My Spa Experience
Sue Harmsworth Gave Me My Best Massage Ever
Pamela Redmond Satran
Not literally, of course: the founder of wellness giant ESPA, Harmsworth hardly lays personal hands on the weary traveler. But I had drinks with Harmsworth in London the night before a massage she’d recommended to me at The Four Seasons Hotel London at Ten Trinity Square. It was there she gave me some out-of-the-box advice that changed everything.
“Everyone thinks they want a firm massage,” Harmsworth said, “but you’ll let go of much more tension and feel more restored if you go with medium pressure.”
I nodded and smiled, but I was thinking: Not for me. In a lineup of massage therapists, I’d always go for the one with the widest shoulders, the strongest arms, the biggest hands. I nicknamed my favorite massage therapist at Rancho La Puerta The Walrus for his massive, flipper-sized hands, which easily spanned my entire aching size-14 back.
But the morning after I met Sue, as I lay on the table at the Four Seasons for what was billed as a hot stone massage, the therapist asked how I liked the pressure and instead of my customary extra-firm I said medium.
Firm massages demand a lot of attention: physical, mental, emotional. All you can feel, all you can experience is the massage itself—its dance between pleasure and pain.
So here’s what happened. The first 10 minutes were annoying. It felt like she was wiping her hands on my back. I kept wanting to say, a little harder than that. But remembering Sue’s advice, I held back.
And that’s when it started to get interesting. Firm massages demand a lot of attention: physical, mental, emotional. All you can feel, all you can experience is the massage itself—its dance between pleasure and pain.
But this time, it was like walking outside into a perfect day. At first you marvel at how wonderful it is, and then pretty soon the pleasure evaporates into nothingness.
A positive kind of nothingness, I mean, the kind in which you are perfectly unbothered and undistracted by anything around you. It’s not too hot or too cold, too dark or too light, too hard or not hard enough; it’s just part of this ethereally idyllic landscape where the midlevel massage unleashed me to roam.
Free from having to ask for the third time for more pressure and worrying about whether the massage was really supposed to hurt that much, my mind went on more gentle, pleasurable rambles. First I thought about the novel I’ve been working on for three years and came to understand something about the dynamic of my three main characters that changed the entire course of the book in a very exciting way.
Then I meditated on the business I’m starting, a personal renaming agency called Clemens & Twain, and heard basically a voice from above, somewhere up there in my new heavenly wonderland, say to me: “It’s not just about the name.”
I got that sense that I’ve had only a handful of times in my life—that this was not only a good, but an important idea. I had it when Linda Rosenkrantz and I conceived our very first baby name book, Beyond Jennifer & Jason, which grew over 30 years into Nameberry, the biggest baby name site in the world.
I had it when I had the idea for my novel Younger, about a fortyish mom who pretends to be younger to get a job, and ends up with a whole new wonderful fake young life. That novel was turned into a TV series by Darren Star that’s just been renewed for its sixth season.
And I felt it when I had the idea for Clemens & Twain, an agency that helps people looking for new names—because they’re transitioning cultures or genders, because they want people to see them differently or more accurately.
But it’s not just about the name, I realized lying there on the massage table. It’s about a person’s entire identity. Helping them analyze it. Define it. Translate it into a name that sends the message they want to send. The name is simply a deep and accurate encapsulation of the person you are, or maybe the person you want to be. Discovering that person is the exciting part.
I got up from the table and told the massage therapist that I’d just had the best idea of my life. I may have hugged her.
Then I had another inspiration:
The Four Seasons should offer a treatment, I told her, called The Traveler, which would target all the physical aches and stress points most people feel after traveling. A massage that targeted my neck and my feet, some warmth to stretch out and warm my cramped body, a deeply cleansing facial, maybe, or an aromatherapy session.
One good idea deserves another. I hope the Four Seasons and other spas start creating more treatments with the customers’ holistic needs in mind. Maybe the best stress reducer would be not another Deep-Tissue Massage or Rejuvenating Facial but something involving an eye mask and a sound bath called Escape from Reality. Maybe what needs to be soothed is not my shoulder muscles but my soul.