I’m Just Trying To Help

“Just relax your shoulders, now. I’ve got it.”
“I know, I’m always trying to help.”
“Yes, I understand, I really do. But you help more by not helping.”

This is a conversation we have, you and I, when you’re supine on my table and I go to skootch under your shoulders with my hands, so I can get to your upper back muscles, and I feel you tense and lift. Or when I go to work down your arm: When your arm is stiff and your elbow locks and you hold out each finger for me when I go to massage them.

This is the little bit of conversation we do have, since there’s not a lot of talking, and when I say “just relax now” I am using what I hope is the most encouraging, friendly tone. Because I do understand. I really do.

Helping is a lovely quality, whether we’re moving our limbs around for our massage therapist, or picking up our neighbor’s newspaper for him and tucking it in his mailbox, or hoping to inspire a family member to quit drinking. Our intention is undeniably excellent. A gold star, five gold stars, for The Helper. I give myself props for it whenever I can. “Good for you, Kristen” I say to myself. “You really want to make a difference. I like that about you.”

“Helping” is what a lot of us do to ensure another’s happiness. We don’t want to put anyone out. We are scared of looking like we don’t care, or seeming selfish. We want to be the one who makes a difference.

There’s basic courtesy, mutual respect, and then there’s helping. I’ve waited tables and had customers try to help me figure out which table is going to open up first, or try to help me seat people. Pretty easy to spot how how incredibly annoying that is, right?

But when we do it, what we say to the other person is, “Well damn. I was just trying to help,” and behind that is quite a healthy dollop of indignation. Don’t get annoyed, because I was trying to help, could be the subtext. And, even farther under that, could be: you idiot.

So we help even when it hasn’t been requested. Even if we’re paying someone. And oh my goodness are we good at it. Sometimes, the better of a job we’re doing, the more annoying it is. Heated conversations — with mean words and a lot of stomping about — usually involve the phrase “just trying to help” at some point.

I’m not saying everyone who tries to help me by lifting or moving their limbs around in session is a Helper, but when I watch my clients try to help me in session it makes me consider what helping is. The sunny side of helping is: we really do want to help someone. The dark side of helping is: we don’t trust them.

For a lot of us, this is based on cold hard experience: we’ve been hurt, we’ve watched people go down the tubes, we’ve become increasingly annoyed by a bad situation and so we just start helping, just to do something to fix what is unbearable. We start anticipating more and more when help is required, then, and it becomes A Thing we do without even realizing it.

Even when the best, maybe healthiest response, is to step back. Relax. Watch things unfold. Unclench our grip.

“Not-Helping” in a massage session is a great opportunity to practice kinesthetically what might be difficult for us to manifest behaviorally. Often what we learn in the body brings simpler, more relaxed understanding to parts of ourselves that cannot and will not be nudged, budged, or unlearned by any other means.

Massage therapy is so good for so many things, not the least of which is learning when to engage, and when to let go, and you and I are both doing this during your session.

Because you know what? Sometimes I really do need your help. One of those moments where I absolutely, 100% require it? Is when it’s time for you turn over. Yep, I cannot do that for you. (interestingly enough this is one of those moments where I get the least amount of cooperation: I’ll never forget the time that, after I finished my back work with one long-term client, I gently encouraged her to roll supine. A substantial amount of time passed, and I thought she might be completely asleep. Then, in a very petulant tone, from the muffled depths of the face cradle, she said emphatically: “NO.”)

More occasions for you to help: I’m not going to put the bolster in or take the bolster out without lifted knees, please. If you could move up into the face cradle a little more that would be good.

Also? Please let me know if something isn’t working for you. This past week another long-term client finally remembered to tell me she couldn’t breathe well when lying prone. Together, with “creative bolstering” as I’ve learned it from Tracy Walton, we got her comfy.

But the rest of the session: I’ve got it. I can help your body if you don’t try to help me with the helping. When I go for your arm, let it flop into my hands like an overcooked noodle. When I go for your shoulders, let them unfurl over my fingers. If I scoop up under your lowback or knees: it’s better for us both if you just let it happen.

Speaking of knees: today I saw a client who did not want me to work with them. Not only not work with her knees: not touch her knees. She described why, and my first response was, “But massaging your knees…could…help that?”

