Thursday, February 16, 2017

Things I Appreciate #1

I am quite possibly the most organized flake you will ever meet.  I have a wall calendar marked with the number of days left until my target move date.  Just beyond it, my table is covered with piles of papers, cords to dead electronics, boxes and packing tape.  It's mathematical chaos.

Last night I looked at that calendar and realized the very small number of days left before I relocate my life and my practice to my home state of Kentucky.  It occurred to me that I could write down all the things that come at me in waves of gratitude as I think about leaving.  This, then, is the beginning of a semi-regular series of Things I Appreciate.

The first thing I appreciate is: endings.

A little over three years ago, I stepped into an unexpected ending in my personal life.  I distinctly remember the feeling of holding on with just my fingernails, digging in to keep from sliding into I-don't-know-what.  Out of that stubbornness came this completely irrational plan to quit my spa job and start my own private practice.

When important things end, that feeling of "nothing left to lose" can open up a whole wealth of options.  It was fear that kept me from starting my own practice for so long, but with nothing left to lose, fear made no sense, so I went for it.  It took time to build, and there have definitely been some hiccups, but overall I have been happier in my work these past three years than I ever thought possible.  And it all started with an ending.

So today I am thinking of endings, of the enduring permanence of endings.  All things end, and in their place something new emerges.  This is a lesson I started to learn when I started my practice, and I am learning it forever, constantly, in a new way with every brand new ending.

Forward.






Thursday, January 5, 2017

Where and Why

AUTHOR'S NOTE:  This is a blog about my work.  While many of the stories I tell here are personal, normally I try very hard to keep away from topics like my (or anyone else's) politics.  These are not normal times.

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My best friend from grade school was sexually molested by a family member.  She told me about this years later, when we were both near-adults, many years after the abuse ended, and many years after the family member had died.  Sometime not long after this, she went to massage school and started work as a massage therapist.  In school, she did internships at various community organizations.  She spent the most time at a shelter for victims of domestic violence.  I have a vivid memory of her telling me about this work experience.  She talked at length about how she was really teaching women about safe touch and how it feels when their boundaries are honored.

This story of hers, coupled with everything I knew about her own touch history, was the seed that grew into my desire to go to massage school, and ultimately led me to where I am today.  This very day.  January 5, 2017.  And to where I will be on January 20, Inauguration Day.

I will be at work.

See, lately, so many people I work with are feeling directly threatened and unsafe because of who they are.  In my office, the one goal I have for every person is that they feel safe and they start to feel like their body is a place they can inhabit with ease and confidence.  I have little power over what kind of threats or danger can appear to people once they leave my space.  But with me, for that little time at least, I strive to create a place that is safe and free of judgment.  I feel like those sorts of places are shrinking faster than the polar ice caps, so on January 20, I will be at work.  Trying to hold that space.

For months now, I have been seeing some clients come through, only obliquely referring to the election and its results as they talk about how this ache or that pain or this overall anxious feeling just will not go away.  In my outside job, working at a cancer treatment center, I have watched the unkind edges of how the political climate seeps even into the minds of people who are literally trying to save their own lives.  I have been given the gift of heir trust, which I tried to honor by making a place for them to feel just a little bit like a connected and whole body.

And I have gone home and cried because I know that what I do won't change the very real possibility that many of them will lose the ability to pay for their care, or that some of my clients in my regular practice still walk out into a world that has decided their love, or their religion, or their skin is now a problem.  That they are a problem, and not so much a fellow human being.

And then I remember my best friend from grade school.  How she took her trauma and turned it into action.  Some kind of action.  I can sit here and drink tea from my Jane Austen mug and wallow in my futility.

Or I can go to work.  I can try, for just an hour at a time, for one person at a time, to create a space where we are again compassionate humans who listen to each other and honor each other.  I don't know what else to do, so I'll be doing that.

I invite you to come and human with me for just a little while.


Friday, December 23, 2016

Magic

I have written in this space before about the dangers of believing in our own mythology.  Clients, friends and acquaintances say lovely things to massage therapists sometimes.  They call us "healers," or they talk about our "magic hands."  This has been happening to me a lot lately.  Not because I have somehow changed and grown, but because I am in the process of relocating my practice to a new city, and the ends of things often make us say what we are feeling.

But here's the thing:  I am still not magic.  And I am not a healer.  If my clients feel better after seeing me than they did before, it is because they paid attention to their bodies and because I applied hard-earned knowledge and skill to their session.  I am a facilitator.

If what I do seems so unusual that it defies the natural order, I see that as more of a problem with our version of the natural order.  I worked hard and studied long to get my practical knowledge, and whatever intangible thing I have that makes that special probably comes from the best compliment I ever received from a client:  "You're different because you listen."

