Time to Go

“Oh crap,” I said to myself, as I entered my waiting room and noticed that my office door (the actual door, not the outside door leading to said office) was closed, once again.

This had been happening for a few weeks, ever since some new tenants had moved into an adjacent office and were using the space on weekends when I wasn’t there. I would come into our waiting area on Monday, and sometimes my office door was closed, which I was accustomed to leaving open and hoped others would just let be.

Nope, for whatever reason my office was too a) purpleyblue b) healyfeely c) herby-smelly d) filled with rabbits for someone’s taste. Never mind all that, I thought, as I approached my door to open it. I’ll just go in like I always do.

There was that bump that happens when you go to open something that’s supposed to swing wide, and instead you end up mashing yourself into it. No! “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” I said aloud, plus a few other unprintable things, as I jiggled, thumped, noodled with the door knob and body slammed the door a few times.

Nothing doing. No budge. I was locked out of my own office.

Before I go too much further I would like to point out that in the past few years I’ve been aware that it was time for me to do something different and also my landlords, Jane and Gary, were ready for me to do something different. They wanted my space back, contingent on them selling their house.

“But it would be better if you found something sooner rather than later,” said Jane kindly, and I agreed. I wanted to be the one who was informing them I was leaving, not them telling me I had 90 days. Neither of us wanted to me to go. But time to go, it probably was.

MassageOffice.1I had been fighting it all the way, which meant ignoring it mostly. (My favorite way of fighting something.) I was not in the mood to be shown there might be other things for me out there.

So here I was, 7 minutes away from my 1st client showing up, frantically calling my landlord who — bless him manifoldly — has been available nearly all the time and almost always right away. While he extricated himself from a job he had in another town, he suggested I try an allen wrench (neatly tucked above the door: I never knew!) to pop the lock open and see if Jane — who was straight out with clients of her own — could open it for me.

She came over. I tried, and she tried. My client arrived, and he tried it too. “You know,” he said, while he reamed the allen wrench around inside the doorknob and we hovered close by, hoping him being a pastor would work a miracle, “before I got saved I could have had a door like this open in no time.”

The miracle we needed finally arrived. Gary had to work a few allen wrenches, not just the one he’d stashed. I sat with my client while he told me about the 2 funerals he’d officiated at over the weekend and some juicy tidbits about his Italian uncles.

In the midst of all this, I (multi-tasking perenially) texted the other tenants, whom I’ve known for years and who I’ve been friendly with. “Have you guys been closing my door on weekends? If you have I’m locked out right now.”

I was pretty confident it was them, and so was surprised when I heard back: “No, we haven’t touched your door. Sorry you’re locked out! Is Gary there?”

Well, that was a fine how-de-doo. Now I really had NO idea how this door had closed itself AND locked itself too. Right before the door got opened I had a horrible thought that maybe someone had opened a window and gotten into my office and was still in there…?! But when the door popped open and we craned our heads around inside to make sure everything was ok, it was all status quo.

This is not a riveting story, the case of the locked door. Did the door get unlocked? Yes it did. Were my fellow tenants lying to me about closing my door (and accidentally locking it in the process)? Maybe, because it hasn’t happened since the incident. Did I lose any business from it, was I exposed to untold suffering because (heaven forfend) my office door was locked? No, I was not.

What’s interesting to me is the timing; I am, now, indeed, moving to a new office as of July 1st 2016. My office — my sanctuary, haven, home away from home — had been closing itself off to me for weeks and I hadn’t gotten the hint. Finally, for whatever reason, and by whomever’s hand (hand? energy?), it locked me out.

GO, it seemed to be saying. GET OUTTA HERE. As Elizabeth Gilbert says at the end of her FaceBook posts: Onward.

I have been crying a lot, as I look around me at the place I’ve called dear, knowing I have to say goodbye. But, those tears dry up more quickly and I breathe with a little more strength and resolve when I recall that it’s time for going. My office told me so.

Nice to Meet You

I am attending my annual workshop, THE one I go to, sort of a pilgrimage you might say, tomorrow. Every year I show up kind of stumbling in, frayed around the edges, a little jittery from my summer schedule finally coming to an end, sneezing and blowing my nose (it’s always in October, when my allergies are worst).

David Lauterstein comes up to the Downeast School of Massage in Maine and helps us learn his Deep Massage technique. (You can be part of the Deep Massage Society on FaceBook if you like.)

I love my job. I love my life. I have the practice I’ve always dreamed of, and there’s not a day that goes by that I pause and say “Thank you…thank you that I got to do something beautiful with my life, after all…thank you for delivering me from a cubicle…thank you…”

But getting what you want also means getting what you didn’t expect. Having a private  practice is a solitary endeavor: it’s all on you, sweetheart. Lots of stuff goes on to make 1 session look effortless, much the same way a good piece of theatre looks easy and you relax just being at a professional show. Meanwhile there’s this amazing ensemble laboring as one behind the scenes.

In private practice, you are the ensemble. You are actor, stage manager, lighting director and box office. You are Sondheim, Bernstein, Laurents and Robbins. Cue the Jets and Sharks.

I fancied myself a solo performer at one point, when I was doing a lot of acting early in my 20s. (Had to do something with that theatre degree.) I put together a one-woman show that I trucked around a few places.

You know what’s more awkward than attending a solo show? Doing a solo show. I realized – fast – that there’s nothing worse than hearing your own voice for longer than 15 minutes. After that it’s dreadfully boring. You wait for someone to say something interesting: nope, it’s still you, with all those lines you wrote that you thought were so great at the time.

They were great. On paper. Now you’re windbagging with earnestness, or wielding humorous inflection, or mustering tears. It’s a bad church skit, an excruciating home movie, no matter how much subdued encouragement you get from friends and family. I am not a fan of the genre, nor do I think I was terribly adept at it, in case you couldn’t tell.

I’ve always enjoyed ensemble work: being raised Mennonite, community was everything and you were always doing things with someone else. A lot more got accomplished that way, and the other person at least had some better stories than yours, or some personality quirks that kept you riveted.

I like keeping my own company, but there’s a loneliness to the entrepreneur: a weariness that can sneak up on you when you’re not looking. I am working with someone else but often I feel I’m working alone.

By the time I plop myself into David’s workshop I’m too full of myself and in desperate need of not believing my own hype. I’ve had weeks of bringing my A game and the A game is starting to feel like chainmail rather than royal robes. I know I’ve been shoving myself around and yet I don’t know how to get the gears out of high rev.

I need what I get: colleagues, humor, listening, fooling around with new techniques the way a mechanic tinkers in the garage, elucidation, steeping.

Anyone who touches bodies for a living knows it’s easy to stop seeing the person you’re working with. We greet the whole but end up dealing with parts. We grind at the issue, rather than taking time to step out of it and widen our scope.

Our frame of reference – as practitioner, the do-er- becomes the platform for the hour. We forget there are two people in the room: the person on the table, and the person standing beside the table. One is responsible for the tenor, intricacies, and professionalism of a session, but both are “working” in the sessions itself.

This is called, to my understanding, meeting at interface: my hands meet your body. Your body meets up to my hands. This is where it happens, and nowhere else: not in my thinky notes from last session, not the story you told me about your body and what’s wrong with it, not even what either of us hope to have happen.

Interface is mute and blind, but it sings and sees. Its currency is curiosity and respect. I have things I would like to have happen for you in session, and I aim for them, but it’s not me aiming: we hunker on the starting blocks and charge forth down the track in tandem. And we break the finish line side by side.

What a relief! As the person standing beside the table, I can give up my onus, remove the superhero cape. Behold: You, on the table, know how to heal yourself. I can confirm that. I place my hand and it calls out: “What’s happening here?” Your body responds to my hand: “Here’s what’s doing. And.”

When I meet, rather than do, there is also room for alchemy, something David talks about as one of the great graces of massage therapy. We cannot make it happen but we can create the space where it could occur. It is, he says, “a decision initiated by our clients from deep within themselves.”

Hallelujah. The monologue is over. Let the duet begin.

I’m ready for another year.

Every true journey is a journey to the center of the self. Jules Verne imagined it under the earth. But we therapists don’t just imagine it. We get to take a real journey over this living surface, affecting what’s underneath, the subterranean flows of muscle, bone, emotion, thoughts and breath.
Each session we do is an adventure story and an interface of biographies. Who could not be fascinated with this journey?
— David Lauterstein

I’m Just Trying To Help

“Just relax your shoulders, now. I’ve got it.”
“I know, I’m always trying to help.”
“Yes, I understand, I really do. But you help more by not helping.”

This is a conversation we have, you and I, when you’re supine on my table and I go to skootch under your shoulders with my hands, so I can get to your upper back muscles, and I feel you tense and lift. Or when I go to work down your arm: When your arm is stiff and your elbow locks and you hold out each finger for me when I go to massage them.

This is the little bit of conversation we do have, since there’s not a lot of talking, and when I say “just relax now” I am using what I hope is the most encouraging, friendly tone. Because I do understand. I really do.

Helping is a lovely quality, whether we’re moving our limbs around for our massage therapist, or picking up our neighbor’s newspaper for him and tucking it in his mailbox, or hoping to inspire a family member to quit drinking. Our intention is undeniably excellent. A gold star, five gold stars, for The Helper. I give myself props for it whenever I can. “Good for you, Kristen” I say to myself. “You really want to make a difference. I like that about you.”

“Helping” is what a lot of us do to ensure another’s happiness. We don’t want to put anyone out. We are scared of looking like we don’t care, or seeming selfish. We want to be the one who makes a difference.

There’s basic courtesy, mutual respect, and then there’s helping. I’ve waited tables and had customers try to help me figure out which table is going to open up first, or try to help me seat people. Pretty easy to spot how how incredibly annoying that is, right?

But when we do it, what we say to the other person is, “Well damn. I was just trying to help,” and behind that is quite a healthy dollop of indignation. Don’t get annoyed, because I was trying to help, could be the subtext. And, even farther under that, could be: you idiot.

So we help even when it hasn’t been requested. Even if we’re paying someone. And oh my goodness are we good at it. Sometimes, the better of a job we’re doing, the more annoying it is. Heated conversations — with mean words and a lot of stomping about — usually involve the phrase “just trying to help” at some point.

I’m not saying everyone who tries to help me by lifting or moving their limbs around in session is a Helper, but when I watch my clients try to help me in session it makes me consider what helping is. The sunny side of helping is: we really do want to help someone. The dark side of helping is: we don’t trust them.

For a lot of us, this is based on cold hard experience: we’ve been hurt, we’ve watched people go down the tubes, we’ve become increasingly annoyed by a bad situation and so we just start helping, just to do something to fix what is unbearable. We start anticipating more and more when help is required, then, and it becomes A Thing we do without even realizing it.

Even when the best, maybe healthiest response, is to step back. Relax. Watch things unfold. Unclench our grip.

“Not-Helping” in a massage session is a great opportunity to practice kinesthetically what might be difficult for us to manifest behaviorally. Often what we learn in the body brings simpler, more relaxed understanding to parts of ourselves that cannot and will not be nudged, budged, or unlearned by any other means.

Massage therapy is so good for so many things, not the least of which is learning when to engage, and when to let go, and you and I are both doing this during your session.

Because you know what? Sometimes I really do need your help. One of those moments where I absolutely, 100% require it? Is when it’s time for you turn over. Yep, I cannot do that for you. (interestingly enough this is one of those moments where I get the least amount of cooperation: I’ll never forget the time that, after I finished my back work with one long-term client, I gently encouraged her to roll supine. A substantial amount of time passed, and I thought she might be completely asleep. Then, in a very petulant tone, from the muffled depths of the face cradle, she said emphatically: “NO.”)

More occasions for you to help: I’m not going to put the bolster in or take the bolster out without lifted knees, please. If you could move up into the face cradle a little more that would be good.

Also? Please let me know if something isn’t working for you. This past week another long-term client finally remembered to tell me she couldn’t breathe well when lying prone. Together, with “creative bolstering” as I’ve learned it from Tracy Walton, we got her comfy.

But the rest of the session: I’ve got it. I can help your body if you don’t try to help me with the helping. When I go for your arm, let it flop into my hands like an overcooked noodle. When I go for your shoulders, let them unfurl over my fingers. If I scoop up under your lowback or knees: it’s better for us both if you just let it happen.

Speaking of knees: today I saw a client who did not want me to work with them. Not only not work with her knees: not touch her knees. She described why, and my first response was, “But massaging your knees…could…help that?”

Here is where *I* work with my five-gold-star-ness. I wanted to help her, you see. I felt that I knew better than she did about what she wanted.

I saw it, claimed it, tagged and bagged that thing, and immediately followed the question with, “…but of course I won’t even touch them. What *would* feel good for your legs?” And we came up with a plan of action for her leg massage, that did not involve me touching her knees, and in session I honored that request completely, even though everything in me wanted to Help Her Knees by massaging them.

And that’s the good news, is that when we stop helping we start listening. What would really be helpful here? What does this person need from me, truly? If I love them, if I like  them, even if I have the most basic regard for this person (like my neighbor with his sluggish paper retrieval), it might feel better — for both of us — if I’m more curious than assumptive.

 

 

 

 

Your Mind on Leash

There are an awful lot of dogs everywhere, have you noticed? You don’t notice the cats because 1) those who try to walk their cats on a leash experience new and meaningful definitions for the word “recalcitrant” 2) they are muy pequeño 3) cats don’t need a walk. They need a lie down, a stretch, a pounce, but they don’t need “a walk.” Don’t be insulting.

Anyway, I take walks in our neighborhood and 90% of the time when I encounter another person, they have a pooch tethered to them. These animals have all varying degrees of behavior, from lollygagging to ferocious. I admire people who have well-behaved dogs, because it takes a lot of discipline, on the part of both the doggie and the owner.

The other morning I was striding with purpose past a modest trailer park. Even in chichi Bayside Maine we have a trailer park: which i love: nobody should be allowed to come vacation by the sea in their $2500-per-week cottage rentals with cocktail parties and lobster bakes on the beach and extremely intelligent, articulate, ballsy children running amok without also seeing a trailer park. Bottom line: if you’re in Maine and you’re on vacation, you really need to see how 88% of the other half live. So you get it in your mind this is no utopia. (Although it is pretty damn close, for about 3 weeks out of the year, which is when you’re here, which is really not fair. Please come visit in February. Please.)

As I walked past, I saw a nice looking gentleman with his nice looking dog. I don’t know dog breeds on sight, I think this one might have been a white lab, if such a thing exists. We were about 25 yds away from each other. And the man put his hands in a different position on the leash, and looked at his dog. The dog looked at her owner, put her butt down on the ground. Both of them them turned to watch me pass.

I suddenly realized *I* was the test. Me, walking past them, was part of today’s discipline. In the body language of both owner and dog, this was not a problem necessarily: it was a bit of a game, perhaps. But I was a tasty morsel, something to lunge after: and the owner, with his fresh grip on the leash and his stance, was basically telling his dog, “Don’t lunge.” And she was staring at me, but with her stolid gaze she was basically responding, “I shall not lunge.”

I had admiration for the man — like i said I have a lot of respect for dog owners with well-behaved dogs – but as I moved past them, and caught a look at the dog’s face, I melted inside. Here was an animal: large, dignified, perhaps of some age, whose every instinct is to bark and defend. To protect with teeth and claw. Or, less dramatically, to aggressively sniff  or slather affection on the approaching species. She wasn’t doing what felt natural, what felt called for: she held her ground and merely observed me come and go. You gotta really respect a dog — as an individual! in its own right! — when it can do that.

Who taught her how to do that? Her owner: the dude holding the leash. He can’t prevent her from choosing to barkbarkbarkBARK or breaking away from him, without having his arm ripped out of its socket. But there’s enough symbiosis in their relationship that she knows there’s a reward for “good behavior” i.e. not doing what feels normal.

Part of the reward might be a biscuit. But maybe the other part of the reward is the relationship: the way both of them feel when there is peace. Suddenly dog and owner have mutual experience: we watch things come and go, we observe together the world around us together. It becomes less punishment-&-reward and more exploration, gentle adventure.

Also there’s trust, established from probably years of training between this man and pooch. He loves her and knows her every instinct. She loves him and trusts his guidance. There’s intuition, respect and practice, all rolled into one here.

I’m not a dog person per se, but in this moment I became one, because for the first time I had an inkling of what it might be like to be a dog. Left to my own devices, I go down rabbit hole after rabbit hole, striving, scheming, reacting, defending, barkbarkbarkBARKING at the world.

The driver in the seat is my crazy mind: the thing that starts up the minute I awake and the last thing to quiet down before I sleep. It catches a whiff of something and — off it goes! My mind is like an untrained dog loose in the streets: hugely entertaining at first, then a nuisance, then frightening. I’ve come to realize there’s nothing I can do to stop it from doing whatever it wants, and if I don’t manage it, I end up chasing after it fruitlessly.

Massage therapy is hugely helpful in helping us put our minds on leash. As we lie in gentle repose in session, our beatific countenance could belie the raging turmoil within. There we are: all relaxed and stuff, and meanwhile we’re counting up errands, or reviewing some horrible conversation we had last week, or planning what to do on the weekend. It’s exhausting. And we’re supposed to be relaxing!

What saves us? Presence. The massage therapist is there, their hands shifting in response to what he or she perceives in our frame. Over and over again, as the minutes tick by in session, both the massage therapist and the client acknowledge their instinct: to check out, to lunge at whatever our mind purveys, to escape. Over and over again, your massage therapist says in his touch, “don’t lunge.” And as the client, you are learning how not to lunge.

The reward is the peace that exists in session: that we long for, all week, that we crave for a month or 3 months until our next appointment. Here is safety. Here is repose. Good dog. Stay.

Stay.

Natural, Free Neck Tension Relief

I don’t know about you, but neck tension is just the pits. I get it bad. Sometimes it gives me pains all down the lateral side of my neck. Other times my occiput gets this stabby thing. Ugh.

Just about every place in your body, you can get to and stretch. You can roll it out with a roller, or do a yoga pose, or rub it out yourself. Neck tension is hard to get rid of, without someone else to do it for you.

I have a very dear friend who lives far away from me. She has neck tension. If I could get to her neck I would, I would just rub the hooey out of it, but I can’t because there are just too many miles between us and that would be — without a shadow of a doubt — the longest distance I’ve ever traveled for a house call.

She was hoping I could give her some “natural, free” ideas of how to reduce some of her neck tension. I started compiling a list in my head and then I thought, why not share it? So here are some ideas, and if you have one that I’ve missed please add it to the comments below!

