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.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Let it Be

I started this blog to uncover a quiet but integral part of who I am -- a writer.  As such, it is extremely satisfying to see the little numbers next to each post that shows how many times the page was viewed.  Even better is when someone responds to what they read.  And best of all, when someone I love and admire talks about how my writing struck a chord for them.  

This happened recently with my friend and fellow oncology massage therapist, Lucy Allen.  She shared a paper written for a course she is taking, and in it she quoted a section from one of my posts.  Here is what I wrote back to her (with a link to the referenced post):
I am humbled and grateful that you chose to include something I wrote in your paper.  Thank you.  It's wonderful to know that what I write is helpful in any way. 
I have a reflection on what I wrote -- reading it again through your eyes, what strikes me is that I could have done a much better job of letting that client have all of her feelings.  I think I was maybe too quick to go into the "You will be empowered!!" space before she had time to really sit with her guilt/shame/whatever.

And this is another great thing about writing and sharing -- I get to see my blind spots.  When I first wrote that post, I was all hopped up on a self-acceptance kick, ready to take down body-shaming in all its vile guises.  What I failed to notice: maybe my own crusading was taking away a moment for my client to really have and sit with her emotion.  Instead, I swooped in, biases blazing.  

I am savoring the process of becoming aware of this.  Like most humans who sometimes do clumsy things, I was trying to act from a place of love and compassion.  I forgot to also act from a place of supporting and serving my client in her moment, rather than supporting my own agenda.  So, my dear friend Lucy, thank you for the compliments, but most of all, thank you for sparking the lesson.  

In the words of the incomparable Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Work v Service

I recently read this article, in which the author talks about things we need to recover from every day.  It's another in a long series of posts, articles, books and talks about how we do too much and need to settle the heck down so we can hear our own quiet voice of truth.  The first item on his list of things we need to recover from: work. 

So, this made sense to me, and it also made me bristle a little.  Because I love my work.  I'm in a place right now where I don't yet have enough of it, so every moment of work is precious to me.  But I am also aware that when I had my full practice in Chicago, especially during the short period where I was working at four different places, I needed to schedule in serious self care time.  I don't want to call it recovery time, because to me that implies some sort of harm was done to me by the work.  I think of it more as integration time, where I can finally take a minute to examine all the moments of the time at work and distill them into knowledge and lessons I can carry.  Maybe even turn some of those moments into stories that go up on this blog. 

It surprised me that I reacted so strongly to the idea of recovery from work.  It is a perfectly sensible idea, and I would have been all about it when I worked in I.T. or Marketing.  (Yes, I did both of those things.)  The difference for me now is how I perceive my work.  It is not so much work to me as it is service.  The work I do to pay my bills and put delicious vegan food on my table is also directly linked to what I feel is my purpose as a human being.  I realize this makes me incredibly fortunate. 

I used to work for a living.  I worked in several different capacities, and some of those I even enjoyed.  Still, I always had a sense of not really doing anything that would inch the world forward in a more compassionate direction.  Now, though, every day that I work I know I have added a small nudge in that direction.  Every day that I work, at least one person feels a little better because of me. 

I'm not thinking is grand scales when I think about service.  When I try, it become overwhelming and then I truly do need a moment to recover.  The things I want to change are astronomical, pervasive, and require long patience.  True service, though, can happen in an instant.  When I let my client cry because she needs to.  When I remind the person in front of me that no part of their body is "bad" or "wrong."  When my client comes into his massage with a headache, and out of it with no headache and the ability to turn his head all the way to the right.  It's not going to change all the things i see as big-level problems, but it is going to fulfill my purpose. 

So, I don't need to recover from work, because for me, work is service and it nourishes me.  I do, however, need time for reflection and integration.  Which I am getting ready for right now.  I am writing this on December 31, about to go into my annual tech shut-down and future planning retreat.  You will be (are) reading this the day after I get back, hopefully full of ideas, plans, clarity and energy.  Ready to work.  And to serve. 

Happy New Year, Dear Ones.

detail from a gorgeous commission completed by my talented friend Maike of Maike's Marvels.  Check out her work.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Imposter Syndrome

There are a few things I think I do very well.  Clean a kitchen counter.  Make a green smoothie.  Parallel park.  And provide a supportive, compassionate oncology massage. 

Recently, I applied for a part time job working exclusively with people during and after their cancer treatment.  I had no doubt that I was qualified for the job.  I had met the hiring manager before and she had encouraged me to apply for any openings they had.  The interviews went very well, I thought.  All in all, I looked forward to good news and a little financial sigh of relief. 

About a week later, I received the news that I had not been hired for the position.  I immediately began my retroactive storymaking.  Of course I could sense that the hiring manager and I didn't quite gel, I just didn't want to dwell on it before.  Come to think of it -- it did seem like she had made a decision well before she talked to me. 

In short, I was trying to come up with a story that felt somehow better than what I really felt.  Because what I really felt was that I was (am) a complete imposter, deceiving no one but myself with my ridiculous confidence. 

And, really, if I was wrong about this one thing, wasn't I wrong about everything else too?  Had I ever really bacteria tested my kitchen counter?  Maybe all those people who tried one of my green smoothies were just being polite.  And when was the last time I had managed to parallel park in a truly tight spot? 

I suspect that far too many of you recognize this syndrome.  Maybe you're in the middle of it right now.  Maybe, like me, you feel it like a movable wall that magically appears five steps into every single one of your new ideas.  Maybe, like me, you are letting the disappointment obscure the lesson. 

