Friday, February 23, 2018

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.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

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. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

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. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

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.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Just Be Nice

There is a loop in a park here where one half of the road is set aside for walkers, runners and other humans not in cars.  The other half of the road is for cars, so it is a one-way drive around the loop.  It's a lovely walk or run through one of my favorite parks, so I go there as often as possible.  Here is what happened the other day:

I was walking around the 2 1/2 mile loop, and since it was a warm day after about a week of deep freeze, so were lots of other people.  Shortly ahead of me was a guy who was going for a run.  He slowed down towards the top of one of the long hills on the loop, so I caught up within a few feet of him.  This was near a parking area.  One car pulled out of the parking area and started to slowly drive on the side of the road meant for walkers/runners and whatnot -- as if this was still a two-lane, two way road.  The man ahead of me scooted out of the way.  he made a rude gesture at the car and glared at the driver as she slowly rolled past him.

As I walked up to the car, the woman in the passenger seat rolled down the window and asked, "Excuse me ma'am, is this a one way street?"

I said, "Yes.  It is."

The woman thanked me warmly, and the car slowly turned to the right direction as I continued to walk.  When the car passed me again, going the correct way this time, she thanked me again and waved.

Just another random encounter, but I kept thinking about it.  Finally I think I understand why.  This small moment, this seemingly throwaway encounter, illustrates in microcosm a larger problem which we see the results of every day.  This problem of our divisions, and the cruelties (small and large) we inflict on each other because of them. 

Kentucky is a largely rural state, with a few larger cities.  I live in the largest metropolitan area of the state.  I have heard it called the "blue bubble in a red sea."  This one small moment in the park illustrated, for me, the ways we fail to understand each other and therefore miss opportunities to really communicate. 

The people in the car were visiting the city.  The county on their license plate was one in the eastern corner of the state, in the mountains.  The man who was running saw them only as an annoyance, an obstacle to his pursuits.  What I did was not especially kind or unique.  I will admit I was a little annoyed at first too.  It only took a moment of openness to answer a question, human to human.  At the time, I felt a little embarrassed by what I saw as the woman's excessive thanks.  Later, it made me wonder if their "city" experience had been so full of harshness that a polite exchange seemed so special. 

See, I know some smart people.  And some of these smart people have shaken their heads in confusion and wonder at the "backwards" nature of some of "those people out there."  Meaning, usually, people who live in rural communities, or people whose politics are different, or people who are mistrustful of intellectuals.  I have been guilty of this myself. 

This one small moment in the park brought it home for me, though.  If you were a person whose contact with "big city" or "intellectuals" usually involved someone glaring at you, making rude gestures, talking down to you and in other ways making fun of you for your lived experience -- well, wouldn't you learn to mistrust intellectuals too? 

There are complexities and layers and oceans of social and economic factors that put each of us in the lives we have now.  Our differences are legion.  But our sameness is still there. 

It only took a moment to speak politely to someone who just had a question about the way things worked in an unfamiliar place.  It only took a second to be nice.  I know I didn't change the social and political landscape of anything, but maybe I helped change some one's mind about the city.  I hope I did, anyway.  And I hope we can all take every moment to let go of labels and just be nice.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Bardo

I recently read the amazing book, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.  It was unique, touching, haunting and heartbreaking -- all the things I love about fiction.  This post is not a book review, I will just say that I loved it and I think you should read it too.  (And get your copy from a library or local independent bookstore.)

Since I finished the book, I have been thinking a lot about the concept of the bardo and how I can carry that idea into my life.  Briefly, the bardo is the intermediate space between death and rebirth, as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  When I was trying to learn more about it, I found this wonderful comic book guide to the bardo.  I suggest you check it out for a primer on the concept.

The ideas that stuck with me in all my reading on this topic were that the bardo is not just one "place," there are multiple manifestations.  Several commentators also suggested that the concept of the bardo could be expanded to apply to any transition, not just the transition from life to death and whatever comes after.

I have been thinking about that a lot lately -- that there are several bardos which apply to any life transition.  It is, for me, a useful metaphor to describe how I was feeling at multiple points in my life where things changed and I felt completely out of myself for a while.  The transition of moving to a new city.  The transition from being in a long marriage to being single.  The transition from being single to being back in a loving, supportive relationship.