(And by the way I’m not going to say anything stupid like “reduce your stress level.” I find it more stress producing to say things like that! The chance of our stress level magically going down is pretty slim, and besides, some of the things that stress us out, when considered, give us pleasure and happiness too. Would we take those things out of our lives? Probably not. You know the only thing I think doesn’t have stress? A bagged potato. So. Here are some ideas of natural, free, and manageable ways to reduce neck tension. And by manageable I mean easy.)

Water. Give it a try. I was gonna get all up in my panties about the necessity of drinking water but then I realized it’s just another thing that can stress us out (“am I drinking enough water? Am I doing it now? NOW??”) and besides there is no clear, unequivocable evidence that drinking a lot of water is going to fix anything. Instead, please read this amazing article by Paul Ingraham from painscience.com: “Chronic Dehydration Fear Mongering.”

One of the best quotes, for me, from this article was this:

Drink your 8 glasses per day (or 10, or 14), and ignore anyone who tries to get you to worried about it … or who tells you it doesn’t matter. It does matter. It just doesn’t matter much! – Paul Ingraham

YOU know how much water you should be drinking. When you have neck tension, and you can feel it ratcheting up, just check in: “have I had a glass or two of water recently?” Go have a little. Or a lot. Follow your thirst. It can help reduce your tension, certainly stave off a headache.

If you have no idea if liquid has passed your lips today, what you drank or even what your day was like, then we go on to…

Soak.  Getting water into your system is a challenge. Soaking in a bubble bath? Are you kidding me? Who has time for that? Plan a treat. Soak your feet.

Pick up a dishpan, big metal bowl, even an 8-quart kettle if you have nothing else. Put in some epsom salts or sudsies or smelly-goody thingies, throw a bunch of hot water in there, grab a towel, and have a soak.

You can soak your feet and: catch up on reading, watch TV, listen to someone sing. Or examine seed catalogs. Whatever. If you are sitting down, even for 10 minutes, you can soak your feet. You can even draw water into your tub, sit on the edge of the tub, and soak your feet there.

Believe it or not this can make a difference for neck tension. Relaxed, warmed feet can relax you, overall, and if you are relaxed overall your neck might also let go.

In lieu of a soak, I also heartily recommend a very hot shower with the water pounding on the top of your head for a spell. Speaking of your head…

Orientation. Where is your head? In time and space? (here I must insert a link to the classic Pixies song Where Is My Mind)

Locate it. For every bit of forward head movement there’s more, more and more weight on your neck. If you don’t believe me, please check out this article from The Washington Post, ” ‘Text neck’ is becoming an epidemic and could wreck your spine.”

“Ahh ha ha,” I hear you retort, a little smugly. “I do not text, you foolish woman. So there!”

To which I counter, well. I believe you could replace the word “text” with any of the following: computer, book, cheffing, Kindle…knitting neck even…any activity where your head is dangling off the front of your body as you focus on what’s in front of you.

Your neck is not designed for this. Bring your head back into alignment with your shoulders. If you can’t see your shoulders in your peripheral vision, then your head is probably too far forward. And, you look a lot more like a turtle than you could possibly imagine.

For the health of your head and neck – and, because, like me, you are just a tiny bit vain (just a tiny bit) – get your head back on top of your body.

SWING. Whatever physical activity you do, is awesome. I encourage it. Even if it’s an energetic blitz from the parking lot into the store, or trying to catch a train. What I am encouraging here is getting your arms going. I mean to the point of dorkitude.

WALK with PURPOSE. Dance like you’re at a concert – arms up and waving about. Swim, and really dig into the crawl or backstroke. Just stand in the kitchen and flop your arms around for crying out loud. I’ve noticed, when I mobilize my shoulder girdle, I start to feel blood flow up into my neck and my head clears. Try it for yourself.

Speaking of crying…

Cry. Okay, if you’re like me this is not something you want to aim for. But pushing to get through (and, if you consider it, the physical act of pushing through something requires you to tense up, hunch over and lead with your head…hmmm) stuff, we get winched up: physically and emotionally (there’s no barrier between the two, remember).

We fight back our words, instincts, and tears. Pretty soon we are bottling everything and we might not even be aware how restricted we’ve become: in thoughts, words and deeds.

Crying is, actually, not only good for your emotional/mental health but seems to help the physical health of your neck too. Again, I’m speaking experientially here, but if I allow myself some time to feel what I feel – or, if I can’t go there, feel what someone else might be feeling (ergo compassion) – the tears come.

And my head lets go. And my neck muscles let loose.

And here I must post a link to the classic “Free To Be, You and Me” children’s album from the 1970s: dear Rosey Grier singing “It’s Alright To Cry.”

It might make you feel better!

 

The White Light Blob

If you read this, try to imagine me telling it from memory, standing on stage in front a mike, robed in stage lights, to a standing-room-only crowd, hoping my years of stage performance cover up my profound nervousness. Who wants to stand up and get a slice of their life exposed to a lot of people, most of whom have known you for years and think they know you better than that? Well, me, apparently, and six others of us.

Part of the reason it was SRO was because Jason Bannister has done a tremendous job of revitalizing our Belfast-area tradition of thespianial excellence. This was a Midcoast Actors’ Studio fundraiser and word’s gone out: they do good stuff.

The other reason there were no places to sit is that it was billed at a night of “local luminaries” (1 of which was me, ha!) and so everyone was keen on hearing what John Ford, Andy O’Brien, GW Martin, Jenny Tibbetts, Aynne Ames and Charlie Dufour had to say.

This is, more or less, the story I told this past Saturday night down in The Fallout Shelter stage area of Waterfall Arts in Belfast, Maine.

Hope you enjoy it.

***

Sometimes you have something happen to you once. Once.
And it changes the way you live your life everafter.

It’s the late 1990s. I’m living and working in the Boston area, desperately attempting a career change — in my mid-20s — after a hopelessly misguided foray into technical writing. It was possible, then, to have a little technical know-how, and be unafraid of learning HTML, and get an obscenely high-paying job. I had one of those obscenely high-paying jobs, and I was miserable. I was bored, sitting in a cubicle all day in front of a computer screen.

And not only was I bored, I was incredibly inept, and rapidly becoming more so, as everyone around me was keeping pace with all the new computer languages that were to be learned, practically daily, and I wasn’t. I had a choice: go to back to school and learn computer languages or Do Something Else. So, much to the surprise of myself and everyone who knew me at the time, I decided to go to massage therapy school.

So I was working full-time and going to school on weekends and weeknights, and I was in my final semester at the Muscular Therapy Institute in Cambridge, Mass. And they were offering internships – go work in a professional’s office, you know? And so I was like: yeah. Good. I’ll do this too. Because, you know, I was already tired? And wanted to find out what being more tired would feel like.

I had my internship with Marilyn <not her real name, I just couldn’t remember what her real name was!> at an OB/GYN clinic in Haverhill, Mass. She was everything I wanted to be. She was it. She came to work every day? With a coif. I mean a hairstyle.

Her outfits were totally professional, maybe just a touch over-the-top. I recall gold buttons, some brocade. And she was the only massage therapist I had ever known up to that point, or ever since, to wear heels to do massage.

She had the respect of her peers, which were mostly doctors and nurses, and her practice was full. No empty moments, really. I wanted to be as much like her as I could be.

My internship? Remember I was a student, not licensed, so I really couldn’t touch anyone at this point, least of all her clients, and so…I observed. I stood, and observed. If you think it’s relaxing to get a massage? Try standing in a corner of a room — it was a small office, there was no place for me to sit, really — watching someone receive work, and it’s warm and darkened and there’s a fountain going and music and happy sleepy sounds from the client. I did a lot of this <nodding off>. But I did manage to learn stuff.

She was also a Reiki practitioner.

Now. I had a very sniffy relationship with energy work, Reiki in particular. In my final semester, we had a Modalities class, study of various other techniques (besides massage therapy) that could be incorporated into and referred to from a successful massage therapy practice. Professionals would come in from their respective fields, talk about their work and have all of us do a little hands-on.

By and large, most of these techniques were more energetic in nature: Polarity Therapy, Craniosacral therapy, Zero Balancing, Therapeutic Touch… Reiki. And my classmates would be putting their hands on each other, and feeling pulses and seeing colors and sensing auras and whatnot, and I wasn’t seeing anything, I wasn’t feeling anything. I was not accustomed to being a failure at anything — except my job! — so this class made me feel like I was “failing” energy. And it just made me mad.

So I was hoping that in my internship with Marilyn? We could just neatly circumvent Reiki: focus on business practice, how to communicate with clients, that kind of thing.

Until one day. We had a little time: she looked around, was between clients, looked at me, I wasn’t doing anything, so she said, “Hmmm…let’s see…we’ve got a little time…would you like some work? What shall we do…how about Reiki?”

And I thought to myself, “How about not?” But then! I thought again, “Wait…wait! This is your chance…to LIE DOWN. Maybe take a nap. Say yes, dummy! Say yes!”

So I did, I said “yeah sure” and finally got to lie down on the table I’d been watching her clients enjoy so much.

In Reiki you usually receive on a massage table — about the size of a twin bed, smaller than that — you are fully clothed, there is no disrobing for Reiki, and the practitioner places his/her hands on you in various positions – here <top of head>, here <upper chest>, here <lower abdomen> and so on.

So I was lying there and she began the session, as you do…putting her hands on my head, my upper chest…a few more other places…and then she went around to my feet, cupped my heels in her palms, and held them.

The first thing I noticed? That completely wrested me from my somnolence? Was that time suddenly. Slowed. Down. It was just like in the movies, when things go to slow-mo? It was like this <makes gesture and a noise> but without the noise. Um – that in and of itself put me on sudden high alert. What was going on?? I looked up at Marilyn from where I was on the table.

The second thing was: in that moment, in the warm darkened quiet, I saw a 2-ft wall of white light come out from behind her shoulders, pour down over her arms, through her hands, and go shooting up into my body.

Now. The 2-ft wall. It was — I say it was a wall. It moved through me like a wall – wait a minute. That doesn’t make any sense. How does something move through you like a wall? Never mind. It was more like a blob, a wave, it was – a white light blob.

It had edges. It had mass. And was capable of producing its own speed, since when it got to me it suddenly moved very fast.

The white light? Was like – you know those days when you’re looking at the sun – not directly at the sun, bad for you – right around its edges? The way the sunlight looks? It had that quality and intensity.

And its effect on me? When it hit me? You know what it’s like to touch an electric fence? It was like that! Only a lot more enjoyable. It was like being electrified, or set on fire. I felt it in every cell, all through me.

It passed through me but it was also passing over me, in fact for the brief nanosecond it went up through my head I saw nothing but It, the white light, in my eyes, so my vision was filled with it briefly.

I was visited upon. It was checking me out!

And then suddenly time snapped back into place. Marilyn was standing there working as she had been. Everything was back to normal. Except for me. I was lying there, doing this for a while <flops about>.

And I when I’d recovered, I whispered to her, “What was that?”

“What?” she said.

“What just happened,” I gasped.

“What just happened?” she asked.

I tried to explain it and couldn’t really and she just shrugged a little and said kindly, “Oh it’s probably just a little Reiki,” and kept going with the session.

I had class that night. And in that class were The Girls…you know, the girls in class…the ones you never get along with, they really have annoyed you for all of school and you also have annoyed them. Yeah, massage therapy school can be like that, people, it’s not all hearts and stars, trust me.

Anyway, this one girl did something that bothered me. But, instead of just sitting there and kind of making faces to myself, I spoke up. I said something to her. Which surprised me, totally. And, what I expected to have happen happened, she lit into me. And while this was going on, I was surprised again: I did not care.

On the way driving home that night, I remember thinking to myself and trying to put 2 and 2 together: “I had this experience today. Me, who never feels or sees anything. And, then I spoke up in class, and I felt confident. Wow… there’s gotta be something to this Reiki thing. I gotta learn more about this.”

So I did. As soon as I graduated from massage school, I moved to Maine, and started my Reiki training as soon as I could. I went all the way up to the master level. And I have had amazing experiences from learning Reiki! And people have reported amazing things from my work with them.

I’ve become part of the incredible Reiki, healing community that is in this area. You have no idea, how blessed we are. Really you don’t. Ask me about it, later.

And I also do Reiki when I give massage therapy…? You know I don’t have a valve in the back of my head, that says “yeeeeess this person gets Reiki noooooo this person doesn’t,” it just flows. It’s my way of working. And clients have commented over the years, “So. Your massage is like none that I’ve had. What is that thing? You’re doing?”

And I usually shrug a little and say, “Oh, it’s just a little Reiki.”

But you know, I don’t think that’s a fair assessment really. As I’ve considered it: that white light blob. It was – impersonal. Inhuman. It has. No. Name.

It belongs to no one.

It comes from nowhere.

And, therefore, I believe, it belongs to everyone. And is right here.

Thank you.

We All Just Want To Go Home

People who get up and go swimming at the Y at 4:30 a.m. are an entire other species as far as I’m concerned. It’s not the ungodly hour or even the exertion I find unwholesome. It’s the thought of changing clothes.

Just now I have removed my pajamas and put on something that allows me to take a walk down the lane. Excruciating. I live in the country, surrounded by trees and rivulets and mountains, with the sea within view, and if the wilds of nature were my only companion I would gambol freely in my jimjams!

But they’re not. I have neighbors. They might see me parading down the road in my flannels and have confirmed a few suspicions they’ve harbored about me and whatever else goes on in there.

As I sit here I realize I am cold. I don’t like being cold. It will take a while for me to warm up inside my clothes. I won’t feel like moving much until I do.

This is why I can’t even imagine putting on a bathing suit in February and trucking my weeping tired self off to a vat of water where I may or may not get warm enough to enjoy. Do bathing suits ever warm up unless you’re lying in the sun and it’s 80 degrees? I can’t even conceive of that kind of fabric against my skin, and putting my body in water. Keep me fuzzy, for all enduring time!

Most of us – me included – would like to protect ourselves from the inevitable change and growth that just being alive procures, and this is evidenced in the small things (like improving our attire) and then the big things too (like improving our habits, our minds, our relationships). But we also know we need to keep moving, and in fact it is something to look forward to. Every day is an adventure story unto its own self.

What we need is an incubator, a holding tank, a very little pot, to get us from one part of our lives to the next.

I am not a great gardener. I’m learning but it sure takes time. When you put a whispery seed into soil to get it started, you don’t plunk it in the ground right away. Especially up here in Maine, when things don’t really start warming up until June.

No, you put the baby seed into a bassinet — a seedling pot — something that holds it, but does not prohibit growth. Something that a seed can feel its way into, which is invisible, but is there.

I suppose this is why we swaddle babies, or find our pets tucked into the most impossible corners and under things (especially cats). Cozy promotes life.

And look at us: hot water bottles, warm towels out of the dryer. Bed warmers. Heated car seats. We wrap our hands around hot beverages, again and again and again. All of us are heat-seeking, because when we are warm we can expand. We feel like getting up. (Or not.)

It’s a cold world, and that coldness is not necessarily based on temperature. We can feel cold and immobilized even when everything is sunny and hot. You know what I mean: it’s your neighbor’s outdoor July 4th picnic and everyone else is whooping it up. You’re not feeling it, sitting there in your shorts and tank-top, sweating and smiling weakly, working on your excuse to go home.

In therapeutic massage and bodywork we help people go “home.” We present our clients with a person-sized envelope they can crawl into and not come out for a while. Even in a session where there is a perplexing issue being addressed: when we bring our heart into our work, as most of us do – because we can! because we have the luxury of time, in our line of work – we provide the warmth, serenity and safety our clients need to try out being who they are, and to entertain the idea of being something else.

And I would also like to say this is not mere coddling? Or some low form of placation, or something to sniff at as merely palliative. Touch matters.

In 2010 Dr. Danielle Ofri wrote “No Longer on the Doctor’s Checklist, but Touch Matters” for The New York Times. She said, among many other excellent things:

The laying on of hands sets medical practitioners apart from their counterparts in the business world. Despite the inroads of evidence-based medicine, M.R.I.s, angiograms and PET scanners, there is clearly something special, perhaps even healing, about touch. There is a warmth of connection that supersedes anything intellectual, and that connection goes both ways in the doctor-patient relationship.

More recently, this past March The New Yorker ran a piece by Maria Konnikova, “The Power of Touch.” She cites many studies on how touch centers us and heals us, from encouraging healthy emotional development in children, to reducing the chance of catching a cold. She writes:

The more we learn about touch, the more we realize just how central it is in all aspects of our lives—cognitive, emotional, developmental, behavioral—from womb into old age. It’s no surprise that a single touch can affect us in multiple, powerful, ways.

Let’s not underestimate the true power of what we do, as practitioners, and then when we are receiving work too. Especially when it is thoughtfully, intentionally, entered into as a ritual, as sacrament really, as an honoring, saying “You matter. You matter now. You matter again. Here. You matter here.”

Professional nurture is the purveyance of therapeutic massage, and it is very good food indeed.

We are the warm clothes that allow clients to transition from one part of their day to the next, from one part of their lives to the next. Our offices are like potting soil and the next-sized pot, where people can come in and get a sense of themselves, and then go back out, a little healthier, brighter, more supple and a tad more willing to move ahead.

There is No Cure

I was listening to my client talking, but it might as well have been me.

“I’ve been detoxing and eating better and resting and I cut back on my caffeine, and I still feel like crap.”

For those of us who wield self-improvement like a cudgel – I am doing this because I am going to experience this, or else – there’s nothing more frustrating than not getting what we want. I am personally acquainted with the feeling.

“I’m doing everything right!”

“Except getting massage…” I said quietly, noting that I hadn’t seen her for nearly four months. She had even paid for a bunch of sessions in advance. She just hadn’t booked any appointments.

She leaned in to me. “But I shouldn’t need it,” she continued. Candid exchange between us had never been a problem. I was up for a brief tete-a-tete.

I leaned in too. “Why?!” I insisted. She stared at me, and I pressed the point. “What, do you think you’re better than massage? Than people who get it? Like me, for example?”

She sighed and flopped back in the chair. “Ughhh. Good point.”

I waited. She continued.

“I just didn’t think I needed it. It just feels like palliation.”

Much as it made me bristle, I identified so strongly with my client: with the “doing everything right” and the indignity of slowing down for anything that’s not getting me somewhere.  When I’m knee-deep, ankle deep, in improvements of whatever kind, everything I do is grit, hustle, a shoving aside of everything in my path to get to the thing.

Sometimes we really need to be like this to make changes. Sometimes it’s all force, for a long while, until we start to notice things shift slightly.

Hence a distaste for anything that slows us down.

