He was on his knees, his hands deep in dirt when I arrived for a visit. Proudly he showed me around the garden he’d planted in his Los Angeles backyard—-lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries, even grapes, he told me, his face lit up with happiness.
I wasn’t used to seeing him outside; he was so frail and pale. I had a fleeting thought that I should warn him to wear sunblock and stay out of the sun. I laughed to myself at the irony; I knew if I’d said it out loud, Phil would have laughed, too. How silly to worry about the sun—when he’s already dying of cancer.
And he was dying, at age 39 with two children he adored—-just a few years after that day in the office we shared at a Los Angeles TV station, when he first showed me the lump he’d discovered.
It was characteristic of his inspirational and indomitable spirit to plant a garden he wouldn’t live to see in bloom. But it seemed to be more than hope that had Phil out there gardening—he said he loved the process, the feel of having his hands in the dirt.
I remember thinking,: I don’t get it.
25 years later, I got it.
Now my own hands were covered in paint and glue and grout. I’d never been an artistic or crafty type, but here I was, making mosaics in my art studio—-after cancer blasted my life apart, causing a perfect storm of stress that seemed impossible to relieve or manage.
People urged me to minimize stress in my life—-easier said than done under any circumstances, much less cancer. When I couldn’t manage to relax, that stressed me out even more. I was stuck in a vicious circle of life.
I tried everything from meditation to yoga to music to nature. Until I accidentally discovered that for me, nothing was more healing than working with my own hands, creating art. This was the only activity that could consistently get me in the zone, force me to focus, put my mind into a mode that magically stopped thoughts of cancer and death and everything else burrowing into my besieged brain.
Now I knew why Phil so loved working in his garden. And why my friend Christine spends most of her time knitting, as she endures months of treatment for breast cancer. It’s the same reason a friend does woodworking in the garage; and another friend can briefly forget her bitter divorce by baking brownies for friends. It’s more than release, more than relaxation; working with your hands is therapy.
I don’t know whether scientists have studied this phenomenon; I can’t provide any studies as proof —but I’ve experienced and seen enough evidence to know this is real.
The body is a miracle, capable of healing itself in many ways; and there’s so much we don’t know or understand. We’ve only scratched the surface of human capability; barely begun to honor or harness the power of the mind/body/spirit connection. In addition to what we already know about healing by using our heads—and our hearts—I think we also hold the power in our hands.