On Houseguests and the Laundry

Carrie packing it up to go homeFor most of the last decade I moonlighted as a massage therapist, and this story begins in those years.

It begins on the day a tall big-boned woman of 75 appeared in my office for her first appointment. After completing the intake form together, she and I entered the massage room itself where she took one look at my thickly linened table and without preamble turned to me. 
“So you’re Irish,” she said.  “How did you know?”I said back, startled.

“Hey just look in the mirror” she shrugged, and then nodded toward the table. “And I see you do a WHOLE lot of laundry!”
“I sure do!” I sigh, thinking of the Santa-sack of sheets and face-cradle covers I toted from office to home and back every day.

“Well,” she went on matter of factly, “it’s lucky we Irish are good at washing because we sure ain’t much in the kitchen!”

I laughed out loud then. And I’ll admit that for all its ethnic stereotyping, her remark about laundry has made me smile many a time since that day.

In fact I am thinking of it now. Why? Because for the last two weeks we have had five extra people in this house, three young children and their two parents.

They are family so I love them already, but the truth is I love it anytime guests come to this house and sleep over. I just find the arrangement so …cozy.

I mean sure it was a little more work having five  ‘boarders’ for a fortnight. And yes the children brought with them everything but their very beds; from favorite books to their stuffed animals to the small electronic devices all school-age kids seem to have these days.

But in general they were among the most low-impact guess we have ever had. They prepared the food. They cleared the table. They loaded the dishwasher. They emptied the dishwasher.

And when they climbed the stairs for bed each night, they did so taking every last sneaker, bookbag and babydoll with them, leaving our first floor as tidy as the rooms in a funeral home.

They left this morning, – that’s a picture of my girl Carrie above starting to make their move – which is why I find myself now once again doing laundry.

I have gathered the linens from four beds and a crib; I have dragged downstairs the tall damp mountain of towels left in their wake, and all these I have submitted to the slow churn and gurgle of the washing machine; to the busy spin of the drier.

And now, in remaking the beds, I am finding traces of this family’s stay. Here, for example: here is a tiny sock. And over here: here is a small stuffed bunny.

I’m also learning things as this task progresses. I’m learning that one child appears to have slept all these nights with a giant box of tissues right in under the covers with him. I’m learning that his mother has curled up all these nights attended by a travel pillow in a hand-stitched pillowcase case from the 1890s.

Chiefly I am relearning things I already knew. I’m learning again that I rather enjoy sending a fresh clean sheet aloft with a billow and a snap, whether it is to settle finally on a message table or a bed;

And I am learning again that I do so love the feeling of having lots of people here in the dark midnights, all breathing safe and quiet under the same roof. It’s what I imagine God must feel too, gazing down, from that Heavenly realm, on all our little heads.

callie in her bed-within-acribour littlest houseguest, 

The Hunch

I’m at the office of the massage therapist who has started by placing me face down on the table and running the heel of her hand like a plow-blade around the edges of the two kite-shaped ‘angel wings’ we call the scapulae. And in fact I do feel like a patch of plowed-up earth, the way she digs into me, but finally she stops. “There!” she finally says with satisfaction. “NOW your shoulders are up on your back again where they belong!”

I’m calling today’s post ‘The Hunch’, for what we’ve been doing to our poor bodies ever since we first stood upright and began sashaying around on two legs. 

Once our ancestors spent their days running across open spaces and handing themselves along among the tree branches. Every day they reached high above their heads, shoulders back and chests open. Today by contrast, at work and in leisure-time both, we spend our days hunched over screens and devices. Our arms in front. Our shoulders rolled forward. Our backs, quite noticeably, hunched. Right?

hunched againAnd our bodies pay the price,  as I am learning on this table.Twenty minutes in, with my dorsal side ironed flat, the therapist flips me like a pancake so I’m now face up. Then, coming in from the side, she begins working her way through the filo-dough of tissues under my left arm to address that strong rubber band of a muscle known as Teres Minor.

She presses. I leap like a fish. It’s worse than electrolysis. Worse than getting your mustache snatched off. Worse even than that time in childhood when, on a dare, you popped a wad of  tinfoil in your mouth and bit down, just to see how it felt on your fillings.

While a person generally signs up for that last experiment only once, with massage therapy you’re there as often as you can scrape together the dough, the  ‘vividness’ of the experience notwithstanding.

Deep work on little Teres Minor can be tough to receive, sure, but really? It’s worth the pain. As with the other three muscles of the rotator cuff, it lets us circle and swing our arms, while still keeping them attached to our bodies  – and a good thing too, because how would it be if people were all accidentally flinging their arms off every time you turned around?

“Ah now, this is good,” the therapist is now saying in her calm soothing voice. “This way when you reach for that vase high on the shelf, you can just shoot an arm up without the rest of your body having to come too.” Then she works on my neck a while, so that I won’t have to  turn my whole torso to look behind me before pulling out into traffic.

