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Journal of a Solitudeby May Sarton
May Sarton writes with keen observation of both inner and outer worlds--a garden, the seasons, daily life in New Hampshire, books, people, ideas--and throughout everything, her spiritual and artistic journey. "An honorable confession of the writer's faults, fears, sadnesses, and disappointments. . . ".--Cleveland Plain Dealer. See more details below
May Sarton writes with keen observation of both inner and outer worlds--a garden, the seasons, daily life in New Hampshire, books, people, ideas--and throughout everything, her spiritual and artistic journey. "An honorable confession of the writer's faults, fears, sadnesses, and disappointments. . . ".--Cleveland Plain Dealer.
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Journal of a Solitude
By May Sarton
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1973 May Sarton
All rights reserved.
Begin here. It is raining. I look out on the maple, where a few leaves have turned yellow, and listen to Punch, the parrot, talking to himself and to the rain ticking gently against the windows. I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my "real" life again at last. That is what is strange—that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone here and "the house and I resume old conversations."
On my desk, small pink roses. Strange how often the autumn roses look sad, fade quickly, frost-browned at the edges! But these are lovely, bright, singing pink. On the mantel, in the Japanese jar, two sprays of white lilies, recurved, maroon pollen on the stamens, and a branch of peony leaves turned a strange pinkish-brown. It is an elegant bouquet; shibui, the Japanese would call it. When I am alone the flowers are really seen; I can pay attention to them. They are felt as presences. Without them I would die. Why do I say that? Partly because they change before my eyes. They live and die in a few days; they keep me closely in touch with process, with growth, and also with dying. I am floated on their moments.
The ambience here is order and beauty. That is what frightens me when I am first alone again. I feel inadequate. I have made an open place, a place for meditation. What if I cannot find myself inside it?
I think of these pages as a way of doing that. For a long time now, every meeting with another human being has been a collision. I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation. But the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting, and tormented self. I have written every poem, every novel, for the same purpose—to find out what I think, to know where I stand. I am unable to become what I see. I feel like an inadequate machine, a machine that breaks down at crucial moments, grinds to a dreadful halt, "won't go," or, even worse, explodes in some innocent person's face.
Plant Dreaming Deep has brought me many friends of the work (and also, harder to respond to, people who think they have found in me an intimate friend). But I have begun to realize that, without my own intention, that book gives a false view. The anguish of my life here—its rages—is hardly mentioned. Now I hope to break through into the rough rocky depths, to the matrix itself. There is violence there and anger never resolved. I live alone, perhaps for no good reason, for the reason that I am an impossible creature, set apart by a temperament I have never learned to use as it could be used, thrown off by a word, a glance, a rainy day, or one drink too many. My need to be alone is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge empty silence if I cannot find support there. I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour, and keep alive only by imposing upon myself inexorable routines. I write too many letters and too few poems. It may be outwardly silent here but in the back of my mind is a clamor of human voices, too many needs, hopes, fears. I hardly ever sit still without being haunted by the "undone" and the "unsent." I often feel exhausted, but it is not my work that tires (work is a rest); it is the effort of pushing away the lives and needs of others before I can come to the work with any freshness and zest.
Cracking open the inner world again, writing even a couple of pages, threw me back into depression, not made easier by the weather, two gloomy days of darkness and rain. I was attacked by a storm of tears, those tears that appear to be related to frustration, to buried anger, and come upon me without warning. I woke yesterday so depressed that I did not get up till after eight.
I drove to Brattleboro to read poems at the new Unitarian church there in a state of dread and exhaustion. How to summon the vitality needed? I had made an arrangement of religious poems, going back to early books and forward into the new book not yet published. I suppose it went all right—at least it was not a disaster—but I felt (perhaps I am wrong) that the kind, intelligent people gathered in a big room looking out on pine trees did not really want to think about God, His absence (many of the poems speak of that) or His presence. Both are too frightening.
On the way back I stopped to see Perley Cole, my dear old friend, who is dying, separated from his wife, and has just been moved from a Dickensian nursing home into what seems like a far better one. He grows more transparent every day, a skeleton or nearly. Clasping his hand, I fear to break a bone. Yet the only real communication between us now (he is very deaf) is a handclasp. I want to lift him in my arms and hold him like a baby. He is dying a terribly lonely death. Each time I see him he says, "It is rough" or "I did not think it would end like this."
