To be touched is to be vulnerable – even to talk about touch feels vulnerable, at least to me.
For a long time, there were very few kinds of touch I felt vaguely okay with, let alone desired. Experiencing unwanted touch in multiple contexts – strangers touching my tattoos, anybody touching my cane, being bumped into on the sidewalk or in a line-up, handshakes, and of course, surviving sexual assault and rape – accumulated and led to a period in my life when I could not cope with being touched at all. I wore a patch on my backpack that said Don’t Touch Me, but this often led to unwanted conversations with men on the street, several of whom yelled at and harassed me. I wore it not only to protect myself from the hands of men, but from the condescending kindness of strangers who crossed my boundaries when they thought my crip body needed help. Eventually, I couldn’t stand to be looked at at all. And the patch seemed to cause more trouble than not, so I took it off and pinned it to my wall instead.
There was a moment when being touched began to feel okay again. It was while having a tube of lipstick tattooed on my right forearm. As the artist held my wrist and adjusted my arm into a comfortable position for both of us, as she spread my skin tight to trace her needle over the stencil, I noticed not only that I hadn’t tensed or twitched at her touch, but that I wanted this moment to last longer than it possibly could. I’m one of those creatures who’d get tattooed once a week if I could, I love the feeling so much. Not only the needles and the pain, but the aftercare, too – the felt sense of someone, of an artist, touching my flesh. The details my memory has retained are not the process of being tattooed, but of being cleaned up afterward, of having a bandage wrapped around my arm, held in place with strong hands, and taped up firmly but gently. I almost cried as it happened. It was the first touch I’d had in a long time that felt wanted, that felt deliberate, that felt like something I would desire again.
I remember writing about it in my diary. I always look forward to tattoo appointments, but I hadn’t recognized them as a form of intimacy until the lipstick. After a while, it turned into a list. A short list, but a list nonetheless.
The next kind of touch I recognized as a form of intimacy was acupuncture. I felt vulnerable resting in a soft armchair, being sure to wear outfits that kept the parts of my body being poked at exposed. Again, needles were involved. An atmosphere was created, a fee agreed upon, and an act of intimacy – although not necessarily named as such – was performed.
Last year, many of my fears came true. It would be absurd to name them here, but I was extremely uncertain I’d survive. But my Year Card was Strength. Do you know how to find your Year Card? It’s a lil number thing. Add the digits of your birthday to the current year (or last year, for the purpose of this piece). For example, me! 10 + 16 + 2016 = 2042 = 2 + 4 + 2 = 8 = STRENGTH (and this year, of course, I’m The Hermit). I held onto that card, hoping it was a good sign. It was never my favourite card, but I needed it.
I drew it again a few days ago, on the final day of a month-long pay-what-you-can yoga class I was taking. When I was writing my list of the forms of touch I liked, yoga was on there, too. Not every class and not every instructor, but sometimes it made my list.
Again, I noted that I liked the kind of touch that felt deliberate, caring, and skilled, the kind of touch where some form of exchange was involved. There were no needles involved in yoga, but it was certainly a space I entered due almost exclusively to pain.
During this particular yoga series, I was able to hold poses my body wouldn’t allow me to before, and I was able to re-learn poses I hadn’t practiced for a long time, hold them longer than I used to. I’d quit for over a year, angry and in pain, triggered during classes, unable to stay in my body while others were in the room. Now I began to feel capable and competent (again). I performed a headstand, and then another, longer, and I giggled as I held my legs against the wall, looked at the room upside down. I held my planks and boats and trees for longer, and I was no longer afraid of closing my eyes, of breathing deeply. Once upon a time, I refused to close my eyes in shavasana, corpse pose. As I attended this class, as I lived through a manic Spring and the Summer in remission from immobility and fatigue, I lost much of my hyper-vigilance. I no longer arrived half an hour early, claiming a space in a distant corner, afraid of being hurt, attacked, touched, looked at.
And I thought about different forms of strength.
The courage it takes to live inside a physical body, to speak, to write, to say yes or no, to ask questions. The strength it takes to build a life worth living, to care for one’s self, to begin to like one’s self. The strength it takes to change. And the intimacy of being able to hold these feelings, these skills, with others.
I feel very different from last year. I don’t feel like a different person – I feel like a changed person. Like skills and feelings had been blocked, and now they’re becoming unblocked. And I don’t necessarily feel like the figure in the Strength card – I feel more like the lion. As I re-imagine what strength could mean and look like, I see the human figure in the card representing the tattoo artist, the acupuncturist, the yoga instructor, the healer, and the lion as the client, the patient, the student, the healing.
Throughout my column, I’ve been writing about various forms of intimacy – wanted and unwanted, experienced and unexperienced. Now that I’m addressing touch, I realize what’s on my mind is both strength as intimacy and intimacy as strength. Plural, though. Strengths and intimacies. I want to come up with new or broader definitions for these words.
‘Strength’ is a tricky word for me.
When I was semi-housebound and mostly-immobile, much of my process of understanding my disabled self involved reclaiming, reclaiming specific words. One of the words I was reclaiming was weak. Because I don’t think weakness is a bad thing, I don’t think I need to pretend to be strong when that’s not how I’m feeling. After all that, noticing my strengths now feels unexpected.
In the Everyday Witch Tarot, a figure dressed in black holds onto a wand as a lion licks their hand, a black cat nuzzling against them. A tornado appears in the background – approaching or retreating? Either way, the card signifies surviving disaster.
In the After Tarot, the figure in the card hugs the lion they’ve tamed. But I don’t think tamed is the right word. It might be more accurate to say cared for, supported, nurtured. What do you think?
And in the Wild Unknown Tarot, there’s no human figure, but a lion holding a rose in its mouth, sun shining in the background. There’s something romantic about this card – but it feels solitary, a representation of self-care and self-love.
What forms of strength feel available to you? What forms of strength have you been cultivating? What forms of strength would you like to learn? What forms of strength are you un/interested in? What makes you feel strong? Where in your body and your mind do you feel you’ve become stronger over the last year? If Strength is your Year Card, have you been spending time in practice and contemplation? If it’s been your Year Card in the past, consider looking back over your diaries and social media to see how you’ve changed. If it’s upcoming as your Year Card, consider how you’d like to get prepared, what you’d like to learn. What are we capable of that we don’t know yet?
Cards shown in this post are from the Radiant Waite Tarot, the Everyday Witch Tarot, The Wild Unknown Tarot and the After Tarot.