Nice to Meet You

I am attending my annual workshop, THE one I go to, sort of a pilgrimage you might say, tomorrow. Every year I show up kind of stumbling in, frayed around the edges, a little jittery from my summer schedule finally coming to an end, sneezing and blowing my nose (it’s always in October, when my allergies are worst).

David Lauterstein comes up to the Downeast School of Massage in Maine and helps us learn his Deep Massage technique. (You can be part of the Deep Massage Society on FaceBook if you like.)

I love my job. I love my life. I have the practice I’ve always dreamed of, and there’s not a day that goes by that I pause and say “Thank you…thank you that I got to do something beautiful with my life, after all…thank you for delivering me from a cubicle…thank you…”

But getting what you want also means getting what you didn’t expect. Having a private  practice is a solitary endeavor: it’s all on you, sweetheart. Lots of stuff goes on to make 1 session look effortless, much the same way a good piece of theatre looks easy and you relax just being at a professional show. Meanwhile there’s this amazing ensemble laboring as one behind the scenes.

In private practice, you are the ensemble. You are actor, stage manager, lighting director and box office. You are Sondheim, Bernstein, Laurents and Robbins. Cue the Jets and Sharks.

I fancied myself a solo performer at one point, when I was doing a lot of acting early in my 20s. (Had to do something with that theatre degree.) I put together a one-woman show that I trucked around a few places.

You know what’s more awkward than attending a solo show? Doing a solo show. I realized – fast – that there’s nothing worse than hearing your own voice for longer than 15 minutes. After that it’s dreadfully boring. You wait for someone to say something interesting: nope, it’s still you, with all those lines you wrote that you thought were so great at the time.

They were great. On paper. Now you’re windbagging with earnestness, or wielding humorous inflection, or mustering tears. It’s a bad church skit, an excruciating home movie, no matter how much subdued encouragement you get from friends and family. I am not a fan of the genre, nor do I think I was terribly adept at it, in case you couldn’t tell.

I’ve always enjoyed ensemble work: being raised Mennonite, community was everything and you were always doing things with someone else. A lot more got accomplished that way, and the other person at least had some better stories than yours, or some personality quirks that kept you riveted.

I like keeping my own company, but there’s a loneliness to the entrepreneur: a weariness that can sneak up on you when you’re not looking. I am working with someone else but often I feel I’m working alone.

By the time I plop myself into David’s workshop I’m too full of myself and in desperate need of not believing my own hype. I’ve had weeks of bringing my A game and the A game is starting to feel like chainmail rather than royal robes. I know I’ve been shoving myself around and yet I don’t know how to get the gears out of high rev.

I need what I get: colleagues, humor, listening, fooling around with new techniques the way a mechanic tinkers in the garage, elucidation, steeping.

Anyone who touches bodies for a living knows it’s easy to stop seeing the person you’re working with. We greet the whole but end up dealing with parts. We grind at the issue, rather than taking time to step out of it and widen our scope.

Our frame of reference – as practitioner, the do-er- becomes the platform for the hour. We forget there are two people in the room: the person on the table, and the person standing beside the table. One is responsible for the tenor, intricacies, and professionalism of a session, but both are “working” in the sessions itself.

This is called, to my understanding, meeting at interface: my hands meet your body. Your body meets up to my hands. This is where it happens, and nowhere else: not in my thinky notes from last session, not the story you told me about your body and what’s wrong with it, not even what either of us hope to have happen.

Interface is mute and blind, but it sings and sees. Its currency is curiosity and respect. I have things I would like to have happen for you in session, and I aim for them, but it’s not me aiming: we hunker on the starting blocks and charge forth down the track in tandem. And we break the finish line side by side.

What a relief! As the person standing beside the table, I can give up my onus, remove the superhero cape. Behold: You, on the table, know how to heal yourself. I can confirm that. I place my hand and it calls out: “What’s happening here?” Your body responds to my hand: “Here’s what’s doing. And.”

When I meet, rather than do, there is also room for alchemy, something David talks about as one of the great graces of massage therapy. We cannot make it happen but we can create the space where it could occur. It is, he says, “a decision initiated by our clients from deep within themselves.”

Hallelujah. The monologue is over. Let the duet begin.

I’m ready for another year.

