Helena Writes #21: On goodness, even now, and expanding in hard times

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
Date Posted:
4/8/2020

Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

Helena’s 21st post weaves seven stories of uplift to remind us, in this time of fear and isolation, what's good. Enjoy!

King Knute

I started along the road of writing and illustrating children’s picture books by enrolling in a course at The Parsons School of Design, a course I later taught there.

At the time I signed on, the course was taught by Beverly Brodsky, a Caldecott silver medalist. For the first assignment, Beverly asked us to go to the library and find a picture book with a story that we found interesting enough to use as our own illustration material. I found the story of King Knute—“The King Who Could Command the Tides.”

The story was based on an ancient Nordic legend. There was a king that thought he was so powerful he could command the tides to recede. Then he could command them to return, to rush forward again, high tide, onto the sands.

One day, as I recall, someone in his kingdom challenged him. Someone from among his people, a peasant farmer, perhaps. I love such themes!  Of course I was drawn in.

He was not a bad king, but his power rested on that myth. Knute could command not just the people, but the ocean tides.

The thing that fascinates me, even now, is that, besides his people, Knute himself was convinced of this power, too. After all, the people believed it, so why shouldn’t he? 

Yet, in response to the gathering rumor that indeed the king lacked the power to command the tides, Knute assembled his people on the sands before the ocean. Everyone in Knute’s kingdom turned out, of course! It was a royal edict. They waited, women, men, children, farmers, servants, wealthy and not-so-wealthy.

Knute held up his hand. Silence fell. The tide was out. 

“Ocean,” Knute shouted. “I command you to the beach!”

The sands gleamed in the morning sun. Birds skittered, feeding on insects, shellfish, whatever they could find. Farther out, cormorants and gulls swooped and dived, competing for fish. The tide remained where it was.

A murmur rose among the people. 

“Great Sea!” called Knute. “Come to me!” Nothing.

Now Knute’s people looked at each other. Some grew afraid. They depended on the great power of their king.

“TIDES! I COMMAND YOU ASHORE!” Knute bellowed. The ocean sighed, a beautiful sigh, content in its own rhythm.

Knute’s people had begun to cry out, weep, but only some of them. Others saw what was happening before their eyes and found it interesting!

King Knute was astonished. He was shocked. He—he—he was reality checked!   

He stood at the shoreline in silence. Time passed. Knute stood there. The sun hit noon and began its downward arc. 

Some of Knute’s people had sat down to be more comfortable. Some had brought bread and cheese, and began to eat. It was lunchtime, and the children in particular would not wait.

At last, Knute turned to face the people he had ruled for twenty years or more. The people who descended from others who his father had ruled, and his grandfather—all of whom had thought the same thing, however odd—that their kings had the power to rule even the tides of the mighty oceans.

Knute raised his hands. People got to their feet to listen, for they knew their king was about to speak. 

“I—I…” people leaned in to hear their king’s words. “I—was mistaken!”

Now great exclamations came from the crowd on the beach. Again, some people were afraid. Some cried. And some laughed with joy and affection for their king’s honesty, his humility.

Knute declared a day of celebration. “What a relief!” his prime minister heard him whisper. 

Knute had discovered his simple humanity, and became, need I say, a much better person, and a truly great king. And what made Knute great? He at last understood one of the most important things in life: he was a king, but he was not different from any of his people, except in that one way—the thing that is called, royalty.

There were many days of celebration after that one. And his people could now come to the palace to introduce themselves, talk to him, share their sorrows, their joys and their gifts. So in the end, King Knute found his true greatness. Compassion. His real royalty.

I had a wonderful time with that story, and learned the format of thirty-two page illustration.

Tell me something good

It seems a long time ago now that I met Van Morrow in Peck’s Market, though, a month or five weeks are all that have passed. Van is a photographer, a knitter, a great person. We are neighbors in this small community of artists here who inevitably cross paths. We bumped elbows in parting that day. It felt quaint. We were acknowledging, voluntarily, the gathering storm of illness neither of us would dream the size of.

Van is funny and wry. He sits on a stage during festivals and outdoor performance times. He has an old, 1940s typewriter. He types, deadpan, straight-faced, to the “Typewriter Song.” He has a long blond beard and a shaved head. It is funny, we laugh, but I am always touched at the way he sits there with no expression on his face, typing until the song ends. It is Van’s funny bone, his humor. He is kind and well liked.

That day at Peck’s, we talked politics until we couldn’t anymore. And referred to the illness we knew was coming.

