Massage Tales, MLD

The Right Thing. The Sick Feeling.

I had a new client today. This person saw my card on the crowded Community Board at a local coffee shop and actually called me. He had a serious and extended conversation with me about the type of massage I do and where I got my training.

Once I got over my initial shock that someone actually (a) saw my card and (b) called me, I sank in to the process of interviewing and being interviewed by a potential new client. He asked appropriate questions, offered information about his own experience with massage, and generally did all the things that dispel any creepy vibes. We scheduled an appointment for later in the week.

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I asked him, as I always do, to tell me more about the specific reasons he was seeking massage. He deferred, said the problem was “embarrassing” and that he would rather talk about it in person. I decided not to press him and to wait until his appointment to get more information. And then I made sure two or three friends knew exactly when this new client was coming to my office, and that other people would be in the building while I was there.

I will say now that everyone leaves this story safe, and with their essential trust in human nature intact.

He arrived on time, filled out the paperwork and sat down with me to talk about his health history. He described his current discomforts with candid detail. He answered my questions and listened to my answers to his questions.

He started talking about everything that his condition altered in his life. I felt the frustration in his voice, and my compassion reflexes kicked in. This person is in pain. Witness this. Listen. Honor this experience. Be in service to this human.

And so he asked me the question, “Will this help me? Will this fix the problem?”

And I had to answer him honestly. “I don’t know.”

We talked a bit more and settled on what we both felt would be true — that if nothing else, this could be a time for his body to relax. That felt like enough. I let him get settled on the table and I started the session.

I should mention here that the work we agreed on — manual lymphatic drainage — is gentle work. There is no smashing of muscles or kneading of tissue. It involves rhythmic stretching of the skin that is so gentle it can be done after surgery. It is the kind of massage that one of my clients calls “petting butterflies.”

We discussed this, or I thought we did. I even demonstrated for him (on my arm) how manual lymphatic drainage looks much different than massage. I reminded him that this was his session, and we could switch to massage during the session if he felt like it would be better for him.

About 20 minutes into the session I noticed he had a confused look on his face. “What’s on your mind?” I said.

“I’m just not sure, I mean, I’m not sure this is working.”

I stopped what I was doing. “Okay,” I said, “What would you like to do?”

“I guess, I don’t know, I mean, you’re the professional, right?”

This is where I paused to take a deep breath and save my rants for later. Just because I went to school for a thing and have practiced it for many years does not mean I get any kind of agency or ownership over anyone else’s body. I would like the idea of the expert who also takes a client/patient’s agency to be extracted from every health care interaction everywhere, all the time.

I am the professional, I agreed, and I reminded him that he is the expert on his own body.

Then I got a sense that what he might need was permission. So I said, “Would you like to end the session?”

He sighed and looked at me, relieved. “Yes, I think that would be best.”

He wanted me to be confident and bold in my predictions for what I could do to help. All I could be was honest. He wanted something that he could not articulate, and that thing was definitely was not the type of work I was doing.

It was the right thing to say I didn’t know, to give no assurances where I had none, and to stop working when his mind and body were clearly agitated. We parted on good terms (yes, he paid for the session) and I have no regrets.

Except. There is always the voice from old stuff of the past that snickers in my ear and points at me, laughing, whenever I am not the smartest and most brilliant of them all. She is a persistent little gremlin and I can hear her laughing even as my stronger adult self knows this was the right thing.

I am a human who has chosen work that involves intimate interaction with other humans. There is no way to keep this from reaching in and stirring up all of my stuff. I am reminded, again, today that part of my job is to learn how to balance being an emotional being within the space of my professional work.

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, Massage Tales

The Unarmed Opponent

I am doing battle with words and today I am the unarmed opponent.

 

It is a slow time of year for my massage practice, and I am finding myself with long stretches of unstructured time.  The perfect situation to get a little ahead on the blog posts, maybe re-write my website, dig deep into my long-term writing projects.

 

And yet today I faced down my morning pages and all that came out was blather.  Isn’t this the point of morning pages, though?  That is what I told myself, and so I closed the journal and came to the computer hoping all the detritus was out and the good stuff was rising to the surface.

 

I’m looking in the water and it’s still murky.

 

A few days ago I saw a movie with my partner — Ralph Breaks the Internet.  It was silly and goofy and had some really sophisticated moments, like this scene where one of the main characters finds herself in a room full of Disney Princesses.  The Princesses tell her that she needs to look into water and eventually she will spontaneously start singing about her deepest and most desired dream.  It’s a funny moment that pokes fun at the structure of Disney movies.  Last night, I was talking with my partner, and he joked about holding a cup of tea in front of me so I could sing about my deepest and most desired dream.

