March 28, 2012


Hands. The way they fit to the human body. It's completely magical, and becomes more so, not less so, the longer I practice massage. The hand is not really that flexible an apparatus; most of its joints are not that mobile; but there's nothing in the whole landscape of the body that it can't mold itself to and speak to.

March 24, 2012

Home Massage

Other massage therapists, when they find out I do in-home massage, often ask, “how do you like that?” They ask gingerly. A delicate question. Some of them maybe are thinking: “can't the poor guy get work in a regular office?” They're inviting me to share my sorrows with them.

“I love it!” I say, and they're a little startled by my exuberance. It's true, I have to schlepp my table, which is a nice solid custom Robert Hunter, not a lightweight aluminum job. No hydrocollator for wet heat, and no spa goodies: just the table warmer, the linens, and a bolster. A few pillows if its going to be sidelying. It's a minimal kit, and occasionally I have to improvise, to borrow another blanket or pillow from my client. My array of lubricants is four narrow bottles: two scented oils, one unscented oil, and an unscented lotion. Rapid improvisation is the name of the game. Some people are too ill or fragile to climb on and off the table. I've worked on people in beds, in recliner chairs, in wheelchairs. I've worked in spaces so tiny that my table had to be against a wall, and I had to do the whole massage from one side.

I love it. Just the materials at hand and the will to make it work. Figuring out how to deploy in a new space is often the first thing a client and I figure out together, and it's a model for how I work. This isn't about a lofty health care provider dispensing treatments on his own terms. This is about how things work for you, in your own tiny apartment or your mansion on the hill. This is about something that makes sense in your life, in your world, not in a standardized florescent-lighted hospital room, and not in a vaguely Asian shrine which looks serene because nobody ever actually lives in it. This is about relaxing in the home you really live in, and in the body you really live in.

I'm honored by people admitting me to their homes. I learn so much about them. I meet their kids and their pets. I see the stuff on their walls. Some people are tidy and some are not: some seem in control of their space and some seem overwhelmed by it. Some are frou-frou and some austere. Some share their space easily and some don't. Most people apologize to me about something, the way something looks or smells or sounds, which to them seems not quite right. Every new house I go to is a new world, with its own laws and culture. Every one is fascinating. By the time I've set up, and washed my hands in a new kitchen or bathroom, I understand more about my client than I could have learned in hours of intake interviews.

Every home is wonderful to me. Human beings make homes like spiders make spiderwebs: there's common structures and purposes to all of them, but all contain surprising and enchanting adaptations. There's no such thing as an ordinary one. In that way, they're like bodies: accumulations of love and distress, made sacred by being inhabited.

This is, after all, why I wanted to do massage in the first place: because I wanted to meet people as they really are and where they really live. Not as they think they should be. Not as they have to present themselves to the working world, buttoned up and held together. I've always prefered the backstage world, raw and messy and slapdash though it is, to sitting out with the general audience seeing how it's supposed to look.

March 14, 2012

Making It New

Someone recently – I don't think it's worth linking to, because he hadn't done his homework – wrote a challenge to massage. Having googled massage a bit he'd come up with half-page list of claims for its medical benefits, from curing asthma to boosting immune function. Easy to do that: most massage sites have those bullet lists. I've written disparagingly about them before. What I'm interested in here, though, is the way he framed his challenge. “Sure, massage feels good,” he said, “but what if it doesn't really do any good?”

Discussions of the worth of massage tend to accept these as the two alternatives. Either massage is medically effective, or it “just feels good.”

Now, my heart revolts – and I'd guess yours does too, if you're bothering to read this – at the idea that massage “just feels good.” You could say the same thing, after all, about love or art. They are, in some senses, not very useful. You can, without too much of a stretch, come up with “uses” for them – love ties together the social fabric, say, or art extends the boundaries of thought – but really, nobody falls in love in order to knit together society, and no one stands transfixed in front of a wonderful painting in order to conscientiously do their self-development exercises. Some things are worth doing for their own sake. If we make up justifications for them afterward, it's only because we fully intend to keep doing them anyway, and we need some excuse to present to our utilitarian critics. That's how the bullet lists of the medical benefits of massage have always struck me. “If your spouses object to the expense, show them this list, and a link to the Mayo Clinic page, and maybe that will shut them up.”

To say that massage feels good is like saying that Cezanne's paintings are pretty. It's not that the statement is wrong, exactly: it's just inadequate, and it makes you wonder if you and your interlocutor live in the same world. Someone in the comment thread said, a little petulantly, “have you ever gotten a massage?”

I've been trying to work out an explanation of what exactly I think massage, as I practice it, is, and why I think it's important. In a therapeutic massage group yesterday, I wrote this explanation of why I was rejecting massage as therapy. It's the best summary I've been able to come up with yet:
It's not that I think my practice is particularly ineffective, from the therapeutic point of view: I don't think my outcomes differ markedly from the mean. But back when I was a client, I didn't get massage for therapeutic reasons, as understood in this group. Nor did I get it because it felt good. (Though it may well have been therapeutic, and it certainly often felt good.) I got massage for the same reason I meditate, or read poetry, or listen to music: it's a form of -- how can I put it? -- of travel. It's the closest thing I can imagine to borrowing a different nervous system and trying it on. Ezra Pound said the job of poetry was to "make it new": that's what massage does for me, both as giver and receiver. I want to own up to that being my basic project, without taking on any of this healer or shaman or "energy worker" stuff.