But wonderful things happen, you know, and not necessarily because we were good or wise or healthy. Miracles do occur. Even the most undeserving (me, you) get unbelievable second chances.

We might not notice it if we’re standing up in the middle of the river of our lives and charging upstream.

Palliative means fixing without curing. Certainly there are some things that are cured: the headache, the broken leg, the broken heart. I’m all for making the bad stuff go away for good. I’ve done it for others, and had it done unto me. It is terrific.

But I’d like to know what we are about, when we say we’re cured? From the very condition of being human, which is, in two words, no guarantees? Supplies dwindle. Shops change hands. We got it, and then we don’t got it. We get it back. It goes away too.

So what’s the problem with palliation? It is holding hands with someone, after all. Here we go, hand in hand into the dark and hopefully through it, but you never know.

It’s a problem when you believe, as I have, that you’re entitled to not having to walk into the dark because you’re a good person doing good things. You’re entitled to health and happiness, world-without-end-amen, especially – only – if you’re doing everything right.

We have a lot less control than we thought. What does massage do for that? Every time we go into session, as either practitioner or participant, we put ourselves – literally – into someone else’s hands. We surrender. We have a good idea of what can happen, especially if it’s someone we’ve worked with for a while, but improbable things happen all the time.

When I’m a client: there’s stuff I had no idea hurt. The places that feel completely bound and hopeless are occasionally more supple and interesting than I expected. I make connections between my tense spots. I relish in what feels good for once.

When I’m the therapist: Today I see you and hear you as different from last time. Yes this is where you’re always tense but look at how you soften if I change my depth of work by degrees. And you are as lovable as you ever were. And that’s a nasty scrape, when did that happen?

From massage therapy we also learn improvisation within a safe framework. We do this all the time in our own lives, even and especially when we are really steering ourselves big time, but in session we are – again – in the reliable caring hands of someone else who is confirming for us that –  indeed – this is a great spot to be curious.

We go charging into our tension, thinking we know. In massage, with the help of the therapist, we catch on that our instincts might have been right all along, but here’s this new tidbit we hadn’t considered, and it informs our next choice. This is also great practice for whatever else is going on in our lives.

We learn it’s not only okay but very good for us to let go. To feel our whole being soften, fiber by fiber. “Oh my gosh I feel so much better” is not something we say after we’ve worked ourselves into a panting lather. It’s usually something we say after we’ve had the chance to lay down for a while, breathe, and be, with someone who cares.

Doing something right, by not doing anything at all.

Baby on Board

Upon responding to my inquiry, she said, “That’s a fine time to reschedule. I’ll have my baby with me if that’s okay.”

The winter of ’14/’15 started off — like most blind dates do — all romance and giddy conversation, flowers and promises. Soon, however, the true howling nightmare of its essence came forth. Most of New England has been buried under torrents of snow, and frozen in places it didn’t even know it had.

Not a pretty picture, but like a person you can’t get out of your life, winter’s been hanging out and making a hash of things. Including business. Especially the little business of me, trying to keep clients in my book and having to scatter them to other places in my schedule every 3 to 5 days because of another snowstorm.

I was looking forward to seeing this client but getting her in was tricky. I’d seen her all through her pregnancy, when her life was pretty much her own and long before the blizzards had started. Now she’d had her baby and I had to put her where I could.

Having her baby in the room? Was, I have to admit, not really something I was excited about. Rogue elements in session — other people, pets, phones, even snotty, cough-y head colds — are never something I’ve dealt with well. I am a Pisces, and when I’m working with clients I go into my fish cave and take my client with me. I want no disturbance. A baby baby seemed pretty risky.

I agreed, however, for 2 reasons: 1) I liked this woman a lot and 2) I knew the baby – being less than two weeks old – would most likely not be ambulatory. Probably strapped into something.

“Yes, that’s fine,” I replied. “Come on in.”

When they arrived my heart leapt within me. Erin was so small, so very small, and cute, so very cute. She was also very much ensconced in her car seat. I breathed a sigh of relief.

My client and I just stood in front of this precious thing for a while, silent as could be. The babe slept, in that gooey soft tender sleep of the wee and precious. I kind of melted.

The three of us (not something I usually get to say) came into my treatment room. My client and I did a brief intake. How did the labor go…what areas of pain and tension did she have…any injuries since I saw her last?

“You wouldn’t believe the labor,” she said. “Under 7 hours but I’ve never felt such pain in my life.” My client is in her late 20s, tattooed, fit and bright. If she said it was that painful, it was probably more than I could ever take. I was horrified for her, but impressed. As I’ve always suspected: labor is for badasses. (ergo, not me.)

Where did we want Erin to go?

“I think over here, she’ll be okay. She gets a little fussy but if her pacifier is in her mouth, she’ll self-soothe.”

Looking at Erin, I wasn’t sure she was capable of fussing: I mean look at her. Totally blissed out, in some realm of heaven. (Only someone who hasn’t had children herself could be capable of thinking this, I grant you.)

When I left the room to wash up, I heard the start of a small cry. Clearly the babe, not my client. I knocked on the door.

“Come on in,” my client replied.

I poked my head in. There was my client, hunkered over Erin, tattoos blazing, putting the pacifier back in Erin’s mouth. The baby was catching on that Mama was too far away: even 3 feet was too much. My client had been been on the table, but hopped off to sort things right.

I volunteered to take over. With neither of us sure how this session would go, my client got back under the linens and I attempted inserting the pacifier myself, with all the art and finesse of a mule trying to get itself in a Porsche. I looked over my shoulder. My client had her head lifted up from the face cradle and was smiling at me.

“I’m willing to keep both of you as happy as I can,” I said. “For as long as I can.”

“She also calms down with movement,” my client suggested. I could see the car seat was rockable. I got it going first with my hands, and then, as I stood up, kept it moving with a foot. Just as quickly as Erin had turned into a purple, wriggling bawl machine, she returned to her adorable somnolent self.

I began the massage. And, shortly, realized that I needed to become an octopus: my hands, massaging, and a foot, rocking. If the room got too quiet or still, Erin began to fuss. My client spoke gently and encouragingly to her from the face cradle, I plied the pacifier and diddled the seat. Working prone ended up being fine.

Turning my client supine, things came undone. Erin was not having this lengthy break from her mom’s arms, not at all, and my ineptitude was not fooling her, not for one minute. She was pushing the pacifier away – even at less than 2 weeks! I was amazed – and clearly trying to focus on me, as if to decipher who this fool was in front of her.

“Oh I had a feeling she was going to get fussy,” my client said as she attempted to get comfortable supine. This was not striking me as a good scenario for a happy duration. Even with my limited ability to go with the flow, something in me knew I needed to break my protocol for there to be peace among us.

“What if…I handed her to you? For just a little bit?” I asked my client. My client registered surprise. “Yeah,” I continued. “She probably needs your touch.”

My client sat up and thankfully could not see my inexperienced attempt at bringing her beloved daughter out from the straps & buckles of her seat. I picked Erin up and felt – for the first time in a long, long while – the heft of a tiny human in my hands. It nearly brought tears to my eyes.

I handed the baby over. Instant relief. For all of us.

“Can I nurse her for a little while?” my client asked.

“Of course,” I replied. “In fact,” I said with growing understanding, “this is probably a great time for me to grab a snack as well.”

We all took a little break. What a novel idea. By the time I came back in the room and got my client all pillowed up, us ladies were ready for round two.

I see a lot of things when I work with my clients supine. I see them in all forms of relaxation: some with knit brows, deep worried furrows, eyes closed. Some rest with tiny smiles. Some have their eyes closed, but tears are leaking out the corners (which I deftly wick away, nobody likes the feeling of tears in their ears.)

Some talk a mile a minute, waving one hand around and then the other. Others have their mouths wide open, in a happy snore that threatens to cover me in phlegm. A lot of my clients, I just take their face in from above, and marvel, briefly, at all they’ve seen, and all they’ve done.

I’ve never looked down on my client before, while I worked on her face, head, neck and shoulders, and seen an exact replica of her head cradled in the crook of her arm. Never before has the baby — that I’ve prayed for, talked to, and encouraged while in utero — actually been in the room.

18329_10152792341028727_4125336222356690322_nErin was asleep. My client was asleep, or just about asleep. And I sunk into a realm of womanhood, of motherhood, that I have not experienced, personally or professionally. I wouldn’t say I’ve gone out of my way to not have a baby or deal with babies, because that probably makes me look bad? But I have.

I have gone out of my way to not deal with them or have them. I’m a career girl, always have been, and anything too unpredictable, dependent or messy I’ve steered away from quickly. Babies disqualified themselves on all three counts.

In this moment — before the session was over, and believe me, I went waaaaaay over my time limit, I so did not want it to end — I had a baby.

And it was so immediate, fragile and eternal all at once.

“It was our first spa day!!” my client said excitedly, when I finally wrapped it up and they were getting ready to go. “That was awesome, thank you so much.”

“You have no idea,” I said, “you cannot believe how much this meant to me.”

We discussed the whole baby-in-the-room-during-massage thing.

“Yeah, if I were you I wouldn’t do this with any situation,” she said. “I wouldn’t start advertising it, you know?”

We laughed. “Yeah,” I replied, “it has to be the right mom, right baby.”

And — I thought, very humbled — maybe the right therapist.

***

I wrote this blog post in less than 45-minutes and I’m posting it as it is: virtually unedited. It has a due date: it has to be out there before the end of February, so I think I’ll make it before my client arrives today.

I am breaking my rules to deliver something, in a new way.

It’s almost spring. Protocol matters less and less.

 

 

You are a Body. Not a Head.

Winter in Maine is a wonderful time to get familiar with your body: how much you use it, and when it is telling you to stop. I know most people feel themselves most fully in the summer. Well, who wouldn’t?

When we are warm and unencumbered, we struggle not against howling gales nor winch up with the mincing steps of navigating ice. When it is beneficent and redolent all around, we toil and weary but the air supports us, and besides, we are mostly barefoot.

We know our stuffs most certainly when we prevail our squishy flesh upon a few snowdrifts, for example, in below-freezing temperatures. Many things not in our favor. Except our body. Which is quite excellent, when you can feel its health.

I was thinking about it a lot today while putting in a few shifts of excavation. The Blizzard of ’15 gave us everything it promised. Today, it was a game of “Find The ___.” Find the cars – find the gas tanks – the compost pile – the woodpile. Carve paths to each. Throw snow around. Gasp and sweat.

With each heave-ho, I was aware – believe me I was aware – of all the muscle groups working together on my behalf. It is truly amazing, it really is. Do you ever catch yourself in a task and marvel at how it all works?  “Do this,” our will drives our body, and the body says, “Yes,” and it happens. (With varying degrees of success of course.)

I played with centering myself in different parts of my frame. The temptation is to just work with one side of your body – hack away at a pile relentlessly until it vanishes – but this is not an elegant approach. (Plus it just really makes everything hurt after a short period of time.) I switched arms, even for just a few shovelfuls, even though the switch felt non-instinctual and clumsy. It gave the other half of me something new to do and surprised muscles that weren’t very busy until that moment.

I also found things went a lot better if I firmed up my abs and gripped tight into my glutes. Things also went better with taking breaks and going inside for water. This was exercise!

What a gift: to be body aware, and play with what we find. My instincts have been honed by nearly fifteen years of practicing and receiving massage therapy. I have studied, contemplated, touched and been with Body. A day outside mooshing snow around is continuing education, as far as I’m concerned.

Doing massage therapy is a great way to spend your humanity: loving the warm, electrical, water-filled bags that are us. And by love I don’t mean anything more than full attention: but full attention is the most loving thing we can do. Whether we are lying on a massage table or asking the herculean of ourselves with winter labor, it is, therefore, love.

Besides being a massage therapist there is just the benefit of receiving massage, which not all professionals seem to do with the same consistency. There’s a lot of overlap between the restaurant industry and massage therapy, as I see it, and I say a massage therapist who doesn’t receive semi-regular massage is like a chef that does not go out and try other chef’s fare. It’s mostly unheard-of in the restaurant world. It should be in ours.

There are so many benefits to massage therapy, but one of the greatest, and possibly hardest to describe, is the gift it gives us of being in our own bodies and having someone else helping us affirm our existence as a body, not just a head.

I’ve written before about the seduction of our age: the supremacy of mind and inconvenience of our body, as if all we are is a pair of eyes inside a slab of jello-y meat.

Massage therapy is a subversive act. It says “hush now” to our mind, which like a spoiled child insists it’s king. Our attention, if we allow it, trickles out of the confines of mind and into the glorious vistas and uncharted waters of our frame.

We become aware of the strangest places: the underside of our upper arm. The webbing between our toes. The very top of our head. Behind our knee.

Body awareness in session gives rise to few words (thank God) but these are the top 3 phrases I’ve heard:

“I had no idea that was sore.”
“Oh my God that feels so good.”
“That’s the spot.”

To be in our bodies and notice what was quiet but aching; to be there when we’re consumed with an overwhelming sense of wellbeing; to have another person acknowledge – with their hands – what’s been bugging us for days. That. Spot. It’s been confirmed and now it’s already starting to feel better because someone who not only cares but has the knack for professional kneading is very keen on helping.

When we are aware of our bodies, we experiment with what works. We play with how we move, lift, respond. We’re more apt to listen when it’s tired, we’re more inclined to notice when we feel good.

Massage therapy gives us ground substance against which everything else is measured, and gives us refuge when we’re feeling stressed. We know how it feels to not be stressed: we’ve had massage! We can go there again, either by recreating it on our own through self care, or, hey, better yet, calling up our massage therapist and making an appointment.

We’ve tasted the good stuff. We know how to make it happen again, how useful it can be.

Even – maybe and especially – when thrusting about amid ponderous snowdrifts.

“Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, there is a mighty lord, an unknown sage — it is called Self; it dwells in your body, it is your body.”
David Lauterstein, quoting Nietzsche in “Thus Spake Zarathustra” on his Deep Massage Book FaceBook page

 

Confidence, Julie Andrews-style

I didn’t have it, at first. When my sweetheart’s co-worker’s wife called me up for a gift certificate, I cringed a little. This guy usually goes to another practitioner in town: an excellent MT, highly trained with decades of experience, who with great devotion peels people apart.

Not my style, although I admire therapists who do it well.

Anyway I was nervous, in a way that I’m not usually nervous, knowing I was going to see this client. Both Nate (said sweetheart) and this guy’s wife had told me: he expects deep work, he expects deep work.

“He wants to be ripped apart,” Nate said to me.

“Geez, I do deep work but not that kind,” I replied. “Holy cow. Should I tell his wife to get a gift certificate with someone else?”

Nope, it was clear that she thought it was a good idea for him to try a different practitioner: me. And apparently he was happy when he got the gift certificate to come see me, so my fate was sealed. She had his whole birthday planned around this session: I was the pivot point.

I was up for working on him: I’ve always loved a challenge. But I was filled with the what-ifs. “What if I don’t lock in? What if I don’t connect? What if my strength isn’t enough, my technique isn’t enough.”

It was also his birthday. No pressure or anything. And, Nate’s co-worker. No telling what they’d talk about if the session wasn’t up to snuff.

To me, confidence is grounded in reality. You acknowledge your strengths, but you are also very aware of your weaknesses. You hope you do well, but you’ve been around for the many times you haven’t.

Confidence is closer to determination than power.  Its root is “confide.” It is, at its essence, belief, not proof.

All of us know what it’s like to go walking into a situation where we feel less than enthusiastic about our prospects for success. The gift of confidence is that it acknowledges this, yet we press on, usually due to the little conversation we have with ourselves beforehand. There’s relationship in confidence, even when you’re whistling in the dark to yourself.

A perfect example of this self-talk is Julie Andrews singing “I Have Confidence” in 1965 movie “The Sound of Music.” It’s excitement, dread, plowing ahead, hesitating on the brink. This IS confidence, even (and especially) when, after great expounding on all she will accomplish, she says merely: “Oh help.”

I know how she feels.

When my client arrived for his session, I began the intake, and starting looking, right away, for how I could connect, for if we could find that from the get-go I knew I would find my way in the session. It was my only (and best) hope. I couldn’t compete with whatever he’d experienced before, I knew that.

Massage therapy is mutual: it sure looks like the massage therapist is “doing” and the client is “getting.” But what I love most about massage, and what keeps me interested year after year, is the dialogue of it.

I’m not a talker, so I don’t mean conversation, necessarily. It’s inquiry: my hands & my client’s body, where they meet.* That meeting place has its own language and I trust that completely. Very often the more I think, the more trouble I get myself into when I’m working (and why I was lacking hope for my work: I was thinking too much about the session beforehand).

Most artists understand this, and above all else, massage therapy is an art. It is a learnable skill, but it’s an art, and the discipline of it is deep listening. Which can only be done through the medium in question: mine happens to be touch.

We were wrapping up his intake. “So I’ve heard you like deep tissue work,” I said to him. He nodded.

“Well,” I said, interested at whatever was going to come out of my mouth next, “I suspect that you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what kind of work I will do. I promise to ‘get in there.’ Just maybe not in the way you’ve come to expect.”

He was.

“That was…fantastic,” he said, 90 minutes later.

If you’re a long-term client, I know that what you need changes over time, so I ask you please: refresh me. Let’s begin again, if there’s elements of your session that could be different or better for you.

If you’re a first-time client, I hope we will have many sessions to come, but there’s a good chance we’ll make quite a bit of progress in addressing, ameliorating and answering what you first bring to the table: literally and otherwise.

I provide the time and space for the best version of what could happen in session. We’ll find it, but find it together. In that togetherness, I have every confidence.

* otherwise known as “working at interface,” a Zero Balancing concept that I’ve been learning from David Lauterstein and his Deep Massage. In case you’re into the technical aspects of this.

Let Teenagers Ask You Questions

If you want to know more about yourself, get in front of a group and field questions about your line of work. Not just any group, though. I highly recommend teenagers.

I was asked to present to our local technical center’s health class: about 10 high school girls were there, and the teacher – an ER nurse who is into alternative and complementary healthcare – wanted local professionals from all realms of health and well-being to talk to her students about their job, rather than just have them study it, which I thought was a great idea.

On the drive over I realized maybe I should collect my thoughts a little. I have the tendency to fly by the seat of my pants in these kinds of situations, but maybe I should be, I dunno, a little prepared? As if one can ever be with a room full of adolescents?

I decided I would tell them a bit about myself, my training…be honest as to why I even tried massage therapy in the first place: I hated my job. I was desperate to do something different…I flopped myself into massage school and did the program with grim determination…no lifelong dream, no blinding flash. I just wanted to do something beautiful with my life before I died. And now I had the best career in the world.

