Back to the Future

What a pleasure to know a great massage therapist. What’s even better is when she’s your own officemate. It’s trade time at the RWC and it’s my turn on the table, oh happy day. (What’s more fun than working on a colleague? Being worked on by a colleague.)

WellnessCentersign.June 2013.2Jean begins right where I need the kneading the most: all along my left lower thoracics, through the lower back, planing over the sacrum and its rapids of bumps and ridges, and scouring across the glutes. I have scoliosis, with a significant curve in my low back that pushes out into the lefthand part of my body.

“Gosh, I can feel that down in my fingertips,” I gasp with wonder, as she plies, expertly, around each lumbar and its processes. “There’s no real referral pattern for that, is there? You work on my left lumbars and I feel it in my left hand?”

In the complete darkness of my eyes closed and pressed into the face cradle, I feel my scoliosis beginning to unlock: the fascia all around the curvature warms and melts, and nerve endings shimmer, freed from spasm. Hard dry musculature, packed into the torqued, strained vertebrae, softens with fresh blood and lymph. I feel somewhat akin to a pat of butter lying on a slab in warm spring sunlight.

“Yeah that’s not tBack to the Futureypical,” Jean responded, “but I’ve learned that scoliotic tension patterns create unusual compensation all throughout the body, because of the curve. There’s something about when you use your left arm, you’re reaching down into your back for stabilization. Your left arm might get quite a bit of its strength from the big contraction here in your left lowback….”

“…and then it comes up here. Oh my goodness,” she said, as she followed an imaginary diagonal line across my lumbars and up to my right upper back: trapezius, levator scapula, splenius cervicus.

“oophh….erfggphht…” I responded, as I experienced the  hurtsbutfeelsgood of snarls unsnarled, crap uncrapped.

The place on the body where the massage therapist begins is as varied as what composes a chef’s soup stock: there’s always a reason for the beginning, but the beginning is highly personal and never foretold. Lots of us start with the back for a reason: it is the neural gateway to all parts, and when worked, however briefly or tenderly, gets maximum results. Everything springs forth from the spinal cord: release constrictures at the source, and members experience reunion.

“ ’m drippig,” said I. Having my neck opened up released a torrent of fluid in my head, which, being prone, went into my face. My nose was full.

“Perfectly alright,” as Jean continued to work my cervicals with the devotion and interest of a sculptor carving a minor deity out of marble. I could tell my squishy nose and their contents weren’t a problem, nor did the thought of my facial effluvia gross her out. Out of my own sense of propriety (and nose reaching maximum capacity) I spoke again, to the best of my ability.

“I nee a tisthue,” I protested.

“Oh? Alright, here,” she said and gave me two Kleenex.

While I honked out my nasal passages, I was up on my elbows, and while there became blissfully aware that the great snarl I usually feel around my left sacroiliac joint was gone.  Like a difficult houseguest who, after staying an indefinite amount of time, finally packs his bags and leaves, there was a happy stillness and freshness where occupation once named the game.

Easing back down into the face cradle, I let Jean school both shoulders into their home on my back, unglue muscles from each other and play connect the dots with the patchwork of torsion.

“Are you having as much fun as I would be having right now?” I asked her, knowing full well the answer was yes. I could tell, from how she was working: a nice mix of technique, pauses, and “what’s all this then?” and “oh I see”: all through her hands.

Not only finding tension but feeling how it corresponds through the rest of the body, helping the client understand either through words or touch (sometimes both) and unwinding/unthatching it, much to the delight of the recipient, is about as much fun as it gets for a massage therapist. We crave it. And nothing inspires us (or me, at least) quite like a draped back.

The back is behind us, a great mystery, like the dark side of the moon.  Being visual, we don’t see it and so we forget it’s there (out of sight, out of mind)…until it hurts. I can’t think of anything nicer to happen to our back than having it lavished in loving attention by another human, who not only senses things like we do but can look directly at this mostly overworked and underpaid part of ourselves and give us meaningful sensory input for how all its many layers — deep, snugged up against our spine, all the way out to just under our skin — make it possible for us to stand upright against the persistence of gravity.

When we feel whole – and that means living in what’s behind us, literally and otherwise, understanding what serves us and letting go of what doesn’t – we can move ahead. Until we’re liberated from the back, we can’t move forward.

Muscles unbound, lots of stuff running free, including mouth. I am feeling so good, if I could take everyone I know on a cruise around the Crab Head Nebula, I would.  “I just want you to know you’re wonderful,” I tell Jean, in a snuffly Winnie the Pooh voice.

“Well, you’re wonderful too,” she said, and helped me turn supine.

And so are you.