Here is where *I* work with my five-gold-star-ness. I wanted to help her, you see. I felt that I knew better than she did about what she wanted.

I saw it, claimed it, tagged and bagged that thing, and immediately followed the question with, “…but of course I won’t even touch them. What *would* feel good for your legs?” And we came up with a plan of action for her leg massage, that did not involve me touching her knees, and in session I honored that request completely, even though everything in me wanted to Help Her Knees by massaging them.

And that’s the good news, is that when we stop helping we start listening. What would really be helpful here? What does this person need from me, truly? If I love them, if I like  them, even if I have the most basic regard for this person (like my neighbor with his sluggish paper retrieval), it might feel better — for both of us — if I’m more curious than assumptive.

 

 

 

 

Baby on Board

Upon responding to my inquiry, she said, “That’s a fine time to reschedule. I’ll have my baby with me if that’s okay.”

The winter of ’14/’15 started off — like most blind dates do — all romance and giddy conversation, flowers and promises. Soon, however, the true howling nightmare of its essence came forth. Most of New England has been buried under torrents of snow, and frozen in places it didn’t even know it had.

Not a pretty picture, but like a person you can’t get out of your life, winter’s been hanging out and making a hash of things. Including business. Especially the little business of me, trying to keep clients in my book and having to scatter them to other places in my schedule every 3 to 5 days because of another snowstorm.

I was looking forward to seeing this client but getting her in was tricky. I’d seen her all through her pregnancy, when her life was pretty much her own and long before the blizzards had started. Now she’d had her baby and I had to put her where I could.

Having her baby in the room? Was, I have to admit, not really something I was excited about. Rogue elements in session — other people, pets, phones, even snotty, cough-y head colds — are never something I’ve dealt with well. I am a Pisces, and when I’m working with clients I go into my fish cave and take my client with me. I want no disturbance. A baby baby seemed pretty risky.

I agreed, however, for 2 reasons: 1) I liked this woman a lot and 2) I knew the baby – being less than two weeks old – would most likely not be ambulatory. Probably strapped into something.

“Yes, that’s fine,” I replied. “Come on in.”

When they arrived my heart leapt within me. Erin was so small, so very small, and cute, so very cute. She was also very much ensconced in her car seat. I breathed a sigh of relief.

My client and I just stood in front of this precious thing for a while, silent as could be. The babe slept, in that gooey soft tender sleep of the wee and precious. I kind of melted.

The three of us (not something I usually get to say) came into my treatment room. My client and I did a brief intake. How did the labor go…what areas of pain and tension did she have…any injuries since I saw her last?

“You wouldn’t believe the labor,” she said. “Under 7 hours but I’ve never felt such pain in my life.” My client is in her late 20s, tattooed, fit and bright. If she said it was that painful, it was probably more than I could ever take. I was horrified for her, but impressed. As I’ve always suspected: labor is for badasses. (ergo, not me.)

Where did we want Erin to go?

“I think over here, she’ll be okay. She gets a little fussy but if her pacifier is in her mouth, she’ll self-soothe.”

Looking at Erin, I wasn’t sure she was capable of fussing: I mean look at her. Totally blissed out, in some realm of heaven. (Only someone who hasn’t had children herself could be capable of thinking this, I grant you.)

When I left the room to wash up, I heard the start of a small cry. Clearly the babe, not my client. I knocked on the door.

“Come on in,” my client replied.

I poked my head in. There was my client, hunkered over Erin, tattoos blazing, putting the pacifier back in Erin’s mouth. The baby was catching on that Mama was too far away: even 3 feet was too much. My client had been been on the table, but hopped off to sort things right.

I volunteered to take over. With neither of us sure how this session would go, my client got back under the linens and I attempted inserting the pacifier myself, with all the art and finesse of a mule trying to get itself in a Porsche. I looked over my shoulder. My client had her head lifted up from the face cradle and was smiling at me.

“I’m willing to keep both of you as happy as I can,” I said. “For as long as I can.”

“She also calms down with movement,” my client suggested. I could see the car seat was rockable. I got it going first with my hands, and then, as I stood up, kept it moving with a foot. Just as quickly as Erin had turned into a purple, wriggling bawl machine, she returned to her adorable somnolent self.

