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finding meaning in everyday life

July 28, 2016
by Rachel
2 Comments

Two for One Special

“Mindful touch and movement grounds people and allows them to discover tensions that they may have held for so long that they are no longer even aware of them.” – Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D., The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (Viking 2014).

Who doesn’t love a bargain? I know I do. Still, when licensed massage therapists I know told me that not only would I learn new skills in massage school but I would find healing for myself as well, I was skeptical. Not that I didn’t believe them, but I was arrogant enough to think I had done so much work what more could be left?

It’s ok to laugh here. Guffaw even.

Earlier this year when I was emotionally wrung out by yet another bodywork class, I asked a friend, “How much more old stuff can be stored in my body?”

“A lot,” she replied.

“Fine!” I huffed, and we both laughed.

Thus, in May I began the first 50 hours of Traditional Thai Massage on the Mat with some trepidation. I had never heard of Thai massage until I began looking at massage school but I was immediately intrigued because of its connection to yoga. The therapist works on a large, cushioned mat, using compression and massage strokes, while moving the client through yoga poses. Even though the client is clothed, this modality sounded so much more intimate because the therapist uses her body to move the client passively through stretches. Plus, there were only 4 students signed up for the class, so it would be small and intimate. Nowhere to hide. Still, I was determined to try it and knew the group would be dedicated.

I found myself preparing for the 6 full days of class like I did when I was an attorney preparing for trial or oral argument – cleaning the house, stocking up on groceries, doing laundry up until the evening before the first class when I practiced yoga to calm myself. I had to be battle ready.

The first few days we did a lot of work opening up each other’s hips as we practiced Thai massage on each other’s lower body. By the third or fourth day, I was more than happy to move on to the upper body because my hips were sore. Bridget had me lie on my back on the Thai mat so she could demonstrate how to pull a client up to a seated position. She bent down, asking me to take her forearms, as she squatted and slowly pulled me into sitting. She asked me to stop helping along the way. This wasn’t the first time I heard that. A number of times one of my classmates would ask me to “relax” or “let go” as they worked on me because I have a tendency to try to control the movement even when I’m playing the part of the client.

After the third demonstration, Bridget sighed, “You’re still helping.” I was baffled by what she meant. I had consciously relaxed my limbs so the only part of me that was working were my hands connecting to her forearms, I thought. At her direction we partnered up to practice the move; Bridget stood nearby as my classmate asked me to reach for his forearms.

“Relax your neck,” Bridget admonished while my partner gently pulled my upper body off the mat.

“What?” I asked.

“Here,” Bridget said, tapping gently on my forehead with her index finger. “Let your head fall back while he pulls you up.”

“That is so annoying,” I replied through gritted teeth as she continued to tap. Grudgingly I let my head fall back as I relaxed my neck. “I feel like a newborn! YUUUUUCCCKKKK!”

Bridget told us to practice the move again.  Hating every minute of it, I practiced again with my head hanging back.  I told myself this was a lawyer thing – a consequence of being so cerebral and having spent my life on intellectual pursuits. “My head goes with me everywhere!” I protested to Bridget. To prove my point, for the last day of our class in May we invited friends to practice a 2-hour Thai Massage; I invited a lawyer friend of mine, certain she would also hold her head up during this pose. Imagine my dismay when I slowly pulled her to sitting at the end of our session and her head lolled back in a relaxed manner. My friend and I were similar in many respects – only a few years apart in age, we both practiced the same type of law for nearly the same amount of years, and we both held a deep love for animals and reading. But I knew one of the deepest differences between us was a starkly different childhood experience.

When the first half of Thai massage concluded, I had to admit to myself once again the great lengths to which I have gone to in my life to avoid letting others do anything for me. I am extraordinarily good at doing things for myself. Only last year I began seeing an energy healer recommended by a friend. During one session we talked about the faith it would take for me to make the leap from a stable income in a job I no long had passion for to teaching yoga and attending massage school. On paper, to my rational self, the leap didn’t make one bit of sense. It was not well planned and carefully controlled like so much of my adult life. My healer told me softly, “You’ve been thinking and planning ahead since you were 4 to 6 years old. You’re safe now. You don’t need to do that any longer.” I wept at the thought of a child so young feeling the need to do that. And then, all rational thinking aside, I took the leap and quit my job.