Everywhere I look about this place I see his handiwork: the three small trees by a granite boulder that he pruned and trimmed so they pivot the whole meadow; the new shady border he dug out for me one of the last days he worked here; the pruned-out stone wall between my field and the church. The second field where he cut brush twice a year and cleared out to the stone wall is growing back to wilderness now. What is done here has to be done over and over and needs the dogged strength of a man like Perley. I could have never managed it alone. We cherished this piece of land together, and fought together to bring it to some semblance of order and beauty.
I like to think that this last effort of Perley's had a certain ease about it, a game compared to the hard work of his farming years, and a game where his expert knowledge and skill could be well used. How he enjoyed teasing me about my ignorance!
While he scythed and trimmed, I struggled in somewhat the same way at my desk here, and we were each aware of the companionship. We each looked forward to noon, when I could stop for the day and he sat on a high stool in the kitchen, drank a glass or two of sherry with me, said, "Court's in session!" and then told me some tall tale he had been cogitating all morning.
It was a strange relationship, for he knew next to nothing about my life, really; yet below all the talk we recognized each other as the same kind. He enjoyed my anger as much as I enjoyed his. Perhaps that was part of it. Deep down there was understanding, not of the facts of our lives so much as of our essential natures.
Even now in his hard, lonely end he has immense dignity. But I wish there were some way to make it easier. I leave him with bitter resentment against the circumstances of this death. "I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned."
In the mail a letter from a twelve-year-old child, enclosing poems, her mother having pushed her to ask my opinion. This child does really look at things, and I can write something helpful, I think. But it is troubling how many people expect applause, recognition, when they have not even begun to learn an art or a craft. Instant success is the order of the day; "I want it now!" I wonder whether this is not part of our corruption by machines. Machines do things very quickly and outside the natural rhythm of life, and we are indignant if a car doesn't start at the first try. So the few things that we still do, such as cooking (though there are TV dinners!), knitting, gardening, anything at all that cannot be hurried, have a very particular value.
The value of solitude—one of its values—is, of course, that there is nothing to cushion against attacks from within, just as there is nothing to help balance at times of particular stress or depression. A few moments of desultory conversation with dear Arnold Miner, when he comes to take the trash, may calm an inner storm. But the storm, painful as it is, might have had some truth in it. So sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands.
The reasons for depression are not so interesting as the way one handles it, simply to stay alive. This morning I woke at four and lay awake for an hour or so in a bad state. It is raining again. I got up finally and went about the daily chores, waiting for the sense of doom to lift—and what did it was watering the house plants. Suddenly joy came back because I was fulfilling a simple need, a living one. Dusting never has this effect (and that may be why I am such a poor housekeeper!), but feeding the cats when they are hungry, giving Punch clean water, makes me suddenly feel calm and happy.
Whatever peace I know rests in the natural world, in feeling myself a part of it, even in a small way. Maybe the gaiety of the Warner family, their wisdom, comes from this, that they work close to nature all the time. As simple as that? But it is not simple. Their life requires patient understanding, imagination, the power to endure constant adversity—the weather, for example! To go with, not against the elements, an inexhaustible vitality summoned back each day to do the same tasks, to feed the animals, clean out barns and pens, keep that complex world alive.
The sun is out. It rose through the mist, making the raindrops sparkle on the lawn. Now there is blue sky, warm air, and I have just created a wonder—two large autumn crocuses plus a small spray of pink single chrysanthemums and a piece of that silvery leaf (artemisia? arethusa?) whose name I forget in the Venetian glass in the cosy room. May they be benign presences toward this new day!
Neurotic depression is so boring because it is repetitive, literally a wheel that turns and turns. Yesterday I broke off from the wheel when I read a letter from Sister Mary David. She is now manager of a co-op in the small town in South Carolina where she has chosen to work. Always her letters bring me the shock of what is really going on and the recognition of what one single person can do. "So," says Sister Mary David, "I am of course mostly involved in the co-op work, but I do find more and more of the desperate families which are so numerous in this state—people who are frustrated, lonely, sick, helpless. One day I took an old man shopping. He was completely out of food and by some error his check had been stopped for three months. He bought what he needed and the bill came to $10.06. I emptied my wallet and what was in it came to exactly $10.06! So I suspect that the good Lord is at my elbow all the time. So many inexplainable things occur. Another day an elderly lady waited for me in the rain outside a second-hand furniture store to ask me to talk to a twelve-year-old boy who had tried to commit suicide. His father and stepmother had put him out—no clothes, no place to go. Well, he is better now. I bought him clothes and a folding bed which his old 'gran'ma' agreed to let him set up in her shack. I keep in touch, bought him a lunch box yesterday. They just seem to cross my path, dozens of them, and some disappear after the crisis."
