Helena Writes #25: On connection across social distances

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
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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 25th post, Helena practices domestic resourcefulness, compassion, and nonviolent resistance.


I’ve become a farmer of landscape, a Monk, a Homesteader. Growing one tomato plant, six of squash, I’ve made a shift. I have begun to experience the birth of a new life, apart from the outside world. Somewhere back in Time, and of a new Time. 

A thing I’d struggled with for so long: to detach from the news to save myself, has, at least for the moment, happened organically. My body couldn’t take any more of it. The new dangers. The new upside-down of it.

There is a sense of stewardship for my own life setting in. No hiring of help this summer, I have mowed my own paths, tended these wild gardens. Raked years of leaves and used them to mulch paths between the lilies and phlox beds. Used them to define the landscape, a satisfying sense of wasting nothing. I would order eight bales of hay at this time of year, to mulch over weeds, to make my paths. Leave the labor to someone else and pay the coins. My lovely piece of land is becoming a functioning estate, me doing small pieces of labor at a time. Sewing in new panels of one of my first umbrellas, rather than bringing it to the dump, something I’d put off for years. 

I’ve staged three sitting places. The porch, with two beautiful and more recent sun umbrellas, four chairs, and my picnic table. I repaired that table myself this year. Used tin flashing I’d bought once at a garage sale, to use as monoprint plates for classes, the things you can paint on with oil color and brush then pull a gorgeous print—gorgeous whether you have worked 60 years as an artist or are a novice. I didn’t face replacing that one rotting board, something I’ve never yet done, but scraped the rot out, mixed wood paste from sawdust and Elmer’s glue, then flashed over it. A lovely afternoon spent lining up the three-inch by four-inch rectangles, tapping in holes with a nail at the corners for tacks. I loved the sound. Time has changed. Be here, Helena, I tell myself now. And I was, listening to the percussion of the hammered tacks in the quiet of the country, a rhythm that became as evocative as music. The sound of work. I painted the table and it looks better than new, because it’s worn. 

I have had helpers in the past, handy men, handy women. But people feel better staying home now, and I feel better if they do. I am getting used to Zoom meetings.

The second place I’ve staged, is my red-graveled patio, in the notch where my studio joins the house. It’s set up for company, as the porch is. I do have an occasional friend, if the weather is good. We are masked when we have to pass one another, and distanced when we sit, an outdoor fan blowing to keep air circulating, to keep mosquitoes and who-knows-now-what-else, from worrying us. These visits are sweet, and fearsome, too. And, like news, bring to the foreground the knowledge of the world, spinning in pandemic. 

The third staged place is on the north side of the house, in the woods, near some very large rocks that came from an old rock wall, delivered here twenty years or so ago. Too many for the wall my farmer neighbor built for me. A beautiful formation, a sculpture as evocative, wonder-filling, hush-making, as a Henry Moore. Around these rocks are three plastic chairs, also many years old, brought here from Long Island, made when plastic was still substantial. Maybe made in this country. They have never cracked or crumbled. I have painted some of them. There are nine, one given to my son when he moved, and which was taken from the small grassy patch in front of his ground floor apartment in a town nearby, swiped! But nine chairs of ten after so many years make for the comfort of old friends. 

The three chairs around the rock sculpture are for my wise men. Like Elijah, at a Passover celebration, they are ready for them to come, and I hope they do, to give me the wise counsel I often feel. 

If someone comes here now, it is for a necessity I can’t handle alone. A plumber worked on my cold water pressure tank. A tow truck came when my battery died, the alternator also having quit. I don’t use my car the way I used to, and the car is old. One day soon, it will need replacing. 

The plumber was masked. I was grateful and relieved. The tow truck driver wasn’t. Some mask, some don’t. I wear mine, and keep my distance.

In a small store, last week, where the clerk, a very young man was masked, in a lovely bright yellow, and in spite of the sign on the door—“face covering required,” I met a man, perhaps thirty, who was unmasked. I had some things to buy in my hands. I timidly asked, “Aren’t we required to wear a mask here?” Now this is hard to describe: He looked at me for a scant moment, seemed to brush the question away, didn’t answer, turned and walked down the aisle. I wasn’t there.

I knew the way I posed the question was not thought through. All I could do was to take my handful of things, three cans of tuna fish and two bars of soap, and, distanced as I could be on my way out of the store, tell the clerk with his lovely, yellow hand-made mask correctly covering his mouth and nose, “There is a customer without a mask…” handing him the tuna and soap, “…in the midst of a pandemic, thousands of us dying.” He may have been 17. “Do you want these?” he asked. “No,” I answered, “And I’ll never shop here again.” I left.

