My massage training began when I was 4 years old. On Sundays after church, my father would lie belly-down, head hanging off the side of the bed, while my mother guided me, step by step, up and down his back. The first few times, her arm hovered beside me as a guardrail in case I slipped. Beneath the human skin are many valleys, mounds, crevasses, and knobs. Balance and concentration are required to read this landscape of aches. Because I was small, I needed to use my full body weight to apply pressure. When my father groaned from the pain, my mother instructed me to press down with the heel of my foot until I could feel the hard spot crack inside him.
Once I was older and strong enough to withstand the discomfort, she started treating me with massage whenever I was sick. She would begin with pijat, Indonesian massage that evolved from a combination of Ayurvedic and Chinese traditions, then finish with kerokan, the methodical scraping of the camphor-lathered skin on my back and chest with a coin to open up the pores and release the bad winds trapped inside my body. I was 9 the first time I was allowed to reciprocate.
While my father was troubled by back pain, my mother suffered from migraines that often left her slumped over at our dining-room table, yanking at her hair to relieve the pressure inside her skull. Like many Indonesian families, we sometimes hired a tukang pijat, a masseuse, to treat my mom. The tukang pijat was an old woman with cataracts so thick, her eyes looked like pearls in the wrinkled sand of her face. Working in the guest room, she flooded our home in Denpasar with the scent of eucalyptus oil. I would peek through the door, marveling at how lightly her thickly knuckled fingers danced across my mother’s back, expanding and contracting like webs around swarms of stubborn, subterranean pain. Between her visits, I was on duty, as the eldest daughter, to give my mother relief. This made me feel trusted, capable, important.