Friday, August 31, 2007

Commas in the Sky

I haven't written about clinic, the practicum, for a couple reasons. For one, I can't write about the massages themselves, without violating both therapeutic ethics and my own sensibilities. I am uneasy sometimes even about writing about trades with fellow-students. For another, I don't feel I've cut a very dashing figure, in clinic, and I've preferred it to remain obscure.

The massages themselves have gone well. Once I lay hands on someone, I know what to do. Addicted to self-doubt though I am, I've never seriously doubted the skill of my hands. No, what's difficult for me is the intake and exit interviews. I have to talk to these strangers. And what's more -- what's always been supremely difficult for me -- I have to talk to them in a scripted way; I have to ask them particular questions and give them particular information. I have to tell them what kind of massage I'm going to give them, for instance. Tell them what sort of draping I'll use, and generally what to expect of the session.

Why is that so difficult for me? Well, for one thing, because I don't know what sort of massage I'm going to give until I've actually laid on hands. I have no idea. The sort of information you get in an intake interview isn't the sort of information that lets you say what you're going to do, or at least it isn't for me. My hands do all that sort of thinking.

But more than that: I don't myself want to know that information, when I'm getting a massage. It feels to me like giving a child a typewritten list of all his gifts, on Christmas morning, before letting him open anything. I have to try hard to think my way into the state of mind of someone who's never had a massage, or only had one or two -- that they might seriously have very little idea of what's going to happen, and want some ordinary information about it. Hard for me to get there, because it's precisely the unmooring, the giving up of my body into someone's hands, that I most love about massage. I don't want to have a known destination. I want to head out into the open sea.

And -- another thing -- they're often questions or statements that someone else, not I, thinks ought to be spoken. I'm asking them because I'll need sound bites to put on my SOAP charts, not because I think they're particularly what needs to be asked or said just now.

But most critically, there's the "engineer's stutter," as I think of it. Certain personality types -- including mine, with a vengeance -- find it nearly impossible to repeat over words they've said before. Intellectually I know that redundancy is crucial to communication, that "men require more often to be reminded than informed," and that any important message should be repeated at least once. And in any case, it's not really repetition if it's spoken to a new person, right?

Wrong. My mind balks, bucks, turns stubborn. I've already said that. Trying to say the same words again sets up a confusing distortion in my head, like feedback from an amplifier. It's not a policy, not some sort of precious, over-fastidious commitment to originality; it's a disability which feels physical. I simply can't say something that I've said before, without becoming confused, without precipitating a disorienting semantic reverberation in my mind. It's one of the reasons -- probably the chief reason -- I gave up on being a teacher.

But it means, anyway, that I was forgetting to say quite simple things. It also means that I was coming into the intake interviews very anxious, and sweating profusely (which established its own nice anxiety feedback loop.)

I've been gradually getting better at it. I was drenched with sweat, my first night. My shirt was sopping. A couple weeks in I decided, the hell with it, I'm only going to ask the questions and say the things that make sense to me, no matter what I'm supposed to ask and say. That helped. I tried making a little checklist of my own, but that just made things worse -- now I just had one more piece of paper and one more set of instructions to confuse me.

The turning point seems to have been week before last. I threw away my checklists. I went into the quiet study room, right beforehand, and sat shamatha for fifteen minutes, and then I went into the interviews holding the intention to think of nothing, and remember nothing -- just to be present with the person, and devil take the rules and the paperwork.

What I actually did and said was not really that different, I think, but it felt different. I did it again last week and it felt even better. Last week was the first week I left thinking, "those are clients who've had an experience they'd come back for." I've never been under the delusion that I could build a practice on terrific massage alone. First impressions are indelible, and last impressions -- what sort of connection you feel with the therapist as you're leaving -- probably have more to do with whether you come back than anything that happens on the table. I've been a massage client often enough; I know how this stuff works.

