Read an Excerpt
The House by the Sea
By May Sarton
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1977 May Sarton
All rights reserved.
Wednesday, November 13th, 1974
At last I am ready to start a journal again. I have lived here in York for a year and a half, dazzled by the beauty of this place, but I have not wanted to write about it until today. Perhaps something cracked open in Europe (I went over for a month in mid-October); for the first time I can play records, and poems are shooting up. For two years I have not been able to listen to music because opening that door had become too painful after the hell of the last two years in Nelson. But I have been happy in this place from the very first day. And every day since then I have woken at dawn to watch the sun rise.
I am living under a powerful spell, the spell of the sea. But in one way it is not as I imagined, for I had imagined that part of the spell would be the influence of the tides, rising and falling. But I do not see the rocks or the shoreline from my windows; I look out to the ocean over a long field, so I am not aware of the tides, after all, nor influenced by their rhythm; instead, I am bathed in the gentleness of this field-ocean landscape. Without tension, it has been the happiest year I can remember (and, after all, I did manage to write a short novel).
The refrigerator has pots of freesia and daffodil bulbs in it to stay cool for a month or two and then come out to the plant window, which is really like a small greenhouse. It is lovely now because of a white cyclamen and three Rieger begonia, one bright red, one greenish white, and one salmon pink. When the morning sun streams in, they glow in their transparencies.
For over a year I have had Scrabble here so that when Judy came to visit from her nursing home, she would find her old pussy to welcome her. She was one of two speckled sisters Judy and I shared before I moved to Nelson, and whom I had as summer guests after the move.
Scrabble has always been a strange difficult personality, often not to be found, secretive, remote, furious when picked up, yet longing for love. She had the deepest look in her golden eyes of any cat I have known. It was a look as from person to person. She has been a haunting presence in this house because she lived upstairs on the third floor in my study—she was terrified of Bramble and Tamas and they had learned never to go up there. So she was with me during work hours, but I knew she needed more love than I could give, needed to sleep on my bed where Tamas and Bramble sleep. So she had become a constant anxiety, a tug at the heart, more than I had realized.
Last Saturday I had her put to sleep. She had not eaten for days—a visit to the vet and medicines did no good—so I made the hard decision. I was not at all prepared for the volcanic eruption of woe when I left the vet's. I was crying so much I forgot to pay the bill and had to go back, and all the way home I could hardly see to drive. I felt cracked in two.
In some ways the death of an animal is worse than the death of a person. I wonder why. Partly it is absolutely inward and private, the relation between oneself and an animal, and also there is total dependency. I kept thinking as I drove home, this is all inside me, this grief, and I can't explain it, nor do I want to, to anyone. Now, six days later, I begin to feel the immense relief of no longer being woken at five by angry miaows, "Hurry up, where's my breakfast?" from the top of the stairs, no longer having to throw away box after box of half-eaten food because she was so finicky, no longer trundling up three flights with clean kitty litter—but, above all, no longer carrying her, a leaden weight, in my heart. She was the ghost at the feast, here where everything else is so happy.
But, oh, my pussy, I wish for your rare purrs and for your sweet soft head butting gently against my arm to be caressed!
In these last two years I have had to witness too much decline, and in Europe also I was saying good-bye to friends in their eighties and nineties. Perhaps I cried so terribly because Scrabble had become the symbol of all this—of the breakup about which we are helpless, which we have to witness in others, and in ourselves, year by year. How does one deal with it?
Saturday, November 16th
A serene dawn. I saw the sun first bathing my bureau in rich orange light, sat up, and caught the red disc just as it stood for a second exactly on the horizon's rim. It is so silent all around that a moment ago when a single wave broke I was startled by its gentle roar.
Two days ago I felt marvelously free because I had taken care of most of what had been badgering me on my desk since my return, a joyful sense of released power about everything I did. But life has to interrupt, of course, and Richard Henry, a Unitarian minister came overnight, so I never did get back to that feeling.
I have seen R.H. several times and we always connect, but this time I was troubled by something frail about him, something withheld, as if we never quite reached the nub of anything we talked about. I felt that the kind, imaginative man one meets is not the real person and that the real person has been dimmed ... but by what? Professional responsibility? The weight of other people's lives?
