On the memory of touch in the time of social distancing — part three.

Leonora Oppenheim
9 min readApr 6, 2020


Feeling my way through the world’s textures on my daily walk.

‘The sensory isolation is driving us mad.’

I’ve become obsessed with a certain Instagram account over the last week. It’s a steady stream of insanely cute photographs showing a baby hanging out with his very fluffy dogs in different cosy scenarios — on the sofa, in a cushioned window seat, on a bed. In this adult-free world the dogs appear to be taking care of the baby and I find the snuggling going on both triggering and soothing all at once.

I was broody before this quarantine period started and now I’m craving any kind of bear hug, cosy cuddle or playful tumble. At the very least, I wish I had a pet that I could hold. I am now completing my fourth week in isolation as I type this. The first two with a teenage guest in my house, which was fun. And now two more alone, which is errr… less fun.

While I keep my solitude balanced with socialising, via a steady stream of Whatsapp, Houseparty and Zoom calls dotted through my days and evenings, I can feel my craving for physical contact getting more intense. Sometimes I wonder if these conversations through the screen are making these feelings worse, like a kind of homesickness.

I’ve been finding these calls oddly draining in ways I can’t quite pinpoint. Is it that the conversations are so intense? Is that we’re looking simultaneously at the person on the other side and at ourselves in the thumbnail image? Is it the self-consciousness of watching ourselves watch someone else? It seems nothing is able to replace the feeling of another’s breathing, the sense of a beating heart, the energy a living being emits in person. The screen can share someone’s image and their voice, but it cannot transmit their physical presence.

Today I want to reflect on how it’s happened that I’m currently living through quarantine by myself. I don’t really know how I came to be 42, single, childless and living on my own in a rural villagey town. I type this out disingenuously, as though I have no idea how my life happened to me, when, in fact, years of therapy have excavated and explained in explicit detail every single one of my life choices. Ha!

For the sake of poetic license, I’m indulging in the notion that life creeps up on one slowly but surely, and then suddenly one finds oneself in the middle of global pandemic all alone. How the heck did that happen!?

Well, it’s hard to explain without going into too much grizzly detail. Inevitably it involves lots of deconstructing dysfunctional family dynamics. I’ve always wondered how writers have the gumption to write about their family members while they are still alive. I fear, frankly, I’m lacking the cojones required for such self-exposure. We shall see how far I’m able travel down this path as I continue to write. Ideally, in these essays, I’d like to share my lived experiences without being cruel about other people’s. I hope that’s possible?

What I will say, in a sort of fudged précis on how I’ve ended up alone, is that I’ve always been a late bloomer who likes to take my time about things. I just never quite felt ready to settle down and create my own family, or engage in all the compromise that requires. There were just too many exciting adventures to have. The partnering-up aspect of life has always been an elusive quest for me. I regard it as a basic life skill that I missed the fundamental training on.

The relationships I’ve been in have been pretty stressful experiences for me. Undoubtedly, due to poor choices on my part. They have been full of mismatches, misunderstandings, and miscommunications. I confess, I went after men for superficial reasons - their looks, brains, and/or status. I never sought out the qualities of care or compatibility. However, for the last five years or so, I’ve become increasingly aware that I’m in a race against my own psychology. Can I decode the life-partner puzzle before my biological clock crashes into a brick wall?

Recently, I started finally hearing the friends who have been advising me for years to separate the partner-having and child-having train tracks of life. This hasn’t been easy for me to get my head around. I always understood them as being train carriages hooked up to each other, with the partnership taking the lead. Now I’m trying to think of them as two separate carriages travelling on two separate tracks. Perhaps they can co-exist without being connected to each other?

With that new concept in mind, I decided at the end of last year to try and have a baby via a donor. I anticipated I would need my own space to do this in and so I moved out of London to rural Somerset. But, before I could utter the words Intrauterine Insemination, I found myself in lockdown, sans partner, sans baby, and sans any members of my family. Cut off, upstream without a paddle. And here I sit, on the side of the bank, wondering what to do with myself.

Before I start quoting something about Wordsworth and wandering clouds, I should say there are huge benefits to being on my own here in said villagey town. Honestly, I don’t really know if it’s a village or a town. I just know it’s small and pretty and there’s still food on the shelves in the local Spar. Oh and it’s very very peaceful.

There are parents of small children reading this and shouting at the screen right now. I know, I know. You’re desperate for some space, just a soupçon of peace and quiet. A single request-free moment to yourself. I’ve spoken to friends who are juggling work and children to the point of exhaustion. They are craving a dose of my solitude and I am craving a dose of their crazy kids.

One friend asked me the other night, during our virtual Zoom dinner together, ‘What is the first thing you want to do after we’re let out of the house again?’ And I said, ‘I want to have a crazy pillow fight with your kids!’

I’m grateful I can hear my neighbours’ kids playing in the garden most days. This gleeful sound is the highlight of my day, as is leaning out of my window and talking to them about their favourite Disney movies, watching their trampoline routines and offering tips on refining their frisbee technique. Being a big kid myself, the sense of levity I get from talking to kids is a real joy in my life as a whole. I’m lucky to have friends with wonderful, hilarious kids who I usually spend good quality play time with.

