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

The White Light Blob

If you read this, try to imagine me telling it from memory, standing on stage in front a mike, robed in stage lights, to a standing-room-only crowd, hoping my years of stage performance cover up my profound nervousness. Who wants to stand up and get a slice of their life exposed to a lot of people, most of whom have known you for years and think they know you better than that? Well, me, apparently, and six others of us.

Part of the reason it was SRO was because Jason Bannister has done a tremendous job of revitalizing our Belfast-area tradition of thespianial excellence. This was a Midcoast Actors’ Studio fundraiser and word’s gone out: they do good stuff.

The other reason there were no places to sit is that it was billed at a night of “local luminaries” (1 of which was me, ha!) and so everyone was keen on hearing what John Ford, Andy O’Brien, GW Martin, Jenny Tibbetts, Aynne Ames and Charlie Dufour had to say.

This is, more or less, the story I told this past Saturday night down in The Fallout Shelter stage area of Waterfall Arts in Belfast, Maine.

Hope you enjoy it.

***

Sometimes you have something happen to you once. Once.
And it changes the way you live your life everafter.

It’s the late 1990s. I’m living and working in the Boston area, desperately attempting a career change — in my mid-20s — after a hopelessly misguided foray into technical writing. It was possible, then, to have a little technical know-how, and be unafraid of learning HTML, and get an obscenely high-paying job. I had one of those obscenely high-paying jobs, and I was miserable. I was bored, sitting in a cubicle all day in front of a computer screen.

And not only was I bored, I was incredibly inept, and rapidly becoming more so, as everyone around me was keeping pace with all the new computer languages that were to be learned, practically daily, and I wasn’t. I had a choice: go to back to school and learn computer languages or Do Something Else. So, much to the surprise of myself and everyone who knew me at the time, I decided to go to massage therapy school.

So I was working full-time and going to school on weekends and weeknights, and I was in my final semester at the Muscular Therapy Institute in Cambridge, Mass. And they were offering internships – go work in a professional’s office, you know? And so I was like: yeah. Good. I’ll do this too. Because, you know, I was already tired? And wanted to find out what being more tired would feel like.

I had my internship with Marilyn <not her real name, I just couldn’t remember what her real name was!> at an OB/GYN clinic in Haverhill, Mass. She was everything I wanted to be. She was it. She came to work every day? With a coif. I mean a hairstyle.

Her outfits were totally professional, maybe just a touch over-the-top. I recall gold buttons, some brocade. And she was the only massage therapist I had ever known up to that point, or ever since, to wear heels to do massage.

She had the respect of her peers, which were mostly doctors and nurses, and her practice was full. No empty moments, really. I wanted to be as much like her as I could be.

My internship? Remember I was a student, not licensed, so I really couldn’t touch anyone at this point, least of all her clients, and so…I observed. I stood, and observed. If you think it’s relaxing to get a massage? Try standing in a corner of a room — it was a small office, there was no place for me to sit, really — watching someone receive work, and it’s warm and darkened and there’s a fountain going and music and happy sleepy sounds from the client. I did a lot of this <nodding off>. But I did manage to learn stuff.

She was also a Reiki practitioner.

Now. I had a very sniffy relationship with energy work, Reiki in particular. In my final semester, we had a Modalities class, study of various other techniques (besides massage therapy) that could be incorporated into and referred to from a successful massage therapy practice. Professionals would come in from their respective fields, talk about their work and have all of us do a little hands-on.

By and large, most of these techniques were more energetic in nature: Polarity Therapy, Craniosacral therapy, Zero Balancing, Therapeutic Touch… Reiki. And my classmates would be putting their hands on each other, and feeling pulses and seeing colors and sensing auras and whatnot, and I wasn’t seeing anything, I wasn’t feeling anything. I was not accustomed to being a failure at anything — except my job! — so this class made me feel like I was “failing” energy. And it just made me mad.

So I was hoping that in my internship with Marilyn? We could just neatly circumvent Reiki: focus on business practice, how to communicate with clients, that kind of thing.

