Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Momentum

I have been trying to come up with a topic for a blog post.  I just opened my post list on the off chance that I would find a draft of something that I could finish up.  As luck would have it, I found a draft with the title, "Momentum."

How perfect is that? I clicked on it, ready to catch some momentum.

It was a completely blank page.

I consider writing something I do, always, no matter what profession I write down on my tax form every year.  True, I spend most of my week practicing massage therapy (and loving it.)  I also spend part of my week writing about the practice of massage therapy.  I love the results of the writing.  The practice of writing itself is sometimes deflating.

See, in a massage, clients provide immediate feedback (conscious or not) and it's pretty easy to edit on the fly.  There is a certain way muscle tissue feels when the way you massage it is working.  And when it is not.  I've been doing this long enough that I have a whole repertoire of different ways to approach massage.

The thing is, though, I've been writing for way longer than I've been doing massage.  I decided at age 8, when I wrote my first short story, that writing was for me.  I wrote pages and pages in my messy print, then in my messy cursive, then on my typewriter, my word processor, my computer and my laptop.  I have explored language from so many angles and so many voices that I couldn't even count them.

The difference, I am figuring out, is the editor.  Writing happens in my head.  This gives space and voice to my internal editor, commenting on and testing every sentence even as I am thinking it.  I end up trying to revise as I am writing, which just ends up slowing everything down.  Have you ever accidentally started driving your car while the parking brake is still on?  It's like that.  Forward, but slowly.  And eventually everything shuts down.

Massage, though, is a physical profession.  Of course I am thinking a lot while I work.  Remembering my intake conversation with this person, processing what I feel in the tissues through my knowledge and training, keeping track of time and how much more there is to do in the time we have.  This happens around and above the actual work, though.  The actual work involves touch and movement.  Physical movement and physical response.  There is nowhere for the editor to speak.

Ever since I started writing at the age of 8, I've been exploring ideas about creativity, trying different things to cultivate and build it.  Since I started dancing about four years ago, I am seeing more and more connections between just natural movement in the body and the ability to be creative within a structure.  (Whether that structure is words, a canvas or a choreography doesn't seem to matter.)

All of this is coming together for me this year, as I am continuing my dance training and reading more about the process of improvisation.  Using some exercises and concepts from my most recent dance intensive, I finally put together a workshop using movement and writing (or drawing) exercises to explore and encourage creativity.  Shadowdance (as I'm calling it,) gets it's first run this December in Louisville.  In the days leading up to, I am writing more, listening to the editor less, and dancing daily.  Come out and join me if you can.  Let's build some momentum.


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

No Object

Her latest scan shows no change in the tumor.*  Not bigger.  Not smaller.  For her oncologist, this means the chemo she is currently taking is not working.  She asked him what could be done.  He started off by saying: "Well, if money were no object . . ."

<insert record screeching noise here>

A client told me this story.  When she got to the part about "if money were no object," I felt my jaw tense a little.  Because here's the thing about medical care in general, and cancer in particular: money is an object.  For many people, money is more than an object.  It is a freaking pink elephant.  Cancer is expensive, even with the best insurance.  Check out this chart from the NIH for some 2010 numbers.

I had no idea how to react to this story as my client was telling it.  Especially because I knew very specifically that money was quite the object for her and for her family.  She never talked about it directly, but from things she said, I knew they had used all of their reserves to even seek treatment at this place, far away from her home town.  I also knew that she wanted to live.  She wanted it so much she hardly even fought for it. It was something so fiercely desired that it could be nothing other than true.  Of course the treatment would work.  Of course she could go back to her active, outdoorsy lifestyle with her family.  There was simply no other option.

And yet.  The chemo was not working in the way it should.  Curing was not happening.  And the next option, the experimental option, was even more expensive.  The doctor, I think, was trying to prepare her for that decision so many people before her had to make:  your money or your life.

That is much too simple, of course.  It was the much more subtle decision about how much hope she had left, and how much of it she was willing to mortgage against the money she would have to raise, who knows how.  It was the decision about a future where financial struggle for her family was inevitable, but her presence with them was not.  It was the decision about how much room she had left in her body, mind and spirit for more physical suffering with this new treatment.