During the last four weeks I have missed my friends and their kids enormously. I even have a new-born nephew that I have yet to meet, other than through a screen, and the desire to hold him in my arms is almost overwhelming sometimes. It makes me dizzy with longing.

The human need for touch is something that came to the forefront of my mind and body over two years ago when I started my masters programme at Trinity Laban. I had signed myself up for a two-year MFA programme in Creative Practice, ostensibly to explore performance, movement and drawing. On arrival I was thrown into the deep end of the dance and somatics world. Suddenly I was spending all my time with people who were either trained dancers and/or body workers.

These are people who are completely used to expressing themselves physically, using their bodies in all sorts of ways to create art. The first thing I noticed at Laban was how people touched each other constantly. Hugging, holding hands, stroking arms, leaning up against each other. I felt like I’d entered a world where there was a new language that I needed to learn. What did all this touching mean? What were they signalling to each other?

For me, coming from a conservative British upbringing, paired with a boarding school education, casually touching people was absolutely not ok. Touching people in my world indicated you were sexually attracted to them. I thought it was understood as a come on.

‘The zoologist Desmond Morris attributes modern society’s avoidance of physical contact to its crowded living conditions and to the confusion of tactual contact with sexual contact, which therefore necessitates avoidance of nonsexual contact as well… Furthermore, despite extremes of touch-avoidance, it is probably true that people fervently wish, even need, to be touched, and satisfy this desire in whatever way they can. Morris cites ritualized encounters… as one source of physical contact, and substitutes such as children, pets, objects and persons with “license to touch” (e.g. doctors and nurses, beauticians and barbers, masseurs and masseuses) as others.’ Body Politics by Nancy M. Henley, p. 99.

At my all girl’s school we were constantly with each other day and night — sleeping, eating, learning and playing together. I actually can’t think of a time I was alone, even in the bathroom, in all seven years at school. Nevertheless, in all that togetherness, there was an unspoken rule that we did not touch each other. This was predominantly to avoid being labelled as having lesbian tendencies — that primal fear of expulsion from the tribe. Yes, we were disappointingly childish, ignorant and prejudiced. But also, I think we were subconsciously trying to carve out an iota of personal space in a place where we had absolutely none.

Before boarding school, during my early childhood, I understood touching others as more of a provocation than a caress. A cry for attention, like one long, aggressive game of tag. I remember the boy who painfully twisted my arm on the school bus, having my hair pulled by other kids in the playground, being regularly dunked under water in the swimming pool.

On my part, I pushed my friends and siblings off swings, off chairs, off their feet. As they did to me. Once, in an angry attempt to push my sister away, I drew blood, gouging a strip out of her forearm with my fingernail. She in turn, a few years later, pushed me over in the playground to win a race. In my attempt to style it out, for an audience of boys on a nearby fence, I went into an awkward forward roll and promptly broke my collar bone. In retrospect this particular episode is a wonderful microcosm of all my attempts to impress the opposite sex, which often result in doing myself more harm than good.

I found touching was more often punishing than it was comforting. While my mother did give the previously described soothing back scratches at night and warm enveloping hugs in the day, she also dished out regular spankings for bad behaviour. Corporal punishment being a run-of-the-mill disciplinary tactic inherited from her own parents that was, regrettably, left unquestioned. The worst example being the day she smacked me with a hairbrush in retaliation for a radical haircut I’d given my sister.

As I grew up and out of the rotation of pushing and being pushed, being alternately hugged and smacked, I graduated to a new understanding of touch. I learned that touch was not only punishing, it was dangerously exposing, it might let someone know how you feel. In the culture I was brought up in, formal greetings were met with a handshake, familial greetings were met with a peck on both cheeks. Anything other than those two things was signalling sexual attraction or, worse, predation.

As an adult, diving in and ducking out of short-term relationships, I’ve spent more time single than I have coupled up. So, until recently, my understanding of the language of touch was incredibly limited, it was either coded as sexually intimate body language or it didn’t exist.

I lived this binary existence for years before I went to study at Laban. Then, suddenly, my mind was blown as I came into physical contact with other people’s bodies pretty much every day. My mind and body were parched in a desert of physical detachment. When I arrived at this educational oasis I felt completely overwhelmed by the stimulation. Much as I think we might feel, when we leave quarantine for the first time at the end of this pandemic.

Until the next time. Stay in touch,

Leonora x

Note from a friend on 03.04.20

‘Having three children I have totally lost all sense of what’s normal now. I experience the shame of saying to my daughters all the time, “Wash your hands! Have you washed them for 20 seconds? Have you sung Happy Birthday?” The song Happy Birthday has now lost any meaning for them, because it’s associated with soap and eczema and bleeding knuckles and split skin.

But I now have a whole new problem, after having had Coronavirus for the last 15 days, I cannot taste or smell anything. It gets you really sad and low because it’s another enjoyment stripped out of your life. The sensory isolation, not just touch, is driving us mad.’



Leonora Oppenheim

Visual artist & narrative designer. Body as a research tool — movement & mark-making.