Just as I acknowledged my unwillingness to let others help me, the universe gave me the opportunity to do just that. At the beginning of June as I started a course in Acupressure, my car broke down and spent 3 days in the shop. Gritting my teeth, I asked friends for rides to the mechanic, to school, and to a meeting. They rose to the occasion marvelously, helping me without a second thought, even as I felt guilty for needing help. “I should be able to do it on my own” – the resounding theme of my life – played endlessly in my head.

A couple weeks later, one of my Thai massage classmates and I got together to practice before the second half of our class began because Bridget had encouraged us to do so and we didn’t want to forget how to do this new modality we loved so much. When my classmate suggested we try a pose from a Thai massage book, where the model’s head was relaxed back as the therapist pulled her up, he said, “Your head will be sticking straight out.” I laughed. I really did try to relax my neck, but as he pulled me up, he said, “Relax, let your head go.”

I was stumped. “I thought I was!” I said.

“Nope, sticking straight out,” he replied, and we both laughed.

Later in June, as I walked my dogs, I was pondering the fact that I have completed half of my massage training already. For the first time it hit me how much I enjoy touch, both giving and receiving. This came as a surprise to me since I was well into my 30s before I even liked for people to hug me. I had known massage school was a gamble for me since I did not come from a touchy-feely family. So enjoying touch seemed very new to me. But as I let that feeling sink in I realized this enjoyment of touch is actually very old. It’s a part of me I suspect I suppressed very early on so I could fit in to a family that valued intellect and strength but not emotional displays.

As July and the second half of Thai massage rolled around, I began relaxing into myself as a yoga teacher and student massage therapist. So one day in class when Bridget demonstrated a sequence on me, she pulled me up from the mat a number of times as my head dangled. “Way to go, Rach!” one of my classmates called. It had been a conscious effort to relax my neck, but only a momentary one. I knew I could trust Bridget. I knew that I was safe.

Practicing Thai massage, July 2016. Photo by Bridget Ryan.

Practicing Thai massage, July 2016. Photo by Bridget Ryan.

That night as I was lying in bed pondering the day’s events, an old memory surfaced that I hadn’t thought about in years. Events transpired in my home that caused me to run away and land in a youth shelter for a week when I was 12 years old. I had shared that memory with close friends and a therapist over the years, but for the first time I could stand back and see it not with anger, fear, or resentment but with compassion for my girl-self and the difficult choices I made at such a young age. I believe bodywork brought that memory to the surface so it could finally be healed, nearly 30 years later.

My mother invited me to lunch the weekend after I completed the 100-hour course in Thai massage. After we shared what was new in our lives she told me that she had caught up on my old blog posts and she read the one where I described my parents as unreliable and asked what that meant. I winced. I knew she and my dad might read that and it wasn’t my intention to hurt them, but it was my truth. Over the years my mother has approached the subject of my childhood a number of times and each time has been met with my barely-suppressed rage and rapid departure. For the first time I was able to respond instead of react. At the end of our conversation I told her, “I have shamed and blamed you for years but I don’t anymore. I don’t want you to feel bad about my childhood. You don’t need to worry about me, I’m fine – I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. Plus, the flipside is that I’m grateful. I have friends who had great childhoods but are too scared to leave a way of life that makes them unhappy. The way we lived gave me the courage to make this leap and know I’ll be just fine.”

With gratitude,

Rachel

Questions for reflection: How has bodywork or movement been healing for you?

May 13, 2016
by Rachel
2 Comments

Let Your Dreams Out of the Barn!

“Enough. These few words are enough.

If not these words, this breath.

If not this breath, this sitting here.

This opening to the life we have refused again and again until now.

Until now.”

– David Whyte

One day in March I went free roaming with my friend Marla; we spent the day wandering wherever life took us. We began with an excellent breakfast because everyone needs a little sustenance before an adventure. And we ended in the car with Marla driving us around the back roads of rural Iowa south of Des Moines. Something about that drive inspired Marla to tell me about Francis, the man who had kept a car in her parents’ barn for the last 10-15 years. Marla’s parents had gone to an auction and her father was bidding on a Mercedes that Francis wanted, so Marla’s dad let Francis have the car. And when Francis didn’t have anywhere to keep the car, her parents volunteered their barn. Francis paid them rent, and in exchange Marla’s dad started the car up regularly, kept the rodents out, vacuumed, put air in the tires, and put plastic over the car for protection. When Marla’s dad passed her mom kept up the care of the car until she went into a nursing home.

