Tuesday, October 29, 2013

I Reject Your Reality and Substitute My Own

We humans are born storytellers, aren't we?  We can make waiting in line to buy gum into a full narrative with a dramatic arc, heroes, villains, possibly even a quest and the revelation of unknown truth.  As a way to connect with each other and make sense of our lives and motives, stories are powerful beyond understanding.  But we are also easily trapped into common narratives that oversimplify our experience, making it less rich.

As we learn to listen to and understand stories, we also learn that every story has a good guy and bad guy.  At some point in the story, these guys will confront each other, and thus the central conflict arises.  When we are very young, the good guys always win.  As we get older, we tell ourselves more sophisticated stories where sometimes the bad guy wins, but the good guy learns a valuable truth.

Lately, though, I am trying to storytell my way out of the good guy / bad guy dichotomy.  What if the stories were rewritten so that no one was bad?  Mistaken.  Conflicted. Confused. Possibly even delusional -- but not bad.

Isn't this what is meant by unconditional positive regard?  That we approach every human without judgement, and without placing them in opposition to ourselves and our fellow questers?  Here it is, the fourth time I've taught one particular Ethics class, and I am discovering that it's not so much about creating a therapeutic persona as it is about changing the story structure altogether.  It's about learning to construct a compelling story without the benefit of a bad guy to despise.  I know this can be done because Ann Patchett has done it in every book she's ever written.

Maybe it's not so surprising for a Lit geek like me that eventually everything goes back to narrative.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Living It

I have been thinking a lot about the idea of "flow," and how to structure my career so I can find it more often.  As part of this, I have been doing some writing exercises from the book Bliss by Katherine Ramsland.  Here is what I wrote today about a recent session with a new client:

As I entered the room, I felt like I was stepping into a higher version of myself.  I felt my pulse moving and yet I was completely relaxed.  My mind was not thinking forward or backward.  I felt like the nerve connections between my touch and the interpreting parts of my brain had been widened and cleared of debris.  Everything I did was a sun salutation, with movements happening at the rhythm of breath.  I was pre-verbal, able to communicate through gesture and intention alone.  It wasn't that training, knowledge and science didn't matter.  It was that those things were so completely absorbed into my being and doing that I didn't need to actively reference them --- the way you don't need to reference the contractions of the cardiac muscle in order to have a pulse.  The session was a deep and meaningful conversation, conducted in total silence. I used my body, I worked hard, but I didn't notice until I stepped out of the room at the end of the session.  Even the sore quads and fatigued hands felt like gifts that were oddly energizing to my mind and spirit.  It was the experience of feeling and doing two totally opposite things at once, where the logic brain gets so confused it taps out and the art brain takes over.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Rhythm and Flow

This afternoon, my ducklings graduated.  This class of students started massage school the same term that I started teaching.  A number of them didn't make it through, and at least one of those still breaks my heart a little.  (I will always wonder what more I could have done for her.)

But, today was a celebration.  Their designated class speaker said a few words to and about every teacher they had.  About me she said, "you inspire us."  Here at home, hours later, I finally feel the humbling impact of those words.  To inspire.  To give breath.  To infuse with spirit and life.

I try to give every client I touch something beyond a focused, knowledgeable treatment.  Similarly, I try to give every student I teach something beyond the material in the syllabus.  Call it energy, call it presence, call it compassion.  I call it space and time, open to be filled with whatever a client or student needs to grow.

I never really know how well I do this, especially with students.  With clients, I can see the changes in breath and posture that go along with an infusion of hope and optimism.  With students, aside from the occasional satisfying "aha" moment, I don't know how deeply they take in what I am offering.

Today I found out --at least for these few new massage therapists.  I am remembering moments with them when we were learning together, focused intently on ourselves and the questions at hand.  I am remembering those moments of flow, where I could feel them pulling just the right words out of me -- the words that made it all come together.  Their class speaker said I inspired them, but the truth is that any breath I gave them came from their own lungs.  