Until one day. We had a little time: she looked around, was between clients, looked at me, I wasn’t doing anything, so she said, “Hmmm…let’s see…we’ve got a little time…would you like some work? What shall we do…how about Reiki?”

And I thought to myself, “How about not?” But then! I thought again, “Wait…wait! This is your chance…to LIE DOWN. Maybe take a nap. Say yes, dummy! Say yes!”

So I did, I said “yeah sure” and finally got to lie down on the table I’d been watching her clients enjoy so much.

In Reiki you usually receive on a massage table — about the size of a twin bed, smaller than that — you are fully clothed, there is no disrobing for Reiki, and the practitioner places his/her hands on you in various positions – here <top of head>, here <upper chest>, here <lower abdomen> and so on.

So I was lying there and she began the session, as you do…putting her hands on my head, my upper chest…a few more other places…and then she went around to my feet, cupped my heels in her palms, and held them.

The first thing I noticed? That completely wrested me from my somnolence? Was that time suddenly. Slowed. Down. It was just like in the movies, when things go to slow-mo? It was like this <makes gesture and a noise> but without the noise. Um – that in and of itself put me on sudden high alert. What was going on?? I looked up at Marilyn from where I was on the table.

The second thing was: in that moment, in the warm darkened quiet, I saw a 2-ft wall of white light come out from behind her shoulders, pour down over her arms, through her hands, and go shooting up into my body.

Now. The 2-ft wall. It was — I say it was a wall. It moved through me like a wall – wait a minute. That doesn’t make any sense. How does something move through you like a wall? Never mind. It was more like a blob, a wave, it was – a white light blob.

It had edges. It had mass. And was capable of producing its own speed, since when it got to me it suddenly moved very fast.

The white light? Was like – you know those days when you’re looking at the sun – not directly at the sun, bad for you – right around its edges? The way the sunlight looks? It had that quality and intensity.

And its effect on me? When it hit me? You know what it’s like to touch an electric fence? It was like that! Only a lot more enjoyable. It was like being electrified, or set on fire. I felt it in every cell, all through me.

It passed through me but it was also passing over me, in fact for the brief nanosecond it went up through my head I saw nothing but It, the white light, in my eyes, so my vision was filled with it briefly.

I was visited upon. It was checking me out!

And then suddenly time snapped back into place. Marilyn was standing there working as she had been. Everything was back to normal. Except for me. I was lying there, doing this for a while <flops about>.

And I when I’d recovered, I whispered to her, “What was that?”

“What?” she said.

“What just happened,” I gasped.

“What just happened?” she asked.

I tried to explain it and couldn’t really and she just shrugged a little and said kindly, “Oh it’s probably just a little Reiki,” and kept going with the session.

I had class that night. And in that class were The Girls…you know, the girls in class…the ones you never get along with, they really have annoyed you for all of school and you also have annoyed them. Yeah, massage therapy school can be like that, people, it’s not all hearts and stars, trust me.

Anyway, this one girl did something that bothered me. But, instead of just sitting there and kind of making faces to myself, I spoke up. I said something to her. Which surprised me, totally. And, what I expected to have happen happened, she lit into me. And while this was going on, I was surprised again: I did not care.

On the way driving home that night, I remember thinking to myself and trying to put 2 and 2 together: “I had this experience today. Me, who never feels or sees anything. And, then I spoke up in class, and I felt confident. Wow… there’s gotta be something to this Reiki thing. I gotta learn more about this.”

So I did. As soon as I graduated from massage school, I moved to Maine, and started my Reiki training as soon as I could. I went all the way up to the master level. And I have had amazing experiences from learning Reiki! And people have reported amazing things from my work with them.

I’ve become part of the incredible Reiki, healing community that is in this area. You have no idea, how blessed we are. Really you don’t. Ask me about it, later.

And I also do Reiki when I give massage therapy…? You know I don’t have a valve in the back of my head, that says “yeeeeess this person gets Reiki noooooo this person doesn’t,” it just flows. It’s my way of working. And clients have commented over the years, “So. Your massage is like none that I’ve had. What is that thing? You’re doing?”

And I usually shrug a little and say, “Oh, it’s just a little Reiki.”