I began the massage. And, shortly, realized that I needed to become an octopus: my hands, massaging, and a foot, rocking. If the room got too quiet or still, Erin began to fuss. My client spoke gently and encouragingly to her from the face cradle, I plied the pacifier and diddled the seat. Working prone ended up being fine.

Turning my client supine, things came undone. Erin was not having this lengthy break from her mom’s arms, not at all, and my ineptitude was not fooling her, not for one minute. She was pushing the pacifier away – even at less than 2 weeks! I was amazed – and clearly trying to focus on me, as if to decipher who this fool was in front of her.

“Oh I had a feeling she was going to get fussy,” my client said as she attempted to get comfortable supine. This was not striking me as a good scenario for a happy duration. Even with my limited ability to go with the flow, something in me knew I needed to break my protocol for there to be peace among us.

“What if…I handed her to you? For just a little bit?” I asked my client. My client registered surprise. “Yeah,” I continued. “She probably needs your touch.”

My client sat up and thankfully could not see my inexperienced attempt at bringing her beloved daughter out from the straps & buckles of her seat. I picked Erin up and felt – for the first time in a long, long while – the heft of a tiny human in my hands. It nearly brought tears to my eyes.

I handed the baby over. Instant relief. For all of us.

“Can I nurse her for a little while?” my client asked.

“Of course,” I replied. “In fact,” I said with growing understanding, “this is probably a great time for me to grab a snack as well.”

We all took a little break. What a novel idea. By the time I came back in the room and got my client all pillowed up, us ladies were ready for round two.

I see a lot of things when I work with my clients supine. I see them in all forms of relaxation: some with knit brows, deep worried furrows, eyes closed. Some rest with tiny smiles. Some have their eyes closed, but tears are leaking out the corners (which I deftly wick away, nobody likes the feeling of tears in their ears.)

Some talk a mile a minute, waving one hand around and then the other. Others have their mouths wide open, in a happy snore that threatens to cover me in phlegm. A lot of my clients, I just take their face in from above, and marvel, briefly, at all they’ve seen, and all they’ve done.

I’ve never looked down on my client before, while I worked on her face, head, neck and shoulders, and seen an exact replica of her head cradled in the crook of her arm. Never before has the baby — that I’ve prayed for, talked to, and encouraged while in utero — actually been in the room.

18329_10152792341028727_4125336222356690322_nErin was asleep. My client was asleep, or just about asleep. And I sunk into a realm of womanhood, of motherhood, that I have not experienced, personally or professionally. I wouldn’t say I’ve gone out of my way to not have a baby or deal with babies, because that probably makes me look bad? But I have.

I have gone out of my way to not deal with them or have them. I’m a career girl, always have been, and anything too unpredictable, dependent or messy I’ve steered away from quickly. Babies disqualified themselves on all three counts.

In this moment — before the session was over, and believe me, I went waaaaaay over my time limit, I so did not want it to end — I had a baby.

And it was so immediate, fragile and eternal all at once.

“It was our first spa day!!” my client said excitedly, when I finally wrapped it up and they were getting ready to go. “That was awesome, thank you so much.”

“You have no idea,” I said, “you cannot believe how much this meant to me.”

We discussed the whole baby-in-the-room-during-massage thing.

“Yeah, if I were you I wouldn’t do this with any situation,” she said. “I wouldn’t start advertising it, you know?”

We laughed. “Yeah,” I replied, “it has to be the right mom, right baby.”

And — I thought, very humbled — maybe the right therapist.

***

I wrote this blog post in less than 45-minutes and I’m posting it as it is: virtually unedited. It has a due date: it has to be out there before the end of February, so I think I’ll make it before my client arrives today.

I am breaking my rules to deliver something, in a new way.

It’s almost spring. Protocol matters less and less.

 

 

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.

Cracked, But Not Completely

The sun is at a low angle nowadays. As we shuttle fast, ever faster, towards winter solstice, the sun shines its starlight with blinding force, only to suddenly drop away and leave us in darkness, once again. Even from nearly 93million miles away, its atomic power breaks your trend, stalls your gears and shuffles your deck.