 

This morning I am here with a cup of tea, doing unarmed battle with words, about to dive into a project that is actually my dream, I think.  And yet no song is forthcoming.  I look deep into the tea cup, and all that comes to me is: “location-independent lifestyle.”

 

Dreams are terrifying.

 

I have built, am building, this massage practice, deeply rooted in the community where I live.  I chose this community after a couple of decades in Chicago, because I thought I could build a long-term life here.  I love my work.  I love my clients.  I even love the alien-looking terrariums my office mate has put all around our space.  But more and more, I am feeling the need to get back on my trampoline.

 

action air balance beach
Photo by Rafael on Pexels.com

For a little while, I had a trampoline life.  I would travel, gather experiences, challenge my comfort zone, then come back home long enough to regroup (do laundry) and then go out into the world again.  It wasn’t always a trip to an exciting international destination, but still, it was getting away to a place where all of my stuff fit into a small bag.  I got so good at packing light and gathering all of what kept me alive.

 

am doing unarmed battle with words because, among other things, I have not ventured out.  I am aware, also, that venturing out is more than physical removal from my home city.  It is taking a chance with my mind as well.  What kinds of new words can I generate if they don’t have the new thoughts to back them up?  

 

My practice is quiet these weeks, the days can be as slow as I want them to be.  I am seeking out mental and physical challenges to re-arm myself with experiences that I can then turn into words.  Eventually, I see this growing and changing into a location-independent lifestyle, happily back on the trampoline.  For now, I am taking these weeks to sharpen up and prepare.

 

I am going to make myself another cup of tea and sing about it.

Massage Tales, Thoughts on the profession

Death and Other Benefits

As I’ve written before, I knew from the start of my massage career that I wanted to work with people in extremis — whether through age, illness, life stresses, or other factors.  I am not a mechanical fix-’em-up therapist.  I am a keeper of respite.

In my last quarter of school, I got in touch with a Donna, a hospice massage therapist who had attended the same school.  Donna generously agreed to let me shadow her for part of one day and talk to me in detail about her work with dying people.  With her, I went to the hospice inpatient facility.  Donna checked in with the nurses and got a list of people who might be open to receiving massage.  The nurses directed her first to one woman in particular.

“She’s struggling,” the nurse said, “Maybe you could ease her a little.”

Donna and I walked into the woman’s room.  I stayed close to the door as Donna approached the bed and gently touched the woman’s hand.  The woman was taking short, gasping breaths.  Her neck twisted with each breath and she shifted constantly in the bed.  Donna spoke very quietly to her and got permission to give her a gentle massage.  I watched Donna with my still-learning eyes, trying to parse exactly which techniques she used and how she crafted a coherent session in this unusual location.

person massaging man while lying on bed
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And then I forgot all of that and just watched.  Donna placed her hands on the woman’s ribcage, she stroked her hair and lovingly pressed her hands.  The woman gradually stopped shifting her position.  She still took short breaths, but they seemed more comfortable now.  After about fifteen minutes, Donna thanked the woman and we left the room without a sound.  The nurse walked into the room after we left.

Donna stood at the sink washing her hands, and I stood with her trying to form an intelligent question.  I could only manage “Thank you” and “What? . . . .” As I struggled with my words, the nurse came up, grinning.  She patted Donna on the back.

“Donna,” she said, “I think you just massaged that woman to death.”

They smiled at each other and hugged.  At the start of the day, the patient was in distress, struggling to breath, or to stop breathing.  After the massage, she appeared to be in much less distress and slipping into an easeful death.  I hope that is what happened.  To be honest, I have no idea.

What I do know, however, is that I am much more suited for the kind of work Donna does than almost anything else.  To facilitate ease in the face of distress.  To work with another human and help reduce the struggle of their transition — whether it is the transition to health after a long illness, the transition to a different lifestyle, or the transition from life into death.

massage education, Massage Tales, Thoughts on the profession

Aural Forestry

What started as an adaptation to technological difficulties grew into a new research interest and intentional structure of the whole massage environment.

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This is Nadine, one of the office plants.

I love my office.  It has a skylight for natural light, and it is large with plenty of room to move around. My office mate has an amazing eye for design, so she put together the space in a way that is beautiful and functional.  I am proud to bring new clients into the space and trust they will feel at ease there.

