Friday, December 23, 2016


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


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

Monday, April 25, 2016

Revolutionary Radicalness! Radial Revolutionaries!

I just got back from the Society for Oncology Massage's Healing Summit in Minnesota.  It was three action-packed days of learning and connecting.  I am slowly sorting through all the information and ideas.  I will be doing that for some time now.

The first thing to come forward in my mind, asking for my attention, is our inclination to put what we do in the superlative.  I attended a session describing new approaches to a task we all do as "radical."  While I'm pretty sure the (very good) presenters were a bit tongue-in-cheek when they chose that word, it did make me realize how much we do the same thing without thinking about it.  We talk about our "amazing" results, our "unbelievable" experiences, and our "top-notch" skills.

Maybe these words are appropriate.  I have often felt that language fails me when I try to describe a session.  And I love this work.  (Love! The superlative emotion!)  I am committed to go to work every day, through budding fatigue and surrounding life stresses, because the work engages and energizes my mind and heart.  But does that mean I need to shout about it?

Why not choose, instead, quiet conversations with colleagues, storytelling (in person or maybe, I don't know, on a blog), and a moment every day to sit alone in gratitude for the day?  Maybe it's the introvert in me, but this feels better.  We can be (and often are) excellent.  We can serve our clients and our colleagues without shouting to each other about our total awesomeness.

At the end of a session with one of my frail clients today, my feedback was a warm smile, lingering handshake, and a direct gaze into my eyes with a faintly whispered, "Thank you."  One barely audible moment that showed me that my client felt better after the session than he did before.  Why should I ask for or expect anything more?  Truthfully, why should I ask for or expect anything, if I am truly trying to serve my clients and not my ego?

Now that I am home, I am resolved to speak more gently about my work.  I can express the depth of my commitment to this profession without shouting about it.  I am resolved to remember this quote from Susan Cain's book Quiet:

"There's zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas."

Monday, March 21, 2016

No Ego No Cry

I arrived early to find my client seated in his living room.*  "Come in, Rebecca," he said, "Sit down.  I need to talk to you."  The way he said it made it clear that he was not about to compliment my amazing promptness.

He asked me what it was that I was doing the last few times I had been there.  What kind of work did I call that?  It was an honest, direct question.  I gave him my stock line about Western, anatomy-based massage adapted to reduce any additional strain on his body.  He nodded to show me that he understood.  Then he described his last massage therapist.  Her strong hands.  How the work was so much more beneficial for him.  He wondered if this was something I could do, and if not, would it be worth it to either of us for me to keep coming back again?

I swallowed my tirade about gentle work and my knowledge of the physiological changes happening in his body.  I swallowed the urge to tell him I knew how to work with his body better than his previous therapist, that he was somehow wrong for getting more benefit from her work than mine.

Instead, I remembered the mantra I used when I was learning in Thailand:  no ego, no cry.

I asked him more about his previous treatments, if he could describe what he found particularly beneficial.  I listened to him talk about the skill of his previous therapist.  I nodded to show I understood.  The massage I gave him that day was more muscle-adhesion focused, still within the boundaries of my training and comfort level.

He invited me to talk to him about what I was doing so he could understand.  I inhaled and exhaled -- reminded myself that this was not a person trying to trip me up in a mistake so he had an excuse to fire me.  This was a person who truly sought to understand my approach to his body.  I explained what I could, answered his questions as clearly as I could.  I did all of this until he began to breath more deeply, and settled into his massage.

That day I discovered my next Why.  Why I am not done with massage.  My ego was my biggest struggle in Thailand, and that struggle came home with me.  In fact, it was started here.  My next challenge to to find out how to end it.  Here.

* -- identifying details have been changed

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Today is Why

You may recall that Beatrice helped me realize that I need to stick with this profession.  Since then, I have been struggling with the question of why.

Today is why.

I had 3 clients today, all with a cancer diagnosis in the same organ of their bodies.  You could guess the progression and prognosis of their treatment by the hair on their heads -- from bald, to pixie fringe, to long, heavy ponytail.  You could tell a little about their comfort with their bodies by their unguarded eyes -- and be careful not to assume the eyes match the disease progression.  The most raw fear peeks out from under that long, heavy ponytail.