Every true journey is a journey to the center of the self. Jules Verne imagined it under the earth. But we therapists don’t just imagine it. We get to take a real journey over this living surface, affecting what’s underneath, the subterranean flows of muscle, bone, emotion, thoughts and breath.
Each session we do is an adventure story and an interface of biographies. Who could not be fascinated with this journey?
— David Lauterstein


Let Teenagers Ask You Questions

If you want to know more about yourself, get in front of a group and field questions about your line of work. Not just any group, though. I highly recommend teenagers.

I was asked to present to our local technical center’s health class: about 10 high school girls were there, and the teacher – an ER nurse who is into alternative and complementary healthcare – wanted local professionals from all realms of health and well-being to talk to her students about their job, rather than just have them study it, which I thought was a great idea.

On the drive over I realized maybe I should collect my thoughts a little. I have the tendency to fly by the seat of my pants in these kinds of situations, but maybe I should be, I dunno, a little prepared? As if one can ever be with a room full of adolescents?

I decided I would tell them a bit about myself, my training…be honest as to why I even tried massage therapy in the first place: I hated my job. I was desperate to do something different…I flopped myself into massage school and did the program with grim determination…no lifelong dream, no blinding flash. I just wanted to do something beautiful with my life before I died. And now I had the best career in the world.

“But rein it in,” I reminded myself as I parked the car. When I’m nervous, I become a ham, and prattle.

It was a great classroom: this was health class, so there were practice dummies for CPR, anatomy charts and an entire plastic skeleton hanging from a hook. I felt right at home. The girls were seated at tables that were in a horseshoe around what I think was supposed to be my “presentation area.” I found an office chair with wheels, and rolled myself right in amongst them. Their eyes widened a little.

In the first ten minutes I think I firmly established myself as a professional, with a lot of training and experience, and also a bit of a weirdo. I got their eyes up out of their laps and away from the walls, and made them laugh. By the time I said, “Okay, so, I’m done, please ask me questions now,” they were ready for me.

First question, right out of the gate (and the girl who asked it sounded like she had been holding it in for hours, she said it with so much expression and enthusiasm)
“What do you do if someone smells BAD? I mean really BAAAAAD?”
Titters all around.

I gathered quickly this was probably something all of them were reeeeeeeally interested in.

This is what they wanted to know from a massage therapist? Immediately I knew I had a job to do: not be a ham, but an adult. So here was a great opportunity to inspire their compassion and understanding. But – wow – I also could not bullshit them and act like bad smells are not gross or a big deal. Sometimes they are.

“Okay, so here’s what you do,” I started out. “You acknowledge you are grossed out, to yourself. You have to deal with it professionally though. You meet and work with this person as thoughtfully and maturely as possible. Later, you talk about it with another colleague: You do not share it on FaceBook, you don’t bring it home and expect your girlfriend or boyfriend to help you cope with it. You get your yas-yas out with a peer but with that client you are respectful and encouraging.”

“There might be a few reasons why that person smells bad,” I persisted to mounting giggles and comments sotto voce. I listed a few: medication, they can’t smell anything well let alone their own body odor, no soap, poor hygiene. “Maybe they don’t have hot water at their house. Maybe they don’t have running water, period.” They softened a little. Some people don’t, in rural Maine.

“And it goes across class,” I said. “Not everyone who walks in your door who looks like they might smell, will. It’s really nice when clients shower before coming to you, but not everyone does, and that includes people who look well-off and clean. They get on the table, you go to drape them and: boom. A waft, from the gluteal fissure. It’s part of the job. In fact…”

The noise level ratcheted up a notch: “Waft? Waft? She said ‘waft.’ Waft!” Then, they had to ask me about the gluteal fissure. “Yes, the butt crack, ladies, the butt crack,” I said, while rolling my eyes and smiling a little at the ensuing howls and whoops. The conversation morphed from being about People Who Smell Bad to Smelly Butts in General.

“Oooh! Oooh! What do you do? If a butt stinks?” I was getting this from a few girls, all at the same time.

At this point I did a quick personal check-in: was I losing my command of this presentation (if you could call it that) over a very minor point (but one to which my audience was riveted, thereby ensuring their attention)? Should I reel them in with more serious matters? I snuck a peek at the teacher. She seemed to be as interested in their line of questioning as they were.

“Well,” I started carefully. “You …well. You deal with it, again, professionally. Discretely.” I described my tried and true technique of anchoring the drape line above the sacrum, which admittedly doesn’t allow as much hand contact with the upper hip muscles, but choosing between that or breathing deeply, I opt for breathing deeply.

“Do you wave a bunch of incense around? Dump essential oils on them? Open a window?” More questions from all sides.

