Not fixed

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On a rainy Wednesday, tucked up in my third floor office, a client tells me she’s feeling better. Much better. She can recover from setbacks more quickly, she feels a vitality that’s been missing these past years. She’s caught herself laughing.

But.

She wants to know if she’s fixed now. If it’s this craniosacral work that’s made the difference. Or is it random. Or the dietary changes. Or just feeling less jangled by the world.

“Hm,” I say. “What a good question.”

It is a good question. So often, when we’re sick or depressed or feeling broken in some way, we want to be fixed. We want clear lines that explain neatly how we got here and then lead us, step by step, out of the discomfort.

But English is beautiful sometimes.

Because fixed has several meanings:
We can fix as in repair or mend. Our water line, the broken coffee mug, the ear of our child’s rabbit stuffie.
But fixed is also fastened in place. As in stuck. Unmoving.

In this sense, fixed is actually a very good description of what happens when we aren’t well. Whether we’re talking about a group of muscles or a sense of despair, in very real ways recovering our health means we need to become UNfixed.

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We are dynamic. Every part of us – every part – wants to move. And so our metaphors for health demand the same. What if we saw ourselves not as broken, but as stuck – fixed – in certain places, and then looked for movement? What if we supported the veins, tributaries and currents of health?  Doing so might take us a little further afield, to include in our conception of health all the ways we feel in flow. What we eat, how we sleep, who we share ourselves with, what we let go.

So is my dear client “fixed” now? I’m not sure. I can say that the life she’s describing  – more vital, quicker to recover – sounds a lot more buoyant.  And that seems like something to celebrate. IMG_6976

Listening Beneath the To Do Lists

thistleI hadn’t noticed it at first. The lists seemed so innocent. “Once fall gets here,” they all began, and after that came a litany: I’ll exercise more, reach out to that friend I’ve been meaning to, do that thing and make that thing and clean that thing… Fall things, productive things. I was just waiting for the right timing.

Innocent, right? Until I was on my way somewhere recently and noticed how tightly I was holding myself, how packed in I felt. All those lists, I realized, had created this quiet patina of self-scolding; there was so much to DO, after all, to get things in order. But rarely do kind statements begin with, “If only you’d…” No, their subtext is clear and sharp: Pull yourself together, girl. Fix the problem (which is you).

The truth is that for many of us, those to do lists ramp up right when the din of our actual discomfort gets too loud to bear. Instead of slowing down to notice what’s really happening – loneliness, exhaustion, overwhelm – we put window dressing on the tender spots, gloss them over with busy-ness. It’s comically bad timing: Just when we’re feeling less than together, we wag our fingers at ourselves to get it together.

But what if our discomfort isn’t wrong? What if we don’t fuel the myth that we need fixing? And what if getting low and close and comfortable with those vulnerable places is one of the greatest kindnesses we could extend to ourselves?img_1386This inner “I just need to…” is quietly habitual, a pattern we developed long ago, without thinking. It insists we only…need to… hold it…together and [fill in the blank] will be alright.

Friends, let’s just put down the lie that we’re holding anything together.

This doesn’t mean that we’re irresponsible with our loved ones, that we stop showing up for work or give up on showering. Just that we allow ourselves to be softly honest about what dwells inside.

The funny thing is, we know how to do this… when it comes to other people. If you’ve sat with a friend when she’s in distress, or a child who is twisting himself in strange contortions because something is amiss, you know: First, you listen. You just show up. When we offer permission instead of “solutions,” there’s more space for things to grow – not by coercing and cajoling, but tending and trusting. 

Brené Brown writes beautifully on this topic (and if you have 2:54, please watch this sweetest bit of animation from her, also linked at the end of this post), which she frames as the difference between feeling with someone (empathy) and trying to “help” them (sympathy). If we really want to make something better, says Brown, what we say matters so much less than the quality of our connection.

True, it’s often easier to see how to do this for someone else.  But maybe we could practice pausing at those “if only you’ds,” listening for what lies beneath them, and offering empathy to ourselves. That’s a punch list I could actually get behind.Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 4.48.35 PM

 

Repurposing

IMG_6096.JPGThe line at the dump last week went all the way out to the road. Everyone, it seems, had the same idea with the turning of the calendar: Jettison all that old stuff. Clean out the debris. It’s 2016, after all.