At the same time, I have been re-reading one of my favorite Lynda Barry books, One! Hundred! Demons!  The book is autobiographical, and it goes through the moments of life that hurt you, both small and not-so-small.  At the end of the book, Lynda Barry has a short how-to section, where she invites you to draw your demons, to give them shape and features as a way of removing their power.

See, there are demons in the bardo as well.  And demons in every transition.  Maybe they aren't the specific kinds of spirit manifestations as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  Maybe they are things like grief, self-doubt, fear, and anger.  And maybe Lynda Barry is onto something when she suggests you draw your demons, give them a face.  Isn't it somehow easier to know what you are facing, to be able to call it by name somehow?  This is another thing I understood about the bardo -- that the dying person finds peace when they are able to recognize the true nature of the things manifested before them.

So, if I can draw (or name, or recognize) the demons that appear in every life transition, I can release their hold on me.  I can maybe even strike up a friendship with them and learn the lessons.  My friend grief helps me recognize and articulate what is precious in my life now.  My friend self-doubt teaches me where to find my deepest skills.  My friend fear shows me where I still need to heal.  My friend anger drives me to act for a better, more loving world.

As with everything, I am trying to bring this understanding to every client interaction, indeed every human interaction.  Recognize that we are all, at some level, in some bardo, facing or running from some demon.  Deal gently and gracefully with each other, as we navigate our own transitions.

(And forgive me for my limited and very beginner knowledge of what the bardo is and what it represents in Tibetan Buddhism.  If you want to learn more about the Tibetan Buddhism, Louisville have a great resource in the Drepung Gomang Center for Engaging Compassion. )

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Working Wounded

A long time ago, when I was still on the track to become an academic, I spent a few years working my way through grad school by teaching English Composition.  Before my first semester of teaching, the grad school did make an effort to make sure we grad students were at least a little ready to manage a classroom.  We took a summer seminar where we talked about pedagogy, syllabus craft, assignment design and other teacher-ish things.  I remember almost none of it.

I do remember one thing, though.  In the midst of a discussion of attendance and absenteeism, our gangly gray-haired professor jumped down from his perch on the edge of the desk and glared at us with his steely blue eyes.  "People," he said, "I need ya to work WOUNDED.  If you got a cold or whatever, you gotta just power through and hold yer class.  Ya gotta work WOUNDED, people."

Believe me, we did.  There were moments in our shared grad student office where people would be collapsed on their desks, trying to gather up just enough strength to get to their classroom and power through an hour or so.  There were days when our whole lesson plan was "go sit in small groups so I can sit at the desk so I won't pass out."  It got pretty brutal sometimes.

I am so gratified now to work in a career and with humans who know that what you do when you are wounded is heal.  You rest, recover and recuperate.  You most especially do not, under any circumstances, offer to share any potentially contagious thing with your clients.  You model appropriate self care.  I am so gratified to know that now.

Except for the times I don't.  Recently, I scheduled a trade with another local practitioner.  I was excited to learn more about her modality and to maybe cultivate another referral source for mine.  As the day of her appointment with me approached, I was nursing a mild cold.  Not enough to stop any but the most strenuous of my activities.  On the day of her appointment, I had reached the point where I was past feeling sick, but still coughing and draining pretty impressively.

What I should have done was call her that morning (at the latest) and ask to reschedule the appointment.  What actually happened was much less professional.  She called me about twenty minutes before her appointment time, asking for directions.  Hearing the cold still in my voice (really, you couldn't miss it) she gently suggested that if I wanted to reschedule, it would not be a problem for her.  So we rescheduled the appointment for the following week. 

I have been thinking about that exchange, and how it highlights the need for continual self-vigilance and review.  Somewhere along the way, I learned only too well how to work wounded.  With clients who were not immune-compromised, I had started to drop my guard.  I am embarrassed that I did not nudge myself to make the right decision, and I am immensely grateful that she modeled appropriate self-care for me. 

In grad school, the concept of working wounded came accompanied by the threat of losing our scholarships and stipends if we missed a day of teaching.  In my life now, the only threat that comes with working wounded, is the threat of remaining wounded and missing the chance to heal properly.  My fellow practitioner reminded me of that.  I am humbled, grateful, and looking forward to working together when I am all the way well again.