Lux Perpetua

I became a hospice volunteer because death was on its way. A rare life, mine: no one close to me had died, and then one of my clients perished. I was wracked for how it happened (ALS finally turned off the juice to his lungs), the loneliness of his end, his end in general, and the fact that I didn’t like him that much and wished I had liked him more.

For all these reasons, I cried for days and got tired of it. Someone steered me to our local hospice organization, since obviously I needed help. Connie took my phone call and listened to me blub; Flic listened to me blub too and then gave me a book or two to read. Two months later I gratefully attended the six-week training program run by Hospice Volunteers of Waldo County here in Belfast, Maine.

Touching people professionally has led me to wanting to touch them, no matter what: to be close to them, not as a last resort but first option: to see them all the way, when everything that sparks and animates them slowly leaks out and disappears. Words fail. Touch doesn’t.

Massage therapists can make great deathbed pals. We love humans, as a rule, and so we can be there for them even as they literally fall apart, with good will and gentle humor. We see what might be hidden, and hear what isn’t said. All of these things make us natural friends for the dying.

Most MTs are okay with vast tracts of silence: this is how we get our work done: it is also how a soul unweaves itself from its body, and by bearing witness we can make it easier for someone who’s trying to let go but who is afraid. Our very presence equates wholehearted endorsement of whatever happens.

It was my hospice training and subsequent volunteering that got me linked up with Gwen. She wasn’t a hospice case when I met her: just a house-bound elderly woman who needed someone to take out her trash and bring her a gallon of milk on Mondays. Connie and Flic heard about this and in their great wisdom decided she and I might be a fine match.

When I found out she had been a Pentecostal minister I wasn’t surprised: she had the confidence and repartee of a career woman, spoke easily and well from years of presenting the gospel. I was also not surprised because it seemed just my dumb luck: I am the daughter of a minister, myself, but left it all behind me years ago. Now I was assigned to attend a saint’s needs, weekly. I implored the heavens to be spared her inevitable proselytizing and prying questions.

Her generation still knew the social grace of the classic “visit,” and when you’re doing this, you sit and talk. Despite my attempts to hide my personal life from her, bits of it came out over time. She finally found out I didn’t go to church, and that Nate and I were living together, not married. In my experience with classic evangelicals (and Gwen certainly was one of these), if you don’t behave like what a Christian is supposed to behave like, you don’t get dibs on faith. They don’t take you seriously: you look too much like a sinner. Your little attempts at following Christ are pitied. I mean, c’mon. Can’t even get to church on Easter? For shame.

I certainly didn’t think my prayers would have meant a brass farthing to her, coming as they did from the likes of me, a veritable Mary Magdalene. Maybe, just maybe, she had that relationship with Jesus that I’d heard some people had, where the Almighty was forever breathing his holy light into her heart and speaking to her constantly in a language that only someone who prayed and sought the Lord as fervently as she did could possibly understand.

Maybe Jesus told her I really was a good kid and not to give me too hard of a time. The day she said “I pray for you every day. And I am so glad you pray for me. I need it,” I thought I was going to fall out of my chair. I fished around inside my purse, instead, and snatched out a hanky, because I realized I had started to cry.

Last summer, she spent a week in the hospital and after she got home, confessed to me, “I thought I was a goner there for a while.” I thought she might have been too. But she rallied, and in October we spent her 85th birthday together. I got her Chinese food, per her request, even though I knew it was wretched for her high blood pressure, diabetes, edema.

This past April she developed shortness of breath that wasn’t solved through medication adjustment. “It’s just a nuisance, more than anything else,” she consoled me, after I’d given her a look of unmistakable concern. Six days later Joyce, her housekeeper, called 911: she had found Gwen practically incoherent, not knowing where she was. Fourteen days later Gwen was dead. Renal failure.

While she was in the hospital I went to see her, but days went by between my last visit and her passing, and so I never did get to see her just once more. The word “rue” fully expresses the feeling I’ve had about that and continue to feel. I may never get over it, in fact.

Joyce, however, had been with Gwen the night before. “Even then, she was still telling me about the foot rub you gave her.”

