We All Just Want To Go Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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.

Feel Like a New Person

“I feel like a new person.” Nice compliment, one I never take for granted, but it does make me feel a little weird. In what way, I always wonder? My massage work doesn’t always produce miracles. It is merely one vertical bag of water unsnagging one horizontal bag of water. I love making someone feel like a totally new bag of water. Not really a miracle, just a fact.

Yet, to make someone feel brand new: now that’s something. I’ve had the privilege of giving this kind of work, and also receiving it.

I had a massage from my friend and colleague Derek in early March. It came after a February filled with illness, disappointment, darkness and cold. I threw myself back into my recovery program after a near melt-down and I wasn’t instantly relieved. I tried sleeping a lot, like I wanted to, and deep rest evaded me, night after night after pitiful night.

I realized I had an anxiety problem. What a horrible state of affairs! How unlikely and unfair for a massage therapist, who is supposed to ooze relaxation and tranquility from every pristine pore. This is what it must be like for a priest or pastor to have a faith crisis, or a psychiatrist experiencing regular untreatable depressive episodes; this is what it must be like for a cop who feels herself siding, inwardly, more and more with the perps she arrests.

Who hasn’t made their way to their massage therapist, praying for a miracle? Throwing ourselves headlong on our practitioner’s table, exhausted, suffering, unable to even offer complete sentences as he or she carefully, valiantly tries to do some semblance of an intake before letting us collapse? Don’t think I haven’t been there. I have.

stream_with_waterfallI didn’t want to do the weeping, the sighing, and the head-shaking mute bewilderment that I did with Derek, but that’s what I did anyway. My body had been holding on to too much for too long and my words wouldn’t come.

We have this thing when we trade with each other, us massage therapists, that is part cop-out, part compliment. “Just do what you do,” we tell each other with great warmth. “You know all the spots.” End with small grin. This is what I said to Derek, hoping he’d get it.

He did. I had a 90-minute massage session (in my own office, mind you: always a good test drive for your own space! I found my table quite comfy and warm, but the face cradle still problematic…no wonder my clients fuss over it) and while I had consciousness I noticed that I felt akin to a stream having its tributaries unclogged of leaves and twigs. Things began to loosen and let go.

What rose up inside me, once the session was over, was an overwhelming feeling of unmistakeable resurrected power. It was as if my old self was sloughed away, and the entire fabric of my being had been flushed. All energy centers were realigned and churning their lovely colors. I no longer had a mountain across my upper back. I could feel my entire self, all the way through my toes.

It felt…well…darn it, it made me feel like a new person. My life force, my will to live, had returned.

I leapt from the table, dressed, and practically kissed my colleague’s hands when he re-entered the room. “Thank you, thank you, you are such a gift,” I burbled in tear-filled gratitude. I know he didn’t quite know what to make of that. I know how he felt: it kind of blows your mind, as a practitioner, that you can make that much of a difference to someone.

He just hugged me and gave me a nice there-there on the back. Aww. I get to trade with the best people.

Perhaps this is what is meant by becoming a new person: if our pain and tension is met, even briefly, by another – by Another – there is information there that is news, very good news, to our lonely little bodies. If the hands that touch us are experienced, professional, nurturing and loving, there is something to that. It speaks a language our body is dying to hear, in much the same way warm sun informs a lake, or a garden hoe informs soil: something interesting, nourishing and highly educational happens, and transformation occurs with unparalleled ease.

 

Going Through the Motions

I’m enamored of the Olympics for one reason: humans are amazing. What we can do with our bodies is miraculous. For good or ill, the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics are a smorgasboard for the philanthropic (“human lovers”).

Watching the women’s ice skating short program, before Gracie Gold took her silver medal-winning turn, the announcers expressed concern as she swooped around the ice, warming up. I think it was Scott Hamilton (one of my all-time favorite skaters) who said this (in paraphrase):

“I’m worried for her. She needs to loosen up for a good performance. She’s wound pretty tightly right now…her body knows what it needs to do, she needs to not over-think this skate. She just needs to relax.”

There is good information here for all of us.

