Mine, Mine, Mine

There’s a business model out there for massage therapists but I’m not doing it. I guess you can make a six figure income using this technique: get between 17 to 25 people to pay you $4-6k for a six-month period of focused service. Two women put this together, to garner high-end clients and ensure a whopping profit. It must be true, I read it, in Massage Today.

The problem with massage therapy, as I see it, is threefold: 1) one person 2) one table 3) two hands.  (This is not a problem, at all, but if you are trying to be upwardly mobile and also do massage, it could be.) You can’t put your work in a bottle and mass-produce it, and you can’t make other people do your session: when a client calls, it’s you they want, not someone else, not even if that person is your employee and/or is a good sport about doing things your way. You wear yourself out to break even. It can happen.

I’ve gone galloping into the great wilderness of client acquisition and reaching my fifteen-year mark in terms of practice. I am thankfully not the same person who started this career but I’m also keen on understanding what she’s all about, because career longevity, as I understand it, requires re-evaluation every so often, and I am wondering all over again, “Who am I in this work? What do I want out of it? Who is my client? What can I do for them now?” (Also, what brought me here? Why am I still doing  this job? I ask these questions because I care.)

You know how you pursue something headlong, sometimes for years, and then when you finally catch up to It, whatever It is, you grab it and get it down on the ground and wrestle around with it for a while, and it looks up at you and growls, you see it clearly is *not* the thing you thought you were chasing, and worse now that you’ve captured it, it’s your responsibility to do something with it?

That’s what it’s like, from my perspective, in reaching my maximum potential as a practitioner. I have been wondering what it would feel like to have as many clients as I could literally handle in a week.  I’ve had the chance to find out. (I’ve also had the business equivalent of kudzu tumbling over a hot barren wasteland: that is, next to no one: that is the ups and downs of business, and it usually hits us here in Maine when it’s hitting everyone else around here, late winter through early spring, so even while we all suffer a little, we are suffering together, which gives all of us the opportunity to practice compassion. And not pity ourselves? Too much?)

There is no magic to being busy. You keep showing up, you do the rounds, you’ll work. I’m not chanting for clients;  they have by some grace found me, sometimes just when I needed them the most. Over a period of years, if you stick with anything, you reach some kind of success. And then you have to start all over again, because success is temporary. It feels good to land there but pretty soon the locals show up and want to know what the hell you think you’re doing, standing on their beach, blowing your own trumpet. Best to keep moving.

Having a full client load is not something I want to stand on a boulder and shout about. It’s that thing I’ve been pursuing because it’s my nature. It’s also that thing that looks up at me and growls. But now I’m in trouble. I realize I have only two hands, one office, only so much time and only so much energy. I can only see one person at a time: even if I had the limbs of Shiva, I could not possibly see more people than I do.

And it’s the thing that makes me stand shoulder-to-shoulder with myriad others who, like me, realize they can’t possibly do more, and yet know they must, somehow: for income and for conscience. And for whom the possibility of a six-figure income in their chosen profession looks mighty good.

I’ve watched  massage therapy– with profound gratitude – become studied, accepted, acclaimed, and referred to. I am humbled by the many researchers, writers, professional organizations, educators and advocates in the massage biz. I have work because they have given what I do legitimacy. I am pooped, but it’s a good pooped.

It’s because of this that I don’t begrudge the profiteers one iota, not really, no, not at all. Their schemes are a normal outcome of a business that spirals every year into the greater mainstream. They don’t threaten me, really. It only firms my resolve to grab what I know of the work I do and run the other way down the field with it, convincing as many as I can to join me in the end zone.

I see massage therapy as an act of subversion: a bona fide profession, but one that ducks under the high beams of money-makers, and tricks people – practitioner and client alike – into opening their heart, after all. It’s a creative art, up there with sculpting and throat singing and giving birth. It should attract the artist, the actor, the disciple, the devotee:  why not give their innate curiosity, empathy, love of story, and love for humanity, a place to perfect a trade and practice radical tenderness?

Rather than waitressing or temping or data entry, the sensitive thousands could become massage therapists, and save one human at a time through professional loving attention.

I may never make a comfortable living but is that the goal? Comfort? I’d rather accept that there is no comfort in life save for the small caring gestures we can give, human to human; that struggle is sacred, and make my work one Noah’s ark in a roiling endless sea, because in case you haven’t noticed our times certainly do seem that dire.

That Thing You Do

“During the session,” he asked me, voice with a discernible quaver, “what is that? That you’re doing? What is it?”

I was changing the linens on the table, but looked up at him because I could see he was wrestling with something that had just happened to him that didn’t make sense, and I wanted to see what his face was doing now. I had been studying that face a lot, since he had been coming in for sessions rather often: it was made of a bone and muscle structure I don’t often get to see in Maine, what with the prevalence here of French, German and British Isle blood.

He was clearly Italian, with a soft-spoken voice and a nose that had been broken and reset.  (“One of the guys took a swing at me with a chair,” he told me quietly when I asked him.) A psychologist in the New Jersey prison system, this man had come to Maine to help his father die, but also, I suspect, to just. Get. Away. Few people accidentally find themselves here: Maine is a long way from anywhere to somehow wander into.

