Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Just a Minute

The natural foods store has a new employee.  He is clearly of retirement age, which isn't so unusual.  This is one of the things I love about local businesses -- that they often hire people who might not be the "expected" employee of their kind of business.

I went into the store on what was, I think, his second or third day of work.  Long enough to be left alone to do his tasks, not long enough that he was entirely comfortable or efficient with them.  He happened to be working at the register that day.  As I was shopping, I noticed how he would take his time doing his job, carefully making sure everything was accurate, and taking a moment to actually talk to the people coming through his line.  He said "How are you" in a way that invited a true answer and a conversation, not in that dismissive, I've-done-my-duty way that most people say it.   He took a little longer than most of the other cashiers, and he tried to make a true and real connection with every person who came through his line.  Being the way many of us humans are when we get all task focused, some of the people who went through his line did not appreciate his friendliness.  While everyone was polite on the surface, there was often an air of "just get it done so I can get out of here" subtext.  I will admit that I was feeling particularly task-focused that day, so I kind of dreaded taking my few things to the register.  It took a conscious effort to make eye contact and smile back, but I did it.

About a week later, I set up my massage chair at the same store to raise money for a local charity.  He was working that day as well.  From my spot, I could see all the registers.  I could practically see the whole store, but the point is that I could see him working.  He had the same manner, the same friendliness, and the same speed as he did the first day I saw him.  He was still clearly learning the job, and still taking pleasure in starting a conversation with every person who came through his line.

I stayed for a couple of hours, met and massaged a few people, and raised some money.  I packed up to leave and decided to pick up a few things while I was there.  I got my items and went to his checkout line.  He asked me, as he did everyone else, "How's your day?"  He commented on my chair and talked about how he loved to get massages.  So I chatted a bit, then I asked him how his day was going.  And I really meant it.  I wanted to hear.  He told me that every day was a good day, every day he was standing upright was a good day.  I must have looked a little quizzical, because he went on to tell me he had three open heart surgeries in the past couple of years, so he was grateful for every single day.  I smiled, we shook hands, and I went on my way.

It was a gorgeous afternoon, lovely bright sun slanting across the trees with their remaining leaves.  Warm enough to walk outside, cool enough to sit close to someone.  I started my drive home through the park -- the long way -- so i could enjoy a bit more of the day.  About five minutes into the drive, it hit me:


Open heart surgeries.

Three of them.

Three times, this man had his body invaded and literally broken open to try and fix something.  Three times, he had fallen asleep with the very real and probable idea that he would not wake up again.  Twice he had done this and gone through recovery and maybe thought he would never have to do it again, but he did.

And here, on the other side, here he was working at a natural foods store and trying to make connections with people who mostly just wanted to finish their tasks.  Here, I thought, was a man who learned the very hard way how important it is to wait.  Just a minute. And see the person in front of you.

And this is another thing I love about local businesses.  Because they hire from outside the "norm," every visit is the potential to learn something valuable.  If you wait.  Just a minute.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

To Be Seen

Quick survey question:  How many articles have you seen on your social media feed asking some version of this question: How do I relationship?

My answer is well into the double digits.  It's a good question, and, I'm worried, one we are getting worse at answering as we retreat further away from collaborative living.

What I mean by collaborative living is this -- living in such a way that we spend more time talking to people in front of our faces, where we use more voices, hands and facial expressions than emojis.  But even more than that, living in such a way that we know our neighbors and we know the people who own the businesses in our area.  Shopping locally, caring about the whole street where we live and not just the portion surrounding our possessions.

Lots of people write more informed words on this topic than I do.  Today I am thinking about just one aspect of it that interests me.  I am worried that we are losing the skill of being seen.   I am talking very deliberately in the passive voice.  It is not so much our ability to see and know other people that I've been thinking about, but our own ability to let ourselves be seen and known.

Our online lives are carefully curated, often by well-meaning but careless gatekeepers.  I mean, of course, ourselves.  We choose what to share and show and how to frame it.  In doing so, we necessarily exclude a large portion of our reality.  We tell ourselves this is because not everything we are is for everyone to know.  And we are right, but we are also losing a valuable skill.  The skill of letting someone see.

There are truths about myself that I don't like.  But they are true, and they are pieces of all that goes into myself.  Recently, I have had the great honor to meet friends who really want to see all of my pieces, and I am realizing I don't know how to do that.  I mean, I can open up, I can show the whole picture, but I fear I have lost the knack of handling their reaction, of not taking personally those things which are not personal.  And someone else's reaction to things about me that are true -- those are not mine to take personally.

I see this often with some of my clients.  Even though I work with soft tissues, everyone brings their whole self into the room, and their emotional, spiritual and intellectual truths sometimes come out through the movement of their bodies.  If I see someone often enough, I can start to see the changes in their lives just in their gait or facial expression.  It's not magic.  It's observation, something I've practiced for as long as I've been practicing massage.  I'm not in the habit of commenting on it, but I am in the habit of seeing.  Because of this, I have been fortunate enough to see how powerful it can be for a person when someone just sees.