There's your magic.  There's the thing that seems so outside the natural order that it can't be explained.  Simple listening.  I'm not perfect at this, but I have had many years of practice.  And the fact that so many people call this "magic" convinces me that we all need more practice.

When was the last time you sat down with someone with an open heart and mind and just let them tell you things?  Things that maybe you don't agree with, or things that are hard for you to take in.  When was the last time you let this happen, and just tried to radiate acceptance of your shared humanity?  Because, difficult as it is, I can absolutely with all my being reject a person's opinions or political leanings, but I will not reject our shared humanity.

Some days I'm better at this than others. Some days it feels nearly impossible.  But it is not now and never will be "magic."  It is simply acknowledging our drive for human connection.  We all have it.  It is the natural order of things.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Scoliosis Orca

My client has a chronic genetic condition*.  As a child, it caused so much discomfort that she spent weeks confined to her bed at home.  During this time, she developed a habit of spending hours searching the internet for interesting facts.  She read voraciously about many different subjects, and deeply about very few.

She was the kind of client who needed to chatter for the first third of the massage before she could settle into her body.  How could I blame her?  Her body had never been a comfortable place to be.  She felt safer in her mind.  Those 20 or so minutes generally consisted of a wide-ranging array of different facts and stories ranging from the bathing habits of Ancient Romans to genetically modified, drug-testing mice.

One day I will always remember, though, because she spent her entire "talk time" telling me one story.  Apparently somewhere in the wild is an orca who has scoliosis.  Scientists have been following this whale (and his related pod) for some time.  Left alone, this orca would die.  His spinal curvature keeps him from hunting effectively, and he does not swim as fast as the other whales.  Scientists noted, however, that other whales in the pod were actually helping this orca.  They would bring food to him, and if he fell behind, they would sometimes even wait for him to catch up to them.  My client had spent much of the night (she didn't sleep well) reading about this whale and watching video footage of the whole pod in action.  At first, it was the orca's mother doing all this tending, but then even after his mother died, the rest of the pod continued to take care of him.

My client went over and over this story, each time remembering little details from some video or website or other.  Eventually, as in every session, she relaxed into her body and gradually dropped off talking.  I had a nagging little sense that something was being opened to me, but I put it aside to focus on her massage.

After she left, I started thinking about the story she told me, and how much it captured her attention.  I remembered something a co-worker once said to me: "We use metaphors because they tell us something real."  Of course.  The story of the orca was a metaphor.  Here was this creature with a chronic genetic condition.  Left to his own devices, he would have been abandoned and left behind, possibly even left to die.  Instead, his fellow creatures stepped in and took care of this creature's needs, thereby keeping him connected to the whole of his world.

My client maybe thought she was telling me the story of an orca, but really, she was telling me the story of her life.  Of all the people who stepped in to help and support her when she could have easily been left behind.  She told me the story of the orca gave her hope.  I suspect it highlighted the hope she already received from those closest to her -- her own pod who kept her connected to the whole of her world.



*-- names and identifying details have been changed

Friday, November 25, 2016

Five Words


I know a couple, quite elderly.  They have been married for more years than many people get to be alive on this earth.  The gentleman has been, until quite recently, very robust for his age.  Although he required a small bit of assistance to get into and out of his favorite recliner, he was otherwise very independent.  His wife was much more frail.  She slept much of the day and rarely ever spoke.  When she was awake, she frequently looked at him and smiled, her bright blue eyes twinkling.  He would take her hand and raise it to his lips for a kiss, ever the courtly gentleman.  He called her "Mama."

Recently, though, he succumbed to various respiratory illnesses, and even though his body was vigorous, it was nearly a century old, so each illness landed him in the hospital for a longer period of time.  Each time he came back home, he was a little bit more weak.  More devices appeared around him, and the caregivers seemed closer to him for longer periods of time.  

Through it all, his wife, still quite frail, looked on him with love, affection, and a growing concern.  I knew them only like this, in their increasingly frail old age and decline.  I learned a few things about them very quickly, though.  Right away I learned that they loved each other with the kind of deep, realistic, daily-work love that is never depicted in poetry.  I learned that when they looked at each other, they each saw past their fading physical shells and into a long, shared life of which they were justifiably proud.  And I learned that Mama, at least, had gotten everything down to essentials.  

Mama rarely spoke.  And when she did, she said only “Thank you” or “I love you.”  In all the time I was near her, these were the only things I heard her say.  I have known for a long time that language is only one of many ways we have to communicate, but her limited vocabulary still struck me, especially since her husband was still so engaged in language and conversation.  

One day, however, watching her with her long-term caregiver, it dawned on me that she had things exactly right.  Her body was frail, she lacked energy to do more than what was absolutely essential.  She had distilled her actions down, and I finally realized, she had also distilled down her language.  