And it’s true, many of us live with entirely too much clutter and stuff. I don’t mean just those extra salt and pepper shakers, but the unseen internal clutter that takes up its own space. Our old habits and beliefs have a way of crowding out new experiences. Perhaps we’ve always been the caretaker in our families, or the one who never seems to have it together, or the one who always does. We can get stuck believing that’s just How It Is.

We may try to shove those stories in the back of the closet, but they can be sticky. Not something we can leave at the curb.

Which brings me to this sweater. Or, more accurately, this pile of material that once  was a sweater. It lived in the drawer under the bed for years, daring me to toss it.

IMG_6100Perhaps you have some of these in your closet: hoodies, t-shirts, barely-held-together pants that violate every rule of clutter and cleaning. You don’t wear them, they aren’t beautiful. They take up space as odd, cotton-poly relics of a time or place you can’t quite shake.

This sweater was one of those unshakeable items; grey, holes in the elbows, it was wool but had gone through the wash and so didn’t quite fit right.

But 8 years ago, when I lived between the bathroom and the couch, slogging through a continuous flare of ulcerative colitis, I wore it all the time. And I wore it when I went into the hospital, and stayed for nearly a week. In the waiting area, seeing me hunched over and grimacing, a kind orderly asked if I needed a wheelchair. I was 30.

Things at the time were so threadbare that the sweater became a perfect uniform for the way I felt inside. Dusty, unfixable, fraying. As the years passed, and my health returned, I confess I felt oddly loyal to that sweater. We had been through so much together.

Our old patterns are like this. Yes, we’re totally sick of them, ready to not need or hurt or bend in the way we have. But, then… they were so useful once. They did serve a purpose.

Still, what if we could repurpose those old habits and put them in the service of new choices?  We may have learned that to get by we needed to take care of everyone else. And now, maybe we take our strong empathy and listen to ourselves also. It’s a different kind of space-clearing, one that doesn’t reject any part of us.

Over the holidays, thinking that I wanted to make something for friends and family, I stumbled on the idea of potholders. So practical! So easy! Who doesn’t need them?

Now, potholders have one job: To protect our hands from burning. Without some thick stuffing, they’re just closed up pockets.

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Which is when I remembered that sweater. There was something sublime in cutting it to pieces, in giving it a new job. In saying goodbye to all that.

Florida Scott-Maxwell writes, “You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done…you are fierce with reality.” I love this notion that part of becoming fierce in our lives is to claim the entirety of ourselves.  Even the broken bits.

I have more dump runs in my future. The house is in real need of de-cluttering. But on the inside, I’m curious what those old habits have to offer when they’re not running the show.

 

Like a Shovel Hitting Stone

photo 1 (7)There are times when, by habit or determination, nose to the grindstone, shoulder to the wheel (pick your back-breaking metaphor!), we are plugging along in our lives, and then, with a sudden thwack, we hit upon a truth we wish we’d never seen. Or maybe (if we are being honest) we’d been trying to avoid all along.

The first time this happened to me I remember the exact feeling: Like I had put my shovel down in the dirt and hit a giant stone. Gardeners out there know this particular kind of bodily reverberation – you’re moving with the momentum of the swing and then, with a clang and a jarring stop, you can’t go further. The stone is there, perhaps movable, perhaps not, staring you back with its own simple truth: This won’t work for you.

What had actually happened was this: I had taken a job in a southern state and – it wasn’t working. My schedule had me on the clock sometimes 80 hours a week, my boss undermined our team’s efforts, I felt cut off from my creative self. And my body had begun to mutiny, leaving me weaker and more desperate by the day.

But it didn’t occur to me that it could be otherwise. The job was coveted and at a prestigious institution, and furthermore, I had committed. When I beat out all those other applicants I had said yes, I certainly did anticipate being there at least 3-5 years.

Until one day, when I realized I could leave. And the truth hit my body with that jarring clang. Oh no! I thought. I cannot do this. It can’t be true! I promised! I’m not a quitter!