Now Marla is responsible for her mother’s affairs and every few months she receives a check from Francis and a note signed “Francis & Buttons.” Marla has tried returning the checks because no one is caring for the car any longer, but Francis insists on paying rent. To Marla’s knowledge, Francis has never worked on or driven the car in all the years it’s been in her parents’ barn.

“That story makes me sad,” I told her. “It makes me think of people’s dreams and how they never let them out into the light. . . . I think there’s a blog post in this somewhere.”

Marla smiled and said, “I think so, too.”

I don’t know Francis (or Buttons) but I can’t help but wonder what happened? Something about this Mercedes caught Francis’ eye, causing him to bid against Marla’s dad and ultimately get him to acquiesce so Francis himself could have the car. Then he made arrangements and payments for its care for years. I imagine there are plenty of explanations for this, but it saddens me to think that he might have had dreams of fixing it up to drive or sell, or maybe tinkering was just a hobby. What prevented him from doing that?

Sometimes dreams start out this way, don’t they? Something catches our eye and our heart and we take a step toward it. Like Marla’s parents, we have people in our lives who will help us tend our dreams even when we aren’t actively pursuing them ourselves. But sooner or later if we don’t go after our dreams, they become a burden, some hulking thing lurking in the shadows that makes us feel guilty and full of regret, wondering, “what if?”

Elizabeth Gilbert talks about this in the context of creativity in her latest book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (Riverhead Books 2015). She gives the example of this amazing novel idea that she fell in love with; she nurtured and researched that idea, but then life intervened. She set the book project aside to deal with her life. When she tried to return to the book later she said she “was looking at nothing but the empty husk of what had once been a warm and pulsating entity.” She still had all the research and materials but she couldn’t make a go of it no matter how hard she tried. Not long after, another author published nearly the exact same story that had once been her idea. She doesn’t claim Ann Patchett stole her idea but that genius, dreams, creative whimsy, whatever you call it, will only wait so long before it passes on to someone else.

I had this exact experience happen, though I didn’t know how to explain it at the time. I was writing a memoir about my law school experience. Now, Scott Turow has the classic about his first year at Harvard, One L, and there’s the Paper Chase. But my take on it was going to be about a Midwestern woman’s 3 years of law school on the East Coast. I dawdled and dabbled and talked about it more than I wrote it. Then I learned that another woman had published my book! She was an Iowan who had gone to law school on the East Coast and wrote about all 3 years of law school from a woman’s perspective. I was furious. But I had no one to blame but myself. I let my dream rust in the barn. Others had encouraged and nurtured the project but I didn’t. I was still paying rent on the mental and creative space it took up but not getting anything out of it other than a little guilt and regret. Now all I have is a bunch of journals, emails, and partially written chapters that no one will ever read. It reminds me of song lyrics I heard nearly 20 years ago that still haunt me: “I’m having a going away party/Don’t worry it won’t be a loud party/Because dreams don’t make noise when they die.”

I loathe regret. When I was having a difficult work situation years ago and trying to decide whether to speak up or pretend it wasn’t happening, my sister Michele told me that in life she often found that the biggest regrets she has are over things she didn’t do. Sure, she did things she wished she hadn’t. But what galled her was wondering, “what if?” That really resonated with me then, so I chose to speak up at work – it was painful 5,000 different ways – but I don’t regret it.

So now that’s one of my guiding principles: Will I regret it if I don’t try this? Will I always wonder what could’ve been?

Does that mean it always works out when I say yes, I want to try this? Nope, it sure doesn’t. Yet, I don’t have to wonder. I know. I hate being hurt and rejected but I hate wondering “what if?” even more.

I know it’s scary – hey, I’m the crazy woman who left the practice of law to teach yoga and go to massage school in my 40s. I’m well acquainted with the dark side of “what if?” What if I go broke and can’t pay the bills? What if I’m a terrible yoga teacher or massage therapist?

It’s a short road from the auction yard to the barn, isn’t it? Or maybe it’s a long one, filled with regret.

The dream I’ve been nursing for a few years is to offer private yoga sessions. Even before I went through teacher training this felt right to me. I participated in a 2-year spiritual program that had an optional third year that would allow me to become a spiritual director. I opted out of the third year to attend yoga teacher training instead. I knew I would use the deep listening, intuition, and discernment that I had honed in the first 2 years to offer what I refer to as “spiritual direction on the mat” – working with mind, body, and spirit one client at a time.

