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Emily

My first job in senior care was on the memory care floor of a nursing home.  All the residents were in the later stages of some kind of cognitive decline.  Most of them spoke very little, some not at all.  One of these was Emily.

Emily smiled quietly from her chair whenever anyone said her name.  Her posture was perfect.  She folded her hands beautifully in her lap until something — anything — was placed on the table in front of her.  Then she would gently pick up the object and examine it with her hands, gently, with divine attention.

Emily had striking deep brown, almost black, eyes.  Her eyebrows were still a deep black, while the rest of her hair was gray.  Emily rarely noticed anything outside the reach of her hands.  When it was time for her to move from one room to another, she stood slowly and took the arm of whoever walked with her.  She took short, shuffling steps, like many of the other people on the floor.

Every day, just after lunch, Emily’s husband came to visit with her.  He greeted her in the dining room.  Every day, her serene countenance grew into a wide open smile as soon as she saw him.  Her eyes sparkled and her pale cheeks flushed pink.  They walked down the hall, arm-in-arm, and went to Emily’s room where they would sit next to each other and hold hands.  Sometimes, her husband would brush her hair, or show her pictures of the grandchildren.  After an hour or two, around the time Emily started to fall asleep in her chair, her husband kissed her on the forehead and said goodbye until the next day.

selective focus photography of left hand on top of right hand on white pants
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

I had the privilege of witnessing so many love stories like this one in that job.  Emily and her husband hold a special place in my heart because their tenderness was unshakeable.  On rare days, Emily would get anxious and almost angry.  She couldn’t sit still and would not hold her husband’s hand.  He still looked at her with the same unshiftable tenderness.  On these days he would try to stroke her hair or sing to her.  If nothing worked, he would simply sit and love her.

The absolute simplicity of his presence, every single day, reminds me how much we all have to offer each other.  If we will only just show up, and be present with another human with no judgement.

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Trigger Finger

Sometimes I am careless.  And sometimes people get hurt.

In my classes, sometimes we role play different scenarios.  It’s a way to practice language and reactions in a safe space.  At least, I want it to be safe.  We were practicing dismissing a client.  Someone who we knew we were not qualified to serve.  We spent an hour brainstorming different scenarios and deciding what to choose.  Each one of the students self-selected the situation they felt most unsure about so we could practice it in a safe space.

Safe.  Or so I thought.

My student, call her Darla, told us a few days ago that she had suffered from postpartum depression.  She talked about not know what it was at the time and seemed content to share her experience with us all so we could learn.  Her children were both in middle school, and she talked about it as if it was something long resolved.  Here is one spot where I should have payed closer attention.

Our list of challenges included referring out a client with high anxiety issues.  Darla identified this as the scenario she felt most uncomfortable with.   Again, more attention needed, and I didn’t give it.

Darla went last in our practice role plays.  The set up was this: Darla and I acted out the client dismissal while the rest of the class observed, silently.  At the end we would go over what she did well, what needs more practice, and what was missing.  Darla paid close attention to everyone else in the class as they practiced and gave thoughtful feedback, as she always did.

Darla and I sat down face to face.  As someone who has occasional anxiety, and has lots of close friends who suffer from anxiety, it was not hard to inhabit the character of a person with high anxiety.  As we continued our conversation, Darla started bouncing in her chair and glancing all around her like she was looking for the exits.

We continued talking, and her neck started to flush red.  She stammered, started losing her words.  Finally she clenched her hands together, said, “I . .I . .I . .I. .” and just stopped, looking all around her.  I said, “Do you need to stop?” And she nodded, then burst into tears.  She shook and sobbed in her chair, unable to respond to any questions.  I suggested the whole class take a break.

Darla got up from the chair and took a walk, still shaking and sobbing.  Her hands shook and she could barely speak.  She came back after about five minutes and sat down, quietly said that she was fine, she was ready to continue with class.  She was not ready to continue with class.  I apologized to her, she waved her and at me and said, “No, it’s not your fault.”

But it was my fault.  Something in the exercise triggered a clear and very present trauma for her.  There were places where I could have paid more attention and I did not.  My classroom, the place I try to keep safe for students, was the least safe place for her that day.

As we talked about it later, I learned that some of the mannerisms I used in our scenario, drawn directly from my life experience, were also mirrors of her own postpartum experience.  “I guess I haven’t really dealt with it,” she said.

We came back to a place of trust and mutual learning in that class, but the echoes of her distress still haunt me sometimes.  Any day I am feeling not quite present, or inclined to be a bit lazy with my attention to the people in my class, I am reminded of Darla.  The distress that didn’t need to be.  And I remember how important it is to recognize, understand and clear my resistance so I can have my attention were it needs to be.  On the people I serve.  With loving and compassionate focus.

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What Happens If

“What happens if you speak up?” 

An acquaintance recently had reason to ask me this question.  I understood it as a rhetorical question, and I filed it away as soon as I heard it.  We moved on with a conversation about other things, with other questions that needed answers of some kind. 