I don’t love the technology, or lack thereof.  There is no WiFi in the space, so my regular streaming music service is not available.  When I moved into the space, I pulled out my tablet and searched my apps for some kind of relaxing noise making program.  I found I had an app called Spa Music, and that this app had a mixing board page.  You could combine any number of nature sounds to create a custom, relaxing soundscape.  I quickly settled on “Lake” as the background and experimented with different bird songs, crickets, or even jungle frogs on top. The sounds would play until I turned off the tablet, with no wireless connection necessary.

I set up the nature sounds on the speakers and invited in my first clients with some trepidation. Would they miss the music? Is there someone out there who really is a huge Dean Everson or Enya fan, and was I alienating them?

I quickly learned a few true things:

  1.  Almost no one notices the music/sounds unless they stop unexpectedly.
  2.  Lots of people in Kentucky get significant joy out of observing and identifying birds.
  3.  Working around nature sounds for several hours has a significant positive effect on my outlook.

bright countryside dawn daylight
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Somewhere in the collection of random information in my brain, I remembered one of my friends talking about forest bathing.  Forest bathing, or Shinrin-yoku, has been described in Japan since the 1980s, and is a part of preventative health care there.  Several studies on the benefits of forest bathing suggest that a slow, attentive, mindful walk in nature has a number of health benefits.  A few researchers started to break the experience into pieces to see if similar health benefits could be available to people in urban environments.  A study in Japan suggested that simply being around fresh flowers in an office had a positive, relaxing effect on office workers.

What about just the sounds of nature?  Could listening to lake noises or birdsong have a positive effect on someone’s overall massage experience?  So far, I haven’t found any studies on this particular question, so I only have stories.

I have the story of the woman (and avid birder) who is coping with a painful autoimmune condition, whose posture relaxed as soon as she heard the birdsong in my office.

I have the story of the man who called my office “instant calm” when he walked in.

And I have the story of every day I spend in that office, feeling more attentive and present without the burden of tuning out some hideous “spa music” coming from the streaming service.

For now, I am letting the nature sounds play on, and spending as much time as possible in actual nature as part of my regular self-care.  I’ve got other, really fun projects keeping me occupied outside the office right now, but who knows?  Maybe this nature thing will grow.

Massage Tales, Thoughts on the profession

How Did I Get Here: Part 2

I first thought about massage therapy as a career twelve years before I had my epiphany at the senior care community.  I had never even had a massage before, but still my childhood friend’s story was enough to show me how powerful simple touch can be.

Nancy (not her real name) and I met in second grade.  We were both quiet, clumsy, slightly awkward girls.  We laughed at the same things and we liked to create whole worlds out of whatever was in front of us.  We spent our entire grade school years going back and forth to each other’s houses and sharing all the ordinary moments of our childhood.  By the time we graduated high school, we had moved in slightly different directions, but were still close.  I went away to school for my liberal arts degree, and she went to a school near our home for her STEM degree.

One weekend, Nancy and another friend from high school came to visit me at school.  We went to dinner, walked around, and laughed way too much.  That night, I sat on my bed while Nancy and our other friend sat on the floor and we talked.  Nancy revealed to us that she had been abused by her brother when she was a child.  She told us about finding the memory and starting therapy.  She told us she was alright.

And of course she wasn’t, not entirely.  After two years of college, Nancy dropped out and went to massage school.  It surprised me, and at the time I wondered how she could possibly throw her life away like that.

About six months into her massage career, Nancy and I had the chance to sit down together again and really talk.  I asked her about massage school, what it was like and if she enjoyed it.  Nancy told me about her most valuable school experience.

silhouette of left human hand
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For her externship, Nancy went to work at a shelter for victims of domestic violence.  “It was great,” she said, “I was just there with my massage chair, you know, trying to let these women experience safe touch.”

Safe touch.

This simple thing that Nancy didn’t have in her own home — yet somehow she could bring it to other women who had been abused.  I was speechless.  Of course she hadn’t thrown her life away.  She grabbed hold of her life and made it her own again.

The more I reflected on Nancy’s story, the more my sense of the immense power of simple, safe touch grew.  The fact that this could be your job — to serve people in this way — it seemed like heaven.

At the time, I was on a different path, so I filed my impressions away for later.  12 years later, I ended up with people I wanted to serve, and the means to go back to school.  And now, here I am today.

Nancy and I lost touch several years ago.  The last time I heard from her, I was in the middle of massage school, and she had quit massage therapy altogether.  To me, it sounded like she reached that physical and emotional burn-out state that ends so many massage careers. It saddened me, and it built my resolve to take excellent care of myself. For so many reasons, I have Nancy to thank for being here, in this job I love, ten years and counting.