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Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year

Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year

by May Sarton


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In this affirmative journal, May Sarton describes both hardships and joys in the daily round of her life in old age—physical struggles counterbalanced by the satisfactions of friendship, nature, critical recognition, and creative spark.

Sarton writes perceptively of how age affects her: the way small things take longer and tire more, what it feels like to endure pain and to be afraid. Other days her energy returns, her spirits lift, and projects abound. Readers both new and old will cherish this latest dispatch from her ongoing journey.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393313178
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 07/17/1995
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

May Sarton (1912-1995) was an acclaimed poet, novelist, and memoirist.

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A Journal of the Eightieth Year

By May Sarton


Copyright © 1993 May Sarton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-1795-4


Sunday, May 5, 1991

It is the second day of my eightieth year. The journal of my seventy-ninth year will come out for my eightieth birthday, but I want to go on for a while longer discovering what is really happening to me by keeping a journal.

The great good news is that I continue to have less pain and therefore have all kinds of hopes and plans and even dream of getting back once more to England. Even if that is only a dream I did not have dreams like that during the time of the pain which was for nearly a year. One good augury for this eightieth year: one of the florists who brought flowers for my birthday came rather late — I think it was after five — and said she had seen an enormous turtle, tortoise, crossing the road. I rejoiced because this turtle was here long before I came. She is thought to be one hundred years old. Every year about this time she crosses the place to find, I presume, a nest for her eggs. We never see her during the rest of the year.

Yesterday was a day that brought me friends whom I really think of as family, who come every year, Anne Woodson and Barbara Barton. This year it was the day after my birthday, on purpose, because I knew that there would be a great deal happening on the actual day. I needed what solitude I could get if only to decide where all the flowers should go and in some cases to arrange them. By the end of the day seventeen deliveries of flowers had been made to this house — it does seem incredible — from three different florists. I must say that Forster's is by far the most imaginative. The thing I loved most, because there were lots of plants as well as flowers, is a moth orchid Martha Wheelock sent me from Hollywood. Janice brought me a videotape of Martha's wonderful Ishtar film of me, World of Light: A Portrait of May Sarton, which, until now, has been available only as a sixteen-millimeter movie. Nobody could see it unless they had a projector, screen, and all that. So this is a treat. It was such a perfect day, I think it may have been the best birthday I have ever had.

Anne and Barbara were out in the garden talking to Diane, the gardener, who was planting fifteen lilies for me — against the terrace wall and some against the fence. Anne and Barbara came early — such a wonderful thing — I was rather tired by then because I had been walking around, setting the table, and all that. I had been on my feet for more than three hours, which proves that I am getting better. Anyway they brought, as they always do — and oh, how I love these traditions! — a hanging fuchsia. It hangs over the border that I see from my chaise longue, that little center of life.

The whole luncheon was homemade because Janice actually made the lobster rolls. They were the most delicious I have ever had. Of course lobster is not on my diet. It is naughty but apparently it has done me no harm. Edythe had brought a superb angel cake with lemon frosting. It was so close it could be cut with a knife. Nancy brought the chocolate sauce and it turned out to be from a recipe of her mother's. All this was joyful and merry. I had a little glass of champagne — again, against the rules — but it had an enormous effect. I have not had any alcohol for a month so I became very vocal — voluble is more the word — and began to talk about Brad Daziel's preface to the book he edited, Sarton Selected.

Brad wrote this preface originally for something else — for Connie Hunting — and it was to deal with the letters I get. He never got down to what I wanted so the preface is beautiful but it is not what I wanted. I would like to say here, as I did after half a glass of champagne yesterday, what I did want. I did not want letters, and there are many of them, that talk about how wonderful my work is and praise it — they are so welcome — I did not want letters from famous people. And that, I had told Brad, is not the point either. What is the point? The point for me was the letters that say "You have changed my life," or "You helped my mother die," "You have made my father able to read again because he got so interested, and he had stopped reading." "My little son said" — this is going back to praising so I should not even quote it but I cannot resist — "my little son, nine years old, said, 'It's the best book I've ever read.'" That was The Fur Person.

These letters are in a folder called "Total Work." They very often tell a life story. It is partly the people who have come to accept their sexual differences, been able to accept that it is not a sin to love a woman, that like any love, it can be good love or bad. Like any marriage it can be a good marriage or bad. I have given courage to some of them and to many people — this is more dubious — the ambition to write. Very often they are middle-aged and have neither any idea of what good writing is nor the power to criticize their own writing. That is sad.