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Be Still and Know

Sometimes we create intentional, interesting obstacles to what we know is good for us. Besides the obvious answers – resources scarce, time spent – we also prevent ourselves from partaking because we’re afraid. Afraid to relax: to lay down.

My friend Jen Clark Tinker had a horrifying experience when she was a young teen: stuck in mud, sinking in farther and farther, family out of hearing distance, and darkness fast approaching. She is a Christian, and so she prayed for help, and the Lord told her, “Lay down.” As she heeded this dubious, divine advice, it was the thing that saved her: by going belly-first in the muck, her weight was redistributed, thus allowing her feet to gradually lift up and out and free. She could then crawl to safety.

By lying down, her life was saved.

Right now, I can tell you that I am being given the same advice and I’m fighting it for the same reasons: it doesn’t make sense. The July heatwave in Maine has led to fitful sweaty rest, filled with husband snores and cat yowls and horny owls caterwauling in the trees outside our house. I am fatigued today, and saying only semi-coherent things to my clients. I have a spare hour! But I’m caught between the devil and the deep blue sea: filled with an insatiable need to write, and also to just stretch out on my massage table (one of the perks of the biz: ideal set-up for catnapping) and have a snooze.

Kitty is resting...and waiting for inspiration. Or, maybe, just hoping I'll give her more kibble.

Olivia has the right idea. Resting, and waiting. Probably for kibble. But at ease, nonetheless.

The physical act of lying down means surrender. With so much to do, the thought of being still in repose, as a choice, appears an embarrassing waste of time. Behind the “I’m too busy” veneer there is a real fear that if we lie down, we’ll lose our edge, lose our chance. (Mary DeMuth’s “Chose Rest” addresses our need to fill our lives with activity.)

Lots of us, me included, want to marshal our forces as much as we can, for as long as we can, as hard as we can, to try to “get somewhere.” I blame it on the human condition: we are ambitious. And, from time immemorial, we have disliked being with ourselves. (The practice of meditation is hummityhummity years old? Thousands? We’ve been trying to get away from us for that long. At least.)

The first thing we start up in the morning is our phone or computer, and the tapping starts. It’s thrilling, addictive: the sense that you belong…no matter that it’s all pretend, folks (and I say this as a devoted Twitter and FB user, smartphoning away). I got into this line of work because I wanted to spend more time with souls than screens, but social media only feeds my instinctual hypervigilant, type A personality, and I’ve backslid. I have to put my phone away from me all the time, like someone trying to quit smoking who just can’t.

We’d far rather check in with — even a made-up reality? – before we check in with ourselves. It’s that bad.

So “Lay down” is not what we want to hear. We want to be rescued while we’re still flailing. We want to be told to just try a little harder and we’ll make it. We want everything we’ve been doing up to that point to have counted for something.

I don’t know about you, but I need help, climbing down from the cacophonous heights of aspiration and agenda, into cool pools of quiescence, where the Still Small Voice Within has a sparrow’s chance of being heard. It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering wisdom or even poignant insight: I’ll even take just a small slice of silence to dial down my chattering, distracted, ego-driven mind. To quote lyrics from “Chicago: The Musical” – I can’t do it alone.

Massage therapy is an elemental bridge over troubled waters, the great vessel that conveys us from one reality to another, even if just for a brief while, and brings us back into our lives much better people, ready and able to grow and serve. It is the route around and past our reactive selves, into our basic humanity: touch, sensation, breath, rest.

Our need for this goes far beyond merely being blissed out. As a species, we are dying on the vine, naked shivering baby birds in the nest, crying out for food that either misses the mark or does not satisfy. Touch feeds. Touch sustains. Not just any touch: meaningful, intentional, professional, educated, and dare I say loving, touch. Massage therapists offer a prize meal: lay down. Receive. Arise, and go forth: stronger, clearer and renewed.

“Massage therapists turn out to be the mid-wives to the re-entry into the real world,” says David Lauterstein, and this requires recumbence, even when – especially when – it might not make sense. It might not save you any time. But it could save your life.

To hear Jen’s account firsthand, please give her first podcast a listen: “Where is God in the Muck?”

Ministry of Touch

Sometimes even the casual observation of a virtual stranger can wake us up so completely we feel nearly slapped. I’m thinking specifically of the conversation my new client and I had on Friday.

There he sat, in his Maine Celtic Celebration T-shirt, talking to me exuberantly about the upcoming bike trip he was planning with his wife and kids. I was slightly phased, in that his kids were probably my age (i.e. possibly fortysomething). I was not surprised, however, that he would consider such an undertaking: from even the first few minutes of interacting with him, I could see he was aging healthfully, with wisdom, strength and joie de vivre. What a delightful person.

He was also gathering information on me, as our next exchange made clear: we were discussing the benefits of massage and how it makes us feel after the fact.