“But rein it in,” I reminded myself as I parked the car. When I’m nervous, I become a ham, and prattle.

It was a great classroom: this was health class, so there were practice dummies for CPR, anatomy charts and an entire plastic skeleton hanging from a hook. I felt right at home. The girls were seated at tables that were in a horseshoe around what I think was supposed to be my “presentation area.” I found an office chair with wheels, and rolled myself right in amongst them. Their eyes widened a little.

In the first ten minutes I think I firmly established myself as a professional, with a lot of training and experience, and also a bit of a weirdo. I got their eyes up out of their laps and away from the walls, and made them laugh. By the time I said, “Okay, so, I’m done, please ask me questions now,” they were ready for me.

First question, right out of the gate (and the girl who asked it sounded like she had been holding it in for hours, she said it with so much expression and enthusiasm)
“What do you do if someone smells BAD? I mean really BAAAAAD?”
Titters all around.

I gathered quickly this was probably something all of them were reeeeeeeally interested in.

This is what they wanted to know from a massage therapist? Immediately I knew I had a job to do: not be a ham, but an adult. So here was a great opportunity to inspire their compassion and understanding. But – wow – I also could not bullshit them and act like bad smells are not gross or a big deal. Sometimes they are.

“Okay, so here’s what you do,” I started out. “You acknowledge you are grossed out, to yourself. You have to deal with it professionally though. You meet and work with this person as thoughtfully and maturely as possible. Later, you talk about it with another colleague: You do not share it on FaceBook, you don’t bring it home and expect your girlfriend or boyfriend to help you cope with it. You get your yas-yas out with a peer but with that client you are respectful and encouraging.”

“There might be a few reasons why that person smells bad,” I persisted to mounting giggles and comments sotto voce. I listed a few: medication, they can’t smell anything well let alone their own body odor, no soap, poor hygiene. “Maybe they don’t have hot water at their house. Maybe they don’t have running water, period.” They softened a little. Some people don’t, in rural Maine.

“And it goes across class,” I said. “Not everyone who walks in your door who looks like they might smell, will. It’s really nice when clients shower before coming to you, but not everyone does, and that includes people who look well-off and clean. They get on the table, you go to drape them and: boom. A waft, from the gluteal fissure. It’s part of the job. In fact…”

The noise level ratcheted up a notch: “Waft? Waft? She said ‘waft.’ Waft!” Then, they had to ask me about the gluteal fissure. “Yes, the butt crack, ladies, the butt crack,” I said, while rolling my eyes and smiling a little at the ensuing howls and whoops. The conversation morphed from being about People Who Smell Bad to Smelly Butts in General.

“Oooh! Oooh! What do you do? If a butt stinks?” I was getting this from a few girls, all at the same time.

At this point I did a quick personal check-in: was I losing my command of this presentation (if you could call it that) over a very minor point (but one to which my audience was riveted, thereby ensuring their attention)? Should I reel them in with more serious matters? I snuck a peek at the teacher. She seemed to be as interested in their line of questioning as they were.

“Well,” I started carefully. “You …well. You deal with it, again, professionally. Discretely.” I described my tried and true technique of anchoring the drape line above the sacrum, which admittedly doesn’t allow as much hand contact with the upper hip muscles, but choosing between that or breathing deeply, I opt for breathing deeply.

“Do you wave a bunch of incense around? Dump essential oils on them? Open a window?” More questions from all sides.

“I have burned a little white sage. Especially if there’s a fart. Yours, or the other person’s. Hey, it could happen…!!”

Pandemonium: This lady said “waft,” “butt crack” and “fart.” We cannot believe this lady says this stuff.

Other questions that surfaced in the hour, more easily summarized:

Q. “What do you do if you don’t like feet? If you can’t touch them?”
A. If you don’t like feet, you probably shouldn’t become a massage therapist.

Q. “Do worry about making enough money? Or are you comfortable.”
A. I’m comfortable, but I will always worry about making enough money.

At one point – and I’m still not sure how I got there – we did do a little hands-on training: how to touch someone. They paired up, taking turns standing behind one another, and practiced using full hand contact on each other’s upper shoulders, then using their body weight – not just their hands – to bring pressure into their partner’s muscles. It went really well: there were a lot of happy sighs and blissed-out faces…along with the giggling and running commentary.

The reason why I recommend talking to teen-agers, if you can find a small group that’s easily engaged and a teacher who’s game? Adults will try to impress you with their questions. Teenagers, by in large, are going to try to embarrass you. They will make you answer honestly, or they will fillet you. It’s good practice in keeping it real. Which is why we do massage therapy in the first place.

What We Do Not See

We went for 3 weeks without a sunny day. A lot of us started to develop a skin over our eyeballs. We woke in the dark, fumbled through our day, yawned until twilight then curled into blankets and rolled into another deep sleep, crowded with dreams set in murky depths.

The winter solstice was also a New Moon, not that any of us would have noticed, having long forgotten what lit orbs in the sky looked like, and even if they were there, we would not have seen them for the seamless overhang of clouds. (Long forgotten. Yes, we have a terrible memory.)

When the sun finally did arrive it was Christmas afternoon. The ponderous grey rolled back and exposed a blue sky and blinding sun. Not only had I forgotten that the sun could be so strong, but so had my entire eye anatomy. Everything cramped.

My eyes were sore for a while.

Bunny.Moon.nationalgeographicThe sun is there when we don’t see it. So is the moon. So are a LOT of things: magma, the stratosphere, bacteria, plumbing. There’s enough evidence it exists. So we say it does, even though our eyeballs forget and strain at the re-membering.

Believing in what we do not see goes beyond the physical. There’s the deeper physics of relationship. What is thread that binds platoons, believers or indoor soccer players? Well, it’s that psychological fabric, the warp and woof of commonality. It’s invisible, but take it “away” and what you have is just a random assortment of people. With it, you have community.

Even more ephemeral – yet perhaps most strong – are conditions of the heart and mind. Faith. Peace. Love. We feel these things, and we offer them to others, who feel them in return. They are more real for some of us than anything visible. They are true.

As a massage therapist I touch bodies for my work. I do it with care, curiosity, with the intention to accomplish something. Interestingly I do not ever see with my eyes what I aim for with my touch. If you are a bodyworker you know this is true.

My intention is like an X-ray, and combined with hands that know and a brain that recalls, I think I “see” the soft tissue I address and the bones cozied within, but I never see them. What I see is skin. What lies millimeters beneath that skin, and what I envision, shall never actually be in my hands.

Regardless of how we feel about our palpation skills, our anatomy knowledge, the tremendous (or paltry) therapeutic experience we have locked into our hands after years (or just a few months) of massage: there is more we do NOT see, as massage therapists, than what we do.

Which leads me to my next thought, which is: we may be one of the most guessing-est professions there are.  It’s essential we’re trained well, and we consistently update our knowledge, but that aside? I feel there is an element of wizardry under the learnable skill set of therapeutic massage, and it makes the difference between a massage therapist whose work we like OK, and the massage therapist we can’t wait to have another session with.

There’s your professional magician. And then there’s the lady who’s been to Hogwarts.

This kind of talk will get me in trouble with schools and professional organizations. I’m not dissing education or professionalism, at all; I expect the highest from all concerned. But the people who’ve touched me best, touched me most deeply and made the biggest difference for me have been educated, trained, and then gone sidling up to realms unseen, within me and around me, and partnered it for a while. Quietly, respectfully, but wholly.

This is true of great artists of all kinds…spiritual leaders…politicians, even… detectives…

Did I say wizardry? I meant to say sleuthing. As massage therapists there’s a lot of clues we have to track down, pieces to put together, answers that only become clear over time, to solve mysteries. We need be like Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot and use our imagination, as well as our brains, to arrive at the truth.

One of the most interesting columnists, to me, in the ABMP‘s (Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals) magazine, “Massage and Bodywork”  is Douglas Nelson and his column “Table Lessons.” He reminds me of a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, and his columns are written like small mysteries to be solved.

In his article from the July/August ’14 edition of Massage and Bodywork, he commented:

Words and images have powerful effects, both positive (placebo) and negative (nocebo). X-rays don’t always tell the whole story – there isn’t always a direct relationship between what is seen and the pain a person is experiencing.

What is not seen is more powerful than what is visible, perhaps? Well I could get behind that.

And then there’s David Lauterstein, whose writing and Deep Massage technique and, frankly, personage, I love and adore and will champion until the cows come home. He has been my teacher and my friend for a few years now.

In his FaceBook page The Deep Massage Book David wrote this past week:

Many of the meanings of energy are not objectively verifiable. They are primarily subjective experience. But the content of massage is as much the subjective experience of wellness, of restored energy, as it is verifiable anatomical or physiological results.

Bottom line,  the massage therapist we love most? The one we reschedule with and who gets our precious positive word of mouth? Is the one who travels all the worlds of us.

It is really a very easy thing to offer someone else. It looks a lot like love.

Please No Pickle Waffles

Right now I am doing a bad thing: I have three phone calls to return and I am writing instead. Both of these things are important, but not returning calls is the business equivalent to having someone knock on your window, peering into the shop, unable to get into your business because you’ve locked the door.

Now, I’ve been promising myself to get back into the blogging spirit of things for some time, so this counts toward business goals: preventing burnout by having a bit of fun. But there are slots to fill. So this, and then.

One of the biggest things that has changed for me in my nearly 15 years of practice is my system of checks and balances: personally and professionally. I need them, else I flounder. When you get lopsided — easily angry or too needy, too busy or not busy enough — what do you do? How do you get back on track?

At moments like these, I think about Gordon Ramsay.

If you aren’t familiar with this purple-faced, pompous, punitive Brit chef, perhaps if I strung together length of profanities here and brandished some cutlery…

Oh yeah. That guy.

“Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares” “Hell’s Kitchen” etc. The blond dude in the chef jacket screaming at people in the kitchen.

No he’s not nice at ALL. But behind the sensational, savage take-downs, is a passionate man. He cares: a lot: about good food. Good service. Good work ethic. (this is more obvious in his BBC programs, so don’t let his Fox persona totally alienate you: his earlier shows convey more ardor despite the persecutions. Sort of like the Zen Buddhist master who goes around smacking students with a stick while they’re meditating.)

Often (and it’s painful to see) he upbraids a well-meaning but misguided chef who’s turns out entree after entree of hopelessness, stuff they learned in school or dreamt up on their own: maraschino cherry chicken. Minced steak with lima puree. Pickle waffles.

“C’mon, mate, what the f*ck are you playing at?” he’ll roar. “Nobody’s going to eat that or want it in this town! Can you make me: a roasted chicken? Just a roasted chicken with a few nice sides?”

He has some Kitchen Rules, most of which are surprisingly adaptable to good massage therapy practice. Here’s a good article: offering “100 Curse Free Lessons from Gordon Ramsay” in building software. These are 100 points that are easily transferable to any industry one cares about: software…food…massage.

Gordon slams people around because he gives a sh*t, mate. Could you or I tolerate that? It would be hard. Maybe not necessary. But it gets me thinking.

We don’t have the Gordon Ramsay equivalent for massage therapists? (“Writing a Blue Streak” comes close and I thank and bless you Allissa.) But maybe we bloody well should, because massage is a lot closer to giving someone a cup of coffee than it is to writing a prescription.

We serve others: and when that service is poor, business dries up, or never really takes off. Like chefs, we massage therapists can get all dreamy and unrealistic about our work, sloppy in our execution and even disrespectful of the very people we say we want to please: our customers.

I like to bring up restaurant work as an apt correlative for massage therapy practices (“On Serving: Table to Table” was one such attempt) because I care about both fields. I was a server for only four measly years but did it in one of the most lauded, established restaurants in Belfast Maine: Chase’s Daily.

My worst days as a server were the ones I got too personally involved. I was really in to my own self, my own sense of fairness, and not keeping my eye on the prize: the scope of the day, and turning over tables. That was my job. Being imperceptible yet personal in my work: my job. Keeping things moving =  job.

Like a good meal, a good massage sells itself. It needs no promotion. You don’t have to pull out the words. People who like your work will be more than happy to put the words out there for you: online, in print, and that most prized possession of ANY entrepreneur (you do see yourself as an entrepreneur, right? Especially if you’re in business for yourself?) : positive word of mouth. Out there on the street. Working for you 24-7.

When you are the best practitioner on more than one person’s lips, you are an overnight success, even if it takes more than 10 years to get there.

Years of showing up, honing your craft, being there when no one is there, being there when you are tired and everyone wants something from you, returning phone calls (that reminds me), not getting distracted by ambiance or retail or modalities or minutia (ahem, self). Not being romantic about your work, or believing your own hype.

It means no new modalities until you’ve got the perfect massage in your hands. Setting boundaries and refusing to be shoved around: either by your clients or your own sense of self. It means having your customer relations schtick down pat.

It means: a nice roasted chicken with some sides. And no pickle waffles.

I’m all for continuing education, changing up your sessions, offering 1 or 2 new treatments, rethinking your client base and getting new linens (for crying out loud!) but what people really want is reliable good service. Over and over. Month after month. Year after year.

Don’t change it up on me all the time and think it’s better. Give me one simple thing and make it excellent.

Do your side work – all of it.

And don’t give up.

 

 

Wounded But Serving

I think it’s a good thing to talk about self-care and how we can optimize ourselves for being the best practitioners we can be, but we need to get real: individually and as a profession. There’s self care because you need to be a little physically stronger, a little less sleepy in the afternoon: then there’s the self care of the truly wracked, anxious, woebegone and frightened.

Trying to get a toehold on sanity, and working that line, hour by hour, minute by minute, and also seeing clients.

I am writing this blog post now because I couldn’t write in August.  A situation with mental illness and addiction in my family reached new crisis levels. This person was rushed to the ER and admitted to a psychiatric and addiction center, for the second time this year.

 

There is, as of this writing, 30 days of sobriety, good prescriptions, and a will to live. But it has been rough. I became ill, too. The name they give it is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which feels pretty weird for someone who spends 8-10 hours a day helping people reduce theirs.

I was doing all the good stuff (more salads. Less caffeine. More sleep. Less sugar.) but a lot of it wasn’t working, when I desperately wanted it to. It just didn’t. There for a while I had a small bag I carried, along with my purse, holding all the tinctures, supplements, flower essences and powders I’d collected so I could dose myself all day.

I’m doing better (due to many kinds of support, which I won’t get into here), but there were plenty of moments when I walked into a session, hoping to help others, but feeling utterly broken and full of despair inside. This was a deeply painful place to find myself.

I felt guilty for barely holding it together and still seeing others in a therapeutic setting. Is there room in our profession for those, like me, hoofing it on the edge of darkness?

 

Consider your stereotype of massage therapists. We see a practitioner who is happy, relaxed, completely absorbed in the needs of the client, serene, centered, thoughtful…quite possibly the embodiment of health and sanity. (I mean, when I go get a massage, that’s kind of what I hope to experience, even just a little bit.)

There are massage therapists like me who have a loved one up to their gullets in mental illness and addiction and who, themselves, are in real danger of becoming sick and/or addicted themselves.

There are massage therapists with mental health issues.

There are massage therapists who are addicts.

There are massage therapists whose children are in jail or who have gone missing: whose loved ones are battling cancer or HIV, ALS, PTSD: who are facing foreclosure or eviction.

There are massage therapists who feel maligned or weak or increasingly concerned by a physical ailment or a state of mind: whose might have family members threatened with violence, deportation or incarceration: who feel endangered or misunderstood where they live.

How do I know this? I don’t, for sure. But a lot of humans have lives like this. Lots of people, navigating terrifying swells in a boat that is taking on water. Massage therapists are human: ergo, there are probably more of us working our hearts out to give to others, and doing so from a fragile place, than most of us realize or want to acknowledge.

Standing and serving in the midst of profound confusion and pain is okay. If we think we have to have it all together to work, that’s something we need to examine. We have compassion for our clients in the midst of their trouble: it’s the least we can do for ourselves.

Also, some days the best part of being massage therapist was leaving my self outside the treatment room:  stowing my fears for a few hours while I worked to make a difference for someone, anyone. For all my technical skills, essential oils, good intentions, I could do nothing in my family. But at work: there was hope.

In your life, a bomb will go off. I promise you. Everything you thought about yourself and your world will melt like late winter snow. Who are you, then, as you stand in the wreckage, and also wish to work? Watch your illusions of control dissolve, one by one, until you’re seeing clearly, and wishing you didn’t. Until, one day, you don’t mind.

There is a moment, in the chrysalis, where the goo inside is not caterpillar, not butterfly. It’s an amorphous gel of who-knows-what. The entity that knew itself as Caterpillar no longer exists. The promise of Butterfly is too much to hope for.

There’s where you work from, as a practitioner, and in the midst of the life you’ve been given. This is what anyone, groping for a way, knows. Don’t be fooled by the nice smells, pretty colors and soothing music: massage therapists are right there too.

Caterpillar to chrysalis: for your encouragement (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gsm_ZyJz_s)

I feel it’s important to have boundaries about a lot of things but I’m equally convinced it’s important to share what you know, when you can, especially if it will help someone else, maybe remove stigma. So: I’m a member of Al-Anon. It has changed my life and saved my sanity.

Good Words for Minding the Harrow

Yes, we love our work, but there are times when the well runs dry, weariness settles in the bones, or there’s an ache in the heart. In case you had an August (and July…and June…and, oh hell, year) like me, you might, also like me, rely heavily on other writers who know the score to ease your troubles and give you courage to keep working. These are teachers, authors, colleagues, friends, and maybe even a saint or two, that have helped me get by.

I’m sure you’ll benefit.

C’mon, there’s a schedule to keep and people to help. Chin up. And:

“None of us are completely present. So don’t feel guilty. This is the ideal, the enlightened moments that come now and then. But we do know that when we are manipulating, changing, controlling, and fixing, we are not there yet. The calculating mind is the opposite of the contemplative mind. The first is thought by the system, the second by the Spirit.”
Richard Rohr, from “Everything Belongs

“When I was in a craptastic, humiliating, vulnerable position I said ‘I can’t get cold cocked again. I am entirely out of resilience.’ And I meant it. I got the mercy I needed. I don’t miss my pride.”
— Allissa Haines, from Writing a Blue Streak, “Well, hello 39.”

