Saturday, December 16, 2006


The "professional exchange," they call it. You get a massage from a professional, and give them one, and they evaluate your work.

"Then you get some difficult clients," she said. "People who..."

And I picture men attempting to grope her. But I'm on the wrong track. She looks at me obliquely, as though sizing me up.

"People who start crying in their intake interviews. And, you know, want to hug you all the time."

I make a mental note to hug her sparingly, if at all. But I understand the crying part. The care she takes moves me, makes me feel like a lost five year old who's suddenly found home. She moved my arm in a complicated range-of-motion routine, and I remarked on it (probably unintelligibly; I was already on the endorphin-high I always get from good massage.) "It's really for myofascial stretching, not stretching the muscles," she said. But what had struck me was not that. It was the way she supported my arm, holding all of my arm with all of hers. It reminded me of the far-off days of Contact Improv. It was such a caring way to cradle an arm.

As she talks with me afterward she folds her laundry on the massage table, which creates a casual intimacy that enchants me. I wonder once again how much of what brought me to massage was my impatience with boundaries and formal distances. I have always, like Ahab, wanted to "strike through the mask." And it has sometimes been a destructive impulse, though I've never meant it to be. I read a book recently, The Educated Heart, about the necessity for boundaries and formal distances in bodywork. And I agreed with it, very strongly; but of course the reason we need to fence bodywork and formalize it is because it is already, in itself, a radical dissolution of boundaries, a radical lessening of distance.

Is the body real, or is it just another convention? Buddhist philosophy would say, just another convention. In which case, the dissolving of these boundaries will just reveal the next. The boundaries aren't out there -- they would say -- they're in my mind.

They're right and they're wrong, about that. They're right: I can already feel the impatience stirring. This still isn't intimate enough. The old affliction -- never enough -- that the Buddha diagnosed so brilliantly. And some of her clients reach for an intimacy that isn't there, or isn't there at least as they imagine it. But the Buddhist philosophers are also wrong. It reaches me, this loving touch. In some way it seems impossible to make it inauthentic. Even when a fellow-student touches me clumsily, with wavering attention, the touch marks our relationship, makes it different. All the hullabaloo about whether Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat were going to shake hands -- well, in one way it seemed just silly. The political agreements and disagreements were what mattered. But in another, deeper way, it wasn't at all silly. Once you've touched someone, you will never be in quite the same relation to them again. And everyone knows that.

She's an athlete. I don't think I have ever touched a perfectly healthy body, before. Everything about it worked; every muscle yielded gracefully; massaging her was like reaching for an apple so ripe that it falls into your hand the moment you touch it. Her body was the physical equivalent of a mind of perfect equanimity. You could see why she'd be unworried about subjecting herself to the clumsy ministration of first-quarter massage students -- what could they do wrong, to a body so right in itself?

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