When Angie dug her fingers into my shoulders, I sighed. When she found the knots of my levator scapulae, even her hands, which were large and corded with muscles, couldn’t press too hard or go too deep. But when it was time for me to lie on my back and she brushed the skin over my clavicle lightly as a dragonfly, I bucked off the table as if she’d jabbed me with a lit match.

As good with the intangible side of massage therapy as with the rest, Angie remained neutral and let me settle back. She asked me about the pressure and we continued: chest, arms, hands, feet, and all the while I was marveling at the sensitivity of such an erstwhile part of my body. It occurred to me I had no memory of anyone having touched my clavicle before. My neck, yes, my boobs, sure. But that unassuming span between the public and private areas of my upper body? At that point in my then-young life, no lover had been inventive enough to be inspired and no medico had cause to linger there. The mere weight of Angie’s attention, expressed by fingertips, had been enough to elicit shock from the cells of my skin.

Another reason I was surprised by my reaction was that the massage therapy was part of a project: I was on-purpose healing a trauma that was both emotional and physical and that (I thought) had nothing whatsoever to do with my upper chest. I’d worked through the emotional stuff—writing, painting and dancing had been instrumental in that—but it’d become clear I’d developed what bodyworkers call holding patterns—habits of movement and tension that develop from a defensive response to a specific situation, like an injury, and become so ingrained, they can ultimately impair the body’s functioning. And so I expected Angie to find numerous imbalances in my back muscles, to advise me on ways to realign my off-kilter hips. I didn’t expect her to give to me a part of myself that had escaped my notice, perhaps for the very reason that it had not been the site of damage.

Over the years, Angie and I have talked about the role of the witness in healing. As a bodyworker, a large part of her job is to create and hold a safe space in which another person can unfold and make discoveries like the one I had.

“Most of my clients would benefit from simply lying down for an hour in the middle of the day but won’t let themselves do it unless they’re paying someone a hundred bucks,” she once said, only half joking.

Her quip made me think of my many experiences on her table. We both knew the value of her skill, which combined hard-earned knowledge of anatomy and physical processes with a deep intuition and excellent training. Without taking anything away from that, I could see what she meant about the simple act of being there for yourself. But I’d done so much of that already, I’d reached a point where I needed to do some of my healing work in the presence of another person, someone I could trust.

She agreed that sometimes having a witness is in itself valuable and went on to describe the labor involved in facilitating a healing experience for someone. Her philosophy, not uncommon in bodyworking, is that her job is to help people get unblocked so their body’s natural process of recovering health can proceed.

I can relate: as a writing instructor, a great deal of my labor goes into setting up a situation in which people feel they have a reason to write, which often includes having a live, present audience for their work. There’s an exchange of energy between the witness and the author; sometimes, that exchange is needed more than suggestions and elaborate discussions of “what’s working” in a given piece.

In the writing workshop for cancer survivors, I’m the Angie. And it’s such a simple thing, the job of a witness. To be there. To listen, not simply hear. To watch. To hold for time, in your consciousness and, in this case, in a collective, a space in which some else can unfold.

Simple, but not always easy.

As I told the group at our first meeting last Saturday, ours isn’t the kind of workshop where we’re pushing each other to reach some external standard, some Platonic ideal of literary production. Those classes exist and can be tremendously useful depending on your goals, but that’s not our agenda. Our aim is to explore, to share, to witness. I know that “good” work can emerge in this context. More importantly for our aims, I know that even if the author is writing about some little happenstance, an image or a moment that has nothing whatsoever to do with their trauma, something very good for them might happen. Through sharing their work with a roomful of compassionate witnesses, they may find a forgotten part of themselves.

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