I suppose animals are so precious because all these complexities are not involved in our relation to them. Our response is direct and simple and so is theirs.
What a joy it was as we walked down to the rocks yesterday when Bramble suddenly erupted, tail lashing, leaping into the air as Tamas caught sight of her and then racing off with him! As always Tamas was a great help with R.H.; he is so loving that any guest here feels immediately "taken in" and cherished by his eager glances and wish to be caressed.
I have just found again a letter from Eugenia, my Chilean friend (a psychotherapist), with whom I had two deep-thrusting talks in London. I wanted to reread this letter. Something in it at the end reached me like a blessing. We have been friends for thirty years, but there have been few meetings lately because of the ocean between us. She is racked by the Chilean agony, is in constant touch with the refugees, and suffers from the split within her family, some of whom are for the Junta. She says,
"Later you will know what this trip did. What you will not know is what it did for us.
"When I saw you first I did not realize how much of me was still there and still alive. It was an avalanche of feeling. Parts of oneself that one does not dare touch were still there, as alive as ever. Other parts I know to be alive because of my work. As a resounding instrument most of these are touched everyday but one can only use them as it needs to be. One's head is always around floundering, and in the recognition of one's feeling one recognizes the patient's. This is not the same as allowing oneself to be touched and responding spontaneously as one needs to. And with so much loss I thought all this was gone. For one year I could not listen to music and for many months I have kept people at bay. I do not want them to get near and intrude into a process of reconditioning oneself with loss. And I really thought I no longer loved, personally, persons. But I do. And that is a wonderful feeling to have and I am grateful to you for it. Reading your article about Le Gallienne I found so much that is similar in my work, to the theatre, the valuation of silence, the length and intensity of silence; the right word in the right tone at the right time. All calculated if you like but all really based on a genuine understanding and feeling. In other words the technique has to become part of oneself and the discipline has to be there. When I stop for a few weeks, I feel at first like a rusty instrument, uncertain about my own sounds, uncertain of the pitch.
"Again, talking with you, each person or image evoked a million others and it takes time to put them back into place. An avalanche of memories erupts.
"I found you well. I wish I could have helped you, not now, I wish I could have known what I know now, a long time ago when you might have needed it. I think I understand your rages and I do not see them as a great problem. It is unfortunate that so few analysts don't know about these things in the U.S. They do here and have for some time. It is not such a difficult problem and it sorrows me that it has caused you grief. You are well and your depth is there, very easy to touch and in some way exposed and unguarded. It must not be mistaken and I am sure many times many people have mistaken it. Perhaps this allowing your own exposure allows so much to get inside, but also it must guard itself from intrusion. One must not confuse generosity (which is allowing exposure) with something that is always there and can be taken for granted. It is a rare gift. It must neither be abused nor betrayed. It is a gift to us, who know you and who are around you, and it must be respected. If you are to survive at all we must help you and somehow I do not feel that those of us who have been near to you have done so. I am sure we have taken you for granted more than once, forgetting that in the artist the child is alive and has to be if the person is an artist. With this I leave you for the moment."
Monday, November 18th
At dawn, heavy frost on the grass, a congregation of crows cawing in the woods behind the house ... I heard them yesterday on our walk. (I should say the walk, as it is the walk through the woods and around in a circle that I make every morning around twelve with Tamas, and Bramble when she so chooses.) Perhaps there is a wounded deer dying somewhere? I heard the ominous leaden sound of a shot just after dawn. It is the season of dread now, the deer hunting season. On the walk I talk all the time to warn anyone around not to shoot.
As I drove out with Richard Henry two or three days ago we met a sinister-looking man with a shotgun. I stopped to be sure he understood that the property is posted. He said he was going far into the woods—somewhere not posted, he implied. I know that people need their deer for meat this autumn of soaring prices, but it is hard to describe the fear and horror I felt seeing that shotgun. Anything that moves is in danger. More than the immediate dread, I felt fierce revolt against guns in general and so many people every day who become murderers as if by accident because they have this tremendous power to kill in their hands—a man loses his temper and "bang! bang!" his wife falls dead or his child. How can we accept such a state of affairs? How have we allowed the gun manufacturers to hold us at bay? After all the assassinations and daily "incidents" there is still no gun law. It is almost unbelievable.