“I have burned a little white sage. Especially if there’s a fart. Yours, or the other person’s. Hey, it could happen…!!”

Pandemonium: This lady said “waft,” “butt crack” and “fart.” We cannot believe this lady says this stuff.

Other questions that surfaced in the hour, more easily summarized:

Q. “What do you do if you don’t like feet? If you can’t touch them?”
A. If you don’t like feet, you probably shouldn’t become a massage therapist.

Q. “Do worry about making enough money? Or are you comfortable.”
A. I’m comfortable, but I will always worry about making enough money.

At one point – and I’m still not sure how I got there – we did do a little hands-on training: how to touch someone. They paired up, taking turns standing behind one another, and practiced using full hand contact on each other’s upper shoulders, then using their body weight – not just their hands – to bring pressure into their partner’s muscles. It went really well: there were a lot of happy sighs and blissed-out faces…along with the giggling and running commentary.

The reason why I recommend talking to teen-agers, if you can find a small group that’s easily engaged and a teacher who’s game? Adults will try to impress you with their questions. Teenagers, by in large, are going to try to embarrass you. They will make you answer honestly, or they will fillet you. It’s good practice in keeping it real. Which is why we do massage therapy in the first place.

Don’t Touch Me: Part 2

(…cont. from “Don’t Touch Me: Part 1“)

“Yes,” I continued, with growing confidence. “It’s true. I mean I don’t like random touch. You know? ‘Hiiii, how arrre you,'” I said, and I pawed at the air, mimicking someone coming at me with gropey hands.

She laughed. I felt a little better. Maybe I was getting at something here.

“Like if you’re at Rollies and there’s always this person who finds you who’s just had one too many, and there they are: in your face, falling on your shoulder, grabbing your elbow…helllOOOOOO…”

I used Rollies – Belfast, Maine’s famous watering hole – on purpose, because everyone goes there: from laborers to city council members. We all watch the Red Sox, Patriots and Bruins here; families gather at the big tables for meals; there’s a pool table and a modern jukebox and free peanuts. It’s a microcosm of Waldo County community life. We all drink there, and all of us have either had too many at one point, or been with people who have. As I hoped, she laughed at this too.

“So, just to let you know, I think I understand – in my own way – what you mean about not wanting to be touched. I get it. This is not unwanted hugs or weird pats, this is professional body work. I do this for a living and I take it seriously. Which means I take your needs and sensitivities seriously too.

“There’s nothing happening here that is not under your control. I will tell you everything I am doing, before I do it, and you can say whether or not that works for you. I don’t have to know the reason, just say “huh-uh.”

“This is your session. Your time. And, from moment to moment we’ll see how it goes. I know you’ve signed up for an hour session but personally I will be thrilled if we can get in 25 minutes. That will be a major accomplishment!”

“Yeah, I know!” she replied. Her face was starting to relax and she was getting a little color in her cheeks. I could tell what I was saying was helping her trust me more. I was feeling better, myself.

Hand.fingerdeskpull“So, this is how it goes. I’m gonna leave the room. Let’s just start with you face up, today, okay? This way you can talk to me easily and we can end things more smoothly if we need to.” She agreed to lying supine, supported by pillows, even mostly disrobing so she could be more comfortable under the linens. “I’ll knock before I come in and then we’ll get started, okay?”

“Right!” she said, and she closed the door behind me while I went to wash up and she bravely attempted the impossible: lying down on my table, waiting to be massaged.

I went into the bathroom and felt a slight tremor inside. I did as I always did: pray, for myself and my client, that it would be for our mutual benefit and the greatest and highest good for all. I noticed, however, that my internal voice had an edge and squeak to it that bordered on hysteria.

“What if, Lord,” I prayed, “I get in there and all I do is touch the top of her head and she says, “Nope, I can’t do this,” and we have to end the session right there? I want to help her! I think I can! What if she really can’t let me? Agghkk, what-what-what?”

I felt access to peace, suddenly, as if a giant angel hand came to rest on top of my head and pressed gently but firmly: the equivalent to a verbal “Shoosh.”

Don’t go in there acting like she’s going to quit on you any minute. Do everything as if the next minute will certainly come. And for heaven’s sake, stay calm! If you’re at ease, she’ll be at ease.

So I knocked and went in, and began.

I have to say, there is an immediacy to your work if you know that it could end at any moment. And, while I began simply and calmly, and checked in with Tracy every 15 minutes that went by, like clockwork, like I promised her I would — and, while I also told her what I was going to do in a soft but distinct voice, before I did it, like I had promised (“I’m now going to drape your upper chest a little more and work both arms, starting with your right.”) —  I also was waiting, on some level, for her eyes to open and for her to say, “Stop.”

