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

You are a Body. Not a Head.

Winter in Maine is a wonderful time to get familiar with your body: how much you use it, and when it is telling you to stop. I know most people feel themselves most fully in the summer. Well, who wouldn’t?

When we are warm and unencumbered, we struggle not against howling gales nor winch up with the mincing steps of navigating ice. When it is beneficent and redolent all around, we toil and weary but the air supports us, and besides, we are mostly barefoot.

We know our stuffs most certainly when we prevail our squishy flesh upon a few snowdrifts, for example, in below-freezing temperatures. Many things not in our favor. Except our body. Which is quite excellent, when you can feel its health.

I was thinking about it a lot today while putting in a few shifts of excavation. The Blizzard of ’15 gave us everything it promised. Today, it was a game of “Find The ___.” Find the cars – find the gas tanks – the compost pile – the woodpile. Carve paths to each. Throw snow around. Gasp and sweat.

With each heave-ho, I was aware – believe me I was aware – of all the muscle groups working together on my behalf. It is truly amazing, it really is. Do you ever catch yourself in a task and marvel at how it all works?  “Do this,” our will drives our body, and the body says, “Yes,” and it happens. (With varying degrees of success of course.)

I played with centering myself in different parts of my frame. The temptation is to just work with one side of your body – hack away at a pile relentlessly until it vanishes – but this is not an elegant approach. (Plus it just really makes everything hurt after a short period of time.) I switched arms, even for just a few shovelfuls, even though the switch felt non-instinctual and clumsy. It gave the other half of me something new to do and surprised muscles that weren’t very busy until that moment.

I also found things went a lot better if I firmed up my abs and gripped tight into my glutes. Things also went better with taking breaks and going inside for water. This was exercise!

What a gift: to be body aware, and play with what we find. My instincts have been honed by nearly fifteen years of practicing and receiving massage therapy. I have studied, contemplated, touched and been with Body. A day outside mooshing snow around is continuing education, as far as I’m concerned.

Doing massage therapy is a great way to spend your humanity: loving the warm, electrical, water-filled bags that are us. And by love I don’t mean anything more than full attention: but full attention is the most loving thing we can do. Whether we are lying on a massage table or asking the herculean of ourselves with winter labor, it is, therefore, love.

Besides being a massage therapist there is just the benefit of receiving massage, which not all professionals seem to do with the same consistency. There’s a lot of overlap between the restaurant industry and massage therapy, as I see it, and I say a massage therapist who doesn’t receive semi-regular massage is like a chef that does not go out and try other chef’s fare. It’s mostly unheard-of in the restaurant world. It should be in ours.

There are so many benefits to massage therapy, but one of the greatest, and possibly hardest to describe, is the gift it gives us of being in our own bodies and having someone else helping us affirm our existence as a body, not just a head.

I’ve written before about the seduction of our age: the supremacy of mind and inconvenience of our body, as if all we are is a pair of eyes inside a slab of jello-y meat.

Massage therapy is a subversive act. It says “hush now” to our mind, which like a spoiled child insists it’s king. Our attention, if we allow it, trickles out of the confines of mind and into the glorious vistas and uncharted waters of our frame.

We become aware of the strangest places: the underside of our upper arm. The webbing between our toes. The very top of our head. Behind our knee.

Body awareness in session gives rise to few words (thank God) but these are the top 3 phrases I’ve heard:

“I had no idea that was sore.”
“Oh my God that feels so good.”
“That’s the spot.”

To be in our bodies and notice what was quiet but aching; to be there when we’re consumed with an overwhelming sense of wellbeing; to have another person acknowledge – with their hands – what’s been bugging us for days. That. Spot. It’s been confirmed and now it’s already starting to feel better because someone who not only cares but has the knack for professional kneading is very keen on helping.

When we are aware of our bodies, we experiment with what works. We play with how we move, lift, respond. We’re more apt to listen when it’s tired, we’re more inclined to notice when we feel good.

Massage therapy gives us ground substance against which everything else is measured, and gives us refuge when we’re feeling stressed. We know how it feels to not be stressed: we’ve had massage! We can go there again, either by recreating it on our own through self care, or, hey, better yet, calling up our massage therapist and making an appointment.

