Helena Writes #20: On play as a universal experience, and in writing

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.

Helena’s 20th post muses about the shared experience of play between all living beings, and offers a playful exercise at the end. Enjoy!


I saw a red-tailed hawk last week, camouflaged in winter white, no red tail flashing—playing on the wind! I stopped my car on that country road where I rarely meet another traveler.

The hawk tumbled like a crow. I’ve seen crows play on the wind. This hawk wasn’t hunting. It was having a wonderful time! How rarely blows such a wind here, snapping. Stop and starting. But it was almost March! The first I recalled that conjured childhood’s, “March winds shall blow…” (And when, here in upstate New York, does March “go out like a lamb”? Never in my memory!)

I stood there awed. A close encounter that conveyed something we share, that red-tail and me. I saw that we were both intelligent. Sentience in a moment of the pure joy of existence.


I’ve watched my cats design their own games. Sebastian throws small objects off surfaces. The sound tells me he wants to eat. Sometimes, when I don’t respond, the object is large. I get right up then. But sometimes Sebastian just nudges a pen over the side of a table, where I’m seated, then looks at me. I pick it up, put it back in front of him, slapping it down like a checker. He nudges it again. I pick it up. And again he pitches it over the side.

I am laughing by the time he’s thrown the pen, or my eye drops, to the floor the second or third time. It’s laughter of recognition. We are playing by mutual agreement. Comedy that is joy, sheer wonder at our common experience—mine and my inscrutable cat’s. I’m in. I’d play on. Sebastian is the one who loses interest first. He jumps off the table and does something else that doesn’t require me or his brother Oliver.

Oliver chases his tail. This seems to come upon him just every once in a while. I’m not so sure what this is. Is it play? Frustration? Has he rediscovered he has a tail? Does he not realize it’s attached to him? Still, I am fascinated, because Oliver is cool. Natural Dignity is his name.

And there is a game he does design. He pokes some object, anything, a cat toy, a piece of fabric scrap from something I’m sewing, underneath a throw rug. He attacks the rug for a while, kicking it with his back paws. Then he hooks his new interest with one claw, pulls it out, then pokes it under the rug again, hiding it from himself and kicks again. He can do this for five minutes.

Sebastian has another game he plays. Hunting and back-paw-kicking toys I keep tied to my wooden chairs. When I find something I think will be of interest to Sebastian (Oliver does not seem to take any notice of these things I tie)—an old wooden thread spool, bits of wool sweaters I’ve been using to make hats, a stick, feathers, broken cat toys—I tie it on. Sebastian is always interested. This interest is not momentary. Some of these objects have been tied to my chair backs for years. They never get old for Sebastian.

Sebastian likes to play more than Oliver. Oliver is intense. And a passionate hugger. I have never had a cat that hugs so hard, plastering his body against mine as I sit, usually when I’m writing in my journal in the morning, drinking my coffee. Perhaps I’ve said here, I put all aside, even my reluctance. Open to love when it is offered and requested. Because I know it’s all there is.

Shared existence

Yes, I have seen crows play on the wind. I wrote Crow Flies to express my witness to a trans-species thing. I suspect play is a universal. But never until the day before March did I see a hawk dance that way, joy riding, sliding down the wind. And I remembered myself as a three-year-old, my father there to catch me at the foot of a sliding pond, my mother at the ladder, having my back. I remembered the excitement of the decision, at three years old, to let go. Feeling the rush of wind in my ears and eyes, and against my face. The sensation of falling, of feeling safe enough to be, for a moment, out of control. That’s what I felt on that road last week—the hawk’s and my sentience in common. Our shared existence of being.

Another car appeared over the hill and I moved on. But the moment joins the silent, secret knowledge of the world, of Life. And my heart beats more quickly as I relive it here.

A writing exercise

Here’s a lovely writing exercise if you’re blocked, if you need to get away from another piece you’re working on, or if you just want to try writing from observation. It’s an exercise that never fails me, and never seems to fail my students. Try it when you want to have some of the purest fun, some play time, sliding, rising on the winds of the pure joy of writing: Hold something in your hand. Start with description. What do you physically see? Before long your thoughts and feelings will come out from their sandy hideaway, to express unimagined depths, and tell a bit of your story.

Here’s a bit of mine:

Shell Dwellers

In my hand, I hold a shell. It belongs to a friend, picked from the sand of the beach at Batsi, Andros, an island in Greece, an ancestral place, half his kin still there.

Opening, pink and beigy. Curvy, gray, graceful. Organic. Sea, like a dancer’s movement—a slow flower. Off-white, speckled with dusted rose worn by time.

Stripes curved along its back. How gradually this shell took shape, resting in sand, under waves, eddies, currents. I can see the tracks of underwater winds, crystallized. Calcified. Rises and falls, that certainly graph the motion of others—water dwellers going about the business of their lives. 

The top of the shell, a spiral. Who saw it first? Who bent to take it, stunned by its sudden presence? Its wholeness, beauty? Its age! Its perfection lodged in the sand. If it was I on that beach, I’d feel like a thief to lift it, slip it into my canvas bag, to later in my privacy turn it carefully over, slowly, to read. Or I’d feel like someone very rich to have access to such a treasure.

I remember such walks, my toes enjoying digging into damp sand, my foot marks filling with tide foam, waves washing to my ankles. Then sighting a shell, a stone. Committing my theft—hidden in my fist.

Alone and pensive, walking.

I live in a shell. Made, too, by ocean, motion, industry. If I could see it having recorded my comings forth, my seekings of shelter, it would, if I could read, tell my story. Yet, there it is, my shell, to be understood by eyes that can cipher such things.

When was the last time you played? Will you try Helena’s exercise? 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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