But you know, I don’t think that’s a fair assessment really. As I’ve considered it: that white light blob. It was – impersonal. Inhuman. It has. No. Name.

It belongs to no one.

It comes from nowhere.

And, therefore, I believe, it belongs to everyone. And is right here.

Thank you.

Caring – With a Rebel Yell

“You know, it’s more than just a massage, isn’t it?” My longest-term client had finished blowing his nose and was settling in from prone to supine. I was getting his bolster situated, and preparing the warm towel roll for his neck.

“It’s about being cared for. And, as I get older, I need more and more of that. You are about the most caring-est person in my life.” He relayed all of this to me through closed eyes.

I considered how many massages I’ve given him. Probably around 500, over the course of 12 years. He started seeing me when I was fresh into my practice, and kept with me all this time. I thought it was just ’cause he was gradually more and more impressed with my expertise, but he was very frank with me a few months ago as to why he’s seen me so long.

“Habit.”

When my face clearly registered my unhappiness at being mere routine, he added hastily:

“But it’s the quality of your touch. It’s always been there.”

How lucky I am, I thought to myself then, that he has made a habit of the good will he feels from my heart.

“Being Cared For” is hardwired into the massage therapy profession and while sometimes it’s challenging to reach those wells of empathy and affection (depending on what I’ve got going on personally) caring for another is my touchstone, my calling card. I know that makes me a softie. So be it.

Why is it so hard for us to bring tenderness into our lives? Do we think we’re above it? Often we feel we don’t deserve it or need it. Which is a lie: look how quickly disease or dis-ease – physical, emotional, mental or spiritual – blooms when we keep charging ahead without regard for nurture or nourishment. Addictions take the place of regular loving self-regard.

Heaven forbid that we wait, listen, go with the flow or slow down for anything. Whatever our bodily needs might be – sleep, exercise, food, rest, cleaning, or touch – they are at best secondary and often last, as we bow to our List or Agenda or Goals, or other intellectual but questionable pursuits, such as hours of diddling in social media (guilty) or watching TV (guilty…especially since I discovered HuluPlus has a full catalog of Brit Coms.)

How can we bring more caring into our lives?

In what ways have I brought “being cared for” into my own life?

It surprises me, the list I come up with:

1) Treating evening with respect. Not insisting my day continue up until I sleep. And going to bed when I’m tired. If that’s 7:30, that is fine.
2) Taking the proper amount of time it takes to plan, shop for and cook a homemade meal. I do this once a week and I can tell you it’s a 5-hour endeavor, from the minute I crack open the cookbook to when Nate and I sit down to eat. The time to do this does not magically appear. I’ve made it a priority.
3) Damn the agenda, go for a walk.
4) Damn the paperwork, get a massage.
5)  Snuggle. Get close to a person or animal and linger, linger, linger. Physical proximity is great, powerful medicine. (Sitting in sangha, taking communion or being in a crowded bar watching an exciting baseball game are in the same vein.)
6)  Stop striving. Stop improving.  See what’s difficult, uncomfortable, unbearable – and, perhaps even more difficult, see what’s boring, mundane and average – and accept it utterly. At a certain point fighting the reality of your life not only makes you miss the life you’re actually having, but creates unnecessary exhaustion and colors everything you do and how you treat others with a faint aroma of distaste. Care enough about yourself and who you are, and what’s happening for you, to welcome all the imperfection without judgement.
7)  Make a difference when you can. This is the wisdom inherent in Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” : “Grant me the wisdom to accept the things I cannot change/Courage to change the things I can.”  Notice your inner weeping, kvetching, sulking or raging and decide to make a little change in yourself and see if that helps.

For me, this list breaks the mold of societal expectation, and has an almost rebellious, anti-establishment energy to it. I think of the locavore, slow food movements. I consider how many people I know are working hard to get farms going, home schooling their kids or keep local businesses not only afloat but thriving. Lots of us want the good life, and the good life is not what they tell us it is.

If we’re constantly distracted, we’re right where they want us. Being cared for – caring for ourselves – equals presence. From this presence comes strength and wisdom, and then we’re not pawns in the game, but we are the piece movers: we reclaim our lives and take steady, conscious steps ahead.

