Tuesday, March 27, 2018

What Makes You Soften?

When was the last time someone looked into your face and noticed a change?  The kind of change that drew them closer to you and made your connection to them stronger?  This is the story of what is behind the important people in my life noticing that change in me.

I am slowly emerging from a month long dance hiatus.  I got to the point where the classes and the practice felt more like a burden than anything, so in an effort to keep this important part of my life intact, I decided to take a break.  No classes.  Minimal practice, and overall forgiving myself for taking a break because it felt like I needed it.

About a week ago, I pulled my zils out from the back of my desk drawer and spent a few minutes just running through some basic patterns.  The next day, I did a basic drill pattern a few times, and the day after that, I ran through a video to learn a new combination.  That evening, I went to a live music and dancing social event; a monthly event which I had missed for the past several months in a row.  I felt a little rusty and creaky, to be honest, but I did dance.  And I tried to forgive myself for the sloppy technique.

As this has been creeping back into my life, I have noticed something else.  I feel softer.  The shifts and changes of every day tend to land on me with more gentle edges, unlike the angularities of chaos I had been feeling for the last little while.  It's not just the lengthening and occasionally warming days, although that is a big part of this growing softness.  It is the return of dancing, expression through movement and intention of the body.  It sands down the rough places and makes me flexible, in all senses of that word.

As I reflect on the break from and return to dancing, I am grateful to recognize this thing in my life that brings softness.  I think we all have something that makes us more open to the world in general.  A hobby, a passion, a person -- there is something in our lives, that when we allow space for it, makes us soften.  I feel like we are too well trained to be hard -- suspicious, protective, rigid.  There is a time and a place for these things, to be sure, but it is not all the time.  Our softness, openness and vulnerability are what connect us to each other.

So I am asking you this week:  what makes you soften?

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

ISO the Walkable Life

I can walk to work.  This may not seem like much, but it has changed my life for the better within a week.  Instead of enclosing myself in a rolling metal box and traveling along roads with other rolling metal boxes, now I step out my front door and walk.  I move at the pace of reflection, slow enough to pay attention to what is around me, or to focus inward on whatever is coming up in my day. 

As my world has shifted in this way, I find it increasingly frustrating to actually get into the car and go somewhere.  It is still necessary to use the car now that I am living in a city with minimal public transportation.  Maybe not necessary, if I'm honest, but significantly easier.  I am trying to find more and more ways to make my life walkable. 

More than the physical benefits of walking,  I want to increase the intangible benefits.  When I walk, I have time to completely separate from whatever was holding my attention at home (boxes to unpack, dirty dishes, piles of laundry) and make a calm transition into being at work.  I have more liminal space to let my mind wander through whatever creative projects I have going on right now.  I move through the world on a human scale, able to see and greet people I come across.  And, when I get back home after walking from work, I inevitably have a moment of warm gratitude for my home, my commute, and my life as it is right now. 

As I have been thinking of ways to walk more, I am also reflecting on the history of our use of technology, and how it has changed what we think of as human scale.  As we developed more and faster ways of moving our bodies from here to there (bicycle, car, airplane, rocket, tesseract) we became able to see distance differently.  In my grandparents' time, a long distance relationship meant you had a town or two between you.  Now, that could be as much as a continent. 

And, with the new technology, we have also created new kinds of class barriers.  You see that very clearly with the car in particular.  Having a car, or regular access to a car, opens up opportunities for schooling, jobs, and even everyday errands in myriad ways.  And the deliberate choice to not have a car is in itself a form of privilege.  The privilege of living in a city or a neighborhood where everything you need is within walking distance.  The privilege of good enough health to walk, and the ability to purchase adequate shoes and clothes to walk outside.  The privilege of having walking routes that are safe. 

All of these things live in my mind as I walk to work, or to the store, or to the bank, or to my favorite coffee shop.  Privilege.  Class and economic barriers.  Human scale.  It all lives together with everything else I am doing in my life to create and cultivate balance. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


This year, I am slated to renew my massage therapy license.  Both of them.  I am licensed in Illinois, where I lived for twenty years, and in Kentucky, my home state which I returned to last year.  When I moved back to Kentucky last year, I had a plan in mind.  I would go back to Chicago every month or so (excluding the worst winter months) and I would see whatever clients I could there, visit friends, and generally enjoy my life as a multi-city massage professional. 

It seemed like a good idea at the time, and for a time, it was a good life.  I absolutely love those liminal spaces that only exist in traveling, such as the time spent in a car going from one city to the next.  I appreciated feeling like I was still part of my friends' lives, especially as I still had more friends to find in Kentucky, where my solitude was often extended enough to become loneliness.  And while my work in Kentucky was minimal and spread out, when I went back to Chicago, I could pack my schedule with a week's worth of clients in a day or two.  I could remember what it was like to be busy and comfortably tired at the end of a day. 