After the guests had left it was still early, because Anne and Barbara got here at eleven, so I had a wonderful rest. They did all the clearing up before they left. Then I had the enormous joy of sauntering around the garden, looking at the plants that were coming up. I had thought the garden was a disaster area but found that a great deal had come up. There have been some losses. Every year the tree peonies suffer a little more, except for one tall, thin one protected by juniper bushes. It is going to have two or three flowers this year. They are white — the white, God-like tree peonies. It looks as if the columbine has more or less gone. I may find some at a nursery where Nancy and I are going to buy perennials on Tuesday. It is her birthday present to me. I can't wait.

Also on that afternoon — and this was a celebration of my return to being myself — I put in four little Johnny-jump-ups that had been waiting for help. I have not been able to garden for a year, so this was a triumphant moment.

Monday, May 6

Although it is now gray, and rain is coming, the day began beautifully early this morning. I have been having rather tiring mornings because they begin at three A.M. when the cat demands to go out. Today he jumped on my stomach — it hurt — before three, but I let him out. Then I came back and rested for a while. Then I let him in at six and got the tray ready for Joan, one of my helpers, who comes today. There seem to be endless things to do.

I have tuberous begonias growing under a light I bought, right next to me here in the little library, but I have to keep remembering to turn the light on and off and to water them. It becomes another chore. Of course on the weekend there was nobody here so I had to do everything, make my bed, put out the bird feeder. But the great news is that I do have more strength. I was able to take out all the dead climbing hydrangea flowers that were stuck in among the new growth. That is right beside the side door which everybody uses to come in and out of this house. All through that climbing hydrangea, which is, I guess, a good twenty feet high now, there is a beautiful small red clematis. The danger is when you pull out dead dry stuff you might break one of those delicate stems of the clematis. I think I did all right.

The big event of the day was the arrival of Tony and his wife and his little granddaughter. They came to look at the daffodils and to see me here which they have never done. We have tried a couple of times but, for one reason or another, it has not worked. I inscribed a book for Tony which said: "To Tony, whom I think of as my brother at the P.O." He is the most cheerful, helpful man imaginable. He knows everybody by name; he knows what their problems are. He has been tremendously supportive of me during my illness. He said a very nice thing; he said, "All the people who work for you are so nice and so polite."

Sometimes when I have to send someone to get the mail, they don't have the key to my box and have to ask for it. Tony is always welcoming. We talked quite a lot about it; he explained to me that he realized that the post office has to welcome its clientele because otherwise it would not have a clientele. People would drop off. Everybody loves Tony. Everybody feels the post office is a friendly place. That's a real triumph. He should get a prize from Uncle Sam!

I did not know that he and his wife had adopted their granddaughter, Kirsten Lynn Glidden, two and a half years old and a charming child, with beautiful manners and a mischievous look. She was the sort of little girl whom one immediately wants to spoil. I let her play with the puppet rabbit from F.A.O. Schwarz and she loved it. I could tell she was reluctant to leave it. But the daffodils were the lure and when Tony, his wife, and Kirsten left, they picked bunches of them. It was lovely to have them here. I hope they will come back and that I may see that little girl grow up.

Tomorrow Nancy and I are going to get the plants. The whole season is beginning. The miniature roses must go in but this morning with the gray sky the temperature cannot be over fifty. I worry about the fuchsia but it seems to be thriving. It can take a lot of cool. Of course they grow wild in Ireland where it can be quite cool at night, especially in the winter.

The daffodils are splendiferous this year. I don't know why I thought they were not going to be. Perhaps it was because it has been a slow spring. Now it is paradise and I want to say, "Stay! Don't go so soon!" So perhaps it is a good thing that it is cold. Even the rain will be welcome.

Tuesday, May 7

A wild, miserable wind and rain storm yesterday, so strong that when I went out to get the feeder I was afraid I would not be able to open the door so I could get back in — a frightening moment. And misery to see the daffodils beaten down, every thing at its height. However, we did need the rain.

Yesterday was a day of triumph and great joy because Connie Hunting sent me the essay that she used in her talk on my poetry at the celebration of my seventy-ninth birthday at Westbrook College on May second. It was so moving to me to see someone get at the center of what my poetry is all about. It has been neglected for many years. She starts out by quoting part of a poem of mine: "These are not hours of fire but years of praise, / The glass full to the brim, completely full, / But held in balance so no drop can spill." And she says:

The primary source of May Sarton's poetic power is the lyric impulse. Deep, authentic, never-failing, it has continued for sixty years to feed the river of her poetry, which is, above all, a poetry of praise.