But of course, what I had been quitting was myself. The sine qua non of my life. And there was that big rock in the garden, just not budging. A clear, solid stop.

photo 2 (7)Those rocks can be different sizes, of course. Sometimes, they can be unearthed to make space for us to go deeper. Sometimes, they are just the right size to make the struggle meaningful. But they don’t steer us wrong. And when we honor those stopping places, we include more of ourselves in our lives.

Not that this feels like a party.

This summer I’ve come across another frustrating stone. Many of my clients know that issues in my hands have led me to take a pause in my practice. I tried working through these for some time until I realized the folly in the incongruence – I can’t ask clients to take care of themselves if I’m clearly not! And I can’t insist that the body’s pace demands respect if I don’t stop to actually listen to what my body is saying.

I miss my wonderful clients, but know that this rest imbues my practice with new energy and direction, and allows me to go deeper, to consider what tools to bring forward and what kinds of work strengthen me (and, of course, you!).

I’m looking forward to returning, and in the meanwhile have been leaning into this bit of wisdom from Anne Lamott:

“Peace is joy at rest. Joy is peace on its feet.” 
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Mud Season of the Soul

“I will wax romantic about spring and its splendors in a moment, but first there is a hard truth to be told: before spring becomes beautiful, it is plug ugly, nothing but mud and muck. I have walked in the early spring through fields that will suck your boots off, a world so wet and woeful it makes you yearn for the return of ice. But in that muddy mess, the conditions for rebirth are being created.” — Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

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Spring, that season of greeting card sweetness and abundance, starts out with some real ick. I wish I were speaking in metaphors here. When the snowbanks melt, there is sand, sticks, dirty old plastic bags. And those are the sightly bits. All of our garbage is suddenly visible.

It is the season we in New England call: Mud.

And so, when the detritus appears, we rake, clear, cut. We regard what’s been underneath the whole time. And because we know that the chaos of growth is coming, this is the season to survey the bones. To look out and ask, What do I have here? What are the shapes of the structures underneath, revealed now in their nakedness?

For me, this is a ripe time for looking at old habits and patterns.

– Where and how do I move through my days?
– What space have I created for being creative?
– What are the dry wells that need to be capped, those toxic thoughts (and connections) that send me spinning?
– How do I serve the people and places I love, up to and including myself?

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Early spring feels like the season for these stark questions. It offers a kind of invitation to burn the bracken in the early bonfire, to set out the seed trays, empty the shelves. The act of tending to what is here – even when it’s muck-covered and colorless – sends out a kind of secret faith that growth is coming. Despite the evidence, despite the pace.

I try (as much as possible, which sometimes is not at all) to honor this dank and ugly place that always precedes the season of becoming.  Because in mud season, everything we see is unformed, embryonic in its potentiality. Just, you know, not much to look at.

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Dropping the can’ts, a love letter to a dog.

If you have ever skinned your knee or torn your ACL or woken up with a crick in your neck – that is, if you are human – you know pain. But something funny happens on the way to our brains. Instead of punctuation, pain can begin to feel like a sentence: something we will always have, a nagging reminder of ways we can’t.

I see this in my clients (as well as myself and everyone I know) – how body discomfort narrows the horizon of possibility, and spins us into an irrefutable list of broken: We’re injured, out of shape, pushing 40 (30, 70), we don’t move this or that particular way, our bank account is low. For very good reasons, we feel circumscribed by what we see as the limitations of our bodies.

And then, I take my dog for a walk in the woods, and the whole lie is revealed.

More accurately, I take him on a little cross country ski expedition on the trails behind the dump in our small town and watch him transform into a fluid, joyful form.

Charlie is not a small dog. Or a young dog. He is a long-nosed, constantly shedding, 90 pound, Shepherd Collie mix. Nearly a decade into his life, his muzzle is graying, and when he lumbers across the yard, you can almost hear his joints creaking. Like most of us, he has spent the last few months curled up in a ball by the wood stove, waiting for spring.noname

But once in the woods, there is no lumbering. Charlie careens like a puppy.  He is a streaking blur of movement and limbs. We encounter two other skiers, each with their own off leash dogs. One exclaims, “He’s so big but…so playful!”

We marvel at him together.

He has a beautiful disregard for his size, his age, for mortality or limitation. He is himself – skimming along – a wordless, embodied creature.