We’ve tasted the good stuff. We know how to make it happen again, how useful it can be.

Even – maybe and especially – when thrusting about amid ponderous snowdrifts.

“Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, there is a mighty lord, an unknown sage — it is called Self; it dwells in your body, it is your body.”
David Lauterstein, quoting Nietzsche in “Thus Spake Zarathustra” on his Deep Massage Book FaceBook page

 

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.

Wounded But Serving

I think it’s a good thing to talk about self-care and how we can optimize ourselves for being the best practitioners we can be, but we need to get real: individually and as a profession. There’s self care because you need to be a little physically stronger, a little less sleepy in the afternoon: then there’s the self care of the truly wracked, anxious, woebegone and frightened.

Trying to get a toehold on sanity, and working that line, hour by hour, minute by minute, and also seeing clients.

I am writing this blog post now because I couldn’t write in August.  A situation with mental illness and addiction in my family reached new crisis levels. This person was rushed to the ER and admitted to a psychiatric and addiction center, for the second time this year.

 

There is, as of this writing, 30 days of sobriety, good prescriptions, and a will to live. But it has been rough. I became ill, too. The name they give it is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which feels pretty weird for someone who spends 8-10 hours a day helping people reduce theirs.

I was doing all the good stuff (more salads. Less caffeine. More sleep. Less sugar.) but a lot of it wasn’t working, when I desperately wanted it to. It just didn’t. There for a while I had a small bag I carried, along with my purse, holding all the tinctures, supplements, flower essences and powders I’d collected so I could dose myself all day.

I’m doing better (due to many kinds of support, which I won’t get into here), but there were plenty of moments when I walked into a session, hoping to help others, but feeling utterly broken and full of despair inside. This was a deeply painful place to find myself.

I felt guilty for barely holding it together and still seeing others in a therapeutic setting. Is there room in our profession for those, like me, hoofing it on the edge of darkness?

 

Consider your stereotype of massage therapists. We see a practitioner who is happy, relaxed, completely absorbed in the needs of the client, serene, centered, thoughtful…quite possibly the embodiment of health and sanity. (I mean, when I go get a massage, that’s kind of what I hope to experience, even just a little bit.)

There are massage therapists like me who have a loved one up to their gullets in mental illness and addiction and who, themselves, are in real danger of becoming sick and/or addicted themselves.

There are massage therapists with mental health issues.

There are massage therapists who are addicts.

There are massage therapists whose children are in jail or who have gone missing: whose loved ones are battling cancer or HIV, ALS, PTSD: who are facing foreclosure or eviction.

There are massage therapists who feel maligned or weak or increasingly concerned by a physical ailment or a state of mind: whose might have family members threatened with violence, deportation or incarceration: who feel endangered or misunderstood where they live.

How do I know this? I don’t, for sure. But a lot of humans have lives like this. Lots of people, navigating terrifying swells in a boat that is taking on water. Massage therapists are human: ergo, there are probably more of us working our hearts out to give to others, and doing so from a fragile place, than most of us realize or want to acknowledge.

Standing and serving in the midst of profound confusion and pain is okay. If we think we have to have it all together to work, that’s something we need to examine. We have compassion for our clients in the midst of their trouble: it’s the least we can do for ourselves.

Also, some days the best part of being massage therapist was leaving my self outside the treatment room:  stowing my fears for a few hours while I worked to make a difference for someone, anyone. For all my technical skills, essential oils, good intentions, I could do nothing in my family. But at work: there was hope.

In your life, a bomb will go off. I promise you. Everything you thought about yourself and your world will melt like late winter snow. Who are you, then, as you stand in the wreckage, and also wish to work? Watch your illusions of control dissolve, one by one, until you’re seeing clearly, and wishing you didn’t. Until, one day, you don’t mind.

There is a moment, in the chrysalis, where the goo inside is not caterpillar, not butterfly. It’s an amorphous gel of who-knows-what. The entity that knew itself as Caterpillar no longer exists. The promise of Butterfly is too much to hope for.

