We All Just Want To Go Home

People who get up and go swimming at the Y at 4:30 a.m. are an entire other species as far as I’m concerned. It’s not the ungodly hour or even the exertion I find unwholesome. It’s the thought of changing clothes.

Just now I have removed my pajamas and put on something that allows me to take a walk down the lane. Excruciating. I live in the country, surrounded by trees and rivulets and mountains, with the sea within view, and if the wilds of nature were my only companion I would gambol freely in my jimjams!

But they’re not. I have neighbors. They might see me parading down the road in my flannels and have confirmed a few suspicions they’ve harbored about me and whatever else goes on in there.

As I sit here I realize I am cold. I don’t like being cold. It will take a while for me to warm up inside my clothes. I won’t feel like moving much until I do.

This is why I can’t even imagine putting on a bathing suit in February and trucking my weeping tired self off to a vat of water where I may or may not get warm enough to enjoy. Do bathing suits ever warm up unless you’re lying in the sun and it’s 80 degrees? I can’t even conceive of that kind of fabric against my skin, and putting my body in water. Keep me fuzzy, for all enduring time!

Most of us – me included – would like to protect ourselves from the inevitable change and growth that just being alive procures, and this is evidenced in the small things (like improving our attire) and then the big things too (like improving our habits, our minds, our relationships). But we also know we need to keep moving, and in fact it is something to look forward to. Every day is an adventure story unto its own self.

What we need is an incubator, a holding tank, a very little pot, to get us from one part of our lives to the next.

I am not a great gardener. I’m learning but it sure takes time. When you put a whispery seed into soil to get it started, you don’t plunk it in the ground right away. Especially up here in Maine, when things don’t really start warming up until June.

No, you put the baby seed into a bassinet — a seedling pot — something that holds it, but does not prohibit growth. Something that a seed can feel its way into, which is invisible, but is there.

I suppose this is why we swaddle babies, or find our pets tucked into the most impossible corners and under things (especially cats). Cozy promotes life.

And look at us: hot water bottles, warm towels out of the dryer. Bed warmers. Heated car seats. We wrap our hands around hot beverages, again and again and again. All of us are heat-seeking, because when we are warm we can expand. We feel like getting up. (Or not.)

It’s a cold world, and that coldness is not necessarily based on temperature. We can feel cold and immobilized even when everything is sunny and hot. You know what I mean: it’s your neighbor’s outdoor July 4th picnic and everyone else is whooping it up. You’re not feeling it, sitting there in your shorts and tank-top, sweating and smiling weakly, working on your excuse to go home.

In therapeutic massage and bodywork we help people go “home.” We present our clients with a person-sized envelope they can crawl into and not come out for a while. Even in a session where there is a perplexing issue being addressed: when we bring our heart into our work, as most of us do – because we can! because we have the luxury of time, in our line of work – we provide the warmth, serenity and safety our clients need to try out being who they are, and to entertain the idea of being something else.

And I would also like to say this is not mere coddling? Or some low form of placation, or something to sniff at as merely palliative. Touch matters.

In 2010 Dr. Danielle Ofri wrote “No Longer on the Doctor’s Checklist, but Touch Matters” for The New York Times. She said, among many other excellent things:

The laying on of hands sets medical practitioners apart from their counterparts in the business world. Despite the inroads of evidence-based medicine, M.R.I.s, angiograms and PET scanners, there is clearly something special, perhaps even healing, about touch. There is a warmth of connection that supersedes anything intellectual, and that connection goes both ways in the doctor-patient relationship.

More recently, this past March The New Yorker ran a piece by Maria Konnikova, “The Power of Touch.” She cites many studies on how touch centers us and heals us, from encouraging healthy emotional development in children, to reducing the chance of catching a cold. She writes:

The more we learn about touch, the more we realize just how central it is in all aspects of our lives—cognitive, emotional, developmental, behavioral—from womb into old age. It’s no surprise that a single touch can affect us in multiple, powerful, ways.

Let’s not underestimate the true power of what we do, as practitioners, and then when we are receiving work too. Especially when it is thoughtfully, intentionally, entered into as a ritual, as sacrament really, as an honoring, saying “You matter. You matter now. You matter again. Here. You matter here.”

