Reflections on Touch | December 30s

Below are two reflections on Touch from CMC members within the Advent/Christmas theme “Do you sense what I sense?”

Megan Stauffer-Miller
Scriptures: 1 Samuel 2:26, Luke 2 :41-52

Clay: volcanic rock decomposed by reactions with water.  Imagine holding these seemingly unrelated materials in your cupped hands… ROCK and WATER… for millennia.  Time passes.  You’re left with clay: pliable when wet, brittle when dry, strengthened or destroyed by exposure to extreme heat, vulnerable to unseen impurities, impenetrable (kind of), vessel of nourishment, agent of artistry.

This material, when it’s potential was discovered, propelled humanity in a new direction.  It’s Biblical references are many and integral to our creation story. Humanity formed from the Heavens (Breath of God) and “dust of the ground”.

But these thoughts, these ideas are for the thinkers: theologians, artists, scientists, philosophers, those cerebral types.  Sure, I listen to NPR, I’ll dabble in some heady conversation, but to be honest I’d rather just dig my hands into something.  For some of you it may be helpful to know that I, as of this school year, am teaching high school Ceramics after teaching elementary Art for 17 years.  My district is “economically disadvantaged” and minorities are the majority.

Picture a teenager you’re familiar with, hypothetically hold their hands in yours (awkward right?) pliable, brittle, strengthened or destroyed when exposed to extremes, vulnerable to unseen impurities, impenetrable (kind of), high energy, agents of creativity.  A Ceramics classroom is the intersection of these commodities; “dust of the ground” and the “fountain of youth.”

If anyone from the Ohio Department of Education is here, the objective of my Ceramics I and II Course is: To create opportunities for students to interact with ceramics, their own and others, in an informed thoughtful manner.  What that looks like in daily practice is: managing cell phones, new sneakers, dry skin, poverty, raging hormones, manicures, fights, drugs. Oh…and the nuances of working with clay: how it smells, sounds, looks and FEELS!  It’s a messy business.  Exhilarating and MESSY!

After 17 years in my elementary position I came to realize the challenge of my job had become finding ways to be challenged.  It was familiar and steady.  A move to working with High School students was within my skill set but change would hopefully provide NEW challenges and spur fresh thoughts and ideas.  Groveport Madison High School has not let me down…

One of these developing ideas is how humans come to understand cause and effect, specifically in regards to touch.  Apparently sensitivity to how hands and tools create immediate and lasting change in the malleable surface of clay are not intuitive.  COMPLETELY NEW THOUGHT TO ME: students may not approach clay with delicacy when delicacy is called for and strength when a firm touch is called for.  The effect of a curved metal rib, a fingernail, a wooden straight edge, the soft pad of a finger, a spinning wheel, the cradle of a palm connecting with clay can be demonstrated, discussed, lectured, and viewed. Until it is touched…felt… the experience cannot be fully realized.

Teaching people to throw on the wheel is a beautifully agonizing process.  To be successful one must:
• Find intense moments of center and balance
• Rely solely on touch
• Have grit/ perseverance
• Allow mental space to consider cause and effect in real time.

This comes more naturally to some than others.

When all else has failed, the most effective approach for me, is to use my students hands as MY tools and throw.  Remember when I asked you to imagine holding hands with a teenager?  It’s awkward to place your hands over a kid’s hands and exert enough force to corral wet spinning clay into submission when they just cussed you 5 minutes earlier, it’s awkward to ask a student to surrender their hands when they have repeatedly refused to surrender earbuds, it’s awkward to get a toddler’s grasp on the very finger that expressed displeasure with you recently and guide them slowly and intentionally upward allowing the feeling of pressure and inertia forcing clay to change form.  It’s awkward until that perfect moment when it’s not… when they begin to breathe again and focus shifts to the contact of their hands on clay rather than the contact of my hands on theirs.  Sometimes students close their eyes in this moment noticing that something is different, that they have TOUCHED change.

This is an intimate fleeting moment.  A moment of growth and wisdom.  A moment when intangible becomes tangible.  A glimmer of BEING Creator.

A moment in which the Creator’s FAVOR is FOUND.


Being In Touch With Things That Grow | Jim Myers

When my siblings and I were elementary school age, Mom taught in a municipal school system and we attended a township school.  In the spring, school ended two weeks earlier for us children than for Mom.
One year Mom drove us the 100, or so miles to Grandma and Grandpa at their self-sustaining 40 acre farm at the edge of the Ohio River flood plain in West Virginia.  At the farm, we accompanied Grandpa as he milked Brownie, and fed the pig and chickens.  A beef cow shared the pasture with Brownie.  Grandma made butter and canned fruit and vegetables that they grew.  Together, they weeded the garden and harvested fruits and vegetables.   They no longer owned an automobile, but hired a neighbor to take them to a nearby town to go to the doctor or to buy coffee, sugar, salt or the groceries they did not raise for themselves.  Those two
weeks spent with our grandparents got to be an annual spring pilgrimage.