She mentioned this casually while we stood next to one another at the funeral, and it wasn’t just the bright sun and heat of the day: my mind reeled. I couldn’t remember it at all: had I rubbed her feet? When? Why wasn’t it coming back to me? Then, suddenly it did: people were in her room making small talk. I had my full attention on Gwen’s dear face, slack and losing light, as she barely maintained consciousness enough to add a few words, and then fall back into a struggle-filled sleep.

Because words didn’t fill my mouth, my hands took over, as they are wont: her feet were closest to me: I held one foot at a time, gently working every toe, muscle and bone, down to the heel and back. At one point I looked up at her, and she was staring at me almost without blinking. Then she was out.

With relief I also recalled that some of my last words to her were, “Sleep well,” and “I love you.” And I know she had said to me, “I love you too.”

Through her loss comes the startling realization that I am glad to be sad. And I am willing to let my heart break over and over again as those close, closer, and even closer to me fall away and end. Wherever they are, there is now a bottomless silence filled with light that never fades.

Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all-hail! – from the Heart Sutra

She points out her birthday cards.

She points out her birthday cards.


Going Deep

Two clients come to mind, scheduled within a seven-day span.

I liked Tony – had known him in a variety of capacities over the years – and welcomed him into my office for the last appointment of my week: 6:30 was the earliest he could get there.

“I’ve got these mid-back spasms,” he said, as we reviewed his information. “As usual the neck and shoulders.” In the nearly ten years I’d known him, he worked a bazillion hours a week, and liked to make sure everyone knew it. His back locked up on a regular basis. Did he do any self-care?

“What? Oh yeah. I need to do yoga or something.” He had been next door to see my colleague, Dr. Jane, for chiropractic adjustments. He’d been to a massage therapist in Brooks “but it wasn’t enough.”

“I like deep work,” he said, smiling through a bronzed face.

“Yes, I suspected as much,” I said to him. “And I bet you have a lot more tension in your upper chest and anterior/lateral neck than you realize. I’ll work the back of your head though your traps and down into your low back…why don’t we start with you supine, so I can get all that opened up first, and by the time I get to your back it will have relaxed a little.”

“You might not want to massage my neck,” he said. “Up on Hatchet Mountain all afternoon. Sun cooked it.” Oh, of course! The very muscles I was most keen on addressing were off limits: I could see the deep red all around the neckline of his t-shirt. Also, by this point his cologne had saturated the room and was making the back of my throat burn, almost like I had inhaled smoke.

He was in pain, though. I reminded myself: he needs you in this next hour. Do your best. Pray for strength and it will be given to you.

The session was exercise. I was not in peak form to be giving my all, not on a Friday past 5. Within the first few minutes I gave up using my hands: my fingers, which have been praised by a few clients as being full of strength, seemed as useful as pipe cleaners against the unyielding density of his musculature. It was like trying to knead out rebar.

His intractable tension, combined with entrenched kyphosis and lordosis, could not be addressed without full-body-weight slow work – mostly forearms, some elbow –  and finally, fists, as I gave the tapotement of a lifetime to his glutes, hamstrings and calves. I worked absolutely to and past my limit: damp from perspiration, shaky, peaked, but proud of myself, and hoping I’d made a difference.

“That was nice,” he said as I changed out the table linens and he put on his shoes. Nice? Hmm. That wasn’t quite what I had wanted to hear.

“I feel better. You can put me in as your 6:30 for the next few Fridays if you want!”  My heart sunk a little, as I had no intention of staying late regularly, especially for someone who was so much work…and made the air so hard to breathe. A small voice in me said, “referral?” but I ignored it. I could handle this guy, no problem. I wasn’t giving up yet.

When I called him a few days later to confirm his appointment, there was a lot of noise going on in the background.

“There’s a chance I can’t make it but I’ll let you know. I’ve just got so much going on that day. Yeah, and THIS time,” he said, “you can work on me as hard as you can!”

“Okay!” I said, gamely. “Keep in touch.” I ended the call, and was immediately consumed by a crushing combination of anger, inadequacy, self-pity and dread.

“Referral,” my small voice said, with force.

“Hi Tony it’s Kristen.” I was leaving him a message.