Except now I’ve been a certified yoga teacher for a year and I still haven’t offered private yoga. Oh, I can give you the list of excuses. 1. I had a full-time job. (Got that out of the way in December.) 2. I didn’t have the space to offer it. (I lined up space earlier this year.) 3. I didn’t have the knowledge or experience. (Teacher training + teaching group classes + studying anatomy in massage school + additional training in teaching private yoga + my own experience on the mat and in life.)

I’ve run out of excuses. So it’s time to let this dream out of the barn!

The first 3 people who email me with YOGA DREAMS in the subject line will receive a one-hour individual yoga session for the promotional price of $25. That’s only $10 more than your average drop-in class but this one is designed for your needs alone. Do you want to learn more about yoga or would you like more relaxation and less stress in your life? I’m here to help! Feel free to share this promotion with friends who may be interested. (Here’s the fine print: This offer is for a one-on-one private session to be held in the Des Moines metro area; if the offer is not redeemed within 60 days it will be forfeited. Payment must be made at the time of the session.)

UPDATE: Thank you for supporting my dreams!  All 3 private sessions at the promotional price have been claimed.

If you’re interested in learning about my yoga offerings – private sessions or group classes – click here.

With gratitude,

Rachel

Question for reflection: What dream(s) are you ready to let out of the barn?

April 24, 2016
by Rachel
4 Comments

Killing Me Not So Softly

“In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

“Who wants to be the demo for neck work?” Dianna called out to our Therapeutic Massage level 2 class.

“Me, me, me!!” I replied. I had been looking forward to receiving and learning how to give neck work since I was still seeing the chiropractor for my own neck issues. It was mid-February and we were nearing the end of this class. Our small group of 9 women was becoming a little goofy and we were all very giggly that night as I took off my top under the sheet on the massage table while Dianna, the instructor, left the room to wash her hands. When Dianna seated herself on the stool behind my head, she shifted around to the right side of my body, saying, “First, we’re going to learn a little pectoral work, then move onto the neck.” I was a little disappointed because my neck was hurting but I knew we’d get there eventually. Dianna raised my right arm and undraped my side to access the pec muscles that lie under the breast. As she pressed her fingertips into the flesh under my breast I sucked in my breath at the immediate pain. She moved in deeper as she described what she was doing, gently moving my arm back and forth to help release the adhesions, and continuing the pressure on my pec muscles until I called out, “STOP! Please, stop! It hurts too much!”

I was near tears but didn’t want to cry in front of the now-quiet class, so I made a joke instead. “Who needs water boarding to torture suspects when you have this?” I asked. Dianna joked in return that her next job would be at Guantanamo Bay. I dubbed this technique “the armpit torture.”

Dianna explained how many people’s pec muscles are tight for various reasons, such as sitting at a desk or behind the wheel of a car for hours on end. I was unable to pay much attention to what she said or really enjoy the neck work she demonstrated on me. I was also reluctant to practice the pec work on my partner after the demo, knowing how painful it was for me. I knew the reason mine hurt. Not only had I spent years at a desk, but I had injured my shoulder several years earlier, and apparently my pecs had tightened as they compensated for muscles that could no longer do their job.

When the class ended the next night, I told Dianna I’d see her again for an elective in Bamboo Massage beginning in late March. “I promise you won’t be the demo for pec work in Bamboo,” Dianna replied, smiling.

“You use bamboo in that spot??” I asked, incredulous. “That IS torture.”

At the end of March, I returned to school for Bamboo Massage, where we learned to use tools to go deeper in massage without being hard on our own bodies. A few days in, Dianna announced that the next day we would start with pec work. I cringed while students who had been in Therapeutic 2 with me laughed kindly, remembering how much I hated the dreaded “armpit torture.”

That night I felt very tired and reluctant to be around people, though I had started the week full of laughter and energy. It was just a fun elective and I hadn’t expected a deep emotional release. But the impending pec work made me think of how I had injured myself in September 2011. I had just begun taking yoga that summer and had felt a bit of twinge in my right shoulder during some poses but didn’t think much of it. Then I took a few days off work in September to scrape and paint my 1948 single-car garage. It ended up taking 5 whole days to do the job. Five days of vacation time spent scraping and painting in blistering hot weather. Very early on I tore something in my right shoulder and I knew it, but I refused to stop or ask for help. I took ibuprofen, tried to use my left hand more, and kept on going. For days afterward I could only walk one of my dogs at a time because my right arm wasn’t working properly.

