NOTE: In 2012, this was one of my very first posts when I began these Adventures in Blogging…. Happy Halloween to my readers everywhere!
In the early 1960s Mom had three small girls and was the leader of a troop of Brownie Scouts. My mother was a sucker for holidays, and she loved Halloween. From personally answering the door with big bowls of apples and candy (both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ treats) she progressed to dressing up as a witch in cape and hat. We had a Walt Disney “Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House” record that played over and over in the background. Mom began to dye her face and hands a rather convincing green. She perfected a witch’s cackle and would slowly open the front door to a dark living room. The yarn cobwebs and paper skeletons hanging from the ceiling then became visible in the lights from the candles.
Needless to say, our house became cult. Little kids (and their parents, who discovered it had to be seen to be believed) saved our house for last to visit on the trick-or-trick circuit. We ended up having to buy lots more apples and candies every year as the number of visitors grew.
Mom was always slightly hoarse and had a sickly green-y pallor for days after that holiday. Green food coloring does not wash off easily….
I wish I had some pictures from those days but this one will have to suffice. As a massage therapist I have a (not-real) skeleton standing in my treatment room as a visual aide. Each year on October 31st I set him in a window backlit by candles, to honor my mother and all the dead.
I missed several appointments to meet my refugee and give her massage therapy. I didn’t show up, because my father died while I was on vacation. I had to cancel my flight home and extend my visit to America.
I called M’s daughter the day after I finally got back to Germany. We set up another appointment. Just like always: Monday afternoon. I got there and took off my shoes. M’s husband offered me a glass of strong Turkish tea. “No sugar,” I requested. (It’s usually served with enough sugar to send me into diabetic shock.)
M was sitting up in bed with a smile. I sat on the edge and took her hand. “Please tell your mother how sorry I am that she didn’t know where I was for the last three weeks.” (I’d sent a SMS from the States, but they hadn’t read it.) Her daughter dutifully translated my German words. I looked into M’s eyes and talked slowly, willing her to understand.
I tried for a session that would make up for the long summer pause in her therapy. I began with foot reflexology and moved on to treat her knee and hip joints, her shoulders and neck, her hands. When I was done, M surprised me by taking my hands back in hers and scrutinizing my face. She spoke for a long time.
The daughter translated for her. “My mother says to tell you, don’t be sad that your father died. Everyone’s going to die sometime. And you and I, we’ll have to die too someday.” M kept holding my hands and I felt tears come. We kissed one another on the cheeks.
The tears were for my father; they were for myself and my loss; and they were because that day was the first time that M comforted me rather than the other way around. Cold comfort, to be sure…. She gave to me out of her terrrified flight, her pain, the violence and death she’d seen in her home country. Her words were framed with the bitter truth of the life she’s known. But she presented me with that truth, because she wanted to ease my ache.
At the start of each week I spend my afternoon massaging a traumatized refugee. When I volunteered back last fall I promised her, her family, and myself that I was committed to doing this, that I’m in it for the long haul.
Almost a year later, the haul feels long indeed.
I knew on all sorts of levels it wasn’t going to be easy. Progress was going to be slow and probably measured out in small increments. We would face language barriers. Culture barriers. Experience barriers. The trauma she’s gone through.
No worries. I figured, I’m a trained professional, I could deal with the patient work her therapy was going to entail. Sure I could. In reality, I was clueless. Ten months later, I’m still clueless. I don’t see any improvement other than the way she no longer cries through the entire session. Now she only cries for most of it or just a few minutes. But she always sobs with pain at some point while I’m working on her.
With the exception of Christmas, a week when I had the flu, and a day when she had other appointments all day long, we’ve never missed a Monday. So why isn’t she better?
I arrive at the refugee housing and some days there are lots of small children playing in front of the building, their asylum-seeking parents going about their chores. We all say hello. Then I climb the stairs to the apartment where M and her family live, take off my shoes outside, and knock on the door. I greet the daughter who translates for us and head for the bedroom where M is on her side in bed with her eyes closed, or propped up on pillows in bed with a smile, waiting for me. Either way, she’s never without pain, her body is still a treacherous surface of hidden nerve hotspots. The family insists I should keep returning each week, that the massages help her and she’s always happier on the morning she expects me. So what am I doing wrong? What do you do with expectations and hopes that seem to go nowhere? The long haul looks like a long road to no place I can predict or hope to reach.
I go back each week anyway. To do so I’ve needed to reconfigure everything, and I mean everything, I thought I understood about the goals of therapy and the protocols to measure success.
I threw them all out.
I can’t have goals because there’s never any visible improvement. I can’t aim for success as I understand the term, because success in this case has nothing to do with measurable, quantifiable progress. Give your level of pain a number from 1 to 10, I told her. Is it worse here? Better when I press here? If I can’t end her pain, maybe I can help her to see it as lessened.
M can finally breathe into the painful places. One day she spoke in a loud voice and I asked her daughter to translate for me. M had growled something along the lines of, “I don’t want to give you a stupid number! Just give me the massage!” It was the first spark of will I’d seen or heard from her. The fact that this traumatized, raped refugee felt secure enough to snap at me was a good thing. This is how I now measure ‘success’, this is what I can call ‘progress’.
The journey she and I are on together inches its way forward.
NOTES: Go to my earlier posts Helping Refugees-Part 1, 2, 3, 4 to read more about my attempts to come to grips with the refugee crisis.
I always feel a little strange when I recognize it’s time to mark milestones and I have several to announce.
This is my 99th blog post.
