Inner World, Massage Tales

Semicolon

Sometimes when I am working with someone, I see that they have a semicolon tattoo. Tattoos aren’t all that unusual, of course. I have three myself. Most of the time when I see a tattoo, I use it mainly as a handy marker to remember where I felt something notable in someone’s tissue.

The semicolon tattoo is different, though. Every time I see some version of it on a client, it reminds me to pause, to take in this human who has trusted me with their body for a time, and to respect the whole person, just as they are, right in this moment.

As you may know, the semicolon tattoo is a quiet message of acceptance and affirmation about suicide, depression, and other mental health issues. Even now, there is often fear and stigma around these topics, or around anything that’s not in the very narrow range of “normal.” When was the last time you had a real and open conversation about the times when you are not feeling all the way okay?

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One day, I was working with a new client at the spa. She came in for a “couples” massage with her sister-in-law. It was her first massage. This is not so unusual. Some times friends booked the couples massage because they felt more comfortable with more people in the room – especially if one of them had never had a massage before.

Normally, I dislike couples’ massages. The room is almost always not quite big enough for two therapists and two tables. There is always a point where the room temperature switches from comfortable to barely-able-to-breathe. And, in my experience, most of the people who get couples’ massages have no interest in considering regular massage to support their health. I only did them rarely at the spa.

This client, however, felt different to me. I’ll call her Kelly -*. Kelly answered my questions so quietly that I had to lean in and ask her to repeat herself several times. Her smile was warm and her eyes were on the edge of apprehensive. As the other therapist and I left the room, we heard Kelly’s sister-in-law give her detailed instructions on how to get on the table and where to put her clothes (something I had just done.)

I don’t know the exact thing that made me tune in with more attention when I met Kelly. For lack of a better word, I’ll call it tenderness. There was something tender and lightly shielded about her. Plus, I always feel a little protective of clients who are getting their first massage. It’s a vulnerable experience.

Kelly’s sister-in-law and her therapist chatted for most of the massage. Normally, this would have distracted me for the whole hour, but as I cradled Kelly’s feet, I noticed she had a small semicolon tattooed on her ankle. It caught my attention and helped me tune out everything in the room except Kelly and me. This human. Right now. Who deserves my time, my attention, and, yes, my caring love.

I am grateful for the semicolon tattoo, and for what it represents. I am grateful for the way it reminds me to come back to the present moment and just be with this person. I am grateful that there is a quiet way to acknowledge that some of us (all of us, if we’re honest) will struggle to maintain this life sometimes. I am grateful that Kelly did.

*- “Kelly” is a composite character based on several different client interactions.

Inner World, Thoughts on the profession

Interoception

I am committed to making this blog, this website, a safe, neutral space, free of partisan ranting. I have plenty of safe places to rant in my life, and I need all of you to feel welcome in my space.

I also don’t think having agency over all aspects of my body is a partisan issue. That seems like common sense to me. So here we go:

Today I am thinking about what happens when we give over (or have taken from us) full control of our bodies. What, from a physiological perspective, happens when we are not able (or allowed) to fully sense what is going on inside ourselves? And (because the mind and body and spirit are all connected) what happens to our emotional life?

Interoception is our sense of what is going on inside our bodies. This is one of the senses we use to interact with and interpret the world. Interoception is the sense that tells us when we maybe should not have eaten at the sketchy buffet, or that we’ve probably had enough caffeine for the day.

In addition to physiology, interoception helps us associate bodily reactions with emotions. This is the sense that helps you associate your racing heart with either the terrifying new boss or the delightful new love.

Interoception can be so easily interrupted by outside forces, and by the workings of our own minds. How many times have you ignored that prickle at the back of your neck because it seemed “silly”?

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Every time this happens, our sense of interoception takes a hit. It may not seems like much, but this sense plays a key role in identifying and regulating emotions. According to research published in Frontiers in Psychology, “There is compelling evidence demonstrating links between poor or disrupted awareness of sensory information, or interoceptive awareness, and difficulties with emotion regulation.”

Meaning, if we keep denying the evidence of our own bodies, we run the risk of losing it. More or less.