I didn’t go to a doctor. Mostly I was able to perform regular tasks after the first few days. It wasn’t until several months later that I realized my refusal to address the problem was a problem; when I looked in the mirror one morning before I put a shirt on, I realized one of the muscles of my right shoulder was more prominent and developed in an unusual way. My body was compensating. I could no longer raise my right arm without pronating it first. I had adapted some of my yoga poses accordingly. I was still in mild pain whenever I used my right arm.

On Valentine’s Day 2013, as an act of self-love, I scheduled a forgiveness session with my spiritual director to heal old emotional wounds from someone in my life who had hurt me. I had no idea it would heal physical wounds as well. As a treat for the deep emotional work I knew I would do that morning, I had scheduled an hour-long massage for later in the afternoon. My shoulders and neck were always tight, so I asked my massage therapist to focus on those areas. She began with my right side and as she worked around my shoulder blade, suddenly my shoulder dropped into place. Except I had no idea it had been out of place. My massage therapist was stunned into stillness for a moment and I wasn’t entirely sure what had happened. Afterwards I asked, “Did something happen with my right shoulder?”

“Yes!” she exclaimed. “It dropped. It was so amazing!”

“It felt like a big energetic shift, too,” I said, not even sure what that meant as I said it.

“Oh, it was HUGE,” she replied.

That day when I went home, simple tasks that I had come to expect to be painful, like flipping a light switch or turning on the tap, felt absolutely normal. There was no pain. I could move my right shoulder in completely natural ways. I was astounded. I enjoyed pain-free movement for a few days before I decided to test my shoulder in some yoga poses at home. I felt something grinding together and then I was in pain again. Back to square one. I had experienced some kind of magical healing but I had screwed it up by pushing myself too hard. Again.

Later that year I finally asked for help by going to acupuncture and working on the emotional issues behind this injury – my insistence on pushing myself too hard all the time and my refusal to ask for or accept help. Once I had healed, I strengthened and stretched my shoulder through yoga. When I began massage school earlier this year I’d say I was back to about 98-99% of my old shoulder abilities. I knew there was still something not quite right but I was willing to live with 98-99%. Until Dianna stuck her fingers in my armpit and I called out in pain.

As I sat journaling the morning we would learn pec work in Bamboo Massage, I began to cry, thinking back to the first massage I ever received. In 1999 my friend Christi was a massage therapist I met in college; she was one of the few students who knew I was going through chemotherapy. I had few friends and kept to myself. As my cancer treatment was coming to an end, she asked if I’d be interested in receiving a massage. I had never had one and felt awkward about it but I agreed. Once she gave me permission to be quiet and relax, I began to enjoy it. Afterwards she asked how it felt. “Good,” I replied. What else was I supposed to say? She nodded and smiled.

Several weeks later we met to chat, after my entire world had come crashing down. “I didn’t want to tell you at the time because I didn’t think you were ready,” Christi said. “But when I was working on you, I felt like something in you needed to be broken.”

I nodded ruefully. “It did…. It has.”

I had very carefully constructed and controlled my world while in cancer treatment, as I did throughout my adult life. My friend Shelly had accompanied me to many of the appointments for various tests, including the incredibly painful test of my bone marrow – a drilling of needles into my hip bones to extract marrow and a bone fragment – after which Shelly gave me ibuprofen and I went to my part-time job. But the first time Shelly made a mistake by not meeting me to take me to an appointment like she had agreed to do, I cut her out. I had accepted her help but she had let me down. Better to do it all on my own. She apologized profusely but I told her I couldn’t take the risk of being disappointed again. Our friendship withered away and I went to appointments alone.

I told myself I could do all of this – college, a part-time job, cancer treatment, and applying for law school – on my own. I was fortunate to have very few side effects from the chemo so I could continue a regular life. I even kept most of my hair, though it thinned and became more orange. Why did anyone else need to be tethered to a hospital room by an IV drip for hours on end every 2 weeks for 7 months like I did, as chemo dripped into my veins? I brought novels, homework, music, and crafts to keep me busy.

Occasionally I had moments of “weakness” when I wished there were someone else to take some of the load. After 3 months of chemo, the oncology pharmacist reported that my white blood cells had dropped to a dangerous level. Really, I was lucky they had withstood the chemo so long. “What pill do I need to take?” I asked in a bored tone.

“No pill,” she said. “You’ll have to have injections, once a day for 7 days, then 3 days off.”