“We have to learn that healing is not a function of the therapist or any external agent like a vitamin or an antibiotic. Healing and control are with the client and are functions of the client-therapist relationship. Knowing that, knowing I don’t control the process, I avoid efforting. And knowing the client also cannot force change at a deep level, I encourage the client to drop efforting.”
— Ron Kurtz, courtesy of D. Lauterstein’s “Deep Massage Book” FaceBook page

“If I were going to begin practicing the presence of God for the first time today, it would help to begin by admitting the three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little.” — Anne Lamott, Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers

“We don’t take care of each other. Half of what’s wrong with us human beings, I sometimes think, could be headed off if we just still hunkered down together picking lice, imaginary or real, out of each other’s hair, of an evening, the way all the other primates do: just touching each other kindly, huddling close, and tending to each other.”
— Dale Favier, from “Body in the Parking Lot

“A wry sense of humor helps a lot when things get hard. So does a great affection for oneself…Throughout all this worry, I reassured myself with Simon Gray’s words: “Worry is just love in its worst form. But it’s still love.”
— Tracy Walton, Teaching and the Worst Form of Love

“I got used to saying ‘I have depression.’  Although I did catch myself averting my eyes a bit when I told someone new recently. Probably gotta work on that a bit still.”
— again, Allissa, again, “Well, hello 39.”

“I used to walk around thinking I knew how other people could be happy: now I know that I don’t. I don’t know that. Oh, I can see it clearly enough: ‘you are locked into your suffering’ — as Leonard Cohen crooned it — ‘and your pleasures are the seal.’ But diagnosing is one thing: curing quite another. It’s probably good that I no longer think I have anything to offer people.”
— mole (again, Dale) “Dangerously Full

“I am not a hero; I cannot fix you. I am not strong; I cannot save you. I am weak; I cannot melt the frozen, broken places in you. I am insufficient; I cannot heal your pain. But I have hope, because I can do much more than that. I can love you.’
— Kate Bartolotta from “We Are Not Here to Fix Each Other

“What do we pray for?…Finally, alchemy. It is NOT up to you. I wish it was, but it’s not…the body contains all of the healing substances it needs already. The person contains all the healing substances it needs, they just don’t notice it. We are there to just help them become aware. I want people to realize they’re miraculous.”
— paraphrased from David Lauterstein’s Deep Massage class, Oct. 2013

“Remember He is the artist and you are only the picture. You can’t see it. So quietly submit to be painted – i.e., keep on fulfilling all the obvious duties of your station (you really know quite well enough what they are!), asking forgiveness for each failure and then leaving it alone. You are in the right way. Walk — don’t keep on looking at it.”
— C.S. Lewis, from The Collected Letters Volume III

“For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
— Paul, 2 Corinthians 12:10

 

It’s a Personal Thing

“Oh well. That’s a relief. We’re on the same page with that, too!” My new client sat back in his chair, and I thought I noticed his eyes go a little pink. I found it meaningful as well: it had taken a little time, but in under 12 minutes he and I got two very important things squared away: pressure level (firm, but not deep) and talking during session (none please).

I was happy for him, but sad. I knew this man had been getting massage for years. For years, receiving massage therapy, and no practitioners had this discussion with him?

Yes, yes, we want our clients to tell us what they need. “Just let me know,” we encourage them warmly, but the last time you had a massage how easy did you find it to communicate your needs when you’re already on the table? When I get there, I’m hesitant: I find it’s not easy.

My experience with this first-time client sharpened my already strong opinions about how to present one’s work to one’s clients. I’ve been a practitioner for 15 years, had a lot of massage myself, made regrettable mistakes but learned even more from other practitioners I’ve traded with who were good at what they did but had breathtakingly shoddy intake and outtake skills.

In brief, here it is: most clients are not interested in whatever technique you plan on using. If it requires dramatic bolstering, draping, stretching, give them a head’s up, but no need to explain constantly. Nor do they want to know about your next workshop, a meaningful experience you had with another client, or your favorite pet.

Rein it in. Err on the side of saying less, so you can hear more.

The difference – to me – between a good practitioner and an excellent one, one you can’t wait to recommend to others, is how well that practitioners listens. I’ve had plenty of massage from individuals who addressed my issues but who simply were not interested nearly enough in what I wanted, not picking up on my body language or hearing my voice. They steamrollered me with their personality. And they talked. A lot. It was not an experience I wanted to repeat.

How to get to the heart of the matter, then, even before you lay hands upon it?

I suggest getting personal.

This might seem an odd suggestion but look at what you’re doing: you’re massaging a person. For an hour. Maybe an hour and a half. They are mostly naked, strategically covered, and they are dozy. What is more personal than this? Other than bathing someone, or feeding them?

Here are some standard questions I ask. Depending on the answer I get, it invokes other questions…

Are you usually warm or cold?
(One of THE most important questions you need ask. If your client is cold at all, they will not relax. Also, if they’re sweating, they won’t relax either.)

If I use hot towels or essential oils in session, would that be alright?

What kind of pressure feels good to you? Do you know?

Do you want silence?
(I’m a non-talker and try to get that clear up front. A few exchanges is fine but I can’t concentrate if my mouth is going.)

Are there any parts of your body you don’t want me to touch?
(aside from the obvious of course) (sometimes I need to explain it anyway, for people who’ve never had a massage before and really don’t know what a professional’s parameters are.)

Be curious. It’s a fine quality in an MT. Listen. Find this person, who will soon surrender their body to your care for the next duration, utterly fascinating. Does their nose drip when prone? Tuck a tissue into one of their empty, up-turned hands. Do they have a persistent cough? Proffer a mint. Light too bright? “Would you like an eye pillow?” Is the music okay? “Maybe something more lyrical, less chant-y…”

By the way this is a good practice to get into not only with your first-time clients, but your regulars as well. Never assume you know. After 7 weeks, 7 months, 7 years, check in with them again: are they still getting what they need from the session? One of the fastest ways to breathe life into your practice is to see every client as if you’ve never seen them before. Ask them questions you haven’t in a while.

In short, take your client by the hand and lead them to the dance floor. You lead, they follow. Make yourself trustworthy: a little communication goes a long way. Notice them, the way a good server respectfully observes her customers, anticipating their every need, noticeable at key moments but most of the time, not noticeable at all.

When you have that kind of trust from your client, you might wander into the weeds and stars to that place where alchemy occurs, and where words no longer form. Just you, and the client, and the music.

Curve with a Name

“But I never would have guessed you have scoliosis.”

I do have it, I hide it well, although lately I have to say it has not hid itself from me. My lower left lumbars are aching in a deep way, confused, sending little unhappy bleats down my left leg all the way to my toes. You might not really understand the immediacy and power of your nervous system until you injure or pinch a nerve, even slightly. The messages are varied, yet continuous.

CurveTypesMy left hip seizes up when I get out of a chair, and currently I’m enjoying a slumbering right psoas: one of the strongest muscles in the body. When it’s strained, lifting your leg becomes either impossible or fills you with stabbing pain, like someone jabbing an ice pick into your hip joint. It slumbers and then when roused – like, when I want to move in and out of my car – behaves like a hornet hive that’s been poked with a flaming torch.

I would never have guessed I had scoliosis until I injured my back two weeks ago, and now my scoliosis is all I think about. Ever since I was diagnosed with it when I was 11 years old, I’ve seen chiropractors (waaay back when they were quack status) and received massage, done yoga and powerwalking, and in the past four years added in Pilates and a little moderate weightlifting. Nothing regularly unfortunately, and nothing with vigor.

I blame my current constant pain and inability to move with ease, as is my custom, on my twisted spine, which seemed to be bearing up under sporadic attention just fine until now. Is it fair, to be peeved at a body part when it says, “Enough’s enough”? Aren’t our bodies allowed to speak out, set boundaries, communicate directly and try to resolve conflict with us, just like we feel we are entitled to do with other people?

What does it mean to be not curved from front to back, but side to side? Our spine is meant to roll fore and aft, thoracics to lumbars, not severely but gently, to cushion the blow of living and act as a spring, boinging finely at the center of our being. You can go deep into a body and the deepest place there’s bone, doing its glistening slick oseous job.

Deepest and most profound in its construct is our spine. We ask so much of it: sitting for hours hunched, sleeping splayed or curled, jerking it around lifting heavy things that sheer will deems doable. (“I can lift that.”) And our spine not so much. (“Well that was a bad idea.”)

It would be a lot better for us, wouldn’t it, if we wouldn’t just assume everything we feel like doing and want to do with our bodies is OK with our body. We would be accused of behaving selfishly, carelessly, if we constantly dealt with friends and associates with the sometimes breath-taking lack of sensitivity we show our own frame.

What we take for granted! Whole systems working tirelessly, painlessly, and then when injured, begin to let us know. “How annoying,” we say with disgust, and throw painkiller or hydrotherapy at it, hoping it goes away. The mendicant at our gate is body, and rather than feed it, we take the other way out of the city.

The first chiropractor I saw when I was 11 was a large, soft, dusky grey man in a poorly lit room who talked sweetly to me and my mother, and touched my back with big meaty hands that felt like giant warm paws. I remember looking up at him and my mother, like a bunny in the woods, waiting to see what the big animals would do.

He did some acupressure points in my ears (a sensation I’ve never forgotten, maybe why I love doing auricular massage to this day) with a metal stylus, told me everything that would happen, helped me onto his electronic table, and adjusted me. I was not afraid, not for a minute: I was just as curious as he was about what he could do to help me.

My mother did not do the surgery on me everyone said I should have, or the body cast: she chose hands-on healing. I wasn’t fixed by this man’s hands: but I had a strong sense that he understood me. He did not look at my malformations as something to be conquered, but something to be kindly spoken to.

Now the adult who must tend my inner child, I am both big bear and the small rabbit: and it’s my job to talk sweetly to the injury I have, and the torqued, tense mass of my lower left lumbars. Good luck has run out. Now it’s my turn to pay attention, and explain everything that’s going to happen, and not conquer my frame, but speak gently.

Should come easily, you know. I do it for a living. Ahhh, but who can do it for themselves? It is hard. To be that “wounded healer,” and give as generously to myself – in attention, exhortation, encouragement and affection – as I would a client? As my first chiropractor gave to me? That which I received, I give. That which I give: I must now receive.

 

Naked as the Day you were Born

Combine incredible stress and profound loss with a nurturing safe environment and being touched for the first time in months and you’d come unglued, too. My dear client lost her mother and feels alone, the most alone a person can feel, even if surrounded by tons of loving support, which she is not, which makes it so much worse.

Now she is undertaking building a house, her first, and also recuperating from a trying semester teaching brat kids and jousting with rotten co-workers. The woman’s a wreck. She’s on my table.

Re-drape. Grab the tissues and let her use the entire box if she needs to. Murmer consolations, good ones, don’t just pat absently and say “There there” or “awwww.”

Because I’ve known this woman for years, and I truly love her, I find myself rubbing her back between the wings, kissing the top of her head and saying “It’s gonna be okay. You’ll be okay” a few times until her sobbing stops and she starts to breathe naturally again.

“We’re gonna start over, with you supine now, with lots of pillows so you feel like Cleopatra on her barge!” I announce cheerfully, and make it happen quickly. No more snuffling into the face cradle: dignity and calm restored.

Massage therapists work parts: address limbs: move sheets and towels around like we’re doing some kind of horizontal semaphore code. We have these boundaries in place so everyone can relax and not worry about being exposed. There’s plenty of times, however, that exposure happens, whether we want it to or not.

Sometimes it happens when the client can’t help themselves, and they fall apart in front of your eyes. They just don’t care what you see.

I have a few who clutch at the linens when they roll either direction, exceeding even my careful work to keep them modest. That’s fine.  I understand. What’s more challenging to me is the client who starts taking off their clothing while I’m still doing intake. I think that they assume, since I am a massage therapist, that I will be totally okay with seeing their entire naked body.

Look, as much as I adore humans, I’d rather take my client in with my hands, not my eyes. Massage therapists have rites and rituals, and a sense of decorum, not to mention professional standards. While I will massage hinders all day long, I don’t want to see them up off my table, bouncing around the room. This is an art form, not a love-in.

But try telling that to an 82-year-old woman who is both so tired & so eager.  Before you can even get through your full gamut, the shirt’s off, the pants are long gone, and she’s sitting there in just her granny panties and footies.

I start into another question and trail off. “I take it you’re ready to get on the table,” I say.

She lets a pin out of her hair, and incredibly gossamer waves of long silvery hair billow down over her shoulders. I don’t want to look lower, but I do because it’s right there: two amazing breasts. Really. I don’t see many breasts up close, but these are unavoidable, and to my astonished eyes they look like they’re in great shape.

“It’s been a rough year, only getting rougher. Getting old is the pits. I feel like I’m looking at my life through the backwards end of a telescope,” she reports, as she goes to the table and skootches her hand under the linens, ready any time I am.  In her droopy drawers and her giant fuzzy socks, she looks like an elegant, aged fairy, a sage disrobed. I understand the time for my questions is over, and the time for me to work has begun.

Getting old is the pits, and over the next 90 minutes she goes into great detail about how much she has lost, how small her life has become taking care of her 92-year-old husband, all the things that have passed away. Maybe I’m the only person she can be wholly herself with, anymore, as she casts aside veneer and trappings, and speaks from her naked, weary heart.

Sometimes it only happens when the client is ready.

“Today’s a good day for a belly massage, I think,” says my longest-term client.

This is such progress I can barely keep from doing a fist pump. To spend as much time on his back and legs, as per his request, for over a decade, has meant that I’ve had to skip his arms and chest, as per his insistence. Which really is negligence:  the man’s got asthma, with profound breathing problems that have pulled his sternum down and affixed his anterior chest muscles to his ribcage.

I have only been able to guess at the condition of his thorax. Today, I get to see it.

“You got time?” he inquires.

Yes, lord, I do have time, I’ve had time for 13 years. Behaving as if it’s no big deal I drape his chest and let my fingers work  gently but persistently through the soft pine of his sternum, the branches of his ribs and around the scrying pool of his abdomen. I go over 90 minutes and don’t say a word about it: I know I might not have this opportunity again.

All of us in the industry have had these moments where we see a lot more than we meant to or hoped for. Despite all of our admirable attempts to keep it neat and tidy, things come undone. There’s a lot of grace in those moments, more than we could imagine. Trusting in all we do not see, we strive to meet fully what we do.

 

Caring – With a Rebel Yell

“You know, it’s more than just a massage, isn’t it?” My longest-term client had finished blowing his nose and was settling in from prone to supine. I was getting his bolster situated, and preparing the warm towel roll for his neck.

“It’s about being cared for. And, as I get older, I need more and more of that. You are about the most caring-est person in my life.” He relayed all of this to me through closed eyes.

I considered how many massages I’ve given him. Probably around 500, over the course of 12 years. He started seeing me when I was fresh into my practice, and kept with me all this time. I thought it was just ’cause he was gradually more and more impressed with my expertise, but he was very frank with me a few months ago as to why he’s seen me so long.

“Habit.”

When my face clearly registered my unhappiness at being mere routine, he added hastily:

“But it’s the quality of your touch. It’s always been there.”

How lucky I am, I thought to myself then, that he has made a habit of the good will he feels from my heart.

“Being Cared For” is hardwired into the massage therapy profession and while sometimes it’s challenging to reach those wells of empathy and affection (depending on what I’ve got going on personally) caring for another is my touchstone, my calling card. I know that makes me a softie. So be it.

Why is it so hard for us to bring tenderness into our lives? Do we think we’re above it? Often we feel we don’t deserve it or need it. Which is a lie: look how quickly disease or dis-ease – physical, emotional, mental or spiritual – blooms when we keep charging ahead without regard for nurture or nourishment. Addictions take the place of regular loving self-regard.

Heaven forbid that we wait, listen, go with the flow or slow down for anything. Whatever our bodily needs might be – sleep, exercise, food, rest, cleaning, or touch – they are at best secondary and often last, as we bow to our List or Agenda or Goals, or other intellectual but questionable pursuits, such as hours of diddling in social media (guilty) or watching TV (guilty…especially since I discovered HuluPlus has a full catalog of Brit Coms.)

How can we bring more caring into our lives?

In what ways have I brought “being cared for” into my own life?

It surprises me, the list I come up with:

1) Treating evening with respect. Not insisting my day continue up until I sleep. And going to bed when I’m tired. If that’s 7:30, that is fine.
2) Taking the proper amount of time it takes to plan, shop for and cook a homemade meal. I do this once a week and I can tell you it’s a 5-hour endeavor, from the minute I crack open the cookbook to when Nate and I sit down to eat. The time to do this does not magically appear. I’ve made it a priority.
3) Damn the agenda, go for a walk.
4) Damn the paperwork, get a massage.
5)  Snuggle. Get close to a person or animal and linger, linger, linger. Physical proximity is great, powerful medicine. (Sitting in sangha, taking communion or being in a crowded bar watching an exciting baseball game are in the same vein.)
6)  Stop striving. Stop improving.  See what’s difficult, uncomfortable, unbearable – and, perhaps even more difficult, see what’s boring, mundane and average – and accept it utterly. At a certain point fighting the reality of your life not only makes you miss the life you’re actually having, but creates unnecessary exhaustion and colors everything you do and how you treat others with a faint aroma of distaste. Care enough about yourself and who you are, and what’s happening for you, to welcome all the imperfection without judgement.
7)  Make a difference when you can. This is the wisdom inherent in Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” : “Grant me the wisdom to accept the things I cannot change/Courage to change the things I can.”  Notice your inner weeping, kvetching, sulking or raging and decide to make a little change in yourself and see if that helps.

For me, this list breaks the mold of societal expectation, and has an almost rebellious, anti-establishment energy to it. I think of the locavore, slow food movements. I consider how many people I know are working hard to get farms going, home schooling their kids or keep local businesses not only afloat but thriving. Lots of us want the good life, and the good life is not what they tell us it is.

If we’re constantly distracted, we’re right where they want us. Being cared for – caring for ourselves – equals presence. From this presence comes strength and wisdom, and then we’re not pawns in the game, but we are the piece movers: we reclaim our lives and take steady, conscious steps ahead.

Feel Like a New Person

“I feel like a new person.” Nice compliment, one I never take for granted, but it does make me feel a little weird. In what way, I always wonder? My massage work doesn’t always produce miracles. It is merely one vertical bag of water unsnagging one horizontal bag of water. I love making someone feel like a totally new bag of water. Not really a miracle, just a fact.

Yet, to make someone feel brand new: now that’s something. I’ve had the privilege of giving this kind of work, and also receiving it.

I had a massage from my friend and colleague Derek in early March. It came after a February filled with illness, disappointment, darkness and cold. I threw myself back into my recovery program after a near melt-down and I wasn’t instantly relieved. I tried sleeping a lot, like I wanted to, and deep rest evaded me, night after night after pitiful night.