Then winter came, and I put my trips to Chicago on hold for a while.  The winter up there was one of the reasons why I left.  Not the top reason, but definitely in the top ten.  During those months, I made some new contacts in Kentucky, started a more focused avenue for marketing, and generally settled more into my life here. 

And now as the redbud trees are blooming and even Chicago is starting to see little green shoots of things come up, I have a decision to make.  Do I renew my Illinois license?  Is this two-city massage life really going to work for me?  I am looking in my calendar for a few days where I could go up to Chicago and see clients, now that it is (nearly) reliably snowstorm-free there.  I am not finding the days.  Truth be told, I'm not looking all that hard. 

This morning, I took a walk in one of my favorite parks.  Today has the kind of sunshine that makes the trees outlined against the sky look fake.  It is a light so clear that my eyes can barely process it.  I have this free time in the middle of the day because things are still building in my Kentucky practice, and I don't start teaching for another couple of weeks yet.  Tomorrow, I have a full book of clients.  And the day after that?  More space to spend time preparing for the classes I'll be teaching, and to continue working on writing projects I recently re-discovered. 

All this is to say, I will let my Illinois license lapse.  I was holding on to the familiar and safe by keeping it.  Through the winter months, I have given myself the chance to absolutely trust fall into Kentucky.  It feels like home here, with people I love and a practice that is slowly picking up steam.  Even as the Ohio River Valley allergy season begins, I breathe better here, so I'm staying. 

Of course I will be visiting Chicago when I can, but I plan to focus on what's really important when I go there -- my friends.  And dancing.  Lots and lots of dancing. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Cross Country Drive

Last week I cleaned out the files on an old laptop, and I found a bunch of writing that I thought was lost forever.  It took me a while to remember the time, place and situation that inspired some of it, but the feeling of the poem below came back instantly.  It was written after the last day of a cross-country drive (from Chicago to L.A.) that started a year of living in California.  I was trying to capture that moment where movement -- any kind of movement -- punches through and gives you a way to express what feels inexpressible.

Movement, dance, touch, massage -- all these body-based activities can support and encourage communication.  I see that as a side effect of the work I do, which is why you will find cards and pens in my office to record any ideas that came to you during your massage.


Bed Diving

Barstow is a ghost town in training.
It rolls up after the desert 
dry concrete roads and boarded up strip malls
sun-bleached sky searing your eyes.
At the hotel, fatigue pulls away for a moment
bares the anger just behind.

We go bed-diving,
leap across the space from the door to the bed
let the springs flip and roll our bodies onto the floor.
The cross-country drive — nearly over —
coated us with fine gray dust.
We bed-dive through it,
and when we can barely breathe for laughing
we lie side-by-side, holding hands
fall asleep hard and deep, still in our sweat-stained clothes.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

What Happens If

"What happens if you speak up?" 

An acquaintance recently had reason to ask me this question.  I understood it as a rhetorical question, and I filed it away as soon as I heard it.  We moved on with a conversation about other things, with other questions that needed answers of some kind. 

But then something a little strange happened.  You know how sometimes a song gets stuck in your head, and you have no idea why?  Or maybe you realize it's because the song is connected with an emotion or a memory that requires your attention?  That started to happen with this question, now in first person. 

What happens if I speak up? 

As I was settling in for sleep, gently clearing my mind and relaxing into bed, this question came into my head.  For a few minutes I was wide awake again, trying to think of times I spoke up, and to remember what happened.  I fell asleep before I could come up with anything significant. 

What happens if I speak up?

The next day, reading a book about a completely different topic, I couldn't focus on the words any more.  I put the book aside and attended to the question.  It no longer felt rhetorical, and after a little reflection I realized why. 

Somewhere in that original conversation , my acquaintance and I had made a tacit agreement about how we were going to work together.  Upon reflection, I knew the agreement would not work for me.  In no way was I going to get what I needed from our working relationship unless I made perfectly clear what my expectations were. Unless I spoke up. 

Every time I meet a new client, I have a little spiel I give about how I want and need them to speak up if something about their session needs to change.  I try to remind everyone that this is their massage session, and they have the right and the responsibility to ask for what they want.  (I have the corresponding right and responsibility to work within my scope of practice and ethical guidelines.)  Sometimes, people do ask for changes during the session, and I change what ever I can without going outside my training.  Sometimes I read or hear later that they wanted something to change and had a not-so-great experience because they didn't get what they want. 

