Ordeal

By Rebecca Barnett

I promise to make you more alive than you’ve ever been.
For the first time you’ll see your pores opening
like the gills of a fish and you’ll hear
the noise of blood in galleries
and feel light gliding on your corneas
like the dragging of a dress across the floor.
For the first time, you’ll note gravity’s prick
like a thorn in your heal,
and your shoulder blades will hurt from the imperative of wings.
I promise to make you so alive that
the fall of dust on furniture will deafen you,
and you’ll feel your eyebrows like two wounds forming
and your memories will seem to begin
with the creation of the world.

Nina Cassian, The Ordeal

This is my favourite poem. And roughly 35 years since the first time I read it, I find myself re-reading it through an entirely new lens. The poem now feels portentous in a way that I have never noticed or experienced previously. Another layer of the onion peels off.

My life could have been very different. More than that, it could easily not have happened at all. My Nanna’s first husband was a victim of the Spanish flu pandemic in 1919. It took his life when he was in his early twenties. After his funeral service, Nanna wandered through the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney in a deep fog of grief, accompanied by a friend of her late husband, a young Sydney musician called George Vern Barnett.

My grandfather Vern died of a heart attack long before I was born. But, as a kid, my Nanna often used to tell me her story of walking the Royal Botanic Garden right after the funeral of her first husband with the man who was to become her second husband. As she became more forgetful and other less potent memories faded, she told the story more often. Sixty years on (and yes, you should stop and listen to this song from Elton John’s first album now. If the opening string arrangement does not give you chills, I will eat my hat …

… the weird mixture of grief and nascent love was still powerfully present in the way Nanna told the story.

I owe my very existence to the 1919 pandemic. The infinite chain of tiny events that led to me being alive hinges on a young man dying in the prime of his life. Perhaps if it hadn’t happened there would still be some other version of me wandering the planet, singing in massed choirs and swearing too much. The man who wasn’t my grandfather, Mr Trevor-Jones, was a lauded bass singer so perhaps a Rachel Trevor-Jones would have walked the planet singing and swearing in my place. (The swearing definitely came from Nanna’s side – her mother was a prodigious potty mouth.)

Editor’s note: Having met Beck’s mother, I can attest that the swearing definitely comes from both sides of her family. She was always fated to be a potty mouth.

A century later, a new pandemic has me thinking hard about how tenuous a thread our existences hang from. I have never been so conscious of my almost-not-to-be existence and the ordeal of being alive. I am deafened by the fall of dust on furniture.

The Trolley Problem

The trolley problem is an ethical thought experiment that goes like this (from Wikapedia):

There is a runaway trolley barrelling down the railway tracks. Ahead on the tracks are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:

  1. Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the more ethical option? Or, more simply: What is the right thing to do?

Faced with this impossible choice, most people abrogate the decision. The trolley continues hurtling on and takes the lives of 5 people.

In the early hours of Monday 16 March, the AMT Board stood up and made an impossible decision. Faced with their own version of the trolley problem, they made a choice that they knew, to many, would seem utterly antithetical to AMT’s mission to support members. They agreed that it was time to advise AMT members to shut down all direct client contact.

The board fully understood the magnitude and gravity of that advice.

In the early hours of Monday morning, I drafted the hardest email I had ever written. The decision was sealed in the early afternoon, when the email was circulated to AMT members. I don’t know how many of you have ever used Mailchimp but there’s a high five animation that accompanies the moment you hit the send button for a message. My resulting furrowed eyebrows were two fully formed wounds on a face I am still training myself not to touch.

The ripple made by the Board’s brave and gruelling decision rapidly spread out across the globe, like the virus we are battling to contain. It created a chain reaction of similar advice from massage therapy associations around the world. We asked massage therapists from near and far to feel the imperative of wings and, oh, how their shoulder blades are aching.

“Self isolation is not an act of fear – it’s an act of love.”

Dr Dan Suan

About the Author

Rebecca Barnett is the CEO of the Association of Massage Therapists. She is following Australian Government advice to avoid congregations at trampoline venues.

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Comments

  1. Judy Houston
    24/03/2020 - 12:41 pm

    I thank you for your great service and giving us all such great advice and true leadership when we need it most.

  2. kunnipa Marom
    24/03/2020 - 2:28 pm

    I have stopped working for 2 week to prevent the spread of Corona Virus.
    But still need to register for my massage provider Number.
    Thank you for information and all support

  3. Jill Bruneau
    24/03/2020 - 2:29 pm

    Rebecca, I have known you for the 15 odd years I have been a member of AMT. Appreciated what you did but never so much as now. You are a fine leader who has led us through this with wisdom, grace and humor. Thank you for being who you are. Thank you for helping me so much through all of this. xxxxx Jill

    • For a wordy bugger, I am now lost for words. Thank you Jill. This means everything. Rebecca x

  4. I hope the others have made the same decision. Many irresponsible massage therapists continuing to take jobs {grrrrrrr!}

  5. Sorry, I mean the other MASSAGE ASSOCIATIONS. Too much going on, typing incomplete sentences…

  6. Thank you Rebecca and AMT.

  7. I was a student member of AMT but shifted to another association when I graduated. I have received more guidance from this blog than I have my association. Thank you so much for your leadership in this difficult time, it has been such a support as I grappled with what to do with my business. I feel good about the decisions I made, and I don’t think I would have been able to come to a clear conclusion without your posts.

  8. Trisha Feutrill
    27/03/2020 - 9:47 am

    Thank you Rebecca just sat down to read this blog as I do have plenty of time now. Love the story and the music which I’ve listened to before but never actually heard. Happy to know you are at the helm whether it is during this crazy time or when things are “normal”

    • Sharon Livingstone
      27/03/2020 - 9:53 am

      We’re all grateful to have Rebecca’s leadership at this time, Trisha. Thank you so much for taking the time to read the article.

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