Recovering: A Journalby May Sarton, Sarton
May Sarton's sixty-sixth year,1978-79, was a difficult time: a cherished relationship came to an end, she had a mastectomy, she fought against depression. How her friendships, her love of the natural world, and her growing audience of readers brought her back is this journal's story. See more details below
May Sarton's sixty-sixth year,1978-79, was a difficult time: a cherished relationship came to an end, she had a mastectomy, she fought against depression. How her friendships, her love of the natural world, and her growing audience of readers brought her back is this journal's story.
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By May Sarton
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1980 May Sarton
All rights reserved.
Thursday, December 28th, 1978
I had thought not to begin a new journal until I am seventy, four years from now, but perhaps the time has come to sort myself out, and see whether I can restore a sense of meaning and continuity to my life by this familiar means.
Also I need to commemorate with something better than tears my long companionship with Judy that began thirty-five years ago in Santa Fe and ended on Christmas Day. Our last Christmas together; it was a fiasco. I wasn't feeling well and had a low fever when I went to fetch her on Christmas Eve at the Walden Nursing Home where she has been for seven years. I had been warned that she had changed for the worse in her slow progress toward complete senility, but I hoped that after twenty-four hours with me here, she would begin to relate again. That is the way it has been for the last few years and when she was here for her eightieth birthday in September, we did have a few moments of communion.
The furies have been attentive these past months and they must have worked quite hard to bring about all that took place on Christmas morning. There had been a wild gale of wind and rain all night, and when I woke at six in the dark, Tamas suddenly threw up all over the bed. (He has only done this once before.) When I tried to put on the light I realized that the electricity had gone off—no heat, no light, no stove. Luckily I knew where I had a battery-powered lamp and it worked, so I was able to take off the sheets from my bed and remake it. Then I crept into it feeling sick and dreading the day ahead. I got up at half past seven and went in to Judy's room to wake her, and had to change her sheets. I got her up into a clean nightgown and settled her in my bed while I went down to see what could be done about breakfast. I had no fever but everything seemed an enormous effort as though I were swimming under water. I did find the sterno and got some water started. It took nearly half an hour to heat enough for two cups of tea and we had that and cold cereal for our breakfast.
Over the years we have always opened our stockings in bed but Judy no longer enjoys opening presents so I had given up on stockings and brought up a present from faithful Emily Huntington for her to unwrap. She showed no interest in an elegant pair of gray slacks after refusing to unwrap the package. It was "downhill all the way," and I began to wonder how I was going to manage. I made fires in both fireplaces downstairs and got Judy dressed in a warm sweater and slacks and settled her in an armchair with a rug over her knees beside the fire in the library. But she was very restless and was soon up, moving around in the curious shuffle that has replaced walking now. She never once looked at the tree, poignantly beautiful this year, and—as it has been for thirty years—decorated with the many ornaments we have collected together.
It is often a small thing that shatters hope. For me it came when a male pheasant appeared close to the porch window—such a dazzling sight in all the gloom that I called out, "Come Judy, come quickly!" She didn't come, of course. I found her shuffling about in the library and by the time I had dragged her to the window, the pheasant was out of sight. At that moment I knew that Judy had gone beyond where being with me in this house means anything.
And slowly, after the light and heat came on at eleven and after I had cooked the duck and given her her dinner (I felt nauseated and couldn't eat myself), I came to the decision to take her back that very afternoon. Luckily we had carols all the way on the car radio and a dramatic sky as sun broke through in great slashes from under purple and black clouds. That drive was Christmas this year.
Now I am more alone than ever before, for as long as Judy was here at least for the holidays, and even though only partially here, as long as I could recreate for a few days or hours a little of the old magic Christmases at 139 Oxford Street and then at 14 Wright Street in Cambridge, I still had family. Better than that, for families are often not in perfect communion, and Judy and I for over thirty years have been able to rest on a foundation of wordless understanding. There is no one now with whom I can feel perfectly "at home" in just the way I did with Judy. She knew me, warts and all, and had long ago accepted me, warts and all, as I had her, for this was a true love.
Now it has become the past, a beneficent past. I have before me a delightful photograph of Judy and me, both smiling, on the dock at Greenings Island as we were about to embark for the shore after our last stay there with Anne Thorp. As Judy became old, we gave up on permanents; her hair is a smooth white cap like a boy's and makes me remember that her friends at Smith College used to call her Mowgli.