I realized I had an anxiety problem. What a horrible state of affairs! How unlikely and unfair for a massage therapist, who is supposed to ooze relaxation and tranquility from every pristine pore. This is what it must be like for a priest or pastor to have a faith crisis, or a psychiatrist experiencing regular untreatable depressive episodes; this is what it must be like for a cop who feels herself siding, inwardly, more and more with the perps she arrests.

Who hasn’t made their way to their massage therapist, praying for a miracle? Throwing ourselves headlong on our practitioner’s table, exhausted, suffering, unable to even offer complete sentences as he or she carefully, valiantly tries to do some semblance of an intake before letting us collapse? Don’t think I haven’t been there. I have.

stream_with_waterfallI didn’t want to do the weeping, the sighing, and the head-shaking mute bewilderment that I did with Derek, but that’s what I did anyway. My body had been holding on to too much for too long and my words wouldn’t come.

We have this thing when we trade with each other, us massage therapists, that is part cop-out, part compliment. “Just do what you do,” we tell each other with great warmth. “You know all the spots.” End with small grin. This is what I said to Derek, hoping he’d get it.

He did. I had a 90-minute massage session (in my own office, mind you: always a good test drive for your own space! I found my table quite comfy and warm, but the face cradle still problematic…no wonder my clients fuss over it) and while I had consciousness I noticed that I felt akin to a stream having its tributaries unclogged of leaves and twigs. Things began to loosen and let go.

What rose up inside me, once the session was over, was an overwhelming feeling of unmistakeable resurrected power. It was as if my old self was sloughed away, and the entire fabric of my being had been flushed. All energy centers were realigned and churning their lovely colors. I no longer had a mountain across my upper back. I could feel my entire self, all the way through my toes.

It felt…well…darn it, it made me feel like a new person. My life force, my will to live, had returned.

I leapt from the table, dressed, and practically kissed my colleague’s hands when he re-entered the room. “Thank you, thank you, you are such a gift,” I burbled in tear-filled gratitude. I know he didn’t quite know what to make of that. I know how he felt: it kind of blows your mind, as a practitioner, that you can make that much of a difference to someone.

He just hugged me and gave me a nice there-there on the back. Aww. I get to trade with the best people.

Perhaps this is what is meant by becoming a new person: if our pain and tension is met, even briefly, by another – by Another – there is information there that is news, very good news, to our lonely little bodies. If the hands that touch us are experienced, professional, nurturing and loving, there is something to that. It speaks a language our body is dying to hear, in much the same way warm sun informs a lake, or a garden hoe informs soil: something interesting, nourishing and highly educational happens, and transformation occurs with unparalleled ease.

 

How to Admit You Need Help

Not all massage therapists need help. Lots have excellent boundaries, stable home lives, emotional equilibrium, or some healthy combination of the three, for most of their lives. Their families are normal, or at least, some of the darker aspects of human living don’t impede their quest for health and happiness.

There are, however, some of us who find things falling apart in our lives and realize we’re powerless to do anything about it. On top of it all: our mornings are black and our nights swollen with distress. Worst: our days are panic-stricken and filled with anxiety: we focus on our clients, not with curiosity and affection, but out of desperation, with tension shimmering beneath our touch, and when they’re gone we gasp and flop about, frightened and confused, like a guppy out of water.

By “we” I mean “me” of course.

Bluntly: I’m in recovery. There’s been a crisis in my family and I’m back in the Anonymous program I was in five years ago. I’m attempting two meetings a week, I have a sponsor, I’m reading literature, I’m working the Steps. I’m better. But there for a long while I was not. And things could get worse. I know that now.

With this comes time for little else: I haven’t been exercising nearly enough (sadly this would be true anyway, what with the relentless winter weather) and certainly haven’t tackled many projects that desperately need a tackle: my taxes, my client files, this blog. Homeostasis and maintaining sanity is a full-time job, on top of the other full-time job: maintaining my practice.

Projects and plans become back-burner stuff when you’re trying to keep yourself from having a meltdown.

“In every life there are peaks and valleys” so goes a trite saying that some people like to share with you when you’re suffering. (I would love to suffer such speakers a firm pinch on the nose, even though I know they mean well.) Oh ho: you know what? Sometimes it is just not a cute valley, all green and quiet and with a discernible end. Sometimes it is a yawning, howling cavern where you and your loved ones must walk, straight into the heart of darkness.

from a card I found at Coyote Moon in Belfast, Maine

from a card I found at Coyote Moon in Belfast, Maine

So: how do you know you need help? How do you come to admit the fact?

Interestingly, a big problem with knowing whether or not you need help is hardwired into the profession itself. From my perspective: I see myself as a resource for health and wellness for many people. I am used to making people feel good, all day long, by the sheer benefit of my presence.

“Thanks, I feel so much better” is a phrase I hear regularly in my day. Through a little effort on my part, I may not create miracles every time I touch someone, but usually there is big pay-off for me having everything under control: my clients are happy, I’m happy, even my officemate Jean is happy. (Especially when we have successfully and succinctly negotiated whose turn it is to resupply the TP and take out the trash.)

A whole day of getting paid for making people feel better spoils a person, particularly when you get back into the mess of non-professional relationship, i.e. family. It is really easy for me to advocate self care and dispense advice on health and wellness in my office: I have a little authority, and even when I have a client who is in the bowels of despair and/or pain, in about an hour they’re no longer my problem.

When standing in the heart of addiction with my family, we are on equal terms and whatever we’re experiencing together I cannot fix in an hour: not with all my technique, experience, good intentions, essential oils, nice music and sheets.

You know you need help when you think you can fix people.

You know you need help when you realize you have no control over others: you know you need help when you keep trying.

You know you need help when you realize another person’s behavior is turning you into a crazy person: when you catch yourself doing something, saying something, thinking something that makes you go, “Hey wait a minute. Whoa there,” but then you catch yourself doing it again. And justifying it, to boot.

You are just as out of control as everyone else. That’s when you need help.

I reached out for the Anonymous program because it was a perfect match-up for what my family and I were going through. I’m into a full month of participating in this free 50-year-old program and things are better. I am not looking for “perfect”: not anymore: but I’ll take better, any day, especially after the February I had.

If one of the Anonymous programs are not for you, there are other ways to ramp up getting help, beyond the occasional yoga class or acupuncture session (although both of these things are very helpful too). Talk therapy, meditation, meeting with your doctor are all openings into deepening your commitment to bringing yourself back to yourself. Getting massage more! (That ALWAYS helps, and in my next blog I hope to write about how the massage I got during this time of crisis felt like it saved my life.)

You might find certain authors really helpful, as I have: Richard Rohr (“The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of St. Francis“), Anne Lamott (“Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers“,) Pema Chodron (“When Things Fall Apart“), Melody Beattie.

You may feel it’s time to re-engage with a faith community once again: perhaps a church, a synagogue, sangha or mosque is calling you. Try going. Maybe that’s what you need most right now.

Whatever you choose, let the dark valley you walk into wake you up to your true potential, and give you hope for your future. This is where I have found myself today. And it’s because I admitted I needed help.

Going Through the Motions

I’m enamored of the Olympics for one reason: humans are amazing. What we can do with our bodies is miraculous. For good or ill, the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics are a smorgasboard for the philanthropic (“human lovers”).

Watching the women’s ice skating short program, before Gracie Gold took her silver medal-winning turn, the announcers expressed concern as she swooped around the ice, warming up. I think it was Scott Hamilton (one of my all-time favorite skaters) who said this (in paraphrase):

“I’m worried for her. She needs to loosen up for a good performance. She’s wound pretty tightly right now…her body knows what it needs to do, she needs to not over-think this skate. She just needs to relax.”

There is good information here for all of us.

Heaven help the athlete who brings too much to mind while exerting themselves to the utmost…and heaven help the rest of us. When we are “going for the gold” in our lives, it definitely helps to train ourselves to think positively, but in the actual moment it’s crucial to relax and not think at ALL. Commentary doesn’t serve us. (And if you, like me, had quite enough of the announcers when watching the Opening Ceremonies, you know this is true! “Just stop talking and let me watch it” I kept yelling at the screen. Interestingly this could be a good mantra for my life.)

I’d rather have the body wisdom to just correct myself midstream, by instinct, than think “How am I going to…?” and then coming up with an intellectual answer that doesn’t correlate with what is actually happening. In asking the question, valuable time is already lost. Your body is already moving into the how. Best let it do what it needs to do.

I’m fascinated by the power our body has over our minds for a few reasons: personal experience and stuff I’ve been reading. A few weeks ago I spent nearly four days in the grip of flu, and during that time I realized my brain was not working. Tried as I might, i couldn’t think clearly, not for one second. It was as if my organs had a manual override button for my mind that I hitherto had not been made aware.

(Or, you know Doctor Who? When they have to jettison some rooms of the TARDIS if they want to switch into hyperdrive or something like that? Maybe that’s what happens in dire illness, or dire feats of strength: brain firings are considered nonessential.)

Along with it came a blessed quelling of scheming and worrying. I felt moribund, in the abject throes of despair at times, but behind that was no wretched attempts to improve myself, which is, I feel, is not only one of the great deceptions/maladies of our lives as Americans, but actually is a sin, if you consider sin to be a transgression of some sort upon yourself, as well as another.

One of my favorite authors, Fr. Richard Rohr, writes of the disservice that we in general (and Christians, in particular…he is a Franciscan priest)  do to ourselves when our body is treated as a second-class citizen, in “The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of St. Francis“)

“There seems to be some bias against embodiment, against materiality, against physicality and you’d think if there was any religion in the world that would not think that way, you’d think it would be Christianity, ’cause Christianity is the only religion that believes God in Jesus became a body….became a human being.”

When the pressure is greatest, our minds do us the least service. In fact the best place for us to be is in our body, for that’s where our power and ability to be transformed – and to aid the transformation of others – truly reside.

Gerry Pyves wrote in his January 2014 article for Massage Today “The Psychotherapy of Massage: What Makes us Human?

“So many bodyworkers I meet seem to just want to prod and poke and frantically “fix” the body; as if it is an enemy to be controlled. Do we really have to subjugate and control the body? Must we still follow these apparently touch phobic leaders of the massage profession (whether male or female) who seem so very frightened of simple nurturing touch?”

Before I give someone a session, we always talk a little (or a lot) beforehand. Talking things over is essential to establish trust and understanding, the “what” of the session. But the “how” is always figured out in the silence and beauty of the work: in the moment.

In our speech is guessing. There is no speech for when the body finally breaks through and surmounts, or lets go. Also, in our flesh, we can be present with one another. Physicality is best medicine, for most of us. We can talk all we like about getting better, but nothing really heals us until someone gives us a hug or holds our hand.

Or, gives us a massage that truly meets us where we are.

Our best moments – whether we’re an Olympic athlete or an average person just trying to figure it all out – could very well be when we don’t over-think things, and we just relax into what’s happening now…and now….and now.

Cracked, But Not Completely

The sun is at a low angle nowadays. As we shuttle fast, ever faster, towards winter solstice, the sun shines its starlight with blinding force, only to suddenly drop away and leave us in darkness, once again. Even from nearly 93million miles away, its atomic power breaks your trend, stalls your gears and shuffles your deck.

A massage therapist filled with equanimity and ease will not be millimeters from flying into a rage when the sun shoves itself into her eyeballs, but I have not been filled with equanimity and so I tolerate my crazy fuming over the sun, but just.

I seem to be entering the troubled lands of peri-menopause, and managing it with progesterone cream, herbs, tinctures and moderate exercise only works up to a point. Eventually a girl realizes that vast discomfort with oneself and the tendency to be hot under the collar at any perceived slight is like being in a time warp: the 13-year-old you, all over again, and just like then, there’s not much to cure it except time.

It’s ironic, really: here I am, in the best decade of my life, at the top of my game, and experiencing some of the bottom-most moods I ever had.

On Tuesday I was out of control. Small events turned into fantastic stories, woven ever more steadily in the silence between breaths. Seeing clients was a relief, however temporary: focusing wholly on them, working at interface, helped me feel less insane, but all of my anger and fear kept resurfacing and coming at me from weird angles. I felt like I was beating back dark birds, session after session.

I prayed a lot, first with calm request, then bordering on hysteria.

A challenging email from my sister-in-law sent me over the edge. In the brief amount of time I had before my last client showed up, I flailed, collapsed, foamed, and left a gibbering and incredibly unhelpful voicemail on my husband’s phone. Gathering myself together from the pieces I’d left all over the room, I prayed she wouldn’t ask me how I was doing, because I was rather sure I would unfortunately spill my beans.

“How ARE you?” There it was. I wanted, desperately, to segue neatly from pre-session check-in right into the work, but I was battle weary. My officemate Jean had been out most of the afternoon, and so reliable moments of decompressing with her between clients hadn’t happened.

Maintaining facade with this wonderful client required more hormonal fortitude than I had. So I told her.

“Hmmm,” she said after a brief silence, after I explained as succinctly and powerfully as I could what I had been feeling all day. “You know, I hadn’t thought about that. I mean here you are, in a profession where you kind of have to emanate all this love and caring. It’s your job. And you do it so well, I mean everyone is like ‘Oh I can’t wait to go see Kristen,’ you know?”

The compliment took me off guard completely, and I was suddenly aware that this was the other vital piece to why I’d felt so wretched: on top of everything else, I’d put a heaping pile of guilt, for not feeling nicer. I was afraid of feeling so bad, because I took it as a sign that I wasn’t being a good practitioner.

Massage therapists are trained to work with personal emotion and move past it, continuously, using meditation, visualization, breathing techniques, but because I’ve been tortured by perfectionism my whole life, I threw “does not freak out or get overwhelmed” into my list of things to accomplish. Not realistic, even for a good day, but especially on a day when I could barely cope.

“If I’m having a bad day, I just take it out on my students,” she said, with a touch of a wink and smile. “You can’t really do that here, can you.”

“You weren’t here when I was kicking the table!” I said, as we both started to laugh. “I did have an eye on the parking lot the whole time so I could see if you were coming in. I threw a few things too: a towel, I think. I might have said some bad words.”

“The phrase ‘raging hyena’ comes to mind,” she said, and conversation lapsed because we were laughing ourselves purple. (This is something we’ve done before.)

Like a couple thirteen-year-olds, I thought to myself, and while I didn’t find anything attractive about the huge mood swings I’d been experiencing, there was redemption in knowing the cracking sound I was hearing wasn’t the sound of me losing my mind, but my heart melting: towards my day, and my awful awful self. “That’s how the light gets in,” Leonard Cohen sang, and the bells rang that still could ring.

In this line of work, you meet, sole to soul. Doubtless it’s good to try and bring your best self to every client, but sometimes the best self you have to offer is the one that’s honest, and willing, albeit messy. Our presence with one another is the greatest help, especially as it’s unclear who or what else will save us in the growing dark.

Why The Kids are Alright

There’s this thing called a “Wellness Room” that some high schools offer. (We do, here in Belfast, Maine.) It’s for students and staff, run by volunteer professionals in a variety of modalities, to help reduce anxiety, stress, pain, illness, and provide a little education about somatics and self-care.

Do teens really need something like this? How stressed out are they, really?

Yes. And: quite. And: should you think otherwise, I invite you to take a trip down memory lane…way back…for some of you, way WAY back…to when you were a juvenile, and just: recall. I am gonna do that, too, right now, so we feel our old hearts soften like roasting potatoes.

1988: I was a pretty good student, with fine intentions, well-behaved mostly. At a certain point, though, my guileless interest in life got overrun by irritation with my parents, angst over the condition of the world, constant crushes and heartbreaks, and nothing but hot distaste for authority. Jaded, at the ripe old age of 17. OUT, I just wanted out.

My best friend told me the school nurse would let you rest on her cot, if you needed it. I tried my luck during study hall. Sure enough: when the nurse asked me, “Why are you here?” and I said, “Oh, I, um, well. You know.” – putting on my best distressed yet glum look – she sighed and said, “Well, do you want to just lie down for a while and see if you feel better?”

Wherever this school nurse is now – she worked at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School in Lansdale PA in the 1980s – I wish I could find her, kiss her hands (if she’d let me), and thank her as profusely as I could without making her feel weird. Because she saved me. Nine times out of ten, if I was going to see her, I really felt like I was coming apart at the seams.

I turned out okay, but it was her and other key adults in my life who made the difference for me: who had the courage to look beyond my posturing or sassiness and encouraged the struggling spirit within.

Guidance Counselor RoAnn Blood and I standing outside the BAHS Wellness Room, shortly after it opened in April 2012

Guidance Counselor RoAnn Blood and I outside the BAHS Wellness Room, shortly after it opened, April ’12

Our Belfast Area High School Wellness Room is a haven, a safety zone for the distressed, be they student or staff. In the British sci-fi classic, “Dr. Who,” the Doctor only endures his 5th regeneration in the TARDIS’s Zero Room: a place cut off from the rest of the universe, meant for recuperation. That’s what our wellness room is like.

We have professional practitioners – massage therapy, Reiki, chiropractic, etc – who volunteer their time and expertise to the aid of headache, pain, sports injury, total exhaustion, anxiety. With signed parental permission, kids can drop in for 15-20 minute sessions during free time.

(Staff can come in any time they want, if they can get away. “Ten minutes is better than no minutes!” I call after them, after they arise from the table, smiling and blissful, grab a quick drink of water and scurry down the hall. “See you in a few weeks!”)

I want every teenager to have a chance to catch their breath, starting with the ones where I live. I needed it when I was their age, and Lord knows they need and deserve it now. I don’t have kids of my own (out of choice: not into babies) so maybe that’s one reason it’s easier for me to see them as people, not problems.

The kids are alright because they are going to be fine soon enough. “Just make it through the next four years,” I encourage them, if they drop in all hung-about in the face or in a frenzied lather. “It gets better. I promise you.”

They give me the hairy eyeball. “No really,” I insist. “Hang in there. If you can get through this, you can get through anything.”

The kids are alright because we have cultural amnesia. Go ahead and lament today’s teens all you like: that’s a loathsome, boring, favorite American past-time, and has been ever since girls first bobbed their hair and boys put on plus-fours; probably before that. Kids have been rotten for centuries, and have produced moderately successful generations regardless.

You remember? That horrible half-world between being an old child and a young adult? Everyone wants you to act responsibly and behave yourself, but no one feels ready to give you any power over your life. It would bring out the worst in anyone, especially one with turbulent hormones and a curfew. (If you don’t remember this, I don’t know that you really got to be a teenager, but congratulations anyway.)

The kids are alright because they are you: they are me. They are small versions of whoever will be running the world in fifteen, twenty years. I don’t have much faith in institutions, creeds, manifestos or trends, but I do have faith in people, and I have faith that these kids are going to do the best they can. They certainly are trying their best, right now.