Quick story:  At the last place I practiced, I had a client I saw every week for a few years.*  With that kind of continuity, you start to learn a bit about each other's lives, and you start to notice things.  She had what most of us would call a good life -- lots of love and friendship and fulfilling work.  She was (and remains) a seeker -- of truth and wisdom.  Sometimes this caused her some anxiety, especially as the world seemed o grow less compassionate in general.  Most weeks, her massage was "easy."  She had no chronic pain or injury, and she did not like aggressive work.  It was a gentle hour of meditation for both of us. 

One day she came in and she was different.  I only knew because I had known her for so long.  She spoke less and in a flatter tone.  She moved slower.  Her whole demeanor seemed heavy to me.   She asked for the same kind of work, and I did a similar massage.  I felt like I moved slower and stayed still more often in response to her own heaviness.  After the massage, she asked for some water and I brought it to her.  We sat in silence in my office for a moment, breathing together.  I made eye contact with her.

"Today is hard," I said. 

She looked startled for a moment, then she dropped her head and nodded.  In a few seconds I realized she was crying.  I walked over to her and gave her a hug.  We sat and held each other for a moment while she let all her tears happen.  When she was done crying, she thanked me, nodded, and walked out.  Not completely released, but a little more quickly and a little lighter than when she walked in. 

I don't know what made that day hard for her.  That's not the point.  The point is that she was seen, and it gave her space to cry.  I believe and hope she felt that space was safe and welcoming. 

In my own life, I have much to learn about being seen and living in my truth.  I'm starting by recommitting to daily creativity, to reconnecting to my first love (writing) and trying to find again that love of how words go.   I am also trying to risk putting more writing out in the world where anyone can find it -- can see.

And I am also recommitting to my massage practice.  While it has been a good choice to move back home, it has also been (and continues to be) terrifying, which makes it harder for me to be truthful about the kind of work I do and the kind of work I excel at.  Fortunately for me, those two things are pretty much the same. The impulse in a new(ish) home with a new practice to build is to take on all clients.  To fill my books by any means necessary.  This would, I know, exhaust my spirit.  And with an exhausted spirit, I will forget how to see, and I will never learn to be seen. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Integrity and Feminine and Masculine

A friend of mine recently sent me a link to this blog post by Kendra Cunov and asked about my thoughts.  In it, Kendra talks about the concept of integrity, and what she perceives as the differing masculine and feminine definitions of it.  

I struggle with some of the same things she seems to be struggling with -- the whole concept of masculine and feminine qualities and how those are perceived in different aspects of my life.  Especially in business, where reward seems to go to those things labeled as "masculine," which are inherently false to my nature.  

For me, though, it is a problem of language and false categories.  We have only these two words to categorize, and they bring with them all the history of politics and inequitable social structures that has nothing to do with our truest humanity.  

My initial reaction to her post, though, was about the word integrity.  And her definitions of "masculine" and "feminine" integrity which follow.  My understanding of the definition of integrity has to do with being true to one's own internal moral compass, which intersects with, but is different than, "doing what you say you're going to do.” (Her description of society’s definition of masculine integrity.)   But what she fails to point out is that society has the definition of integrity wrong.  (Yes, I looked it up.)  Here are the official definitions of integrity:

  1. the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.  
  2. the state of being whole and undivided.

If I am understanding her correctly, she almost seems take the first definition of integrity as the masculine and the second as the feminine.  I find this limiting.  

I really connected with her concept of finding one’s range as opposed to finding balance.  To me, the definitions of integrity relate more to her idea about finding the range in our masculine and feminine qualities.  I think she is exactly right when she says that balance doesn’t really exist.  

I feel this in my body as I am exploring different dance forms.  In one form, balance means a strong, wide stance with a strong downward feeling.  In another, it means a lightness and a strong upward feel.  And in a third, it means the moment where you find the just-before-falling place and embrace the awkwardness of that feeling.  So in these dance forms, we aren’t talking about balance so much as we are talking about the set point which suits the dance’s aesthetic.  The photographable moment that would make almost anyone recognize, “Ah, this is a (insert style here) dancer.”  

The blog post has me thinking more about how I talk to my massage clients about balance.  I talk about someone’s muscles feeling balanced, about balancing time for self care with the rest of life, about the way our head balances on the spine.  But am I really talking about balance as a n achievable end point, or am I talking about a way of moving through the world with a strong sense of yourself, physical, emotional and spiritual?  I am thinking that I need to repackage every one of these “balance moments” in the service of what I really want for my clients — for them to take charge of their own wellness in their own way.   