My client had clearly been through a few things, most of which he didn’t want to talk about. Which I feel is one of the great things about massage: it is non-verbal therapy. The client’s body speaks, and the massage therapist listens, on a cellular level that scoffs at words and gets – more or less literally – to the heart of the matter. The client gets off the table, the client feels much better, and sometimes has no idea why. Like this guy.

But it was the tone in his voice that made me look, and when I did I saw his eyes were pink around the edges, and through the bliss I saw his face was crumply with a touch of confusion. He looked like he might cry, or had been while I was out of the room and then pulled himself together when I re-entered.  My heart went out to him. I was pretty sure I knew how he felt.

“It’s Reiki,” I said to him reassuringly. “That’s all. I was sending you Reiki while I was giving you your massage.”

“Oh,” he replied, looking both baffled and relieved. “I didn’t realize? I knew there was something different about your work but I couldn’t tell what it was.”

Just like a outfielder doesn’t need to know the finer points of pitching, massage therapists without any energy work arrows in their quiver of skills probably don’t need it. I would wager some of them are a lot better than me at what they do. I only say this because I don’t propose that the only way to be an excellent massage therapist is to offer Reiki. I only know that the only way I can be the best MT I can be is with this modality. Here’s why. And it goes back a-ways.

When I was in massage therapy school in the 1990s, I was in my late twenties. I was already exhausted from doing corporate jobs, spending more time weeping with frustration in the bathrooms of various Internet start-ups in Boston’s tech corridor (I was a temp, mostly) than I spent actually sitting in my grey little cubicle doing measurable work. Poor kid. As I look back on the situation that drove me to massage school, I am grateful I felt that useless, dumb, bored and unhappy.

It turned me into a seeker, someone I was NOT interested in becoming, having been raised in a conservative Christian community and aggravated, most of my life, by the spiritually intense. I noticed those who described themselves as “on the path” often had not-so-subtle plans for me, hoping I could be manipulated into thinking, believing or behaving in a manner that I felt antithetical to common sense, common good, and kindness. I had stopped attending church in college and never looked back.

Nonetheless: a seeker I became, reluctant and dubious. I thought the best place to start was change my career: I wanted to do something meaningful, beautiful, for heaven’s sake. I was pretty sure writing HTML wasn’t it, not for me anyway. Ask and you shall receive. A massage for my 28th birthday turned into visiting the Muscular Therapy Institute in Cambridge, which became enrollment into a two-year, 900-hour program that both changed and saved my life.

I would do massage therapy, but if anyone tried to pull their woo-woo feathers-n-crystals crap on me, I was having none of it. In the years after college I was horrified to discover a plenitude of huckster New Age types, no different from the fundamentalist Christians I’d known except for what they were trying to sell. I was deeply suspicious of any modality that promised to heal anybody of anything.

Imagine my consternation when I took an internship my final semester of massage school, and the women I shadowed was an MT and Reiki master. I was worried she was going to try to give me some, and I wasn’t in the mood. Finally, it happened: she had some spare time and asked me if I would like short session. At this point in our relationship, only part of me hesitated: I was so tired, with working full-time, going to school, planning my then-husband’s and my move to Maine. I really liked and trusted her: and I really needed to lay down. So I did, hoping for nothing other than a brief nap.

What happened next is something that has happened to me only once, in all my years of giving and receiving: I have asked for it to show up again but of course it hasn’t: none of my clients have experienced it from me, to my knowledge: but you can’t ever force or cajole these things. They happen once, but once is really enough to last you.

I lay face up in the quiet, warm semi-dark of her office. I had my eyes open, so what I saw was with my actual eyeballs. She worked around me for a while, and then about 25 minutes into things she wrapped her hands around my feet. At that moment, everything ticked down into slow motion. Out from behind this lovely woman, a huge wave of pure white light came out, over her shoulders, coursing down over her arms, and went shooting right up into my body. I felt it, as one might feel jumping off a cliff in the tropics and hitting ocean waters with your feet, then rapidly the rest of you being engulfed.

I flopped around with all this light inside me, feeling like I was getting electrocuted by the holiest of holies, and then it was gone, and I was back, and she still had her hands on my feet. “What,” I gasped, “was that?”

“Hmm,” she mused without looking at me. “Some Reiki.”

In the days following I felt rejuvenated and emboldened. It faded after time, as I suspected it would. But it kindled something in me. I wanted to know more. I had to. Looked like I was gonna be one of those woo-woo practitioners after all.

Fast forward 15 years (the who I trained with, where I trained, what it did for me, how I run a Reiki session, what it means to me to give both Reiki and massage at the same time, the difference between massage and Reiki, how I do attunements and why I do them, being posts for another time): Now I am not only a Reiki practitioner, but a Reiki master, which means I supposedly know a lot about Reiki, but I know I haven’t mastered much. I am available for good. That’s where I stand.

Not every client notices the Reiki I do, but that’s not important to me. I know it’s there. I can feel it. Sometimes other people do too.