Her oncologist wanted to acknowledge her financial reality along with her medical reality.  It sounded uncaring to me when she told me the story, but I think she understood.  She told me this story with not a hint of indignity or frustration.  She told it to me as a practical assessment of the Way Things Stood.  My indignity at it all simply was not a part of her world.  So I let it go.  Mostly.

I will forever be indignant that money is an object when it comes to taking care of another human being.  Cancer is a natural process -- one gone haywire, but natural nonetheless.  It does not discriminate.  We do, in the care we make possible based on income, insurance and geography.  I don't have the answer.  I just want to hear us talk more openly to each other about the questions.

And my client?  For her, she made the only possible choice.  She took the experimental treatment.  As of this writing, there has been a small reduction in the size of her tumor.  Not what they hoped for, but a reduction nonetheless.  Prognosis still to be determined.


*--names and identifying details have been changed

Monday, October 30, 2017

Before I Die


The wall pictured above is in downtown Louisville.  On a chalkboard wall, you are invited to complete the sentence: "Before I die, I want to . ."  Like many pieces of art that invite public participation, the responses are sometimes poignant, sometimes ridiculous, but never boring.  There, for all the world to see, is a chance to express your hidden longing.  For a time, at least. 

It is often a few weeks between times when I walk past this wall, and often I notice that it has been erased and re-filled with brand new answers.  This startled me at first.  I came back to the wall expecting to see the little words that I had written on my first (or second?) day in my new hometown still written there.  But my words were gone.  Filled in by a new longing from some other human. 

I think, write, and often live in metaphors.  So this, too, quickly became a metaphor for me.  This wall, this sturdy and permanent-seeming installation is actually a daily exercise of impermanence.  You write your desires in chalk, that fragile medium that can be easily wiped away with any hand or washed off with the slightest rain.  The idea itself invites us to acknowledge impermanence.  Before I die.  Before.  Meaning that time may seem long, but it is not endless.  There is a precious window where we get to express and exercise our desires and ambitions.  Do it now. 

This metaphor completely changed my experience of seeing my words disappear.  It made my own longing more real, more precious, and more likely something I would act towards.  The inevitable end makes me want to be and do more in the present moment.  So, ultimately, for me, chalk was the perfect medium to express myself.  Before I die, I want to  . . .

I am fortunate to be in this place and to know people who are thinking about the end of life in a very deliberative way.  In just a few days, there is the opportunity to think and talk about what we value and how to express that by making our plans for the end.  The Before I Die Festival Symposium is November 4th.  I'll be there, uncovering my hopes and desires for the inevitable end.  Join me?

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Science of Small Movements

It happens pretty often.  I see a new client.  We have a thorough conversation, I work with them for an hour or so.  Then, they come out of the massage, slightly groggy and say some version of the following:
"That was  . . . different." 

Sometimes it's positive, sometimes it is less so.  It is this expression that the way I work is not exactly what they have expected or experienced.  I'm okay with that -- even when it is not meant positively.  Not everyone is my client. 

Massage blends science with art and creativity, so all therapists work differently, and our styles are built from our training, our practice and our temperament.  I generally stumble when I try to describe how I work.  What comes out is some kind of word salad of "myofascial," "slow movements," and "gentle." 

This week, however, a new client gave me the perfect phrase.  They called my massage "the science of small movements."  this client was trying to describe how it didn't feel like there was much doing of stuff during the massage, but there was a tiny adjustment that allowed them to breathe in a way they hadn't felt for a while.  I told my client that I was going to steal that phrase (like an artist,) and here we are.

The science of small movements.  That phrase brings together a lot of they physical work I have been doing lately, in my profession and in my other creative pursuits.  The barest pressure on the exact correct spot in a muscle to allow it to release and let go on its own -- allowing the body to do what it wants to do and be well.  The smallest shift in position or facial expression to add highlight to a dance.  The slightest shift of shoulders that relaxes the whole body and makes running effortless. 

I am chafing against the idea of doing big things, having big plans, making big differences.  I feel more at home in this science of small movements.  To go back to being the small stone that makes the first ripple, the butterfly's wing that shifts the air.  This feels more sustainable to me.  I can wake up every morning and think about changing the world, then eventually get overwhelmed and paralyzed by the enormity of what needs to change -- Or, I can wake up and think of small movements, something to start a chain reaction or to keep an existing reaction in motion. 

