Powerless

We’ve had an Ice Storm (yes it deserves caps) here in Maine. Maybe you heard about it. Week of Christmas: undriveable roads, trees breaking and crashing, massive power outages, cold. The only benefit was everyone’s standard question shifted from “You ready for Christmas?” to “You got power?”

None of us knew when our electricity would come back, so we all had to behave as though it wouldn’t. Priorities shifted immediately: securing water, heat and light trumped casual window-shopping, looking for stocking stuffers. Parties were out: the mere idea of going a-wassailing in a small dress, holding a big drink, held no allure. Most of us got as warm as we could, made sure all the perishables were in a secure location somewhere out on the porch (mother nature at least deigned to provide a deep freeze), ate some take-out by candlelight, and were in bed before 7 p.m., praying for the light to return.

The sun blazes as it sets, illuminating a world coated in crystalline ice

The sun blazes as it sets, illuminating a world coated in crystalline ice. Hayford Hill, Belfast Maine. December 2013

Or, if you were me, sipped hot herbal tea, assessed firewood, minded the oil lamps and tealights, and listened – with increasing anxiety – to trees falling as the freezing rain draped every pine needle, every twig, every limb and every vine in ponderous ice. Water is heavy. In the pitch black all around my house, I heard trees creak, yawn and thunder to the ground, and could do nothing about it.

This would be the true definition of “crisis” – an unstable condition. While exertion is good for the soul, it took on a sinister undertone: much of what we had to do had to be done quickly, before it got dark, before the woodstove went out, before it rained or snowed, again, before before before….and then, suddenly, it’s too late and you must give up or give in.

I am a massage therapist, and therefore accustomed to having things nice: usually clients are glad to see me and smiling when they leave. People feel better after I work on them and it’s incredibly, sometimes immediately, gratifying. With a little effort and attention I can make a big difference in a small amount of time, and that’s not something everyone gets to do. A person gets used to all that, and starts to want it all the time.

I am also self-employed: I run my own practice and therefore have the tendency to believe that because I’m in charge at my office, the rest of my life should follow in march step. I know this isn’t true? But honestly there’s a part of me that doesn’t believe that, not for one minute, and starts quaking and chattering whenever there’s disruption in the schedule, which there is, all the time, and that part of me can sit on a tack as far I’m concerned.

Losing electricity – losing power – means abandoning hope, not being sure, not really pushing for an outcome. It means dealing directly with what’s in front of you and not making assumptions, even though you feel entitled: to feeling good or even just feeling certain.

Ice Storm 2013 was a year-end variation on a year-long theme for me, where I found I had to give up a lot of things (i.e. lose my power), not as a tactic for getting what I wanted in the long run, but as a means…for the means. Building the mandala just to whisk it away.

As I slowly start seeing clients again – as we all timidly crawl out from under the covers and the confines of our house (some people’s worst adventures were trying to get out of their own driveway: slicker than bobsled runner, encased in wet ice, with everything rounded and hardened and no surfaces to grasp: like trying to climb the sides of sudsy punch bowl) and bravely attempt re-introducing ourselves to our own schedule – my work takes on a different tone.

Here massage does its palliative wonders to restore weather-weary bodies to themselves. It’s a time to be reassuring, attentive, warming; treating clients as newborns, frankly. Who is this tired, tense, grey-pale and shivering individual? What is the story their flesh, muscles, and aching bones have to tell me today? How can I help rebirth them into their own lives? And who am I, as I attempt to do this?

After the fall, there is silence before we know the next move. It’s enough for me to stand with my clients, as we both scramble for footing in this world, and wonder “what?”

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You are the Light of the World

Does it ever occur to you – as it does me – the classic Nativity is an Instagram photo, a freeze-frame, a screen capture? Every creche, every painting, every re-enactment gives us quiet, well-behaved adults, properly dressed (in some depictions, quite ornately) with holiness and adoration their only agenda.

