Looking Up

Hands at work, head bowed. So many of us spend time in this position. I find it curious that, as a massage therapist, I often assume a tense, hunched posture in an effort to relieve the tension and constrained musculature of another human. Lifting my head becomes important.

Early in my career I was thankfully employed by spas and health clubs until I could figure out what I actually had to offer. I worked in many conditions, none of them terrible, but there were some humdingers. By far the most challenging was the spa where I labored in a windowless, slightly musty room on the other side of a women’s fitness club, with no sound insulation.

Without fail, during one of my sessions, the dance music would kick in and end up going for hours. There I was: pouring it on, with carefully selected healing music on my boombox and an array of high-quality essential oils at the ready, the best intentions in my heart and my mind focused purely on the task at hand, and all of the sudden:  nnn-tt-nnn-tt-nnn-tt-nnn-tt– LET YOH BODDY – MOOOOVE TO THE MYOOOSIC . Entire mood blown, train of thought derailed, thanks to “Vogue.”

In my current office, where I’ve been the past six years, there are ample windows and not only do I get to feel and watch the sunlight move through the room, but there is yard and fruit trees, fresh air blowing through open windows, with field, forest and mountains beyond. Even while in session, with the curtains drawn, I can peek out between panels and see. You can be assured I don’t miss much that happens in my bucolic surrounds.

In the summer: Gary’s endless lawn labors, his and Jane’s kids and their friends running amok, incoming storms and tons of traffic. The autumn brings mist, wet grey that goes for days, torrents of rich khaki leaves blowing unending up through the field and into any low-lying place to clatter and gather.  In the winter, the blinding white of sunlight against old snowfall, falling snow itself, aching stillness and dark.

In spring: the gradual dissolve of icy white ground into the browngrey of dead grass, the browngrey everywhere dissolving into green. Songbirds and free-range fowl; this year there will be guinea hens. If I forget to look up, their screen-door screech and the sight of them strutting by in my peripheral vision will snap me to attention, and I will remember: head up, child. Stand proud, like a chicken.

The need to raise my head is not mere scenery appreciation: it serves a purpose, that which I initially spoke of: the need to not be all tense and scrunched while attempting to relieve the tense/scrunch of a client. Remember the sage words spoken to you by your stewardess the last time you took a plane: “Secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.” This, and many other things in the standard safety spiel of flight, is applicable to life: help yourself before you think you can help another. (Another of my favorites, which every time I hear it or consider it, is raised to near-koan heights: “Remember the closest exit may be behind you.”)

And I start with how I hold myself while I work: core strength engaged, head balanced on top of my body instead of hanging off the top of my neck: ears aligned with shoulders, shoulders in line with my hips, hips over my knees, and feeling that energy all the way through my feet. My head, therefore, naturally, is up and my eyes are looking a lot of other places than down. I am not on an assembly line, assembling widgets. Bodywork is, for all its proven efficacy and inroads into allopathic medicine, feels more like playing a Chopin prelude by heart, or doing tai chi. So I don’t have to hang on so hard.

Which brings me to my final reason for looking up: it is ultimately from whence my help truly comes. My best work doesn’t come from strain, parsing, fixing – all of which causes me  to rivet my gaze. If I lift my eyes, I drop my agenda for my client because I am not staring at them and their trouble spots. Taking my eyes up from my work and gazing softly ahead, I am insisting on the intrinsic intelligence of my own two hands and their ability to listen/feel and heal, all by their blessed selves, which they do, they really do, and the less I try to help them the better off everyone is for the next 90 minutes.

Lifting up, I drop into the bliss of trust and surrender better. My intention for my client, whatever that might be – a cured headache, an eased heartache, reduced backache and/or utter and complete transformation of their circumstance – is enough. Intention is not intellectual: it is all heart, and with a lifted gaze, my head moves back on top of my spine, and my upper chest opens and expands naturally, allowing my heart to feel its fullness and power.

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Standing Mute in the Presence

Good intentions are a kind of soil. Tragedy sprouts alongside blessing. You think you know which are which. Weeds or medicine? It’s not clear, is it?

As  I reach out from myself and place my hands on my client, the sheer force of who they are comes into play. Let me tell you about her, the one I’m thinking of.

This month of August, she is on vacation here on the coast of Maine, visiting her mother and father, her sibling, her grandmother, and raising her children in the absence of her husband, when he comes up from their home in Boston and reunites with them on weekends. This scene is Typical Maine Summer: family reconnecting, traveling back and forth until the autumn and school, but that is most definitely where all pleasant, cozy, darling similarities end.

My client is not living the LL Bean lifestyle, is not making regular glowing posts on FaceBook bragging about the good time she’s having, is not going to look back on this time with warm nostalgia. She is living a gritty reality, and those kinds of things one spends time getting through, not commenting on.

Her mother is dying. Her grandmother is not well. Her sibling has Down’s Syndrome.  She is nursing one child and helping her other one potty train. Her Dad’s back is in bad shape. She is the rock.

She is seeing me for relief. This is her second session because after last week, the elongation and re-centering work I did was just a touch over the line. I gave her a 4 when I should have given her a 2.5.

