projects and writings of T.A. Burkholder
In September, 2016 I started a year-long personal challenge of doing something each week that I’d never done before then writing about it. This is week 12.
I can’t remember ever having a well-defined role model, one of those people you look up to and write grade school essays about. I love all the strong, interesting women in my family but I never emulated any of them directly. I’ve admired historical figures and literary figures, but if asked to name one I actually wanted to be like I don’t think I could answer. I’ve had a few great teachers and I’ve had friends who did brave things but nobody has ever claimed that elevated status.
Then this week happened in which I participated in a workshop for providing massage in hospice care. I remembered the lavish praise I’d heard about the teacher, Irene Smith, and felt compelled beyond all the reasons of time and money that said DON’T GO, and set up the whole trip in a single night: San Francisco for five days to learn and share and grieve and laugh and practice. Diving deep every day.
Over the course of the week, in her sweet, attic apartment and in the hallways of a renowned hospital, Irene became my first real role model. We couldn’t be more different, she and I, but what I saw her model over and over, at every turn, was a willingness to be herself. Not a perfectly polished version of herself, but the complicated version of personhood that we so often try to hide from each other. She was smart and beautiful and caring, repeatedly inhabiting the deliberate and thoughtful way a person could move through the world, the way a person could listen and be witness, the way a person could be intimate and vulnerable and still professional. And she also showed me how a person can be all these things and still get trapped in ego and still find confusion and frustration, sadness and fear. She showed me how a lifetime of deep and expansive experience doesn’t immunize you to the fact that you can stand in a familiar doorway and still have no idea what to do with what lies beyond it.
I’ve always learned better when given solid examples over generalized abstracts. Spending five solid days in the presence of one of the best examples I’ve ever met has challenged me to at least try and follow suit. It’s an example that I can use professionally, personally and privately.
In my work, I can try and arrive mindful and stay present. If every cell has full consciousness, as Irene said repeatedly this week, what do I want to say to the people I touch? And if I want to bring calm into a room then ALL of my movements must be slow and thoughtful, not just those defined as massage. This week, I provided touch to my classmates as well as four different residents and felt a connection through my eyes and the skin of my hands and the angle of my body and the air that filled the shape between me and the person in their bed. This was not about technique or outcomes or work. This was about the connections we all have with each other, connections that are often highlighted at the end of life.
In my personal life, I can try and step into my relationship with others with strength and vulnerability, perfectly imperfect. This week, I sat with this small group of women and listened to their stories. I cried repeatedly. Then I sat inside their gaze as they listened to me talk and watched me cry some more.
With myself, I can try and be more brave but also more kind. This week, I performed a ritual that addressed some unfinished business in my life (because that’s what you do when your role model asks you to). I stood in the backyard and clanged a knife into a metal bowl and made some goddamn noise. It felt awkward, but also satisfying. As I continue to bang more metaphorical pots, I know I’ll make a million mistakes. And I’ll never know what I’m doing. This is not only inevitable, but really kind of great.
To all of this and to all of those who brought me here, I say thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou.