Touch: A River of Love in the Desert of Isolation by Libby Gatti

In anticipation of our annual gala, Love Matters: Rivers in the Desert, we're asking alumni, "When in Life Together did you see a river in the desert?" We added an additional challenge: respond in 1,000 characters. Alumna Libby Gatti's moving response is below. If you'd like to respond to the Rivers in the Desert prompt, email


I was just placing a dish in the sink, absorbed in thoughts of Donald Trump’s inauguration the next evening, when it happened. I had been crying all afternoon about our president’s unabashed support for groping women, thinking about my own experiences of violence, when I was smacked in the face by the scent of something old and soggy. Scent, I have been told, is strongly tied to memory.

The smell of our damp, dirty sponge transported me to the basement of St. Paul’s Cathedral, where I first arrived as a Life Together Fellow and have remained as chaplain to the MANNA Community. I hesitate to use that description- damp, dirty. You know the smell—when you realize it’s time to reach under the sink and rip the plastic off a fresh yellow and green scrubber. The smell of an old sponge is particular, and quite similar to the smell of the basement at St. Paul’s in the winter time, or after it rains.The smell of damp clothes, damp skin, damp shoes and hair.

I paused by the sink and inhaled slowly, deeply. The community I love carries this smell after it rains, after a grey slushy snow has soaked sneakers, and, even though socks were changed, the water keeps seeping through to skin. When we hug, the scent lingers on my own clothes, on my face. I stood by the sink and took a deep breath through my nose. I thought about the immense courage and self-respect and trust it must take to carry this smell and face another person—a housed person, a person with clean clothes and healthcare and all her teeth neatly and firmly in her jawbone.

When I have smelled, I have felt embarrassed. Forgot my deodorant that morning, or woke up late and didn’t shower (again). Yet, a woman on the street who hasn’t bathed in months will still lean her head on my shoulder and sigh, linking her arm in mine. A man with snot and crumbs in his beard, drunk and hung-over at the same time, will clasp my hand and raise it to his mouth, a chivalrous kiss. Perhaps ignorance of hygiene norms, but certainly also a courageous act of intimacy. Touch is a river of love in the desert of isolation.  It is a reminder that each of us is fragile, is vulnerable: no matter how much perfume or soap or laundry detergent we use, all of our bodies smell. In such a time as these, when our president bullies the disabled, encourages scapegoating, provokes discrimination and violence, it is a small rebellion to be with one another, to touch one another, to decide we are worthy of community however we smell.