Love as technique

I had an alarming phenomenon visit me while I was in massage therapy school, during student clinic. In even those rigorously managed and strict environs – and I in my white monogrammed polo, khaki pants, hair pinned back and clipboard in hand – it arrived with enough frequency that I started to wonder if there was something wrong with me.

Gradually, with complete strangers from the Cambridge area, when I actually relaxed for a few brief moments, I felt love. Not a tame, generalized sensation of general bonhomie and good will towards this person who willingly let my novice, nervous hands knead their frame, but startlingly strong, unmistakeable love: breath-taking and untoward.

I remember one moment in particular when I needed to take my hands off my client and shake my head a few times, just to snap out of it, if I could. Didn’t work. I got back into my routine, bearing up under the strain, cross from being harassed, and hoping eventually it would go away.

Nearly 15 years and countless massages later, I got my wish. The stress of setting up my practice a few times, until it took; worrying about how I was going to get enough clients in this small town on the north coast of Maine, and then, once getting them, worrying how I was going to have the strength to see them all; taking the ardent work of my hands and turning it into a reliable commodity, have all worked that blazing affection right out of me. I’ll admit it. I’ve been afraid, in recent years, of burning out.

Enter continuing education: through conversation, books, workshops, social networking and good old-fashioned questioning. Where did that messy, divine, fiery tenderness go? Could I retrieve it from some shunted layer, deep within?

My last year of school, one of the faculty at the Muscular Therapy Institute – Erika Baern – had a few massages from me. I revered her, but she seemed very professional, almost to the point of being grim, so I reined in my adoration as best I could, trying to be quiet in her presence and learn from her by osmosis.

I wasn’t sure I had made any impression on her, even though I deeply wished I had. But in the final week of school I received a bound packet of articles from her in my student mailbox. “Kristen: I think you should read these. Erika.” This was the encouragement I had been looking for, and my first introduction to David Lauterstein.

David Lauterstein at a Deep Massage workshop in Oct. 2013

David Lauterstein at a Deep Massage workshop in Oct. 2013

David is a educator, practitioner, author, writer and musician. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011, is co-founder of The Lauterstein-Conway School of Massage in Austin, Texas, and published “The Deep Massage Book” in 2012.

He has an international teaching schedule, offering Deep Massage workshops, and came out with (one of my favorite) music CDs, “Roots and Branches,” of his acoustic guitar music played live in the studio alongside massage being performed – “so we would have a music that actually arose from massage itself.” he says on the TLC site.  He also has a killer FaceBook page: Deep Massage Book.

Each one of us deserves to have teachers in our lives who by their mere presence  are instructive and nurturing; who meet us where we are, whether total newbie or tired pro; who inspire devotion through a terrific combination of deep insight, concise correction and weird humor. David has been one such for me.

The reason I locked in on his writing from the get-go is his inclusion and defense of the energetic components of massage therapy. He teaches Zero Balancing and this informs Deep Massage; I am a Reiki Master/practitioner, so our frequencies hum on the same pitch when it comes to looking at our clients through more than one lens (a prism is more like it).

It’s been a long time since student clinic, but because of reading Lauterstein’s work (I also highly – highly! – recommend his “Putting the Soul Back in the Body“) I’ve been reassured there was a place for that strong ardor, and my line of work was the perfect place to feel it.

What I’ve learned from continued study with Lauterstein (and also Tracy Walton‘s oncology massage writing and training):  that what we sense in session may be just important to what we do: that who we are as a practitioner has everything to do with how the client experiences the success (or failure) of being “met”: that while we must master techniques, understand physiology, identify pathologies and know anatomy, the openness of our heart – the tenderness and love we feel for our client – is where our true power lies.

In my next blog post I will describe my understanding of the phrase “Get behind your work,” which I got from my most recent workshop with David, and one that I see as both command and consolation.

What do we pray for?…Finally, alchemy. It is NOT up to you. I wish it was, but it’s not…the body contains all of the healing substances it needs already. The person contains all the healing substances it needs, they just don’t notice it. We are there to just help them become aware. I want people to realize they’re miraculous.
– paraphrased from David Lauterstein’s Deep Massage training at Down East School of Massage in Waldoboro, Maine.