Of course, in my own practice I'll have SOAPs of my own design, and I'll be beholden to no one else for saying or asking anything. Half of the difficulty will simply go away. But I'm relieved to have worked out an approach -- both an approach that seems to work, and one that fits with how I want to be in the world anyway. Very relieved.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Myofascial Release

Fascia* is the name for the connective-tissue sheeting that wraps up -- well, virtually everything in the body. A subcutaneous layer runs under the skin proper, but it also wraps up every muscle, every bundle of muscle fibers, and every muscle fiber; it wraps up the internal organs as well. Western medicine has tended to view it as so much wrapping-paper, and so traditional Western (Swedish) massage completely ignores it, focusing exclusively on muscles, tendons, and ligaments. But in the late 1920s a German woman, Elizabeth Dicke, developed a therapy called Bindegewebsmassage, "connective tissue massage." And a generation later a number of other therapies followed suit, among them Rolfing and Myofascial Release. ("Myo" being a prefix that means "muscle,"). The idea behind them all is simply that if the wrapping is cramped and adhesive, the body will be distorted and unable to relax.

Gwyn and I traded on Saturday, practicing myofascial release. I was on the table first. It was an extraordinary massage. Gwyn has a real gift for it: she worked very slowly, gently, and deliberately. And most important of all -- I was grateful every time -- she left places slowly. It makes all the difference. I moved easily in and out of sleep, throughout the session -- I don't think I've ever been so comfortable with wandering back and forth across that border. And that night I slept better than I've slept in weeks.

This is the first modality we've done I think that really gives the skin its due, really engages the skin's intelligence. Muscles just aren't that clever. Contract and relax; that's all they know. The skin, on the other hand, is clued into all kinds of things.

I tried hard to emulate Gwyn's work. It's difficult to keep your attention on an area when you're leaving it. It was a real practice, a meditative discipline, to keep my mind on the area I was leaving, and not jump ahead. I succeeded maybe half the time. I found it very useful to unfocus my gaze. I don't remember where I read it -- in the Tao Shiatsu book, maybe -- but I've found it very true that chi tends to follow the gaze, and that intent watching sort of siphons it away from the hands. The loose focus I usually fall into in meditation, a sort of passive wide-angle receptivity, is perfect for this work. Keeps the intention in the hands, where it belongs.

The maxim in our handout -- that the tighter the fascia, the less force is needed to work it -- was also very helpful. The instinct, to push harder if it's not moving, is exactly wrong.

I tried to work with the deep fascia, a couple times, at the shoulders and at the feet -- not sure how well that worked. But it's interesting just to think about muscles that way, to think of working their sheathing rather than their fibers.

There's so much important and overworked fascia in the feet: I tried to think my way through that, but I would love to take a good workshop on myofascial for the feet.

I had no idea I would be interested in myofascial. But I love it.

*"Fascia" from the Latin fascis, means "band," or "bundle," and is the root of the word "fascist" as well -- fascists having been big on unity, and the Italian ones having adopted the bundle of rods with an ax in the middle -- the "fasces" -- as their emblem. It's entertaining to watch the linguistic struggle at East-West college. By the laws of historical linguistics, and by the dictionary, the 'a' in "fascia" is short; it should be pronounced like the word "fashion" with the final 'n' left off. But entertainingly, the customary pronunciation of the word at school is "faw-shuh." Two things seem to be at work; one, an impulse to distinguish the word from "fascist," and two, the American conviction that any foreign looking word should be pronounced with continental vowels. I wonder which pronunciation will win out?

Friday, August 24, 2007

Southern Sky

The southern sky fell from blue softly into purple, a calyx holding the blossoming moon. I sat on the stone steps of East-West college and did a minute or two of shamatha, then looked at the building to the north: its west-looking windows were exactly the color of the sky, so that it looked like there were empty holes in it: it reached ragged and uncertain arms into the air. It looked like a chance breeze might blow it away.

A young woman from my modalities class came out, and sat down on the steps. Not exactly beside me: one step up and five feet over. I was reminded of the precise way some birds space themselves when settling on a wire. "It's beautiful tonight," I said.

I meant everything, but she took me to mean the moon. "It will be full in about a week, I guess," she said. "At the end of August? Maybe." She furrowed her brow.

