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 19th post is a meditation on living a creative life alone in the almost-spring woods, and the artist’s blurred distinction between work and play. Enjoy!
The winter challenges me in this woods place where I live. Once the snows come, the fog—fogged in, iced in, or waiting for the plow to clear my driveway, the sander to free me—I am here, awaiting people I’ve come to depend on to free me. People who are so reliable they are like family. Gratitude becomes very clear to me in winter.
When I lived on Long Island, the snow was unnatural. Unserious. We dug our sidewalks out, our driveways, got into our cars and went about our—our what? Our business. Our comings and goings, to work, to shop, to visit. A different place where “nature” was a small thing.
Not here. Here, she is the big thing. Snow means isolation. The practice of living with myself.
Of course, I have my “communicator,” my cell phone. Texts, news, emails. The weather forecast. So my isolation is relative to my times.
And I inherited this place, in a way. Because my brother-in-law offered it to me, after my sister’s death. And I could have refused it. My mouth opened to speak when he asked me, on the telephone. “Yes!” is what came out. So it was my choice to come here, though I already had a house and had lost my job. The economics, the distance, were of no consequence. It was my instinct, my intuition, my body, that spoke.
I must have divined I’d have to go up to the edge of myself in the solitude of the earth’s presence, which would make me small. And I must have known, mustn’t I have, that there I’d meet the abyss, my terrors, panic, despair, joy, whatever lay in wait? Defeat and victory, gravity and flight. My body, which houses my soul, maybe only barely, certainly had to know this was the opportunity to meet myself and engage with the work at hand. To become myself to the degree I could, and to accept her.
Yes, Painting, Writing, Teaching, the things I do. But washing the dishes sometimes feels as monumental, trees through every window. No people to indicate time of day. Slowly, and only at times, my eyes open to the beauty, the majesty—presence—of the thick woods that stand guard around me.
An owl rises from a branch this morning. It’s gray, I don’t know what kind. I see its trail, the scattering snow. It takes looking to move out of the isolation of the thick confines of my convincing mind, to see this woods, clear the illusions from the path I am slowly wearing here to gratitude.
Then, it’s too big for me. I can only open for a moment, then live in its residue, memory and transformation—gratitude for the immensity I am part of. This does not come naturally, but of necessity. Creativity makes for a simple life. Today I am astonished and thank the weave of existence that brings me here. My cup is full from a millisecond of opening and will overflow to my day. I’ll stove ash the driveway, get to town where people shine like angels.
“What do you do for fun?” someone recently asked me. I withdrew to ponder—I couldn’t answer. I ran it by a good friend, a soul friend.
“You don’t make any separation,” she answered. “Work and fun are the same.”
Yes. That was it. Wendell Berry writes about subsistence farming. Growing, preserving food to sustain life. Selling what is more than enough, to supply the necessities of life that can’t be grown.
So goes the creative life. Writing, painting, the stuff of life for those of us blessed to have such a life. Work sustains. Share its overflow with the world. The depth of self that winds up on the printed page, or in a painting, an illustration: live by its wonder. Send it out to nourish the wider world.
Just around the corner
But now, the light has changed. Before the solstice, it was gray on most days. There is a silvery beauty to it, distinctly different as it passes through the hemlocks and falls on the thickets of beech trees. I notice this every year, once December 21st becomes the 22nd, with two more minutes of light. The forsythia branches have knobs on them. Everything is moving, as it always is, of course; but now, I see it with my physical eyes, feel it as a rise in my heart, as if hope has turned the corner, a promise. There is spring and it really will come again.
In what still feels like deep winter, overcast and cold, air snow—the kind that forms atmospherically, rather than falling from the sky many days in my microclimate of high altitude woods, I begin to say it, to myself, “Spring is just around the corner!” And I say it to others. Wry encouragement, but I speak the truth. There is a distinct difference in the feeling of the earth, and in my body, part of the earth. Cell enzymes, hormones, who knows? But the drama of seasons, so hidden, is a felt sense, a quickening in my flesh.
“Spring’s just around the corner!” I say to the check-out woman in Shop Rite. She smiles. I say it to the clerk in the hardware store. His face doesn’t change. I say it to my kitties, brothers to each other and to me, Oliver and Sebastian, and they purr. Sebastian stretches out, not expecting to be caressed, just happy for my company, because he feels the change that has come over me. Oliver rolls onto his back, reaches with his front paws, his back legs completely relaxed, goofy, no armor—such trust in my sentient brother. He yawns wide, a squeal of pleasure escaping from somewhere high in his vocal cords. I sometimes think this is his way of humoring me. But that isn’t fair to myself. It’s love, pure love, and recognition of that truth I’ve spoken. It’s just around the corner. Spring.
Here in the Catskill Mountains, we don’t plant until the end of May, so different than when I lived on Long Island, last frost finished sometime in March. At the beginning of winter this year, I brought my geraniums indoors. I’d stopped bringing them inside shortly after I came up here. I am a willy-nilly gardener through and through, the green on my thumbs oil paint. I’d only heard from people up here of ways geraniums might survive. Those involved taking them out of the soil, letting them hang upside down, or putting them into paper bags. I tried these things with no success. My geraniums either died or never recovered their enthusiasm once spring came and I set them outdoors again. Keeping them in the house is out of the question. The kitties uproot them, eat them, use the pots as their boudoir.
But at the end of last fall, the geraniums, fuchsia, warm red, cool red, were so glorious, I could not bear to let them freeze. So I brought them in, took them downstairs to sit in front of the patch-of-light window in my basement, just to try to keep them alive and away from Oliver and Sebastian. They are thriving, albeit not in a summer way. They’ve shed great clumps of dried leaves onto the table and floor, but I am awed at the passion of their green stalks reaching in straight diagonals toward that window. They are producing pale, beautiful new-green leaves, and one blossom at a time, which I clip and bring upstairs to paint. I water them every three weeks or so. And I take pleasure in using that old table, as old as I am, that my mother finally set up in my bedroom when I was fourteen and began to paint in earnest—to keep the door closed on this daughter’s now-studio, to keep the illusion of the order in the house my mother worked so hard to maintain. She was proud, but the mess was beyond her to suffer. Of course, now I empathize. I often feel the same way about my studio. But even as it touched my mother’s terror of disorder, I remember her pride, the paintings she paid good money to have framed, to hang in our living room, present to company. All this nourished me, though I couldn’t have understood that then.
“Spring is coming!” I say, here and there to people I meet. Faces twitch, mouths harden or soften. But it’s always good to pass hope, and to connect with my neighbors, who are as much in need of both as I am.
I went to hear a concert Sunday. Local musicians. They played Blue Grass, Dylan, Grateful Dead, some old country songs. It was gorgeous. Gorgeous to see them, people I know, engaged in the miracle of making music. My soul was so uplifted I could, for that hour, see the way things come together, out of the chaos and churning of life. I could see that it all fits together, all makes sense. It was a vision I can only remember, can’t again conjure. A cup-running-over thing, blessing the rest of the day, into the night. Sure knowledge that somehow, though my ordinary sight is too coarse or distracted to see it, it really does all work together.
Like this writing, this pulling together of pieces. That’s my idea of fun.
Is writing your work or your play? Do you separate the two? 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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