For Crying Out Loud

This week, I had a bad day. I had a neck tension headache, with some real anguish behind it. I saw a client who had suffered profound loss in her life, and as I considered her in session, I found myself overwhelmed with sobs as I worked. How did I handle this?

Very, very quietly.

Weeping and crying are as welcomed in my massage office as bad jokes, snores and burps. “I may cry,” some clients like to warn me before they get on the table, as if divulging a bad character flaw.

“If it happens, let it happen,” I always counter. “I’ve got a great big box of tissues here for a reason. Plenty of tears in this room, mine and everyone else’s.”

Nearly empty, as you can see

Nearly empty, as you can see

When I attended the Muscular Therapy Institute in Cambridge, Mass. in the late 1990s, we learned many helpful things in the Skills and Dynamics of Therapeutic Relationships class. Although it bugged the hooey out of me at the time (I was perenially annoyed in school, it almost doesn’t bear mentioning, but I was. I had no idea what was happening to me and the not-knowing was disquieting), we did discuss what to do when clients come in and fall apart: be respectful of their grief, their personal space, hand them tissues, don’t explain away their sadness.

Basically, keep your heart open and your mouth shut.

They didn’t teach me what to do when *I* came in my office and fell apart. I had to learn that by myself, but inspiration came years after from an unlikely source.

I am – on top of being a massage therapist – a trained actress, with years’ worth of performance (acting and singing) under my belt. I spent the first 6 or 7 years of my life here in Midcoast Maine doing community theater and some semi-professional shows up at Penobscot Theater in Bangor.

I was in a production of “The Laramie Project,” directed by John Clancy. The ensemble was an actor’s dream come true: the material was heartbreaking, educational, terrifying and funny. The play dealt with the reaction to the 1998 murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming.

During rehearsal we needed to enter the heartbreaking parts. We had to get accustomed to the incredible discomfort it brought up for all of us. Clancy, however, modeled sorrow: we wouldn’t be sure at all how we were impacting him, because he was so still when he watched us, but then we could see, at the end of our scene work: tears just rolling, rolling, rolling down his face.

Not a sound, not a shudder, not calling attention to himself in any way: just: pure grief.

As an actor it took your breath away, not only to know you were impacting your director in such a manner, but also that he was letting himself fall apart so fully, yet with respect to what you were trying to accomplish. It was beautiful to see him being so fully human — guileless, all heart — and so fully considerate.

Now, when I am broken by sadness while massaging someone, I spend very little time trying to decipher who’s pain I’m feeling. It’s theirs, it’s mine, who knows? Especially if you are moved to tears by a client who keeps losing, yet fights valiantly on. It can unleash savage, wracking sobs, where soon you’re crying for all humanity.

It has everything to do with how I behave, however. Like Clancy, I know what I’m feeling, but I want to let my client have what they’re having. Just because I’m crying doesn’t mean they have to 1) see me crying 2) know why I’m crying 3) join in. Maybe this massage is the first time they haven’t cried in 2 weeks; they don’t need seeing me all bunged up with waterworks. If it happens, I let it happen: but mostly, I think holding even this boundary firmly in place is important in the therapeutic relationship.

I want them to rest, which means, for them, not wondering why I’m crying. I owe it to them to keep it together enough to give them the massage they’ve been anticipating: I owe it to myself to let myself cry. And, blow my nose, wipe away my tears, and then sanitize my hands, just like I would if I had allergies or a cold.

And remind myself to get ANOTHER big box of tissues next time I’m at the store.

In closing: one of the great massage stories, courtesy of Trager.com:

Bodyworker in audience: “Do you encourage emotional release?”
Trager: “No, if it happens, I take care of it”.
Bodyworker, (seriously, notebook and pen poised for the response): “How do you take care of it?”
Trager: “I console them.”

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 #17.