A massage therapist filled with equanimity and ease will not be millimeters from flying into a rage when the sun shoves itself into her eyeballs, but I have not been filled with equanimity and so I tolerate my crazy fuming over the sun, but just.

I seem to be entering the troubled lands of peri-menopause, and managing it with progesterone cream, herbs, tinctures and moderate exercise only works up to a point. Eventually a girl realizes that vast discomfort with oneself and the tendency to be hot under the collar at any perceived slight is like being in a time warp: the 13-year-old you, all over again, and just like then, there’s not much to cure it except time.

It’s ironic, really: here I am, in the best decade of my life, at the top of my game, and experiencing some of the bottom-most moods I ever had.

On Tuesday I was out of control. Small events turned into fantastic stories, woven ever more steadily in the silence between breaths. Seeing clients was a relief, however temporary: focusing wholly on them, working at interface, helped me feel less insane, but all of my anger and fear kept resurfacing and coming at me from weird angles. I felt like I was beating back dark birds, session after session.

I prayed a lot, first with calm request, then bordering on hysteria.

A challenging email from my sister-in-law sent me over the edge. In the brief amount of time I had before my last client showed up, I flailed, collapsed, foamed, and left a gibbering and incredibly unhelpful voicemail on my husband’s phone. Gathering myself together from the pieces I’d left all over the room, I prayed she wouldn’t ask me how I was doing, because I was rather sure I would unfortunately spill my beans.

“How ARE you?” There it was. I wanted, desperately, to segue neatly from pre-session check-in right into the work, but I was battle weary. My officemate Jean had been out most of the afternoon, and so reliable moments of decompressing with her between clients hadn’t happened.

Maintaining facade with this wonderful client required more hormonal fortitude than I had. So I told her.

“Hmmm,” she said after a brief silence, after I explained as succinctly and powerfully as I could what I had been feeling all day. “You know, I hadn’t thought about that. I mean here you are, in a profession where you kind of have to emanate all this love and caring. It’s your job. And you do it so well, I mean everyone is like ‘Oh I can’t wait to go see Kristen,’ you know?”

The compliment took me off guard completely, and I was suddenly aware that this was the other vital piece to why I’d felt so wretched: on top of everything else, I’d put a heaping pile of guilt, for not feeling nicer. I was afraid of feeling so bad, because I took it as a sign that I wasn’t being a good practitioner.

Massage therapists are trained to work with personal emotion and move past it, continuously, using meditation, visualization, breathing techniques, but because I’ve been tortured by perfectionism my whole life, I threw “does not freak out or get overwhelmed” into my list of things to accomplish. Not realistic, even for a good day, but especially on a day when I could barely cope.

“If I’m having a bad day, I just take it out on my students,” she said, with a touch of a wink and smile. “You can’t really do that here, can you.”

“You weren’t here when I was kicking the table!” I said, as we both started to laugh. “I did have an eye on the parking lot the whole time so I could see if you were coming in. I threw a few things too: a towel, I think. I might have said some bad words.”

“The phrase ‘raging hyena’ comes to mind,” she said, and conversation lapsed because we were laughing ourselves purple. (This is something we’ve done before.)

Like a couple thirteen-year-olds, I thought to myself, and while I didn’t find anything attractive about the huge mood swings I’d been experiencing, there was redemption in knowing the cracking sound I was hearing wasn’t the sound of me losing my mind, but my heart melting: towards my day, and my awful awful self. “That’s how the light gets in,” Leonard Cohen sang, and the bells rang that still could ring.

In this line of work, you meet, sole to soul. Doubtless it’s good to try and bring your best self to every client, but sometimes the best self you have to offer is the one that’s honest, and willing, albeit messy. Our presence with one another is the greatest help, especially as it’s unclear who or what else will save us in the growing dark.

Don’t Touch Me: Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I knocked and went in, and began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feed All Your Children

Margot is an expansive, white-haired, wrinkly woman, with dancing sparkling eyes and a personality to match. I was surprised she wanted massage therapy, especially since she is the kind of client that not only leaves her underwear on, but her bra too: I tried to gently talk her out of it but she insisted. “I’m old and farty,” she said, “and I can’t change my ways. And I have a lot of neck and shoulder tension.”