But that never happened. Instead, fifteen minutes went by, and then another, and then another. Her response to my inquiry, “How you doing,” went from “Fine” to “Mumph,” the happily unintelligible response of someone in deep relaxation. I used medium pressure and if i dipped into certain areas more deeply, I was hawklike in monitoring her response.

There were no adverse ones, so far as I could tell: her eyes were closed and stayed closed. Her face, while still retaining traces of tension (and her brow still knit), was placid. Her breathing deepened and softened. She even let me take her whole arm without even attempting to help me (something I haven’t accomplished even with certain long-term clients, see “Up in Arms“)

Finally I nudged her. “Guess what,” I said. “You did it. A whole hour.” And left.

“How are you feeling?” I asked, as I came back in the room and she was sipping water.

“Well,” she said. “A lot better. Maybe because it’s over.” We laughed at this one. Boy, if nothing else, I realized Tracy had a great sense of humor, just like her cousin.

I reviewed the session: headache was still there, but she felt a lot looser, right where she needed it the most: all around C5-T2. Would she feel like coming back for more? Certainly she did. I got her rescheduled and tried not to show how much I felt like dancing in my chair with joy. Perhaps this was a turning point for her body: a chance to start feeling better more often. This is the kind of thing that makes massage therapists want to cry with happiness. I also refrained from doing that.

“I did do a tiny bit of leg compressions, like we had discussed, but it was the one time in the session I noticed your visibly tense. You didn’t like that, did you? I will totally not even touch your legs next time. I apologize.”

“Yeah, thanks,” she replied. “I just don’t want my legs to be touched. And I really don’t like people touching my FEET.” That tense dubious look surfaced one more time, then went away.

I made a note in her file, and in my mind: Do Not Touch Legs or Feet. With the sincere hope that someday, even that could happen, if she says she is ready. But, as with everything else with Tracy, I will take it moment to moment.

Tracy is now a regular client and, while she’s experiencing new soreness and discovering other parts of her that are tense (“I think I clench my teeth!”), she is hanging in there. Her name has been changed for this story.

With a tip of the hat to my friend, colleague, blogger and all-around awesome person Rowan Blaisdell, and his post “You Are in Charge.”

Skin is Like Water

You can play with Xcelerator hand dryers. You know, the very high-powered ones nowadays! They are entertaining, and if you haven’t anything better to do, you can watch what happens to the skin on your hands when the hot air moves over it.

Even if you HAVE something better to do, ignore it for a while. These little moments. Your entire day was filled with them when you were small. Well, be small again: and let a little silly come into your life.

TURN DOWN THE SOUND on your pooter and: Check it out:

I did a quick video at the local Belfast Co-op’s bathroom. It is not easy to film with one hand and dry with the other.  It’s a little hard to see, but if you look you can see my skin skootching around under the pressure of the air.

I’ve done this a few times with Xcelerator hand dryers and every time I just think:


Bags of water, us all, with some floaty sacs all knitted up inside of us: filled with electricity and chemicals and hormones and gas. A couple eyeballs so we can make our way, and a mouth to put food in. Formalized angels! With hand dryers to remind us how very weird (and wonderful) our human body is.

And how grateful I am to take care of yours, when you come through my office door.

What you just read is not my fault. It’s because my friend, colleague, co-conspirator and pants kicker Rowan Blaisdell talked me into it, and also, because I cannot resist a write-off: 31 Posts in 31 Days August Blog Challenge, Business Blogging School. Caution snuffed, perfectionism cast off like a smelly cloak: this is blog #7.

Playing with the Xcelerator hand dryer at the Belfast Co-op

Playing with the Xcelerator hand dryer at the Belfast Co-op

Make Someone Happy

“Oh I’m so sleepy,” my client said as I got her moved around from prone to supine. She was rubbing her eyes and yawning. It was an afternoon massage, and good time for a nap anyway, I said aloud. Rub rub rub. As I finished her neck work and moved to her arms, she looked at me through one open eyeball. “You’re not going to steal my kidneys are you?”

See, I can’t help it. To me, this is funny, and so, I laugh. Not loud (well, sometimes) and not directly over my client (for hygienic and professional reasons) but I laugh. Usually my client does too. It’s nice.

