OPINION | GWEN FAULKENBERRY: Love is the fire that lights the candle

I  met Heather maybe 10 years ago, maybe more. My adult life has been a quest to find someone, something, somewhere to alleviate the tension in my shoulders.

I am aware this is not unique. Almost every woman I know has knots in her neck and between her shoulder blades. What seems to be unique is what actually helps each person--the degree of pressure applied to unraveling the knots. For me it's a lot. None of this milquetoast massage therapy will do; my knots are forged in iron. Thus, I need a Thor-esque hammer applied to their undoing. I found this in a 90-pound massage therapist named Heather.

We made friends instantly. I visit her as often as I can afford, which since we first met has meant going months at times without seeing her. But when I get to the point I can't move my head my family knows: It is time to call Heather. Gracie did that recently. And I visited Heather in her new place where she works for herself, just off the Ozark square.

I opened the door and she sprang up from behind her desk to enfold me in one of her hugs that, like her deep tissue prowess, belie her tiny frame. Her hair was a different color than the last time I saw her, which was different than the time before that. She never wears makeup and never ages. I think I spotted a new tattoo.

She has plants all over her office and a small black couch. Her paintings of space as she imagines it and trees shaped like women's bodies waving in the breeze adorn otherwise plain eggshell walls. Soft music plays.

We always talk a little to get caught up, and it's never small talk. That's something I love about her; it's like she's incapable of it. There may not be a less conventional person on the planet. She's far too world-wise for her age. Heather has been through a lot, yet she is guileless. There is an innocence about her that makes me want to protect her like a big sister would.

I think she feels the same way about me. She sees my strait-laced, sheltered, small-town existence, the teacher/mom/country girl persona, then sees through it. Maybe it is her acquaintance with my knots. I am reading a book called "The Body Keeps the Score" by Bessel van der Kolk and coming alive to the stories our bodies tell, even if we don't know how to listen. I am trying to learn how to listen. But this is something Heather already knows.

"Go right in here, gorgeous," she says, leading me to a dark room that feels like a cocoon. Or maybe a womb. "Just let me know when you are ready."

I take off my rings and place them in a white dish shaped like cupped hands. I strip because I am unafraid and slide under the covers of a heated massage table. I fit my face into the pillowed ring, looking down on some vaporizer contraption she's fixed to diffuse essential oils--CBD-laced, no doubt--into my life. I forget to let her know I am ready, but she figures it out.

In addition to the soft music, now it sounds like light rain is falling in this room, and that's how Heather begins. Gentle. She lulls me into quasi-sleep before she climbs the wall part-way in order to exert the full force of her weight on my knots. Sometimes I can feel my hips shifting, my ribs, even my spine. I don't know how she does it. I just know she's a miracle worker. A healer.

Ninety minutes later I smell something burning, but it's not scary. I am on my back now, still wrapped in a chrysalis of covers, and open my eyes to see Heather waving a little piece of smoking wood over the length of my body. She's deliberate. Focused. Serious. I close my eyes and breathe deep. A few minutes later she pats my shoulder and says to take my time, as long as I need. Then she leaves.

I roll out of the covers, rise, and see myself in the mirror on the back of the door. My hair sticks out in all directions like Einstein. My belly is round instead of flat. Skin a little saggy. But my jaw is unclenched, and my shoulders are where they should be instead of up around my ears. I smile at the person I see.

I get dressed, gather my stuff, and report back to Heather at the front desk. After I pay her, I ask what is that witchcraft she was waving around. She grins and tells me the wood is Palo Santo, and that native peoples dating back to the Incas used it to clear out negative energy, chase away evil spirits, purge anything bad. She gives me a piece to take home and hugs me again.

Later that evening I tell my kids about this experience, the kindness of Heather, the power of human touch. We talk about how much it means when people offer what they have and do what they can do to help. How it matters, no matter what it is. We want to be those kind of people. They laugh at me because I put the stick of Palo Santo in a little bowl on the coffee table, beside the sage bundle my therapist gave me, and a candle inscribed with a Bible verse from a friend.

I have raised my children to be Christians--practical, intellectual, self-sufficient country people. We are not superstitious, but we respect the traditions of others. At least that's the way we think of ourselves as we hold hands and pray around the dinner table. And it's how we want to be treated.

I thank God for my family--for Grace who saw my need and tended to it. For the life and joy we all share. And I am thankful for the hand of Love at work in the world as it waves Palo Santo to bless and protect me. As it educates me on how the brain, mind, and body work together both to hurt and to heal. As it counsels me with science and sends me home with sage. Joins our hearts around the table. For how Love lights candle after candle after candle to show us the way.

Gwen Ford Faulkenberry is an English teacher. Email her at [email protected].

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