Thursday, October 10, 2013

When Words Attack

In my previous life as a teacher of freshman comp, I developed a kind of affection for the grammar mistakes all students make.  I had to, or else I would have become a bitter, angry person.

Massage therapy students don't do too much writing, but I happen to teach two of the classes where a major final project involves a paper.  Sometimes, the errors are just too good.  Here's my current favorite:

A student wrote about working with a woman who was a breast cancer survivor.  The student spent time researching the surgeries her client had so as to better understand what might be going on with her client's body.

The surgery in question, according to the student? A double vasectomy.

Best. Mistake. Ever.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

I will beat a $&@/*#%!

I supervise student clinic on Saturdays.  Kim* has been in my clinic for the past two terms.  Kim has been in one or another of my classes for her whole time in school.  She used to be a fighter.  Like a semi-pro fighter, do she knows how to give and receive a blow.  Once I overheard her telling her classmates how someone tried to mug her and she laid the guy out flat.

Yesterday, Kim called a few minutes into the clinic shift.  She was sobbing, and all I could understand was ". . . Some dude.  . .  backpack . . .  On my way in the police car . . ."  I told her I would meet her at the door and we would sit down and talk.  When she arrived, she had a wide-eyed, panicked stare and tears running down her face.  I walked her to the office and closed the door.  Then she told me that she had been mugged on the way to the train.  The guy jumped her and because of her bag, she couldn't throw a proper punch, so she wrestled helplessly while he smashed her head into the ground. He ended up stealing a bracelet that was a family heirloom.  He only stopped beating her when some other guys ran up to help.  She filed a police report and came straight to her clinic shift.  I brought her ice for her already-swelling face, convinced her to call a friend to take her to a hospital, and let her wait in the office.  She said she felt safe there.

I checked on her often, and each time I did,  Kim rode another wave of the realization of trauma.  She could have died.  She lost an irreplaceable family heirloom.  She couldn't fight him off, even though she knew how.  I held her head in my hands while she breathed, and I made her promise to text me from the hospital.

In one of my classes, we talk about working with trauma survivors, and our responsibility as massage therapists.  We talk about the balance of compassion and professionalism, and how people don't need us to weep with them.  They need us to hold a calm, safe space.  A non-judgmental space.  I know this is difficult, and I used to think I was good at it.  But I couldn't help crying with Kim for her loss of security.  And I can't help wanting to beat that m*****-f***** into the ground.

Kim is fine, physically.  As I said to her, the emotions will come in waves, probably for a long time.  And I will focus on wishing her wellness instead of wishing harm to her attacker.

*- name and identifying details have been changed

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Sky has Fallen. Long Live the Sky.

Recently, the faculty at the massage school received an email.  The text of the email, in its entirety, read: "(Beloved Education Director) is no longer with (school.) if you have any questions, please see me and I will do my best to answer them."

Well, yes. I do have questions.  When the woman who basically built this school is no longer here, with no warning and no goodbye -- I have questions.  What do I tell the students?  This woman supported, pushed and believed in every one of them.  One evening in my class, I watched her sit with one of my students and lay into the student about her shaky academic standing.  All with love.  Love of the profession, of learning and educating, and of the students.

The night of the announcement, I taught a class, and I told my students.  I told them that I was sorry I didn't know more, but out of respect for her, they should not speculate.  After class, I met a colleague outside the faculty lounge, and held her while she cried her contact lenses out.  Our mentor was gone. The sky had fallen.

Since then, we have been going on with what we do, trying to support the students with the same dedication and passion she had.  Some of us are focusing on those things we can control.  Some of us are spiraling down into rumors and negativity.  Last night, I saw a colleague who had been out moving house when this all went down.  "Well," she said, "we just gotta keep on keepin' on, right?"

Ah. Yes.  She's right.  I looked up last night, and the sky had not fallen.  It was gradually darkening gray criss-crossed with streaks of pink clouds.  We thought the sky had fallen because we were bent down with our frustration and grief.  We are still apprehensive about what comes next, and we are now saying goodbye to more people who see this as a sign to leave.  But our students come to class, and we have information for them.  We keep on keepin' on.