… but not a linear one. At night, Charlie circles a million times before he comes to a flop in a big, graceless exhale. He isn’t consistent either – barking wildly at the plastic bag that has blown across the lawn, but oblivious to the scratch scratch scratching of the mouse that wakes me in the night the one time I would like him to bark, to make some kind of exhortation and startle this vermin away and he… sleeps on.

When my daughter was 3 we ended up in the emergency room to treat her small, dislocated elbow. It was an excruciating experience, not being able to take away the pain she felt. But the doctor performed a quick osteopathic maneuver and – within minutes – she was laughing and playing with toys in the waiting room. Over it. The doctor said to me, “Children and animals aren’t stupid like grown ups. They hurt when they hurt and then they don’t when they don’t. None of this trying to be better business, none of this worrying or pretending.”

I remember this as I watch Charlie fly through the woods. There is something in that unpredictable, take-it-as-it comes careen that is a revelation. Given the chance to be outside, to be moving, to be with his people – the dog almost visibly hums with the joy of it all. True, the other 98% of the time he’s laid out on his side by the fire, showing age in the way he moves. But he seems to say something else: Yes, I am achey and older, but also resilient. Perhaps this is the trick to health: to drop so fully into the present that the can’t stories fall away.

Now if I could just get him to scare off that mouse.

In the Thick


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One perfect cardinal perched on the bird feeder this morning. He was luminous crimson against absurdly deep snow, a red assault to temperatures cold enough to freeze my boots to the mudroom floor. But there he was, breast glowing, a miracle of winter.

It’s easy to miss things like this, when the whole joke of winter has gone on too long.  The novelty is over, we’ve heard this one before. February, for me, can bring on a kind of impetuous, can’t-we-move-on-already feeling. But we can’t. Not yet. The season asks us to move more slowly than that, to notice the slightly longer light, the single cardinal.photo 4

And that cardinal can come in many forms. Last week, navigating the snow-covered and icy roads, I had to come to a hard, skidding stop when a car pulled out suddenly into the center of the road. Now, you can find yourself thinking a lot of really very impolite thoughts when someone cuts you off like this, thoughts you might even say out loud, in the privacy of your car. But the other driver, an older man, simply waved and slowly continued on his way. He paid no mind, and – just like that – all my sudden indignation rushed away.

In this climate, we may be itching with winter, cold, buried up to our shoulders in snow. But we are also  – each one of us – in it. Making our way the best we can. And each of us knows that somewhere, beneath this impossibly thick blanket, bulbs and seeds and future possibilities are waiting. And that perhaps something in us is waiting too.

A practitioner friend once told me, “if it’s not a resounding yes, it’s a no.” Over the years, I’ve come back to this when I’m trying to make a decision. What do I truly, resoundingly, want to say yes to? But it also helps to turn the question outward: Where do I notice a resounding yes? Certainly in that red bird, and even in the moment after the not-accident when I realized the silliness of my own hot air. This is the gift of winter: The spare sleeping earth quiets the noise and lets us tune into those resounding yeses. We begin to notice where we encounter that small spark, how we listen, and what we want to invite into our lives.

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Please note! This month I’ve added a new feature that allows you to purchase gift certificates online. You can select the type of massage you’d like, as well as whether you’d like to have the gift certificate emailed to the recipient or sent by regular mail. Massage makes a great gift for Valentine’s Day… or for anyone who’s been doing lots of shoveling! Learn more on the gift certificates page.

 

 

Kite Strings

photo 1There is a little thing that happens to many of us, especially right around now. Things seem to be humming along just fine – we’re working or cooking dinner or vacuuming the kitchen – feeling we have something of a handle on our lives. And then somehow, inexplicably, without our even noticing, the needle slides off the record.

It may have been the cough. Or the state of the world. Or forgetting to dress warmly that time. Or perhaps accidentally scheduling just a few weekends to resemble carnivals rather than rest time. But it is suddenly All Too Much. The Land of Fine feels lost in the rearview mirror, and we question whether it was really ever there to begin with.photo 3

Back when I was struggling with a long term illness that would flare up willy nilly, leaving me bewildered and bereft, my husband Jon would say, “You just lost your kite strings.”  I would want to find some sort of pattern to explain why I had so suddenly, so thoroughly been waylaid, but he offered this gentle, story-less explanation. “They just slipped from your fingers, those kite strings.”