“Look, let me give you a number of a friend of mine who does really deep work.” (Wrings the living crap out of her clients, and does an excellent job of it too: you’ll love it! I wanted to say) “If you want to give her a try, awesome. If you want to come see me again, knowing the kind of work I do” (pretty damn deep and most people think it’s enough even if you don’t) “then feel free to call me back to reschedule…”

A few clients like this can deflate even an experienced MT’s confidence, and I’d had my share during winter: between their first session and their second or third –  when I had time to research their condition, discuss them with colleagues (Dr. Jane and I have done this for years, with mutual clients), analyze what I’d noticed in session and made plans for their next appointment – they would decide, for whatever reason, to cancel and not rebook. I was pretty sure Tony was one of these.

So I was braced for disappointment when another new client booked the following Friday. One of my regulars had given her my card.

“She said ‘this is what you need.’ And that you could help.”

“Let’s start at the beginning. What are your areas of pain or tension?”

“Well…I think it’s my heart.” She spoke with a Maine accent, so heart sounded like “haht.” Her eyes welled and chin wobbled.

Then came the story. I put down my pen and sit back in my chair when it starts: I figure nobody wants to pour their heart out to a preoccupied audience, and if I don’t take notes, at least I’ll listen well.

Within a nine-month span her two young stepsons had died, and her fiancé had left her so he could be with another woman who would help him pursue his “passions.” He saw fit to tell her when she was sitting on her second step-son’s deathbed. Both she and I agreed that it’s a mystery how a person could do that to another person in such circumstances.

“I’m doing all the right things” – talk therapy, eating right, exercising, even going to a chakra balancing workshop – “but something’s missing!” I passed her the box of tissues. My mind was churning, and my soul ached. I was running a list of modalities or techniques to use – more of this, less of that? Someone so clearly laden should be with someone more adept, with more skills, than me.

“What about a bereavement support group?” That just wasn’t for her, even though she had given it a fair try.

Any support systems at all? No one who she could count on.

She crying in heaving waves, and told me how much she hated it because “I feel like it’s all I ever do anymore.” Grief and anger seemed to be eating away at her from the inside, gnawing at her shattered heart. “I can’t work in my yard or in my house; I just don’t have the energy.”

“I feel stuck!” she nearly wailed.

Sometimes you get so accustomed to running the list of what you could be doing for someone, you almost miss the most basic and easy thing of all. In a flash, it came to me. (Thanks, small voice.) After a few more moments of consideration, with near pride, I said, “I think I know exactly what to do for you.”

She looked at me, eyes red and glistening. “Really…?”

“Yes,” I said. “You need a massage. You need affirmation, on a cellular level, that you are more than okay: in fact you are great. And in fact, you are worthy of being taken care of. For a whole hour. And I can’t think of any better way to do that than give you a good old-fashioned rub.”

Her eyes re-teared. “I just don’t know if I’ll be able to relax on the table. I know I’m paying you for a service, see, but I still don’t feel like I deserve it. I feel like…no one should have to touch me, I’m not good enough for anything or anybody…”

As she sobbed I reached across my desk and touched the side of her face with my hand, moved my chair next to her and put my hands on hers. This is not my protocol when someone is falling apart, but in this instance I couldn’t stand the pretense of professional distance. When someone is drowning you don’t proffer a twig from your royal barge: you go out to meet them in the churning cold.

Without looking at her I said quietly, “I want to touch you. I want to take care of you. I am here for you.”

So massage she did have. I could feel her whole energy field drinking it in: as I massaged and gave Reiki, she calmed, breathed deeply, and drifted. For me, the work was easy and blissful: I knew what I was doing, and I knew I could do it well. Who she was, was enough. And what I had to offer was enough.

“Unbelievable,” she murmured, and rescheduled.

It was deep work, and it was a delight.

Wholly Holy

I am not sure what qualifies as the most significant thing a person can experience on the massage therapy table. For some, it’s having the massage practitioner put their elbow in just the right place to finally relieve sciatica – or having a deep pain in the cranium prodded loose with deft neck work – or having legs tractioned out, creating space and length between each joint – or being melted away and purified by the fire of Reiki or other psychospiritual modality. It certainly is up to the person receiving.