There’s a lot of talk lately (still, for as long as I can remember) about the proper use and care of bodies like mine. Uterus-having bodies, specifically. I am fortunate to have the support and practice to hear this talk and let it fade away. I have over a decade of massage therapy training and work that taught me to trust the evidence of my own body.

Today I’m thinking about those who don’t have that good fortune. Those whose bodies have relentlessly been under attack — wrong size, wrong color, wrong shape, wrong place, etc. I see you navigating through the world that wants to transplant your interoception with someone else’s, and I am in awe of your resilience.

Today, I just want to say that if you need a safe space to listen to and make peace with the wisdom of your own body, I am here. My office is quiet and my door is open.

Inner World, Massage Tales, On Writing, Thoughts on the profession

Until They Know

The other night, I sat with my partner, talking about life’s work, life’s purpose, and other meaningful things. We have that conversation a lot, both as a way to check in with each other for support and as a way to clarify for ourselves what is truly important. Sitting there, in our middle ages, we stretch forward and reach into what we both hope will be our renaissance.

I was telling my partner about the moment. The moment when I was sitting with a client, presumably massaging them but really being a loving, peaceful presence for them. In that moment, I felt all the struggles and blocks to my creative energy dissolve away. I felt open to receive and translate what ever might come forward. I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I was in the exact right place doing the exact right work.

My client that day was frail, small, elderly. My client was also an open fount of love and kindness who never let me leave without telling me how beautiful and sweet she thought me to be. She was exhausted from a restless night and bouts of nausea. She was in extremis. From the outside, it looked like all I did was sit next to her and gently hold her hands.

As I finished telling the story, I tried to find a way to explain the rightness of that moment, to translate it into words that could describe what I want my work to be. Finally, I said:

I’m just here to love on people until they realize how much they’re worth.

And that was it. The exact right phrase. I have found my mission statement for the remainder of my career, and, truly, of my life as a human being.

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In my past, I spent several years in corporate America, and in those years I learned to deeply mistrust the idea of a “mission statement.” To me, it had the association of wasted hours in meeting rooms and whiteboards full of meaningless phrases. It meant a lot of back-patting while everyone settled back into the exact same soul-numbing atmosphere as before. Mission statements, I thought, look nice on annual reports or company-branded merchandise, but in practice they meant nothing.

When I hit on that sentence, though, I also hit on a new understanding of mission statements in general. After the political and religious definitions of the word “mission” in the dictionary comes this definition:

a strongly felt aim, ambition, or calling

dictionary.com

I am not a traditionally religious person, but the idea of a “calling” still resonates with me. The truth is, we humans really are intertwined and connected in ways we don’t quite understand. There is a need in the community that each of us is suited to fill. That need has a voice, which calls out and, I think, it is our job to listen, and, on hearing, respond.


A few weeks ago I started out trying to write a few different posts about relaxing massage, gentle massage, and the underappreciated benefits of both. As with much of my writing, I thought I was doing one thing, but the writing eventually led me to a new (better) place.

I thought I was providing some education about physiology and the mechanisms of massage therapy as I understand them. In fact, I was writing my way into my personal mission statement, the guiding force that all my endeavors must support.


I have a postcard on my refrigerator which I got form an artist at the St. James Court Art Show a couple of years ago. It says: “Don’t become famous for doing something you don’t love.” I get that now, in a way I didn’t get it before.

It’s the love. It has always been the love.

Inner World, Massage Tales, Modalities, Thoughts on the profession

Chicken Skin and Butterflies

“Rebecca, your touch is so gentle I bet you could pet butterflies.” She said this to me as she dropped into the table and let her arms fall away from her body. She breathed deeply and evenly and within a few minutes I could see that she was asleep, or nearly so. At the end of her session, she smiled at me warmly and said she appreciated being able to fall asleep comfortably.

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She reminded me of my time in Thailand a couple of years ago. I studied Thai massage for a couple of weeks — just enough time to confirm that I really know nothing about Thai massage. The teacher used to joke about “elephant skin people” and “chicken skin people.”