In her first session, the minute I saw her supine, both the tension and the bra obviated themselves. If hadn’t been for the harness of her brassiere, her breasts might have surged upwards and framed her chin, possibly cascading over her lips and coming to rest just slightly below her nostrils. They were certainly the most ample and ambulatory breasts I’d ever witnessed.

If I were her, I would have kept them in a bra too, due to their free-wheeling nature. A woman just wouldn’t know where they’d end up, otherwise. Especially in any position other than vertical.

I gave her upper body priority, but also massaged the rest of her, briefly, since she agreed to it. It was the second session when, as I turned her over from prone to supine, she asked in a curious but matter-of-fact tone, “So tell me, why do you spend time on my legs and feet when I want you to work my neck and shoulders?”

I was a little taken aback, asking if I wasn’t doing enough, and if I wasn’t she should tell me?

“Oh no it’s not that,” she said. “I’ve never had a massage before where someone works my whole body.”

Was the pressure I used uncomfortable or the technique unpleasant?

“No, no” she reassured me. “I’ve just never experienced it before.”

A few things occurred to me in that moment, of primary import being, who – WHO? – gets trained to only work one part of a body? It reminded me of a line in C.S. Lewis’ “The Magician’s Nephew” where Digory Kirke says “Bless me, what do they teach them in these schools?”

The next thing I thought of is Rowan Blaisdell’s excellent blog “Just Back and Neck.” Please read this, as it’s thoughtful, funny, and concise. (Something yours truly hasn’t a knack for, unfortunately, but thank God Rowan does.)

I stammered a little and started babbling. “It’s important to massage legs because they are part of the whole tension pattern of the body. If I get only section opened up, the rest of you stays unchanged, and the tension will move out and away from you, but only in part. We are whole organisms…”

And I could hear myself, and I was irritated by what I was saying. Margot wasn’t into it, either: her eyes were shut and she was drifting. I clammed up.

But I was still thinking, and as I massaged her quads, I cleared my throat and, very uncharacteristically for me, broke the silence.

“Uhhm, I have just one other thing to say about the leg massage and then I’ll be quiet.

“You know if you’re feeding a bunch of kids? The temptation is to feed the one that yells first, and pile it on until the yelling stops. In this instance your neck is the one yelling and banging her plate with a spoon.

“But all the other kids – your other body parts – are equally hungry too, and they need attention, even if they’re very quiet about it. So what I’m trying to do is feed all your children, not just the one who squawks the loudest.”

This got a “Hmm!” and a laugh from Margot, which meant that this massage therapist hit a triple, in explaining herself. Not a grand slam, but a triple, and certainly enough to garner points overall, maybe even win the game. I was pleased with my analogy, but since it seemingly came from nowhere I had a feeling there was more to it than just Margot’s legs.

In the days after this “feed your children” became personal for me. Since I started this blog in March, I have heeded it above all else. I have really zeroed in on it, in my fashion (which means giving it any and all spare time, after tending my home and office first. Some writers can leave the dishes. I cannot.)

But there are many “children” in my life that have been hungry, and said very little, if anything, for a while. My need for exercise, for one. My muscles have gone slack and my body developed aches and pains that I know only result from being weak. Going to the gym is not something just happens: you have to make time for it. How do you make time? By doing it and not something else: like dishes. Or writing.

Similarly, singing well is also not something that just happens. You sing well because you have practiced. I have just learned that I will be doing four solos in Down East Singer‘s Christmas concert, Aaron Robinson’sBlack Nativity – In Concert: A Gospel Celebration.” I have been singing since before I could walk, but nothing will prepare me for this concert other than practice. Time I spend singing is time I can’t spend on The Great Squawker: this blog.

We all admire, even if we don’t want to admit it, the person who obsessively devotes themselves to a vision or project, to the detriment of all else. It’s tempting to just tend the stuff that gives us the biggest ego pay-off. There are many “children” that crave our attention, ergo our loving kindness: the essence of maturity and humility is seeing their value, as part of the greater picture of who we are, and what we are to others.

Feeding all the children, not just some…true for Margot, for me, for the world. How, how can we make this possible? One person at a time. Starting with ourselves, and all our limbs.

