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.

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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
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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.

massage education, Thoughts on the profession

Job Description

The question that often follows “How long have you been doing this?” is: “How do you like this work?”  The answer is pretty easy.  I love it.

I’ve tried several other careers and even done well in a few, yet none of them held my heart and my interest like massage therapy.  This particular work is, for me, a fantastic blend of several different jobs.  I am a massage therapist, which means I am:

A Scientist

It started in school where I did a deep dive into the anatomy of the muscular system, and started on the path to learn more about Anatomy, Physiology, and Pathology.  It continues now as I try to connect everything I do with some understanding of the working of the human body, and with information from the latest research I have been reading.  It is my job to be curious, to ask questions and to continue learning and discovering.

A Tradesperson

I learned a skill that I perform with my hands.  After my period of learning and apprenticeship (at the student clinic) I started practicing this skill and I work every day to further perfect and advance my skills.  I have apprentices (students) of my own now, and as I am guiding them through how to work with their hands, I am finding better ways to work with my own.

An Educator

Given the chance and the interest, I will talk to every client about what I notice and what that could mean for their particular body.  I will also take the time to talk through what massage might be able to address and what might need a different kind of support.

A Student

As I said to a client this week, I may be the “expert” in the room on muscles and soft tissue, but each client is the expert on their body.  I am here to learn from them.

An Artist

person with body painting
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Every human, every human body, is unique.  Every day and space that body moves in is unique, so every time a person walks into my office it is the time to create something that never existed before.  Massage does not, for me, happen by formula.  It happens by being completely present in the moment so I can make something new that will never happen the same way again.

I have the opportunity to be all of these things, and sometimes more besides.  This week some asked me, “Have you always been a massage therapist?”  I’ve had lots of occupations, and this is the one that lasts because it pulls in all of those jobs.  It asks the most of myself and give the greatest rewards.

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.

close up of an envelope
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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 education, Thoughts on the profession

There’s a Week for That

Did you know there’s a thing called Teacher Appreciation Week?  I had no idea until a little into my second year of teaching at a massage school in Chicago.  When I discovered it, I also discovered what my students really thought about me.  It was surprising, eye-opening, unforgettable.

When I arrived for my evening classes, many students stood clustered around a long table in the hallway of the school.  Some bent over, awkwardly cradling books, bags and papers in one arm while they wrote on something with the other arm.  I made a minimal-detour beeline for my classroom, as I typically did, and figured there was some kind of group interview or job fair coming up.  And here is where I admit that I am that guy — I check email selectively, particularly email that is very specific to one of my jobs.  If the subject line or the preview does not seem to be directly related to my job (in this case, to my students or the classes I was teaching), then I delete it right away.  I am that guy who asks stupid questions, like, “What’s with all the birthday cakes in the lounge?” or, “Why are there a bunch of students clustered around a long table in the hallway?”

It was, as a colleague told me, Teacher Appreciation Week.  On top of that table were cards, one for each instructor.  Students got to write whatever they wished to whomever they wished, and at the end of the week, the cards appeared in our mailboxes, complete with messages.  I picked mine up at the end of a day and read it on the train home. I was shocked.

I teach because I love it, and because, some days, I’m pretty good at it.  I’ve written about it here, and I hope it comes through that I feel a pretty strong responsibility to the students who end up in my class.  I try to start each new class with two assumptions:  we are adults, and we are able to learn.  My job is to create the right circumstances for learning and discovery to happen.  Some days are better then others.  Some groups are easier than others.

pexels-photo-887353.jpegRight there, though, on the card in front of me, was the written proof that somehow these students learned lasting and special lessons that maybe had nothing to do with myelin or the pathologies of the cardiovascular system.  Their messages ranged from the simple “Thank you,” to heartfelt words about some specific thing I had forgotten that I did or said to them.  One class, small in number but strong in personality, took a whole extra sheet of paper to illustrate and label one of their favorite (?) in-class activities.  (I laugh-snorted at that one, and other people on the train gave me lots of room.)  I had no idea that so many things were sinking in, coming through, and being remembered.  Of course it touched and moved me just as any true sign of appreciation and gratitude touches and moves any human.

I still have that card.  I pull it out on days when I am not sure if I have this whole life thing down yet.  And that is my enduring gratitude back to everyone who wrote on that card, even if it was a quick, perfunctory “Thank you.”  To all of those former students — I thank you.  You held me up in ways that you don’t even know.

And if you are thinking of someone, feeling grateful for any little thing, wondering if it would be weird to send a quick message of thanks, let me know:  it’s not weird.  It’s beautiful.  Do it.

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