A Christmas strangely without tenderness. Or rather with only the tenderness of strangers, for there have been nourishing letters about A Reckoning and several also begging me to do another journal by the sea. "It is as if they are a special gift to help in the healing process in my life ... you have been a dear friend to me." Is there anyone, I sometimes wonder, who is not wounded and in the process of healing?
For me it is always poetry that comes as the healer and it was a moment of illumination when I came across this one by William Heyen in the December issue of Poetry
Each Christmas Eve, outside alone
in a field of the black sheen of snow,
I close my eyes: soon
that script appears again, roots
of the dead elms and chestnuts
The word was never lost,
my friends—as if we didn't know.
Friday, December 29th
The attack of flu on Christmas Eve has now turned into what my father would have called "the worst cold I ever had." His only infirmity until late in his life was the recurrence of head colds and, having forgotten the last one, he was each time convinced that the present one was the worst. It's amazing how quickly we forget pain after it is over, part no doubt of what seems an infinite capacity for renewal, those roots "underground, aglow" that Heyen speaks of in his poem.
Colette says "I believe that there are more urgent and honorable occupations than that incomparable waste of time we call suffering." She means, I deduce, indulgence, what the French have a phrase for, délectation morose, the tendency to love one's own pain and to wallow in it.
On the other hand the only way through pain, and I am thinking of mental anguish of which I have had rather too much this past year, is to go through it, to absorb, probe, understand exactly what it is and what it means. To close the door on pain is to miss the chance for growth, isn't it? Nothing that happens to us, even the most terrible shock, is unusable, and everything has somehow to be built into the fabric of the personality, just as food has to be built in.
For me the moral dilemma this past year has been how to make peace with the unacceptable—where compromise is part of wisdom and where, on the other hand, what my old friend Pauline Prince calls "your thirst for the absolute" seems the commanding necessity. In human relations at least there cannot be an absolute and to demand it is to be a wrecker as I have sometimes been. So the word that has run through these past months has been "accept, accept." How unregenerate I feel when I rebel, as I do most of the time, against accepting!
The light these December mornings has a rather special quality; austere, cold as it is, it has amplitude, a spacious austerity. I live with a wide semi-circle of horizon over and beyond the bare field. Snow would make it richer, but in my mood at present, I rest on the cold gray sea. And wait for the sun's rays to catch a tiny prism Karen Saum hung in my bedroom window, wait for that sudden flame, first crimson then sometimes a flash of blue, startlingly alive.CHAPTER 3
Saturday, December 30th
Yesterday I felt quite ill and afraid of going out into the icy air to walk Tamas, so what a marvelous happening when Karen Saum called from Kittery on her way home—she is hoping to do a documentary video tape on my life here and wanted to tell me about her interviews in Washington about raising the money for this. She stopped by, walked Tamas, got the mail for me while I made her a roast beef sandwich, and the whole color of life came back like a flush on a wan cheek. She had some amazing stories to tell about mis-directions in the bureaucracy that led her, by chance, to the wrong floor, to the wrong room, to an interested and helpful person. It makes me laugh to think how chancy life is, how anything may happen at any moment, just as her unexpected visit changed the day for me.
I have to admit that this is an acutely lonely Christmas week, and to realize as I think about it, that for most people Christmas is rather an ordeal; what we do not have looms a great deal larger than what we do have. The price of family life (what we all dream of at Christmas) is very high too, and full of self-discipline and pain. Even feeling rather ill, even having to say goodbye to Judy and our life together, even recovering from some rather severe blows in the last two months, I also have to admit that I love my life and that when I am alone here, the excitement inside me is very great and often fruitful, that the animals provide a certain sweet companionship I treasure, and that in essence it is not a wasteful life. It is a life that has meaning and thrust even on the worst of days.
I'm glad I decided to begin a journal again. It is a way of sorting myself out, that self that has been too dispersed for too long, partly because of the long weeks in November when I was away on poetry readings and book signings, flying off in a hundred directions, meeting old friends for a few concentrated hours, responding on too many levels. Since September the only writing I have done is answering letters; the responsive nerve wears out after months of this.
So here I am again, renewing acquaintance with my self.
