Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Fish

Somewhere around a mile and a half it stops hurting. The muscles in my chest and legs loosen. My breath sinks into my low back. My abdominal muscles wake up, engage, and lift my feet from the earth. The chatter of my brain quiets and the swirling chaos of my heart calms. There is just the crunch of my sneakers on gravel. The sighing in and out of my breathing.

Today, I had just arrived at that lovely meditative moment when I saw a silver flash in the river to my right. It was a medium-sized fish, struggling to swim. It was flipped onto one side, trying to dive, but popping back to the surface, ultimately succeeding only in propelling itself weakly in smaller and smaller tortured circles.

I stood on the shore fighting the urge to wade in and touch it.
Because I can’t resist death?
Because if I could see the wound on the underside I could understand something?
Because I could soothe it? Because I could soothe it. Because I could help. 

How could I soothe a fish? How could I think I could help it die?

I have held many animals and even a few people as they died. Sometimes I was calm and present. Sometimes I was a wailing mess. Perhaps, sometimes I was soothing. But I am certain that I never once helped. In every death I have witnessed, someone left. Alone. And I stayed behind.

I felt sad about the fish. And suddenly I couldn’t stand on the shore alone and watch him go. I turned back to the path and ran. I thought, “Murders. People who fish are bad.” And then I ran past some of those bad people. A man in a blue hat adjusted his line then leaned back and turned his face toward the cloudy sky and smiled as if it were sunny. The old dog lying next to him watched him closely, tail thumping the ground. A woman showed a little girl how to cast. She smiled at me as I passed, stroked the little girl’s hair. The little girl proudly thrust the pink fishing pole toward me. “It’s got Barbie on it!” she chirped.

And I thought of this:
Every single being is driven by the desire to suffer less. There is no recipe. We are, each of us, improvising our own unique alchemy in the laboratory of our particular and peculiar pain.

I don’t think this is profound. I’m sure others have said the same long before me and far more eloquently. Frankly, I’m not even sure it makes much sense in the context of a woman’s desire to ease the death throes of a fish, nor does it offer any clarity on whether or not fishing for pleasure is a morally defensible pastime.

But it stayed with me as I ran and it helped me feel the pleasure of simple aliveness in my body. And it made me think about the day when that aliveness will go, and I will go with it. And I wondered who would try to soothe me. Who would try to help?

I hope, whoever they are, that they won’t stand too long on the lonely shore after I have gone. I hope they fill their lungs and run on.

Thursday, March 26, 2015


You do not have to be good. 
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. 
You only have to let the soft animal of your body 
love what it loves. 
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine…

                                                                                    -- Mary Oliver 

She’s telling me everything and anything – how she taught her granddaughter to make biscuits, where she gets her hair done, where every single member of her family lives and what the weather is like in each of these places. It may be a stereotype, but it’s also true: Texans talk a lot. 

Then I hit the sweet spot. You know the one, right in the middle of the arch, the place where all our decades of standing and walking and dancing live. She stops mid-sentence. She leans back in the chair and closes her eyes. I watch as the infusion center and everything that goes along with it drop away. She takes a deep breath and sighs, “Oh, Baby-girl,* that feels so good. That makes a body feel necessary.”

Necessary. Makes a body feel necessary? 

This is not the first time I’ve heard this phrase since moving to Texas, but it floors me every time. What does that mean? Is your body ever unnecessary?

I consult my pal. A born and bred native Texan, she’s the go-to gal for all my stupid Jersey girl questions about this strange new home of mine. Is this a thing people say? She laughs kindly (as she usually does when I have such a query). Yes, she’s heard people say this all her life. She lays her accent on just a little thicker. “It makes sense, darlin’, when you’re sick for a long time and in pain, yes, a body can feel unnecessary – useless, not good.” 

Ah, yes. Necessary=useful=good. 

This is the equation we all know. This is the equation we all use. This is the terrible equation that keeps you separate from what Mary Oliver calls, “the soft animal of your body.” 

I want to smash this equation to bits with my soon-to-be-arthritic hands and stomp it to dust with my sore and tired feet. I want to stop using it myself to goad my 40 year-old knees to run just one mile further, to measure the sag of the skin on my upper arms, to tally the number of colds I get this year compared to last. 