There’s where you work from, as a practitioner, and in the midst of the life you’ve been given. This is what anyone, groping for a way, knows. Don’t be fooled by the nice smells, pretty colors and soothing music: massage therapists are right there too.

Caterpillar to chrysalis: for your encouragement (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gsm_ZyJz_s)

I feel it’s important to have boundaries about a lot of things but I’m equally convinced it’s important to share what you know, when you can, especially if it will help someone else, maybe remove stigma. So: I’m a member of Al-Anon. It has changed my life and saved my sanity.

It’s a Personal Thing

“Oh well. That’s a relief. We’re on the same page with that, too!” My new client sat back in his chair, and I thought I noticed his eyes go a little pink. I found it meaningful as well: it had taken a little time, but in under 12 minutes he and I got two very important things squared away: pressure level (firm, but not deep) and talking during session (none please).

I was happy for him, but sad. I knew this man had been getting massage for years. For years, receiving massage therapy, and no practitioners had this discussion with him?

Yes, yes, we want our clients to tell us what they need. “Just let me know,” we encourage them warmly, but the last time you had a massage how easy did you find it to communicate your needs when you’re already on the table? When I get there, I’m hesitant: I find it’s not easy.

My experience with this first-time client sharpened my already strong opinions about how to present one’s work to one’s clients. I’ve been a practitioner for 15 years, had a lot of massage myself, made regrettable mistakes but learned even more from other practitioners I’ve traded with who were good at what they did but had breathtakingly shoddy intake and outtake skills.

In brief, here it is: most clients are not interested in whatever technique you plan on using. If it requires dramatic bolstering, draping, stretching, give them a head’s up, but no need to explain constantly. Nor do they want to know about your next workshop, a meaningful experience you had with another client, or your favorite pet.

Rein it in. Err on the side of saying less, so you can hear more.

The difference – to me – between a good practitioner and an excellent one, one you can’t wait to recommend to others, is how well that practitioners listens. I’ve had plenty of massage from individuals who addressed my issues but who simply were not interested nearly enough in what I wanted, not picking up on my body language or hearing my voice. They steamrollered me with their personality. And they talked. A lot. It was not an experience I wanted to repeat.

How to get to the heart of the matter, then, even before you lay hands upon it?

I suggest getting personal.

This might seem an odd suggestion but look at what you’re doing: you’re massaging a person. For an hour. Maybe an hour and a half. They are mostly naked, strategically covered, and they are dozy. What is more personal than this? Other than bathing someone, or feeding them?

Here are some standard questions I ask. Depending on the answer I get, it invokes other questions…

Are you usually warm or cold?
(One of THE most important questions you need ask. If your client is cold at all, they will not relax. Also, if they’re sweating, they won’t relax either.)

If I use hot towels or essential oils in session, would that be alright?

What kind of pressure feels good to you? Do you know?

Do you want silence?
(I’m a non-talker and try to get that clear up front. A few exchanges is fine but I can’t concentrate if my mouth is going.)

Are there any parts of your body you don’t want me to touch?
(aside from the obvious of course) (sometimes I need to explain it anyway, for people who’ve never had a massage before and really don’t know what a professional’s parameters are.)

Be curious. It’s a fine quality in an MT. Listen. Find this person, who will soon surrender their body to your care for the next duration, utterly fascinating. Does their nose drip when prone? Tuck a tissue into one of their empty, up-turned hands. Do they have a persistent cough? Proffer a mint. Light too bright? “Would you like an eye pillow?” Is the music okay? “Maybe something more lyrical, less chant-y…”

By the way this is a good practice to get into not only with your first-time clients, but your regulars as well. Never assume you know. After 7 weeks, 7 months, 7 years, check in with them again: are they still getting what they need from the session? One of the fastest ways to breathe life into your practice is to see every client as if you’ve never seen them before. Ask them questions you haven’t in a while.

In short, take your client by the hand and lead them to the dance floor. You lead, they follow. Make yourself trustworthy: a little communication goes a long way. Notice them, the way a good server respectfully observes her customers, anticipating their every need, noticeable at key moments but most of the time, not noticeable at all.

When you have that kind of trust from your client, you might wander into the weeds and stars to that place where alchemy occurs, and where words no longer form. Just you, and the client, and the music.