“I’ll hold them for you,” he said, “I’ll keep them safe until you want them back.”

This was one of the kindest gestures I’ve ever encountered. Because, at that moment, there was really nothing I could hold to, and feeling that someone else could mind those threads while I curled up and rested was exactly what I needed.

I’ve said this to friends too over the years, when inexplicable rough patches send them hurtling. Once in a while, we need someone else to hold the kite.  But the truth is that those strings can also be held by pets, and walks alone, and time that gives us permission to give up a little, because there isn’t energy for more.

In our house, we use kite strings now as a kind of short hand for suddenly-don’t-have-it-quite-together. It also means: Please be a little softer with me. I may need a little space, a little time. I have some tending to do.

In this season, wishing you permission to set those strings down for a bit, and know that we will hold them for you for as long as you need.photo 2

 

The Foundational Extras


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Recently, a friend asked me if I had any new hobbies. “Hobbies?” I stammered.

“Yes,” he said, “like macrame or jigsaw puzzles or beading. Hobbies.” I was stumped – was he joking? Making funny small talk?

But he was serious – and strategizing. This summer, he explained, he played baseball.  And it was amazing. Every week, he saw friends, got outside, skinned his knees. There was so much good that came from that weekly routine. And with summer over, he was  looking for something to fill the gap. “I’m thinking of taking up sewing,” he said.

Which got me thinking. There are those activities that, from the outside, look like extras. Whether it’s baseball or dance, writing or running, these things might seem superfluous. When we say “hobby,” we’re not usually talking about Something Important. But it is often these activities that are the foundation of our balance. They are competitive or playful or sweat-inducing or relaxing, and they bring us back to simply doing what we’re doing: no long term goal, no need-to-complete, just a bit of ease and focus.

Call them hobbies, or practice, or lifelines, we commit to these activities because it’s time that feeds us. Even when we’re tired. Even when there are other more important things to do. Consider how you feel at the end of the run/massage/writing/bowling game. You might even catch yourself smiling.

In my work as a massage therapist, I get to witness how those clients that have committed to regular massage sessions reap profound benefits simply by showing up, consistently and intentionally.  They’ve found one activity in which practice helps them feel balance. But there are so many different kinds of hobby commitment.

You may have noticed this too: During the busiest times, we drop the “extras.”  When it doesn’t feel like there’s enough to go around, and it’s more important to get the [thing designated important] done, we simply don’t show up.  We skip class or practice or don’t make time. And in the absence of those things that bring us real joy or play or release, the needle spikes into that intolerable place we know as overwhelm.

It’s something I find often with my clients (and, ahem, myself). Those things that seem extraneous often reveal themselves to be the golden thread that’s actually holding it all together.  

So, as summer turns to fall, I wonder, what’s your hobby? I’m ready to commit to some new ones.

Maybe I’ll take up macrame.

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Vacationland…for Non-Vacationers

photo 1In Maine, we wait about 10 months of the year for just this spot: The zenith of summer, the beach days and campfire nights, the sweetness of porch sitting without a jacket (or at least not for warmth – mosquitoes, though, that’s another story). The truth is, most people come here for just this sweet time. All those Vacationland license plates don’t lie. What this means for many of us is visitors. People we love. People we wait all year to see. People we take to the beach, and to the ice cream stand and down to the lobster shack. We talk late into the night, cook giant meals, we wash sheets and pick flowers. This is – as I’ve written about elsewhere – the season of yang. Active and abundant, and sometimes so much so that we can forget about that most fundamental of rhythms: our own.  photo 2 I was thinking about this the other day, relishing time spent with friends from far away, when I realized I needed to do an almost-nothing-something, just for myself. And it was surprisingly simple. I made chicken noodle soup. I picked and dried calendula (with a cup of bulletproof coffee on the side). I worked on a sewing project with my four-year-old. I went to bed early. With that – order restored, inner-animal fed. So long as we truly include ourselves, we can find beauty and nourishment in most anything. Even the dishes.

I’m looking forward to the next batch of visitors. photo (29)