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Massage Tales, Thoughts on the profession

Release

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We just met and we are talking about trauma.  More specifically, we are talking about the writing that arises from trauma, and how/when to turn that into art.  We are at a week-long writing workshop and happened to sit at the same table for a meal.  It is the second night of student readings.  I read last night and he is reading tonight.  We started with talking about the readings and, as good conversations often do, we circled around and through many topics, leaping one to another like crossing a creek by jumping on rocks.

Eventually, we started talking about trauma, loss, hardship and all the real life things that are informing the writing in our classes.  Since we have landed in real life territory, he asks about my profession outside this workshop.  I tell him I am a massage therapist and ask if he has ever gotten a professional massage.

He has.  Once.  Sometime in the middle of the massage, he says, he started to sob.  He didn’t know why, and he couldn’t seem to control it.  He asks me, Is this normal?

I tell him of course it’s normal.  It doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens often enough that we (massage therapy educators) spend a decent amount of time talking about it with our students.  I ask him, slightly dreading the answer, did he feel safe? Would he consider getting a massage again?

To my relief, he says he did feel safe.  The therapist was calm and compassionate.  He says he would get a massage again, it did feel good.  Then he pauses.  Maybe he would get a massage again.  He knew the therapist so already felt comfortable with her.  Maybe, he isn’t sure.

He shrugs and looks at me.  It’s normal, I repeat.  It happens a lot.  We don’t live here, I say, pointing to my head, we live in our entire bodies, as much as we try to deny it.  Sometimes our traumas and emotions appear through massage therapy, exercise, or some other embodied practice.  He nods.

We talk more about that evening’s student reading, about our classes and about writing in general.  After lunch, we go off to our separate spaces to write, study, and think — to enjoy the leisure of this week.

That evening, he reads a poem he wrote about a friend’s brain injury.  It is simple, clear, and as powerful as a brass-knuckle punch to the gut.  Filtered through writing and revision and performance, he gave us all a glimpse into a particular kind of trauma.  It is a refined version of the emotions that came over him when he got his one and only massage.

I give quiet thanks for art, for good writing teachers, and for calm and compassionate massage therapists who can hold space for the raw release of unexpected emotion.

Thoughts on the profession

Electricity

Things happen when you travel, and sometimes you lose control.  And sometimes that is the best possible outcome.

I was settling in to my transition hotel before heading off for a week-long writing workshop.  I decided to treat myself to one last ridiculous dinner before heading up to the retreat center and their beautiful, healthy, locally sourced food.  As I pulled into the parking lot, I noticed the sky was divided in that clear way that happens to southern skies before a big thunderstorm.  It looked like a dark gray blanket was being pulled across the sky.  I got out of my car and walked quickly to the restaurant, looking forward to watching the rain from inside while enjoying a delicious meal.  Something was off about the restaurant, though, and as I got to the door I realized:  the power was out and the alarm lights were flashing inside.  I finally realized the sirens I had been hearing in the distance were actually getting quite close.

lightning above the green trees
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Well, I thought, I had snacks at the hotel, and an excellent book.  I drove back down the road to the hotel where I realized that the power was out there, too.  In fact, the approaching line of storms had somehow taken down the power for the entire area.  I opened my curtains, letting in the just-enough-to-read-by light and watched the storms roll across and pass through.  In the room next door, two young men were relaxing after a day of hard work on some local construction project.  As the rain pounded the roof, they sang along with their music and laughed heartily at each other’s jokes.  In fact, they continued singing and laughing for the whole hour or so we were without electricity.  When the power came back on, their room went quiet.  Instead of music and singing, I heard the low hum of their TV set.

I missed the noise and the laughter, and as I realized this I thought about my students.  About their general discomfort with wide open blocks of time.  I am getting better and better at letting the silence after a question sit until something surprising bubbles up from a student.  The students seem to be getting worse at sitting in the silence.  I wonder if they could take an expected block of time — like when the power goes out — and make a party of it.  And I wonder if they could ignore the power when it comes back on because they are enjoying the moment and the experience.

Teachers use a lot of electricity metaphors.  We spark ideas or discussion.  We look for the light bulb moments.  We complete circuits of ideas.  I think when I get from traveling, it may be time to turn off the power and see what we can accomplish without electricity.

Modalities

Cross Training and Self Care

I am sitting at a table, trying to become more aware of my own movement habits and defenses.  It starts with keeping my posture upright and balanced, feet flat on the floor, trying to breathe into all sides of my ribcage and move from this supported posture, rather than from my usual habits.  Already, I notice how much I rely on my neck to initiate arm movement.  I make a small adjustment to my core engagement and try again.  It feels different, more easy.

I take a break for a short walk around the bookstore where I am working.  As I stop to browse I overhear this conversation:

“Your feet aren’t ugly.”

“Yes they are.  It’s just because I got my nails painted and they uncrusted my feet.  Really, my feet are ugly.”

I just spent the last two days in workshops with Donna Mejia, a scholar, dancer, somatic scientist and excellent teacher.  I have pages of notes and ideas, and a much more clear understanding of why my neck hurts sometimes.  We barely scratched the surface of knowledge she has built through her study, yet we all left with new understanding of how our bodies move.

