In the early 90s I met a bodyworker who persuaded me to get a massage. Because of my childhood, I experienced non-sexual touch as painful and I found bodies vaguely disturbing ("oogy" was the word I used) but I let her work on me anyway.
Two months later I was handing Kleenix to a therapist. Six months after that I was in freefall. Everything I had so carefully put together - my marriage, my job, my home, even my identity was tumbling away.
Against this spinning backdrop I ran out of money and the bodyworker suggested we might continue to work doing trades. Fast forward half a year again; I'm living like a monk in a tiny octagon house in a fruit orchard, supporting myself doing massage, and healers from all over the world are teaching classes in my home.
So it was that a middle-aged woman with an apple body and a face like a Spanish peasant came to see me. She was a chronic relapser with less than 30 days sober and her sponsor paid me to give her a massage.
Sheila* lay face down on my table, and I began to work on her shoulders. Alcohol has been hard on her; her muscles feel like cords draped loosely in skin. Her short hair is dyed black, when I run my hand up her neck the roots are white.
She's nervous, her breathing is shallow, so I'm using long flat-palmed strokes, rhythmic, repetitive, superficial, calm. I let my eyes drift outside where a myna bird is kicking up a bath in the dirt, inside where a shaft of light catches dust motes and back to the table. I notice how frail and empty her legs and arms seem, I see how her abdomen has spread beneath her, pushing the sheet beyond the edges of the table. I see her as she is, vulnerable, human, beautiful in her vulnerability. The wall clock ticks, Sheila's breathing slows.
After a long time, I jostle her, and making a tent of the sheet, instruct her to turn over. When I first started doing massage I was squirrely about giving naked people instructions, so I developed a voice - practical, compassionate, matter of fact, like a nurse helping someone give birth on a bus. People do what that voice suggests.
So Sheila's on her back, draped with her abdomen exposed and I notice narrow stretch marks that run like lightning bolts from her sternum to her hips. In a meditative state, I gently set my hand on a stretch mark. It opens up. The marks are not narrow at all, they are folded deeply upon themselves. The moist veiny skin swallows half my hand. I can feel her blood pulsing inside her, her viscera presses against my hand through impossibly thin tissue. The fold seems to go down and down and down, swallowing my wrist. My stomach twists and starts to spasm. I am not prepared for this.
Except, in some ways, I'd been preparing my whole life. When you grow up among predators you learn to keep your blood out of the water. By the time I was four I knew to feign indifference toward my favorite toys, so that squash-face bear would be cut up in the garbage and not precious gingerbread-man. Some days my mother's unstable brain would have her at me again and again, looking for weakness, for fear, for shame. And me - learning to control my face, reaching for a straw man, a briar patch, protecting the belly, offering the back, walking the line between the tears that would satisfy and the tears that would egg her on. To this day, a coworker and I have a code; "Show me your real face," we say, closing the office door and bearing witness as each other's calm dissolves into irritation or fear.
The rule in bodywork is, when in doubt, go slower. And so that's what I did. I left my hand to stay in the damp pulsing darkness. I composed my face into compassionate neutrality. I closed my
my hands have a deep curiosity outside of my thoughts. After a long while, my hand began to move, very gently and with a sense of wonder. I began to hum. The humming became a sort of melody, rising and repeating, like a mother crooning to a child. Every time I opened my eyes the nausea would return but less fiercely, when I closed them I would settle down again. Finally, after a long time I was able to keep my eyes open long enough to look at Shelia's face. Tears were streaming down the creases of her face.
When the session was over, Sheila told me that no one had touched her stomach in 19 years, which was the age of her daughter and the genesis of the marks. She told me that she had not been with a man, or to a doctor since then. She had no mirrors in her house. She said she had no idea why she complied when I told her to turn over, that it was some kind of grace. I told her that when they talk about willingness in the rooms of AA, this is what they mean and we hugged and said goodbye.
Nine months later I was walking my dog in Lahaina and a thin blond woman crossed the sidewalk and threw her arms around me. Shelia introduced me to her fiance. When they say that one day you will see how your experiences can benefit others, for me that was one of those days.
*not her real name.