A Writer’s Therapy for the Racial Heart

Massage is a favorite pastime of mine, something I discovered well into my 40’s while wallowing in the discomfort of divorce, teenage childrearing, career changes and personal demons.  A friend took control one afternoon, roused me from under the covers pulled over my head, and deposited us both in separate rooms on therapists’ tables.  

When I am asked about the Race and Change presentations I do around the country today, sharing stories and encouraging dialogue across cultures and maintaining pragmatic optimism in discomforting, troubled times, I tell folks it can be a lot like my introductory massage experience.

I lay there, at first, full of tensions but wary, fearing an onslaught of pain.  Instead, I felt the slow stages of release urged on by the kneading of healing hands. When the mind won’t stop spinning and the spirit is low, sometimes you’re willing to try something new just to step away for awhile and escape – in a healthy way.

Over the decades some of my best thinking – and creating – have emerged in moments of submission and retreat, even as aging takes a toll.

“Clear the knots in my thighs and legs with extra elbow and forearm pressure.”

“My tight shoulders need some deep tissue work.”  

Now, before I undress for a massage I dole out directions.  During the intimacy of these encounters, conversations may drift into sensitive areas not usually traversed between strangers.  One massage therapist confides that she wants to write her story to help others, but never felt smart enough in that area.  Another ponders the messiness of life and why God allows so much trouble in the world.  Another likes my smile and asks my age, and is surprised at the answer.  I tip her well.  But most times I prefer exchanges of the silent kind.  

With eyes closed, I am no longer concerned about superficialities. The wing-flapping upper arms fold in softly; the annoying pouch of stomach disappears.   And in this state, as the body submits, the senses communicate differently. Random imaginings slip in and out of my mind. An old smell will rise up, perhaps, conjured from a long ago memory.

Researchers on aging say that is one sense that decreases steadily after the age of 45, so I feel lucky that I’ve held onto a few: Witch hazel, strong as sour oranges, doused on my scraped and bruised skin as a child.  The sickly-sweet Apple Jack tobacco my grandfather chewed. My ex-husband’s Brut cologne lingering heavy in the room the morning after.  Sounds vacillate more with age, however.

I used to savor the murmurings of my son and daughter having sibling fun on the living room floor at my feet tuning into the whispered conspiracies and deciphering the rise and fall of contentment in their tones. Now, forget it. The volume on my televisions and phones must be set on high just to hear them and I still don’t get every word. As we age, our conversations become repetitive out of necessity. We start listening for the gist of things in life and accept that we may not ever discern it all.  
My taste buds, however, have rarely failed me – being a southerner, and all.

We’ve certainly have had to bite off some unsavory chunks of life, and swallow – hard historically, and we continue to be the symbolic epicenter of struggles against the country’s injustices today. But whatever doesn’t kill you can make you stronger, they say.  The trick is not to choke, and die.  

I grew up seeing boys flirt and moan over a “tasty dish” of a girl and grownups sashay around a room offering “a taste” with a bottle of booze in hand.  Every cooking woman has at least one recipe with a taste of some secret ingredient thrown in.  And in southern-speak, “a little taste” of something doesn’t ever mean just a little bit.  As we get older, however, those darn researchers on the brain have also found that we start to lose some of our taste sensations as well.  

I can accept that a slight decrease in taste buds comes with maturity.  We’re losing hair, bones, and bodily fluids in large quantities.  The tongue registers only four main tastes, anyway, and over time, maybe we need less of some of them, anyway.

Salty tears.

Bitter words.  

Sour  attitudes.  

The sweet memories, however, we might want to hold onto as long as we can.  

Other physical changes start showing up as well that seem to parallel our emotional journey.  Digestion becomes more difficult, perhaps making it harder for us to keep shoving some things down.  There may be a loss of teeth – so we don’t always get a good grip on things we love or things that need.  We have dryness in the mouth – from anxiety at times – and difficulty swallowing some of the repercussions of our actions.  But none of that should stop us from nurturing a hardy overall appetite for life.
In the massage room, a flute melody syncopated with raindrops, comes on in the background – or maybe I just become aware of it there.  I try to stay still but my foot flexes to the rhythm as the therapist’s fingers rub tenderness into a new group of muscles.

 I am reminded of a palm reader I met long ago who surveyed my hand with a similar insistent imprint.  I have a long lifeline, she said, starting high between the thumb and forefinger, arching downward, and disappearing just short of the wrist.  It lies just below the head and the heart lines in everyone’s hand.  She traced my deep brown crease like a trail in the sand.  But there are two lifelines, she said – not identical and not mirror opposites of each other, either.

 The left hand has the marks of the destiny we are born with; the right hand has the destiny we create.

After that, I started examining both of them closely when I thought about it, looking for the differences.  The line on my left was strong and steady and wide, a broad Master’s stroke. Years of lifting and carrying and clench-fisted blunders had not altered it at all, or not so that I could tell.  The right one seemed more delicately fashioned by comparison, although still well-defined.  In a couple of spots near the beginning, tinier lines appear like sharp branches or offshoots that surface briefly and then fade.  Another crosses much lower – a fine, distinct impression made just past the midway point.  Thin threads intersect and cross the head and heart, but the ones on the lifeline seem to be the most indelible.  They represent milestones, the palm reader said – turning points, shifts and changes that come with time.  
A shift in perspective.

That happens on the massage table and, hopefully, in the Race and Change presentations, too. After every session I know I feel a little lighter – in body and psyche – if just for a few hours.  

Back at home I may put on some jazz, or Brazilian music I can pat my foot to, or more likely, an inspirational CD. And, from time to time I’ll half-listen because my mind may wander.

But you can be sure the volume will be turned up loud so I can hear – and my neighbors may have to hear, too.

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