The first thing I want for all of us, or at least one of the first things, is to find a way beyond the limiting idea of masculine and feminine qualities.  I want to lead us all first to an agreement that qualities are just qualities.  They are not commentary on how we inhabit our gender.  Of course I know that masculine and feminine are the constructs and not the gender.  In this country, though, the parallels are so close that it’s hard to separate.  For example, I have a firm handshake.  I also have long hair and I like to wear skirts and jewelry.  So, for some, my firm handshake (masculine) seems incongruous with my appearance (feminine.)  This makes no sense to me.  I’m a massage therapist.  I have strong hands.  I’m not trying to project masculinity, I’m just trying to let someone know I’m glad to meet them.  

We are still humans, though, and as such we find comfort in categories.  We seek structure as a way to understand our world.  Realistically, I don’t see this masculine/feminine coding of behaviors ending in my lifetime.  But, circling back to Kendra’s post, if we live in integrity, the real, unassigned definition of integrity, I think we can at least start down that road. If we start by being honest, and continue by striving to be whole, what need to we have to categorize the behaviors that are part of our humanity?  

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


I have been trying to come up with a topic for a blog post.  I just opened my post list on the off chance that I would find a draft of something that I could finish up.  As luck would have it, I found a draft with the title, "Momentum."

How perfect is that? I clicked on it, ready to catch some momentum.

It was a completely blank page.

I consider writing something I do, always, no matter what profession I write down on my tax form every year.  True, I spend most of my week practicing massage therapy (and loving it.)  I also spend part of my week writing about the practice of massage therapy.  I love the results of the writing.  The practice of writing itself is sometimes deflating.

See, in a massage, clients provide immediate feedback (conscious or not) and it's pretty easy to edit on the fly.  There is a certain way muscle tissue feels when the way you massage it is working.  And when it is not.  I've been doing this long enough that I have a whole repertoire of different ways to approach massage.

The thing is, though, I've been writing for way longer than I've been doing massage.  I decided at age 8, when I wrote my first short story, that writing was for me.  I wrote pages and pages in my messy print, then in my messy cursive, then on my typewriter, my word processor, my computer and my laptop.  I have explored language from so many angles and so many voices that I couldn't even count them.

The difference, I am figuring out, is the editor.  Writing happens in my head.  This gives space and voice to my internal editor, commenting on and testing every sentence even as I am thinking it.  I end up trying to revise as I am writing, which just ends up slowing everything down.  Have you ever accidentally started driving your car while the parking brake is still on?  It's like that.  Forward, but slowly.  And eventually everything shuts down.

Massage, though, is a physical profession.  Of course I am thinking a lot while I work.  Remembering my intake conversation with this person, processing what I feel in the tissues through my knowledge and training, keeping track of time and how much more there is to do in the time we have.  This happens around and above the actual work, though.  The actual work involves touch and movement.  Physical movement and physical response.  There is nowhere for the editor to speak.

Ever since I started writing at the age of 8, I've been exploring ideas about creativity, trying different things to cultivate and build it.  Since I started dancing about four years ago, I am seeing more and more connections between just natural movement in the body and the ability to be creative within a structure.  (Whether that structure is words, a canvas or a choreography doesn't seem to matter.)

All of this is coming together for me this year, as I am continuing my dance training and reading more about the process of improvisation.  Using some exercises and concepts from my most recent dance intensive, I finally put together a workshop using movement and writing (or drawing) exercises to explore and encourage creativity.  Shadowdance (as I'm calling it,) gets it's first run this December in Louisville.  In the days leading up to, I am writing more, listening to the editor less, and dancing daily.  Come out and join me if you can.  Let's build some momentum.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

No Object

Her latest scan shows no change in the tumor.*  Not bigger.  Not smaller.  For her oncologist, this means the chemo she is currently taking is not working.  She asked him what could be done.  He started off by saying: "Well, if money were no object . . ."

<insert record screeching noise here>

A client told me this story.  When she got to the part about "if money were no object," I felt my jaw tense a little.  Because here's the thing about medical care in general, and cancer in particular: money is an object.  For many people, money is more than an object.  It is a freaking pink elephant.  Cancer is expensive, even with the best insurance.  Check out this chart from the NIH for some 2010 numbers.

I had no idea how to react to this story as my client was telling it.  Especially because I knew very specifically that money was quite the object for her and for her family.  She never talked about it directly, but from things she said, I knew they had used all of their reserves to even seek treatment at this place, far away from her home town.  I also knew that she wanted to live.  She wanted it so much she hardly even fought for it. It was something so fiercely desired that it could be nothing other than true.  Of course the treatment would work.  Of course she could go back to her active, outdoorsy lifestyle with her family.  There was simply no other option.

And yet.  The chemo was not working in the way it should.  Curing was not happening.  And the next option, the experimental option, was even more expensive.  The doctor, I think, was trying to prepare her for that decision so many people before her had to make:  your money or your life.

