Last month I celebrated 25 years in formal massage therapy practice. I’ve been in the same office the whole time, with the same appointment times and the same furniture. Little has changed here over the years, which is good, because I’m not so wild about change.
My profession and I have stuck by each other in this sameness since we tied the knot 25 years ago. It’s as though we have become old married folks in old habits.
These have been rich years, for sure, but of course I can’t remember specific years and events. Instead, I remember moments. A career collection of moments, strung together like shiny things on a string. They reflect strangely, often beautifully on the present moment. Now and then I hold them to the light.
From thousands, I’ve chosen 25 moments to share here. One for each year, starting (and ending) at the beginning.
1. I’m a bit clumsy, so learning massage did not come naturally.
Dance class and gym class were hard for me. Even lining up my arms and legs during jumping jacks had been a challenge. It was no different with massage technique.I fumbled across each back, my hands and body going their separate ways.
This went on for months, on the backs of kind, patient practice clients.
Eventually, my hands and I belonged together. My clients started to relax, and so did I.
2. A client took my hands in hers.
After her session, she stood and presented her gift certificate, then reached across the table, held my hands. We had just met an hour ago. This had never happened to me before. It has never happened since.
“I have adjectives for you,” she declared, and then she got quiet. “Soft,’” she said firmly, stroking my palms. “Smooth. Velvety. Like velvet.”
She offered a few more adjectives, then bid goodbye and turned away.
Moments later, making her way down my stairs, she yelled up to me: “Remember the adjectives! Don’t forget!”
3. For 3 months the baby was fascinated. She loved her nightly massage.
At month 4 she became distracted by her surroundings and her growing skills. She grunted and twisted away from the massage, determined to flip over on to her tummy. Massage time became practice-flipping-time. Eventually she succeeded.
At 6 months, she crawled away. Massage was over, that was that. Her world had grown beyond the soft towels, the warm oil, the mother’s hands.
The baby was mine, and my hands were empty. Now, years later, she insists that massage is boring, but she does like tickling.
4. I dreamt about my client after she died.
In the dream, I was checking my voicemail, and she had left a message. As I listened to the message, the connection kept breaking up.
“I’m fine, just fine!” She shouted over the crackle.
Static took over, then the rich, familiar voice returned. “I called to tell you I’m doing really well! Let’s schedule a session sometime soon!”
I strained to hear more, but the message faded out.
5. My 6 AM client arrived, alert and cheerful.
(Yes, I started at 6 on Saturdays, for longer than I care to remember.)
He’d been up since 4:30, driven an hour to the session. He was bright-eyed; I was sleepy. Over the next hour, we switched. The birds sang me awake and him to sleep.
6. My client wouldn’t lie down.
She kept getting up, standing and swaying with a faraway look in her eyes. Her family, the hospice team, everyone begged her to lie down. No one could sleep in that house. Instead, they watched her constantly, following her from room to room, terrified she’d fall.
I persuaded her to lie down, bolstered her softly with pillows, “You’re an angel,” she whispered, as her head rested heavily. She appeared to settle in to doze. Moments later, she got up again.
7. I still have the striped orange socks.
Clients have offered small gifts at holidays and life passages. Socks in winter. When I took time off to get married, a custom piece of pottery for a wedding present. When I moved to a new place, a small trivet appeared.
One day, a client brought in a knitted pink baby hat that her daughter had worn 40 years before. “For your baby daughter,” she explained, “I have only grandsons.”
8. At some point I came to love the folds, curves, and flat expanses of the human body.
Suddenly I realized that I loved it all. All sizes and shapes and textures.
I was especially taken with the tender meeting of abdomen and the wing of the ilium. My glance fell at that vulnerable spot one day as I drew the drape down to my client’s hips. A sudden awe came into me. Something changed. This was not my body, but it was mine to care for, and a fierce stewardship took over. It has never left me.
9. “Stop trying to make meaning of my experience.”
In chronic pain for years, my client had experienced all manner of reactions to her condition.
“People try to make so much out of my pain. They try to create meaning. I must be learning an important life lesson, such as patience or acceptance. Pain helps me evolve or build character.” She rolled her eyes. She had grown tired of her friends and healthcare providers’ tendency to analyze, dismiss, and diminish her experience.
If anyone had the right to make meaning of her pain and suffering, she argued, it was her. The pain was hers, after all.
She continued, “In fact, this pain might be meaningless. No one considers that.”
10. We didn’t have much money to improve our office.
It was the early years. So we yanked up the old carpet ourselves, slashing it into strips and gagging on the dust. We guessed it was half polyester, half massage oil as we lugged it out to the street.
Our efforts revealed wide pine floors, fastened with old square-headed nails. After a budget refinishing job, we were satisfied.
Now, 20 years later, those floors are still charming but just a leetle bit scruffy, and to be honest, the trim could use some paint. Yet new clients enter and exclaim, “What a beautiful space!”
If just one client said, “Wow, this room could use some paint and varnish!” we would probably paint and varnish.
11. I asked a client to remove her lipstick before resting on the table.
It was the first year of my practice, and she was a treasured regular. Try as I might, I couldn’t get the color out of my linens.
I asked as nicely as possible. “I wonder if you would mind removing it just before the session? I’m so sorry—I’m a laundry novice. I’d be so grateful.”
The client never returned.
12. “Listen,” she asked, “Can I pay you more?”
Her pen was poised above her checkbook.
“You know?” She asked, “Can I pay you what most other people in the building are charging? The experienced ones?”
