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.
In her 23rd post, Helena writes with meandering whimsy of trying to fix a beloved sandal's sole before arriving, somber and bereft, at the loss of George Perry Floyd, a man who "touched the world," and a world trying to gain a foothold against systemic racism.
The most beautiful spring has erupted here. Cold weather held it off, then, in two days, my beautiful clearing, so funky after winter, transformed into a beauty hard to take in unless I am still and clear myself inside. Suddenly the glowing purple water’s edge irises I dug on walks, years ago, have opened in lines and patches. A purple so mysterious it alters my interior state and stays with me. I wish I could stop time for them alone, and can, I know, if I am the camera. If I let the impression fall in me.
The sweet smell of hay mulching my willy nilly plantings is the air I breathe when the day is over and I lay in bed, reading or, letting go the day, trying again to be still, clear—stop time, trust life.
The scrub hemlocks at the end of my driveway have grown so full they obscure the road at last. In this quarantine time, few trucks drive my road bridging two highways. Now is the time of my road less traveled.
In past years, I have leaned old shutters against my porch rail, to shut out that piece of road at the end of my driveway. As I moved one last week, I was astonished—a perfect robin’s nest of eggs. I am sure I saw seven eggs, startling-blue. A color so expensive—Grumbacher Tourquoise, or Winsor Newton Veridian, in the tube, I ask for them on Mother’s Day or birthdays, and use them sparingly when I paint. And now I understand why I’ve been seeing a robin in my field of vision, visiting my porch rail, when I sit at the corner of my couch.
The phoebes nest in the back of the house. I say “the” phoebes because they have come every year since my first, twenty-four years ago. How do they know? It’s something passed down, phoebe generation to generation. I’ve written before, in this blog space, about the phoebes, and how one year their nest, which they refurbish each year, fell. I said that I was still commuting to Long Island then. I was heartbroken to see the nest down, and carefully picked it up and placed it on my picnic table. I wrote about coming home two days later to see the nest back up under the roof’s overhang, securely refastened to the soffit, over that little space I call my patio. On the picnic table, just crumbles of dried mud. How had they done it?
My patio isn’t grand; it’s got a bed of red stone that needs raking every year. My raking is always late because I don’t want to disturb the phoebes. I have to catch that patio between their two broods.
Since both the places I like to sit outside have become lying-in spaces, I tip-toe out to each, mostly to peek.
And speaking of tip-toeing, spring to summer is a time of changing footwear.
My sister, who’s place this was, and so is, because her presence never leaves me, left this particular life twenty-six years ago this spring. How that is, so much time passed, her continued presence felt, I cannot really say. I can say I am grateful for her internal company. But I began to say, “My sister…” because I wanted to remember here that she had extra bones in her feet. Yes, they were x-rayed, because they ached, and she needed to have inserts to re- shape her soles, over time. My sister, therefore, didn’t wear sandals. I took the revelation that my sister had extra foot bones as an indicator, a sign, me being a reader of signs, of her extraordinary giftedness.
I do wear sandals. But I pay the price of changing my posture, repositioning my bones, when the warm weather comes, after walking all winter with inserts, no longer called “cookies,” as they were when my sister was young—the term is a computer thing I still haven’t understood, and, of course the baked sweet delicious things that time hasn’t changed at all. Bones repositioned means an aching back, until my body adjusts by the winter again. But my feet need the summer air too much. I’d walk barefoot if my feet allowed me to. Alas, they are vulnerable—soles intractably reshaped, the written history of my walking. A sign, perhaps, that I still seek grounding.
There are so many things that come to mind about shoes that I doubt there is time and space in this, well, time and space, to try the reader’s patience with them.
But I’ll share just a few.
My blue shoes
When I was a child, I wore brown oxford shoes, lace-up. I loved them. I loved their faces. They were my allies. They did ground me. Of course, I grew out of them. My mother and father took me to the shoe store—“took me to the shoe store,” a startling thing to think about. There were shoe stores. Buying me new shoes, when I was four or five years old, me a second child, was such an important errand, an occasion, that both my parents were present as the shoe salesman brought, surely, several possible pairs.
