Yesterday marked yet another chapter in my glorious, daily-debacle life.
Yesterday I had a massage.
I am not big on taking time out of my day, or “pampering,” so booking such an appointment is always a bit of a stretch. I’ve had maybe twenty massages of various kinds over the course of my life. I never much like them. I look at them as akin to taking cod liver oil. They’re supposed to be good for you, and the Lord knows sitting in front of a laptop for hours does nothing to improve my aging body.
This was a new guy who had been recommended by the ladies at the local nail salon. I booked an hour, for “deep tissue.”
The massage guy, Viktor, I’ll call him, was nice enough. His studio rocked the usual dim lighting (provided by a row of plug-in “candles”), tuneless faux-sitar Muzak, and the scent of chemical floral-musk.
All typical, and so far so good. He asked what I wanted and I laughed, “Can you just fix my entire being?” Then I said I was a writer and spent a lot of time sitting, so probably my neck, shoulders and back.
I lay on my stomach and he proceeded to press, poke and smooth. I liked it. I thought things were going along great. I didn’t think of much of anything. I don’t have physical touch in my daily life and I was aware at one point that I was thinking, Please don’t hurt me, please don’t hurt me. Which is weird as I’ve never been physically nor sexually abused, but I suppose that is kind of my general plea to the universe.
I also have an unfortunate tendency when at the dentist’s, doctor’s, or massage studio to think of the people who were the victims of Dr. Mengele’s medical experiments under the Nazis.
So I started a Rosary: Tuesday, the Sorrowful Mysteries, The Agony in the Garden…
After a while Viktor started working on my right arm. Neither of us had said a word thus far. And suddenly, he barked, “Relax Let your arm go limp! You’re totally rigid. NOODLE UP!”
I shrank back, thinking, How can I relax when you’re criticizing me! Don’t you know I’m a dyed-in-the-wool PEOPLE PLEASER!
Seriously, I thought I had been relaxing. I felt like saying, You should see me when I’m nervous.
Instead, I said “Oh sorry! Okay.” And then I tried as hard as I could to relax. I thought I was doing a pretty good job at it. While I was relaxing and he moved on to my other side, I smiled, musing that my arm was no doubt a metaphor for all my personal interactions.
The thing is I sincerely want to help. So I’m always super aware of the other person. What do they want? How can I make it easier for them? This requires such a concerted effort—in my mind, toward generosity, pulling my own weight, going the extra mile—that I probably just make it harder for everyone else, not to mention myself!
Eventually he finished up and I got dressed and went out to pay him. “So what’s the diagnosis?” I chirped.
Viktor lounged back in his chair and said, in a not entirely friendly way, “Well you don’t have an ounce of fat on you. [Needless to say, I loved that part]. Your muscle tone is good. I don’t see any major areas of trouble. But—am I right in thinking you’re high-strung?”
I stifled a guffaw and he continued: “Because you’re completely unable to relax. Your whole body was contracted the whole time. It’s probably from decades of conditioning, but no therapist can really get in there and help you under those conditions. There’s just nothing to work with.”
For some reason, this made me burst into laughter. In my perverse way, I felt strangely proud. “I pray for an hour or two every morning!” I told him. “I take a long walk every day. Can you imagine what I’d be like if I didn’t do that stuff?”
Back in my car, I chuckled some more, already starting to write the story in my head. High-strung? No shit. Unable to relax? Duh. Why do you think I drank myself into oblivion every night for twenty years? You’d be nervous, too, if you had my brain. And for your information, I deserve a freaking medal for getting up and dressed every day, never mind trying to exercise a little “self-care” by booking a massage.
But as I drove to my next stop—a native garden in the Tucson foothills—I realized the guy’s remarks bothered me, too. What would I be like if I didn’t basically devote my life to regulating my nervous system to the point where I can function each day?
At Tohono Chul, I wandered among the desert honeysuckle, apricot mallow, and Mexican sage on the verge of tears. Basically the guy had corroborated what I’d always known: I’m in constant pain. Isn’t everybody? I’d always assumed.
Maybe—maybe not. I think it’s best to assume they are.
Whatever the case, I’ve learned to be careful who I share this stuff with. Right away, people suggest medication. Which I wouldn’t completely rule out. But what’s wrong with me is far, far beyond the capacity of medication to address, and what medication would address I’m not sure I’d want it to.
Then people suggest a therapist, like I haven’t been examining myself past, present and future—with the help of others—from every conceivable emotional, psychic, mental, sexual, moral, and spiritual angle for 34 years in recovery and 25 years in the Church. (Also, I’ve tried it).
And then they suggest some kind of Eastern meditation.
I’m not interested in meditation as a technique; I’m interested with being in right relationship with God: “I don’t say much of anything. I just love Him,” as St. Thérèse of Lisieux replied when asked about her own practice.
Besides, is it “unfortunate,” for example, to think of the victims of Dr. Mengele on the massage table? Or is it an effort to offer up my own pain in solidarity with those who are also suffering, or have suffered, or will suffer?
Well, that is the thing. We’ll never know. The fruit of prayer isn’t that we become calm. The fruit of prayer is that, whatever our makeup, temperament, history, genetics and wounds, we grow in love.
All I know is that the kind of peace that Christ brings is not necessarily the kind that allows us to relax our muscles. I was born high-strung and I’ll l die high-strung: so be it.
I wandered around the garden for almost two hours, pulsing with gratitude at the fall colors. The pomegranate trees were like liquid gold. A cactus wren sang from the crested saguaro. Clouds of monarch butterflies flitted among the scarlet heads of milkweed.
Here’s another thing about the peace of Christ: you might be in constant pain but you’re also in constant joy.
It was getting on toward dusk as I left. On my way out, I bought myself a year’s membership.
And driving home, I burst out laughing once again.
I’m waiting for the Second Coming! I realized. I’m not nervous–I’m just excited.