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.

Inner World, massage education, Massage Tales, Thoughts on the profession

How Did I Get Here: Part 1

Next year will be my ten-year anniversary as a massage therapist.  Massage therapy is about my fifth career so far.  I’m happy to walk you through the other four (or so), but not right now.  Today I’m thinking about how I got here, to this career, the one that has lasted the longest.

About a decade ago, I worked as a marketing assistant at a big, fancy retirement community.  My job involved supporting the sales team, helping with events, and sometimes helping new residents move in.  For some new residents, I went to their homes and helped them measure out their new apartment and what could fit into the space.  I bent down to count outlets and find the exact placement of cable jacks in their new space.  This all happened in between doing all the office and administrative support work that was part of my job.

My favorite parts of my job were these moments working directly with the new residents.  I remember one day, I stayed in a new resident’s apartment to direct the movers while she took care of things at her old home.  She had a beloved Turkish rug cleaned and delivered to the apartment first thing in the morning.  I pulled the rug into the apartment and unrolled it in her bedroom, delighted to find that it fit the room exactly.  While I straightened the rug and checked it, I called her to let her know it fit.  I heard her smile through the phone.

The rest of that afternoon, I sat at my desk running marketing reports and updating our database.  It was mind-numbing.  When I couldn’t take it anymore, I left the Sales Office to go take a walk around the community.  I pretended to check on all the common spaces since we had an event later in the week.  Near the large community room, I ran into Mrs. G, who I helped move in about a month before.

“I met some lovely women at lunch today,” she said.  “They were also your chickens.”  Mrs. G called herself, and everyone whose move I assisted, my “chickens.”  Slightly agitated, somewhat befuddled but carefully tended, and definitely well-loved.  The metaphor made me smile.

agriculture animal baby beak
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The job, I realized, as I walked down the hall, did not.  The best parts of my day were the moments were I got to work directly with the residents in some way, to be of service.  I wanted something that involved direct care.  I circled past the nurses’ office and considered becoming a nurse, then realized that the nurse had strict, short time constraints on most visits.

I wanted something where I could spend more time.  As I walked back towards the Sales Office I remembered an idea from a long time ago — massage therapy.  Direct care.  Lots of time.  Being of service.  It felt perfect.

So, that is how I first started looking into massage schools — 12 years after I first had the idea of becoming a massage therapist.  But that’s a story for another time.

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, Oncology Massage, Thoughts on the profession

Don’t Rush the Intake

I have unusual leisure in my practice — I can usually take as long as I feel necessary for an initial intake.  Despite the added stress of being in business for myself, this leisure is one of the things that makes it all worth while.  Here’s a story about that.   All client details have been changed.

My new client arrived late.  She had trouble finding the building, then had to circle around a few times to find parking.  She walked in already a bit anxious because of the time, and because it was her first massage.  I left her in the quiet of the waiting area to finish the health history form and assured her there would be time for most of the scheduled session.

She handed back her completed form, and we began our conversation.  I took my time, making sure to ask about everything she had marked on the form.  After I felt sure that I understood her health history, I told her what to expect during the massage:  how to get onto the table, what parts of her body I would touch and in what order, how draping worked, etc.

She smiled and nodded through this whole explanation.  As I finished she said, “That all sounds so good.”  She paused. “I want you to know, though, that when you get to the front part of my legs I might tense up a little,” she raised her shoulders and tensed her arms, then released them, “See, I’ve been sexually assaulted and I just might be a little nervous.”  She had a friendly smile on her face and tears in her eyes.

I settled further down into my seat.  We had more conversation about how she was in charge of the massage, and that she could tell me at any time to change or stop what I was doing.  “You get to direct how and where you are touched,” I told her.

If I had to rush the intake, I might have missed this vital fact about how she experienced her own body.  I certainly would have missed the chance to reinforce for her that she has dominion over her own body.  I might have never been able to build enough trust with this other human that she revealed her own fears to me.

person holding hand
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She arrived late, and the intake took longer than “normal.”  In that extra time, she was able to trust me a little more and reveal something vitally important.  This helped me approach her with more compassion and awareness.  She emerged from the massage smiling wide.  She thanked me and gave me a hug, and made an appointment to come back again.  This never would have happened if I rushed the intake.

Massage Tales, Thoughts on the profession

A Time to Massage

There are certain professions that may never allow for a decent vacation.  Not in the way I think of a decent vacation, anyway.  I think of vacation as a time to shed my working self and relax into a liminal space of almost no identity.  Outside the environment where I am known and perhaps categorized, I can sink into whatever are the essential bits of me.  And for me, those essential bits involve lots of long, solitary walks and reading while absorbing views of nature. 

Eventually, though, I do enjoy a bit of human interaction.  Soon into most human interaction, we come upon that standard American getting-to-know-you question, What do you do?  Meaning, what is your job?  Or possibly, how do you make the money you needed to be on this vacation? 

I don’t mind that question.  I love what I “do,” and consider it one of the things that informs my whole life.  I try to be of service to people in this very particular way — I am a massage therapist.  (Of course, when I answer the question, it is usually shortened to “I am a massage therapist.”  Like “how are you,” the what do you do question is one that requires a superficial answer in most cases.) 

When I was a newer therapist, I kind of enjoyed it when people would suggest that maybe I ply my trade to pay for this vacation, or when they started turning their aching shoulders or necks in my direction.  In my ignorance, I thought that maybe I could help all kinds of people, and, let’s be honest, I enjoyed the attention.

Very soon, the attention grew wearying.  I suppose it’s something akin to when doctors or other medical professionals go on vacation and find themselves being asked to diagnose every rash or sniffle or odd lump they come across.  It is a much smaller scale for me, but it is still an intrusion.  I love what I do for work, almost along the lines of a vocation, yet it is still not the full measure of my life.

And when I’m on vacation, I’m there to very definitely do something other than my work.

I struggled for a long time with how to politely and definitively steer away from the “my shoulder is sore, what is that?” conversations.  Walking away was never an option for me.  Nodding and smiling and speculating felt wrong.  This year, I decided to try something revolutionary, radical and life-changing — to simply say the truth.

Here’s how it goes:

“What do you do?”

“I’m a massage therapist.”

“Ooo!  I love massages!  You could pay for your vacation doing shoulder rubs, I bet.”

Smile.  “I’m here to rest.”

Or to write.  Or to see the whales.  Whatever.  The point is, there is a time to massage and a time to do other things.  I discovered I can very simply point out that this is the time to do other things.

person holding green cactus on pot
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The time to massage is listed on my schedule, and you can claim your time there.  Meanwhile, I am sitting on the porch at my mother’s house, looking out at her luscious garden, about to put on my gloves and get to work.  I’m here to pull weeds.

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.

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