through touch; and as I watched the kids whose parents were paying less attention take off and climb and touch and handle all those forbidden things with wonder and joy and curiosity, I found myself deeply troubled. Do we take away from our kids their best methods of learning, of living, and being part of this world? Do we, like we used to do by forbidding left-handers to use their left hands, harm our children by denying them the natural ways of growing that they, by instinct, thrive on? Is the reason most of us are labeled "visual" learners simply because we've been so denied our natural and deeply primary way of learning that we have, in fact, abandoned it in many cases?
Touch is so incredibly meaningful in all of our lives. Our family watched Temple Grandin last night. And again, I found myself reflecting on the importance of touch. As a person with autism, Temple did not like people to touch her, but she did want to be "hugged" by something cocoonish that she made. Touch remained incredibly important. Avoiding it may have been avoiding a kind of intimacy with that which she could not understand that therefore felt threatening. But touch also calmed her, when done correctly. My eldest child reacted to the traumas in her life by putting up a physical barrier. She allows me to hug her and even invites it from me, but she has put up a wall against all others, a physical way of refusing to connect with other people. In contrast, my younger two climb all over each other and me and the world every opportunity they have. However, my son, with his sensory integration disorder, has to choose any touch that he experiences. If someone approaches him and touches him without him seeing it coming, it hurts him. For myself, when my world flipped upside down I found that the person who had done the flipping became "untouchable" for me - that a touch from him felt (feels) like a burn. The harm I had experienced became embodied in this physical reaction. In contrast, there have been times when I have been held that it literally felt that the holding was melting away all the pain in the world. The healing that can be done by touch is real.
Touch has the ability to heal, it has the ability to hurt, it has the ability to teach and it has the ability to harm. It reflects our feelings, our fears, our intimacies and our needs. To deny its importance is to deny something central to our humanity.
So I find myself returning to the place I started. Some of our cultural centers, especially children's museums and science centers, are coming to understand more fully the importance of touch and are allowing places where kids can interact with what they see. But I think we are too slow in this movement, and still too cautious about touch. To touch is to understand, to know, to experience, to connect with.
As I reflect back on our vacation, I will especially remember those things that involved all of my senses as well as my breath and my movements. I deeply value the hikes where rocks were touched, birds heard, trees and places smelled, beauty seen and body challenged. I am grateful for the long and strenuous hikes, climbs and descents. I am grateful for the hands I shook, the humans I touched and with whom I was able to connect. I am grateful for the opportunities my kids had to do the same. And I pray we can continue to move forward in our honoring of touch as a way to understand and to connect, not only to one another, but to all our world.