“For how long?” I asked, mildly panicked at the thought of daily sticks.

“For the rest of your treatment.”

“Do I come here every day then?”

“No, we give the syringes to you and you do it at home. Whoever you live with can do it for you, if you like.”

I lived alone. They gave me a piece of fake skin to practice sticking. If you lived with someone, he or she could stick you in the back of the arm. If you lived alone, you could stick yourself in the abdomen or the thigh. Every night before dinner for 7-day stretches, I’d take a syringe out of the refrigerator, remove the cap, squeeze the flesh on my belly and think, I cannot possibly do this. And then I did. Because I had to. There was no one else.

My carefully-controlled world fell apart after I graduated from college and my treatment didn’t go as expected. Only then did I ask for help, when I was broken and everything was in pieces.

I sobbed as I showered before going to Bamboo Massage. It’s time for that part of me to die, I thought. It was time to let go of the me that so carefully protected myself from the possibility that someone else could hurt me, destroying myself in the process. As I drove to class, I listened to an old Jewel album that was popular when I was in cancer treatment. Her lyrics from the song “Deep Water” made me cry even harder: “You wake up to realize somehow your standard of living got stuck on survive.”

I didn’t want to simply survive anymore. I wanted to live and thrive.

When I got to class and partnered up with another student who had been in class with me before, I said, “I want the pec work today. I need you to be ruthless. Even if I cry, and I probably will, I want you to keep going, ok? And if you can’t do it, it’s ok, I’ll ask Dianna.” My partner agreed and after we watched the demo, asked me which side I wanted her to begin on. “My right,” I said. “Let’s get it over with.”

My partner nodded and set to work. She started with her fingers to make sure she found the pec muscles before she used the bamboo. I took deep breaths to relax because I was scared of the pain to come, so I was a little puzzled when it didn’t hurt. “I don’t really feel any adhesions or anything,” my partner told me. Secretly, I thought she must be in the wrong place, though it felt like she was in the vicinity.

“It doesn’t hurt,” I told Dianna as she walked over to observe. Dianna’s eyes widened in surprise. My partner withdrew her fingers as Dianna dove in. I tensed a little, expecting excruciating pain, but there was nothing.

“Oh, Rachel, it feels completely different in here,” Dianna told me.

That night I wept tears of gratitude. And when I began my next elective in Lymphatic Drainage Massage, I shared how scared I was about taking that class and what it might bring up emotionally since my cancer had been of the lymphatic system. My friends in class checked in with me daily to see how I was doing. I asked for help and they rose to the occasion.

How did the miraculous healing of my shoulder occur during that massage on Valentine’s Day? How did my pec muscle heal? I can’t explain the strange alchemy that occurs when we do emotional work and bodywork together. I just know that it does, and that the healing is profound.

With gratitude,

Rachel

Question for reflection: What emotional wounds are you holding in your body that you’re ready to release?

March 9, 2016
by Rachel
2 Comments

The Illusion of Time

“Old Jiko is supercareful with her time. She does everything really really slowly, even when she’s just sitting on the veranda, looking out at the dragonflies spinning lazily around the garden pond. She says that she does everything really really slowly in order to spread time out so that she’ll have more of it and live longer, and then she laughs so you know she is telling you a joke. I mean, she understands perfectly well that time isn’t something you can spread out like butter or jam, and death isn’t going to hang around and wait for you to finish whatever you happen to be doing before it zaps you. That’s the joke, and she laughs because she knows it.” – Ruth Ozeki, A tale for the Time Being (Viking 2013).

“I think hurry can become a way of life if you let it,” said Judy as we nibbled on veggies and bits of smoked Gouda while savoring white wine. She would know since she was a high school teacher for 40 years. “I had 20 minutes for lunch. That included walking to the cafeteria, and I’m not a fast walker.”

After we ate the lentil soup she’d made, Judy moved on to preparing the fish she’d caught, cleaned and frozen herself, while the sweet potatoes baked in the oven. “Now when I cook, I like to take my time,” she continued.

“I’ve always gone back and forth about whether I liked to cook or not,” I told her. “Since I quit my job I realized what the key ingredient is for me to enjoy cooking.”

“Time?” Judy asked.

“Exactly. When I’m busy, cooking feels like one more thing I have to do. I enjoy it when I have more time.”