Curve with a Name

“But I never would have guessed you have scoliosis.”

I do have it, I hide it well, although lately I have to say it has not hid itself from me. My lower left lumbars are aching in a deep way, confused, sending little unhappy bleats down my left leg all the way to my toes. You might not really understand the immediacy and power of your nervous system until you injure or pinch a nerve, even slightly. The messages are varied, yet continuous.

CurveTypesMy left hip seizes up when I get out of a chair, and currently I’m enjoying a slumbering right psoas: one of the strongest muscles in the body. When it’s strained, lifting your leg becomes either impossible or fills you with stabbing pain, like someone jabbing an ice pick into your hip joint. It slumbers and then when roused – like, when I want to move in and out of my car – behaves like a hornet hive that’s been poked with a flaming torch.

I would never have guessed I had scoliosis until I injured my back two weeks ago, and now my scoliosis is all I think about. Ever since I was diagnosed with it when I was 11 years old, I’ve seen chiropractors (waaay back when they were quack status) and received massage, done yoga and powerwalking, and in the past four years added in Pilates and a little moderate weightlifting. Nothing regularly unfortunately, and nothing with vigor.

I blame my current constant pain and inability to move with ease, as is my custom, on my twisted spine, which seemed to be bearing up under sporadic attention just fine until now. Is it fair, to be peeved at a body part when it says, “Enough’s enough”? Aren’t our bodies allowed to speak out, set boundaries, communicate directly and try to resolve conflict with us, just like we feel we are entitled to do with other people?

What does it mean to be not curved from front to back, but side to side? Our spine is meant to roll fore and aft, thoracics to lumbars, not severely but gently, to cushion the blow of living and act as a spring, boinging finely at the center of our being. You can go deep into a body and the deepest place there’s bone, doing its glistening slick oseous job.

Deepest and most profound in its construct is our spine. We ask so much of it: sitting for hours hunched, sleeping splayed or curled, jerking it around lifting heavy things that sheer will deems doable. (“I can lift that.”) And our spine not so much. (“Well that was a bad idea.”)

It would be a lot better for us, wouldn’t it, if we wouldn’t just assume everything we feel like doing and want to do with our bodies is OK with our body. We would be accused of behaving selfishly, carelessly, if we constantly dealt with friends and associates with the sometimes breath-taking lack of sensitivity we show our own frame.

What we take for granted! Whole systems working tirelessly, painlessly, and then when injured, begin to let us know. “How annoying,” we say with disgust, and throw painkiller or hydrotherapy at it, hoping it goes away. The mendicant at our gate is body, and rather than feed it, we take the other way out of the city.

The first chiropractor I saw when I was 11 was a large, soft, dusky grey man in a poorly lit room who talked sweetly to me and my mother, and touched my back with big meaty hands that felt like giant warm paws. I remember looking up at him and my mother, like a bunny in the woods, waiting to see what the big animals would do.

He did some acupressure points in my ears (a sensation I’ve never forgotten, maybe why I love doing auricular massage to this day) with a metal stylus, told me everything that would happen, helped me onto his electronic table, and adjusted me. I was not afraid, not for a minute: I was just as curious as he was about what he could do to help me.

My mother did not do the surgery on me everyone said I should have, or the body cast: she chose hands-on healing. I wasn’t fixed by this man’s hands: but I had a strong sense that he understood me. He did not look at my malformations as something to be conquered, but something to be kindly spoken to.

Now the adult who must tend my inner child, I am both big bear and the small rabbit: and it’s my job to talk sweetly to the injury I have, and the torqued, tense mass of my lower left lumbars. Good luck has run out. Now it’s my turn to pay attention, and explain everything that’s going to happen, and not conquer my frame, but speak gently.

Should come easily, you know. I do it for a living. Ahhh, but who can do it for themselves? It is hard. To be that “wounded healer,” and give as generously to myself – in attention, exhortation, encouragement and affection – as I would a client? As my first chiropractor gave to me? That which I received, I give. That which I give: I must now receive.