"Mm," I agreed.

This was the young woman who had once reported dressing up to stand in line at Powell's, waiting for midnight so she could buy the last Harry Potter book, and who had cried twice while reading it. It seemed important to her now to figure out exactly when the moon would be full, but I couldn't help her -- I didn't know. Maybe it was just important to fill in the silence.

Lana came out the door, in the slightly breathless way she often has. I stood up at once, regretting the faint rudeness. It's become our routine for Lana to give me a ride home, and apparently this wasn't to be one of the nights when she lingered to smoke a cigarette and hang out with the guys, and put off, for a few stolen moments, returning to being the mother of a four-year-old. She was moving briskly tonight, and I fell in step with her, turning to smile at the Harry Potter fan and murmur "g'night."

"Good night," she smiled back, a distant smile; dismissing us with some mixture of amusement and disappointment. Possibly she thinks Lana and I are an item. She reminds me sharply of Tori's partner -- catlike in her singlemindedness, in her devotion to comfort and pleasure, and her directness. There are a lot of people of that ilk in massage -- the Asperger's strain, as I think of it. They're not interested in observing conventions; they're not terribly appropriate; they dress haphazardly in whatever's handy. I feel at home with them. Fellow-geeks.

Lana drove us through the dusk. She stopped abruptly at the crosswalk from the grocery store, on Belmont, for a couple young women walking, not quite in the crosswalk, across the street. Strutting, almost. They didn't turn to look at us. Slender, haughty, dressed to kill; in their early twenties.

"I guess maybe I was like that at that age," said Lana. "You think you own the world. Before I had a kid, you know."

Lana's not yet thirty. I love the way she converses with her four-year-old, when we pick her up on the way home -- it's real conversation, they confide in each other. I know so well, though, the strange dislocation and alienation of having children. Suddenly everyone thinks of you differently. Your time is no longer your own. You find that your availability, as a nonparent, had more to do with all your relations than you thought it did. You're no longer in play; your place is fixed. The rest of the world goes on without you.

I wanted to articulate something of the wistful reassurance that rose up in me, but no words came. And after all, it's a long strange road with an uncertain end, being a parent. I wasn't sure I really had anything to say. "Better to get over it now, instead of twenty years from now -- over the fact that so much of what we thought was our personal charm was just our availability" -- not such a reassuring thing to say. I held my tongue.

Thursday, August 23, 2007


A post I began last Spring, and ended today.

Anthony stood up. He's young, a sort of punk cowboy, with Clint Eastwood eyes and a slow drawl, every inch an urban Portlander, of the sort who shaves his head and travels by skateboard. An odd character to be on the Board, but there he is. He looked at Sarah, sitting in the lamas' row, and said, "I was tasked with sayin' thank you. On behalf of the community."

This is ordinarily the stage at which the white silk blessing scarves come out, and someone puts one around someone else's neck, and people bow and namaste each other. But we had no Tibetans here. Or maybe the protocols didn't fit here, for reasons I don't know: I never have learned much about these things.

Anyway, Anthony had no scarf about his person. He went on: "But since I'm bad at that sorta thing... I thought I'd fob it off on someone else. So we're gonna let the kids from the kids program do it."

"Oh," said Sarah. "Don't tell them what I said."

Someone had asked about a life devoted to the Dharma, and having kids -- Sarah being a lama who has raised two -- and Sarah had finished by saying, essentially: "if you want to devote your life to the Dharma, don't have them."

Don't tell them what I said raised a little, uncomfortable laugh. The kids came filing in, picking their way amongst the zafus; the smiling grown-ups pulled up their knees to make room and let them by. The biggest of the kids was carrying a framed picture. He or she (I couldn't tell from where I was) stammered through a few words and handed it to her.

It was a beautiful print, done by a magnificent artist in our sangha. I've admired and coveted it before. Sarah accepted it and made much of it. She's an experienced mother: she knows that you coo when a child gives you something.

That done, she said, "do you know who this is? Do you know the story that goes with this?"

They shook their heads. "This is Sukhasiddhi."