Make Someone Happy

“Oh I’m so sleepy,” my client said as I got her moved around from prone to supine. She was rubbing her eyes and yawning. It was an afternoon massage, and good time for a nap anyway, I said aloud. Rub rub rub. As I finished her neck work and moved to her arms, she looked at me through one open eyeball. “You’re not going to steal my kidneys are you?”

See, I can’t help it. To me, this is funny, and so, I laugh. Not loud (well, sometimes) and not directly over my client (for hygienic and professional reasons) but I laugh. Usually my client does too. It’s nice.

There is, to me, nothing better than a giggle fit in session that both you and your client can share. Consider this: a professional massage therapy session asks two imperfect people in a small space to behave with civility and dignity for an hour or more. It’s like being in church: the circumstance cries out for something inopportune to occur, something uncalculated and silly, which I don’t look for or encourage mind you, but when it does happen I appreciate.

The body, alone, is a warehouse of laughs:  its snores, farts, sneezes and burps, the snurfs and snarfs, hair in the face and hairstyles destroyed (I have remarked to many a client after the session as they stare at what scalp massage, however delightful, has done to their coif: “Ah yes! The styling is gratis.”), ticklish feet, a whomp to the solar plexus (I was once kneed in the sternum by a 6’6” man while he rolled prone to supine – “Watch out, there’s a lot of meat moving around here!” he yodeled as I clutched my chest and wheezed)…

…unprecedented reactions to your technique (both my close friend and I were amazed that she punched me one for engaging her hamstrings with a little too much enthusiasm…and I never, ever did that  again, believe me) even a classic pratfall or two (yes I have tripped over my own feet during session and gone across the room) and those few moments when I reach across the upper pecs and accidentally clock a client in the jaw…oops. Sorry. Usually my client is too “gone” to notice, but sometimes I get a smirk and a snort from their relaxed, placid face. Hee hee. The therapist is a dope! And moving right along…

Even great sorrow and pain is contoured by dark humor, and some of the more prolonged laughs I’ve had have been with those who were ill: with depression exacerbated by winter’s cold and lack of light, or a tenacious URI, or stage III ovarian cancer.

This past winter one of my long term clients had a very bad cold, like the rest of us. She had had it for weeks, and didn’t want to give up her massage. Long past being contagious, desperate for a hearty rubdown, particularly between her shoulder blades (I also knew she needed her upper chest muscles and scalenes gently worked, and doused with essential oils, particularly Young Living’s RC blend) she was pretty sure she could go prone on the table, and then roll supine, so long as I didn’t leave her face down for too long. “I just don’t know when I’ll start coughing,” she said.

“Or dripping on the carpet,” I replied, getting her comfy with bolsters and towels. “Don’t worry, I won’t let you get to the horking phase.”

There was no dripping or horking: the coughing after 18 minutes was intense enough that I knew I’d met my Waterloo, so to speak, and so while I got her rolled over and comfortable, this time supine with pillow under the head. BUT before that there was a great big nose blow, a gulp of water, and a mint supplied. In fact, for the rest of the session there was nose-blowing, water sipping and mints supplied until by the third or fourth time of our rounds – did I mention the great blobs of hand sanitizer? – she looked at me, holding her cup of water and working the mint in her mouth, while I disposed of her tissues, and said, “Am I paying you enough for this??” We both cracked up.

I enjoy comedy so much I have ardently pursued it, in amateur fashion: I write skits (not an improv pro, I prefer my comedy scripted), rehearse and perform with other funny types as we search for the ultimate ways in which to thoroughly tickle people’s funny bone:  i.e. render them soggy, gaspy and weak from belly laughs. When you have an audience going for long enough that you’re not sure whether they’re about to cry or pee their pants, I consider my work well done.

I know plenty of massage therapists who are also nurses, physical trainers or yoga teachers…chefs or dentists, even! Funny lady and MT? Are they remotely compatible?

Apparently they are. As I’ve considered it, I’ve come to realize that basically good comedy and good massage therapy are fundamentally, for me, about making someone happy. Both fields look easy but require a high degree of commitment and professionalism. Both fields are highly personal: one person loves this MT’s work, another person doesn’t, and it can be the exact same session for both people, but it doesn’t rock both their worlds. Same for comedy. I cannot get enough of Britcoms, or Louis Black, or classic “Your Show of Shows” episodes, but I know what I like is not for everyone.

Both fields necessitate good listening to your audience/client: they are always giving you either verbal or physical cues about whether or not what you’re doing is what they’re looking for.

Both comedy and massage therapy require a high level of trust: in hopes of finding something to laugh at, we enter into comedy, begrudgingly or enthusiastically offering up the highly prized gift of our laughter, and we hope the comedienne meets us halfway. Likewise in a massage session, we surrender our precious selves, our very flesh, into the hands of a professional and hope they “get” us. If they do, everyone’s satisfied.

Humor and massage therapy go a long way in this world to relieve the pain and tension of our lives. Sometimes – by accident, and oh blissful day –  they happen at the same time.

“Make someone happy.
Make just one someone happy.
And you will be happy too.” – Comden/Green and Jule Styne, 1960