I want my clients and my loved ones and everyone I know to stop using it because it’s a lie. 

I want to scream from a mountaintop: 

Four of our five senses reside in our head, so I guess it makes sense that we think that’s where it’s at. Taste, smell, sight, hearing, all in your head. But touch…aah, touch is everywhere. The vast majority of information coming into your brain, the stuff that is forming your conscious and unconscious life, is coming from your sense of touch (feeling) inside and outside of your body.

The surface of your skin is the surface of your brain – embryologically, physiologically. Those “gut” feelings? Those are actual neurological feelings from your enteric nerves, evolutionarily-speaking the oldest (and wisest?) part of your nervous system.

Your body is never unnecessary, never useless. Even a body wracked with illness and pain is a good body.

And every body is a potential source of joy, of pleasure, of connection.

Place your hand over your heart. Feel that? You are alive.
Touch your skin. That’s you!
Touch someone else’s skin. Do it! (Why should we massage therapists have all the fun?)
No words are needed.
Go press the surface of your brain against the surface of someone else’s brain. Gently. Sweetly. 
Hi, you. This is me. This is your body. This is my body. Isn’t this good? Isn’t this necessary?

*On a totally unrelated note, everything really is bigger in Texas, including the people. In Austin, my diminutive stature and dark complexion lead almost all of these fair, statuesque folks to two assumptions: First, that I am very young (I am not), and second, that I speak Spanish (I do not). I find both these things irrationally flattering.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

On The Watery Nature of Kindness

“It helps me to think of kindness as water,” I wrote. 
My friend shook her head. (This exchange took place via email, but I could feel the headshake in her reply.) 
"This makes it sound like you have a hard time thinking about kindness.” 
“But…I do."

I do have a hard time thinking (and writing) about kindness. 
Almost immediately I feel hokey and preachy and self-conscious. 
Self-consciousness leads to worry. Do I receive and give enough kindness? How much is enough?) 
Worry leads to judgment. What about other people? Is kindness the fundamental nature of the human species? No, look at all the horrible things we do to each other. We’re awful. I’m awful! No hope! No hope… 
Seriously, ask me to meditate on kindness and in 10 minutes you will find me a quivering mess, miserably clinging to her blankets like one of Harlow’s poor little monkeys. 

So it helps me to think of kindness as water. 

We need it to live and thrive.

Kindness is not simply a single element, but a molecule – a combination of ingredients held together by simple, but powerful bonds.

It’s a “universal solvent.” In my experience, virtually everything dissolves (maybe not completely, but mostly) in the presence of kindness.

Kindness can change states, sometimes quite rapidly. Under certain conditions it may be fluid, solid, ethereal. It’s impossible to hold in one’s hands.

Over the years of our lives the average rainfall of kindness we experience varies. We’ve all known times of drought – desolate, tan, and withered times, green, lush, plentiful times, times of excess when it felt we might lose our footing – get swept away or drown in the floods of giving and loving.

Kindness can be a result of our environment. Perhaps you live and work in a place where the climate is predictable. Perhaps there are wild swings in the atmosphere. Your home and work may even exist in completely different microclimates – just a mile or two apart. You thrive in one place; shrivel in the other.

On balance, there’s more kindness on this earth than not. According to the U.S. Geological Survey website: “About 71 percent of the Earth's surface is water-covered, and the oceans hold about 96.5 percent of all Earth's water. But water also exists in the air as water vapor, in rivers and lakes, in icecaps and glaciers, in the ground as soil moisture and in aquifers, and even in you and your dog.” Even in the driest places on Earth there is water and therefore life is possible. So, too, even in the darkest corners of human history, even in the places that seem made of evil, human kindness exists.

Water and kindness travel in ways you cannot see or predict.

Exhale on a chilly day and you may see the water vapor of your breath for a moment, but it quickly dissipates and becomes invisible. Pour water into the soil and it will be wicked away before your eyes. Where has it gone? Will it stay where you put it?

Some of it may.