All experience is valid. So I’m distressed, sometimes, when it seems as though we’re all trying to wield a greater sword on the battlefield of “who’s doing the most for the client.” Those who practice relaxation massage often feel on the defensive against those who give deeper work. Those who have spent years training in a variety of modalities may feel entitled to more clients than those who have spent their career specializing in one or two, and not expanded their repertoire. And, those who do physical manipulation – i.e. massage therapy – feel more legitimate than Reiki or other practitioners who do “energy work.”

What I see here is a fundamental, timeless conflict between What Is Seen and What Is Invisible. The human body is something we can handle, study, tap and dissect. It’s there for examination with our eyes, and there for palpation with our hands. All five senses can confirm for us that we are connecting to another human (although taste might be a dubious source, I have occasionally mistakenly got a piece of my client’s hair in my mouth!).

With energy work we enter the realm of the intangible. Nothing is provable. A lot of it is aspiration, quite a lot of it is intuition, and another portion is real, just not with our eyeballs (although some have that gift, too). There are textbooks out there diagramming the energy field of the body, and attempt to scientize what we intrinsically know about one another, but to me, energy work is faith.

And let me further define what I personally mean by energy work: ALL that seems invisible. It starts with everything below the skin that I touch: organ functions, nerve paths, cell birth and death, my client’s very soul. It is everything that I know of this person and all conjecture: from the intake form, to the stories they tell about me, to what they don’t say, to what I ‘pick up on’, and how they feel about me. And it is who they are in repose, trusting me to do my best, and who I am when I work.

All of these things are energy, and, to me, have nearly the palpable weight and measure as bone, tendon and muscle, the stuff I can touch and handle.

When I “give” Reiki, I am merely sinking into that living stream of what’s there, and encouraging everything life-affirming, everything loving. I know when I “have” this: my clients pick up on it, and mention “that thing you do” during the massage session. In full Reiki sessions, what I have seen in my mind’s eye is literally what my clients experience. This is energy work. On the one hand it’s miraculous; on the other it’s nothing special, but it’s there and needs attention. As David Lauterstein quoted William Blake:

“Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age”

When giving Reiki I am going on my instincts and intuition. I am in constant supplication and prayer, asking for divine assistance in all things. I am in as true and deep a meditative state as I can be. I am trying to “see” more fully, because I am relying on so much that is not clear in front of me.

It has occurred to me, more than once, that when I practice Reiki I may be in a greater place to fully address the human because I know that I don’t know. I am working from a place of humility and faith. My attitude is correct. Our very ability to lay eyes upon a body, study it, separate out the parts, understand its chemistry and trace the lines of what’s supposed to be there, means that we might not actually See our client.

As we move forward in the bodywork biz, our inroads into allopathic medicine have done wonders to boost our collective ego. It’s exciting: to know that physicians refer to massage therapists more than they ever did, and for there to be things like medical spas, and oncology massage practitioners inside hospitals.

We’re really getting somewhere now: or are we? Getting attention from “traditional” healthcare is an important step in our progress, but I would be most disheartened if the highest and best iteration of ourselves is to make massage therapists look and behave like doctors. If, by doctors, we mean the old-fashioned kind, where bedside manner and keen listening did as much for the patient as any medicine prescribed, then yes. If we mean doctors as seeing patients merely as means to an end, with a few provable, predictable techniques thrown at them, while not picking up on clues that even the mildly curious practitioner couldn’t miss due to lack of interest or even, heaven help us, not being seen as essential information, then no, please no, certainly not.

If someone is helped by massage therapy practitioners who are more scientifically minded, that’s wonderful. I would request that they, however, don’t look at how I work and feel this has no merit. However clearly massage therapy is trending towards the medical model, there is still very real change made by the massage practitioner who is in it for the art of it,  for the heart of it: who goes deep, professionally and empathically: who sees what is not seen, hears what is not spoken, and with humility and care, ministers to their client.

And, I would posit that neither this way, or the scientific model, are ultimately how our industry can benefit humanity. There is a third way that we haven’t found. Yet.

This blog is in response to David Lauterstein’s post on his Deep Massage FaceBook page, Wednesday May 15th 2013. I highly recommend his book “Deep Massage.