Although the imposter syndrome is strong with me (and is fed by the far more difficult practice-building tasks ahead of me,) I am still in touch with my rational brain.  She knows things.  Like -- I am supremely qualified for that job, and I am not the only person who is.  Or -- my interview follow-up game is pretty weak, so perhaps I hurt myself in that way.  Even -- the more difficult, self-employed path is much harder, but it also brings me more overall happiness. 

Rejection sucks.  Any kind of rejection.  And rejection for something that I know (I just know!) I would be great at -- this feels particularly unfair.  Somewhere in there, I know that this is one person's decision about one job.  I have all these stories -- all these true stories -- of people who felt better after seeing me.  I have a conviction that I am doing the work I am meant to do, or I will be when I get my practice built up a bit more. 

The movable wall still appears, and I am learning that it is made of styrofoam.  Or biodegradable corn-based materials, if you prefer.  The point is, I can kick that sucker down any time I please.  And I'm ready.  Almost.  Just another thin layer of confidence, and it's going down.   

I'm keeping the lessons, though.  You can bet that if I ever interview for another job, my follow up game will be on point.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Twelve Dancing Princesses

Let's talk about fairy tales for a minute.  Princes and princesses and happily ever after.  Trolls under bridges outwitted by young men who follow the advice of old crones in the woods.  Enchanted castles, apples, spinning wheels.  Magic around every corner.

When I was little, I had an illustrated book of Grimm's Fairy Tales.  I would spend hours poring over every page, getting absolutely lost in the details of the illustrations.  The stories were, of course, sanitized versions of the original tales, but they still contained a hint of the original menace of the Brothers Grimm.  Like salted dark chocolate, this little hint of danger/salt made the sweet stories so much better than other, completely scrubbed versions I found.

Now, as an adult women who has lived through the falseness of easy "happily ever after," I have a love/hate relationship with most of the stories.  The one that still draws me in, though, is the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses.  If you haven't heard of it, you can get the full version here.  Here's a very short version:

A King had twelve beautiful daughters.  He locked them in their room every night as they slept, but still every morning their shoes would be completely worn out as if they had been dancing all night.  The King asked for help to discover their secret, offering one of his daughters as the reward.  Some people tried and failed.  One man, taking the advice of an old crone he encountered in the woods, discovered their secret.  The princesses followed an enchanted pathway to a castle every night, where they danced all night, then traveled the pathway back to their room before dawn.  The man who solved the riddle married one of the princesses and they lived . . . . well, you know.

The part of this story that draws me in every time is the period from 12-6am, when the princesses are away dancing all night, dancing with such abandon that they completely wear through their shoes.  See, I can't resist an unspoken back story.  How did the princesses find the enchanted pathway?  Why were they locked up in their room at night in the first place?  What compelled them to go dancing every night?  And what in the world did they do after their secret was discovered?

I've begun to see this story as a kind of metaphor for things in my own life.  There is, first of all, the literal dancing.  I started dancing on a regular basis about four years ago.  I make it important in my life, even if no one ever knows the dancing is happening.

The more lasting metaphor for me, though, is the pursuit of what brings happiness, the opening of a pathway that leads to an entirely new world.  A few years ago, around the same time I started dancing, I decided that things that scare me are things I need to try.  I have not regretted any of the scary things I tried, even if they did require a little bit of resetting afterward.  Lately, the scary thing that has opened up an enchanted pathway is the move back to Kentucky.  I am in the process of discovering and re-discovering work that I love.  Most of the discoveries are still in the 12-6am place, waiting for the right time to be brought into the open.   Meanwhile, I am doing the work, wearing my metaphorical shoes to metaphorical bits, and enjoying every minute.

Watch this space for updates on what's going on with my work.  Fairy tales aside, I guarantee any news will come from me, and not from some prince who magicked his way into my private work spaces.

(this picture is a page from Buddha's Brain by Dr. Rick Hanson.  It's a great read.)

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Synchronized Swimming

There is a neck hold I teach sometimes in Oncology Massage workshops.  It requires you to gently slide both hands under the client's neck while they lie face up in the table.  Once your hands are in place, you maintain a relaxed, gentle hold, encouraging your client to relax their neck.  It is surprisingly effective.  All the therapist has to do is sit still, gently holding and patiently waiting. 

The hardest part about this technique is actually getting into position.  Ideally, the therapist can get their hands into position without moving the client's head around, especially if they are working with someone in active treatment.  I tell my students to think of synchronized swimming, where what you see is all grace and calm and softness, while there is absolute flailing chaos underneath the surface.  At this point, I demonstrate getting into position.  I pull the most ridiculous face I can, while my hands move with grace, calm and softness.  Everyone laughs.  Almost everyone understands. 

What we do is a lot like synchronized swimming.  Everything on or near our clients' bodies should bring only comfort, while beyond the boundary of our clients' space, we may be frantically wondering where we put the lotion bottle, realizing we forgot the bolster, or just letting any invasive thought from the world outside the massage room pass through so we can be present in the space again.  Grace, calm and softness in the air, flailing chaos underneath. 

We ask too much of ourselves when we try to imagine that everything we do in our massage room is done as a beautiful, never-seen dance.  The place where we hold the peace and the power of massage is the space around our client.  Beyond that, there is work to support that space.  It started on our first day of massage school, struggling through anatomy, physiology and technique.  It continues every time we take continuing education, working hard to integrate new knowledge into that which is known and comfortable.  It is there every day, as we work to shield our clients from the little human mishaps that happen in every life.  (Like the countless number of times I have completed a massage with my glasses slid all the way down my nose because I couldn't get them properly pushed up.) 

We owe it to ourselves to embrace and learn to love the chaos, because the chaos makes the peace work.  We owe it to ourselves to thank the work and the chaos for making the dance possible.

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.