Professional nurture is the purveyance of therapeutic massage, and it is very good food indeed.

We are the warm clothes that allow clients to transition from one part of their day to the next, from one part of their lives to the next. Our offices are like potting soil and the next-sized pot, where people can come in and get a sense of themselves, and then go back out, a little healthier, brighter, more supple and a tad more willing to move ahead.

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There is No Cure

I was listening to my client talking, but it might as well have been me.

“I’ve been detoxing and eating better and resting and I cut back on my caffeine, and I still feel like crap.”

For those of us who wield self-improvement like a cudgel – I am doing this because I am going to experience this, or else – there’s nothing more frustrating than not getting what we want. I am personally acquainted with the feeling.

“I’m doing everything right!”

“Except getting massage…” I said quietly, noting that I hadn’t seen her for nearly four months. She had even paid for a bunch of sessions in advance. She just hadn’t booked any appointments.

She leaned in to me. “But I shouldn’t need it,” she continued. Candid exchange between us had never been a problem. I was up for a brief tete-a-tete.

I leaned in too. “Why?!” I insisted. She stared at me, and I pressed the point. “What, do you think you’re better than massage? Than people who get it? Like me, for example?”

She sighed and flopped back in the chair. “Ughhh. Good point.”

I waited. She continued.

“I just didn’t think I needed it. It just feels like palliation.”

Much as it made me bristle, I identified so strongly with my client: with the “doing everything right” and the indignity of slowing down for anything that’s not getting me somewhere.  When I’m knee-deep, ankle deep, in improvements of whatever kind, everything I do is grit, hustle, a shoving aside of everything in my path to get to the thing.

Sometimes we really need to be like this to make changes. Sometimes it’s all force, for a long while, until we start to notice things shift slightly.

Hence a distaste for anything that slows us down.

But wonderful things happen, you know, and not necessarily because we were good or wise or healthy. Miracles do occur. Even the most undeserving (me, you) get unbelievable second chances.

We might not notice it if we’re standing up in the middle of the river of our lives and charging upstream.

Palliative means fixing without curing. Certainly there are some things that are cured: the headache, the broken leg, the broken heart. I’m all for making the bad stuff go away for good. I’ve done it for others, and had it done unto me. It is terrific.

But I’d like to know what we are about, when we say we’re cured? From the very condition of being human, which is, in two words, no guarantees? Supplies dwindle. Shops change hands. We got it, and then we don’t got it. We get it back. It goes away too.

So what’s the problem with palliation? It is holding hands with someone, after all. Here we go, hand in hand into the dark and hopefully through it, but you never know.

It’s a problem when you believe, as I have, that you’re entitled to not having to walk into the dark because you’re a good person doing good things. You’re entitled to health and happiness, world-without-end-amen, especially – only – if you’re doing everything right.

We have a lot less control than we thought. What does massage do for that? Every time we go into session, as either practitioner or participant, we put ourselves – literally – into someone else’s hands. We surrender. We have a good idea of what can happen, especially if it’s someone we’ve worked with for a while, but improbable things happen all the time.

When I’m a client: there’s stuff I had no idea hurt. The places that feel completely bound and hopeless are occasionally more supple and interesting than I expected. I make connections between my tense spots. I relish in what feels good for once.

When I’m the therapist: Today I see you and hear you as different from last time. Yes this is where you’re always tense but look at how you soften if I change my depth of work by degrees. And you are as lovable as you ever were. And that’s a nasty scrape, when did that happen?

From massage therapy we also learn improvisation within a safe framework. We do this all the time in our own lives, even and especially when we are really steering ourselves big time, but in session we are – again – in the reliable caring hands of someone else who is confirming for us that –  indeed – this is a great spot to be curious.

We go charging into our tension, thinking we know. In massage, with the help of the therapist, we catch on that our instincts might have been right all along, but here’s this new tidbit we hadn’t considered, and it informs our next choice. This is also great practice for whatever else is going on in our lives.

We learn it’s not only okay but very good for us to let go. To feel our whole being soften, fiber by fiber. “Oh my gosh I feel so much better” is not something we say after we’ve worked ourselves into a panting lather. It’s usually something we say after we’ve had the chance to lay down for a while, breathe, and be, with someone who cares.

Doing something right, by not doing anything at all.