I can’t help it: I am a massage therapist. I’m trained to love, and treasure the glowing heart, bright spirit, and incredible wonder of every human I touch. Regular massage therapy makes a difference for?…just about everybody. And even in 15-minute increments, for kids in between Science and Spanish class, it can mean the difference between recidivism and resilience, acting out or growing up.

To find out more about the Belfast Area H.S. Wellness Room, and the one that started it all – Camden Hills Regional H.S. Wellness Room – please check out the article that was written about both schools in the Bangor Metro magazine, March 2013 “School Serenity: Wellness Rooms at two area high schools are empowering students to speak up for their wellbeing.”

To market, To market

I was asked in a previous blog why I haven’t written about how I market my business, and how I have accrued my client base. Honestly I only have two bits of advice and they aren’t what you think they are.

I have a successful massage therapy practice, by all standards. I work in a small rural town on the coast of Maine, the great frozen north, getting warmer all the time. In my busy season (July through early October) I see on average 15-18 clients a week. The rest of the year, I average 8-12 per week, barring blizzards, flu or everyone going on vacation all at the same time.

August/September I’m flush. March/April I’m broke. It’s a success.

I’m blessed with drive, stamina, a good head for business, and, by far the most helpful thing of all, I was an English major in college. Which means I can write killer brochures, web content, newsletters and holiday postcards.

(*note – this is the only real marketing advice I will give: IT’S IN THE WRITING. Clients test drive your work long before they ever meet you in person: GET A GOOD WEBSITE. Here’s mine. I always ask new clients “How did you find out about me?” and I get two answers “Someone in town told me about you” and/or “I found you online and I liked what I read.”)

I am my own boss, employee, janitor, marketing director, educational consultant, administrative assistant, dishwasher, community outreach director and bookkeeper. It gets schizophrenic.

Here are two of my brochures, my biz card, the cards of others I recommend, and a good luck rabbit I got in Philly a few years ago.

Here are two of my brochures – one for my massage therapy practice, the other explaining the benefits of oncology massage, my biz card, the cards of others I recommend, and a good luck rabbit.

I work when I don’t want to. I work packed, intense days where I sit down only for 2 reasons: to work someone’s head/neck/upper chest supine, or to use the john. I give myself holidays off, but I still do 10, 12 hour days on occasion.

I wanted a massage practice and after 13 years full of doubts, fears, fatigue and tears, I have it. I now want new things for my practice, but I aimed the arrow and hit a bulls-eye. Blessed be. Here’s how it happened:

If you want clients, you have to work. For me — and maybe this is because I come from a long line of glum tireless Anabaptist farmers – there is no stronger incentive than being poor to sink everything you’ve got – your whole mind, body and spirit – into your practice, and make it happen. I have a dark side. This is one of the ways it serves me.

Nothing but massaging lots of people, as much as I could, even when I didn’t think I could, over and over, with consistency and ardor every time that client came in, made things get better. That means: seeing clients. Which only happens if a) they know you exist b) they can get in touch with you c) you respond to them and d) get them scheduled.

It’s work. Massaging someone is bliss; but getting them in your office and on your table is work. For every fifteen business cards you hand out, maybe one person will contact you. Get used to disappointment. And keep putting yourself out there.

If you have other options, you’ll take them. If there isn’t anything else, then you will stick with what you’ve got. Is massage what you want to do? Don’t let anything deter you: not your spouse’s plentiful income which makes your work unnecessary, not calls from your previous employer, not your deep desire to just be left at home puttering among the flowers.

Sometimes that gets decided for you: I had nothing else: no easier career, no part-time work that really satisfied, and no one to bail me out if I failed. I was a server at a popular restaurant in Belfast, Chase’s Daily, for four years.  I needed that work bad, to help me while I built my practice, but I knew eventually I had to quit.

In the movie “Living in the Material World,”  Olivia Harrison says, “What’s the secret of a long marriage? You don’t get divorced.” This is true of long-term relationships: with another person, a creative endeavor, or a career. You show up. Even & especially when you don’t know why.

Eventually the clients come, and the money, but actually you became a smarter, humbler, hungrier, and devoted person in the process, and THAT’S what people respond to: who YOU are. That’s an irresistible magnet, and it pulls people in faster than any marketing plan.

If there’s something inside you that always says, “yeah I love this,” hang in, dig in. You’ll love it even more in a short while. Even and especially during those short contemplative moments on the john.

Up in Arms

Arlene! Oh Arlene. Arlene of the locked knees, protracted scapula, stiff fingers and unyielding arm. Some clients flop. This one juts.

When I first started seeing her 10 years ago, I would drape her left arm and she would shoot it out at me from up off the table, in virtual salute. Each finger would get extended, stiff as PVC pipe, as I attempted to massage her claw-like hand.

“I’ve got it,” i would remonstrate softly. “You don’t have to help.”

“Oh, okay,” she said, and the fingers remained unrepentant.

Arlene* is, in a word, crusty: old (will NOT tell me how, but I would guess late 60s for sure). In another word: classy. Well dressed, well spoken, well traveled. (She has flown the world in quest of the perfect fishing hole.)

Loves to dish the gossip on her road (we have mutual acquaintances), appreciates the bad luck of others, and finishes most phrases with “Isn’t that awful?” but under her handsaw exterior has one of the most warm, generous hearts.

I’ve never received so many thoughtful presents from someone: “Hope you like it!” she says and hands me a gift bag, nowhere near holidays or my birthday. She and her husband, transplants to Maine from the Pittsburgh area (another place we intersect: both from PA), spend every Christmas working with a local charity providing gifts to low-income families. When she goes on her lengthy shopping sprees, most of the time it’s for those kids.

It has taken ten years, but now she knows how to let go of her hands…sort-of lets me into her upper back…and almost unlocks her knees, I can only traction her legs once. Twice is a no-go, it’s like trying to lift twin jet skis without a forklift. I have gradually worked it down to just her left arm.

This left arm: this left arm. It is like trying to train a cat to fetch, is getting her to give me her arm.

I’ve tried everything: I’ve ignored it, I’ve tried to ply it, I’ve not massaged her arms, I’ve spent 10 minutes per arm. Nope. I’ve given her imagery:

“Pretend your arm is a great big overcooked noodle!”
“Drop your wrist into my hand.”
“Give me the full weight of your arm?”
“Relax your whollllle arm, from shoulder joint through elbow…through wrist…”
“Let go of your arm, Arlene.”
“Just…let go…”

None of this works, of course, because she was perfectly fine until I started fussing. She rouses from her somnolence, and, in attempting to make me happy, becomes self-conscious and the arm seizes up even further. I know: it’s my fault. I tried to make a difference, and I knew it wouldn’t work. But, I had to try. Right?

I had to make her arm let go. I WILL get that arm to let go.

One of my previous clients to Arlene told me of a saying that she learned from her yoga teacher: “1) Observe 2) Accept 3) Let Go.” She and I giggled ourselves purple over our own interpretations, as they are enacted in our lives: “1) Observe 2) Point Out 3) Point Out Again” and “1) Observe 2) Judge 3) Fume.”

Truth is funny.

There are two people in the room for Arlene’s massage session: Arlene, and me. Who is tenser? Who, actually, needs to let go?

I consider Arlene, and what I know of her life. Adopted. Raised Baptist. One of her daughters has become a man. Another wants to find a man to marry, but can’t. Arlene’s husband served in the Vietnam War, came home and attacked her in the middle of the night, thinking she was VietCong. He became a workaholic, consumed by his pediatric practice: she raised the family.

“I used to have my own life, before,” she told me once. “He would do his thing, and I would do mine. Now he’s with me all the time, and he can’t remember a thing, from one moment to the next. Not a damn thing.”

Her husband has PTSD.

“I just want to kill him,” she says to me, in a low whisper. “Isn’t that awful?”

I look into her face, expecting a laugh on lips, which I get. What I didn’t expect is the tears in her eyes, plain as day.

She doesn’t cry. Not for nuthin’.

“My daughter thinks I should be on anti-depressants,” she told me once, “This is my therapy.”

I consider that our arms are the extension of our heart: that what we do with them is an expression of our love, or how much love we can give…or take in. I also consider that, for her to relinquish any part of herself to another – even someone who she’s known for over ten years – is huge.

I observe this. And I accept it, whole thing, left arm and all. And, I let it go.

At least until next week. When I get to practice, all over again! Oh Arlene…

*name has been changed

What you just read is not my fault. It’s because my friend, colleague, co-conspirator and pants kicker Rowan Blaisdell talked me into it, and also, because I cannot resist a write-off: 31 Posts in 31 Days August Blog Challenge, Business Blogging School. Caution snuffed, perfectionism cast off like a smelly cloak: this is blog #21. (okay, I’ve missed a few.)

On Serving: Table to Table

I’ve had food on my mind a lot lately, and not just because it’s harvest. To me, the correlation between good massage therapy and good table service is plain, so I’ve been talking about it. I did serve four years at the renowned Chase’s Daily in Belfast, Maine, and while I understand that four years is really not much at all, it did leave an indelible impression on me, and the things I learned at that wonderful, stressful job I have carried forward into my own practice.

Dining table to massage table: how does one, could one, “serve”?

Service industry work should be required for everyone at least for a half year, because if you do this your capacity for patience, humility and understanding will increase, and I believe these qualities to be admirable, and hard to come by unless cultivated.

There are, I feel, poignant overlaps between waiting tables and the massage therapy biz. I especially noticed them when I was doing both. The biggest difference being, in one capacity we’re talking food. In the other, we’re talking healthcare. However, for many, eating good food is a form of healthcare, and also a top-notch massage therapy session is not unlike a prixe fix meal, where you pay a fixed price for what the chef does best.

Okay, yes, there is another big difference. That being, for one, you go into a public place, sit down and consume. For the other, you into a private place, lie down and relax. There. Now can I get on with the analogy, thin though it may be? Hang on! I think I got it.

Sunflowers. Courtey of Gary! Every September we get these. Right outside my office window.

Sunflowers. Courtey of Gary! Every September we get these. Right outside my office window.

For lack of a better way of putting it, “customer” is equally applied to table service and massage therapy clients. It’s not ideal. My apologies for any connotations it suggests. And for how confusing the references get – I seem to interchange between being an MT and a server.

Meeting them at the door:  Customer service is a necessity in both places, and if it doesn’t exist to your level of taste (or exist at all), don’t go there again. Wandering into a restaurant (or massage office)  and not having a clue where to go or what to do is disconcerting. I don’t know about you, but when this happens to me it makes me apprehensive,  and that’s not great emotional mirepoix for a massage or meal.  “I’ll be with you in just a few minutes”  is all any reasonable person really needs to hear, to know that they’ve been seen and will be taken care of shortly. Unless you’re an entitled, pushy sort who can’t wait for the hostess, in which case, we send you to McDonald’s.

Attention to detail: Give your customer pretty things to look at – educational, expansive, beautiful, inspiring – and if you can’t, err on the side of minimalism. A picture, a candle, a color.  I once shared an office with a woman who had a fine collection of teddy bears congregated in plushy array all over the windowsills and furniture. She is a fantastic MT but the teddy bears were a visual (and dare I say psychological?) obstacle to enjoying her work. Eliminate as many obstacles as possible to someone rebooking or making another reservation.

Another aspect: how you set up your office and the stations around your massage table, much like the mise en place of a professional kitchen, or the sidework every server must do. But that’s another blog.

Establishing rapport: We’ve all been there: the server who is overly friendly and chatty, the server who is using your meal as their personal punching bag, the server who either won’t leave you alone or forgets you’re there. Same is true for our first experience with a massage therapist: too emotional, or reserved: gushy, or brusque: hapless, or know-it-all.

The gamut of “ways to be” is legion. I think of it like baby bear’s porridge: just right. As the recipient, you feel heard, understood, even intuited on a deeper level, but you also feel respected…maybe even held at arm’s length, but with a smile, and with warmth. That’s, in my mind, being professional. It is kindness incarnate. It’s a healthy blend of affection and reserve.

Checking in, or: mouth shut: There is a real art in table service. There is the outright  inquiry, “So how is everything?” but often you’re being watched, too. A good server is keeping a bead on you: judging the liquid level of your water and wine glasses, seeing how quickly you eat or if you’re shoving the food around your plate, observes your body language a lot more than you could ever imagine. Your needs just…”magically” get met.

Okay, so, same goes for massage. Yes, as the MT you do ask: “how is the pressure I’m using” or “are you comfortable” – but what else can you do? Observe. A lot of what the client needs, or might like next, is plain to see (or hear) in their body (and its noises).

In my experience: mostly 35% asking, and 65% keeping mouth shut and seeing what’s going on…and making the necessary adjustments.

Finishing up: Of course, at the end of meal, and of a session, the server or massage therapist is quite keen to know 1) if you liked your experience 2) if they made a difference for you because 3) their livelihood depends on it. In both serving tables and working as a massage therapist, I’ve come up with a standard way of inquiring, and then been prepared for whatever I got. Rebooking – and a good tip – are sometimes the only thing you need, to know you did well.

It’s good to ask if the client is happy. It’s also good to leave them alone, and maybe check in with them in a few days after they’ve come out of their “massage coma” substantially enough to give you real feedback. I do a standard email inquiry 48 hrs or more after a first-time client, very brief, inquiring if/how the work I did was helpful. (Checking in is very educational and a nice touch. Might be a blog post all its own sometime.)

Asking a client too much about the work they just received, right after they received it, isn’t very nice to them, plus you won’t get the most helpful responses necessarily, plus it smacks of insecurity on your part, and that creates awkwardness. Even if you really do feel insecure: dig deep, and hold yourself well and carefully while asking. This is where being professional comes in!

So next time you’re in a restaurant and you feel you might be in the hands of a real pro — put on your Sherlock Holmes tweedy cap and pull out your pipe. Watch what your server does: their demeanor, their care for you, when they appear, when they are gone for a while. Sleuth it out. And take what you learn into your office.

What you just read is not my fault. It’s because my friend, colleague, co-conspirator and pants kicker Rowan Blaisdell talked me into it, and also, because I cannot resist a write-off: 31 Posts in 31 Days August Blog Challenge, Business Blogging School. Caution snuffed, perfectionism cast off like a smelly cloak: this is blog #20. (okay, I’ve missed a few.)

“Mise en place” – photo essay

It’s a French phrase, something I learned from Lucky Peach in their “The Cooks & Chefs Issue,” meaning “putting in place.” From professional kitchen jargon, it refers to how one sets up their space to do the prepping, baking and cooking needed during one’s shift.

In the Lucky Peach Spring 2012 edition, a chef was interviewed and asked, when are you having a good day? “When the mise en place is good,” he replied, along with a few other things.

When are you having a bad day? He replied, when the mise en place is bad, and then details.

I recently posted on my experience as a server in a local, popular restaurant. In reflecting on how being a waitress helped me become a better massage therapist, I realized I have little “mise en place” all over my office: stations of aid, that help me do my job. When these are clean, organized, well-stocked and pleasing to the eye, my work goes well.

So here are some pictures of my office “mise en place.”

The Desk

The Oils, White Sage and Crockpot…for heating towels

The Desk

The Desk

The Reiki Altar

The Reiki Altar

Hanging in the Window, in direct line of sight when I'm seated at client's head

Hanging in the Window, in direct line of sight when I’m seated at client’s head

The Client Folder

The Client Folder

The table, with summer spread. (not a work station, so much, as the place of work itself....like a gas range in a kitchen)

The table, with summer spread. (more the place of work itself, like a gas range in a kitchen)

What you just read is not my fault. It’s because my friend, colleague, co-conspirator and pants kicker Rowan Blaisdell talked me into it, and also, because I cannot resist a write-off: 31 Posts in 31 Days August Blog Challenge, Business Blogging School. Caution snuffed, perfectionism cast off like a smelly cloak: this is blog #19.

Once a Server, Always

Just now I had dinner at Chase’s Daily, Belfast Maine’s claim to culinary fame. I worked there for years, while building my massage practice. Being a server and a massage therapist is not mutually exclusive, something worthy of a blog post sometime.

Tough experiences bring you close to others who work at your side. If you can get through them together, you bond unbelievably. I know this is a small stretch, but there is a similarity between serving at a very popular restaurant in Maine in the summer, and boot camp. They are nearly equal, in terms of hours spent laboring in heat, under constant pressure, running like a madwoman, and being yelled at.

Although not from staff or owners. If I had to have a waitress experience, I was the luckiest to have it at Chase’s, for once I proved my mettle and that I wasn’t going to flake out on them, the owners (the Chase family) adopted me as one of their own. And if your employer is for you, who can be against you?

It was incredibly stressful working there in the summer. We would always get tourists who saw anything that happened there as an impediment to them having a good vacation, and they were (and are) breathtakingly rude. But I did it for four years: I did it for the Chase family, and my amazing co-workers, and the fantastic baked goods, entrees, and the art hanging on the walls (Perimeter Gallery).

I did it because I love Belfast, and Chase’s is in the center of town. You can see Alexia’s across the way, and the lights of the Colonial Theatre blazing down High Street in the dusk of evening…like tonight.

Middle Eastern salad, with yogurt dressing. All veggies from the farm.

Middle Eastern salad, with yogurt dressing. All veggies from the farm.

Every time I go into Chase’s now, I become infused with love. I can’t help it. I get hallooed and hailed and hugged by my ex-co-workers but forever pals. The owners nod and smile and inquire as to how I am. I ask kindly for a seat, but they know what I want: the end stool at the far portion of the counter where I can keep an eye on the kitchen, to harass Freddy if he looks up, and in general make audible yummy noises.

Even the littlest one, Romi, wanders out from behind the bake pan cooling racks and puts her arms around my waist. She can reach that high now: I first knew her when she was a toddler. Now in grade school and with freckles, she looks up into my face, close as can be, and says pitifully, “I waaaaved to you just now, but you didn’t seeeeeee me.”

“Well,” I said. “I see you now. Hello sweetie.” <<hug>>

Any of you who have ever waited tables know: once a server, always a server. It came over me in a crushing rush, while I sipped my red wine and sucked on warm olives: the kitchen, where I did everything, even sanded down and painted that washstand one March during their annual spring cleaning.

The cups that I organized. The coffee pots I washed, the espresso machine I cleaned. The grated cheese I refilled. I knew where every single one of those things needed to be, and where to get more of them should we run out.

And serving. I could hear that food needed to be run: could recognize server names, and translate the caller’s timbre from “urgent” to “This is VERY urgent, someone come get this food NOW.” I was so close to the pick-up window: it was everything I could do to not go over there and run a few plates out to the dining room myself.

