Sunday 3 May 2020

May Day: Walking arm-in-arm by Susanna Crossman

Last Friday night (May 1st, a public holiday in France) the writer Susanna Crossman delivered the second of her Letters from Dinan, in Brittany, where she lives with her family under lockdown. She has kindly shared the full text below. 

What you won't get here is her delivery, an eloquent, beautifully-modulated performance accompanied by a pair of those wooden poseable artists' mannequins you can buy in art shops. You had to be there.

May Day in France, is La Fête du Travail), or Labor Day.

In normal times, people march in the streets, union members celebrate workers and workers rights, fight against division, racism, separation. Solidarity is born from numbers, we walk arm-in-arm, sing, chanting, ensemble. Together. Touching. Bustling. Advancing. Closely. Collectively. Touching.

From the moment we are born, our culture and environments teach us how to touch, to separate, where and when to leave a gap. Anthropologist Edward Hall developed the theory of proxemics, a science about insides and outsides, unscrambling the coded distances we keep between people, other things, and ourselves. The invisible space of proxemics constitutes each person’s “territory”, their bubble. 

I’ve been living and working in France for over twenty years, in hospitals as a clinical arts-therapist, as a writer and actress, in universities, at Med Schools, training doctors in non-verbal communication. Normal French social practises include physical greetings, each contact involves a handshake or the bise. La bise A tactile value. A kiss, cheek to cheek. A bodily grammar. Just here. Not there. A shoulder held. The weight of fingers. A felt vocabulary. 

Touch is the first sense developed in the womb. Physical touch increases levels of dopamine and serotonin. In French the word “maintenant” meaning now, comes from la main tenant, the hand which holds. The temporality of touch.

On the French government’s Coronavrius website, la distance sociale préconisé est de 1 mètre. Recommended social distance is 1 metre. As a barrier method, we are told not to shake hands, or hug. 

In Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of A Plague Year, he writes, “the best physic against the plague is to run away from it.”

Edward Hall calls these: silent, hidden human dimensions. A world of meaning is written here: love, fear, agreement, conflict, comfort, pleasure and pain. Four zones are identified. For Occidental societies the first, intimate zone, ranges from touching to about 46 cm, and is reserved for lovers, children, close family members and friends. Personal distance begins at about an arm's length, 46 cm, from the person. This space is used in conversations with friends, colleagues, and in group discussions. Social distance ranges from 1.2 m - 2.4 m, and is reserved for strangers, newly formed groups, and acquaintances. Public distance includes anything more than 2.4 m away, and is used for formal meetings, and public speaking. At this moment in time, everyone is a stranger.

Now, during the pandemic, when I’m at work in psychiatric hospitals, most of my therapy work is conducted over the phone. For hours, I listen to voices, silences, pauses and inflections, pitch and tone, try to fathom, catch what is between the lines. 

Touch is perception through a tactile sense. The skin is the largest sense organ in the body. Receptors are spread over two square metres, while most of the other sense organs are in the head. The skin organism perceives all environmental changes. 

In Anima Thomas Aquinas wrote: “Among men it is the virtue of the fineness of touch, and not of any other sense, that we discriminate the mentally gifted from the rest.” 

For years, I worked in child psychiatry using drama and movement with non-verbal children, dancing with fingers, singing with toes. Using touch, pulling and pushing, holding, rising and falling, swaying, to communicate. Expand possibilities. Building lyrical, kinetic bridges across the gaps. Martha Graham said, “the body never lies.”

Historically touch has been designated as a lower sense, in the 1800s natural historian Lorenz Oken believed societies that touched were at the bottom of the sensory scale. Yet, we now know that babies' brains expect nearly constant physical touch, rocking, stroking, and cuddling: and without it, they don't grow, without touch babies brains don’t develop. Touch deprivation. Touch starvation. 

When I teach a class on Zoom, on the screen, my students measure 2cm by 3cm. In tangible terms, we are separated by miles, just as we are separated now (if you are in Great Britain), by 60 kilometres, by the Channel that is 174 metres deep, by countries, by borders, by guards, by territory. We are separated by screens. 

Dot Tuer maintains that in virtual reality situations deprived of a tactile relationship to the outside world, we lose our sense of touch. Body boundaries become ambiguous. Dissolve.

During lockdown, I often dream of people. A kinetic deluge. A hoard. People invade my home, stream through bedrooms. Bodies block the hall. Crowds cluster in the kitchen. People are everywhere. Elias Canetti writes that one of the traits of the inner life of the crowd is the feeling of being persecuted. I wonder, do the people in the dream represent my fear of the virus, of being touched, plundered and pillaged by this language, these things: masks, critical illness, oxygen saturation, comorbidities, infection, disease, PPE, mechanical ventilation, triage decisions and ambulatory clinicians, barriers, hospice and/or death?

In the daytime, none of this scares me.

When someone enters our territory we learn to perceive, take decisions whether to advance, retreat, decide if the presence is a pleasure, or threat? Can we fold in the cutaneous touch of the skin surface? Should we run and hide? 

I wonder how long our new corporeal practices will last, and how will social distancing impact on our kinetic ways of being, feeling and perceiving? Keats wrote, “Touch has a memory.”

Under Covid lockdown a writer tells me “I feel we are suddenly connecting more emotionally and directly than normal.” In her extraordinary essay, Arundhati Roy calls the Covid-19 pandemic a portal, she writes that we can walk through it with prejudice and hatred “or we can walk through it lightly, ready to imagine another world.” Between two screens, my five year-old daughter plays a game of ball, catching and throwing, throwing and catching, with a little boy. It is beautiful and terrible. 

On this May Day we imagine, are imagining, other ways to touch, other ways to walk arm-in-arm.

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