I stammered my protest, but she insisted. A few months later, realizing that somewhere along the way I had become experienced, I raised my fee.
13. Recently out of cancer treatment, my client called on a weekend to request a massage.
Her leg hurt terribly, and a family member’s attempts to rub it weren’t helping. In my gentlest voice possible, I advised, “After all those medical procedures and tests, I know the last place you want to go is to the hospital. But I think you need to go to the ER. Right away. And please stop massaging it.”
Hours later she was diagnosed with a blood clot in her leg.
Since then, I’d say at least 50 massage therapists have told me similar stories.
14. She shuffled through my door in her heavy boots and fogged glasses.
A bitter New England draft hit me from her coat. I shuddered. She hurried out of her boots and glasses, onto my table.
I realized then that I could just rent out my warm table and hot packs and have a thriving winter business. Massage was just an add -on.
15. “I want to feel…open.”
“I want to feel relaxed and open after the massage.”
She elaborated, telling me she had a fertility treatment scheduled for the next day. She wished to be open to the next step on her path to parenthood.
At the end of the session I asked her how she felt.
“Open,” she said quietly. “I feel open.”
16. Sometimes my pregnant clients tell me about their dreams for their children.
Often we talk about the importance of grandparents. One prenatal client, who had recently lost her mom, doubted her ability to parent without her mother’s support.
Yet she gave birth, and she parented.
Years later, my own child was born after my mother died. I had the same doubts, but I remembered my client’s bravery. I decided I was able. I was.
17. At some point, I gave up Saturday office hours.
Then Sundays. Then Thursdays and Mondays. Then Wednesdays and Fridays.
Tuesdays are here to stay.
18. Ecover detergent on hot, no fabric softener, heavy soil setting, high spin. Tumble dry medium. Fold immediately.
19. He was a fierce competitor on the courts, with ball-shaped bruises to show for it.
He beat people half his age. I worked diligently on those muscles, every 2-hour session, until the last 10-20 minutes.
Then I held his head in silent kindness, with ever-softening hands.
His breathing deepened even more. So did mine.
20. My office is on a well-traveled street in a busy city.
The other day I began the session as I usually do, by offering, cheerfully, “Which would you like to listen to? Music, or traffic? Perhaps both?”
She chose music. She got both. Most people choose music, but get both.
She dozed off, anyway.
21. “Look at my body please.”
“I want us to look at how it has changed since cancer treatment.”
My client stood in front of the mirror, gesturing for me to stand beside her. We surveyed her body, head to toe. She named everything that had happened over that long year.
Seeming satisfied, she re-booked and left.
For me, that moment stood out from all the years that we worked together.
For her? I don’t know. She never brought it up again.
22. Career counseling.
On two separate occasions, a client has gotten up from the table at the end of a long, quiet session and declared, “I’ve just decided to quit my job.”
I could draw all sorts of conclusions from this, but I don’t. And I wouldn’t know what to add to my list of services or my business card if I did.
“Manual career therapy. No words necessary.”
23. It had been several months since I had seen my client.
I asked her how she was and where she had been lately. In reply, she recounted her frenetic work schedule. She listed all her business trips. As her massage began in earnest, she became quiet.
A bit later, she spoke up in a wry tone: “I learned something from these past few months, you know? You really can run from a depression. I am living proof of it.”
24. “Go back to the beginning,” he said.
My teacher was stretched out on a table before me. It was a private lesson, my final lesson before graduating from massage school.
“Let’s go back to the heart movement—the first movement you learned. It’s important to go back to the basics.”
I was thrown for a moment. My hands hesitated, then began above his sacrum, moved up each side of his spine, out at the shoulders, and back to the beginning. A perfect heart.
We worked at it a while. He coached me through my hand contact, and evened out my pressure.
“Now you’re ready,” he said. “Never forget the basics.”
25. Sometimes I think about the last massage I will ever give.
Everything that starts comes to an end one day. While I plan for this massage therapy career to continue for 25 or even 40 years from now, who among us controls these things?
So I wonder: Whenever it is, will I know it’s the last one? Will it be a deliberate closing of my practice, a thing I mark, celebrate, and mourn?
Or will my work just trail off, with no clear end point? Like the baby who took off, will my clients turn away, one by one? Or will something suddenly happen to end it all?
Who will I hold in my hands during that last massage? What will we say as a goodbye to each other, and how will I say my final goodbye to my work?
What will I do with my empty hands?
So many unknowns to wonder about. But now I am in the middle of my career. My hands are full, with plenty of work still to do.
I do know this: 25 years ago, I could not have imagined a profession that invited me so deeply into my own experience and the experiences of others.
So my silver anniversary is less ringing of bells, and more mining of ore. It marks half a life spent deep beneath the surface. There, in the dark, I have discovered the rich, glimmering veins that run from point to point. The length of my fingers. The arch of a bone, the span of my feet on the earth.
The stretch of my growing, aching heart.
Each shining pocket of treasure, once I lift it into the light, has taught me something about everything. Words cannot describe it.
But music might.
Like touch, music takes over where words leave off.
Someone shared a cherished song with me. Each listener hears a different story, no doubt, but for me this song tells the story of the hours at my table. Last week’s hours, next week’s hours, and why I look forward to my work.
If I were to retire at some point in the misty future, it would make a great swan song. But with no plans to retire, and no need to wait until then, I share it with you now.
For now, it captures this living, lasting love affair, just fine.
All the way through. Perhaps it tells your story, too.