I pour water into a glass for someone I love. Some of it nourishes that body, helps it thrive. Some of it leaves. It is breathed out of their face. It seeps out of their skin. (Look at my sweet one exuding watery kindness!) Some of the water doesn’t even make it into my beloved. During the act of pouring some sloshes onto the floor (I can be very sloppy), maybe splashes the person sitting nearby.

Some evaporates right into the air. The molecules disperse. They soar into the atmosphere. They gather with other droplets from other sources and high above me form clouds that grow heavy, wet. It is possible that it may rain right here in my own town, but more likely, those droplets (at least some of them) will travel miles and miles before they shower down in a far away place.

It helps me to think of kindness like water. 
It helps me to remember with every sip I take in to feel nourished.  
It helps me to remember when I sigh with the satisfaction of my slaked thirst that those same molecules leave my body. With every breath I can send kindness out into the world. And perhaps, a million miles away, someone parched and desperate may turn her face toward the sky as the first drops of rain begin to fall…

Friday, December 12, 2014

In the Garden of Angels and IV Poles

“Oh, and wait ‘til you see the angel garden!” Madeline said, “Have you ever seen an angel garden?”

We were on our way to the infusion room. It was my first day with the Oncology Massage Alliance, a group of oncology-trained massage therapists who volunteer to give free hand and foot massages to people receiving chemotherapy. Madeline, the lead therapist, was showing me the ropes.

“Um…I don’t think so. An angel garden?”

“All the IV poles have angel ornaments hanging from them! There are angel figurines and pictures. People bring them in so there’s more all the time! Angels all over the place. It’s wonderful.”

My voice gets high when I lie. “Oh,” I squeaked, “That does sound wonderful.” It didn’t sound wonderful. It sounded tacky.

I can be a bit of a cynic.

I’d say I’m not proud of that, but that’s not really true and you’d know it isn’t because my voice would hit a register that only dogs can hear, so let's drop the charade. I’m a cynic from way back. I was ejected from my eleventh-grade sex ed class for excessive eye-rolling and gum snapping. I have no regrets. The instructor (a gym teacher who’d been saddled that month with “health” class duty) had an appallingly rudimentary understanding of human physiology and his contraception lecture was limited to, “Ladies, place an imaginary pea between your knees. Keep it there until you’re 30.” Eye roll. Gum snap. 

My mother gave me a copy of Our Bodies Ourselves for Christmas when I was nine. By the time I’d reached Mr. Gym Teacher’s class I’d read it cover to cover about 150 times. Frankly, I don’t think I deserved punishment. I deserved a medal! In the face of that nonsense rolling my eyes and snapping my gum was the least disrespectful response possible. He pointed to the door. “Out, Miss Jordan!” I glared at him with my right eye, the left side of my face completely obscured by a curtain of black curls. Eye roll. Gum snap. “OUT!” As I stomped out of the room he intoned like some ancient oracle, “They may take the girl out of New Jersey, but they'll never get the Jersey outta you, Jordan!”

Maybe he had a point. I seem to be an anomaly in my profession. Unlike many of my colleagues, I just can’t go in for fairies, astral projection, or angels (or imaginary peas between the knees, for that matter). I have no problem with those who do, but I prefer science. I prefer the banal miracles of the human body in all its fallen-from-grace glory.

Of course, Madeline is no Mr. Gym Teacher. Madeline’s affection for angels doesn’t diminish Madeline’s super-smarts and so, of course, Madeline was right.

In the infusion room where I volunteer there are angels all over the place. Some of them are made of porcelain, glass, or wood and many of them are, in fact, tacky. Lots of them, however, are beautiful, wing-less and wonderful.

Machines are beeping. Phones are ringing. There are a million and ten things that need her attention and must get done, but the angel with the blue nitrile gloves sits absolutely still. She holds a huge syringe of too-bright, lurid red liquid. She says to the patient, “This can burn if it goes in too fast, so I’m going to push it very slowly. If it hurts you at all, tell me. I can go even slower. Don’t worry. There is plenty of time.

The woman in the corner always comes alone. She never speaks to anyone but the nurses. The angel places a steaming cup on her tray. “I was getting some cocoa for my mom. I thought you might like some too.”