And now, with my acquaintance, I was about to have my own not-so-great experience -- unless I could manage to speak up.  So I did.  I'm here to tell you, it was not easy.  It almost felt easier to just let it go and accept what was.  The moment between me speaking up and my acquaintance responding contained all the possibilities of a difficult time.  Anything could have happened. 

But, what actually happens? 

Well, in this case at least, I got to feel and be understood and respected.  My experience changed for the better and more effective work is being done.  And I try to make that happen for every client when they speak up too.  If I know about it, I can change it.  Usually for the better. 

Friday, February 23, 2018

Back in the Classroom

I am thrilled to report that I will soon be teaching again in a general massage therapy program.  I've been geeking out with my brand new Pathology textbook, and making my partner smile with my enthusiastic flights about myelin.  I can't wait.

And yet --

I just completed the piles of new hire paperwork.  It was mostly the usual forms where I write the same information 10 (or more) times over.  This particular stack featured something I've never seen before, however.  In the handbook/acknowledgement of campus procedures document, there were extended instructions about what to do in case of an active shooter on campus.  I suppose I should have expected it, especially so soon after the school shooting in Florida.  Even in so-called adult education, it has become a normal part of the standard paperwork that we educate ourselves about how to behave if someone comes to campus and starts shooting.

I refuse to accept that this is anything other than deeply weird and ultimately unacceptable.  My office, and my classroom, need to be safe places where clients and students can explore and discover and learn.  My whole profession is about the opposite of bodily harm, and I resent that I have to think about and be prepared for it as a real possibility.  Because it is a real possibility.

I am watching the survivors of the shooting in Florida, and other young people across the country, speak out and try to change the world, and I am watching as the solutions they are offered only point to a more heavily armed society.  I am seeing these traumatized children ask lawmakers to protect them, to help them feel safe enough to learn, and I am seeing some lawmakers and others respond by offering them even more fear.  Arm the teachers.  Buy bulletproof backpacks.  I am having trouble finding conversations focused on creating a safe, vibrant, inclusive learning environment.

Except for the conversations generated and continued by the students in Florida and by other young people.  They seem pretty clear about what they want.  They want to learn without fearing for their lives.  They want the lawmakers of this country to value children's lives more than they value their interpretation of the second amendment.  This seems reasonable and fair to me.

I'm going to start teaching again in a few weeks, and I am thrilled, excited, ready to learn from and with students again.  And I am now aware, if I wasn't before, how deeply important it is to create a safe space for my students.  This was always important, but now -- now it's life and death.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

High Maintenance

There is a meme floating around that invites you to score how "high maintenance" you are.  It lists a number of different personal care activities and gives each one a points value.  For example: regular pedicures are something like 5 points. 

Cute, right?  Harmless fun? 

Actually, no.  When I thought about this cute little nothing test, it occurred to me that the implied value system was anything but harmless. 

Let's start with the list itself.  When you look carefully, or even more-than-glancingly, at all the items on the list, you see that they all have one very important thing in common.  they are all stereotypical "female" activities.  Not even actual female activities, like getting a pap smear.  They are socially ordained female activities.  (All except one, but I'll get to that later.) Applying makeup.  Having your nails done.  Shopping.  Wearing high heels.  There is a whole lot of forced gender normativity in that little list.  All these stereotypically female activities somehow contribute to how difficult a person you are to be around.  So, somehow, we are supposed to navigate the expectation that, as women, we must somehow want to do these things along with the sanction against being "high maintenance." 

Look at that, another Scylla and Charybdis for the ladies. 

The thing that gets me the most though, is this line: "Gets massages regularly --- 10 points."  So, one of the highest point values is assigned to massage.  Meaning, that getting regular massage is one of the most high maintenance things you can do.  Aside from this irritating me as a massage therapist, this strikes me as an extension of a dangerous assumption women are encouraged to make:  the assumption that time spent on their own care is time somehow wasted.  Or, by extension, that time for self-care takes time away from others who need this woman's time.  (Spouse, parents, children, co-workers, literally anyone) 

This is why I had this recent, far-from-unusual, client experience: a woman in her late 50s came in for her first ever massage.  She was fit, active, and engaged in her community.  She lived a good life, full of love and fulfillment.  She loved her partner, her children, her job.  And yet -- at the end of a massage, she walked out with tears in her eyes, and embraced me, crying into my shoulder.  She told me she had never felt so cared for;  she didn't know she could even experience that.  All that stuff about her wonderful life was absolutely true.  And so were her tears as this new layer of honoring herself was opened up to her. 

So, no, I don't find it cute or harmless when memes like this go around.  Not as long as any human in the world denies themselves a moment of compassion and care because of social expectations.