THESE ARE THE textures that bring my days to life: the rough scratch of denim, the downy caress of bed linen, the sturdy, tepid plastic of the overhanging handle grips swinging above me in the MRT trains, the embossed covers of old, weathered books I have read over and over and over again. My hands have become so used to the daily exercise of reaching for and using things, the pushing and pulling of brassy door handles, the dancing of fingers across silicone computer keys, the cold press of metal lift buttons against my thumbs. Every few hours, I run my fingers through my hair, a nervous habit that began way back in primary school. Sometimes, without conscious thought or consideration, I abandon my eating utensils in favour of my fingers, surrendering to the urge to lightly pinch the greasy, crispy tips of chicken drumlets, or the bready edges of pizza crusts.
Our lives are full of these textures; tactile sensations we feel every single day but no longer pay attention to, no longer find fascinating, these plethora of pricklings and tinglings the skin feels, the nerves detect, but our thoughts and minds no longer register as anything extraordinary. Familiarity has bred indifference and routine has rendered dull our immediate, physical world. This unapparent disconnect has removed from our awareness one of the key methods through which we interact, know, and explore the world around us.
Somewhere along the way, I have reduced my sense of touch to a limited pool of vague adjectives, to a nearly meaningless list of descriptive words like rough and smooth, hot and cold, hard and soft. Every once in a while, something is sandy, or sharp, or wet. Most of the time, something is dirty or full of germs, and so I keep my hands back, safe and secure in my pockets, or locked securely around my elbows. In economizing what we choose to touch and feel with our skin, we are preventing ourselves from immersing wholeheartedly into this strange realm we call reality.
When I was younger, my grandparents kept a small garden at the back of their house. They grew flowering bushes, herbs, and miniature fruit trees. Spending time in their garden was a pleasure for me, and a huge part of my memories of that garden was that of me going from plant to plant gently running my fingers through their leaves and flowers. There was one leaf that felt furry, and another that was waxy. A particularly insidious bush hid thorns under its pretty, pink flowers. This other bush had flowers that felt like soft wrapping paper. Sure, my fingertips smarted from some of the thorns I couldn’t avoid and dirt trapped itself underneath my fingernails from when I helped to weed the small plot of land. Once, I was convinced that the spines of a cactus are not as sharp as they looked but I learnt very quickly that little boys are often very wrong about things. I learnt that grass was often wet, that mud was harmless but hard to wash off from clothes, that good soil was soft and moist and crumbled easily. It was only later that the inconveniences of my tactile explorations of the world slowly got to me; the thorough scrubbing of my hands afterwards, the stained shorts and t-shirts I loved to wear, the ointments and creams my mother insisted on for my cuts. Slowly, I was weaned out of my need to explore and learn with my fingers and was instead put on a steady diet of learning through instruction and observation.
This process happened so gradually that it was a startling realisation for me, now, that I have since come to rely on my eyes to distinguish one texture from another, reserving my fingers for surfaces and objects that are firmly within the ordinary, the normal, the thoroughly safe and docile.
I am not advocating for people to go out and start touching the plants and bushes we have lining our roads. I am not asking anyone to grab fistfuls of dirt and rejoice to the high heavens at our ability to tell hard from soft, smooth from rough, hot from cold. I am not encouraging you to go out and do anything. I myself prefer indoor activities. What would be nice, however, is if the next time you find yourself lounging by the beach, you stop for a moment to trace shapes in the sand, to take the time to let the dusty grains flow gently through the spaces between your fingers, to notice how one type of sand builds a sturdier sandcastle than another. The next time you find yourself at the park, maybe a bit of mud or dirt on your shin isn’t the apocalypse. The next time you buy roses, brush your knuckles against the plush petals and ever so gently graze the pointed tips of their thorns with your fingernails, or where their thorns might have been had diligent florists not removed them. When eating finger food like sticky kuehs and buttery mini-sandwiches, put away the spindly plastic fork. Using clean fingers to plop them into your mouth shouldn't be so disturbing a notion. Allow yourself to feel the moment with your skin. To enjoy the abundance of sensations the world has to offer.
The skin is the largest organ in the human body. It serves multiple purposes, and our sense of touch is just one among the many, many important functions it provides. Yet we often forget about it, so integral it is to our daily experience. In the desert, one does not remark on sand. We use it to tell temperature, to gauge comfort, to choose ripened avocados. To touch the skin of another person is to signal intimacy. To be careless with it is to experience pain, to cause injury, to scar, to expose our bodies to illness and infection. But it is one thing to relinquish indulging our sense of touch out of fear. It is another entirely to do so out of apathy. To suppress our tactile curiosity out of indifference is to further disconnect ourselves unconsciously from our world.
So the next time an opportunity presents itself, when you are out collecting seashells by the beach, or playing with your cat, or maybe even just browsing books at the library, remember to pay attention to the brush of sea foam against your toes, the silky tug of fur against your fingers, or the way paper sliding against paper leaves your fingertips hungry for the next turn of the page. The world is yours, to love and to hold, to experience, to explore, right there, at the very edges of your fingertips.