Elephant skin people, to him, were those who wanted more aggressive bodywork. They seemed to thrive on the deepest compressions, the most rigorous stretches, and the rough handling of their bodies. He gave a demonstration on one of these people while I was there. The client, a muscled American motorcycle rider complete with leather vest and chaps, groaned and whimpered his way through the session with my teacher. After the session, he got up from the mat, smiling and testing his newly mobile joints.

Chicken skin people, on the other hand, required gentler handling. Their bodies could not take deep work and they often could not move into some of the postures typical of Thai massage. My teacher teased me that I was a chicken skin person. In that, he was (is) completely correct. I do not respond well to aggressive bodywork.

And, as I am starting to fully embrace, I am a massage therapist for the chicken skinned. I feel most connected and at my best with those whose bodies, minds, and/or spirits require gentle handling and a careful, loving approach.

My client, who found such a vivid and lovely metaphor for the way I work, also gave me the perfect ending to this three week exploration of “just a relaxing massage.” I am here to whisper, gently, to your nervous system and let your body sink into its own healing capability.

Inner World, Thoughts on the profession

Be the Weirdo

There are so many conversations I would like to have about massage therapy, and about health care in general. The one about equity and accessibility of care. The one about basic massage education and its preparation (or lack thereof) for a career. The one about how much to charge and when/if to raise your rates. The one about complementary and alternative and where does massage live.

That last one — the complementary/alternative one — has been on my mind lately. For myself, I’m pretty firmly decided that massage therapy is complementary in nature, and is most effective when used in concert and communication with other forms of care. What’s on my mind is how we think and talk about those other forms of care.

I am struck by how many people come through my office and will tell me about their doctors with an eye-roll or knowing wink. Some will straight out tell me that their doctors are scam artists who are just in it for the money. I am working on changing this kind of talk.

There are better and more productive conversations we can be having about healthcare right now. I’m working with some super-smart nerds at Healwell trying to have those conversations in public.  In my daily private work, it’s a little more challenging.

It all comes down to acknowledging the feeling behind the words, the hidden voice that speaks through the filter of disdain for traditional medical care. And to honor that, to hear it, I need to ask better questions. Questions like: where did you feel unheard? What calms your mind? What wakes you up at night? And, when I’m feeling a little combative, questions like: do you think doctors go to medical school because they want to hurt people? How would you handle a day scheduled around too little time with every one of your patients?

Questions that want to look directly into the heart of the heart, the deep and vulnerable truth that always comes out somehow. This is terrifying, for both me and my clients. I am not sure how to do it.

I am bolstered by a conversation I’ve been having with some of the people I traveled with last month. In the country we visited, the standard greeting was a warm, heart-to-heart hug, sometimes with a kiss on the cheek. People we met thought it was strange that we would wave and say “Hello” without reaching out to touch them. We got used to the hugs and the human connection.

As we got home, some of us joked about becoming the “weirdo hugger” in our workplaces. But at the same time, many of us noticed that the same people who thought it was weird when we hugged them, would linger a bit until they got their hug. Every day.

This makes me think that we really do want to connect with each other in some real way. We have just built some of the most elaborate defensive systems on the planet to protect ourselves. And sometimes all it takes to get through those defense systems is to become the weirdo. Hug the people. Ask the questions. Start the conversation.

It’s not always going to end well. I have had experience with that this week. I had a couple of honest conversations. The outcome was not ideal, but my comfort and peace in my own soul was off the charts.

Weirdo power.

Inner World, Oncology Massage, Thoughts on the profession

Objectify

Last night I watched this documentary about Maria Callas. I had a small sense that there was something tragic and sad about her life outside of opera, but I had no idea just how tender her story was. She existed in this space where she had attention, celebrity, adoration — but she didn’t have the love that she wanted. In her last relationship, she was literally a commodity, a glittering novelty collected by a rich man who loved the idea of her.

The idea of her.

This led me to thinking about a recurring, spiraling conversation I often have with my friends. Our conversation is about humanity, and about our particular skill in honoring humanity. Too often, our default mode is to objectify, to make of each other a one-dimensional thing. The person in my way at the store. The person who is driving too fast. The person talking too much at the end of the day.