The angel under the blanket is too ill even to lift his head. He is clearly in pain. “No, thank you,” he says and gestures to the worried woman sitting in the uncomfortable-looking chair next to him. “Give the massage to my wife. She needs it more than I do.”

The angels give each other gifts and advice.

“Here, I knitted this hat. It’s softer than the ones from the store. No, no, keep it. I just make them to keep my hands busy…”

“Mouth sores? Yeah, me too. Try canned peaches. They’re slippery enough to go down fast and they’re the only thing I’ve found that doesn’t taste like sand.”

It seems so unlikely, these angels in this unholy garden. From the IV pole trees the shiny bags of chemicals hang like strange, menacing fruit. Blood blooms on gauze petals. There are weeds of needles and tubes. The mulch is piles and piles and piles of paperwork. The ground here seems fertile for hopelessness and despair. But what grows here instead, like persistent green shoots are countless angelic acts of faith and kindness.

The patient is one of my “regulars.” She smiles shyly. “Today is my last treatment. I was afraid I wouldn’t get to see you. I wanted to tell you – I want you to know. You’re an angel for doing this.”

I have no urge to roll my eyes, but I do wish I still had hair long enough to hide behind. I take her foot in my hands.

“Me?” I chuckle, “Far from it.”

I’m just a cynical girl from New Jersey. But sometimes I can see angels.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Beginner’s Mistake / Beginner’s Mind

I have a Mindfulness Practice. That is to say, I struggle daily (and with varying degrees of success) to sit in stillness with my breath and to live each moment with openness, awareness, loving-kindness, and equanimity – to cultivate what Zen Buddhists refer to as the “beginner’s mind.” Volunteer work is a big part of this practice for me.  Volunteering gives me a tangible way to offer service to others, or seva. It’s also a great way to learn stuff. And to re-learn stuff I thought I already knew.

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time I was volunteering at a busy hospital, offering free massage to patients. I usually only had 5-10 minutes to spend with each person. I had to reach around IV poles and other equipment to make contact with my clients. Nurses who needed to check vitals, or sweep my client away for a test or procedure frequently interrupted the sessions. It was a hectic setting, with very little of the calm and privacy one usually associates with massage. This is where I met “Norma.”

Norma was just beginning treatment for cancer. A friend sat in the chair beside her. It was not unusual in this setting for people to ask me about my work and myself.

As she leaned back to allow me to massage her feet, Norma and her friend (a self-proclaimed “survivor”) exchanged some basic pleasantries with me and then Norma’s friend began to ask about and discuss the risks associated with receiving massage from someone who is not specifically trained in Oncology Massage. You may already know, dear reader, that this is a particular passion of mine and within minutes, I was having an intense conversation with Friend about her history of lymphedema and the challenges associated with managing it.

Norma started to cry.

“Oh, oh! Honey,” Friend stroked Norma’s shoulder and grabbed her hand, “I’m sorry. Did we upset you? Don't’ cry. That’s not going to happen to you!”

“Well, it might.”

My heart sank into my stomach. My stomach sank into my legs.

“Well…sure, I guess,” Friend struggled to keep smiling. I kept my mouth shut and slowed the pace of my massage. “But you don’t have to worry or be sad! You’re here now and everything is going to be okay.”

“I don’t want to be here now! Everything is not okay! I don’t want any of this to be happening!”

I didn’t speak for the rest of the massage. I poured calm and sweetness into my touch, but inwardly I was raging.
How stupid I’d been!
I should have known better.
I did know better!

I love this work. I am committed to this work. I have many, many hours of training in Oncology Massage. I study with a brilliant and insightful mentor. I have a strong and supportive network of Oncology Massage Therapists.

A cancer diagnosis is terrifying. A person who receives this diagnosis is plunged into a world of uncertain outcomes, a world where the treatment can be as painful and scary as the disease, a world where one’s own body can feel like an enemy.

I believe the most significant benefit that massage can offer this person is comfort. I believe that my greatest gift to this person is my ability to use touch to remind her that her body can still be a source of joy. That she can still feel pleasure; that her body is still a good place to be.

