Guest Blog Post – Long and Short Reviews

Guest Blog Post – Long and Short Reviews

Proximity and Touch: In Life, In the Pandemic and In Emergence by Ellie Beals

I have a new puppy – he’s 15 weeks old now, and is doing a lovely job of taking brisk walks around the neighborhood on a loose leash. Many people we encounter on these walks get that soft, mushy “OMG, a puppy!” look on their faces when they see him, and I respond affirmatively when they ask if they can greet him. This is a pandemic puppy – he needs all the input and stimuli I can allow or provide. I keep him on a long leash, and step back and turn my face away, to allow appropriate distance between humans, while he moves forward to greet the new folks. As I watch puppy and humans interact, the way the humans revel in the physical contact seems more pronounced to me than what I’ve witnessed in the past with other puppies. Am I imagining this? I don’t think so. I think the hunger for the tactile exchanges that we used to take for granted are profound. We have all become, or are becoming, pandemic puppies ourselves – constantly attached to invisible leashes that prevent us from interacting with the world the way we want to. The way we need to.

As both a dog-trainer, and a human with profound “skin hunger” I have always been highly aware of proximity and touch, and I believe I would have embedded that awareness in my first novel under any circumstances. But I suspect the fact that Emergence was written during the pandemic may have contributed to my decision to use proximity and touch as the principal milestones in the development of the relationship at the heart of Emergence – the friendship that slowly evolves between middle-aged Cass Harwood, an urban-born dog-trainer turned wilderness recreationist, and Xavier, the isolated “wildchild” of Lac Rouge.

At the outset, the contact between Xavier and Cass is, frankly, one-sided and a tad creepy. Unknown to Cass, Xavier surveils her for a long period, during which, unequivocally – he touches her with his eyes, describing for example, how she looks younger and softer as she raises her face to the sun, or how she sighs in resignation when she realizes she’s lost track of one of her dogs. Had she known, surely Cass would have been as disturbed by the invasiveness of this kind of observation as any of us would be if someone we didn’t know or didn’t like, stood too close and touched too often.

But she didn’t know. And as a result, when they finally met, Cass brought her own awareness of proximity and touch to the relationship. Though she (like her creator) is a tactile person, she recognized that Xavier would be skittish about proximity and touch, and suppressed her natural impulses to reach out to him. Numerous times, she alludes to wanting to make physical contact with him but restraining herself, recognizing the kind of intense physical and emotional “privacy” he emanated.

Xavier is also acutely aware of and curious about, the implications of touch. He comments on the fact that the very first time he observed Cass and her husband Noah together, Noah patted her bottom. He is repelled by the way Jean Luc touches him too often and too intimately. He is fascinated by how “touchy” Yates, a close friend of both Harwoods, is. He is also a bit jealous of the implied intimacy between Yates and Cass.

Xavier experiences a kind of epiphany which is part of his emergence from his isolation, when he realizes the extent to which touch can be a communication vehicle, when Cass coaches him on dog-training and explains the importance of “good hands”. It is during that session that Cass, previously so cautious with Xavier, touches him without even thinking about it, because it is so innate a part of her coaching persona. And because that touch is so natural and appropriate to the circumstances – Xavier breaches the touch barrier, and accepts this new degree of contact with another person. He has started to emerge. And the process culminates when later, at a time of high emotion, Cass opens her arms to Xavier, and his empathy propels him to breach the touch barrier. He describes it this way: ‘And she looked at me like she was asking permission as she held her arms out. I couldn’t leave her standing there like that; it would have been mean. So I nodded and stepped in for the hug she was offering.”

Even Stefan, Xavier’s father, whose decision to live the isolated life at Lac Rouge that has created the social void in which Xavier has resided, is not immune to the pleasures of touch. Xavier is intrigued by watching Stefan interact with a puppy, and speculates that based on what he sees – Stefan must have “good hands”. But the fact that this is conjecture says all that needs be said about the absence of touch between father and son.

Dogs, and puppies in particular, are powerful touch champions. I return to my adventures watching pedestrians interact so fervently with my puppy. As a result of these interactions, he will grow up “normally” – attuned to and invested in the pleasures of tactile interactions with humans. But what about us? When this is over, will we be able to abandon our acquired paranoia about proximity and touch, like a butterfly emerges from its chrysalis? I hope so.

Read the full post, and see an exclusive excerpt from Emergence, on Poppy’s blog. You can also read Poppy’s FIVE STAR Review of Emergence here.

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