"A Christmas without tenderness," I wrote two days ago. And since then I have been sent back by that word to Jean Dominique, to her poems, and to the exquisite tenderness, humor, and loving grace with which she managed to live and to go on loving to the very end. Mothers are very good at tenderness, and it is, no doubt, the mothering part of us that can give it, and the child part of us that longs to feel it in the atmosphere. For me it is associated with Europe, with fine distinctions between it and sentimentality, for one thing. Sentimentality is the debasing of feeling by making it less than itself; it is also trite, the overused easy way of diminishing feeling into indistinct mawkishness, and often the clothing of feeling in cheap clothes, cheap language. Whereas true tenderness makes us know we are cherished—simply in a droll pet name, for example. It often expresses itself through humor.
I am starved for tenderness and that is what is the matter with me and has been the matter with me for months.CHAPTER 4
Sunday, December 31st
Tenderness is the grace of the heart, as style is the grace of the mind, I decided when I couldn't sleep last night. Both have something to do with quality, the quality of feeling, the quality of reasoning.
The last day of what has been an uneasy and painful year for me. I look forward to dawn tomorrow and, as the days get longer, to begin to feel my way into renascence. It is not strange though it is mysterious that our "New Year" comes at the darkest time in the seasonal cycle. When there is personal darkness, when there is pain to be overcome, when we are forced to renew ourselves against all the odds, the psychic energy required simply to survive has tremendous force, as great as that of a bulb pushing up through icy ground in spring, so after the overcoming, there is extra energy, a flood of energy that can go into creation. This morning I began a short novel that has been haunting me for months, since last summer, in fact.CHAPTER 5
Monday, January 1st, 1979
I hear they have bitter cold and deep snow in England as well as a foot and a half in Chicago, while here on the coast it is as warm as April with a gentle rain falling. This year, this new year, it is fitting, for me at any rate, that it opens not with a clash of cymbals but with the gentle soundless rain. For as I look back on the disasters of 1978 I perceive that my fault has been to hope too much, to allow myself to be swept on an inner trajectory too swift and too sure of itself. Pauline Prince in a recent letter that helped me a lot used the image of Icarus when she spoke of my thirst for the absolute—I had somehow made up my mind that A Reckoning would do well enough to give me a year off. More, that it would be a real success, a critical success. That was not to be. And I had hoped to feel solid ground under my feet as far as is possible in a passionate human relationship. That, too, has proved to be an illusion, so I am back where I started in a rather complete isolation both as a professional writer and as a woman. And what I have been doing this past week—and what keeping a journal again is helping me to do—is to make my peace with solitude once more, and to come back to work without ambition, for the joy of it, Icarus who tried to reach the sun, falling back to the earth.
I'm on a great reading jag, too ... the Virginia Woolf biography by Phyllis Rose. In spite of the plethora of material about Woolf, including her own letters and journals, I find it illuminating. The E. M. Forster biography is there by my bed and there are several pots of honey waiting to be devoured of the same ilk, Spender's thoughts on the thirties for one. I am reading poetry again and playing records, especially these days Bruckner's Ninth Symphony, sent me by a monk sometime ago.
It is a time of turning back to roots, to the great influences, going back in order to draw strength from the deep sources. I count among them Ruth Pitter and just now opened to this poem from A Trophy Of Arms, (The Cresset Press, 1937).
The winter falls and the winds groan;
God shall remain though I be gone.
I loved my life, I desired joy;
This was a fault, this was a toy.
An immortality I had
When I was young; then was I glad;
In summertime I felt no rue
For what the certain frost would do.
Ah bitter beauty, thou art delusion,
Though true enough I know to be
The horror and the dire confusion
That a clear vision shows to me.
Enough; give me my proven mail,
My arms of faith that cannot fail:
I cleave the chaos and prevail.
Now on this first day of a New Year, I am in a quiet way blooming. And this year, no more wild hopes. Then maybe the Furies so present in the last two months will go elsewhere.CHAPTER 6
Tuesday, January 2nd
The weather is upside down. When I called Karen Buss on New Year's Day to tell her I thought a novella she had sent me was magnificent (and it is!) she told me that down there near Dallas they had spent the whole day clearing up the wreckage of their trees after an ice storm! In Chicago, deep snow, and here on the East Coast, what? Warm rain, soft wet ground! I walked Tamas and Bramble down to the rocks yesterday and stood for minutes watching the long, towering waves sweep in and break, exulting in all that thundering power let loose. Sometimes the unmeasured, the unlimited natural powers are what I need, what everyone needs. I am tired of measure, control, doing the right thing. A part of me would like to tear something apart and howl like a wolf!
Excerpted from Recovering by May Sarton. Copyright © 1980 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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May Sarton (1912-1995) was an acclaimed poet, novelist, and memoirist.
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