This sanitized moment is as blisteringly bizarre, to me, as anyone who knows what shenanigans occur any time you try to get “a good shot.” Before and after the perfect picture of the whole Engleblart family on their couch (everyone wearing red and green) or the tasteful sepia-tone candid of Janet and her dog Esther, you and I and everyone else knows there was high-pitched yelping, pinching, groaning and biting, especially between the Engleblart twins. Big fat catastrophe. Not much “calm and bright.”

It would have been wholly surreal to Mary, I’m sure, or Joseph, or anyone involved in that most holy of nights, for their story to be epitomized forever by tranquility, ease and cleanliness. The Christmas story starts with injustice and upheaval (Augustus Caesar forcing everybody to pay tax in their hometown), with some healthy doses of illegitimate pregnancy, poverty, homelessness, abject terror, and giving birth in a stable (=messy). Some time after, gaudy rich guys show up and give over-the-top gifts: and hundreds of babies are slaughtered as Jesus and his mom and dad (?) sneak away into Jesus’ vastly under-reported childhood. Next thing we know he’s twelve.

"Adoration of the Shepherds" by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

“Adoration of the Shepherds” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

But the only part most of us envision is the squeaky clean versions that involve sane, rational people, which we know have disappeared from the planet, much like gifts of myrrh, swaddling clothes and wise men.

I am not ever surprised by the amount of selfishness, sorrow or rage we feel during this time. Nothing takes a break during the “happiest time of the year”: not heartbreak, poverty, bad weather or, perhaps worst of all, our expectations of what we should be doing and what we should have. If we start to feel like we’re being gypped in any way, we are tempted to lash out.

Christmas is about getting what we want, after all.

It’s as if every single person you run into is planning a wedding, and everyone’s wedding is the 25th of December. Think about it, that’s how Christmas is sold to us: an event, not a state of the heart.

I think we aim for the creche and forget everything else that came before, during and after: pain, fear, murder. We want a Christmas montage, where even the bad things that happen aren’t all that bad; and they are funny, in a “Doh!” Homer Simpson way, not tragic, like a Slaughtering of the Innocents way. We’re supposed to be happy, and in our modern minds, happiness equates perfection: which leaves no room for error: which is why we feel so crazy.

Our lives are full of mistakes, bad judgement and failure: they are also full of success, good calls, and lovely moments, but during the Christmas season we just want it all to go perfectly and for nothing to get effed up. That’s not possible, not even on a normal day, but especially not when we’re staring right at it, insisting that it be so.

As a massage therapist I see the toll this season has on everyone: emotions bottled up, ignored, shoved aside only show up in other places, like trying to hold a balloon under water. There is rampant fatigue, me included: I am always grateful for the camaraderie of my officemate Jean, but never so much as this time, when our peer counseling becomes essential to sanity. Everyone’s tension is literally right under the surface: muscles like ropes torquing under the skin, pinched faces, caved-in chests, cold feet.

What a relief, to me and my clients, that something can be done about that: massage therapy rekindles the dwindling fires of courage within each person. A bad day gets sloughed off with the loofa brush of triumvirate goodness: communication, depth and intention. Strength and motivation is restored. “A light has come into the darkness.”

I feel the great blessing of putting my hands on people and giving them wordless reassurance that everything is going to be okay: oiling their skin, working their muscles. “Fear not.”

I am reminded that – as far as the Christian God was concerned, and as much as you believe this kind of thing – one of the best ways the Divine could help us understand how loved we are was to show up in a body. “The Word became Flesh.”

Sliver the snapshot: explode the creche. Darling though they be, they can’t hold a candle to our lives just as they are. Be completely open to everything the holiday season brings, which includes pain and discomfort, feeling lost and alone, feeling forsaken and poor, and also being treasured, rescued, maybe even adored. This is the real Christmas story, because it is everyone‘s story: yelps, groans, bites and all.

