Katy Kelleher was invited to write an essay for the Maine Arts Journal, having experienced, on the front line, a Dialogue break-down on a social media forum. As a writer she has much to offer the visual arts by thinking in an original way. She has written a piece for us about “Depression, the Me Too movement, and Touch.” She mentions and channels the video series Pop Killed Culture by artist Jess Lauren Lipton and those are the images that accompany her essay.
Katy has said of her own work, “If I had to identify a thread that runs through my writing, I’d say it’s that I’m obsessed with obsessions. I also really enjoy thinking and talking about the creative process and the general idea of beauty.”
It’s winter and I am suicidal. I often get this way during the winter. I like to say I’m “hazy about the eyes,” to quote Melville, that I feel a “damp, drizzly November in my soul.” His poetic account of the death drive gives me great comfort, but it’s also a way to obscure and elevate what I’m feeling. My emotions aren’t really so complex as all that; what I feel is apathy, cold and hard, an inner grayness that spreads through my mind, muting meaning, muffling joy. I become disembodied. I drift mentally from one funeral to another, replaying all the men I’ve lost to suicide, counting them. There are more than there should be.
It’s winter and I am staring at a computer screen. I’m watching an image of a woman with curly dark hair. The top of the screen reads “Pop Killed Culture.” As I watch, she takes her hands, which are smeared in paint, and begins to touch a man. He isn’t attractive, and this isn’t a porno. But he opens his mouth like he’s ready to receive something as she moves her hands down his neck. Like a supplicant washing feet, she bathes him with black pigment. In her hands, he becomes something else—a warrior, a baby, a rock star. She looks at the camera and her eyes are so white, her gaze so steady, I feel as though she’s seeing me.
It’s winter and I am walking in Portland. I am lightheaded from yesterday’s migraine. It came with an aura—such a beautiful word for such an awful symptom—and my brain has yet to fully recover. My head swirls with fog, and I imagine myself as a series of white glass spheres, stacked upon one and other, a fragile creature inhabited by miasma and mist. My friend Sophie grabs my arm and we walk into a pizzeria. “He’s here,” she whispers to me. I see him, surrounded by laughing friends, unaware that I’m here. (He’s never aware of me, because I am nothing to him, just another girl writer, just another person he could intimidate and objectify.) “Do you want to leave?” she asks, and I whisper yes. As we back out of the door and onto the cold Portland street, she holds my arm tightly against her side, as she often does, so that we escape together, moving as one. Sophie likes to touch. Whenever I see her after some time away, she grabs my hands and examines my rings, noting any changes, sliding the thin gold band on and off my ring finger. It is a gift, how well she knows me, how well she can read my long, bony hands. With her, I am solid, muscle and sinew, chapped skin and downy hair, red eyes and stiff neck. We compare stories about our childhood warts, and I remember hers too, as though they were mine: that one on her finger, that little ugly bump that makes her feel like herself.
It’s spring, and I am in Miami. I give my hands to a fortuneteller, who holds them gently in her own. I can’t stop looking at her neck, at the soft wrinkles that form in her beautiful skin. Around us, women sell painted canvases with images of parrots and palm trees, tropical sunsets and swirl-tailed lizards. She takes her thumb and strokes it across my palm, sending a shiver up my spine. “You don’t know yet what you truly want,” she tells me. “You have had many losses, maybe deaths. That is behind you.” About this, she is wrong. The dead never stop demanding my attention, particularly the newly dead. (Particularly the recently overdosed, the curly blonde head laid in the coffin, the first boy I loved, the first boy who touched me, the funny and strange boy who lives in my skin, inked there forever.) But her thumb circles my palm, tracing lines—life lines, love lines, lines that tell her the future, lines that tell her about my past—and I don’t believe in magic, but I do believe in her hands. I believe fully in her thumbs and her fingers, her wrinkled neck and her hopeful lipstick. I believe in that feeling that moves up from my gut and into my head—the peace of being touched.
It is easy to forget touch. We have prioritized our senses. We know which ones go with human interaction, and which ones can be used for communication. The most important is sight, of course, followed by hearing, then smell, then touch, and finally taste. They are ordered according to their social acceptance. One can’t simply taste another person. But you can sniff them subtly. You can listen to them. You can see them.
This is how we communicate to one another. We talk and we listen, we look at faces to gauge reactions. But the problem is, so much of my communication happens on a screen. So often, there is no face to see. There is no voice to listen to, no smells to register. There are only words, coming rapidly in a stream, angry and capitalized, raw and hurt. The hurt bleeds through, always. The hurt is so obvious. It’s the defining feature of online dialogue. Sometimes, I feel as though everyone on Facebook is just crying out, “I hurt, I hurt, I hurt.” This is the winter of Me Too, and we are all hurting, alone behind our screens. We hurt, and we can’t touch.
It is righteous and good that women have begun to speak up about the abuses they have suffered. It is important that we are no longer silent. But I can’t help my inappropriate response: I want to hold and be held. Every time I learn a new story of violence, every new wound I see, every new disclosure I welcome into my brain, every assault I bear witness to—I feel an immediate urge to wrap my long arms around someone and pull them toward me.
Sometimes, I do. Sometimes, I can. My closest friends have become used to my newfound appreciation of touch. I was once a rigid New England girl, self contained and wrapped in wool, an eye roll of a person, half sarcasm, half amusement. But somewhere along the way, I became an oozing tentacle monster, reaching out for more, more, more love.
Touch will not heal our discourse. The children in cages do not just need to be touched (though they do need human affection), they need to be free. The deported mothers and fathers do not need a fortune teller to reveal their fate, they need protection, a place of refuge.
But touch has opened a door in my heart, and I’m glad that bloody chamber is no longer locked. When I am feeling unmoored from myself, when I am feeling sick in the head, dizzy from the sparklers that flash uninvited in my vision, there are few things that calm me down like a pair of arms circling my torso. I have changed and become so much more tender, so much more raw. I don’t know if this is a good thing, but I have begun to believe that it is necessary for growth. That I must become tender and naked in order to move forward, in order to heal.
For there are no words for some forms of grief, and there is no way to debate certain evils. My life has always been words, and I committed myself to language with far more certainty than I signed my marriage certificate. But even I have to recognize when the dialog has become poisoned, when the words slip and slide around, when the facts become unstable creatures and run from their pens. Even I have to see that sometimes, words fail. Sometimes, all we can offer is a hand to hold.
Fortunately, sometimes, that is enough.
—Katy Kelleher is a freelance magazine writer and editor based in Maine. Her articles about color history were published in The Awl and The Paris Review. She has written for Art New England, and Longreads. She is the author of a book titled ”Handcrafted Maine.”