Our two week farm experiences ended abruptly in the early 1960’s when Grandpa unexpectedly passed away.   The memory of Grandpa driving his Ford 8 N tractor with his dog Dinky riding on the differential  and my brother and me riding one on each fender, going to work or market, has remained seared in my memory.

In my teens, we moved into the city.   I mowed grass and did other yard work.  One of my customers, E G, was a college professor who lived nearby.   She and her only sibling were born in the farmhouse where I now live.  They had inherited the farm in 1920’s after their father died.  As we pulled weeds or cleaned out a storage cabinet, she would occasionally tell me about the farm she and her brother owned.  At least one time, she told me her brother had returned to the state and they were going out to the farm.

After college, my wife and I were saddled with college debt and our efforts to move to a farm or farm land never seemed to work out.   We eventually bought a home in the city.   After my wife passed away, I took vacations from my job and started driving tractor at state agricultural shows.  I learned quite a bit about tractors from these driving experiences.

E G lived her final two years in a nursing home located in the city.  Mom and I visited her at least once, and I visited by myself.  I met many of E G’s other friends during those visits. When she passed away, one of those friends took me on a walking tour of the 100+ acre farm.  I believed, if I was ever going to make this farming thing work, at my stage in life, it was now or never.  The purchase closed a few years after the turn of the century.  I was in my late 50’s.

The farm house is an 1820’s timber-framed two story clapboard sided house that E G’s great grandfather built.    At least three of the other five remaining outbuildings are pre-civil war.  Another farmer and I share a corn/soy bean rotation on a 19 acre field, the largest field in the farm.  There are 27 acres of Conservation Reserve Program, a program which pays a farmer to plant native plants for wild animal feed, mow a firebreak and otherwise leave the field fallow.  About 65 acres are woods, and about 10 acres of hay are spread out in three fields.  There is a four acre garden field with an ephemeral stream flowing through it.  Except for the 19 acres, the fields are 19th century sized fields with animal habitat fence rows between them.  Located near
the headwaters, a scenic creek meanders along the arc which forms the north and east sides of the farm. Because 5 generations, including E G and her ancestors, had owned the farm since the early 1820’s, it seemed only natural for me to name the farm after them.Since the purchase, I have closed on a Farmland Preservation Easement with the USDA and the State Department of Agriculture.  This is an easement on the property which limits the land use to farming and prevents the land from being subdivided.  I am currently in the process of completing an application to place the farm in the National Registry of Historic Places.

The positive side of being in touch with things that grow would be getting the Nitrogen-Potassium – Phosphorus and minor nutrient balance in the soil, getting the seed in the ground at the precise moment, keeping the weeds in check, getting some of the crop to survive animal and insect pests, hoping for favorable temperatures and rainfall, and harvesting a marketable or internally useful crop.   We have had a mixture of successes and failures on the farm.

Being in Touch with Things that Grow for me has also included picking the honey locust spikes out of two flat tires on the same day, crawling beneath a hay mower – crimper (haybine) and pulling the jammed hay out of the machine and trying to bush hog invasive bush honeysuckle only to have it pierce the radiator.  It can also be crawling on the ground under a tractor, with sprayed hydraulic fluid dripping on and around me, trying to figure out which hose blew.

I consider myself to be a marginal farmer, but I know much of farming is preventing certain plants from growing.  I am conflicted about the use of herbicides and pesticides.  I would like to farm totally organically, but we use GMO corn and spray roundup to eliminate the weeds.  Bush honey suckle had taken over the fence rows and much of the woods, crowding out timber quality trees in the woods and more desirable animal habitat in the fence rows.  We cut the honey suckle and applied an herbicide to the freshly cut stump. Without the herbicide it would have been a continuing annual project to retrace the wooded areas and cut back the new honey suckle growth.  The farm does use conservation techniques such as no-till planting and maintaining grassed waterways, practices which protect against soil erosion and help to improve
downstream water quality.

I chose not to have domestic animals until I was sure I could properly care for them.  After 10+ years, the farm has no domestic animals, unless one counts the two colonies of honey bees.

The mystery of nature is refreshing and renewing.  The Bible is full of references.  Sometimes I get to wander the farm and hear the Meadow Larks and the Killdeer.  From the house, one can hear the Carolina Wrens and Robins.   A person can, as the song How Great Thou Art says, “hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze.” Farming for me is being a Steward of the Land and Caretaker of the Garden.  Jesus chose to go to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray before his trial.  My avocation is caring for the garden.