But then something a little strange happened.  You know how sometimes a song gets stuck in your head, and you have no idea why?  Or maybe you realize it’s because the song is connected with an emotion or a memory that requires your attention?  That started to happen with this question, now in first person. 

What happens if I speak up? 

As I was settling in for sleep, gently clearing my mind and relaxing into bed, this question came into my head.  For a few minutes I was wide awake again, trying to think of times I spoke up, and to remember what happened.  I fell asleep before I could come up with anything significant. 

What happens if I speak up?

The next day, reading a book about a completely different topic, I couldn’t focus on the words any more.  I put the book aside and attended to the question.  It no longer felt rhetorical, and after a little reflection I realized why. 

Somewhere in that original conversation , my acquaintance and I had made a tacit agreement about how we were going to work together.  Upon reflection, I knew the agreement would not work for me.  In no way was I going to get what I needed from our working relationship unless I made perfectly clear what my expectations were. Unless I spoke up. 

Every time I meet a new client, I have a little spiel I give about how I want and need them to speak up if something about their session needs to change.  I try to remind everyone that this is their massage session, and they have the right and the responsibility to ask for what they want.  (I have the corresponding right and responsibility to work within my scope of practice and ethical guidelines.)  Sometimes, people do ask for changes during the session, and I change what ever I can without going outside my training.  Sometimes I read or hear later that they wanted something to change and had a not-so-great experience because they didn’t get what they want. 

And now, with my acquaintance, I was about to have my own not-so-great experience — unless I could manage to speak up.  So I did.  I’m here to tell you, it was not easy.  It almost felt easier to just let it go and accept what was.  The moment between me speaking up and my acquaintance responding contained all the possibilities of a difficult time.  Anything could have happened. 

But, what actually happens? 

Well, in this case at least, I got to feel and be understood and respected.  My experience changed for the better and more effective work is being done.  And I try to make that happen for every client when they speak up too.  If I know about it, I can change it.  Usually for the better. 

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Back in the Classroom

I am thrilled to report that I will soon be teaching again in a general massage therapy program.  I’ve been geeking out with my brand new Pathology textbook, and making my partner smile with my enthusiastic flights about myelin.  I can’t wait.

And yet —

I just completed the piles of new hire paperwork.  It was mostly the usual forms where I write the same information 10 (or more) times over.  This particular stack featured something I’ve never seen before, however.  In the handbook/acknowledgement of campus procedures document, there were extended instructions about what to do in case of an active shooter on campus.  I suppose I should have expected it, especially so soon after the school shooting in Florida.  Even in so-called adult education, it has become a normal part of the standard paperwork that we educate ourselves about how to behave if someone comes to campus and starts shooting.

I refuse to accept that this is anything other than deeply weird and ultimately unacceptable.  My office, and my classroom, need to be safe places where clients and students can explore and discover and learn.  My whole profession is about the opposite of bodily harm, and I resent that I have to think about and be prepared for it as a real possibility.  Because it is a real possibility.

I am watching the survivors of the shooting in Florida, and other young people across the country, speak out and try to change the world, and I am watching as the solutions they are offered only point to a more heavily armed society.  I am seeing these traumatized children ask lawmakers to protect them, to help them feel safe enough to learn, and I am seeing some lawmakers and others respond by offering them even more fear.  Arm the teachers.  Buy bulletproof backpacks.  I am having trouble finding conversations focused on creating a safe, vibrant, inclusive learning environment.

Except for the conversations generated and continued by the students in Florida and by other young people.  They seem pretty clear about what they want.  They want to learn without fearing for their lives.  They want the lawmakers of this country to value children’s lives more than they value their interpretation of the second amendment.  This seems reasonable and fair to me.

I’m going to start teaching again in a few weeks, and I am thrilled, excited, ready to learn from and with students again.  And I am now aware, if I wasn’t before, how deeply important it is to create a safe space for my students.  This was always important, but now — now it’s life and death.

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High Maintenance

There is a meme floating around that invites you to score how “high maintenance” you are.  It lists a number of different personal care activities and gives each one a points value.  For example: regular pedicures are something like 5 points. 

Cute, right?  Harmless fun? 

Actually, no.  When I thought about this cute little nothing test, it occurred to me that the implied value system was anything but harmless. 

Let’s start with the list itself.  When you look carefully, or even more-than-glancingly, at all the items on the list, you see that they all have one very important thing in common.  they are all stereotypical “female” activities.  Not even actual female activities, like getting a pap smear.  They are socially ordained female activities.  (All except one, but I’ll get to that later.) Applying makeup.  Having your nails done.  Shopping.  Wearing high heels.  There is a whole lot of forced gender normativity in that little list.  All these stereotypically female activities somehow contribute to how difficult a person you are to be around.  So, somehow, we are supposed to navigate the expectation that, as women, we must somehow want to do these things along with the sanction against being “high maintenance.” 

Look at that, another Scylla and Charybdis for the ladies. 