But it wasn’t my place anymore. The urge had to remain so: just an urge. I had left two years ago, when I turned 40 and realized I was either going to go into massage therapy full time, or I wasn’t. I took the leap, but I did look back while leaping.

It was a part of my life that was over. Things come to an end, but you forget everything about it that drove you crazy. Only the love remains.

This has something to do with massage therapy, in that I have lived and worked in a small town for nearly 15 years, and while I have clients who are always discovering me, I have a significant amount in my “Inactive” file. For whatever reason, I was seeing them, and then I never saw them again.

Unless at the grocery store, or standing in line at the market, or by chance in another town. The temptation is, because I knew them so fully once, to behave as though I know them fully now. But I don’t. It’s no longer my place to inquire too vigorously, or personally.

In these encounters I know we both feel a little awkward, but it’s best to just be together in the moment, and not wait for apologies or promises. They don’t owe me a thing: their life and mine no longer intersect meaningfully: only just now, like this, looking at one another and smiling.

There is nothing else I really feel for this person: I have no agenda for them, no fear of why they left, no hope of their return to my office. Only the affection I felt for them once, and therefore always will feel, remains.

What you just read is not my fault. It’s because my friend, colleague, co-conspirator and pants kicker Rowan Blaisdell talked me into it, and also, because I cannot resist a write-off: 31 Posts in 31 Days August Blog Challenge, Business Blogging School. Caution snuffed, perfectionism cast off like a smelly cloak: this is blog #18.

For Crying Out Loud

This week, I had a bad day. I had a neck tension headache, with some real anguish behind it. I saw a client who had suffered profound loss in her life, and as I considered her in session, I found myself overwhelmed with sobs as I worked. How did I handle this?

Very, very quietly.

Weeping and crying are as welcomed in my massage office as bad jokes, snores and burps. “I may cry,” some clients like to warn me before they get on the table, as if divulging a bad character flaw.

“If it happens, let it happen,” I always counter. “I’ve got a great big box of tissues here for a reason. Plenty of tears in this room, mine and everyone else’s.”

Nearly empty, as you can see

Nearly empty, as you can see

When I attended the Muscular Therapy Institute in Cambridge, Mass. in the late 1990s, we learned many helpful things in the Skills and Dynamics of Therapeutic Relationships class. Although it bugged the hooey out of me at the time (I was perenially annoyed in school, it almost doesn’t bear mentioning, but I was. I had no idea what was happening to me and the not-knowing was disquieting), we did discuss what to do when clients come in and fall apart: be respectful of their grief, their personal space, hand them tissues, don’t explain away their sadness.

Basically, keep your heart open and your mouth shut.

They didn’t teach me what to do when *I* came in my office and fell apart. I had to learn that by myself, but inspiration came years after from an unlikely source.

I am – on top of being a massage therapist – a trained actress, with years’ worth of performance (acting and singing) under my belt. I spent the first 6 or 7 years of my life here in Midcoast Maine doing community theater and some semi-professional shows up at Penobscot Theater in Bangor.

I was in a production of “The Laramie Project,” directed by John Clancy. The ensemble was an actor’s dream come true: the material was heartbreaking, educational, terrifying and funny. The play dealt with the reaction to the 1998 murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming.

During rehearsal we needed to enter the heartbreaking parts. We had to get accustomed to the incredible discomfort it brought up for all of us. Clancy, however, modeled sorrow: we wouldn’t be sure at all how we were impacting him, because he was so still when he watched us, but then we could see, at the end of our scene work: tears just rolling, rolling, rolling down his face.

Not a sound, not a shudder, not calling attention to himself in any way: just: pure grief.

As an actor it took your breath away, not only to know you were impacting your director in such a manner, but also that he was letting himself fall apart so fully, yet with respect to what you were trying to accomplish. It was beautiful to see him being so fully human — guileless, all heart — and so fully considerate.

Now, when I am broken by sadness while massaging someone, I spend very little time trying to decipher who’s pain I’m feeling. It’s theirs, it’s mine, who knows? Especially if you are moved to tears by a client who keeps losing, yet fights valiantly on. It can unleash savage, wracking sobs, where soon you’re crying for all humanity.

It has everything to do with how I behave, however. Like Clancy, I know what I’m feeling, but I want to let my client have what they’re having. Just because I’m crying doesn’t mean they have to 1) see me crying 2) know why I’m crying 3) join in. Maybe this massage is the first time they haven’t cried in 2 weeks; they don’t need seeing me all bunged up with waterworks. If it happens, I let it happen: but mostly, I think holding even this boundary firmly in place is important in the therapeutic relationship.

I want them to rest, which means, for them, not wondering why I’m crying. I owe it to them to keep it together enough to give them the massage they’ve been anticipating: I owe it to myself to let myself cry. And, blow my nose, wipe away my tears, and then sanitize my hands, just like I would if I had allergies or a cold.

And remind myself to get ANOTHER big box of tissues next time I’m at the store.

In closing: one of the great massage stories, courtesy of Trager.com:

Bodyworker in audience: “Do you encourage emotional release?”
Trager: “No, if it happens, I take care of it”.
Bodyworker, (seriously, notebook and pen poised for the response): “How do you take care of it?”
Trager: “I console them.”

What you just read is not my fault. It’s because my friend, colleague, co-conspirator and pants kicker Rowan Blaisdell talked me into it, and also, because I cannot resist a write-off: 31 Posts in 31 Days August Blog Challenge, Business Blogging School. Caution snuffed, perfectionism cast off like a smelly cloak: this is blog #17.

And He Laid His Hands Upon Them

I never wanted to be a massage therapist. There were many scattered, lively things inside me that massage therapy answered, so when I did find it I thought “Ah-haaaaa! Now we’re gettin’ somewhere!”

But as a career I wasn’t interested. Most I associated it with an intrinsic nurturing, healing mentality, which when I was first considering school – in my late 20s – I didn’t have an abundance of either. I got into massage therapy, quite frankly, because I hated the job I had. Pure and simple. (Working the high tech corridor outside Boston, sequestered in a cubicle for hours, bored and horrified me.)

The most beautiful occupation is the one that births you – the real you – to the world, so service doesn’t feel at all like a chore, but more effortless and relaxing than you ever thought possible. And that’s what massage therapy did for me. I have more compassion, patience, intuition and love now than when I started doing the work. I have not mastered any of these qualities but they are real energies in my life, which I can only attribute to my years of hoping they would show up for real.

Now my effort is in encouraging them, like helping small children grow. Doing massage therapy brings my deep, intrinsic qualities to the fore: the ones that are natal to every soul: the ones we all have, but forget.

I never set out to be a “healer” of any kind and still shrink from the title, should someone choose to dub me as such. What I do, for my job, is rub human bodies so they hurt less. To me, there’s nothing plush or magical or even ennobling in this: it’s basic human care, something we’ve been doing for each other for thousands of years, to help each other out.

My friend and colleague Rowan Blaisdell writes eloquently about this in his post “More About How I Got Here“:

I loved the idea of caring for another person in such a profound way. Before this I’m not sure I ever thought much about health care or healing. I don’t mean “Healing”, as in “I will Heal you”. I mean the kind of healing we all do each day (or should) for ourselves and those we love. The mending of hurts both physical and emotional.

And have you read the work of David Lauterstein? David’s writing and teaching have been hugely instrumental to me in not only becoming a better practitioner, but more curious and imaginative individual, filled with wonder. I don’t even know where to begin on how wonderful David’s writings are to me, except to share a portion which dovetails what Rowan said quite nicely : from Lauterstein’s seminal work, “Putting the Soul Back in the Body: A Manual of Imaginative Anatomy for Massage Therapists

Resting stroke: although not commonly taught as a stroke, what is meant here is just placing your hand on the person , making contact. It may be said to be the basic stroke of some disciplines such as polarity, Jin Shin Do, Reiki, etc. But it needn’t be esoteric. We all know how helpful a simple hand on the shoulder may feel when things get a little rough. That hand says “I care about you, I’m here, it’s going to be O.K. ”

At the beginning of each massage I use this stroke, not with the pretense of “Here’s Mr. Healer,” but simply as a way to introduce myself to the person’s body, oftentimes while we’re lightly conversing.”

The healing of massage happens, I feel, not because the practitioner has all the answers for this client, nor because the client has something wrong with them that has to be fixed. Healing happens with first contact, and lasts through the whole session, when both meet in that holy nexus of professional know-how and profound care.

In this way, yes, it is up to me to be the healer in session: but all that means is that I bring my best human qualities to the fore: being there, touching with consideration and compassion, listening deeply and well. Healing is a natural, effortless offshoot of this endeavor.

What you just read is not my fault. It’s because my friend, colleague, co-conspirator and pants kicker Rowan Blaisdell talked me into it, and also, because I cannot resist a write-off: 31 Posts in 31 Days August Blog Challenge, Business Blogging School. Caution snuffed, perfectionism cast off like a smelly cloak: this is blog #16.

Once On The Lips

Nothing says regret like a day filled with bad food and drink choices. “Ha ha,” you say. “That’s funny.” No it’s not! You know EXACTLY what I’m talking about.

The morning you thought a donut would be a nice treat before a 5-client day. The afternoon you ate 4 slices of fresh watermelon and then did a 90-minute session. The night before when you lost your mind and had just one too many. Just one. Yikes me noodle. Catastrophe.

I have been blessed with great stamina and good strength, but nothing throws me completely for a loop like the wrong food or drink. Hypoglycemic, allergic, with a tendency towards acid reflux and the occasional gastrointestinal distress (well, why not lay all my cards out on the table), I’ve learned a few lessons the hard way when it comes to eating for my work day, which on average is 4 clients spread out over 8 hours, with about 15 minutes to eat (and maybe sit down too).

Water first thing: The time to start drinking water is first thing in the morning. A couple glasses. You can do it. Sip sip! Then your hot bevvie of choice: tea or coffee. Then: sip. Sip. Out the door. In the office: another glass. Siiiiiiiiiiiip. Ahh. (and pour one for your client, they love it)

Solid breakfast: protein please. Two eggs are great, with gluten-free toast (my favorite). I’ll also do steel cut oats in the winter, with walnuts and raisins, or gluten-free cereal with hemp milk and fresh fruit in the summer.   If you’re a smoothie drinker, put some yogurt in there, or have a handful of nuts on the side. Doesn’t have to be a lot, in fact it’s probably better if it’s not – but you do need it.

YES! These are all things I have in my office to eat. Okay you gotta be careful with the sardines, but that's what the toothbrush and toothpaste in your office bathroom are for. Cashews are an awesome quick protein blast, and kombu, or kelp - just a pinch - is a salty snack packed with good stuff for your thyroid, plus B-vitamins. (acquired taste for sure, but once acquired...om nom nom.)

YES! These are all things I have in my office to eat. Okay fish breath is nasty but that’s what the toothbrush and toothpaste in your office bathroom are for. Cashews are an awesome quick protein blast, and kombu, or kelp – just a pinch – is salty and packed with good stuff for your thyroid, plus B-vitamins. (acquired taste for sure, but once acquired…om nom nom.)

(I’m not a gluten-free eater by nature but I’ve found since my husband started eating that way, and I along with him, I have better energy without wheat flour in my system. Try it for a week and see what I mean.)

Watch the fiber: Remember what I said about the 4 slices of watermelon? One of the few and only times I have had to re-drape a client and leave the room was because 43 minutes into the session that watermelon churned through me faster than a tourist through a Maine lobster roll. ” ‘scuse me, I’ll be riiiiight back,” as I boogied for the bathroom.

In this category as well: salads. Just raw veggies and dressing are great, and they give you an inital burst of energy, but for the long haul (and lots of us need energy not only for our physical labor, but so we can concentrate -! No donut is gonna help with that!) you need protein, and raw foods are carb heavy. C’mon. Just a little cheese, or some garbanzos, or something.

NO. I love ginger chews but they are wicked little sugar bombs and I'm always like, "Gee why am I so tired?" and then I remembered I ate one... : ( Luna bars are good overall but again, the sugar will wear you right out. I have these in my office. Wish I didn't but there you go.

NO. I love ginger chews but they are wicked little sugar bombs and I’m always like, “Gee why am I so tired?” and then I remembered I ate one… : ( Luna bars are good overall but again, the sugar will wear you right out. I have these in my office. Wish I didn’t but there you go.

Did I say garbanzos? I meant grilled meat: Let me say something perhaps a little surprising here. I am all for the fresh, raw and sprouty. But again: the work we do requires energy for the long haul, plus food for our brain so we can focus, change direction in the moment, make quick adjustments and communicate with the client annnnnnnnd….well, we’re right up near someone, and if you have “problems” with legumes? Like I have?

And by problems I mean, you know what…the odiferous kind…BEANS ARE NOT YOUR FRIEND as a massage therapist. Neither is garlic, onions or any buddies in the allium family. FRESH FRUIT IS ALSO NOT YOUR FRIEND, especially the super-watery/diuretic kind. I am telling you. Such a good idea at the time, and then 43 minutes later, you are filled with a few things, including audible distress.

So honestly, I would rather eat some meat — a little bit of it, mind you, not deli-style reuben — before I go with beans, and I do not eat a whole portion. I eat until I am just full, and then go back to work. As massage therapists we labor, and it’s asking a lot of our dear bodies to be so physical and digest a meal. (Nibble nibble)

Here is the ULTIMATE snack, provided you are not allergic to almonds. This belongs to my officemate, Jean, and Jean if you're reading this, I did not eat a single ONE of these while you've been away on vacation. Not a blessed nut. Okay, I just opened the jar and inhaled deeply one day when I ran out of cashews. That's all! I swear!

Here is the ULTIMATE snack, provided you are not allergic to almonds. This belongs to my officemate, Jean, and Jean if you’re reading this, I did not eat a single ONE of these while you’ve been away on vacation. Not a blessed nut. Okay, I just opened the jar and inhaled deeply one day when I ran out of cashews. That’s all! I swear!

Know your body. Know how it digests (or doesn’t digest) the food you’re about to consume, and plan accordingly. If what you just ate makes you:

  1. sneeze – too much sugar?
  2. nose run and your sinuses hurt – maybe you just had dairy? I used to eat yogurt and this happened to me all the time. Had to stop. Hard to do. But the plus is I’m not constantly fighting a drippy nose while working, nor does my face hurt anymore.
  3. incredibly sleepy – too much white flour and/or carbs? No more sandwiches made with wheat bread for you. Protein and veg only please. How about a small piece of meat and a two steamed veggies? That’s just about perfect.
  4. gassy – gee, could be anything, but most likely your meal is too fiber-y or garlick-y/onion-y
  5. unable to focus – this is a serious one, because we need to be able to hone in on clients and give them our full attention. Crafting a session, responding to their verbal and non-verbal cues, being open for in-the-moment inspiration can all depend on whether or not we are “there.”

    All of us have bad days where concentration is way off, due to a variety of issues, but don’t let something you ate be the cause if you can help it. If you eat and then you can’t think right, make a mental note of whatever it was and try to not eat that again. Even if it’s fresh corn off the cob. Or a tomato salad.Delight in it on a non-work day, and when you’re working, treat your body with the care it deserves. What you put past your lips makes a difference for your practice.

    What you just read is not my fault. It’s because my friend, colleague, co-conspirator and pants kicker Rowan Blaisdell talked me into it, and also, because I cannot resist a write-off: 31 Posts in 31 Days August Blog Challenge, Business Blogging School. Caution snuffed, perfectionism cast off like a smelly cloak: this is blog #15.

Every Time We Say Good-bye

I have been considering endings, lately. What about you? August is filled with preparation for fall. Light lowers and hems. We start saying Farewell to heat, here in Maine, as well. There is great harvest and celebration, but it’s the beginning of the end.

As we say good-bye to someone, something, we can feel bad. Maybe we thought this happy thing was never going to end, but here it is, ending anyway. Maybe we couldn’t wait for this miserable event to be over, and now that it is, we have a lot more mixed feelings than we thought we would have, including sourness over having wasted so much time on something that ended up being a huge disappointment.

While saying good-bye, we can cling, or we can push it away.

But here it comes: close to going…

going away now…

gone.

The temptation is to fill an ending with the instant in-rush of next steps, next move, next next next. “WHAT’S NEXT?!?!” The grave’s not even cold. We get what we’ve been craving, and like toddlers we hold it for 2 seconds, let it roll out of our hands, and wriggle on, grabbing and tasting and exulting…but not absorbing. Or cleaning up the mess in our wake.

Sometimes there just isn’t a “next.” Something ends. And, in that completion, there is a borderless quiet that comes in and soaks us to our soul roots. We haven’t got “it,’ whatever it is, to catapult us into knowing, doing, saying or planning what’s to come. We aren’t inspired. We feel blank, fallow, still as glass, or snow falling in a field.

A massage therapy or Reiki, or other bodywork, session is hugely instrumental in teaching us how to say good-bye. As recipients, we present ourselves to a practitioner for healing, hope for the best, receive what we get, and then must arise and go forth. That lovely time is over before we know it. “Can’t I just stay here?” No, we can’t stay.

Courtesy Kevin Kratka Photography

Courtesy Kevin Kratka Photography

As practitioners, we see the session as a whole, but we also see each part of the person as a whole, and as such, we say hello/goodbye, hello/goodbye, constantly during the massage. Hello to your scalp! Goodbye scalp. Hello neck! Goodbye neck. Hello to your whole shoulder, whole arm and down to each finger! Goodbye to all that.

Hello wonderful beautiful incredible awesome gorgeous human being person thing!

Goodbye wonderful beautiful incredible awesome gorgeous human being person thing.

I like to end my massage therapy sessions by holding a limb or a pate, for a prayerful length. It reminds me of that long quiet, that vast unknowing, that comes at the end of all things: when you know it’s the end, and you don’t know what’s next. You know just enough to stay where you are, breathing, falling.

“To change what we are doing, we must stop what we are doing.” – David Lauterstein

“We need, in love, to practice only this: letting each other go. For holding on comes easily; we do not need to learn it. ” – Rainer Maria Rilke

“As you uncover God’s loving truth, you uncover your own, and as you uncover your own truth, you fall deeper into God’s mercy and love.” – Richard Rohr

What you just read is not my fault. It’s because my friend, colleague, co-conspirator and pants kicker Rowan Blaisdell talked me into it, and also, because I cannot resist a write-off: 31 Posts in 31 Days August Blog Challenge, Business Blogging School. Caution snuffed, perfectionism cast off like a smelly cloak: this is blog #14.