Sunday, December 31, 2006

Sex and Massage

I get no sexual pleasure from massage. This may surprise attentive readers of Mole, who will have observed that I get sexual pleasure from a great range of things, from walking in a heavy rain to pouring cream into my coffee. But it's true. I was enjoying watching a woman in one of my classes recently, a dancer, who was leaning over to take her books out of her pack, and it occurred to me that I'd had my hands on her naked body (modestly draped, of course, in the American style) a few times. The interesting thing is that it was the first time that my attraction to her and the massages had bumped up against each other in my mind: they belonged to completely different categories of experience. They simply had nothing to do with each other.

It's not that massage is erotically neutral. It's not. It's antithetical to eros. It moves in the opposite direction. Eros is about narrowing attention and winding it up. Massage, however, is about opening attention and unwinding it. I suppose they arrive ideally at the same place -- a place of stillness, communion, and release -- but they arrive by opposite means. And they don't mix well at all. Massage junkie though I am, I've always been irritated and thrown off if a partner starts massaging me during love play. Likewise, if I begin to have an erotic response to getting massage, which has happened once or twice, it breaks the mood and threatens to wreck the massage -- it is, in fact, a distinctly unpleasant and alienating experience.

The association of massage and sex, which I still encounter from time to time, depresses me. Not because it's a threat to the respectability of the massage profession. I'm not a big fan of respectability. That's not what bothers me. What bothers me is the tactile ignorance and deprivation it reveals. To a starving person all food is alike.

Saturday, December 23, 2006


I both have a body and I am a body, and this intimate relation puts my body in a closer juxtaposition with my immediate awareness than any other object that I can possibly contemplate.

-- Deane Juhan, Job's Body

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


Tendrel is a Tibetan word, variously translated as "interconnectivity," or "dependent arising": a famous emblem of it is the "endless knot." The fact that it is a homophone of the English word "tendril" is, as we say, a happy accident.

In from the rain comes a glory of red hair
Framing slack morning features;
She hums as though this restaurant
Were her own kitchen.

Hair spangled with raindrops, pouring over the shoulders
Of a faded green sweatshirt,
Curling around a mild Irish face
Of placid benevolence.

I think of the previous life we lived together
When she was passionate and Greek
And hated my drinking;
Of the life when she was

An unlucky bricklayer, and I a poisonous woman,
His culminating disaster.
And I would like to apologize
For how troublesome a child

I was, when the Swedes burned everything
The Prince Elector's troops had left
(Which wasn't much) and she my father
Tried to teach us thrift.

But each life peels cleanly from the bone.
In this life we are strangers:
She eats her breakfast, reads her magazine

Let bygones be bygones. She does not remember
And neither do I.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


I open the window, and the icy rain blows into my face. Thank God.

I'm reaching for you, across the miles, along the filaments of light spun fine from the crescent moon.

We complain about Christmas, but really it's just what we need: a desolation, a hole in the bottom of the year. How could there be a solstice if we didn't really believe that all the light and love and warmth might really drain out of the world forever and ever? That it might be always Christmas, always frantic, every bond of affection a fetter, every song an insistent interminable jingle, every food cloying, every gathering enforced by loveless convention? It could be Christmas forever.

And then, finally, it's December 26th, and we realize -- as at the climax of all solstice celebrations -- that the nightmare has limits. We don't need the sun to return all at once. We just need to know that it's turned.

In the dark, I press my hands against yours, fingertip to fingertip. Bow my head till our foreheads rest together. Beloved. Stay with me here a moment. It's all we have. But maybe it's all we need.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Even to Me

Frost on the steps like white sand;
The shivering cat complains at the door.
Winter has finally come
Even to me.
Shadow Cabinet

Take a look at Dave Bonta's new site. A gestating book. It's a terrific idea, and I'm seriously thinking of stealing it. (The idea, not the book. The book would be well worth stealing, too, though.)

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?

Friday, December 15, 2006


All night the storm
Danced with the trees,

The transformers blew
With soft brilliant gasps,

My unquiet viscera answered to the gusts,
And my skin fluttered like the leaves.
Trading Massage

As I left the room
She was already undressing,
Standing easily on one foot, and
Pulling a slipper from the other.
She flexed sideways, and her foot
Rose backward to meet her hand;
Her balance so sure that her eyes met mine
With kindly indifference
As the gray wool came free.