These days, I'm thinking small. 




Monday, October 9, 2017

Age of Amygdala

The amygdala is that small part of our brain that freaks out when we feel threatened.  I am, of course, oversimplifying the whole range of learned and instinctive behaviors involved in our fear response.  For my purposes, today, it is just important to know that the amygdala is a vital part of that.

This is good for our survival.  This is the whole system that allows us to jump back onto the sidewalk when we step in front of oncoming traffic, or jump back from a snake while we are out hiking.

The dilemma with the amygdala is that it really doesn't know the difference between an imminent physical threat and a perceived intellectual and/or emotional one.

Oncoming traffic?  Freaked amygdala!
Poisonous snake? There goes the amygdala!

Person who disagrees with your worldview?  Hold on to your amygdala!

The Oatmeal has a great comic explaining this in more detail.  I highly encourage you to check it out.  For my purposes, though, I am wondering about the amygdala aftermath.  The high-tension hangover that comes from days and weeks and months of perceived intellectual and emotional threats.  The fatigue that defies rest.

I am fortunate to have curated my social media feeds so that most of what I see is optimistic, positive, and compassionate.  So many reminders that we are not alone, to keep moving, to ask for help and hugs every time we need them.  It's lovely.

And some days, it just doesn't help.

So, I am trying this new thing.  This thing where I am allowed to, for just a little while, bask in the dawning of the age of amygdala.  Let the heart race, let the monkey-mind wander, let the pressure build.  I am using my brain these days like an old-fashioned pressure cooker, where I need to watch carefully as the pressure builds and be sure to manage the release with a gentle, mindful hand.  I am finding, so far, that what happens when I allow this to happen, it's like I've burned off a little bit of the lingering fear and anxiety so that when I exhale, it blows away like so much ash.

So far.  I wonder sometimes how many housewives sustained lifelong injuries from those old-school pressure cookers.  And if I am somehow destined to suffer a similar fate.

This is just one of many ways I am coping with the less-than-ideal, however, so for now I have other options (healthy and less healthy) to draw upon.  And my carefully curated social media feed, that just wants me to dance and be loved.

I'll let you know how it's going.


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Six Impossible Things

I get quotes stuck in my head the way some people get songs stuck in theirs.  This morning it was from Lewis Carroll:

"Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”


As I got ready for my day, it occurred to me that I should adopt this practice somehow.  After all, weren't there moments when I found that I was already living things I used to believe were impossible?  And don't we live in a world where, just at the moment, we are daily challenged with at least the ridiculous, if not the impossible?  

So, on Wednesday, June 7, here are six impossible things I believed before breakfast:

  1. Pouring hot water over bitter, ground-up beans creates a beverage capable of altering a morning.
  2. The same sun shining in my eyes at 6am just drew a bright, warm line all around this entire planet since 6am yesterday morning.  
  3. There are people chatting and laughing outside my building right now who, in the world of 50 years ago, would be dead.  (There is a dialysis center next to my building.) 
  4. The entity I know only as a collection of medications and diagnoses will transform into a complex and wonderful human being the moment she arrives for her 9am appointment.
  5. My life, and what I choose to do with it, makes a difference in a wider world than I can comprehend.
  6. So does yours.  


Believing takes effort and practice.  This was not an easy list to create (especially before #1 happened.)  I am looking forward to the six impossible things that will be waiting for me tomorrow.  







Thursday, May 18, 2017

Under My Hands

Towards the end of her massage, I laid my hands on both of her cheeks, intending to release some of the tension in her jaw.  I saw her face tighten, then relax as she started to cry.  Her tears traveled down her cheeks and under my hands.  I asked her if she wanted a tissue.  In response, she covered my hands with her hands.

"No," she said. "Just keep holding on to me."

So I did.  I held her head between my hands while tears fell down her face, under my hands and to the table.  I took long, slow, deep breaths and watched as she slowly started to do the same.  I felt the tension in her jaw release as she smiled a little bit.

"I could just feel my mother here,"  she said.  "She wants to tell you 'Thank you for fixing my daughter.'"