Heaven help the athlete who brings too much to mind while exerting themselves to the utmost…and heaven help the rest of us. When we are “going for the gold” in our lives, it definitely helps to train ourselves to think positively, but in the actual moment it’s crucial to relax and not think at ALL. Commentary doesn’t serve us. (And if you, like me, had quite enough of the announcers when watching the Opening Ceremonies, you know this is true! “Just stop talking and let me watch it” I kept yelling at the screen. Interestingly this could be a good mantra for my life.)

I’d rather have the body wisdom to just correct myself midstream, by instinct, than think “How am I going to…?” and then coming up with an intellectual answer that doesn’t correlate with what is actually happening. In asking the question, valuable time is already lost. Your body is already moving into the how. Best let it do what it needs to do.

I’m fascinated by the power our body has over our minds for a few reasons: personal experience and stuff I’ve been reading. A few weeks ago I spent nearly four days in the grip of flu, and during that time I realized my brain was not working. Tried as I might, i couldn’t think clearly, not for one second. It was as if my organs had a manual override button for my mind that I hitherto had not been made aware.

(Or, you know Doctor Who? When they have to jettison some rooms of the TARDIS if they want to switch into hyperdrive or something like that? Maybe that’s what happens in dire illness, or dire feats of strength: brain firings are considered nonessential.)

Along with it came a blessed quelling of scheming and worrying. I felt moribund, in the abject throes of despair at times, but behind that was no wretched attempts to improve myself, which is, I feel, is not only one of the great deceptions/maladies of our lives as Americans, but actually is a sin, if you consider sin to be a transgression of some sort upon yourself, as well as another.

One of my favorite authors, Fr. Richard Rohr, writes of the disservice that we in general (and Christians, in particular…he is a Franciscan priest)  do to ourselves when our body is treated as a second-class citizen, in “The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of St. Francis“)

“There seems to be some bias against embodiment, against materiality, against physicality and you’d think if there was any religion in the world that would not think that way, you’d think it would be Christianity, ’cause Christianity is the only religion that believes God in Jesus became a body….became a human being.”

When the pressure is greatest, our minds do us the least service. In fact the best place for us to be is in our body, for that’s where our power and ability to be transformed – and to aid the transformation of others – truly reside.

Gerry Pyves wrote in his January 2014 article for Massage Today “The Psychotherapy of Massage: What Makes us Human?

“So many bodyworkers I meet seem to just want to prod and poke and frantically “fix” the body; as if it is an enemy to be controlled. Do we really have to subjugate and control the body? Must we still follow these apparently touch phobic leaders of the massage profession (whether male or female) who seem so very frightened of simple nurturing touch?”

Before I give someone a session, we always talk a little (or a lot) beforehand. Talking things over is essential to establish trust and understanding, the “what” of the session. But the “how” is always figured out in the silence and beauty of the work: in the moment.

In our speech is guessing. There is no speech for when the body finally breaks through and surmounts, or lets go. Also, in our flesh, we can be present with one another. Physicality is best medicine, for most of us. We can talk all we like about getting better, but nothing really heals us until someone gives us a hug or holds our hand.

Or, gives us a massage that truly meets us where we are.

Our best moments – whether we’re an Olympic athlete or an average person just trying to figure it all out – could very well be when we don’t over-think things, and we just relax into what’s happening now…and now….and now.

After the Flu: Who’s In Charge?

One of the first things that clued me in that maybe not all was well within, was my raging fit over a new kitchen appliance. My husband purchased a modern pressure cooker that both of us were eager to try. Between the two of us, he’s more gifted in the kitchen (although I place a strong second); he was having no problem cranking out delicious, quick meals.

I, on the other hand, was still not able to make a recipe without scorching the food. Last Wednesday I was once again making a hash of things, and when he came over to see how I was doing, I unleashed upon him a vituperative spew that I spent the rest of the evening – and well into the next day – apologizing for.

“I honestly do NOT know what got into me,” I said to him, wholly contrite.

In less than 48 hours, I did.

