Helena Writes #24: On traveling distances

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life, abstract watercolor
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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 24th post, Helena looks once again to her garden for its metaphors about humanity. Enjoy!

Yellow irises

Fifteen or twenty years ago—I can’t say exactly, not having a linear sense of time, but instead, visual-spatial—I took a walk with a friend on Long Island. It was during the time I commuted there to continue with my teaching in Port Washington, after I had moved here upstate New York. Susan and her husband lived on a beautiful, open tract of land. Though Susan was a gardener, and had her own vegetable garden, she and her husband also maintained a small, fenced piece in a nearby community garden. Susan and Rich are community people. It’s their nature to participate. That community garden was the place we walked that day.

I was fascinated by the concept of neighbors holding a garden in common, and overwhelmed by the beauty of the thing—patches growing flowers and vegetables. As I remember the place, a good 25 pieces made up this living, growing quilt, and a network of paths.

In that organization of neighbors, whether people took turns mowing or paid someone to mow, I never asked. On the day I walked there, those paths had just been mown, the air fragrant with it.

The thing that grabbed my attention was this: there were iris plants that had been cut down with the grass. Clearly, they had migrated from someone’s patch of garden. Irises migrate. That the blade had caught those plants caused a kind of outcry in me, perhaps of my soul, I don’t know. I couldn’t bear seeing all those potentially beautiful things slashed, lives interrupted, and because they had wandered onto the walking paths. I understood the necessity; there was no judgment in my distress, only some need to pull them up and take them home—to save them, let them grow, to manifest their destiny!

I collected as many as I could hold—30? , more, I’m sure. I had to quiet my greed, or perhaps a desperation to save life—and let the others go, turn my face from them. There were scores and scores of them, who knows how many?  As I recall, Susan didn’t involve herself. She is probably more practical, a natural farmer. Things grow, or don’t grow. And things die. But despite my own roots in Brooklyn, where sidewalks cover the earth, I had fallen into a passion. Susan wrapped them for me in wet towels and plastic. I got home after dark and filled a bucket with water.  The plants spent the night on my porch, until I could dig them in by daylight.

They didn’t bloom the next year, and I forgot about them. But five or so years later, yellow irises began flowering here and there among my own plantings. They are beautiful, these irises, not full, like the Belgium sort. They look Japanese in their delicacy, yet with a certain stubbiness. 

My own garden is so lush this year, it is overwhelming. Some strange conjunction with our time of quarantine. It is a garden I never dreamed would grow here. I worked hard, digging, for years, this stony soil. I could have used raised beds, but, in my ignorance, and also a kind of love of hard physical labor, I dug. My garden is 24 years old. Willy-nilly—I am not a gardener, but, perhaps, a worker, with a passion for redeeming a piece of land that was barren when I came to it. I saved the land as I wanted to save the iris plants.

The yellow irises have traveled everywhere now through my gardens. Front, back, to the edge of the woods. And there is never a time when my eyes fall upon them that they don’t rouse me from the ordinary slumber of daily life. Because I marvel at them, saved that day I walked with Susan. Taking years to show themselves, and, underground, unseen, their roots extending, putting out new plants all over this beautiful place I live.

There is such metaphor here, spoken every time I look at them. They are migrants. Their lives were saved. They came to a new place and added such beauty, a yellow different from the broom plants, the evening primrose, the Gloriosa lilies, Stella D’oros, the pale yellow lilies, names unknown to me, and the tiny yellow flowering ground cover, another gift of this place to me—its name also unknown. A shimmering time of yellows, the beginning of July.

These migrant irises speak clearly to me, of course. Of things current. And of my own roots, beyond Brooklyn, to Russia-Poland, where my own people fled violence and persecution. Working so hard to flower here, like all the migrants in this wonderful, rich, garden of a country.

Summer evenings

I feel fortunate, blessed, to live up here now in this woods, rich with oxygenated air. I can sit on my porch in the evenings, or on my friend Kathleen’s lawn overlooking her pond. Distance sitting, six or more feet apart. Or on Harland’s deck, surrounded by his woods, in the clearing he cut, pulling out the stumps himself. From Brooklyn, too, my life-long friend, soul friend, spirit friend, father to our daughter. We sit until it’s time for me to set out home, before it gets too dark. On Harland’s deck, an electric fan keeps the mosquitoes away. 

Summer evening talk, reminiscing, taking stock. Continuing a 60-year conversation, as beautiful as the long summer evening. And traveling, still, like those irises, still growing, exploring new ground—of thought, and ponderings about life, and the evening of life. Harland is 82, the older of the two of us.

I listen to the bird sounds, evening songs, languages I don’t understand, but am transported by the music. Then I drive the 40 minutes home, and listen to the night sounds here. Owls, insects, frogs, and creatures I can’t identify. I just listen, savoring these long summer nights.

Some quotations

“Man is not an innocent bystander in the cosmic drama. There is in us more kinship with the divine than we are able to believe. …and every soul is indispensable….” -Abraham Joshua Heschel, To Grow in Wisdom

“They defined with tolerable distinctness in what they did consider all men created equal: equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all men were then actually enjoying that quality, or yet that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact, they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.

“They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.” -Abraham Lincoln, 1858; Words of Lincoln, page 35, referring to the Founding Fathers.

My good friend, Alice, just reminded me of this—a deep sense she holds: “…that through the great changes of this moment, our culture is moving from Me to We.”

To all these quotes, say I: Amen.

Related reading: Helena Writes

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