What I wanted to say, but didn't:  How could I possibly fix something so complete, so whole and so grandly human?

After she left, I took a moment to appreciate the gift she gave me -- that she would let me touch her tears with my bare hands.  May we always be worthy of such trust.


Monday, May 8, 2017

This Little Trigger Went to Market


I was talking to a friend about a teenager we both know.  This child recently got taken out of a sport due to a knee injury.  My friend expressed some concern about the teen finding some activity to do in place of the sport.  This friend expressed concern over the possibility that this child could become a fat teenager.  She called that a "bad thing."

So, here's the thing -- I was a fat teenager.  And in many ways it was a bad thing.  It was a bad thing because of the way other teenagers (and some adults) treated me.  Because somehow it was okay to be teased at school and to feel shamed at home.  It was a bad thing because of the nickname that I got that stuck with me until I moved away from my home town, the nickname that even now I won't tell anyone because it carries such shame-filled memories.  My point is, it was a bad thing because of the way the outside world made me feel unacceptable because my body was somehow unacceptable.

Fortunately, I have a loving and supportive family.  Even through missteps and unintentionally hurtful things,  I knew that I had worth and value as a human being.  Not everyone is that lucky.

This, I am discovering, is a big part of my purpose as a massage therapist.  My practice needs to be a place where every human can feel safe and valued in their body, just as it is right now.  My very first client in Louisville reinforced that for me.  Here was a woman who spends her life working hard, caring and providing.  The hard work took a toll on her body and she was finally making a commitment to take some care of herself.  After her first session with me, she sat in a chair and wept over the "mess" she had made of her body, and how "bad" she allowed it to get.  I handed her a tissue and told her two true things:
1)  Every human body that arrives in my office is a successful human body.  Period.
2)  In my space, no one apologizes for their body.  Ever.
She looked stunned for a moment, nodded a little, and scheduled her next appointment.

So, when my friend talked about how bad it would be to become a fat teenager, my overprotective amygdala went a little nuts.  I perceived her view as a threat.  It is a threat.  It threatens the world I am trying to create in and push out from my massage office, where a person can feel safe existing in their body.  On a more personal level, it threatens my own sense of worth, which may seem solid but is in fact a tray full of water on the deck of a ship -- it could spill at any time.

The wonderful writer behind the blog Your Fat Friend does a much better job of talking about our cultural hullabaloo surrounding fatness and body image.  You should go and read her blog.  Here, I will just point out that I can think of things so much worse than being the fat teenager, and I am still struggling with a world that still wants us to live somewhere besides in our bodies.  It is the struggle that clarifies my purpose.


Monday, April 3, 2017

Things I Appreciate #2

I am seriously tempted to make this thing I appreciate something like "patience" or "flexible production schedules," given how long it has been since my last post.  But, I have spent the past two days cleaning my new apartment and trying to tell an entire town that I have arrived.  I'm also trying to process the last week at my Chicago practice.  I'm a little too tired to attempt humor.

So today, I appreciate limits.

On the last day of my Chicago practice, I had a day seeing people who had been regular clients for most of my time there.  I spent quiet time meditating in the days before that Friday, reflecting with gratitude on what their trust had meant to me.  I meant to approach the day with calm, professional dignity.  But professional dignity has its limits, especially when people share small glimpses of how you have affected their lives, and I found myself ugly crying multiple times that day.  In front of clients.  They were all loving and grateful and generous with their hugs.

On my way to Louisville the next day, I got a message from another client, hoping I had the time to squeeze in just one more appointment.  (I saw this client about a week and half ago.  We mentioned that it was probably the last time, and said a calm and dignified goodbye.) For just a moment I thought I could squeeze in a last appointment when I'm back in Chicago to clear out the rest of my apartment.  Just thinking about it, though, made me want to curl up on the floor for a while.  Somewhat surprisingly, even my willingness to help has limits.  Those limits seem to share a border with my health, which I am calling progress.

These things that are limited -- time, health, stoicism -- really serve to highlight the things we have which are limitless. Curiosity, ability to learn, and of course, love.  Scarcity is a myth.  I have learned this (again) by finding my limits.


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.

******************************************************

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.