The expectations we set together have been simple, realistic, and sometimes elusive.  "Give me that glowy feeling I always get from massage."  "Help me relax so I can sleep tonight." "Just make my legs feel more comfortable."  My past tendency was to say 'Yes.  I will do that," then spend the better part of the session worrying about whether or not I was doing that.

Today I tried something new.  Instead of "I will do that," I started with "I will hold that intention."  Instead of worrying about keeping my promise, I found myself present in breathing and being with the person in the room.  Out of that beginning, I found myself more able to feel and interpret what was under my hands, and feeling much more energetic at the end of the day.

I needed to learn and feel that again.  This is why I need to stick with this profession.  Or at least one of many "why"s.  It is my intention to keep open and aware for the next ones.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Beatrice, Patron Saint of Sticking with Your Profession

We travel to find answers to questions we didn't know we had.

My first day at our teacher's house in Thailand, I realized that my question was whether I still wanted to be a massage therapist at all.  I spent the day confused and frustrated, unable to make sense out of the work people were doing, and nursing my bruised ego.  (For the first time in, well, ever, a teacher told me I was "terrible" at something.)  I spent the day thinking maybe it was time to say goodbye to massage.  Although the thought broke my heart, it seemed necessary. I arrived in Thailand almost hollow inside.  I felt like if you tapped my chest it would resonate and echo like a bell.  Maybe that meant I was done.

A few days later, back at our teacher's house, I decided I should at least try a little bit.  Try again to do this Thai massage thing that continued to baffle me.  A friend suggested I work with Beatrice.  Beatrice had never done any kind of bodywork.  She had been learning at our teacher's house for a couple of weeks.  She was often the first one there in the morning, and she practiced when she could and watched when she couldn't.  Plus, she had a very kind face.  I made it a point to start a conversation with her as soon as we arrived.  After morning chanting, she asked if I wanted to practice together and I said yes.

We moved off to a corner of the room, leaving the center for our teacher and some of the more confident students.  Beatrice worked on my legs and feet, taking time to position herself and occasionally sighing or apologizing when something didn't quite work.  After a bit she sat down next to me, smiled and said, "I think that's all I know how to do."  We traded places.

I worked on Beatrice's arms and shoulders.  Before I started, I acknowledged to myself that I knew nothing, and said a little prayer that I would do no harm.  I forgot the names of muscles and bones.  All those origins, insertions and actions I worked so hard to learn and teach -- I let them go.  I watched Beatrice's face while I worked and let my gut be my clock.  I have no idea what I was doing -- probably something very similar to my "usual" type of work, just adapted for using legs, knees and feet and for working on the floor.  After a bit, I laid my hand on Beatrice's shoulder and said, "I think that's all I know how to do."

Beatrice sat up, looked at me with her kind eyes and said, "I don't know what you did -- but I felt something, I --" and as words failed both of us, she wrapped her arms around me and we embraced.  In that moment, I expanded and the empty, hollow places inside began to fill.

I guess I'm not done yet.

Friday, January 29, 2016


Sawatdee ka from Thailand.

I've been at "school" for two days now, but I think I have already learned enough for a new lifetime.  I thought I came here prepared with my beginner's mind, but I see now that I came with my ego.

Our teacher has a unique approach that involves nothing like our familiar version of lessons.  There are a few key phrases that he keeps returning to while he talks.  One of these is talking about "helicopters," meaning (I think) we tend to focus on the mess of anxiety and anticipation that exists outside ourselves and this present moment.  He asked us many times today: "Helicopters.  Helping or not helping?"

Not helping.

I have never done Thai massage before, so my initial plan was to observe and receive this first week. Just be a sponge and store everything I could in my head.  I had the opportunity today to try out a few basic things.  I guess I thought my knowledge and experience doing Western massage would help me to get the hang of it fairly easily.

Helicopters. Not helping.

Our teacher came over to my mat.  He said, "Terrible.  Terrible.  What are you doing?" He proceeded to show me where I could feel a block in my practice partner's body.  He tried to tell me what to do, but I just wasn't getting it.  What I was getting was frustrated.  Ego.  "Just show me," I said.  He proceeded to move my body into the correct position to work on my partner's body.  I managed to get a little of the feel of that one movement, but I had no idea what to do next.  So, he took over.  And talked a lot about how I needed to stop thinking and just feel.

