A few weeks ago I went for a massage. I asked my masseuse, Karen, how long she had been doing this work. She laughed and told me she had only just gotten her certificate in February. After working for twenty years in the corporate world, she decided to launch a second career in massage therapy because she wanted “to help people”. I looked at her a bit skeptically, and told her that I had been living with a chronic stiff neck for probably close to a year. I also said, “I like it deep, work me hard, I can take a lot of pain”. She raised her eyebrows a bit, nodded her head to indicate she had heard me, but told me that it would probably take some time to work slowly into the release I was seeking. My knots were probably located very deep down inside my shoulders, and it would take warm-up work to find them and coax them free. I gave her another skeptical look, wondering if I should have asked for a man, my usual choice for a therapist. I hate namby-pamby massages. I don’t have them often and I don’t usually have a lot of time, so I want maximum work effort in the hour expended. But Karen was a tall and sturdy-looking woman and this was a 2-hour massage, so I said ok, and flopped down on the table.
In those two hours I followed the methodical progression of her hands. About 45 minutes in, she said, “I’ve found it”, and began to take that knot apart. Her method was roundabout, a bit like traversing a steep ski slope, spiraling around and around, and then coming to land with isometric pressure. While she worked, I imagined those knotted muscles, two or three layers deep under my skin, beginning to wake up and untangle.
My neck and shoulders felt fantastic when it was over. But the mental image of that knot has stuck with me longer than the physical release. I wonder if those muscles look like a knot in a shoelace, a knot made of old fraying shoestrings pulled tight, maybe caked with dirt from a long journey, or even worse, a wet knot, wet with sweat, sticky and stubborn.
How much time, and what kind of effort does it take to release those knots? To untangle without snapping, to lay out the strings in a long, clean and straight line?
This Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start of summer. Last week, my co-workers and I successfully completed a major work project that required two years and thousands of hours of preparation. In two weeks I head to the beach for a week of “official” vacation. So I am thinking about play and relaxation, and about those knots. And what I know is this – I am not very good at “playing”.
Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way, likens the artist in all of us to a child. To reawaken our creative muse, to re-fill our well, we all need play. Play time is time to be idle, to dawdle and putter, time to let our attention wander in the senses. When we play, we can awaken the artist, sensory brain, with “sight and sound, smell and taste, touch”. Cameron calls these the elements of magic – and magic is the elemental stuff of art (and life). During most of our days, our artist child is in the custody of a stern, workaday adult.
My artist has a particularly firm and serious custody parent. When Ben was 8, he tagged me as “mean and stern-ful.” – right after he gave me the name “Dammed River.” (See my very first post Why Running River, to learn more about that.) When I think about spending time in “play”, my immediate physical reaction is fear. Will I miss something important at work? Will people think I’m not working hard enough? What won’t get done that should be done? How far behind will I be? “This woman is sick, sick, sick…” you must be thinking. But my heart palpitates with fear when I think about veering off the freeway to take a break.
Instead of planning how I will spend my upcoming week of vacation “playing”, I think it may be more important to think about how to put play into my daily life. I picked up a favorite book this morning, Poser, My Life in Twenty Three Yoga Poses, by Claire Dederer. It fell open to the chapter called Crow. The crow pose is a balancing pose, one that is challenging for many people. The author, Dederer, does NOT like crow. She – like me – prefers poses that you can inhabit as perfectly as possible – poses that you can land in, fill the shape and complete, like Triangle, Warrior, Half Moon. (AHH, closure, YES.) Her need for perfection and her fear of not doing it “right” hold her back, while others around her are popping into/falling out of the pose, laughing and getting red in the face.
Her yoga instructor reminds the class that the poses are not about perfection but process. The yoga is in the trying. “Crow is not a pose about stasis. Crow is a pose that’s about a fine point of balance. It’s about maintaining a state of play.”
This is my first blog post in over eight weeks. I did continue to take some pictures during my business travels, but only in a few hurried hours after 5pm some days, and I felt guilty about those. It has felt as dry as Death Valley. Cameron warns that if we deprive ourselves too long of creative play and down time, our inner artist, our whole self, can not only get out of sorts, but literally check out. When we try to call it back, it won’t come, it no longer trusts us. This is her definition of true ‘self’ destruction.
Learning to maintain that fine point of balance, to fearlessly enter into a state of play regularly, is a risk that we cannot afford NOT to take. I also think it may be the secret to untying those stubborn knots in my shoulders.