Cracked, But Not Completely

The sun is at a low angle nowadays. As we shuttle fast, ever faster, towards winter solstice, the sun shines its starlight with blinding force, only to suddenly drop away and leave us in darkness, once again. Even from nearly 93million miles away, its atomic power breaks your trend, stalls your gears and shuffles your deck.

A massage therapist filled with equanimity and ease will not be millimeters from flying into a rage when the sun shoves itself into her eyeballs, but I have not been filled with equanimity and so I tolerate my crazy fuming over the sun, but just.

I seem to be entering the troubled lands of peri-menopause, and managing it with progesterone cream, herbs, tinctures and moderate exercise only works up to a point. Eventually a girl realizes that vast discomfort with oneself and the tendency to be hot under the collar at any perceived slight is like being in a time warp: the 13-year-old you, all over again, and just like then, there’s not much to cure it except time.

It’s ironic, really: here I am, in the best decade of my life, at the top of my game, and experiencing some of the bottom-most moods I ever had.

On Tuesday I was out of control. Small events turned into fantastic stories, woven ever more steadily in the silence between breaths. Seeing clients was a relief, however temporary: focusing wholly on them, working at interface, helped me feel less insane, but all of my anger and fear kept resurfacing and coming at me from weird angles. I felt like I was beating back dark birds, session after session.

I prayed a lot, first with calm request, then bordering on hysteria.

A challenging email from my sister-in-law sent me over the edge. In the brief amount of time I had before my last client showed up, I flailed, collapsed, foamed, and left a gibbering and incredibly unhelpful voicemail on my husband’s phone. Gathering myself together from the pieces I’d left all over the room, I prayed she wouldn’t ask me how I was doing, because I was rather sure I would unfortunately spill my beans.

“How ARE you?” There it was. I wanted, desperately, to segue neatly from pre-session check-in right into the work, but I was battle weary. My officemate Jean had been out most of the afternoon, and so reliable moments of decompressing with her between clients hadn’t happened.

Maintaining facade with this wonderful client required more hormonal fortitude than I had. So I told her.

“Hmmm,” she said after a brief silence, after I explained as succinctly and powerfully as I could what I had been feeling all day. “You know, I hadn’t thought about that. I mean here you are, in a profession where you kind of have to emanate all this love and caring. It’s your job. And you do it so well, I mean everyone is like ‘Oh I can’t wait to go see Kristen,’ you know?”

The compliment took me off guard completely, and I was suddenly aware that this was the other vital piece to why I’d felt so wretched: on top of everything else, I’d put a heaping pile of guilt, for not feeling nicer. I was afraid of feeling so bad, because I took it as a sign that I wasn’t being a good practitioner.

Massage therapists are trained to work with personal emotion and move past it, continuously, using meditation, visualization, breathing techniques, but because I’ve been tortured by perfectionism my whole life, I threw “does not freak out or get overwhelmed” into my list of things to accomplish. Not realistic, even for a good day, but especially on a day when I could barely cope.

“If I’m having a bad day, I just take it out on my students,” she said, with a touch of a wink and smile. “You can’t really do that here, can you.”

“You weren’t here when I was kicking the table!” I said, as we both started to laugh. “I did have an eye on the parking lot the whole time so I could see if you were coming in. I threw a few things too: a towel, I think. I might have said some bad words.”

“The phrase ‘raging hyena’ comes to mind,” she said, and conversation lapsed because we were laughing ourselves purple. (This is something we’ve done before.)

Like a couple thirteen-year-olds, I thought to myself, and while I didn’t find anything attractive about the huge mood swings I’d been experiencing, there was redemption in knowing the cracking sound I was hearing wasn’t the sound of me losing my mind, but my heart melting: towards my day, and my awful awful self. “That’s how the light gets in,” Leonard Cohen sang, and the bells rang that still could ring.

In this line of work, you meet, sole to soul. Doubtless it’s good to try and bring your best self to every client, but sometimes the best self you have to offer is the one that’s honest, and willing, albeit messy. Our presence with one another is the greatest help, especially as it’s unclear who or what else will save us in the growing dark.