We are relatively healthy, here: we eat home-cooked meals, do fresh juices and smoothies, buy local as much as possible. We exercise, and I don’t mean the gym: I feel strongly that shoveling snow, constant stacking and restacking of the woodpile, walks along country roads and the physical labor we both do for our jobs equates regular exercise, and that’s enough for us (for now). We take a few supplements.

Basically, after my evening of explosive anger, within 48 hours I was overcome by a deep mucousy cough (which I never get) and unrelenting body aches, chills, sweats, and pains for over 3 days. Someone swopped my brain with a bowl of gummy bears. I did a lot of sitting and staring, morose and unwashed.

A nice big fat juicy virus. In extreme close-up.

A nice big juicy virus. In extreme close-up. It wants entry to your cells, in a big juicy way.

As I slowly regained some strength, my husband started to tank, so there for a while both of us were wrapped in blankets, holding hands over the top of our quilts, mouths hanging open, playing game after game of Angry Birds (the irony doesn’t escape me).

And totally blowing up at each other, and then apologizing. Seventy-two hours of this.

“Oh yeah, it’s a cough, it’s terrible body aches and headache, and crushing crankiness,” said my friend when I inquired as to his health and found out he too had been ill for nearly a week. (It’s that time of year! And we’ve got it bad here in Maine.) I was relieved when he mentioned the bad mood, for it was our fits of anger that really bewildered me the most.

Certain emotions seem to welcome illness. But what comes first? The virus, or the emotion? Can the presence of an alien in our system – such as a virus, which is keen on setting up shop and replicating ASAP – create nearly alien emotional states in us as well?

Does it sap our immune system and also our bonhomie; our willingness to be egalitarian? When invaded, the body senses a threat and it doesn’t try to negotiate with the virus, see both sides of the issue, willing to let bygones be bygones: the body does not look at an invader and hope negotiations and treaties will result in a mutually beneficial resolution. It’s WAR.

I am wondering, then, if the war-like state of our 100 trillion cells might, just possibly, change our mood. Color our outlook. I know there is no real boundary between the body and our mind – the two are one – but I don’t think I’m alone, here, when I say that I sort-of assume my mind’s more in charge of things than my body?

But it’s not! Of course it’s not! All I have to do is look at the pleasurable outcome of body overriding mind: my own profession, massage therapy. This is precisely why massage therapy is unmatched at reducing anxiety and tension. After an effective session, stressful thoughts don’t chance a snowball’s chance in Fresno.

I have tried worrying after I’ve had a massage. I can’t do it, which makes me giggle with glee because I am a homegrown worrywart. (Another reason I’m so glad I found massage, and it found me.)

We put a lot of emphasis on personal efforts at mastering our own minds, but the body is the mind’s ultimate master. Whether through the discomfort of illness, or the bliss of massage, it picks up our mind in its gorgeous arms and says, “Shuuuuuuuush.”

David Lauterstein just posted this today on his Deep Massage Book FaceBook page: “The body is our teacher. Will this knowledge become common? Will the misplaced worship of the mind alone end as an embarrassingly long historical era?” Amen brother.

Two other things:

1) Being ill really reminds me the fallacy of “hurry up and get better.” Whether it’s the flu, or a persistent low back ache, or recovery from surgery: it takes the time it takes. There is no hurry. It’s the body. It has its own time-clock, and will slow you down to itself, if it has to, for you to get with its program.

2) I know, as a profession, massage therapists usually attempt (if not succeed) at modeling health and wellness, but if you’re never sick how are you going to understand someone who is? If you never suffer, how can you understand another’s suffering? Depression? Anger, sorrow? I’m not suggesting you go out there and intentionally invite disaster upon your person, but there’s nothing like a strong dose of it to help you open your heart afresh.

“I know, honey,” is all I’ve been saying to my husband for the past few days, “I know. I know, it really hurts. You feel awful. I’m so sorry.” And I’m looking forward to sharing this newly kindled compassion, personally won, with my clients too.

When you or someone you know gets the flu: “Your cold and flu symptoms, explained” — Courtesy of CNN and RealSimple.com. Why you feel the way you do: with remedies too!

Also, a very cool (if not slightly alarming) animation: “Flu Attack! How a virus invades your body” — Courtesy of NPR.org