My parents decided. I remember feeling that decision in my stomach, something like a knot. They weren’t cruel in their decision; there wasn’t another pair of shoes I liked better. I can’t remember if new brown oxfords was a possibility. Maybe they just didn’t have them in my size, or maybe it was time to wear something other than lace-up oxfords. It may have been a graduation of some kind hidden in the fashion practices of the time. I wouldn’t have likely known at four or five. But I do know that I was in grief for my old brown oxfords, certainly off-balance about buying new shoes at all.
The shoes my parents chose were blue. They had buckles. They felt stiff as I walked out of the shoe store holding my father’s hand. I didn’t like their faces. They didn’t seem friendly, nothing like my old shoes. But over time, I came to love them as I had loved my oxfords. I slowly came to know their faces and that they were allies, too. I can’t remember growing out of them, though I did. They, more than my brown oxfords, were my shoes of shoes. My childhood guardians. My friends. The shoes that in my memory glow a blue, somewhere between my water irises and the robin’s eggs.
My parents weren’t bronzers of shoes, as many of their contemporaries were. They were as unconventional as both their daughters. But I do have my first pair of white baby shoes, and I have my sister’s. How beautiful they are, scuffed and creased. They could have been worn for the last time yesterday. How could bronze immortalize them? Bronzing a baby’s shoes, guilding a lily. It simply wasn’t an option for my earthy parents, grounded as they both seem to me now.
My daughter said the word “shoes” not long after she said “Daddy,” and “Mama.” She loved her shoes. They were her favorite things. She still loves shoes, as I do.
I know that the Baroness Rothschild, that angel of jazz musicians, patron to Thelonius Monk and Charlie Parker, loved a particular black shoe so thoroughly that she ordered ten pairs of them at a time. Being a baroness they were surely expensive shoes, and I wonder now just where she ordered them from. Some store that maintained that style over years.
But on an early commute, shortly after I moved to this upstate house, the traffic was so bad I had to get off the highway. I found myself in front of Lord and Taylor, parked and went inside to pass an hour or two, until traffic was moving again. It was there I found a pair of red, woven leather Clarks sandals, so sculpted to my feet that aching could have been part of the past if I had followed my instincts to buy more than one pair. By adulthood, I’d taken to loving red shoes. There was another pair in, as fate would have it, blue, and I considered buying them, too. I pondered sandals in Lord and Taylor for a long time, longer than it took the traffic to thin, long enough for the summer sun to set, and dusk outside Lord and Taylor’s window began to signal it really was time to go. I was getting hungry. I am sorry to say I tread the wrong path that day, by not buying those blue Clarks. I should have, like the Baroness, bought ten pairs of Clark’s woven leather sandals, ordered and charged them, in whatever color was available, it would not have mattered. My back may never have ached again. Perhaps it was that, at the bottom of the Baroness’s practice, too.
I wore the red sandals for years. Wore them until they were in tatters, until my foot slipped so far down into them my toes hung over the soles. They eventually came apart and that was the end of it. Clarks had changed, well, hands, and didn’t make those shoes anymore. In fact, what had become Clarks, the English shoemaker that understood feet, didn’t make any shoes that soothed summer’s feet.
All this is prologue.
Years after those sandals had bitten the dust, I entered a little thrift shop up here in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. There stood a pair of Clarks, the very sandal, in brown, my size. My heart leapt. There was a split in the sole, but being someone who enjoys repairing things I bought them—for $2, a steal. My heart beat like a thief coming upon a diamond, rare. I am law-abiding, thank the good God, but feel like a thief. What else is thrift shopping but finding a gem one could not otherwise afford? I glued those shoes and wrote the following.
I call them rambles and have written many. They express the wild internal ride responding to a world that can’t hear them, as they play in me.
A day out
A thrift shop.
Made in Brazil, before China,
I told the clerk.
“Clarks! Two dollars,” she replied.
A poor county, broken things are marketable here.
The cause was charity.
The upper shoes and soles were perfect.
Just come apart, but only the left.
I crazy-glued it.
Wore them in the house.
That sole came undone.
So I bought shoe glue.
Clamped it overnight.
The next day wore them shopping
Dreamy to the foot.
Dinner guests coming.
I ought to have gone back to change
when again it came undone.
I was deaf.
And time was short.
Out of my car for fresh-baked bread,
left shoe sliding,
The baguette: three dollars,
I offered my five.
The clerk made change
I smiled brightly
over the display of supplements,
convinced she knew
about my shoe disintegrating.