Instead of offering Norma that gift, I’d allowed myself to be distracted. Like someone sitting in meditation for the first time, my brain had wandered away and I'd let it go. I’d been there, but I hadn’t been present. My lack of presence had made me unaware. My lack of awareness had made me insensitive.

Chatting with another person instead of focusing on my client?!
I’d made a terrible mistake… worse! I’d made a beginner’s mistake!
I’d been mindless.

I spent a great deal of time punishing myself. I reminded myself over and over that I’d hurt someone. I imagined all the graceful ways I could have redirected or ended the conversation with Friend. I crafted elaborate apologies at the same time that I prayed our paths would never cross and I’d never have to see or speak to Norma again.

About 2 weeks had passed when I read this from Jack Kornfield: 
Forgiveness does not forget, nor does it condone the past. Forgiveness sees wisely. It willingly acknowledges what is unjust, harmful, and wrong. It bravely recognizes the sufferings of the past, and understands the conditions that brought them about. There is a strength to forgiveness. When we forgive, we can also say, “Never again will I allow these things to happen.” 

I realized that this experience had been more Oncology Massage training. At the same time I’d been berating myself, I had also been focused completely and intently on my clients in and out of the hospital. I was mindful of my words. I was newly aware. I would not make the same mistake again.

I also realized I had already seen her! Just that day I had massaged the hands and feet of the woman I’d made cry 2 weeks earlier and I hadn’t recognized her! 

I can give you lots of reasons I might not have recognized Norma. It was another very busy day. I massaged lots of hands and feet. Almost everyone was wearing a hospital gown. She was in a different room. She had a different friend with her.

But the truth is this: I didn’t recognize her because when I walked up to her she beamed at me.

“Hi! I’d love a foot massage!” she’d said, whipping off her socks, “Can you do my hands today too?” She had nudged her friend and said, “This is the best thing! It feels sooo good!” 

“Finding a way to extend forgiveness to ourselves is one of our most essential tasks...we can hold the pain we have caused in compassion. Without such mercy, we will live our own life in exile.” – Jack Kornfield

I didn’t recognize Norma because I was looking for someone who was still wounded by my thoughtlessness, someone who hadn’t forgiven me. Turns out, I was the only one there who fit that description.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Heart Strides

I discovered Heart Strides through the magic six-degrees-of-separation machine that is Facebook. This wonderful organization gives running shoes (via donations) to mothers of children with chronic illness or special needs. 

According to Denise, the founder of (and powerhouse behind) Heart Strides, "This simple gift of new shoes will be a starting point for many Moms, taking new and first steps to better health. For others, these shoes will help them to keep moving, to participate in events that are near and dear to their hearts."

I love this! I love this idea and I love the Heart Strides community -- women offering each other support and guidance, encouraging one another to care for themselves with the same intensity that they care for their children.

You're going to love it too. Check out the Facebook page. Visit the site. Donate some money.

Oh yeah, they have this pretty good guest blogger sometimes, too...

Friday, August 8, 2014

Walk the Walk

A couple weeks ago I wrote a blog about lymphedema (see below). It was inspired by the three days I spent at MD Anderson Cancer Center’s 10th Annual Integrative Oncology Training Conference and I’ll tell you the truth: the first draft – the one only a few people ever read – could be accurately described as a barely-controlled rant. I am forever grateful to the clear eyes, calm heads, and kind feedback of the friends and colleagues (you know who you are) who encouraged me to tone it down (a skill that has never been my strong suit).

Time certainly cools tempers (at least it does mine), but it does not cool passions. Today, inspired by Lauren Muser Cates’s strong, eloquent writing in “Be Part of the Solution” and yet another Internet kerfuffle about a “healer” spewing nonsensical lies about essential oils and Ebola, I’d like to revisit the passion that was flamed in my heart and brain at MD Anderson. I’ll try to spare you the ranting, but no promises…

A great deal of the 3-day conference at MD Anderson consisted of lectures given by oncology and integrative medicine specialists who work at the hospital. Sitting in the large conference hall, listening to these lectures, surrounded by nearly 300 massage therapists, yoga teachers, and acupuncturists, I was struck by three things:

First, how cool was this?! Physicians and massage therapists and yogis, oh my! All of us – lots of us – all in the same room talking about oncology research and treatment.