As I thought about it, if I could only say five words out loud for the rest of my life, could I think of a better collection than “Thank you” and “I love you”?  What other five words would serve to express my connection to the people around me?  How much more simple could it be?  Every time I visited them, and I saw her saying only “thank you” and “I love you,” I realized how much she had chosen to convey.  With her fading strength, knowing every word was an effort, she chose to say the words that kept her connected to all the people around her, and that told them how much she cared for each of them.  Could there be another five words more important?

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Maintenance

One of the enduring joys of this job is learning from the person who is going through treatment.

 Liesl's* several children all lived out of town, but one of them always drove down for her treatments.  All twelve of them.  For her birthday, they decided to get together and buy her a massage to go with each of the last four chemo treatments.  This is how I had the pleasure of meeting her.

For her last four chemo cycles, Liesl (and whichever son or daughter) arrived at my office the day after her infusion.  Each time, Liesl walked herself slowly back to my office with me.  She gave me the same list of side effects, each time just a little bit worse than the last.  She would lay in a supported, semi-reclined position while I gently held her feet, hands and head.  After the massage, she would take my arm for support, walk with me to the waiting room, then give me a hug before she left.

At her last appointment, Liesl asked me to do her a favor.  She knew I was connected to some of the staff at her treatment center so she told me, "Please tell them.  Tell them they need to touch people."  She went on to assure me that she felt she had received good care from caring people, but that it disturbed her that they never seemed to take a minute to just touch their patients.  To lay a hand on their arm, or give them a gentle hug.  It made her feel cold and somewhat neglected, she said.  Cancer treatment was scary enough, she said, without feeling isolated like that.  "I have my family there," she said, "but what about the people who don't?"

What she said to me wasn't anything different than what I say to people pretty much all the time, but for some reason it hooked deep into my heart.  I wondered, when do I touch people purely for comfort, compassion and to show that they are special to me?  Outside of work, when do I do this?  And when am I comfortable receiving this kind of touch from my friends and family?  This happens a shockingly small amount, if I'm being honest.

I don't have any answers today.  I don't have any wisdom.  There is just the knowledge, and gratitude to the woman who brought it out for me to look at.  There are so many complicated, important things facing the world in general right now -- issues that divide us and might even harm us.  From one perspective maybe it seems frivolous for me to spend so much time and brain space worrying about how much we touch each other, and trying to change that.

But then, I ask myself (and you), if you can touch someone with gentleness and true compassion, doesn't that make it harder to objectify, deny or hate them?  So, in addition to the staff at the treatment center, I am sending you Liesl's message:  with compassion and an open heart, just touch people.







*--name and identifying details have been changed

Monday, June 20, 2016

How Do I Even Feel About This?

That was the text message I sent to a friend.  She does the same kind of work as I do, and I shared my story with her right after it happened, when I was still not sure what to think.

(Warning: there's a semi-graphic description of some nasty treatment side effects following.  There is also some cussing.  Stop right here if you're easily disturbed by that kind of thing.)

Let me tell you about it.  My client has an advanced stage of cancer-*.    She has tried many treatments, which have exhausted her body, mind and bank account.  She is undergoing a treatment now that causes extremely painful lesions on her skin.  The ones I can see look like giant spider bites, but she tells me about others which are open and sometimes weeping.  She takes multiple medications to manage her pain.  She tells me that as a result she is "much more mellow than usual."

She describes herself as a "hard-driving" person, and talks about raising the money to go abroad for alternative treatment.  She says to me: "If I can't afford to go abroad, I don't know what I'll do.  Just die, I guess."

That day she wanted me to take a picture of a particularly large lesion on her chest so she could send it to her doctor.  She sat on the edge of the table and gingerly pulled away the gauze pad which was covering the wound.  I took a couple of quick pictures, then noticed the wound was weeping a bit, so she quickly covered it up and buttoned her shirt.

She wanted to see the pictures before she left.  I hand her the smart phone with the last picture on display.  She looked at it then started laughing maniacally.  "Wow," she said through continuing laughter, "that's really horrible."

And it is.  Really horrible.  It is also really horrible that despite marijuana, morphine, and massage therapy, she is in constant pain that sometimes takes her breath away.  And it's horrible that she may not have access to the treatment she wants because it has been so expensive to keep her alive this long.  There is so much horrible here that it is tempting to just drown in it.

But she laughed.  She chose to laugh.  Not the kind of laugh that makes you wonder if someone is really "all there," but a deeply knowing laugh.  The kind of laugh that knows and embraces all that is painful and dark about her human experience.    It was a "Fuck you, I will go on" laugh.

And,  I will admit it, I found it disturbing at first.  Then I didn't know what to think, so I texted my friend and colleague.  Her response was perfect: "I love this while my heart breaks."

I love this.  My heart breaks.  This is the circle I step into, as soon as I leave work for the day. Fortunately, love and breath and understanding friends win out, and I am ready every day to come back.

*- name and identifying details have been changed