Manioc, Lyme disease, soap

In one day, you hear a lot. It’s either seamless commentary about the weather, or ailments that come in pairs or threes (by the last client, you almost want to say, “Let me guess…”). But sinister tales and folk remedies arrive en masse as well, and some days you’re either perpetually breathless, or constantly putting down your pen to listen better, or both.

Thursday was like that: anecdotal evidence at its best. I’ll let you decide which ones you want to believe.

“Lyme disease does not just come from ticks you know,” she said, darkly. My new client was my age, staggeringly beautiful, having just gone through years of harrowing pain and suffering from this illness that ravaged and haunted her still.

“Really,” I said, horrified at the thought (what kind of flying insects? mosquitoes? it wouldn’t surprise me…maybe noseeums? Deer flies? Oh they just would!)

“I remember the insect, I remember the bite, and I remember how it made me feel,” she said. “It was a flying insect. People think Lyme is only carried by ticks. Imagine when most of us who have Lyme, not from a tick bite, actually get the ear of the world.”

Cassandra by Evelyn De Morgan (1898, London); Cassandra in front of the burning city of Troy at the peak of her insanity.

Cassandra by Evelyn De Morgan (1898, London); Cassandra in front of the burning city of Troy at the peak of her insanity.

Restorative, basic massage therapy, with enhanced attention to pressure depth and body temperature, as well as speed and rhythms, was what she needed, I felt, and that’s what I gave her. Carefully selected essential oils and hot towels, too. (“I’m always freezing.”)

It occurred to me, while I contemplated her in repose, that I was in the presence of a modern-day Cassandra, with full clairvoyant powers and a message for the masses, and no one, as yet, who believed her. I was so happy she was in my office: I was determined to catch her every word and help her in every way I could as she crawled towards recovery. She even looked like artist renderings I’d seen of that tragic Greek heroine. It was uncanny.

“You know, I went to Brazil, and while I was there I noticed the arthritis in my body was slowly diminished.” I love new clients and their stories. They serve to tell me the most – in the shortest amount of time – about this new person in my life.

I leaned in on my elbows. This was going to be good.

“I finally realized it was the manioc. You know, yucca root? They put it in everything there. Use it just like potatoes: make a mash out of it. I noticed when I ate manioc my arthritis decreased.”

“When I got back here to Maine I talked to my doctor about it, and he said, well sure, why not. You could be on to something there. So I got some at Hannaford and it doesn’t work quite as well – not as fresh you know – but I make soup with it from time to time.”

I was very impressed. “I’ve heard a lot of remedies over the years for arthritis but this is a total new one for me,” I said. “I really appreciate you sharing it. I’ll pass it along.”

“And, remember,” she confided, sotto voce, “you gotta cook it the whole way through. It has traces of arsenic in it. Whoo!”

“Guess I gotta put Ivory soap at the bottom of my bed.”

It is both a pleasure and a pain to know clients for the duration, for the long haul. Quite a few of mine are past the 10 year mark with me, and what began as occasional twinges and hampered style is now, more often than not, auto-immune, inflammatory, bacterial, herniated, deteriorating and/or disintegrating conditions that are multi-faceted, confusing and difficult to treat. It is hard to see these dear people bewildered, fearful, stressed out, resigned.

I sometimes struggle with being unable to do more than offer a “there, there” for them as they wrangle with the latest. Most of what they have, massage can’t cure. But, it can do wonders for the coping with it all: the reprieve from mental churning: and their sessions are so personalized by now, they know they can fully relax. I got it.

My final client of the day has had so much happen to her in the past few years I almost couldn’t keep track. The latest was numbness in a various limbs, uncontrollable allergies and cough, and pain in her back when she slept. And, the restless legs. Oh my God. The RLS.

I’m used to being with clients when they are completely still: only when working on the highly agitated have I experienced limbs going perpetually. The minute my dear client dozed, began to drift, her legs would key up and writhe around.

“Anything I can do for you?” I’d asked numerous times, wondering if I wasn’t getting the pressure/temp/bolstering/timing thing right in some fashion, gettting tenser myself with every jump.

“Ah, there’s nothing. Doesn’t matter if they’re bolstered or flat, they just go. I’m getting old. What can I say.”

She made the soap comment. I said: “….Huh?”

