Sunday, March 04, 2007

Betraying Tenderness

Lovely thick African hair, the kinks pushing back against my fingers as I massage her scalp. A small room put together with care, the walls an intense yellowy orange, the white curtains open to a tiny back yard. On the shelves, among anatomy books and yoga tapes, is a card. A Matisse-ish person in persian tunic floats sideflexed in the aether, a small orb floating near her hand. Words straggle through the sky: "If we fail this time," said the angel, "it will be a failure of imagination." And she pressed the world into my hand.

I'm just starting to work her upper back -- neck, traps, rhomboids, the usual suspects for people who work at a computer -- when she says, "So tell me about your art."

Oh. I doodle file cards in class, like my napkin doodles, and a couple of people have been fussing embarassingly about them. I search for words. I'm not very articulate at the best of times, and when I'm doing massage words are particularly scarce.

"When I was young I wanted to be an artist, or a writer," I said. "I didn't really have anything to say."

I'm struggling a bit. "I wanted to be special."

"But you are special!" she says energetically.

"Well, yeah," I say, "I mean, people are wonderful. But not because they can do things, not because they're better than other people. It was bad for me. Thinking of myself as an artist. So art, I don't like to think of myself as doing art, I guess."

"I went to art school," she says. "I could never make what was in my head come out. I don't like to talk about art either, now."

A pause. "I knit. I like knitting. It's not art. I make a sock, and it's not art, it's a sock. You can wear it." An inaudible chuckle -- I can't hear it, but I can feel it vibrating my fingertips.

The light fades; evening seeps into the room. The curtains become ghostly.

She has a dreadful knot in her left shoulder. She's had it for years, she says. It's so hard that she has to assure me that it really is muscle, not an errant piece of bone. I work it every way I know how. "Is it okay if I do some friction on this?" I finally say. "It's not going to release today, but maybe we can talk it into starting to think about it."

Earlier today, Mae fell asleep on my table, snoring ever so slightly from time to time; waking occasionally with a little jerk. I remembered a man I read about who used to kiss his clients on the forehead at the end of each massage. An idiot, I thought, if he really didn't understand that as a transgression; but I share the impulse, that rush of paternal tenderness.

Sometimes I regret that I didn't take up this career when I first seriously thought of it -- when I gave up on becoming an English professor, nearly twenty years ago -- but really I couldn't have done it then. I couldn't have honored the boundaries; I wouldn't have understood the need for them. I found it so intolerable then to leave tenderness unexpressed. I thought that if I didn't express it, it would be wasted, or worse -- even betrayed, or injured. As if it were a delicate soufflee, wasted if not eaten on the spot. Such a deep misunderstanding of what tenderness is, and what really injures or wastes it. Not leaving it unexpressed -- it's craving recognition for it, wanting to reify it and keep it. That's what betrays tenderness.

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