Saturday, December 09, 2006


At the moment I cupped the water in my hands
And tossed its glittering suffering into the air
I wondered if I was dashing it to its death.
So delicate. So beautiful. So ill-prepared
For a world of chlorinated water
And savage boys. And then it lay bedraggled
On the cement, in a dark stain of fluid.
How cold, I wondered, is cold water
To a creature so small that it breathes
By letting the air flow through it as it flies?
I shivered and watched, as my groin
Tightened, and the cold gripped me.
"I've killed it," I thought. It lay still.
The wind blew, and dried the stain,
And its four wings trembled.
Then as I watched, one feeler curled
With deliberation. It gathered its legs
Underneath it. I was stung by its gold and black,
By its glistening determination. I am wounded
To this day, by the pain of its survival.
It flew, unsteadily,
Into a grove of bamboo, and I lost it
In the crossing daggers of their leaves.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


I sat in the steaming water, hinting of sulfer, and watched the ghostly sunlight become more and more transparent on the high south ridge, the ridge more distant and more distant, more surreal.

The full moon rose. Crunching feet on the path. Now the sun was gone, the snow was all white with moonlight, and the ridge was closer again. The moon owned everthing.

I didn't look up as the newcomers undressed, or when they came into the pool. White round breasts in the moonlight, silvery with water. The pale gleam of round buttocks wavering in the moonlit water as one of them leaned over the frost-furred rocks at the lip of the pool, looking down at the river. The Breitenbush rushed below us, down a snowfield littered with rocks. Plumes of steam rose from other springs.

This was the silent pool, so nobody had to speak. The distance roared in my ears like the river. My gaze will always be wrong. I will always be outside. I will always be male.

Too long in the hot water. I hauled myself onto the frosty rocks. Steam rolled off my body in clouds. I stared into the water. Lifted my gaze to look at the moon. Only an overpowering sense of the sacred could have raised me above this ancient maleness, this outsideness, this displacement. And there was nothing here but a sign in curly letters announcing that this was a "sacred area."

Wrong from the start. Sacred wells, sacred pools, I could believe in, sure. Sacred areas? No. Not in a million years, not with a changed tongue and a new alphabet. There will never be a sacred area.

I watched Martha get out of the pool, all silver, and stand in the air, steaming, like me. Our bodies were running in dischordant rhythms. I knew that we would connect as friends and confidantes tonight, and tomorrow. But not as lovers.

It was a beautiful night, and a beautiful place. I know that. Maybe I can even convey that, the rush of the water, the moon above the hemlocks, the darkness, the deep ragged weave of the forest. But I was wholly unbeautiful.

In the morning, before breakfast, I came down early, and sat alone in the silent pool. The colors of the sunrise were brilliant, where the moon had been last night. Two ravens flew over, and just before they were out of earshot one gave a hoarse grumbling croak.

By the time the breakfast bell rang, all the color was gone from the sky. I dried myself off and went to wake Martha. We came back to the pools after breakfast, but the silent pool was closed for cleaning, and we were chattered at by a man of striking features and striking banality of thought. And I looked at beautiful naked women and wonder why I ever believed in them.

One woman, all tattoos and pierced nipples, about my age. She and the chatterbox got on, finding opinion after opinion to share. I liked her face, though. I liked the dark nipples of the -- Indonesian? Filapina? -- woman. I liked the chatterbox's pale arms. I liked the cold water in our plastic bottle, which stayed cold, even though it sat a foot away from the hot water.

But it was all very distant to me, unreal, like the ridge fading with the sunlight, and I wonder what moon could ever make it all become real again. Or real for the first time?

I'm too tired to think. I have mistaken so many things. I still have so much unlearning to do.

That night, I told my classmates that I was going to bomb the massage quiz. I couldn't follow the sequences, couldn't remember the instructions. Andrea took me as a partner, and gave me the best massage she's ever given me. To ace the quiz? Or to soothe and comfort me?

By the end of my turn, working on Andrea, I was drenched with sweat. I got thirty out of thirty points. Did I deserve it? I don't know.

This morning, a job interview. They liked me, apparently; they invited me to a third interview on Friday, to meet the whole group. Still nothing quite connects, nothing quite makes sense. But I will write it all down here, moved by the same impulse that moved me to tell my classmates I was going to bomb the test. All you can say is the closest thing to the truth that you can reach at the time. Not very true. But better than nothing.