“Yeah, it’s something I heard. You put a bar of Ivory soap at the bottom of the bed and it supposedly makes your leg cramps and restlessness leave.”

I was going to engage her further on the topic but I have a rule: speak if spoken to. She didn’t continue her train of thought: I let it go. I knew I’d have to look that one up, so I did: by far, this was the weirdest – and best? – explanation I could find.

You probably won’t find it on the Mayo Clinic site. But you will hear it – and many other helpful, curious and stunning things – in my office. And, dare I say, the office of many other massage therapy practitioners. We have time to listen. Tell us more.


Feed All Your Children

Margot is an expansive, white-haired, wrinkly woman, with dancing sparkling eyes and a personality to match. I was surprised she wanted massage therapy, especially since she is the kind of client that not only leaves her underwear on, but her bra too: I tried to gently talk her out of it but she insisted. “I’m old and farty,” she said, “and I can’t change my ways. And I have a lot of neck and shoulder tension.”

In her first session, the minute I saw her supine, both the tension and the bra obviated themselves. If hadn’t been for the harness of her brassiere, her breasts might have surged upwards and framed her chin, possibly cascading over her lips and coming to rest just slightly below her nostrils. They were certainly the most ample and ambulatory breasts I’d ever witnessed.

If I were her, I would have kept them in a bra too, due to their free-wheeling nature. A woman just wouldn’t know where they’d end up, otherwise. Especially in any position other than vertical.

I gave her upper body priority, but also massaged the rest of her, briefly, since she agreed to it. It was the second session when, as I turned her over from prone to supine, she asked in a curious but matter-of-fact tone, “So tell me, why do you spend time on my legs and feet when I want you to work my neck and shoulders?”

I was a little taken aback, asking if I wasn’t doing enough, and if I wasn’t she should tell me?

“Oh no it’s not that,” she said. “I’ve never had a massage before where someone works my whole body.”

Was the pressure I used uncomfortable or the technique unpleasant?

“No, no” she reassured me. “I’ve just never experienced it before.”

A few things occurred to me in that moment, of primary import being, who – WHO? – gets trained to only work one part of a body? It reminded me of a line in C.S. Lewis’ “The Magician’s Nephew” where Digory Kirke says “Bless me, what do they teach them in these schools?”

The next thing I thought of is Rowan Blaisdell’s excellent blog “Just Back and Neck.” Please read this, as it’s thoughtful, funny, and concise. (Something yours truly hasn’t a knack for, unfortunately, but thank God Rowan does.)

I stammered a little and started babbling. “It’s important to massage legs because they are part of the whole tension pattern of the body. If I get only section opened up, the rest of you stays unchanged, and the tension will move out and away from you, but only in part. We are whole organisms…”

And I could hear myself, and I was irritated by what I was saying. Margot wasn’t into it, either: her eyes were shut and she was drifting. I clammed up.

But I was still thinking, and as I massaged her quads, I cleared my throat and, very uncharacteristically for me, broke the silence.

“Uhhm, I have just one other thing to say about the leg massage and then I’ll be quiet.

“You know if you’re feeding a bunch of kids? The temptation is to feed the one that yells first, and pile it on until the yelling stops. In this instance your neck is the one yelling and banging her plate with a spoon.

“But all the other kids – your other body parts – are equally hungry too, and they need attention, even if they’re very quiet about it. So what I’m trying to do is feed all your children, not just the one who squawks the loudest.”

This got a “Hmm!” and a laugh from Margot, which meant that this massage therapist hit a triple, in explaining herself. Not a grand slam, but a triple, and certainly enough to garner points overall, maybe even win the game. I was pleased with my analogy, but since it seemingly came from nowhere I had a feeling there was more to it than just Margot’s legs.

In the days after this “feed your children” became personal for me. Since I started this blog in March, I have heeded it above all else. I have really zeroed in on it, in my fashion (which means giving it any and all spare time, after tending my home and office first. Some writers can leave the dishes. I cannot.)

But there are many “children” in my life that have been hungry, and said very little, if anything, for a while. My need for exercise, for one. My muscles have gone slack and my body developed aches and pains that I know only result from being weak. Going to the gym is not something just happens: you have to make time for it. How do you make time? By doing it and not something else: like dishes. Or writing.

