I won’t bore you with the details, but for purposes of this column you need to know basically three things: 1. I very recently turned 40 years old, 2. I just finished writing my fifth book under a rather aggressive deadline, 3. I spend a lot of my time hunched over a keyboard filled with existential angst and crippling self-doubt while my heart pounds furiously because I’ve consumed far too much coffee. Oh, you should also know: I rarely exercise, I’m a loyal Culver’s customer and the daily news cycle does really nothing to make me feel serene. On the outside, I may appear like a laid-back novelist, but inside, my emotions are more like former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, circa 1988. I am one bratwurst away from a cardiac supernova.
No one knows this better than my wife, Regina, who kindly gifted me a two-hour massage as a present for my 40th birthday.
The masseuse, Aimee Johnson, practices in a small space deep inside the honeycombed, brick innards of Banbury Place. Upon entering her studio, there was a profound moment of cognitive dissonance. I had just searched the serpentine hallways of a former tire factory for a masseuse, and now I’d found her, in a small, dimly lit, welcoming space. Soothing music trickled out of speakers like creek water.
I’ll just say it: Other than my family, I’m not accustomed to people touching me. Especially not in a therapeutic sense. At first, I felt a little ticklish and totally self-conscious. I tried to relax, but anytime I ever try to relax, I may as well admit that I’m just encouraging myself to tense up. I really ought to think, Okay Nick! Now bear down! Fight or flight! Let’s go! A million other conflicting messages are running through my mind: Stranger danger; don’t be ticklish; relax; close your eyes; don’t relax too much or you’ll fart; talk, no — don’t talk… I even thought of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his famous mantra: “… This is for everybody out there in Packerland and yourself today: R-E-L-A-X. Relax. We’re gonna be okay.”
“When was your last massage?” Aimee asked me.
I thought about it for a long while.
“Twelve years ago,” I mumbled. It was back in Madison. I was terrified the whole time. Couldn’t relax at all. Felt worse, after that experience; more tense.
“Oh my,” she laughed, “That’s too long.”
“How often should a person have a massage?” I asked.
“Monthly,” she suggested.
Holy crap, I thought, but didn’t say.
She began kneading the balls of my feet. I let out a little giggle.
“What?” she asked.
“I don’t think anyone has ever touched my feet before,” I said. “Not since I was a kid.”
“That’s too bad,” she said, offering her own small laugh.
I began to melt into the table, to relinquish myself, to submit.
Aimee tenderized my body. That’s the best word I have for it: tenderize. There were muscles in my calves, thighs and upper back that were so profoundly tight, so knotted and balled-up that as Aimee worked them in her hands and I became aware of that tightness, it was difficult to understand that what I was feeling was flesh and not bone. She utilized hot stones on my back (exquisite) and cups (for a moment Michael Phelps and I had something in common) and I think at one point, a piece of bamboo. When the session was done, I felt a little punch-drunk, woozy with relaxation. My knees were weak. I wanted to curl up into a ball and listen to Enya.
It’s been a month since that last massage, and I haven’t made a follow-up appointment. Not because I don’t want to — I do. But I am horrible at self-care. Massages cost money and time and I’ve never valued relaxation more than my work, my art or my family. I also find relaxation in other ways: walking, reading or clearing brush. But that doesn’t mean I’m right.
I think it’s fair to say that everyone in our country is on edge these days. This is a polite way of observing that millions of people are afraid or feel disenfranchised. Others haven’t seen their wages rise in years. Farms are closing. Our politics are divisive and angry. The news cycle alone is enough to make a person feel stressed out. And not everyone can afford a massage, or even an hour away from their professional obligations or family responsibilities — I get it. The massage I described, it was a treat, more than a decade in coming.
But I’ll say this: Take care of yourselves. Shut your phones off. Ignore the news, if you can. Be kind to one other. Get outside. Cuddle with your children, give your loved ones the gift of touch. It doesn’t have to cost a thing and feels so, so good.