Skootching skin around is what I do for a living. (A few other things too, but “skin skootching” could be a fine credit on an MT’s resume.) When I’m working younger bodies I feel like a baker, plying pizza dough into shape, or a sailor: unfurling sails, untwisting knots, riding the high seas of a session from beginning to end. Massaging older bodies feels like pushing soup around on a counter top. I never know where that skin is going to go: it fills me with tender amusement and gentle concern.

I touch an elder and the rest of them comes along for the ride. The warp and woof of the human slacks and unmoors with age, so that rather than sturdy oaks, we come to resemble willow trees that bend in the gentlest breeze, or barely hemmed pools, our parts oozing out around us and filling wherever we are. The cruel irony being, bones ossify and become brittle, like windshield ice. A good practitioner intuits the limits and bounds of the person they’re touching, even if the person doesn’t.

As a massage therapist I endeavor to touch wholly when giving massage, or as it’s known, “full hand contact.” It’s a skill I learned early on, thanks to a solid education at the Muscular Therapy Institute in Cambridge (now Cortiva?) and recently fine-tuned during my oncology massage training with Tracy Walton. The entire hand is at all times engaged with the client’s skin, and as you pass your hands around and over your person, you imagine every finger down to the tip, the whole palm, enveloping your client’s every nerve and curve.

There is an ethereal suction cup on the end of each finger, that holds each digit in place. Five rivulets of compassion and curiosity cascade down the erector spinae: this is one hand moving from upper trapezius to gluteal origins. Ten waves of love and light: this is the same gesture, both hands.

Receiving this kind of touch feels like you’re being smoothed down by a paw, or an angel if it had paws. Almost like a mare licking down its newborn: that much unhurried devotion and care. I have received it, and I know how good it feels. So it is what I endeavor to give.

It is my job to touch the whole person, and this is a good job to have, in early 21st century America.

I consider my ancient ones, again, because touching them requires an extra kind of attention. With older clients I feel like I’m chasing them around the table for the whole session. Full hand contact from wrist bone up to elbow, from bicep insertion to origin, over to the clavicle, and sweeping back down, means I’m trying to cup and capture their ripples and wake. So much of them spills out and away.

Touching them is an honor and a mystery. The more fully I wish to encompass them, the more they move from me.  Like going after fireflies on a summer night, or catching autumn leaves as they fall.

The massage takes longer because the parts eddy and fan out a little wider, every year. Eventually we all go this way, and finally stop, and disappear altogether….meanwhile I play catch-up and enjoy loving the massage oil into old, roving bones.

High Tech vrs. High Touch

Before we lose ourselves completely, I bow the knee to all humans who have gone before, who have seeded, swelled, risen up, striven and died in a cascade of millennia.

Now every thing we touch is powered and mechanized. We used to need each other: for everything: entertainment, solace, accomplishment, salvation, understanding and nurture. Now, we have to make the effort to connect: around the wires, cubes, tubes, cars, walls.

I see us in a great tinfoil crackle and spin, up and out of this world in a blinding flash of zeroes, ones, chatter and pixels. Finally: our brain has the victory it has always longed for: ABOVE. GREATER. Rising out of that body:  pesky, messy.

The house can be ignored, we tell ourselves and so believe.
So long as my needs are served.
So long as the house staff keeps it up.

Who is running things?

Who is truly at the helm?

There is no thought, no intelligence, consciousness, achievement or progress
without the vessel:  squishy flesh.

We should honor the vessel: naked and bleeding though it may be. We should. At present, it seems we’re enslaved by either the cold idealism of technological innovation — turning all of us into outfitted cybermen — or engorged hedonism.

How can we evolve in such circumstances? I propose it is not through intellectual grasping or genetic tinkering. We have everything we need, after all, and it’s not up and out: it’s in – and through – all those bits of us that we try to escape by being anything other than what we are:  gorgeous, temporary, fragile,  seamless bags of life and light.

We may be wandering into a great darkness ahead but we are not alone. We have each other, which, despite evidence to the contrary, has always been our greatest gift and the only thing that gives our own life meaning. And we are reminded, sometimes, of our intrinsic worth and perfection only when another human, wandering with us, tells us we matter through the devotion and encouragement of their touch.