Tenderly

Skootching skin around is what I do for a living. (A few other things too, but “skin skootching” could be a fine credit on an MT’s resume.) When I’m working younger bodies I feel like a baker, plying pizza dough into shape, or a sailor: unfurling sails, untwisting knots, riding the high seas of a session from beginning to end. Massaging older bodies feels like pushing soup around on a counter top. I never know where that skin is going to go: it fills me with tender amusement and gentle concern.

I touch an elder and the rest of them comes along for the ride. The warp and woof of the human slacks and unmoors with age, so that rather than sturdy oaks, we come to resemble willow trees that bend in the gentlest breeze, or barely hemmed pools, our parts oozing out around us and filling wherever we are. The cruel irony being, bones ossify and become brittle, like windshield ice. A good practitioner intuits the limits and bounds of the person they’re touching, even if the person doesn’t.

As a massage therapist I endeavor to touch wholly when giving massage, or as it’s known, “full hand contact.” It’s a skill I learned early on, thanks to a solid education at the Muscular Therapy Institute in Cambridge (now Cortiva?) and recently fine-tuned during my oncology massage training with Tracy Walton. The entire hand is at all times engaged with the client’s skin, and as you pass your hands around and over your person, you imagine every finger down to the tip, the whole palm, enveloping your client’s every nerve and curve.

There is an ethereal suction cup on the end of each finger, that holds each digit in place. Five rivulets of compassion and curiosity cascade down the erector spinae: this is one hand moving from upper trapezius to gluteal origins. Ten waves of love and light: this is the same gesture, both hands.

Receiving this kind of touch feels like you’re being smoothed down by a paw, or an angel if it had paws. Almost like a mare licking down its newborn: that much unhurried devotion and care. I have received it, and I know how good it feels. So it is what I endeavor to give.

It is my job to touch the whole person, and this is a good job to have, in early 21st century America.

I consider my ancient ones, again, because touching them requires an extra kind of attention. With older clients I feel like I’m chasing them around the table for the whole session. Full hand contact from wrist bone up to elbow, from bicep insertion to origin, over to the clavicle, and sweeping back down, means I’m trying to cup and capture their ripples and wake. So much of them spills out and away.

Touching them is an honor and a mystery. The more fully I wish to encompass them, the more they move from me.  Like going after fireflies on a summer night, or catching autumn leaves as they fall.

The massage takes longer because the parts eddy and fan out a little wider, every year. Eventually we all go this way, and finally stop, and disappear altogether….meanwhile I play catch-up and enjoy loving the massage oil into old, roving bones.

That Thing You Do

“During the session,” he asked me, voice with a discernible quaver, “what is that? That you’re doing? What is it?”

I was changing the linens on the table, but looked up at him because I could see he was wrestling with something that had just happened to him that didn’t make sense, and I wanted to see what his face was doing now. I had been studying that face a lot, since he had been coming in for sessions rather often: it was made of a bone and muscle structure I don’t often get to see in Maine, what with the prevalence here of French, German and British Isle blood.

He was clearly Italian, with a soft-spoken voice and a nose that had been broken and reset.  (“One of the guys took a swing at me with a chair,” he told me quietly when I asked him.) A psychologist in the New Jersey prison system, this man had come to Maine to help his father die, but also, I suspect, to just. Get. Away. Few people accidentally find themselves here: Maine is a long way from anywhere to somehow wander into.

My client had clearly been through a few things, most of which he didn’t want to talk about. Which I feel is one of the great things about massage: it is non-verbal therapy. The client’s body speaks, and the massage therapist listens, on a cellular level that scoffs at words and gets – more or less literally – to the heart of the matter. The client gets off the table, the client feels much better, and sometimes has no idea why. Like this guy.

But it was the tone in his voice that made me look, and when I did I saw his eyes were pink around the edges, and through the bliss I saw his face was crumply with a touch of confusion. He looked like he might cry, or had been while I was out of the room and then pulled himself together when I re-entered.  My heart went out to him. I was pretty sure I knew how he felt.

“It’s Reiki,” I said to him reassuringly. “That’s all. I was sending you Reiki while I was giving you your massage.”

“Oh,” he replied, looking both baffled and relieved. “I didn’t realize? I knew there was something different about your work but I couldn’t tell what it was.”