Touch in Palliative Care | Kristen Moyer

As a hospice and palliative care physician, I was asked to share some of my experiences with how touch can be emotionally and spiritually healing or comforting when patients are facing the end of life. 

As I began processing this prompt, my thoughts immediately anchored on the many stories of Jesus’ healing through touch, and the ways in which the reception of the Holy Spirit occurred through touch. We know of many examples throughout the Gospels where Jesus touched people at the same time as they were healed, which we could certainly argue imparted both physical and spiritual healing to the recipient.

Beyond healing, however, I moved to consider a biblical example of how touch is used as an expression of love or comfort; after all, I’m in a field where we think deeply about what we can do through comforting and caring, even when cure is not possible. Mindful, too, of our theme of incarnation, I was curious to consider not only who Jesus touched, but who touched Jesus during his lifetime. Luke Chapter 2 tells us that Mary was the first to touch Jesus; immediately after giving birth to Him, she used her hands to wrap Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger. Further learning that it was custom in the East to wrap a newborn in strips of cloth after washing the body and anointing it in powdered salt, I was moved by the image of mother Mary’s attentive and loving hands, cleansing and swaddling baby Jesus, to provide him warmth, comfort, and safety.  

What might the connections be, you ask, between Mary’s loving bodily care of baby Jesus, and my experiences as a palliative care physician?

Perhaps because I am a pediatric palliative care practitioner, every day I have the great honor and privilege of considering how best to comfort both those who have just been born and those who are dying, sometimes with little time in between. It is thus impossible to not consider how touch is such a vital intervention along the spectrum between birth and death – a basic human need that we know by science is essential for cognitive, emotional, and spiritual development throughout the lifespan, and eases pain, anxiety, depression, and fatigue for those facing life-threatening illness.

Blind to the world and without language, a newborn uniquely learns through physical sense and experience, and only learns to trust the world as her basic human needs are met. She literally fights to find faith in her primary caregivers: she cries to be held, rocked, and kept warm; and, unless she is heard, her screams only intensify. If she is heard, however, she begins to develop faith that the world is a good, safe, and trusting place…some would even argue a nascent knowledge of the Holy. Through positive, physical experiences, a foundation is formed for trusting and mutual relationships. It is fascinating to know that research has shown no matter how well infants are fed, they fail to thrive unless they are held, and cuddled frequently. Touch sustains life, and communicates to an infant that he is loved, cared for, and to not be afraid.

Though it might sound overly simplified, comfort measures to support an infant through a natural death are nearly identical those provided upon his birth. For in approaching her transition out of the world, it is imperative for the child to know that she is loved, safe, and warm; swaddled and held or skin-to-skin with her caregiver, feeling the warmth of the chest, vibrations of the voice, and percussion of the heart beating. To feel a loving hand hold her head and brush against her cheek, her heart rate eases, her breathing becomes steady…I am comforted, I am not alone.

And for caregivers– in my experiences, the brave and loving parents who accompany a child through end of life, there is power in this touch as well. Driven, in part, by the need to continue being the best parent one can be, it is imperative for a parent’s well-being to know that despite disorder and disintegration, she can still comfort, ease suffering, and adore the life she bore. Perhaps it is the physical holding of her infant as she dies; or, perhaps, like Mary, it is the honor of giving a bath, anointing her, and wrapping her in her swaddling clothes.

I recognize my examples may reflect how natural it feels to provide lots of physical touch to a baby or even a child, and that it may not always be as intuitive to us to touch the older adult – especially the older adult who is dying; while so simple, physical touch is often absent from the lives of the very old. Just as we are born though, we leave the world with limited senses, and thus touch once again becomes so important. Practices such as massage and healing touch are utilized to promote improvements in sleep, pain, mood, and have even been shown to decrease the sensation of loneliness. These benefits are often even greater when touch comes from someone who is known and loved by the dying person.

And so we might think about the power of touch at the end of life, just as we think about the power of touch at the beginning of life – an essential human need and a most basic means of providing comfort and security.
And, if we trust that we are embodied spirits, then it follows that when we touch, it is not just a physical event of flesh meeting flesh, but an encounter between our very beings. Touch is a reciprocal sense: when we touch, we cannot help but be touched; when we feel, we cannot help but be felt – thus we come together in a sacred moment of touch, our individual histories and hopes meet at once, and we are united and forever changed.

In the words of Henry Nouwen, “Touch, yes, touch, speaks the wordless words of love…these moments of touch are truly sacred…They restore, they reconcile, they reassure, they forgive, they heal…when a friend touches us with free, nonpossessive love, it is God’s incarnate love that touches us and God’s power that heals us”.

May it be so.