“I try to fight sleep during a session,” he said. “I feel like if I fall asleep the next time the therapist wakes me up it would be 24 hours from then. I just melt.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “I often wish I had a room next to my office labeled ‘recovery,’ where someone could go after a massage to just collect themselves and re-enter the world gradually, peacefully, at their own pace.”

“You could have that!” he responded, “A little coffee shop in the back too, and everything. You could have your own little ministry.”

There aren’t many words that can create a hiccup in my professional flow quite like “ministry,” and while I continued to take notes and inquire as to what kind of pressure he prefers in session, and whether he likes to start prone or supine, there was a part of me that stopped when I heard that word, and never quite picked up again…and hasn’t since. Oh happy hiccup!

What about the word “ministry” stops me? The word, defined, is:

a. The act of serving; ministration.
b. One that serves as a means; an instrumentality.
c. a person or thing through which something is accomplished

Some MTs aspire to a medical model. Others, a massage session should be luxurious, pampering, highly relaxing in nature. Other offer massage for its own self, as it can and should be a way of fixing long-term postural issues, chronic pain and tension. I’ve never known how to define the work I do, but my new client  did: ministry.

How so? When I first began my career as a massage therapist, I felt early on that I was an instrument of something greater. I seek to serve. Coming up with an effective plan for each session is what I do. But just as important is listening, with my ears, heart and hands.

And, to get as much help as I can in the time I have, I also include prayer, which is both a form of supplication on the client’s (and my) behalf, but also seeking the bigger picture: looking for What Is Going On: hearing what isn’t said. I don’t know how else to describe it other than “prayer” – except, well, “instrumentality” is also pretty good. Yeah, a lot of times I feel used…in a very good way.

I come by all this honestly: my dad is a minister. Church leadership runs in my blood like athleticism or farming runs in others. I’m the product of hundreds of years’ worth of preachers, deacons, elders and song leaders, on both sides of my family. (Joseph Funk is one of mine.)

To be outside the church has been a terrific but sad liberation for me, and while I find myself increasingly engaged with faith and those who work at it with far more discipline than I, genetically I’ve been confused, and so it doesn’t surprise me (in fact, it delights) that I have found a form of church life in my line of work…sneaking in the back door of faith, as it were, and finding divine love in the kitchen.

Courtesy of the FaceBook page  "Our Mother of Perpetual Help"

Courtesy of the FaceBook page
“Our Mother of Perpetual Help”

When I first started my practice, I had a tagline: “Meeting you where you are.” I’m curious about the person who’s with me: I long for them to feel met, understood, heard and cared for: on a cellular level. I don’t see myself as a fixer: I see myself as a companion. Who’s doing the healing? I do, the client does……and the Something Else does too, the something I pray to, that I assume is there, because I have felt it countless times over the years and so have my clients.

(When is it Reiki? When is it prayer? Where a river meets the sea, I can’t separate out the brine and fresh riverwater, can you?)

The hardest part of massage therapy as ministry, for me, is the side work: I’m more dependent than ever on rituals to keep myself “in the loop” so that when I go into session I’m primed. You would not dream of telling a major league pitcher to go out and start a game without having warmed up his arm, his whole body, first. I consider prayer, meditation, reading inspiring texts, yoga and/or journaling my time in the bullpen, before I lay my hands on anyone.

I know there’s only one thing that my client is really paying for, and that’s a good massage. So, I give the best massage that I can, while all these other things are working alongside me in support. It’s the thing that my clients pick up on, while also noticing that I did that deep tissue work they asked, plus I got to their hands like they hoped.

I’m not a licensed minister of religion and I don’t have a church, but I am professionally licensed to touch others and I care for my clients as if they were parishioners. My massage therapy office is sacred space. “It just feels good in here,” is a comment I’ve received often through the years, and I attribute that not only to the careful way the room is put together and how often I cleanse it (whole ‘nuther topic) but how many ardent prayers for healing I have offered while I work with the person on the table.

Pastor and author J.R. Briggs encapsulates it perfectly:

“…As ministers we have to be yielding and listening. Yielding to the work of the Spirit and listening to God’s desires for the life of the person with whom we are journeying.”

A little ministry of my own? I couldn’t aspire to better.

Take Good Care

Even an “easy” day in the life can be fraught, if I’m not cognizant of details. For example, last Tuesday I had two 90-minute clients booked. Ah, piece of cake: walk in the park. Both long-term clients: needs understood, preferences noted. Presence adored. Can’t wait.