I may or may not have been the catalyst for the dull ache she now has in her lowback and hips, that was not there before I did the work  she asked for – that we discussed before I got her on the table – last week.  I felt I was being careful: but as a body worker, when you take your client’s hands in yours, and you both go walking into the wilderness of a first-time session, everything this person has been holding in their body could come flying up and out and at you with a few well-intentioned but misinformed gestures, and at the end of the session the client could resurface with pieces of themselves all over the room.

Cupping my client’s heels in my hands, as she lies supine, cradled in the purple blue of the linens and paint color I’ve chosen for this room, I want to really make the difference for her today. Last week didn’t turn out the way we’d planned, and so now I stand in the grace-filled quiet as we begin together, all the more determined to heal what I may or may not have flushed out of hiding.

And – I understand that I can’t.

Every single person who reaches out with the bone-aching desire to help another knows this feeling, this moment when you understand your best intentions failed, and your now re-invigorated, over-sized best intentions (bruised from the ego-smiting, even more fired up to “make an impression”) are in grave danger of being woefully inadequate, once again.  Every doctor, teacher, pastor, social worker, vet, midwife, stands in the space between what they would like to do and what actually happens.

How can I make a difference for this exquisite being? Especially when she was perfectly fine until I came along? As I stand mute in the presence of not knowing what I can do, given what I’ve already done and what I’m about to do, I make firm contact with her heels, wrap my full hands around the calcaneus, take a deep breath in, and surrender.

Route 3

There is one interstate in and out of Maine, and many connectors to the coast. My office is off of one such connector: Route 3: a single-lane travesty, and for tourists a seemingly endless obstacle between them, whoever is in the car with them (pets? kids? grumpy spouse? overly chatty friend?) and lobster dinners on the shore.

I don’t work on weekends, but I make exceptions. One Saturday, after finishing up with a client around noon, I intended to just pull out onto Route 3 and head into Belfast, licketysplit. I sat there for eight minutes – I counted them go by – while I waited for the traffic to ease. At first peeved, then amazed, I watched car after car heading north and east, giant autos laden with bikes and gear and crammed with supplies, license plates from the usual suspects: CT, NJ, NY, PA. The driver, male or female, was filled with grim resolve to finish this journey already, sunglasses on and face expressionless, bodies small and furry gyrating in the backseat. We will get to this friggin’ coast and we WILL have a good time.

I sympathize. When I moved to Maine over ten years ago, buoyant with clueless enthusiasm, I was just as determined (though not constrained by such pesky things as plans and disposable income) to make this place surrender its promise. But you can’t conquer location, especially if your experience is limited to only being there when it’s at its best, which in Maine means sometime between July 7th and 24th. It would be like showing up at your favorite barkeep’s front door on Sunday morning, expecting the same bonhomie and kind regard as you experience on Friday night.

The summer is so short in Maine: the good life temporal. People have been coming to Maine for hundreds of years so they can maintain their tender illusions. Even after my years of  work and winter and worry here, as far as illusions go, there’s some truth to it. If you want to have the best life has to offer, Maine is the perfect place to do it. But don’t stay, unless you want to labor just like everybody else.

And don’t stay, unless you want to go within and figure out why you’re Here, and here, which is a form of the good life, the best life has to offer, but not what a person has in mind necessarily when considering moving here for real, and certainly not when leafing through DownEast or Maine magazine. Bless the publications that spin our lives in perfectly framed, well-heeled and uber-cool stories. It’s not like that, until it is like that, but then why talk about it if/when you’re there, unless to lure more grimly determined vacationers to our state borders? Goodness knows that’s how I got here. And look what’s become of me. Citizen. There are other places in America? Where?

So – and I say this sotto voce, mouth behind back of hand – I may be on the verge of having that lifeIvealwayswanted here in this northern clime of poor towns and great effort. And this life is as great as I thought it would be, but it resembles nothing of why I came here, nor, I hope, will it turn out the way I’ve assumed. You live in a place for a while, you either leave or you find you care: you start relationships: you are hampered by others’ joy or suffering:  eventually you stand with your neighbors as best you can and serve. Whatever allows me to do this, in the way I’ve continued or in ways that have yet to be evidenced to me, is the the life I’ve always wanted, but I didn’t know that when I first got here. I am glad to have mostly figured that part out.

The way I’ve chosen to serve is to be a massage therapist in a small coastal town. There are farmers and nurses, doctors and carpenters, activists and midwives and preachers and musicians here, and we all lean on one another, whether or not we know it, whether or not we even know each other’s names, in the same way an earlobe might have a vague notion of toes but doesn’t know any of them personally. The body is a universe: it is ephemeral: it is each of us individually and we all make a larger body: this small town, this sparsely populated state.

Because of my line of work I have the tendency to look at everything as small bits of a greater whole, and love the bits, and love the whole.  The best place to love everything is right here.

For every ten cars zipping past, there’s one that has a person or a whole family that will sometime not be making the same trip, only going west and south, in a few weeks. One car will stay. To them, I say: I’m sorry. And: welcome. Check your baggage before boarding. We may experience some turbulence. It’s gonna be quite a flight.