In the perfect silence this morning, not a wave breaking and the ocean absolutely flat and blue, at any moment peace will be shattered by a terrifying explosion. I remember Perley who had hunted as a young man, but in old age no longer wanted to kill. And I have heard of others like him.
Yet this deer hunting is legitimate. What is far more sinister is the number of children in New York City, fourteen and fifteen, who hunt down old women, exactly as though they were animals, following the human track to its lair, then killing for a few dollars or a TV set. What have we done to our children that such indifference is possible? A total disconnection between the act and the human terror and despair involved?
A friend telephoned the other day to tell me of her traumatic experience of finding the body of her cat in the road (it happened to me with Bel-Gazou while I was still in Nelson, Bel-Gazou, Bramble's brother, and the dearest little cat I ever had. And I remember how I howled with pain and outrage like a Jew at the Wailing Wall). "Rigor mortis," K. said. "It is something I had never experienced." The whole grief and outrage will be with her for weeks and some part of her will never get over it.
How to make these boys, so detached from and beyond humanity come into their humanness? Do they have bad dreams afterward? In their sleep do they become human again? It is anomie carried to its farthest limit, the moment when lawlessness has crept into the inmost person and that person is totally detached.
War does it. My Lai. But we are in a period where torture is taken for granted almost everywhere, and where the so-called civilized peoples must go on eating candy and drinking whiskey while millions die of hunger. So one has to extrapolate the morally indifferent boys to the whole ethos in which they live. And at the root of it all is the lack of imagination. If we had imagined what we were doing in Vietnam it would have had to be stopped. But the images of old women holding shattered babies or of babies screaming ended by passing before our eyes but never penetrating to consciousness where they could be experienced. Are we paying for Vietnam now by seeing our children become monsters?
I am more and more convinced that in the life of civilizations as in the lives of individuals too much matter that cannot be digested, too much experience that has not been imagined and probed and understood, ends in total rejection of everything—ends in anomie. The structures break down and there is nothing to "hold onto."
It is understandable that at such times religious fanatics arise and the fundamentalists rise up in fury. Hatred rather than love dominates.
How does one handle it? The greatest danger, as I see it in myself, is the danger of withdrawal into private worlds. We have to keep the channels in ourselves open to pain. At the same time it is essential that true joys be experienced, that the sunrise not leave us unmoved, for civilization depends on the true joys, all those that have nothing to do with money or affluence—nature, the arts, human love. Maybe that is why the pandas in the London Zoo brought me back to poetry for the first time in two years.
Tuesday, November 19th
I have been out in the garden till dusk raking leaves. It was time, as the grass under the big maple had begun to rot. How soothing this task is! I had dreaded it, but I went at it slowly, tasting the air and trying to remember the slowness of Basil de Selincourt's walk when he did gardening, as he did well into his eighties. As I raked around the climbing roses I pruned out dead wood, and in the circular bed around the big maple (where Tamas likes to lie) I made a discovery—three tiny cyclamens I planted last year have come up at last. One had an infinitesimal bright pink flower. My idea had been a thick bed of them around the tree! I'll try again, with more plants another year. How timeless a garden is! One thinks in terms of ten years, a hundred ...
Wednesday, November 20th
A dismal day, rain, everything leaden. I forgot to say that yesterday when I was hurrying to get to an appointment on time I fell forward on the stairs and wrenched my shoulder. It shook me, because it brought vividly to mind the hazards of living alone. One feels fragile. And I realize that anxiety is never far away because what would happen to Tamas? The cat can get in and out through my bedroom window, but he would be trapped if anything happened to me and it might be days before I was found (Louise Bogan was found lying dead on the floor in her apartment in New York). Such anxiety should keep one alert and I believe that it does, alert and reminding oneself not to hurry. Most domestic accidents happen because someone is hurrying ... But on a deeper level than the mundane fact of a possible fall or heart attack I feel sure that after sixty everyone has death in the back of his or her consciousness much of the time.
Excerpted from The House by the Sea by May Sarton. Copyright © 1977 May Sarton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.