 

Naked as the Day you were Born

Combine incredible stress and profound loss with a nurturing safe environment and being touched for the first time in months and you’d come unglued, too. My dear client lost her mother and feels alone, the most alone a person can feel, even if surrounded by tons of loving support, which she is not, which makes it so much worse.

Now she is undertaking building a house, her first, and also recuperating from a trying semester teaching brat kids and jousting with rotten co-workers. The woman’s a wreck. She’s on my table.

Re-drape. Grab the tissues and let her use the entire box if she needs to. Murmer consolations, good ones, don’t just pat absently and say “There there” or “awwww.”

Because I’ve known this woman for years, and I truly love her, I find myself rubbing her back between the wings, kissing the top of her head and saying “It’s gonna be okay. You’ll be okay” a few times until her sobbing stops and she starts to breathe naturally again.

“We’re gonna start over, with you supine now, with lots of pillows so you feel like Cleopatra on her barge!” I announce cheerfully, and make it happen quickly. No more snuffling into the face cradle: dignity and calm restored.

Massage therapists work parts: address limbs: move sheets and towels around like we’re doing some kind of horizontal semaphore code. We have these boundaries in place so everyone can relax and not worry about being exposed. There’s plenty of times, however, that exposure happens, whether we want it to or not.

Sometimes it happens when the client can’t help themselves, and they fall apart in front of your eyes. They just don’t care what you see.

I have a few who clutch at the linens when they roll either direction, exceeding even my careful work to keep them modest. That’s fine.  I understand. What’s more challenging to me is the client who starts taking off their clothing while I’m still doing intake. I think that they assume, since I am a massage therapist, that I will be totally okay with seeing their entire naked body.

Look, as much as I adore humans, I’d rather take my client in with my hands, not my eyes. Massage therapists have rites and rituals, and a sense of decorum, not to mention professional standards. While I will massage hinders all day long, I don’t want to see them up off my table, bouncing around the room. This is an art form, not a love-in.

But try telling that to an 82-year-old woman who is both so tired & so eager.  Before you can even get through your full gamut, the shirt’s off, the pants are long gone, and she’s sitting there in just her granny panties and footies.

I start into another question and trail off. “I take it you’re ready to get on the table,” I say.

She lets a pin out of her hair, and incredibly gossamer waves of long silvery hair billow down over her shoulders. I don’t want to look lower, but I do because it’s right there: two amazing breasts. Really. I don’t see many breasts up close, but these are unavoidable, and to my astonished eyes they look like they’re in great shape.

“It’s been a rough year, only getting rougher. Getting old is the pits. I feel like I’m looking at my life through the backwards end of a telescope,” she reports, as she goes to the table and skootches her hand under the linens, ready any time I am.  In her droopy drawers and her giant fuzzy socks, she looks like an elegant, aged fairy, a sage disrobed. I understand the time for my questions is over, and the time for me to work has begun.

Getting old is the pits, and over the next 90 minutes she goes into great detail about how much she has lost, how small her life has become taking care of her 92-year-old husband, all the things that have passed away. Maybe I’m the only person she can be wholly herself with, anymore, as she casts aside veneer and trappings, and speaks from her naked, weary heart.

Sometimes it only happens when the client is ready.

“Today’s a good day for a belly massage, I think,” says my longest-term client.

This is such progress I can barely keep from doing a fist pump. To spend as much time on his back and legs, as per his request, for over a decade, has meant that I’ve had to skip his arms and chest, as per his insistence. Which really is negligence:  the man’s got asthma, with profound breathing problems that have pulled his sternum down and affixed his anterior chest muscles to his ribcage.

I have only been able to guess at the condition of his thorax. Today, I get to see it.

“You got time?” he inquires.

Yes, lord, I do have time, I’ve had time for 13 years. Behaving as if it’s no big deal I drape his chest and let my fingers work  gently but persistently through the soft pine of his sternum, the branches of his ribs and around the scrying pool of his abdomen. I go over 90 minutes and don’t say a word about it: I know I might not have this opportunity again.

All of us in the industry have had these moments where we see a lot more than we meant to or hoped for. Despite all of our admirable attempts to keep it neat and tidy, things come undone. There’s a lot of grace in those moments, more than we could imagine. Trusting in all we do not see, we strive to meet fully what we do.