On the way home, I pondered. I arrived at this, and declare here, that I will buy a package of masks to have with me and try, when I find myself in that position again, to move into my heart, into the compassion of myself, to connect. To say, “May I give you one of these?” “Could I persuade you to wear it?” Or some other sincerity that comes to me, from moving into that place inside that has no judgment of another. It’s there. I’ve experienced the miracle of approaching someone that way. It’s up to me to heal division, with one person, at one moment. That’s what I have come to. And I’ll try my best. 

I went home without tuna and soap, but to the comfort of what is now my cloistered monastery, Zoom, the water in the desert I am most grateful for.

The upside of masks

I’ve had wonderful experiences with my masked neighborhood people. The manager at the supermarket, who wears a ponytail, perhaps in his late fifties, who I always sensed was there behind his dramatic, angular face yet never broke formal silence. He is now warm, kind, expressive, speaking to me about simple store transactions, behind his mask. The checkout people have also changed. They are warm, helpful. Kind. We’re all in this, all here, together. 

I am also impressed by the variety of masks people wear, expressive—prints and colors, rainbows, hearts, ginghams, crocheted. I’ve thought, Now that’s America! Creative, individual. In photos of other countries, I’ve seen people wearing masks in white or black. Men here are wearing beautifully printed scarves. Really, I am amazed. 

Last week I had a flat tire. It was Saturday night. My motor club couldn’t find a service station to help me. I called an old friend, young Jack, who used to shovel my porch steps and path and load my wood. He took his degree in teaching and discovered he doesn’t have the passion to work with kids. He knew cars, and we have always been natural friends. He listened to me when I preached my gospel about the depth of life. Listened carefully.

“Helena!” he exclaimed at the other end of the phone. We hadn’t been in touch for two years.

“This is still your number!” I was filled with hope. But he had moved. He was 25 minutes down the Quickway. “Jack, I have a flat. I can’t get anyone up here to help.”

“We-ell…Put on a pot of coffee,” he said. “…I have nothing to do tonight! See you in 40 minutes.” 

It was the rim; the tire was new. He knew someone with a shop. Afterwards, masked and distanced, we sat on my porch and talked. Jack is 30 now, and the gospel of life goes two ways. A ten o’clock visit—miraculous—on a Saturday night.

The day my alternator quit, a mother of two young kids directed traffic around me. She was ready to give me a ride, masked, windows open. Then my car started up, and took me down the road toward home but quit again. Now I was isolated. I called my road club. On hold, another car passed, and I hailed the driver. I put on my flashers, and mask, left my car in the road and he took me home. He was lovely, kind, a Palestinian Israeli who had immigrated to this country and had friends in the area. 

From home, I called the police to alert them to my stranded car, and again I called my road service. The state trooper arrived, handsome in his black mask, and the tow truck. The driver was not masked. But he was helpful, and also kind. I was grateful, and hadn’t yet done my pondering.

There is a Third Way. It’s there in all traditions, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and in being our most human selves. It’s the Way of Compassion. 

Here, where I live, I could call it being good neighbors. 

It seems to me we are changing, I see evidence of it in all the transactions I have with people now.

I remember when I read E.M. Forster’s novel, Howard’s End. It was the first time I read his phrase, “Only connect.” I think Forster may quote that line of his at the opening of the novel. That’s how I remember it. But he may not have, I don’t have a copy of Howard’s End here to know for sure. But it’s the way I remember it—and the impact of the phrase. 

I don’t, of course, know the politics of the people in the line of cars behind me, held up, unable to pass me that day on the road, as the young mother directed them safely. The car had quit at a sharp turn; there was no visibility. But everyone was patient. No one sounded their horn. 

It seems to me, amidst our tragic circumstances, person to person, we are connecting with one another, that there is a new world coming forth. It may take time, this birth. But I believe it is happening.

I take it as my responsibility to find The Third Way, to deeply consider how to speak to my fellows when they cross my path unmasked. To do my most sincere best, find the purest voice I can to offer a mask, and hope it is accepted, for the sake of all of us. And if it is declined, hope that my effort will in some way I will never know, bear good fruit. Perhaps it is the only opportunity I will have to offer non-violent resistance. John Lewis’ way, Dr. King’s way. Gandhi’s, Thoreau’s.

For now, I will continue to learn homesteading, live the eremitic life, find its gifts and grow, believing as I do, Life is counting on us for this birth, this deliverance. 

Related reading: Helena Writes

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