And we started in a way that I love, and that I wish was unnecessary.  Donna invited us to take a different approach to our bodies.  Instead of thinking of all the things they couldn’t do or the ways in which they failed us, we were invited to be grateful for the all that our bodies were capable of.  Even in a room full of people ready to spend four hours in movement, it is necessary to remind ourselves of what our bodies can do.

four person standing at top of grassy mountain
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This approach resonates with me because it is a position of strength, and from this position of strength — however tenuous — we are able to discover ways to move, breathe live and be with more ease.  It seems to me that we should not give up our position of strength because of ideas about what feet are supposed to look like.

In the time I have been sitting here, fresh from workshops and with movement awareness at the top of my mind, I have been blissfully unaware of what I look like, and yet deeply aware of my body in space.  Areas of ease and tension, habitual defensive patterns, ways to move more efficiently.  The side effect of all of this is a calm mind free of much of my usual internal chatter.

As with all things, maintaining this is a practice, ongoing and ever-evolving.

Massage Tales

The Look of Love

This is his last massage.* I know it, and I feel privileged to be part of it.  I start by holding his feet.  Here in this warm room, his feet chill my hands.  I gently squeeze them and wait for my hands to warm again.  he watches me, mouth slightly open, breathing raspy and audible.  After a moment he closes his eyes and turns his head.  He opens his eyes again, and he watches her.

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On the other side of the room, his wife sits with a box in her lap.  She pulls papers and colorful greeting cards from the box and methodically separates  them into a couple of piles.  When I glance over, I can see the pictures and swirling lines on some of the cards.  I notice the words “For My Husband,” “I Love You,” and “My Beloved” on some of them.  Her attention is focused on the box, on each letter and card, and on making careful piles based on some internal system we will never know.  His attention is focused on her.

I gently move to hold his calves.  I can feel the outline of the bones of his lower legs.  The disease he has struggled with for so long, the one that brought him to this place of his last massage, has gradually atrophied his body.  I can both see and feel the shape and outline of his joints.  Looking at his face, I see the outline of his cheekbones and the hollowed edges of his eye sockets.  His body is falling away.

And yet, in the turn of his head and the soft intensity of his gaze, I see that some things have not been diminished by his illness.   The look in his eyes as he watches his wife is distilled down to essentials.  It is love.  Pure love, and in his weakened state it is what he has to give to her.  He gives it freely.  It is everything.

As the massage continues, his body relaxes deeper into his bed.  His stiffened joints unclench and sink into the soft mattress.  His hands uncurl and rest at his sides.  His head still turned to face his wife, gradually his eyes close and his breathing slows.  His head sinks into the pillow, still turned in her direction.

In my office, I would gently try to persuade my client to put their neck into a more neutral position.  I would think of overworked muscles and strains that develop from long moments in one rotated position.  Here, though, in his own house, during his last massage, sharing the room with his wife, I let it go.  There are so many things more important than muscle strain, and most of them are alive in that room.

monochrome photo of couple holding hands
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As I finish the massage, he is deeply asleep.  I step away from the bed and pick up my bag.  His wife catches my eye.  We say “thank you” to each other.  She looks at him and smiles, still holding a card in her hand (“Happy Birthday to my Husband”).  “He’s asleep now, isn’t he?” she says.  I nod and smile as I soundlessly walk out of the house.

I have witnessed a sacrament, and by that I have been blessed.  I walk in gratitude for the rest of the day.

 

*–identifying details have been changed

 

Massage Tales, Oncology Massage, Thoughts on the profession

Hospice Dogs I Have Known

I have two stories for you this week, about massage and dying and dogs.


Here is what I knew:  the patient was young*, surrounded by family, and declining.  I knew the diagnosis. And I knew there was a dog in the house.

adult black taiwan dog laying down on grass lawn
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The dog greeted me at the door a few seconds after the patient’s family member.  She was big.  Her head came almost to my chest.  She had deep, soulful eyes.  She gently walked up to me and nudged her nose into my hands.  I stood still, held my hands out for her and let her run her nose along my fingers.  After about a half a minute, she turned and walked towards the patient’s room.

The patient mostly communicated by gesture and facial expression.  Family members told me the patient was in and out of “being here.”  I stood by the patient’s side and introduced myself, and I said, “Your dog is amazing!”  The patient turned to face me, eyes sparkling and alert.

As I worked with the patient, the dog would come in the room at regular intervals.  Sometimes she stood right next to me, watching what my hands were doing.  Sometimes she laid her head on the bed and gazed up at the patient.  Sometimes she simply stood in the door of the room, looking.  She moved slowly, deliberately and with infinite grace.  She never made a sound, except for the soft padding of her feet on the floor and her even breathing.

After the massage was done,  I held the patient’s hand and said thank you.  I found my own way to the door, leaving the patient relaxed and quiet with his family in the room.  Before I left, I looked off to my left, and I saw the dog standing at the end of the hall.  Calm, still, and waiting.