Up in Arms

Arlene! Oh Arlene. Arlene of the locked knees, protracted scapula, stiff fingers and unyielding arm. Some clients flop. This one juts.

When I first started seeing her 10 years ago, I would drape her left arm and she would shoot it out at me from up off the table, in virtual salute. Each finger would get extended, stiff as PVC pipe, as I attempted to massage her claw-like hand.

“I’ve got it,” i would remonstrate softly. “You don’t have to help.”

“Oh, okay,” she said, and the fingers remained unrepentant.

Arlene* is, in a word, crusty: old (will NOT tell me how, but I would guess late 60s for sure). In another word: classy. Well dressed, well spoken, well traveled. (She has flown the world in quest of the perfect fishing hole.)

Loves to dish the gossip on her road (we have mutual acquaintances), appreciates the bad luck of others, and finishes most phrases with “Isn’t that awful?” but under her handsaw exterior has one of the most warm, generous hearts.

I’ve never received so many thoughtful presents from someone: “Hope you like it!” she says and hands me a gift bag, nowhere near holidays or my birthday. She and her husband, transplants to Maine from the Pittsburgh area (another place we intersect: both from PA), spend every Christmas working with a local charity providing gifts to low-income families. When she goes on her lengthy shopping sprees, most of the time it’s for those kids.

It has taken ten years, but now she knows how to let go of her hands…sort-of lets me into her upper back…and almost unlocks her knees, I can only traction her legs once. Twice is a no-go, it’s like trying to lift twin jet skis without a forklift. I have gradually worked it down to just her left arm.

This left arm: this left arm. It is like trying to train a cat to fetch, is getting her to give me her arm.

I’ve tried everything: I’ve ignored it, I’ve tried to ply it, I’ve not massaged her arms, I’ve spent 10 minutes per arm. Nope. I’ve given her imagery:

“Pretend your arm is a great big overcooked noodle!”
“Drop your wrist into my hand.”
“Give me the full weight of your arm?”
“Relax your whollllle arm, from shoulder joint through elbow…through wrist…”
“Let go of your arm, Arlene.”
“Just…let go…”

None of this works, of course, because she was perfectly fine until I started fussing. She rouses from her somnolence, and, in attempting to make me happy, becomes self-conscious and the arm seizes up even further. I know: it’s my fault. I tried to make a difference, and I knew it wouldn’t work. But, I had to try. Right?

I had to make her arm let go. I WILL get that arm to let go.

One of my previous clients to Arlene told me of a saying that she learned from her yoga teacher: “1) Observe 2) Accept 3) Let Go.” She and I giggled ourselves purple over our own interpretations, as they are enacted in our lives: “1) Observe 2) Point Out 3) Point Out Again” and “1) Observe 2) Judge 3) Fume.”

Truth is funny.

There are two people in the room for Arlene’s massage session: Arlene, and me. Who is tenser? Who, actually, needs to let go?

I consider Arlene, and what I know of her life. Adopted. Raised Baptist. One of her daughters has become a man. Another wants to find a man to marry, but can’t. Arlene’s husband served in the Vietnam War, came home and attacked her in the middle of the night, thinking she was VietCong. He became a workaholic, consumed by his pediatric practice: she raised the family.

“I used to have my own life, before,” she told me once. “He would do his thing, and I would do mine. Now he’s with me all the time, and he can’t remember a thing, from one moment to the next. Not a damn thing.”

Her husband has PTSD.

“I just want to kill him,” she says to me, in a low whisper. “Isn’t that awful?”

I look into her face, expecting a laugh on lips, which I get. What I didn’t expect is the tears in her eyes, plain as day.

She doesn’t cry. Not for nuthin’.

“My daughter thinks I should be on anti-depressants,” she told me once, “This is my therapy.”

I consider that our arms are the extension of our heart: that what we do with them is an expression of our love, or how much love we can give…or take in. I also consider that, for her to relinquish any part of herself to another – even someone who she’s known for over ten years – is huge.

I observe this. And I accept it, whole thing, left arm and all. And, I let it go.

At least until next week. When I get to practice, all over again! Oh Arlene…

*name has been changed

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 #21. (okay, I’ve missed a few.)