Thank you for coming.”
“Thank you for being here, Sangpen.”
This ritual fragment of conversation begins every massage. Sangpen speaks as she comes in, closes the door and dims the lights even more than they are already. I respond from face down on the massage table, my facing poking into the funny support, shaped something like a doughnut, covered by a sheet from shoulders to below my feet.
She rustles quietly about, arranging her tools and aids. I’m not sure what any of these might be. I never see this part. I only hear the gentle rustling, the soft thud of what must be the lotion bottle being set on a shelf. Then I feel Sangpen’s hands on me, through the sheet, as she makes preliminary touches on my scalp, shoulders and backbone, thighs, calves and feet. I think that she is doing some kind of diagnostic process, checking the usual places, the usual suspects for tension and knots. Sangpen always concentrates much of her attention on my spinal cord and joints and that is true even of these preliminary steps.
Then she folds the sheet back to the waist and does the first work on back, shoulders arms and neck. Her skin—the skin of her hands—is somewhat abrasive and the sensation is mildly pleasurable, less than scratching but gently stimulating. Then I hear her move away and back and hear the pop as the top of the lotion bottle comes off. Some lotion drizzles out onto the skin of my back. Sangpen moves it over the whole surface of my back, arms and neck and begins to massage more deeply into muscles and tendons. The lotion makes a thin, smooth film between her hands and my back. But my skin is dry, the lotion is quickly absorbed and Sangpen’s hands become abrasive again.
Much of this takes place in silence, with plucked strings and flute sounds forming some odd but innocuous melody in the background. Sangpen will usually offer some conversation during the first half of my hour. The problem is that her English is heavily accented and I understand only about ten per cent of what she says. Most often I can barely identify the topic—weather, another patient, or the traffic. Two points I always understand and respond to with confidence. One is her repeated admonitions that I drink apple cider. According to Sangpen, it is a genuine panacea for everything that ages and ails you, and she has a repertoire of friend and patient stories to illustrate this.
The second point I have finally grasped is “I cook food at the temple today. For you, healthy, wealthy.” Together with other fragments of information I have gleaned, this tells me something of Sangpen’s Buddhist life. She has spent a week at a Thai monastery on a recent visit home. She also donates food and cooks it for a Thursday lunch for monks and guests at a local Buddhist monastery. She makes these donations on behalf of her clients, that we all be ‘healthy, wealthy.’
People are made of stories, not atoms.
Once this remark of Sangpen’s about her donation made me think about the week or ten days that had just passed. The preceding Wednesday we had been guests at our brother-in-law’s Seder and entered with faith and joy into the narrative that Christians also claim. The following Sunday, we celebrated Easter in our own parish, singing out our joy and gratitude. Two days later, I introduced a new Professor in the Theology Department at Loyola Marymount University. He was an eminent scholar in the history and theology of Islam and a practicing Muslim, invited to address a luncheon of retired faculty and staff. We had had many thoughtful conversations about our faith. This is my world, I thought. I am connected to many communities of faith and I share in their blessings. I would not have it any other way.
It is not to be assumed that my fifty-minute massage is all pleasant sensations and pious exchanges. After the lotion has been worked in, Sangpen begins her real work. For someone as small as she is, she is amazingly strong. Soon I feel her strong fingers pushing deep into the muscles in my neck and shoulders. She knows exactly where the trouble is.
I came to Sangpen several years ago with headaches that sometimes sent me to bed, caused, I was sure, by the stiffness in my neck and shoulders. If massage didn’t work, I had decided, it was the chiropractor followed, if necessary, by an orthopedic specialist. It too six consecutive weeks of Sangpen’s hands, but the headaches were gone and I have continued to keep them at bay with a message every other week. At the first massage, Sangpen said, “This hurts, but it is good pain.” It did and it was. It still does hurt, frequently enough, both during and after the message. Not just at the neck and shoulders, but in the calves, tight from walking and, often, in the feet. People say you should stretch before walking but, honestly, we’ve been walking since we came down from the trees. Stretching came later and I’ve chosen to stick with the earlier wisdom.
Sangpen finishes by massaging my arms, face and scalp. And then it’s time to dress and move from the calm semi-darkness to the light. I leave more supple in body and refreshed in spirit.