I felt lifted up on the joy of sending a check and knowing that money would be changed at once into help. We are all fed up, God knows, with institutional charity, with three requests from the same organization in a week and often one to which a check had been mailed two weeks earlier. We are all, receivers and givers alike, computerized. It feels arid compared to the direct human way shown by Sister Mary David; she was not sent down by her order, but found her own way there on a summer project and then decided that she must stay, and somehow got permission to do so. This must be the tradition of the Sisters of Mercy.
The most hopeful sign, the only one, in these hard times is how much individual initiative manages to make its way up through the asphalt, so many tough shoots of human imagination. And I think at once of Dr. Gatch who started in Beaufort, South Carolina to heal sick blacks on his own. Whatever his tragic end, he did force the situation down there—near starvation—on the attention of Congress and the people of the United States. We have to believe that each person counts, counts as a creative force that can move mountains. The great thing Gene McCarthy did, of course, was to prove this on the political scene. While we worked for him we believed that politics might give way to the human voice. It is tragic that the human flaws can then wreck everything—McCarthy's vanity, Gatch's relying on drugs to keep going. We can do anything, or almost, but how balanced, magnanimous, and modest one has to be to do anything! And also how patient. It is as true in the arts as anywhere else.
So ... to work. It is not a non sequitur. I shall never be one of those directly active (except as a teacher, occasionally), but now and then I am made aware that my work, odd though it seems, does help people. But it is only in these last years at Nelson that I have known that for sure.
Yesterday, sunday, was Perley Cole's birthday. I went to see him in the afternoon and took him some pajamas. This time we were able to have a little talk. He is suffering from the change to a new place, although to an outsider this seems such an improvement on the horrible old one, that dirty old farmhouse sinking into the ground, and the atmosphere of lies there and of neglect, a place where more than one child has simply abandoned a senile parent, buried him alive. But Perley had put out roots there, had to, to keep his sense of himself. And now those roots have been torn away. How long can it last? His hands are transparent, and only his eyes, their piercing look that says so much more than he can utter, remain Perley Cole.
Yesterday before I left on the sad expedition I had looked out and seen two elderly people standing at the edge of the lawn, then walking down the hill a way and coming back, obviously in the hope I would come out. So I did. Apparently they have come more than once, lovers of Plant Dreaming Deep and of the poems. They turned out to be Charlotte and Albert Oppler, German refugees from Hitler, who landed here and later were sent to Japan under Mac-Arthur, Albert as a legal expert who helped draw up the new Japanese constitution. Of course, they know Elizabeth Vining, whose autobiography I am reviewing for the Times these days. But why did I tell them, nearly in tears, of my depression? It is quite absurd to tell total strangers such things. I suppose I was taken by surprise like an animal in a lair. I had been writing all morning, was open from the inside out, unprepared for kindness and understanding such as they showed. Here the inner person is the outer person. It is what I want, but that does not make me any less absurd.
Found this in an old journal of mine—Humphry Trevelyan on Goethe: "It seems that two qualities are necessary if a great artist is to remain creative to the end of a long life; he must on the one hand retain an abnormally keen awareness of life, he must never grow complacent, never be content with life, must always demand the impossible and when he cannot have it, must despair. The burden of the mystery must be with him day and night. He must be shaken by the naked truths that will not be comforted. This divine discontent, this disequilibrium, this state of inner tension is the source of artistic energy. Many lesser poets have it only in their youth; some even of the greatest lose it in middle life. Wordsworth lost the courage to despair and with it his poetic power. But more often the dynamic tensions are so powerful that they destroy the man before he reaches maturity."
Must art come from tension? A few months ago I was dreaming of a happy work, a whole book of poems stemming from fruitful love. Now here I am back on the rack. But perhaps this is a sign of health, not sickness. Who knows?
Excerpted from Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton. Copyright © 1973 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.
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Meet the Author
May Sarton (1912-1995) was an acclaimed poet, novelist, and memoirist.
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