And she told them the story of Sukhasiddhi, an Indian woman who -- against orders -- gave the last rice in the house to a beggar, and was driven from the house by her hungry and impious husband and grown son.

And that -- said Sarah -- was the beginning of the wonderful part of her life. She wandered far from home, and found great teachers, and achieved enlightenment; and her body turned into that of a sixteen year old girl.

Rather desperately, Sarah plunged on, and summed up: she was a good mother, because she was not just a mother to her own children. She was a mother to everybody.

Well, you can imagine how well this played to an audience of children. I was surprised that a teacher as gifted as Sarah had told that story in this place. She must have thought the lesson worth the price.

The children looked distrustfully at the unearthly beauty of Sukhasiddhi, this woman who cared as much for a the hunger of a passing stranger as for the hunger of her own child, this mother who went away: she floated there, perfectly at ease in her lovely, ivory-colored body, looking at us all with kind, faintly mocking eyes.

And Max wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.

I wandered away from the Sangha that morning without speaking to Sarah. Her picture still stands on my shrine. I still call myself a Buddhist. But I wonder about that hard and bitter story. Does anyone really ever stop wanting to be where someone loves him best of all? There's a catch, to those lives of the great enlightened beings. They all were people who had followers, followers who loved them best of all. Do we know that they would have been perfectly content if no one had cherished them?

I don't know. It's no business of mine, anyway. It's the sort of question you dream up when you're avoiding sitting -- impossible to verify either way: doubt for doubt's sake, not doubt for the love of truth.

I am coming back to the dharma, cold and worn-out from my time away. Hoping, in spite of all I know, to wake up and find my dinner waiting, still hot.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

In Review

I held her shoulder in my left hand, and reached across for the anterior superior iliac spine on the other side -- what I suppose the uninitiated might call the hip-bone -- with my right hand. Supposedly the left hand is negative, drawing energy, and the right hand is positive, giving it. Whatever. That's polarity talk. If I were talking shiatsu, I'd call the left hand the mother hand and the right hand the son hand. The mother hand just rested. With the son hand I rocked her back and forth. In shiatsu, it's the mother hand, the hand that doesn't move, that you pay attention to. It's the listening hand.

Polarity arouses all my skepticism. It's American. It's modern. It's eclectic. It stands to older forms of massage as Mormonism stands to older religions: I can't get over the conviction that someone just like me made this up; it can't be worth anything.

Nevertheless, the little we've learned has infiltrated everything I do on the table. The holding, the rocking, the way I listen with my hands.

"You radiate warmth, care, kindness, and good humor... your presence de-escalates stress and upset, and contributes to an overall sense of happiness and interest here."

I cared about this performance review. I mean, I always care about performance reviews, since they're about a topic of such absorbing interest, i.e., me. But I cared about this one especially. For one thing, I admire Faith more than anyone I've ever worked for. Her good opinion is important to me. For another, I feel like I've let myself be seen, at the Foundation, as I have never let myself be seen in my high-tech jobs: this review was about me, not about a manufactured persona.

Probably I've never been as good at manufacturing a persona as I have fondly imagined. But the point of course is not whether I fooled anybody: the point is whether I intended to.

My reviews in cubicle-land mentioned the same sort of thing. They described me as cheerful and easygoing, a good team member, diplomatic; someone people like to work with. So what was so different about this?

How much it mattered, I guess. It was, really, the central point of the review: that I was kind. What matters most to me, about me, is what matters most to Faith too. It would be hard to exagerate the difference that makes in how I feel about working for her.

This strange, bittersweet year is nearing its close -- to me, always, the end of September, harvest-time, is the real end of the year.

The earth element's season is harvest; its weather is damp, its taste is sweet, its sense-organ is the mouth, its emotion is worry, its body component is the muscles, its sound is singing.

I'm grieving, under the sky. The long shadows and the closing door.

Multnomah County Library has, against all probability, a Kelmscott Chaucer in its collection. I'm going to go spend some time in its company, soon.