Another recurring and spiraling conversation I often have is about the role of massage therapy in health care, about how we can integrate the profession into the medical model in a way that elevates patient care. Believe it or not, watching that documentary brought both of these conversations together in my mind.

What I am hearing sometimes, even in my own head, is that we might be taking on the least desirable parts of the medical model. We might be turning people into objects. The frozen shoulder. The back spasms. The testicular cancer with distant metastasis.

While this objectification might be useful for a moment — we have to apply specific knowledge to be safe and effective, after all — it too easily becomes a habit. And hidden within this habit is the seed of what could be damaging cruelty.

Turning someone into a limited object is a door that opens onto a path. This path has so many stops along the way that drift us further and further from each other. Stops like: not listening with full attention and an open mind, ignoring someone’s stated needs in favor of our own assumptions. In the darkest depths of the path as it winds through the shadow side that is in all of us are the -isms and oppressions that break our collective hearts.

I am in no way saying that integrating in the medical model will make us into a crueler, harsher profession. I am saying that constant vigilance is required. May of us went into massage therapy because we loved the idea of working with a whole person. Many medical professionals love this idea as well.

As Maria Callas grew into her talents and found fame and recognition, her personal life started to fall apart. As this profession grows into its next phase, we must be ever-aware of the state of our own being.

Maria Callas often spoke of herself as two different beings: Callas, the diva and performer, and Maria, the woman. By all accounts, she didn’t find a way to integrate those beings. As we grow into next-level massage therapists, let’s continue to find ways to integrate our two beings: the evidence-based practitioner with the human-loving soul seeking connection.

Inner World, On Writing

Which Draft Is This

We went to a show, my friend and I.  It was full of flashes of brilliance — beautiful gems that could be pulled out, polished and made into an even better show.  But it was a one-time-only experience.

It was unique, rare, and temporal.  It was deeply unsatisfying.

As we pondered these truths, imagining the new and gorgeous work of art that could happen if this section came out and that one expanded and it all had a more coherent frame structure —  we also pondered what it was that was so deeply unsatisfying.

“You know what it is?” my friend said, “They stopped at the first draft.”

And of course that was it.  We watched a first draft, knowing there was no possibility of a next draft, and still seeing the potential that a next draft could be.  Frustrating.

So, of course, I will quote that Anne Lamott line about “sh*tty first drafts.”  Here is whole quote:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”

It’s a great line, and a great sentiment.  Just get the words out.  Just work.  What happens too often, what happened in that show we saw, is that people get out the first draft and stop there.  The effort of putting forth that much feels like enough.

As Anne Lamott, or any other writer, would tell you — it isn’t enough.  There are revisions and reworkings and next drafts to go, long before something is all the way done.  Some things are never all the way done.  Construction on Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s adjective-defying cathedral in Barcelona, began in 1882.  It is projected to be completed in 2030.  Maybe.

On a more local scale, I’ve been contemplating my professional life, and how it has shifted and changed over the years I have been a massage therapist.  I’m on, I think, my third draft at the moment.  And several people I know are still on their first draft.

I’m becoming aware that it is part of my mission as a massage educator to get people (and maybe the profession?) to move through whatever draft they are in right now.  It’s so easy to get comfortable with a limited repertoire.  Are we doing things because they are intuitively and scientifically effective, or are we doing things because we always do them?

Every new draft grows under the skin of the old draft, and when it pushes through it is often familiar enough to be recognizable.  So why are we sitting with the old drafts, afraid to move through it into the next best version?

Let’s get to the next draft.  Let’s start by making space for each other’s mistakes, blind spots, and outright incompetence.  These things are temporary, and necessary if we are to move into something new.  Just work.

Hey — Speaking of work — Did you know I host a monthly webinar series called The Interdisciplinary Clan of Mystery?  It’s where my friends at Healwell and I interview someone who is doing excellent work in health care, and we try to learn how to break out of our silos and step up our service game.  If you’re a human who has ever interacted with health care, this might be for you.  Check out the episodes here.  (And while you’re there, take a minute to look at the wonderful goodness Healwell is putting out into the world.  These people are the best, the brightest, the funniest.)