Just like a outfielder doesn’t need to know the finer points of pitching, massage therapists without any energy work arrows in their quiver of skills probably don’t need it. I would wager some of them are a lot better than me at what they do. I only say this because I don’t propose that the only way to be an excellent massage therapist is to offer Reiki. I only know that the only way I can be the best MT I can be is with this modality. Here’s why. And it goes back a-ways.

When I was in massage therapy school in the 1990s, I was in my late twenties. I was already exhausted from doing corporate jobs, spending more time weeping with frustration in the bathrooms of various Internet start-ups in Boston’s tech corridor (I was a temp, mostly) than I spent actually sitting in my grey little cubicle doing measurable work. Poor kid. As I look back on the situation that drove me to massage school, I am grateful I felt that useless, dumb, bored and unhappy.

It turned me into a seeker, someone I was NOT interested in becoming, having been raised in a conservative Christian community and aggravated, most of my life, by the spiritually intense. I noticed those who described themselves as “on the path” often had not-so-subtle plans for me, hoping I could be manipulated into thinking, believing or behaving in a manner that I felt antithetical to common sense, common good, and kindness. I had stopped attending church in college and never looked back.

Nonetheless: a seeker I became, reluctant and dubious. I thought the best place to start was change my career: I wanted to do something meaningful, beautiful, for heaven’s sake. I was pretty sure writing HTML wasn’t it, not for me anyway. Ask and you shall receive. A massage for my 28th birthday turned into visiting the Muscular Therapy Institute in Cambridge, which became enrollment into a two-year, 900-hour program that both changed and saved my life.

I would do massage therapy, but if anyone tried to pull their woo-woo feathers-n-crystals crap on me, I was having none of it. In the years after college I was horrified to discover a plenitude of huckster New Age types, no different from the fundamentalist Christians I’d known except for what they were trying to sell. I was deeply suspicious of any modality that promised to heal anybody of anything.

Imagine my consternation when I took an internship my final semester of massage school, and the women I shadowed was an MT and Reiki master. I was worried she was going to try to give me some, and I wasn’t in the mood. Finally, it happened: she had some spare time and asked me if I would like short session. At this point in our relationship, only part of me hesitated: I was so tired, with working full-time, going to school, planning my then-husband’s and my move to Maine. I really liked and trusted her: and I really needed to lay down. So I did, hoping for nothing other than a brief nap.

What happened next is something that has happened to me only once, in all my years of giving and receiving: I have asked for it to show up again but of course it hasn’t: none of my clients have experienced it from me, to my knowledge: but you can’t ever force or cajole these things. They happen once, but once is really enough to last you.

I lay face up in the quiet, warm semi-dark of her office. I had my eyes open, so what I saw was with my actual eyeballs. She worked around me for a while, and then about 25 minutes into things she wrapped her hands around my feet. At that moment, everything ticked down into slow motion. Out from behind this lovely woman, a huge wave of pure white light came out, over her shoulders, coursing down over her arms, and went shooting right up into my body. I felt it, as one might feel jumping off a cliff in the tropics and hitting ocean waters with your feet, then rapidly the rest of you being engulfed.

I flopped around with all this light inside me, feeling like I was getting electrocuted by the holiest of holies, and then it was gone, and I was back, and she still had her hands on my feet. “What,” I gasped, “was that?”

“Hmm,” she mused without looking at me. “Some Reiki.”

In the days following I felt rejuvenated and emboldened. It faded after time, as I suspected it would. But it kindled something in me. I wanted to know more. I had to. Looked like I was gonna be one of those woo-woo practitioners after all.

Fast forward 15 years (the who I trained with, where I trained, what it did for me, how I run a Reiki session, what it means to me to give both Reiki and massage at the same time, the difference between massage and Reiki, how I do attunements and why I do them, being posts for another time): Now I am not only a Reiki practitioner, but a Reiki master, which means I supposedly know a lot about Reiki, but I know I haven’t mastered much. I am available for good. That’s where I stand.

Not every client notices the Reiki I do, but that’s not important to me. I know it’s there. I can feel it. Sometimes other people do too.