Befell that in that season, on a day
In Southwark, at the Tabard, as I lay
Ready to wend on my pilgrimage
To Canterbury, with full devout courage
At night was come into that hostelry
Well nine and twenty, in a company
Of sundry folk, by adventure fallen
In fellowship, and pilgrims were they all.

(I have, by the way, great sympathy for that voice-in-the-wilderness scholar who keeps calling for the use of modernized-spelling editions of Chaucer -- who points out that Chaucer's spelling and Shakespeare's spelling are very similar, and that if we're willing to make Shakespeare accessible by changing it, why not Chaucer? That, above, is word-for-word Chaucer, just spelled as in modern English. The rhythm is ruined, because you can't see some of the syllables that should be pronounced -- but you can read it just as easily as you can read Shakespeare. Why not? We have no compunction, after all, about mangling Shakespeare's rhythm in the same way, if on a smaller scale. So what if someone mistakes Middle English "corage" -- meaning "heart," and pronounced ko-RAH-juh -- for the modern word, restricted to a particular subset of associated virtues? It's mistakes like that that make reading old poetry such a resonant, disorienting, and beautiful experience -- we're always being asked to open our courage a little.)

I am going on my own pilgrimage, in a couple of weeks. To Brooklyn, with full devout courage.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Clackamas

Estacada. I wake at five, in an unfamiliar motel room, illuminated only by the green glow of the digital clock. Working mostly by feel, I get a shower -- wondering, as every time I'm in a cheap hotel room, what the reasoning is behind making it impossible to light the bathroom without lighting the rest of the space and waking your partner. I take a certain pleasure in trying to work out the mechanics of taking a shower in a new place without being able to see -- exploring the fittings with my fingers and figuring out how they work -- but surely I'm a little odd, that way? Or maybe it's just odd that I wake up before dawn and immediately want to be up and doing.

It's quiet, as I leave the room. A fine mist gently kisses my face. I walk along the high bank of the Clackamas river -- its water dark, dark green in the half-light -- and listen to the rapid whining whistle of the ospreys. They sound like someone desperately trying to crank over a rusty machine. Much like seagulls, and I wonder briefly if there's something about a steady diet of fish that induces a shrill repetitious whine. Is it accidental that fishwives are proverbial scolds?

Yes, I tell myself sternly. It is.

I can't see the ospreys from here. Last night we watched them fishing on the river and squabbling at their huge, high nest on the opposite bank -- a nest so big that at first we thought it must be an eagle's, on the very top of a lone bare tree. Kingfishers flickered under the bank, occasionally, and two ducks patrolled the river. Apparently ospreys don't mess with ducks, or anyway that's what the ducks think.

The bank was overgrown with ripe blackberries; the scent came to us clearly. "It smells like summer," said Martha, and I knew she was thinking of swimming with her sisters and cousins in the clear green Umpqua, years ago, when the world was young.

Yesterday we took a narrow one-lane road up towards Memaloose Lake. We passed four quarries on the way, and each quarry had a party of target-shooters. The sound of gunshots was never far away. We asked a set of them directions to the lake. "Is there a lake up here?" they said.

I tried, and failed, to imagine waking up on a beautiful summer day and wanting to drive up through a quiet forest in order to reach an ugly barren quarry, littered with soda cans and shell-cases, and make a hellish noise with deadly weapons. It's easy, in the Hawthorne district of Portland, to feel that I actually belong in this country. Out here it's clear that I don't.

As the afternoon drew into evening, we passed the last quarry, coming back down. There was a burst of semiautomatic fire, and we came in sight of an older man watching a teenager turn from the range. The teenager was all in black, with helmet-like protectors over his ears, gangly and hunched. A curl of smoke came from the barrel of his loosely-held gun.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

All This Sweet Work

Overwhelmed by gratitude. To be able to stand in the kitchen with somebody and just talk -- I'm so grateful. How, I wonder, did I come to this?

Ha. I didn't. I didn't come to this: I've always lived here. Always this hungry, always this uncertain, always overwhelmed by the need to make connection. I needn't go constructing histories about it. I was born this way -- born anxious, isolated, and full of love.

