I am writing this while lying face-down on a table at the elegant Green Massage Spa in Shanghai’s World Financial Center. There is a fuchsia flower floating in a black lacquered bowl on the floor as a retreat for my eyes, and a petite lady with deceptively aggressive elbows is digging into the kinks in my upper back. Since the staff frowned upon me bringing my laptop in for the Signature Thai-Style Massage, I am writing this in my head. And as my dainty, deft masseuse finds all the right knots in all the usual spots – THAT’S IT! – she announces, "You very bad."
We haven’t known each other long enough for her to be commenting on my driving or my dancing. And since is my third massage in as many weeks, I have come to expect those three words being tsk-tsk’d at me by someone whose job it is to help me release my tension. I know exactly what those three words mean: You are not relaxed.
This is not news — not to me, or to anyone who knows me. I don’t really have an "off" button, or if I do, where it lies is a mystery wrapped inside an enigma enveloped in puff pastry smothered in secret sauce only to be found by a map that is hidden on The Island where the TV show "Lost" took place.
It’s not that I can’t relax. It’s that I don’t.
I know perfectly well that relaxation is an essential element to staying healthy, in body, mind and soul. Relaxation gives us the time and space we need to re-connect with ourselves, with our friends and families, with our values and priorities, and, if we choose, with God. He surely knew what He was doing when he commanded us to rest on the Sabbath day. But while I gave up shrimp scampi without a fight, I struggle in my quest to simply slow down.
When my husband Michael and I got married, he knew that he would be giving up his right to date other people, to choose our Saturday night movie ever, or to stretch out beyond his third of the bed.
What he didn’t expect was that he would be sacrificing one of his (assumed) inalienable rights – the right to nap. Michael has asked me repeatedly over the past 13 years, "how come I can’t nap just because YOU don’t believe in napping?" It’s a valid, critical question, worthy of consideration and response, and I can always find something to do (let’s make leaf piles!) to avoid answering it.
Over the years, I have introduced many of my work colleagues and clients to Michael. It’s a fair assumption that most people who know me from leading workshops or from speaking engagements are impressed with the energy, enthusiasm and passion I bring. I love my work with every ounce of my being, and it shows.
But I have noticed that when these same people meet Michael, they ask him some variation of, "What’s she like at home?" I believe this question combines admiration, awe, and abject pity for my husband. It’s like the cranky parent whose kid has been given a loud, clacking electronic toy for Chanukah and is now wondering with frayed nerves, "How the heck do you shut this thing off?" They want to know if I shut off, shut down, or shut up. Michael, ever the loyalist, just smiles. We both know the answer. I’m starting to think this guy might deserve a nap.
Now, in my defense, I come by this honestly. My mother, Nancy, at age sixty-something, makes me seem positively sloth-like (and therefore makes the rest of you appear comatose.) She is a whirling dervish of activity. She is usually planning a party, hosting a party, cleaning up from a party or attending a party. She is at her desk by sun-up, speaking and meeting with clients all day, running errands in between, calling or seeing her 13 grandchildren, and working again until midnight. When I tell people that my mother lives in Florida, they ask, "Oh, is she retired?" "Never," I reply. A few years after my stepfather Ron and my mother got married, he asked me, "Does she ever stop? Will I ever be allowed to rest?" I gave him the same smile that Michael gives my colleagues. We both know the answer.
In my mother’s defense, she comes by this honestly, too. Her mother, my grandma Olga, was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis when my mom was a young child. By the time my mother was a teenager, her mother was paralyzed and bedridden. My mother spent most of her years with a mother who couldn’t actively participate in life the way that either of them would have wanted. So my mom chose to live the most energetic and dynamic life she could, to make up for what she didn’t have.
But while she had no role model and I had the ultimate role model for living a non-stop life, I think we could both benefit from learning how to power down. (I’ll let her husband Ron broach that with her — I don’t want to lose my invitation to Florida for President’s Week.)
For the past three weeks, I have lived half a world away from my family and friends in New York to teach an MBA course in China. I anticipated that I would need to keep busy every day to avoid feeling a constant low-grade ache from missing my family, and that I would need to keep myself even busier to deal with the pain of being missed.
Then the reports from home started coming in, and on a scale ranging from "You have been marked absent for 28 days" to "Your absence has scarred your family for life," my family fell closer to the former than the latter. And in fact, since I wasn’t interfering with my family’s ability to "just chill," they did exactly that. French fries were eaten in mass quantities. Wii was played with abandon. Beds were left unmade (which I know thanks to Skype video). It’s possible that napping may have occurred. I have no proof, of course. Just my suspicions.
And since I didn’t have to distract myself with activity, I did something else: I started to relax. With no responsibilities to anyone other than myself, I had the freedom to explore what shifting from overdrive into neutral could be like.
Of course, my experimentation with relaxation was conducted with characteristic zeal. My cooking facilities were primitive at best, so I ate out for dinner every night, slowly savoring sweet and sour Mandarin fish, salty-egg pumpkin, dumplings with clouds-ear mushrooms, stir-fried spinach with peanuts and garlic, washed down with coconut milk.
I didn’t have television, so I stayed up late reading mind-opening, exciting, and haunting books: The long-overdue And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic; the searing Anthony Bordain book Medium Raw; and the riveting Sarah’s Key.
I also had more spa treatments in my month here than I have had in my entire life until now. With body therapies in China starting at less than $10/hour, I luxuriated in an 80-minute foot massage that began with a rose-petal foot bath and a chilled cup of Macao-style cream pudding (for my mouth, not my feet) and ended in sheer bliss. I visited a hot springs resort, where I soaked in baths filled with Milk and Flowers, Red Wine, Lavender and Eucalyptus. I experienced Chinese cupping and Chinese scraping treatments (while both left marks behind, they weren’t painful), and had my first solid night of sleep directly after. I had head massages, shoulder massages, and, of course, today’s Thai massage.
Now, I know that this life of indulgence cannot continue indefinitely. If I carry on this way at home, I will quickly become broke, mammoth and single. However, I do want to bring home with me the following gleanings:
1) I want to be aware when I am using "doing" to avoid "feeling";
2) I want to honor my kids’ desire to chill out, without judgment, guilt or retribution;
3) I want to be more sensitive to my own need for and ability to relax;
4) I want to bring more rest into our family’s Shabbat;
And most importantly,
5) I want my husband Michael to take as many naps as he wants. Lord knows, the guy has earned them.
So while my masseuse may scorn me for my knotted neck and stiff shoulders, I know that just lying here on this table, staring down at the flower between her feet, is a big step for me. I am doing nothing. Just relaxing. Chilling out. And, of course, writing this article in my head.
It’s a start.
Deborah Grayson Riegel is a certified coach, speaker and trainer who helps individuals, teams and organizations achieve personal and professional success through her high-energy workshops, presentations and one-on-one coaching. Visit her online at www.myjewishcoach.com or www.elevatedtraining.com.