The lyric impulse arises not from ordinary, everyday emotions, which play like rainbows over the surface of the pool of being, but from the wellspring of pure, or essential, emotion which exists in the most profound depths of our spirit. It is the vibration of these depths that makes for lyric poetry and the musicality of its expression. Orpheus's lyre is implicit in the poetry named for it.

I rested on this as on the arrival after a long journey, or like somebody who has completed a marathon and is being greeted at the end. It brought back immediately Rilke and his marvelous poem about the poet and what the poet is all about. In the version I have the translation is by Leishman. It is not the best translation, but I do not have the original so I shall make this do:

    Oh, tell us, poet, what you do?
      — I praise.
    But those dark, deadly, devastating ways,
    how do you bear them, suffer them?
      — I praise.
    And then the Nameless, beyond guess or gaze,
    how can you call it, conjure it?
      — I praise.
    And whence your right, in every kind of maze,
    in every mask, to remain true?
      — I praise.
    And that the mildest and the wildest ways
    know you like star and storm?
      — Because I praise.

I used to read that poem often when I was reading at colleges, but I have not gone back to it for some time.

Thursday, May 9

Again a magnificent day. I hope Nancy and I can put in the lobelias along the little terrace border. I put in eight miniature roses — Edythe's yearly present for my birthday, and so welcome — and they are also on the inside border of the terrace. I did it quietly, although it had been a driven day for various reasons and I wondered whether I had the energy. I said to myself maybe put two of them in, but as soon as I got the tools and water together and had on my work clothes and went out there and lay down on the ground — that is the only way I can plant now because I cannot stoop — suddenly time opened up and I was completely at peace and happy.

It was not all a bad day because Connie Lloyd, Judy's sister, now eighty-nine, Judy's nephew, Tim Warren, and his wife, Phyllis, those three, who are like family, came to say hello. They wanted to tell me about the Westbrook occasion which they had greatly enjoyed. I wanted to show them the video made in Gainesville, Creativity in the Upward Years. We did laugh, Connie and I, and all of us, about the "upward years."

Before that I knew that I would have to get some advice from an electrician so Susan can experiment with the juicer that Dr. Khanjani has been so anxious that I have. I am not eager to use it and I think Susan will have to run it when she is here for the summer. But I thought I'd better get it ready so I called Bruce Woods. He is one of the kindest, dearest of the men who work around here. Jim Cote, who took care of the storm windows, was the other one whom I loved so much, but I think whoever does it now is just as friendly.

Bruce came at ten, much earlier than he had promised. The Warrens and Connie were coming at eleven. I thought I had an hour to do a thousand things; everything has piled up. I write eight or nine thank-you notes a day, but that is only a little bit of what has to be done. I am also packing books to send to friends. Nancy offered to do this but she is finishing the transcription of the dictated journal, which is more important. I must do the preface soon and choose the photographs.

Everything drives me a little too hard these days. In a funny way what drives me is the spring, the fleeting spring. Because of the enormous wind and rain we have had, a lot of the daffodils have blown down, though not as many as I had feared. But the truth is that their peak is past. We shall have them for another week and then they will be gone. It seems quite unbearable but that is what spring is — the letting go. The waiting and waiting and waiting, and then the letting go.

I wanted to go back to Wednesday because I did not do the journal. I was too busy and went to Dr. Khanjani as well. It began with a terrible thunderous heartbeat when I heard the bell of the rubbish-collecting truck at seven. It used to come at seven-thirty but I missed the announcement that it would be at seven from now on. So I dashed out of bed, threw on a wrapper, and ran out. Fortunately the man in the truck was still waiting. He had his name, Dave, on his shirt, so I thanked him warmly. He said, "I'll bring it out for you," and I showed him how to lift the garage door. He has offered to get the rubbish there so we won't have to drag it out. This is an event which soon will include the recycling bin.

After that, the day jogged along too fast. I went to Dr. Khanjani and that always makes for hurry, but I thought about the kindness of Dave and the kindness of Bruce and realized that York is a very munificent town judging by the people who work here: the carpenters, the rubbish collectors. How kind they are! And also the UPS people, who offer to place something heavy for me in a different room if that is what I want, and do it so cheerfully.

Now I must have a bath, I must get dressed, and I must make my bed because Eleanor, who cleans for me, comes today. Eleanor's day and the weekend are the times I have to make my bed. It is costly in energy.


Excerpted from Encore by May Sarton. Copyright © 1993 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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