Similarly, singing well is also not something that just happens. You sing well because you have practiced. I have just learned that I will be doing four solos in Down East Singer‘s Christmas concert, Aaron Robinson’sBlack Nativity – In Concert: A Gospel Celebration.” I have been singing since before I could walk, but nothing will prepare me for this concert other than practice. Time I spend singing is time I can’t spend on The Great Squawker: this blog.

We all admire, even if we don’t want to admit it, the person who obsessively devotes themselves to a vision or project, to the detriment of all else. It’s tempting to just tend the stuff that gives us the biggest ego pay-off. There are many “children” that crave our attention, ergo our loving kindness: the essence of maturity and humility is seeing their value, as part of the greater picture of who we are, and what we are to others.

Feeding all the children, not just some…true for Margot, for me, for the world. How, how can we make this possible? One person at a time. Starting with ourselves, and all our limbs.

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.

“I Explained To Him I Loved Him”

On Tuesday August 20th in Decatur, Georgia, Antoinette Tuff talked a gunman out of coming into the elementary school where she’s employed as a bookkeeper, and wreaking mayhem.

This is how she did it:

“I just explained to him that I loved him,” she said. “I didn’t know his name, I didn’t know much about him, but I did love him.” — from Washington Post

Don’t feel bad, baby. My husband just left me after 33 years. … I’ve got a son that’s multiple disabled. — from Huffington Post

That’s a good thing that you’re just giving up and don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life. No, you don’t want that. You going to be OK. I thought the same thing, you know, I tried to commit suicide last year after my husband left me. But look at me now. I’m still working and everything is OK. — from CNN

The 20-year-old gunman, Michael Brandon Hill, put down his weapons and let the police come in and take custody of him. He suffers from bipolar disorder: that day he was off his medicine and knew he wasn’t mentally stable.

Take the 13-14 minutes you’ll need to listen to the 911 call (nearly all the news outlet sites have a link to it)  and have a hanky handy. Personally I’ve never been so moved: not only the honesty Tuff displayed (using total self-disclosure to reassure Hill she knows how he feels) but the tone she uses. She is matter-of-fact — professional, even! — but speaks utterly from her heart.

“I just started praying for him,” she said later.

Part of why this story moves me so tremendously is the huge risk Tuff took. At any point in the exchange, Hill could have decided she was fooling him and shot her. Tuff risked everything – her dignity, her personal details, her very life – to help this young man. She didn’t care what it took: she tried. And as she prayed, she was given insight and courage that she didn’t feel.

Another part of why this story moves me so is it clearly shows what active compassion can do. Yes, there are no guarantees that being forthright, loving, understanding and composed leads to a peaceful stand-off: at any point in the interchange, things can go horribly wrong.

But she chose comfort over confrontation; compassion over condemnation; love over fear. And, in the end, no one was hurt: not even the gunman.

So: tell me again, what’s the role of massage therapy in today’s confrontational, condemning, hateful world?

Isn’t it one of our noblest gifts: to be the ones who comfort, reassure, restore?

We are one ensemble of many — nurses, pastors, social workers, doctors, crisis counselors, mental health advocates, chaplains, teachers, many others — who provide what Kate Braestrup refers to as the “spiritual equivalent of triage.”

I know we, as an industry, are moving forward: science-based evidence for practice, medical spas, stronger research, provable outcomes. We are rapidly ascending into mainstream healthcare’s playing fields; we’re proving our right to exist, stand toe-to-toe, with The Big Guys.

I dunno, though.

The bottom line, for me? Of why what we do, works? Is that we provide safe human connection: physical, emotional, spiritual solidarity on a hard, harsh, punitive planet. We can be real with our clients, and take the time we need to do it: not too many professions allow that. We can love our clients, deeply, while holding professional boundaries. We can pray for them if we choose.

In all these ways we help bring them back to themselves, and they, in turn, can make other people’s lives better too. It’s not secondary or tertiary, it’s the primary gift we have to offer.

That’s not something that shows up in research: it’s the pesky “anecdotal evidence” that has always dogged our reputation as practitioners. I’m not downplaying the importance of progress in a field. But I really, really want all of us to understand the huge gift we really do give the world, simply by giving individuals quality, heart-felt, educated, intuitive massage therapy sessions, over and over again.

We never know whose life will be saved by the strength of our love, compassion and understanding.