I’ve posted in these virtual pages twice a month since I began way back in September of 2012. It all started with my husband’s suggestion that I establish an Internet presence….
My published books are fiction, and this blog serves as a good place to present excerpts. Potential readers of my books might want a sample of my writing and a glimpse of the human being behind the words. It’s also a place for non-fiction essays. I get to explore ideas and topics that don’t need to be transformed for novels. Posting every other week is great writerly discipline. I’ve never missed a bi-monthly posting date!
…. and this all began simply as a way to introduce my two novels Tsunami Cowboys and Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Both are available at amazon.com in book and eBook form.
It’s been a fun journey these last three years! Thanks to all of you for visiting these pages. I wish everyone the happiest of holidays. I’ll be back in the new year with an announcement. Milestone #2 is on the way!!!
The Germans have a wry saying. “We sent for guest workers, but Menschen came instead.” Meaning that after WWII, the work force of foreigners who came to Germany turned out to be fellow human beings.
I find myself thinking about that saying. The flow of refugees heading this way is huge and overwhelming, and in some ways I am afraid. I love the security and safety of life here, how clean it is. I’m proud to live in a land with universal health care and great mass transit, wonderful street cafés, and (most important of all) the guarantee of personal freedoms and a firm commitment to human rights.
What does this have to do with the hordes of refugees flooding the country? I’m not sure. Maybe nothing at all. But I hear from some of my friends, “What if Europe becomes Muslim? What if the streets are filled next with women in full burkas? What if we lose our freedoms as Germans bend over backwards to accommodate the newcomers?”
They’re nameless, faceless. They’re the others, the ones who constitute a vague but ever-growing threat.
One of my great bonds with the man I married is our desire to explore the world together. We’ve taken vacations in moderate Muslim lands. Every trip was wonderful, filled with people with dreams and hopes like yours and mine. I have a serious disconnect when I try to reconcile the horror of ISIS with the kindness of the friendly people we met in Egypt… Indonesia… Tunisia… Malaysia… Turkey… Singapore. The answer, of course, is they can’t be reconciled. The two have nothing to do with each other.
I’m terrified of the fanaticism that just killed more than 100 people in Paris. The refugees are terrified, too. The people fleeing to Europe want the same things we do: a civilized place to work, live, and raise their children. A stream of humanity is arriving. People with dreams and hopes, like yours and mine.
Each time I go to massage the refugee M. , I’m confronted with my own fear of the unknown foreign.
We have no languages in common. I’m not only working without any knowledge of her history; we can’t even talk. One of her children remains in the room the entire time to translate into German for her.
These are the hardest sessions I’ve ever attempted.
As a therapist my hands know their work; I’m capable to treat her PTSD symptoms. But the person-to-person connection…. I have to do this solely through touch. The afternoons of therapy have changed my understanding of the human dimension. It’s become more complicated, and much simpler. It’s changed me as well.
NOTES:  To respect the privacy of the persons involved I have changed the names and use initials only.
I spent a few weeks north of Hong Kong in the New Territories. The transportation system is easy and each day I went exploring. I’d read up, select yet another fascinating place to discover, and off I’d go.
As a massage therapist I went to pay my respects to Sun Si-miao Zhen Ren, Perfected Master and god of Chinese Medicine.
He was a doctor and herbalist who lived from 581 – 682. (Yes. 101 years.) Perfected Master Sun authored some of the most important Traditional Chinese Medicine treatises. Along with medical recipes and information on everything from acupuncture and massage to herbs and diet, he wrote the following: “A Great Physician should not pay attention to status, wealth or age. Neither should he question whether the particular person is attractive or unattractive, whether he is an enemy or a friend, whether he is a Chinese or a foreigner, and finally, whether he is uneducated or educated. He should meet everyone on equal grounds. He should always act as if he were thinking of his close relatives.” 
He tried to heal whoever needed his help, regardless of whether his patients were rich or poor. He turned down offers for jobs as physician at the Sui and Tang courts, working instead with ordinary people.
His books are still required reading for all TCM practitioners. Taoists honor him as a god of healing. Even today, the ill and infirm (or people wishing to stay healthy) visit his temple to make offerings.
So I headed to Wong Tai Sin Temple.
I was delighted to discover that at the temple you can worship gods. Goddesses. Protectors and saints. Local deities. Buddha.
The entrance is protected.
I was met by wonderful bronze statues of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac.
I managed to photograph all but the ox and dog.
Then I ascended the stairs and entered the compound.
The temple is just outside a metro stop, smack dab in an urban area. The serenity of the shrines and their religious activity is set against a backdrop of tall buildings.
Wong Tai Sin Temple includes a meditative garden, and I wandered around to take photographs.
As I walked I thought about the gods of medicine. When Uwe and I were in Egypt in 2013 we visited the ruins at Edfu. They contain a room known as the Laboratory. The high walls are covered in hieroglyphics that are some of the world’s oldest formulas for incense and unguents. Our local guide Khairy spoke German and was finishing a degree in Egyptology. Khairy believes that the Egyptian gods were real men and women. He thought they’d once lived and had made discoveries or created things so extraordinary that over time they came to be considered gods. He said, surely whoever wrote the recipes inscribed on these walls must have seemed like a god.
I recalled Khairy’s words as I explored the temple.
When I left Wong Tai Sin I don’t know if I came away a better massage therapist, but I love the idea of a temple to a person who dedicated his life to healing others.
NOTES:  On the Absolute Sincerity of Great Physicians (大醫精誠 Dayi Jingcheng). This has been called the Chinese Hippocratic Oath.