Second, nearly all the physicians and researchers who spoke gave the same sort of talk they would to any other group of colleagues. There was no “dumbing down” of their information or statistics. They addressed us as equals.

Third, (sigh) nearly all the questions posed to the presenters were not so much questions as angry accusations. There were a lot like this:

“Isn’t it true that if you were prescribing ________ [insert essential oil, herbal supplement or vitamin of your choice here] your patients would experience no unpleasant side-effects from chemotherapy?”

“My husband works with a woman who was diagnosed with cancer and she injected herself with hydrogen peroxide and was completely cured. Why aren’t you offering your patients that instead of these toxic chemo drugs?”

At first, the presenters seemed to take this all in stride. They listened intently to questions and answered them respectfully and thoughtfully. But as time went on the attendees appeared less and less receptive. Their questions and comments were more and more vitriolic, peppered with pseudo-science and outrageous claims. The presenters’ politeness got more and more strained and their answers stopped sounding collegial and started sounding a lot like parents indulging a cranky toddler.

“Well, there are a lot of things written on the Internet,” one researcher condescendingly replied when asked about a type of diet, found online, that would lengthen telomeres and allow us all to live cancer-free into our hundreds, “we need to approach everything we read online with a bit of skepticism...”

It was astonishing and deeply disappointing. I was sitting in a room full of educated people who have devoted themselves to healing, to the service of people who are ill and in pain, to what I believe is the ultimate form of loving-kindness, and yet the hostility between them hung in the air so thick and heavy that I could feel it sitting on my skin, stinging my eyes, and leaving a really bad taste in my mouth.

Finally, a physician who specializes in advanced prostate cancer showed a crack in the façade. “Listen,” she said slapping the podium, “I’m not trying to protect my job or something. If there were a cure for cancer, I’d gladly do something else! I would love to open a restaurant and cook for people all day!” The person sitting next to me rolled his eyes and snorted audibly. I wanted to cry.

Here’s the thing: this was an integrative medicine conference. Its very name tells us it was an opportunity for medical and bodywork professionals to come together. It was held at, and given by, one of the biggest cancer hospitals in the world. A giant of "western medicine” reached out a hand to us and we slapped it away.

I was reminding of something Tom Myers once said, “If we as bodyworkers want a seat at the medical table we’re going to have to learn to walk the walk and talk the talk.” I think he was half right. 

I’m not a doctor. I’m a massage therapist.

I don’t want a seat at the medical table, but I’d like to be able to visit – maybe ask to borrow the salt or see if it’s worth ordering the ravioli. And I want those folks at the medical table to feel free to visit mine – “Hey, I’m a vegetarian, but my friend here would like to know if the steak is any good. What do you think?”

Does traditional western medicine have all the answers? No way.
Do I think that massage can do things a pill can’t? Absolutely.
Do I think oncologists want people to suffer and die from cancer? No, I do not! 
Do you?

We don’t have to place ourselves beneath western medicine or agree with everything it presents. We don’t have to completely adopt the language of doctors and nurses and abandon our own, but do we have to learn to understand it. And we have to learn to respect the people who speak it. It is our only hope for teaching them to understand and respect us.

My colleagues, I beg you: 
  • Examine your beliefs and their sources. There is a lot of “research” out there and a good deal of it is incomplete or poorly done or just plain wrong.
  • Focus on your scope of practice. Do what you are trained and qualified to do and do it well. My dentist doesn’t offer foot rubs and I’m not going to clean your teeth. I will, however, help you with that neck and jaw tension that results from an hour in a dental chair getting your teeth scraped! You need us both.
  • Remember that we all want to help people. And that the best help can come (and should come) in many different forms, from many different angles.
Let’s abandon “alternative” once and for all and embrace “complimentary.” In a world of widening divides – racial, economic, political, etc. – let’s reach across the aisle and start to close the gap. Let’s stop waiting for the medical community to come to us and reach out to them. Let’s find a lingua franca. Let’s all talk the communal talk of people who are trying to help other people while we walk our own unique walks.