On Writing, Oncology Massage, Thoughts on the profession

Beyond Stillness

I am currently re-reading The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It is a fascinating, novelistic, nerdtastic telling of the history of cancer. There are so many facts and nuggets in it that are buried in the larger story, and are breathtaking in their own right. Today, I am thinking of one of those nuggets.

In my edition of the book, Mukherjee states (somewhat erroneously) that the root of the word “metastasis” means “beyond stillness.”

Let’s put aside, for the moment, the actual root of the word, and consider the breathtaking poetry that is “Beyond Stillness.”

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Metastasis, as we currently understand it, is the movement of a disease from one part of the body to another. In cancer land, this can exponentially increase the dangers of a particular disease process. Every cancer patient hopes to be free of metastasis, leaving the rest of their body intact and functional. (As much as it can be after systemic treatments like chemotherapy, anyway.)

We shorten metastasis to “mets” in talking about progression of cancer. Breast cancer with bone mets. Lung cancer with brain mets. This short, sharp, easier to say word that contains within it layers of fear, anxiety, and potential physical pain.

Which brings me back, to beyond stillness. With cancer metastasis, the disease has moved beyond the stillness of a body at rest in wellness. It has moved beyond the stillness of an in situ tumor which yields obediently to removal or treatment. The disease moves beyond stillness into a kind of strobe light-illuminated motion, where the confirmation of movement comes through the flashes of a PET/CT scan.

And what exists beyond stillness?

Is it the growth of the opposite, a kind of frantic and endless motion that never quite rests, never quite allows the body to rest?

Or can we find, beyond stillness, another level of stillness — something even more quiet? Is the movement beyond stillness like the movement from the parking lot at the top of a hiking trail to the spot a mile or so down the trail, where all the city noises are erased and the senses can expand into this new space?

The simple etymology of metastasis, mistaken though it may be, leads to a particular kind of poetry. This is the poetry of words that lead into a compassionate and loving meditation on life, disease, and death. This is the poetry of breathing and being in a vulnerable, human body.

Inner World, Massage Tales, On Writing, Thoughts on the profession

Until They Know

The other night, I sat with my partner, talking about life’s work, life’s purpose, and other meaningful things. We have that conversation a lot, both as a way to check in with each other for support and as a way to clarify for ourselves what is truly important. Sitting there, in our middle ages, we stretch forward and reach into what we both hope will be our renaissance.

I was telling my partner about the moment. The moment when I was sitting with a client, presumably massaging them but really being a loving, peaceful presence for them. In that moment, I felt all the struggles and blocks to my creative energy dissolve away. I felt open to receive and translate what ever might come forward. I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I was in the exact right place doing the exact right work.

My client that day was frail, small, elderly. My client was also an open fount of love and kindness who never let me leave without telling me how beautiful and sweet she thought me to be. She was exhausted from a restless night and bouts of nausea. She was in extremis. From the outside, it looked like all I did was sit next to her and gently hold her hands.

As I finished telling the story, I tried to find a way to explain the rightness of that moment, to translate it into words that could describe what I want my work to be. Finally, I said:

I’m just here to love on people until they realize how much they’re worth.

And that was it. The exact right phrase. I have found my mission statement for the remainder of my career, and, truly, of my life as a human being.

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In my past, I spent several years in corporate America, and in those years I learned to deeply mistrust the idea of a “mission statement.” To me, it had the association of wasted hours in meeting rooms and whiteboards full of meaningless phrases. It meant a lot of back-patting while everyone settled back into the exact same soul-numbing atmosphere as before. Mission statements, I thought, look nice on annual reports or company-branded merchandise, but in practice they meant nothing.

When I hit on that sentence, though, I also hit on a new understanding of mission statements in general. After the political and religious definitions of the word “mission” in the dictionary comes this definition:

a strongly felt aim, ambition, or calling

dictionary.com

I am not a traditionally religious person, but the idea of a “calling” still resonates with me. The truth is, we humans really are intertwined and connected in ways we don’t quite understand. There is a need in the community that each of us is suited to fill. That need has a voice, which calls out and, I think, it is our job to listen, and, on hearing, respond.


A few weeks ago I started out trying to write a few different posts about relaxing massage, gentle massage, and the underappreciated benefits of both. As with much of my writing, I thought I was doing one thing, but the writing eventually led me to a new (better) place.

I thought I was providing some education about physiology and the mechanisms of massage therapy as I understand them. In fact, I was writing my way into my personal mission statement, the guiding force that all my endeavors must support.


I have a postcard on my refrigerator which I got form an artist at the St. James Court Art Show a couple of years ago. It says: “Don’t become famous for doing something you don’t love.” I get that now, in a way I didn’t get it before.

It’s the love. It has always been the love.

Inner World, On Writing

Which Draft Is This

We went to a show, my friend and I.  It was full of flashes of brilliance — beautiful gems that could be pulled out, polished and made into an even better show.  But it was a one-time-only experience.

It was unique, rare, and temporal.  It was deeply unsatisfying.

As we pondered these truths, imagining the new and gorgeous work of art that could happen if this section came out and that one expanded and it all had a more coherent frame structure —  we also pondered what it was that was so deeply unsatisfying.

“You know what it is?” my friend said, “They stopped at the first draft.”

And of course that was it.  We watched a first draft, knowing there was no possibility of a next draft, and still seeing the potential that a next draft could be.  Frustrating.

So, of course, I will quote that Anne Lamott line about “sh*tty first drafts.”  Here is whole quote:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”

It’s a great line, and a great sentiment.  Just get the words out.  Just work.  What happens too often, what happened in that show we saw, is that people get out the first draft and stop there.  The effort of putting forth that much feels like enough.

As Anne Lamott, or any other writer, would tell you — it isn’t enough.  There are revisions and reworkings and next drafts to go, long before something is all the way done.  Some things are never all the way done.  Construction on Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s adjective-defying cathedral in Barcelona, began in 1882.  It is projected to be completed in 2030.  Maybe.

On a more local scale, I’ve been contemplating my professional life, and how it has shifted and changed over the years I have been a massage therapist.  I’m on, I think, my third draft at the moment.  And several people I know are still on their first draft.

I’m becoming aware that it is part of my mission as a massage educator to get people (and maybe the profession?) to move through whatever draft they are in right now.  It’s so easy to get comfortable with a limited repertoire.  Are we doing things because they are intuitively and scientifically effective, or are we doing things because we always do them?

Every new draft grows under the skin of the old draft, and when it pushes through it is often familiar enough to be recognizable.  So why are we sitting with the old drafts, afraid to move through it into the next best version?

Let’s get to the next draft.  Let’s start by making space for each other’s mistakes, blind spots, and outright incompetence.  These things are temporary, and necessary if we are to move into something new.  Just work.

Hey — Speaking of work — Did you know I host a monthly webinar series called The Interdisciplinary Clan of Mystery?  It’s where my friends at Healwell and I interview someone who is doing excellent work in health care, and we try to learn how to break out of our silos and step up our service game.  If you’re a human who has ever interacted with health care, this might be for you.  Check out the episodes here.  (And while you’re there, take a minute to look at the wonderful goodness Healwell is putting out into the world.  These people are the best, the brightest, the funniest.)