I have lived in this place all my life. So that to have someone want to show me her garden, how it's prospered over the summer, fills me with wonder and delight.

Brocolli reaching skyward, young corn with its green banners hung on its outward walls, herbs hugging the ground. She pulled aside foliage to show me green pepper hidden in a tangle of of stalks and leaves.

What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?

My mind goes there, of course: the habit of forty years. And driving home, I thought of how it's burdened all my life, not just my intimate relationships. My relationships, in fact, have suffered least from it: I have so much love welling up that having some spill is no disaster. It's my work that's suffered, because I never put my full attention on it. Work can be love too -- it has to be, if it's to be good work -- but I didn't understand that. I kept looking for obvious, indisputable love, the sort of love television and movies teach us to recognize and value -- desire and swooning infatuation. The love of a pepper, growing secretly, the love of getting a spreadsheet formula exactly right, the love of listening for the breath, with my fingers, to be able to time leaning into the ribs with an exhalation, -- for so long I attended to many of those things carelessly, if at all, relying on talent rather than concentration.

Faith uses a lovely, old-fashioned phrase: "honoring the intent of the giver." She uses it, for example, when we're in doubt about exactly which financial bucket a gift is supposed to land it. It's a stock phrase in fundraising finance, no doubt, but to me it sums up my Library Foundation work; it's the beginning and end of what we're about.

When Merris was interviewing me, she asked me, in a rather roundabout way, whether I would be bothered by the tawdriness of plotting and planning just how to hit people up for money. I said no, emphatically. We're opening a space for their generosity, I said. We're helping them see their connection with the community. And that's how I think of it. People want to give; they want to connect. Our job is to honor that and nurture that. Kids who would have grown up illiterate really are learning to read because of the money given us. Old people really are getting books delivered to nursing homes because of it. Those kind of connections are harder to see in the world of mass production, but they're no less there, and no less real, than dropping a bit of meat in a beggar's bowl.

What is all this sweet work worth? Enough. The kisses will look after themselves.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Portents and Wonders

Yesterday it was possible to see something that has not been seen in public since the early 1980s. It has not appeared in the news at all; I'm not sure why. But yesterday you could have observed your correspondent on the city streets wearing a shirt that was not a polo shirt, trousers that were not jeans, and a belt.

Yes, you read that correctly. Not suspenders. A belt. I have been seen occasionally in trousers other than jeans, and in shirts that were not polo shirts, in the last twenty-five years. But never without suspenders. ("Braces," to you Englanders; although here "braces" refer specifically to non-stretchy suspenders, especially as worn by skinheads.)

It was a very strange experience. I felt quite undressed. It was not until late afternoon that I became confident that my pants really would stay on. I continually had to haul on them and adjust them so that the knees wouldn't overstretch -- when they're more-or-less fixed at the hip you have to pull them up to get slack at the knees.

A queer costume, the belt at the waist. It strikes me as very odd that the national male costume should rely on a feature that only maybe half of my countrymen possess -- to wit, a concavity below the ribs. I have no such concavity. I have a decided convexity. In which case, the only two options are to belt above the stomach -- which would make me look my age with a vengeance, clearly no option at all -- or to wear the belt along the top of the iliac crest, nicely outlining and emphasizing the pot of the belly. I looked around today at how men were wearing their trousers, and they were all doing the same thing -- wearing their belts around their hips. In a culture rather hysterically obsessed with slimness, the choice of a costume that draws attention to these bulges seems downright perverse, the equivalent of people who in conversation compulsively mention exactly what they wish to conceal.

Last year, looking at the wedding pictures of a Nigerian friend, I was greatly struck by the formal male dress -- wonderful garments that emphasized the shoulders and fell gracefully to the mid-thigh. Why don't we wear something like those? A potbelly is practically invisible in them. And you could breathe. I couldn't breathe freely, wearing that belt. I found myself hitching it up to take a deep breath, from time to time.

So I tried. But it's back to suspenders today. If you missed it, you'll have to wait another twenty-five years, I'm afraid.