It was time to part. “Tell me something good,” he said. “It’s my new policy. We’ve got to tell each other about the goodness of life.”

I told him the sweet things that had happened that day. His request guided me to look at them—see them, see that they were the gist of life, the gist of my life, my little life, my simple day. I was surprised at the list of things I briefly recounted. It was substantial. He did the same. And we bumped elbows again.

Newspapers

Years ago, during the aftermath of a leaving—my husband had left both our son and me—times were hard. I was broke, sad, and scared. My sister employed me. She was a lawyer and I could type.

But law has its forms and so does art. I went by eye, spacing all wrong. My sister dismissed me, gently, and helped in other ways. But one day, on my way to her office in New York City, driving in from Long Island where I lived then, something happened I’ve never forgotten.

A newspaper delivery truck lost its load. Suddenly, the air was filled with newspapers, flying everywhere. I was amazed at the astonishing sight of it, until a newspaper, thwap! blocked my windshield,  entangled in the drivers’ side mirror.

My hand shot out to free it, then suddenly pulled it in. Wait! There’s a message on it for me! Yes. If I’m not a magical thinker, I’m not anything.

When I got to midtown and parked the car, I combed the sheet of newspaper, four pages, double sided. There it was, the story of a man who had bought a shoe store during hard economic times. One shoe store became two, then three, then twenty-five. A chain of shoe stores! The man had accumulated wealth, and had the means to help others—which he did.

“During hard times, expand,” is what he was quoted as saying.

Harbinger

At the end of February, during a winter warm spell, we were fogged in, woods, fields, and the nearby town. But I went to the post office anyway. There were bills that couldn’t wait.

I pulled in front, got out of my car to slip them into the new, tamper-proof mail slot, the box shining bright-blue in the fog.

“Helena!” someone called. It was Danny Yaun. I hadn’t seen Danny in years. We exchanged warmly. The fog hugged us both. We’d been in a church study group together, once. The remembrance of the warmth of that time came back.

We parted and I looked around at the others on the street. We were all drawn together by the fog, the common experience, the magic, like falling snow. Bright colors were muted and beautiful, like a painting. People looked soft. We met each other’s eyes.

Circles

When the Present Time began, the time of the virus, I participated in a group meeting, reformatted for the telephone. I stood on my porch, snow still in icy, grainy patches in my garden. I listened to the meeting, a support group. New green shoots poked through the snow. Each had warmed a perfect circle in that ice-snow. A haiku! I spoke it then, to contribute to the meeting.

“Spring can’t be held back, not even now,” I said.

Starlings

It was a long time ago. Yet like the newspapers in the wind, I can’t forget a thing I witnessed.

Driving, again, this time down to Long Island to teach. I’d already moved up here. A flock of starlings, hundreds, maybe a thousand! Spring again, a red-tailed hawk was surrounded by them. The flock was driving it off! It would have preyed on its hatchlings.

It fit the times, also hard, and spoke to me, and speaks now. It took all of them together, in that gorgeous pattern of undulation against the blue sky and clouds, to drive away that fierce red-tailed predator.

Goodness

Van Morrow’s way must become my way. What’s good? 

Yesterday, Karen, my neighbor, gave me a box of plants she’d divided out. I was passing by in my car. They were indoor plants and I knew my cats would eat them. But I wanted to say yes. She’d said she didn’t want to throw them away. It was such a kind gesture. There she and her husband stood, in their yard, shining, like the day of the fog, doing yard work. I parked at a safe distance.  She put the box at the side of the road—two pothos, two spider plants. I bent and took them. The three of us exchanged warmly. Never had they seemed so precious. Why had I not visited more during all these years?

I called my friend Meg, a landscaper. She’d accept the plants. I drove over, ten minutes, down my road, around another road, a right, a left, up her drive. I left the box ten feet from her porch, where she stood, waving. Back in my car, I passed her, and we threw each other kisses.

The world is made of stories, like tarot cards, waiting to be read.

What’s good? Life is good. It’s beautiful; it always was. Its sweetness saturates every moment, even as we bear our burdens—sometimes terrible burdens.

Life, oh, life. How beautiful, how good you are.  

Related reading: Helena Writes

Want to receive tips and inspiration like this in your inbox every Sunday morning? Join our email list community! You will receive weekly advice, a year’s worth of weekly writing prompts as a FREE download, and be eligible to participate in our monthly photo prompt contest for a chance to share an original piece of writing with our community of over 1,100 subscribers!