The thing that gets me the most though, is this line: “Gets massages regularly — 10 points.”  So, one of the highest point values is assigned to massage.  Meaning, that getting regular massage is one of the most high maintenance things you can do.  Aside from this irritating me as a massage therapist, this strikes me as an extension of a dangerous assumption women are encouraged to make:  the assumption that time spent on their own care is time somehow wasted.  Or, by extension, that time for self-care takes time away from others who need this woman’s time.  (Spouse, parents, children, co-workers, literally anyone) 

This is why I had this recent, far-from-unusual, client experience: a woman in her late 50s came in for her first ever massage.  She was fit, active, and engaged in her community.  She lived a good life, full of love and fulfillment.  She loved her partner, her children, her job.  And yet — at the end of a massage, she walked out with tears in her eyes, and embraced me, crying into my shoulder.  She told me she had never felt so cared for;  she didn’t know she could even experience that.  All that stuff about her wonderful life was absolutely true.  And so were her tears as this new layer of honoring herself was opened up to her. 

So, no, I don’t find it cute or harmless when memes like this go around.  Not as long as any human in the world denies themselves a moment of compassion and care because of social expectations. 

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Predicting the Future

I am in the process of moving, so I have the pleasure of distracting myself by looking through my old journals.  Here is something I wrote in my business journal in August, 2014:

My Typical Day

I wake up before my 7am alarm.  I have three clients scheduled today, starting at 11am.  I go to some wooded trail or path near water and I run.  I meet my partner at some outdoor space.  We stretch together and then have leisurely coffee/breakfast.  I go to my practice and work with my clients.  I dance, either practice at home or in class.  I go to a coffee shop to write or I spend time teaching a class/workshop either about oncology massage or how to get in touch with your creativity.  I meet a friend or my partner for dinner.  We eat outdoors and enjoy a good conversation and fresh food with lots of vegetables–something we made together.  There is loving touch.  I go to sleep early in a quiet room with windows open to clean air and blinds that will let in the first bits of morning.

I wrote that paragraph in response to an exercise in Be a Free Range Human by Marianne Cantwell.  As I re-read it, I felt a growing rush of excitement.  My life now is getting ever closer to my imagined description of that day.  Until I found that paragraph this morning, I completely forgot that I had ever written it.  It probably left my mind within a week of writing it.  At that time, I was just setting up my first private practice, still managing grief from a recent divorce, and basically using the “just keep moving” approach to life. 

For a while now, I have been able to deliberately plan and direct my life.  I have had the good fortune to make decisions based on reflection and deep thought, rather than panic or fear.  Finding this paragraph feels like confirmation.  Confirmation that there is an enduring thread of intention in my life.  Sometimes I don’t see it, but it is there.  When I can take the time to find quiet, and tune in to the things that feed me,  I know I am following that thread.

Of course I don’t predict the future.  And there are still days when I barely experience the present.  Then I find little clues like this that remind me — it’s only chaos if I’m not paying attention. 

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Emily and the Solitary Life

It is morning, just after the sunrise.  I have washed all the dishes and cleaned the kitchen counter after a healthy breakfast.  I am sitting here with my mug of turmeric and ginger tea, watching the steam rise as it cools.  I am alone, and perfectly content.  In the quiet, I am thinking of Emily Dickinson.

Like any enduring writer’s work, I come back to Emily Dickinson at different seasons and find different and new things, not because her work is different, but because I am.  I first became enamored of her work when I was a proto-adult, just entering college.  For me at that time, she represented a kind of rebellious nihilism.  I dreamt of having the strength and courage to reject conventionality the way she did.

As I matured and started to take on and understand subtlety, and the often contradictory nature of our human souls, I understood Emily more as a tortured soul, who wanted human connection and love but lacked the emotional skill to handle it.

Recently, I have come back to an active appreciation of her work after several years of benign neglect.  A growing relationship with my partner sparked the renewed interest, and now I feel like I can finally separate the poems from the life more effectively.  To understand the life that informed the poetry without letting that life overshadow the work.

As many of us do with artists we admire, I felt a little bit of a kinship with Emily Dickinson.  This woman felt deeply and possibly had limited ways to express herself in her time, so she wrote pages and pages of letters and poems.  I am entering a period of exploration and growth into the last half of my life, and I am sensing the truth of the paradox:  in order to connect more deeply with other humans, I need to guard well my solitude.

And here is where, in my more mature understanding of the life of Emily Dickinson, I can see that our paths diverge.  For me, the solitude serves to remind me what is important and necessary about human connection so that I can go out and nurture the relationships that are important and necessary.  In my solitude, I know what it is I need to bring forth, and in my relationships, I find people who help me in that task.

In my current season of Emily Dickinson, I am reading more of her letters to her sister-in-law than her poetry, and thinking about the depth of their friendship.  It is significant to me that even in her iconic solitary life, Emily cultivated and nurtured such a bond.  From a place of solitude, she still engaged in deep human connection.

The sun is all the way up now, and from where I sit, the light lays directly across my face.  I have finished my mug of tea, and nearly finished my writing for this morning.  I have clients in a couple of hours, so I know I need to get up and enter into the world of people.  And I know I can do that with grace, because of this morning’s deep, satisfying solitude.