And by gosh, it all works. When, with the session over, I pull out of my parking space, I can keep my body facing forward while I turn my head practically clear around.

I feel like an owl. A happy owl at that. Then once home, I try that other thing:  I reach a vase down from its place on the shelf using one of my newly mobilized, strangely longer arms while the rest of my torso, earthbound, taking things easy down below.

In fact I’m looking at that vase as I dot these last i’s here, because as soon as I’m done I believe I’ll fill it with flowers and run it over to her office.  Then, on the way back to my car, shoulders back, and head high, I may even reach up to those pretty trees lining the sidewalk and swing from some low-hanging branches myself.


Cynical? Sarcastic?

massage proneI was getting some bodywork, on account of a spine that in the last few years has started to feel like one of those twisty drinking straws your kids will beg you to buy, then use once and forget all about. Only of course your back you can never forget about since you use it every day, along with the muscles in your core that hold it up.

There I was anyway, prone on this massage therapist’s table, my face pressed into that padded doughnut-looking thing they have at one end.

I was doing my best to get through the part where they use the tip of an elbow to press the living daylights out of your calf muscles – since, as they explain, everything is connected to everything else in the body and if you want to ‘open’ the tissues higher up, you have to start by undoing any kinks closer to the floor. 

“Breathe through the pain,” she had just said and God knows I was trying to. Then, as she was walking around me to get at my other leg, she asked what I did for work.

“I write,” I said in a voice muffled by the foam of the face cradle. “A column,” I managed to add.  “For various newspapers.”

She started in on my other calf and as the lights inside my head began to dim and billow with that point-of-the-elbow move, she went on:

“What do you write about?”

“Oh I don’t know,” I squeaked. “ Our common life I guess.  It’s mostly observational. “Sometimes it’s funny,” I added.

That’s when she asked the question that leads me to bring you into this sacred-seeming room in the first place:

“So what is your writing like? Is it cynical and sarcastic?”

Puzzled by the question, I stayed silent for a beat. “Oh no! Not at all!” I finally blurted.

“Because I mean I can be pretty sarcastic myself,” she said.

Cynical and sarcastic?

The words kept echoing in my ears. In all the interacting and people-watching I have done in the course of my career, I have never seen anything that would prompt me to write in a cynical or sarcastic fashion.  In fact 99% of the time what I see is either funny or uplifting. 

Here’s one example: This week in Starbucks I got a free coffee, because, as the barista told me, that man in the blue shirt by the windows had told him he wanted to pay for the beverages of the next ten people to walk in the door. “A random act of kindness,” the man smiled when I went over to thank him. 

And here’s another: I sent a skirt back to the J. Peterman catalog people, asking for a refund, since, as I wrote in the “Reasons” section, it seemed very ill-made.

Then, not four days later, a fresh J. Peterman box arrived holding two precious-to-me documents, which I had inadvertently enclosed in the box with the poorly made skirt. 

No note accompanied it these documents, no scrawled first name on the “Packed By” card you sometimes see. More importantly, no charge was posted to my credit card, then or ever. 

Someone in the shipping room had lifted out the skirt, seen the photo of the 14-year-old Brooklyn boy and the citation, done in gorgeous calligraphy, awarded to him four years later and understood what these might mean. This person then wrapped then in fresh tissue paper, adorned it with cream-colored ribbon and shipped it right back to me. 

So I ask you now and I really do wonder:  In a world with such generosity and kindness, how can anyone, ever, speak cynically and sarcastically? 

And now, just for proof, the two documents sent back to me by that good person in the shipping room at J. Peterman.   

rayvoughn at 14ray citation


My Secret Life

Recently, until troubles with my little Bobblehead doll of a neck forced me to stop, I worked as a massage therapist two days a week for four fascinating years – while being a writer because for me not writing would be like giving up your favorite hot drink in the morning. An account of what I learned doing this is appearing now in all the papers that run my column but when I did a Google search just now linking my name to the word ‘massage’ I came upon something I’d forgotten all about: a story one newspaper did on this little career-veer of mine. I remember I felt shy about going public about it so we kind of hid it underneath this hidden staircase way down at the end of a dark corridor on my writing website.

The person you see on the table ( go ahead!  click on that!) was actually the man who wrote the piece. He was also a client but not that day. That day we just set up the shot for the photographer which is why I look so sort of tentative – I’m terrible at faking stuff – but as I look at it now I realize I miss that sweet room in the chiropractor’s office!  A wee chamber for healing it was, a womb of one’s own for the clients I saw. The column tells about the big-picture stuff I learned but it doesn’t mention the equally important thing which was this: Infinitely complex  machine that it is, the body knows exactly what to do to bring healing and restore homeostasis. We need to just get out of its way and stop jabbering like monkeys; turn off our media; and breathe in and out. Someone trained in therapeutic touch administers a judicial tap here and but really Nature does the rest.