I walked through the gathered grief of her husband and her daughter to get to the patient’s bedroom.  The patient laid in the center of a king-sized bed, nothing moving but her eyes, which were sharp and clear.  At her hip sat a small white dog, head resting on its paws looking like it was asleep.

nature animal dog pet
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As soon as I started the massage, the dog opened its eyes and watched me, head still resting on its paws.  I stepped up toward the head of the bed and cradled the patient’s head in my hands.  The dog stood up and turned to face me directly.  It nodded once, as if to say, “Yes.  That’s it.”  Then it turned, curled up and went to sleep, nestled against the patient’s hip.


Animals know.  When we are deep in extremis, our pets somehow know and they show us how to simply be, and be present.  Some of the deepest and most meaningful interactions I have had with humans have come mediated by their pets.  From them, I am learning how to pay attention, be still, and just breathe and move with infinite grace.

 

*–identifying details about patients (and their pets) have been changed

Inner World, Lost Literary Files

Poised for Conflict

I am ready to learn, and I am ready for a fight.  It’s only because of the past, which follows me around everywhere in a lumpy, psychic bag and sometimes tries to convince me that the past can predict the future.

Let me fill you in on one of my past lives.  No, not the one where I was Cleopatra (why was EVERYONE Cleopatra??), I mean one of the careers I dove into before I settled into my life as a massage therapist who writes stuff.  Right out of college, I picked up my Lit degree and stumbled into graduate school.  The academic, writing life was my object.  To be surrounded by books and words and ideas, all day, every day.  I had my grandiose ideas and a book-length work of fiction, so I signed up for a Long Form Creative Writing class.

Have I mentioned that I lasted only through the M.A. program and no longer?

grayscale photography on concert
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In that class, we were instructed to sit quietly and listen to critique of our work.  No comments, no answers to questions, no subtly suggestive noises of any kind.  When it came time for my work to be critiqued in class, I spent a couple of hours totally silent, listening to people talk.  After about thirty minutes, I started to notice that little workshop dance where everyone tries to say the next most insightful thing.  At this point, they have exhausted all the truly helpful information and have slipped into “perform for the Professor” mode.  It was not subtle.  It exhausted me.

About a week later, I had my mandatory one-on-one meeting with the Professor.  I would have been happy skipping this face time, but he insisted that everyone schedule their time or risk failing the class.  So, I scheduled the time (in between the two classes I was teaching and the mountains of reading and writing for my other classes.)  And the Professor decided to answer his phone five minutes into our time, and hold a conversation which lasted until about a minute before the end of our appointment.  All the while, he signaled me to “stay,” “just wait a moment.”  I gained nothing, but I certainly lost any remaining respect I had for the Professor as a teacher of humans.

So, my most recent experience with workshops has not been pleasant.  It has been armored, to say the least.  And this is the lumpy, psychic bag of my past that I am attempting to leave behind in July.  I am headed to Wildacres Retreat to spend a week learning and workshopping with no distractions but the gorgeous mountains of North Carolina.  Whenever I think about the retreat as a whole, I am ready to learn.  Whenever I think about sitting around a table with my fellow writers, listening to their thoughts on my work, I am ready for a fight.

I have submitted my manuscript and made all the necessary travel reservations.  My work now is unpacking the baggage and leaving “ready for a fight” behind, in the past, in that Professor’s office where it belongs.

Book Review, Inner World, Thoughts on the profession

See Like a Whale

I am thinking of whales.  Of their gigantic eyes.  And how these eyes have nothing to do with how they see.

Well, not exactly nothing, but certainly not as much as our eyes.

I am reading a new book, The Left Brain Speaks, The Right Brain Laughs by Ransom Stephens.  Despite the inaccurate duality in the title, it is (so far) a very clear and correct description of how our brains gather and process information.  In a section abut vision, Stephens talks about how whales see.

photography of whale tail in body of water
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Whales use sonar to create a picture of their surroundings.  Their eyes, like our own, are unable to see clearly in the depths of the ocean, so they rely on sounding out their surroundings.  In many ways, their sonar is much more accurate than our own limited vision.  For example, a clever scenic artist can easily convince us that a piece of painted cardboard is a heavy oaken door.  A whale would never make that mistake.  Their sonar sends them information about the weight and composition of objects that we rely on our sense of touch to gather.  Whales are, in a sense, able to see through objects and other creatures, into their core.  Whales know immediately when another whale is pregnant, or if a creature has a tumor or some other internal growth.  Their sonar adjusts the internal picture for all of these changes.

I am a creature of metaphor, and this particular whale fact set my associative brain to work.  What if, I thought, what if we tried to see like whales?  Not to invade someone’s privacy by peering inside their bodies, but what if we tried to see beyond the pictures our eyes show us?  What if the shapes, sizes, colors and impressions we gather upon looking at someone were never enough for us and we felt compelled to look beyond?

I love this idea.  And not just because I am a sucker for science-based metaphors.  I love this idea as a way to relate to other humans.  To see like a whale, looking beyond the surface and into whatever truth sits peacefully beyond the pictures my eyes send me.  This seems like a skill worth developing.  Whale vision.  Sounding out the environment.  Looking beyond.