None of this was news to me.  Nor should it be news to anyone who has known me for thirty seconds or longer.  But to me the realization that I am that much of a beginner was difficult.  I suppose I brought my "advanced beginner" mind by mistake.

Learning something so new is uncomfortable and frustrating in the early stages.  It has been some time since I've been this much of a beginner, so I guess I forgot.  But tomorrow I'll be at class bright and early, trying again to be a clean slate and a calm mind.

Friday, January 22, 2016

On Leaving

I am a nervous traveler.  There's a whole checklist I go through before a long trip of any kind.  This starts about two weeks out from my departure date.  The list includes necessary things like leaving a check for the pet sitter and taking out the garbage.  But the bulk of the list consists of things like checking  that my (brand new) passport has not expired, searching my email for flight confirmation information, counting pairs of socks, checking my passport, picking up and putting down my suitcase, and checking my passport.

With all of this nervous energy, I sometimes find it hard to focus.  Ever.  I imagine in my brain a rubber pinball being batted around by ADD mice with tennis rackets.  And I thank goodness for the respite of clients.  In session, I can find my lost focus and be in the present moment, no matter what is going on with my passport.

In between, though.  Oh my goodness.  Today, after a deeply focused session, I stepped out to get my client a glass of water and within 30 seconds I FORGOT WHERE I WAS.  Fortunately my brain still picks up on context clues and no client was left dehydrated.

I find it interesting that my work is both what makes it necessary for me to travel and what makes it possible for me to function while I am worried about the travel.  It is both respite, and the author of the need for respite.  I am grateful for both.

I am also grateful to everyone who trusts me with their bodies and their wellness.  I'm leaving for a while, but I'm coming back to continue to earn that trust, every day, every session.

This last week before I go, I am touched by the kind words and generosity of every one of my clients.  I have been wished safety, peace, renewal, fun and all good things you could possibly get from travel.  And  -- most important to me -- I have been assured that I will be missed, and my return will be a happy occasion.

Even before I leave, then, I am looking forward to coming home again with my new eyes and new knowledge -- ready to be a better, focused, more aware massage therapist for everyone.

Until then, like this blog post, I remain joyfully scattered.

Now, where is my passport . . . .

Sunday, January 17, 2016

End of Year Review

Towards the end of 2014, I got some advice from a business coach.  She suggested I spend some time writing out my 2015.  She said to go month by month and write down everything that would happen in that month.  The idea was that if I wrote something down, it would become part of my brain somehow.  I would start doing things to make those goals happen, almost without realizing it.  The written word is powerful, she said.  I couldn't agree more.

The last few days of 2014, I took myself to Kentucky for a few days, stayed by myself at a cabin in a state park, hiked all day and wrote at night.  I called the thing I wrote my manifesto.

The first few months came easily.  I wrote in a flurry -- visioning and planning my future as fast as I could move my pen over the paper.  I wrote in an incredible amount of detail about the people I would meet, the number of clients I would have, and how I would feel while doing it.  I felt pretty smugly realistic about it, too.  I threw in some challenges, and even a few setbacks.

Everything was clicking along until I got to writing September.  I stalled.  I filled up half a page with doodles and scribbles before I finally managed to eke out a loosely drawn page or two.  The rest of the manifesto was equally challenging.  December, I recall, was barely half a page.  (By contrast, February was getting on for 6 pages before I was done.)  Still, I came back from Kentucky clutching that green notebook like it would drag me into the future depicted on its pages.

And then, the universe gigglesnorted and did whatever it damn well pleased.

Sure, many of the things I wrote about did happen.  I did leave my soul-sucking teaching job to focus on more soul-building teaching opportunities.  I did move to a new home.  (Twice --  but to be fair I didn't really specify "Move only one time" in the manifesto.)  I did send out a newsletter in the first week of every month.

And many of the things I wrote did not happen.  I spent a good part of last year (when I wasn't moving) going back to Kentucky where I was needed.  While this put a damper on the goals of the manifesto, I was damn grateful that I could do it.

So, really, the year in action went much like the writing of that year.  Clicking along easily at first, until I stalled, hiccuped and got derailed.  But now, after the end of that year, I would still call it a success.

I spent the entire year employed by myself doing work I chose with my heart and soul.

I spent the better part of the year being present for family and friends when they needed me.

I spent a part of most days engaged in some creative pursuit.

All in all, 2015 was a powerful year in both its written and lived forms.