There is, to me, nothing better than a giggle fit in session that both you and your client can share. Consider this: a professional massage therapy session asks two imperfect people in a small space to behave with civility and dignity for an hour or more. It’s like being in church: the circumstance cries out for something inopportune to occur, something uncalculated and silly, which I don’t look for or encourage mind you, but when it does happen I appreciate.

The body, alone, is a warehouse of laughs:  its snores, farts, sneezes and burps, the snurfs and snarfs, hair in the face and hairstyles destroyed (I have remarked to many a client after the session as they stare at what scalp massage, however delightful, has done to their coif: “Ah yes! The styling is gratis.”), ticklish feet, a whomp to the solar plexus (I was once kneed in the sternum by a 6’6” man while he rolled prone to supine – “Watch out, there’s a lot of meat moving around here!” he yodeled as I clutched my chest and wheezed)…

…unprecedented reactions to your technique (both my close friend and I were amazed that she punched me one for engaging her hamstrings with a little too much enthusiasm…and I never, ever did that  again, believe me) even a classic pratfall or two (yes I have tripped over my own feet during session and gone across the room) and those few moments when I reach across the upper pecs and accidentally clock a client in the jaw…oops. Sorry. Usually my client is too “gone” to notice, but sometimes I get a smirk and a snort from their relaxed, placid face. Hee hee. The therapist is a dope! And moving right along…

Even great sorrow and pain is contoured by dark humor, and some of the more prolonged laughs I’ve had have been with those who were ill: with depression exacerbated by winter’s cold and lack of light, or a tenacious URI, or stage III ovarian cancer.

This past winter one of my long term clients had a very bad cold, like the rest of us. She had had it for weeks, and didn’t want to give up her massage. Long past being contagious, desperate for a hearty rubdown, particularly between her shoulder blades (I also knew she needed her upper chest muscles and scalenes gently worked, and doused with essential oils, particularly Young Living’s RC blend) she was pretty sure she could go prone on the table, and then roll supine, so long as I didn’t leave her face down for too long. “I just don’t know when I’ll start coughing,” she said.

“Or dripping on the carpet,” I replied, getting her comfy with bolsters and towels. “Don’t worry, I won’t let you get to the horking phase.”

There was no dripping or horking: the coughing after 18 minutes was intense enough that I knew I’d met my Waterloo, so to speak, and so while I got her rolled over and comfortable, this time supine with pillow under the head. BUT before that there was a great big nose blow, a gulp of water, and a mint supplied. In fact, for the rest of the session there was nose-blowing, water sipping and mints supplied until by the third or fourth time of our rounds – did I mention the great blobs of hand sanitizer? – she looked at me, holding her cup of water and working the mint in her mouth, while I disposed of her tissues, and said, “Am I paying you enough for this??” We both cracked up.

I enjoy comedy so much I have ardently pursued it, in amateur fashion: I write skits (not an improv pro, I prefer my comedy scripted), rehearse and perform with other funny types as we search for the ultimate ways in which to thoroughly tickle people’s funny bone:  i.e. render them soggy, gaspy and weak from belly laughs. When you have an audience going for long enough that you’re not sure whether they’re about to cry or pee their pants, I consider my work well done.

I know plenty of massage therapists who are also nurses, physical trainers or yoga teachers…chefs or dentists, even! Funny lady and MT? Are they remotely compatible?

Apparently they are. As I’ve considered it, I’ve come to realize that basically good comedy and good massage therapy are fundamentally, for me, about making someone happy. Both fields look easy but require a high degree of commitment and professionalism. Both fields are highly personal: one person loves this MT’s work, another person doesn’t, and it can be the exact same session for both people, but it doesn’t rock both their worlds. Same for comedy. I cannot get enough of Britcoms, or Louis Black, or classic “Your Show of Shows” episodes, but I know what I like is not for everyone.

Both fields necessitate good listening to your audience/client: they are always giving you either verbal or physical cues about whether or not what you’re doing is what they’re looking for.

Both comedy and massage therapy require a high level of trust: in hopes of finding something to laugh at, we enter into comedy, begrudgingly or enthusiastically offering up the highly prized gift of our laughter, and we hope the comedienne meets us halfway. Likewise in a massage session, we surrender our precious selves, our very flesh, into the hands of a professional and hope they “get” us. If they do, everyone’s satisfied.

Humor and massage therapy go a long way in this world to relieve the pain and tension of our lives. Sometimes – by accident, and oh blissful day –  they happen at the same time.

“Make someone happy.
Make just one someone happy.
And you will be happy too.” – Comden/Green and Jule Styne, 1960