Judy smiled as she put the fish in the frying pan. Despite my new-found time and enjoyment of cooking, I was struggling with Judy’s relaxed pace as she prepared dinner. I kept wanting her to hurry up. I didn’t have anywhere else to be, and I realized it wasn’t like she wasn’t feeding me. Each time I finished one dish, a new one appeared, not to mention the wine.

Hurry had become a way of life for me.

I had come to Judy’s house that evening so she could be one of my practice clients for massage. Even though I had set up a room at the yoga studio to give massages, Judy asked if I’d be willing to come to her house. She had a table and sheets; I just needed to bring my massage cream. In exchange, she’d cook me dinner. Deal!

When she showed me to the room where her table was set up, I pulled the table away from the wall and adjusted its height as Judy chose music to play and dimmed the lights. I looked around – no clock. I also couldn’t wear my watch while giving a massage because it interferes with forearm strokes. I shrugged. I’d just have to estimate how long I spent on each part of the body and come as close as I could to the one hour that was required. My instructors had taught us to use long, slow strokes. Short, fast strokes make the client feel rushed, as if they’re being cheated of time. So even if I’m in a hurry to finish a massage on time, I have to consciously slow myself down because long, slow strokes create the illusion that time has slowed down. Nothing is better than a client coming out of the massage room looking relaxed and a bit dazed, asking, “How long was I on the table?”

When I finished Judy’s massage, I slipped out of the room with my watch so she could get dressed. 75 minutes. Not bad.

Earlier in the week I taught a 5:30PM yoga class for another teacher. One particularly frantic-looking woman arrived 5 minutes before class started. She wore her work clothes and was clearly in a hurry, impatiently handing me her punch card. “No worries,” I told her, “you still have time.”

“I never have enough time!” she called over her shoulder as she darted into the bathroom to change.

As class began, I asked the students to lie back in constructive rest: lying on their backs with knees bent, about hip distance apart. I sensed resistance. Not only was I not their regular teacher, I was telling them to lie down when they came to move. It was Monday and the studio owner had just announced the day before that our studio will be closing this summer, a decline in business necessitating this heart-breaking decision. Knowing the stress this would cause our regular students I kept them in constructive rest for 5 minutes, explaining how this pose releases our psoas muscle – the primal muscle that hold our fears and stress, which is also known as the fight-or-flight muscle – to distract their minds as they rested. Then we got up to move.

After class, the frantic student approached me as I turned off the lights in the studio for the night. I almost didn’t recognize her; her demeanor was completely altered. “I just wanted to thank you,” she said. “I really needed that decompression time.”

“You’re welcome,” I replied. All felt right in the world.

Except that it wasn’t. I was closing the studio down, completely forgetting that there was another class in 30 minutes and no need to turn off the lights or close up the studio. This was one of a number of spacey things I did last week, which is distinctly unlike me, who prides myself on being steady and grounded. I had been telling everyone that one of the reasons I was ready to walk away from my career as a lawyer is that I wanted to be Master of My Own Time. I no longer wanted a boss in charge of my workload or the court scheduling my time for me. And yet, here I was, now Master of My Own Time and feeling completely discombobulated. My schedule involved a lot of back and forth – from one practice massage to errands, to running home to let the dogs out and have lunch, and then to meet friends or teach or yoga or do another practice massage. Not to mention when I have classes at massage school, which are usually nights and weekends, the complete opposite of my former life.

During my Recovering Overachiever meeting last week, one friend mentioned how countercultural we are, by quitting our jobs and casually meeting for coffee at 10:00AM on a workday. I used to resent people like us. If I happened to be off on a workday, I would look around bitterly at the number of people who were of working age but just sitting around in a coffee shop. Don’t these people have jobs? I wondered.

Pondering my spacey behavior, I thought again of my countercultural decision – leaving a successful career with a comfortable salary to teach yoga and attend massage school. Which is when it occurred to me that the problem was not only my scheduling (so much for being Master of My Own Time) but that my body had stepped off the fast track while my mind had not. Yes, I teach and practice yoga, journal, meditate and all that good stuff. But I’m still checking my email not long after I get up in the morning and looking at Facebook while I eat my breakfast. So my body’s pace is slowing down, but my mind is still several steps ahead. My body is eating breakfast but my mind is already out the door, ready to run errands.

So I remembered my breath, one of our most powerful tools. Our respiratory system is both involuntary and voluntary, and at no charge and without a prescription, we can use it to reconnect my mind and body. Remembering to mindfully take a few breaths before moving on to the next task allows us a respite in our day and takes very little time.

