When I moved back to the Berkshires, almost 10 years ago now, I knew very little about Pittsfield.
I knew Mohican hunting camps had once ringed Pontoosuc Lake, and that Pontoosuc means “place to hunt the winter deer.” On a flat calm day, I had drifted in a sailboat in the center of the lake. I had seen the Berkshire Museum.
And once, at an open studios event for the Storefront Artists Project, a Japanese inkwash artist painted a scene while I watched — a small songbird, like a sparrow, poised with spread wings just above a twig, either landing or taking off. He called it “Bright, noisy day.” And he gave it to me. It is hanging now by my desk at home.
In four years as a South County reporter for the old Berkshire Advocate, I had rarely come into contact with the city where I lived for eight years, while I ran Berkshires Week at the Eagle.
And as soon as I moved there, I began coming into contact with surprising parts of this old city. One warm summer day, Anne Pasko and Sue Langman, co-founders of the Pittsfied Garden Tour, told me they began the tour in 1996 to show people, including the people who live here, that there are beautiful places in Pittsfield.
“We wanted to put our arms around the community,” Langman said. “People would say ‘we didn’t know there was anything nice in Pittsield.'”
For 20 years the tour has contributed to public efforts like Artscape, the annual downtown public art exhibit, and Infinite Dance, Carol Gold’s bronze dancing woman on the Pittsfield Common — it matters, they explained, because public art says, visibly, this is a place that people care for — a place that celebrates itself. This is a place where thoughtful and inventive people live. It’s a place where playful people live. It’s a place where people look at an empty sidewalk and see giant sheep, breeching whales, fabulous monsters, a little daily magic on every corner.
This sounds warmly familiar to me. I grew up in a house like that. My parents would make treasure hunts for our birthdays, spending hours the night before to invent clues, and the house and the lawn would become mysteries. They would give us constellations in the tool shed, Spanish pesos in a wooden chest full of wooden building blocks.
In my house, the tooth fairy brought Buffalo head nickles and Wheat sheaf pennies and told us stories about her castle (in unidentifiable handwriting in an envelope we knew we had sealed the tooth in the evening before.)
We believed, because my parents believed, in a kind of make-believe that made the world unexpected. It isn’t a quality of immaturity — it’s curiosity and a willingness to be invloved. Madeline L’Engle writes that people know each other, know whether they’re friends, by the way they play or don’t play make believe. I don’t think she means children only — I don’t.
Make believe for adults may mean planning a garden, spinning alpaca wool, building a house or a table, or walking around their hometowns wondering what could be here that isn’t yet?
Or what is here that I haven’t seen yet?
It’s an exuberant sense of possibilities — it’s like Jane Austen’s definition of a resilient mind: “that sanguine expectation of happiness which is happiness itself.”
She was talking about a woman who was deeply grieving the loss of her husband, and even then, bounded by a pain I can’t imagine, she could see possibilities in the world.
As I look at Pittsfield over the last 10 years, rebuilding its heart, building communities from around the world, cleaning its brownfields, I think — this place has guts. We have kept moving, and we need people who can see where we could be going.
We also need people who can see the Cooper’s hawks and fire spinners and caterpillars and light on the lake, and take delight in them, and hand it around.
In conversation, Sue Langman reminded me recently of this column I wrote for Berkshires Week in 2013. I’ve brought the times up-to-date, and I live in Williamstown now, but the soul of it is still true, and it felt apt for Mother’s Day too. My thanks to Kevin Moran and all at the Eagle. In the photo at the top, Carol Gold’s bronze sculpture, ‘Infinite Dance,’ stands poised at the center of Pittsfield. (Photo by Kate Abbott)