On further examination however, I know I’m in for it: my first is a house-call to my young client with muscular dystrophy. Packing up and traveling, wending my way through a variety of animals (she lives on a beautiful horse farm),  getting set up (there is a massage table there, but still, where to put what) and then doing a long session, is work. She needs deep tissue massage, yet I’m always cautious as I plow around her back: there’s a lot of tension here that’s chronic, unexercised, fatigued, dry…and getting worse. Checking in becomes part of the art.

My second 90-min. session is my longest-term client, whose body and stories and predilections are as familiar to me as episodes of Blackadder, a BBC comedy we both have vast portions of committed to memory. On the one hand, he’s my frequent flier, my regular, and I don’t have to convince him of the benefits of regular massage: he’s devoted.

On the other hand, having a ton of time with a client is equally perk and privilege, so I don’t take his loyalty for granted. There’s always an opportunity to learn more about him, and what I can do for him now…and now…and now.  I live to hear him say, as he often does, “That was the best yet.” How many “best yet”s will I earn in the years to come? Will I earn one today?

These two 90-min. sessions can suddenly feel like a burden. But I got into this line of work because I wanted to rejoice and be exceedingly glad, not so that I could further entrench my perfectionism. Over the years I’ve learned that how I treat myself has everything to do with how well I work, and how good I feel, bringing forth the “ahhh” in massage, for both myself and my clients.

How to take on the burden/blessing of bodywork? Self care.

Everything you long to do holds the key. It’s whatever you tell yourself you don’t have time for. It might be a discipline, but it might also be a past-time. If, when you’re doing it, you hear a soft knock on the door of your heart, and you can hear the door swing open and happy animal noises ensuing, you might have found one of many fine ways in which to take good care of yourself. Including:

3 legs to the triumvirate of self care:  journaling, walking, resting.

3 legs to the triumvirate of self care:
journaling, walking, resting.

Here’s what else self-care looks like to me:

Time. Time and I are not close. There are two genes in my family, the chronically on time, with hot indignation sprayed on those who can’t manage the same. The other, the chronically late, sometimes breath-takingly so, filled with profuse apology and repeated offense. Guess which one I have.

Having my own office and being responsible for getting the whole thing rolling first thing has, if nothing else, taught me to respect time. And it takes immense focus for me to get out the door every morning, which means I have to keep on top of myself to make sure I do. There is only one task: leave.  Move it, Burkholder.

Phone. It gets turned off. Sometimes at 7 p.m., sometimes 9. If I think someone can reach me, I’m not completely at ease. Never a phan of the phone, I am happy when it’s phlipped shut.

Little Me. Hearing my need for daily supplements and doses. There are herbs, vitamins, minerals and tinctures I take to keep myself feeling good and able to work with stamina for every person, no matter when they’re booked. I’ve also added Emerita’s Pro-Gest, as I find I’m trundling down the trails of peri-menopause already, and a little dab of this in the a.m. and p.m. has made a big difference for me. So has Avena Botanical’s Restorative Root Powder.

Being accountable to myself: listening to the little me inside who hopes the big me is listening: planning ahead enough so that I have my pills and potions, meals and snacks, green tea and gum for the ten-hour, sometimes twelve-hour, day ahead. Very much “what do you need, honey?” in my tone. Yes, speaking tenderly to myself: this is self care.

Consciousness. I’m not a natal MT. You? It’s not in me to spend vast tracts of time in meditative silence, massaging. I am a daydreamer, an entertainer, a giggler. A good part of my early years of practicing massage therapy was learning how to not to do too much of any of those 3 things while working.

Everyone has their own way of being present to clients, maintaining a high level of consciousness. Myself, I have relied heavily on the application of Reiki in my massages, something I can’t recommend highly enough. This sweet, powerful energy work gives me Source, something to channel when I feel lost or depleted, something to lean into for insight. I also call it prayer.

This enables me to bring loving attention, but not so much attention that I start to drift into hypervigilance, which makes for excellent business acumen, but lousy mental health. At a certain point: it’s good. It’s good enough. The client will pick up where I left off. Healing will flow when my hands stop moving. I don’t matter, and as Dale Favier says, that is a “radical blessing.”

Thoroughness is a curse. Leaving some things up to the Great Mystery is essential, otherwise there I am vacuuming again, or taking copious notes, when I could be unwinding and making time for the things I really want to do (like read, doodle, brush my cat, and watch the Mighty Boosh) which is what I encourage my clients to do…for their own self care.

Many thanks to the ABMP’s Jul/Aug 2013 edition “Take Care of Yourself, So You Can Take Care of Clients”  for the inspiration.

Ah, the ol' pink ball trick! That's a happy ped, because I roll this lil' dude around under both feet while doing client intake. A real waker-upper.

Ah, the ol’ pink ball trick! That’s a happy ped, because I roll this lil’ dude around under both feet while doing client intake. A real waker-upper. And so good for – well, everything.