My friend Deb tells me she likes to take life at “parade speed.” I smile at this thought: going slowly enough that I can see people grinning as I wave, stopping to enjoy the sights, throwing candy (and eating some myself). Trading the fast track for parade speed? Sounds like a good deal to me!

With gratitude,

Rachel

Question for reflection: Paraphrasing poet Mary Oliver, how will you spend your one wild and precious life?

February 29, 2016
by Rachel
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It’s Me Who Makes the Monsters

“And it’s me who is the enemy,

Me who beats me up,

Me who makes the monsters,

Me who strips my confidence.”

-Paula Cole, “Me” from “This Fire” album

I’ve finished my first 3 classes at massage school and am at the stage of my training where I need to complete 20 practice massages on friends before I can begin working in the student clinic. Completion of 127 hours in the clinic is required for graduation. I began scheduling the massages as soon as I had a break between classes, even though the school gave me a deadline of June 1 to begin working in the clinic.

From the first practice massage, my inner critic leapt into action to point out all the things I did wrong or could’ve done better. Never mind that I only have 5 weeks of training under my belt and won’t graduate until the end of the year. I should do better or I shouldn’t do it at all.

I know that the high standards I set for myself stem, at least in part, from deeply ingrained patterns. It was at a workshop about a year and a half ago where I learned why I believe that even my best effort isn’t enough. During a break, the facilitator told a story about her neighbors who have 4 daughters, and how impatient the 3 elder sisters were with the youngest who was trying to learn how to ride a bike. Now, this had absolutely nothing to do with the workshop, but I suddenly understood a big chunk of my life. I’m the fourth of five children; I have 3 older sisters who are 4-7 years older than me. If I wanted to play with them, I had to keep up. If I got hurt, they got punished and wouldn’t play with me. Even now, at age 41, I’m still trying to be 4-7 years ahead of where I am. In my yoga teaching, I chastise myself for not being as good as the teachers I’ve had. Never mind that they’ve all been teaching 10+ years and I’m not even a year out of teacher training. I would never expect a new law-school graduate to know what I know after 12 years of practice, yet I expect that of myself in every area of my life.

Not long after I scheduled all 20 practice massages, I began feeling stressed and cranky due to the schedule I had created for myself. As I was preparing lunch last week, I remembered something a friend had said. Four of us who have quit our jobs or taken early retirement have formed a group called the Recovering Overachievers. The ROs had our first meeting last month. One thing we discussed is what we tell people we do and how hard it is to fill out a form that asks what your occupation is. Hmmmm, recovering attorney? Yoga teacher? Massage student? Mid-life-crisis victim? One friend made me laugh (and think) when she said instead of telling people she’s unemployed, she tells them she’s “fun-employed.”

I was getting pissy about all that needed to be done when the word “fun-employed” came back to me. I realized that if I felt like I had too much to do, it was time to relax with some butterscotch brownies and coffee instead of muscling through all the tasks I had set for myself. When I sat down, I began to think about the fact that this radical change that I’ve made by quitting my job, leaving the law, and attending massage school while teaching yoga part time won’t make a damn bit of difference if I don’t change how I operate, including how I talk to and treat myself.  Enjoying my brownies and coffee, I recognized that in a few years I could be burnt out again and looking for another career field if I don’t make drastic internal changes to go along with the external ones. While I cleaned the house that afternoon, I listened to Paula Cole and the chorus of her song “Me” struck me. I’m my own enemy. I make the monsters by setting my expectations so high while making fun and joy such a low priority.

My last year of college I was also in chemotherapy, working part time, and applying to law school. I still managed straight A’s. Parts of me feud over this – I’m proud of what I was able to do and also deeply saddened that I couldn’t give myself a break even when I had cancer. So when I was putting together my schedule for massage school, I initially planned to complete the program in 9 months, as quickly as I could. Then I thought, for once could I give myself a break? Could I allow myself a year of grace?

Yes, I could. And maybe a daily dose of it wouldn’t be so bad either.

I’m the one who made these monsters, but now I’ve pulled them out from under the bed to identify them. Yes, they’ll slink back under the bed again and again as I try to change a lifetime of pushing myself beyond the point of exhaustion and expecting too much and belittling myself for not doing better. One day I’ll evict them for good. My new way of life is counting on it.

With gratitude,

Rachel

Question for reflection: What monsters are you ready to pull out from under the bed?