Helena Writes #14: On the fleeting summer, and the hush that falls

Helena Writes
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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 14th post, Helena reflects on the transience of summer even as it reminds her to respect the process—of both life and art-making. Enjoy!

Summer Flies

I saw one crimson maple leaf, very small, brilliant, on my driveway next to my mailbox. Last week!

No! I cried. I don’t want to see you! I veiled my eyes against that gorgeous thing.

It’s hard to accept that summer is waning. Everyone here feels it. People talk about it in dropped voices, low tones. It’s the bad news that supersedes the roiling of the world and its agonies. Yes. There is no distancing to survive it.

I notice a low-level grief setting in. I’m jumpy. A friend confirms, her heart is heavy with it, too. It goes so quickly!

People always talk about how quickly time goes. It flies away! But here in the country, winter is in those words. Winter does not go quickly here. Winter is

s l o w.

Here, where the trees are thick in the woods that surround me, the gardens rampant, enveloping my consciousness, penetrating to my soul, the land itself is an extension of Being. And the air is so full of oxygen I am aware of the way oxygen smells—the way it fills my lungs and animates my arms and legs.

When I lived in Brooklyn, I had no sense of that. Summer was stifling. Winter was a comfort. On Long Island, I discovered gardening, stepping out of the ordinary world and into a place I’d cultivated, with its miracle of growth, of colors—flowers and grasses. The soil there was sandy, easy to dig. I augmented it with leaf mulch from my backyard trees, raked in autumn. And food compost. I picked up other people’s discarded leaves, and worked until the soil was rich and fragrant, and could grow food.

Here I dug the gardens—two stones one dirt, as the farmers here say. It was heavy labor, prying out, one by one, stones deposited from the glacial passage. Little did I know what I was laboring for. Twenty-five years here, now, they have taken over with the beauty of their waves of color.

But it does fly. Daffodils to iris to bee balm and lilies. The day lilies are gone, the bee balm is fading, though still holding enough sweetness for the hummingbirds and pollen for the bees and butterflies. Pale yellow and bright red lilies are still with me, and the annuals, geraniums, pansies. And some new perrenials I’ve planted, lavender, and plants I don’t know the names of, grabbed in haste from the nursery shelves, mostly empty, all half-price and less, remnants of spring’s hysteria.

I feel empty, too. But I know from past years, I will make the transition, with the earth, through autumn, to the snows again. And to the comforts that, finally, only winter can offer—the wood stove, flames alive like flowers. And the relief of the sleeping garden, like a sleeping baby. And I will get to other work, inside work, inside me—the deep, introverted work of digging into the fertile soil myself.

I’ll feed my color hunger with painting. And writing—painting with words. Outside, the world will begin the dormancy of the wait until the crisis, the riot of spring and summer.

Fall and winter, I’ll be fed, here, in the house, where the life will be again, the miracle of creativity, my work: painting, writing, teaching.

On writing

The blank page, like the blank canvas, is dreadful. Full of dread. How will I do it?? When I paint, I take a brush with brown paint, thinned, and start making marks. Then I’m hooked. It’s kinetic.

When I write, I have to trick myself, too, pretend I’m not writing. Today is blog day, I am saying. I have mounds of writing, still to be typed. The act of looking through it feels dreadful, too. So I started today’s writing about the flight of summer in my journal. It’s there, right inside. Then there is a hush that falls, and I know I’m writing something for other people to read. That’s my trick: deny it first. The fear of performance must be so great, particularly with writing. Writing is like making sausage—how will I pull all I want to say together? I start through sleight of hand and it comes tumbling out, organized, a miracle.

Revise, click to send. It’s been done. A process, like digging the garden, that blooms into something greater than its words, a garden, too.

Do you ever experience the “hush” Helena mentions here, the knowledge, at some point in the writing process, that you’re going to share what you’re writing, and the miraculous coming-together that follows? What did you think of Helena’s latest post? Share with us in the comments!

Related reading: Read the previous Helena Writes posts

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