I held her eyes.
She craned her neck to see my feet.
The woven leather, impeccable design carried them.
“Two dollars!” she said,
and winked. A tick?
My eyes gripped hers
my feet the soles.
The sensation was Life itself.
I explored neither metaphor nor the half-price shelf
Strides and holds
on the way to the car
concentration solely on my feet.
The intact shoe my rudder.
What way to walk?
It was sport!
Walking was possible
I needed oil to fry potato pancakes, my grandmother’s recipe.
Drove to the supermarket
and its shopping carts.
Up one aisle
down the next
I slid into the slip of the shoe
as a sailor tacks to the wind.
Ready to compete in the New Walking:
Sole Walking. I’d coin it!
I was my foot.
“As the last comes apart, hold fast to the sole.”
It might have been a bumper sticker,
a niche market thing,
for writers and word players.
Back home, I read again:
Glue both surfaces. Then join.
Ah! A thing for every purpose!
I clamped that shoe again
the right sole, too, had followed the left.
Sometimes it’s a mercy to throw things away.
But Big Corporate’s footprint
had left its tracks
These beauties could be bought
by luck alone.
My after-market Clarks sat on the table
Twenty four hours to wait.
New, old shoes
ran rampant on the internet.
And there were mine!
Pricey even used
In the morning
my own were like new
I put them on
new wine in old skins
The soles crumbled.
Woven leather’s patina glowed, beautiful with its years
man-made stuff, gone.
I took them to the Transfer Station—
as here we call our dump.
Beneath the knot, visible through my clear bag,
the Clarks perched on my garbage
gems in a five and dime store.
I dropped them into the dumpster.
“Two dollars,” said the clerk.
I looked at him then paid.
On the way home
I felt free.
Gone are the shoemaker’s shops,
Left? An infinity of metaphors.
Here are the two I choose—
The first, the high road, if obscure:
“Hold fast with your soul, it does not pass. Here beauty and its memory
“Step by step,
Life is in the journey.”
A bumper sticker
for all vocations.
June and July are paradise here. I long ago named my place Brigadoon, a story both my sister and I loved. A place where one day is a thousand years on earth. A place where people live in accord. A place that materializes in the woods of the Scottish Highlands—once in a thousand years. That place of my daydreams, of flight.
I’ve been to Scotland, never to the Highlands. But to the Southwest and Midlands. I experienced Scotland as paradise. There, I spoke to a man in English, and he to me in English, too. His wife translated our conversation so that we could understand one another.
This June, especially in this year of quarantine, Brigadoon is my Scotland.
Writing exercise: Underlining phrases you like to explore free-verse
George Perry Floyd
“I am he as you are he as you are me/And we are all together…” –Lennon/McCartney, 1967
Today, in The New York Times, I read about George Floyd’s life. A star athlete in high school. He had his dreams. A man who worked as a helper in a homeless shelter. A kind man, acknowledged by his peers. A person of heart, who was formed by a mother of heart. Black, he grew up in Houston, arrested in his teens for $10 worth of pot.
I smoked pot. Arrest never dawned on me.
Easy racism practiced here. The police having their routine now with young gifted people, yearning for the destiny of all human beings. To be. In my neighborhood, growing up in Brooklyn, I loved the police. They were helpers.
But by the time I moved to Long Island, there had been a change. I feared for my teenaged son, who is Caucasian.
George Floyd’s friend wrote the article. He said that Floyd wanted “to touch the world.”
After prison he moved to Minneapolis, to start again. He was close to his church, read the bible. Set up the chairs and the baptismal font on Sundays.
He was a laugher, a teller of jokes. A protector of others—a tall man. A rapper. He’d had the virus and recovered.
I want to pass the word about George Floyd. He lived. He has touched the world.
He called out for his mother. She’d died two years before, almost to the day.
I have read so many accounts of people who have been brought back after having “died.”
The way I see it
She was there.
Maybe this is the way to write a bumper sticker, one to hang in the sky:
Life is a relay race
One passes the necessary tasks to the Next One.
Like the phoebes,
Like George Perry Floyd has, and the thousands of people named and unnamed
Before him have.
And we open our hands to receive them, those necessary tasks.
We open our hands to touch the world—however we can.
Related reading: Helena Writes
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