That is much too simple, of course.  It was the much more subtle decision about how much hope she had left, and how much of it she was willing to mortgage against the money she would have to raise, who knows how.  It was the decision about a future where financial struggle for her family was inevitable, but her presence with them was not.  It was the decision about how much room she had left in her body, mind and spirit for more physical suffering with this new treatment.

Her oncologist wanted to acknowledge her financial reality along with her medical reality.  It sounded uncaring to me when she told me the story, but I think she understood.  She told me this story with not a hint of indignity or frustration.  She told it to me as a practical assessment of the Way Things Stood.  My indignity at it all simply was not a part of her world.  So I let it go.  Mostly.

I will forever be indignant that money is an object when it comes to taking care of another human being.  Cancer is a natural process -- one gone haywire, but natural nonetheless.  It does not discriminate.  We do, in the care we make possible based on income, insurance and geography.  I don't have the answer.  I just want to hear us talk more openly to each other about the questions.

And my client?  For her, she made the only possible choice.  She took the experimental treatment.  As of this writing, there has been a small reduction in the size of her tumor.  Not what they hoped for, but a reduction nonetheless.  Prognosis still to be determined.

*--names and identifying details have been changed

Monday, October 30, 2017

Before I Die

The wall pictured above is in downtown Louisville.  On a chalkboard wall, you are invited to complete the sentence: "Before I die, I want to . ."  Like many pieces of art that invite public participation, the responses are sometimes poignant, sometimes ridiculous, but never boring.  There, for all the world to see, is a chance to express your hidden longing.  For a time, at least. 

It is often a few weeks between times when I walk past this wall, and often I notice that it has been erased and re-filled with brand new answers.  This startled me at first.  I came back to the wall expecting to see the little words that I had written on my first (or second?) day in my new hometown still written there.  But my words were gone.  Filled in by a new longing from some other human. 

I think, write, and often live in metaphors.  So this, too, quickly became a metaphor for me.  This wall, this sturdy and permanent-seeming installation is actually a daily exercise of impermanence.  You write your desires in chalk, that fragile medium that can be easily wiped away with any hand or washed off with the slightest rain.  The idea itself invites us to acknowledge impermanence.  Before I die.  Before.  Meaning that time may seem long, but it is not endless.  There is a precious window where we get to express and exercise our desires and ambitions.  Do it now. 

This metaphor completely changed my experience of seeing my words disappear.  It made my own longing more real, more precious, and more likely something I would act towards.  The inevitable end makes me want to be and do more in the present moment.  So, ultimately, for me, chalk was the perfect medium to express myself.  Before I die, I want to  . . .

I am fortunate to be in this place and to know people who are thinking about the end of life in a very deliberative way.  In just a few days, there is the opportunity to think and talk about what we value and how to express that by making our plans for the end.  The Before I Die Festival Symposium is November 4th.  I'll be there, uncovering my hopes and desires for the inevitable end.  Join me?

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Science of Small Movements

It happens pretty often.  I see a new client.  We have a thorough conversation, I work with them for an hour or so.  Then, they come out of the massage, slightly groggy and say some version of the following:
"That was  . . . different." 

Sometimes it's positive, sometimes it is less so.  It is this expression that the way I work is not exactly what they have expected or experienced.  I'm okay with that -- even when it is not meant positively.  Not everyone is my client. 

Massage blends science with art and creativity, so all therapists work differently, and our styles are built from our training, our practice and our temperament.  I generally stumble when I try to describe how I work.  What comes out is some kind of word salad of "myofascial," "slow movements," and "gentle." 

This week, however, a new client gave me the perfect phrase.  They called my massage "the science of small movements."  this client was trying to describe how it didn't feel like there was much doing of stuff during the massage, but there was a tiny adjustment that allowed them to breathe in a way they hadn't felt for a while.  I told my client that I was going to steal that phrase (like an artist,) and here we are.

The science of small movements.  That phrase brings together a lot of they physical work I have been doing lately, in my profession and in my other creative pursuits.  The barest pressure on the exact correct spot in a muscle to allow it to release and let go on its own -- allowing the body to do what it wants to do and be well.  The smallest shift in position or facial expression to add highlight to a dance.  The slightest shift of shoulders that relaxes the whole body and makes running effortless. 

I am chafing against the idea of doing big things, having big plans, making big differences.  I feel more at home in this science of small movements.  To go back to being the small stone that makes the first ripple, the butterfly's wing that shifts the air.  This feels more sustainable to me.  I can wake up every morning and think about changing the world, then eventually get overwhelmed and paralyzed by the enormity of what needs to change -- Or, I can wake up and think of small movements, something to start a chain reaction or to keep an existing reaction in motion. 

These days, I'm thinking small.