I hardly ever sit still without being haunted by the “undone.” I often feel exhausted, but it isn’t my work that tires (work is 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.
No — I didn’t write that, although those words spoke to me. I copied them into a notebook I kept 25-30 years ago and filled with inspiring quotations about writing, or life.
The woman (you guessed it was a woman, right?) who wrote those words was poet, novelist and memoirist May Sarton (1912-1995) in her Journal of a Solitude (1973).
For those of you who don’t know Sarton and her work: She was born in Belgium, and immigrated with her family to the United States in 1914, when German troops invaded Belgium during World War I. Her father was a science historian who worked at Harvard; her mother was an artist. May studied acting and writing, and her first collection of poetry was published in 1937.
Her poetry and novels and memoirs all circle around (and often strike deep at the heart of) love. Love of friends, love of country, love of nature, and lost loves. In Sarton’s case, she and her lovers were lesbian. But her books have universal appeal. I loved her novels, but especially treasured her memoirs, which she wrote after she moved to York, Maine. She wrote of being alone, of growing old, of publishing chores as well as joys, and of gardening and nature, which restored her.
It is never a waste of time to be outdoors, and never a waste of time to lie down and rest even for a couple of hours. It is then that images float up and then that I plan my work. But it is a waste of time to see people who have only a social surface to show.
Sarton’s words spoke to me at a time in my life when I felt depressed and overwhelmed by family and corporate obligations, and was struggling to write fiction. I dreamed of moving to Maine, and having hours to write. I’d been a strategic planner for a corporation; now I was planning my future, making seemingly endless lists of what I needed to do, financially, in my home, emotionally, to make the move I desperately needed. To prepare my daughters to be independent. To care for my mother, who I knew would come with me. To eventually re-learn living alone, which I hadn’t done since my twenties.
Loving someone means helping them to be more themselves, which can be different from being what you’d like them to be, although often they turn out the same.
Through her memoirs I saw May Sarton struggling with the physical world. Chipmunks dug up her daffodil bulbs; her back ached when she worked in the garden she loved; reading to audiences across the country exhausted her. I saw her balancing her grief when her favorite cat killed one of the birds in her yard that had delighted her. I felt her tears as she remembered past relationships that, she admitted, she had not handled well, and therefore lost. I wondered with her who would drive her to the hospital, if she should become ill. I rejoiced with her at summer days, and envied her habit of drinking champagne every afternoon.
Because if not now, then when?
May Sarton had a stroke in 1990, and required a nurse. She could no longer garden, or walk with her cherished dog to the sea. But she still loved the coast of Maine, and her home, and, when she could, she continued to write. She dictated her final journals. She still drank champagne in the afternoon.
She died of breast cancer in 1995, three years before I moved full-time to Maine.
Shortly after I settled my mother and I into my family’s home near the Sheepscot River, I read in a local newspaper that the content of Sarton’s home (except for her literary work, which was deeded to a library) was being auctioned. My mother was ill; I couldn’t attend. But I smiled as I read a listing of what she had left, and saw it included an untouched case of champagne.
She never deprived herself of what brought her joy. She had a life well-lived. An example to me, and I believe, to all of us.
Oh Lea! Thank you for remembering May and for sharing your appreciation of her! I have loved her body of work for thae largest segment of my life…(and I too moved to Maine roughly the same year you did, and so wanted to attend that auction..tho I could not.)
Thanks for reminding me of May Sarton. Maybe it is time to reread some of her work.
Thank you, Lea. I haven’t read her for years and I loved the gems you pulled from her work. Those pieces were exactly what I needed to hear this morning. Thank you.
Wow, Lea. I’m in the middle of another harried morning and was going to give the post just a quick glance before getting back to it later and you made me stop and read. This was a very moving post, beautifully written. I have never read Sarton but will have to now. This post really spoke to me. Thank you.
Now back to preparing for two trials….
Thank you Lea and May, both, for understanding and encouragement. Gram’s right. Time for a bit of re-reading.
Love that there are other fans of May Sarton’s reading this blog! Thanks for sharing.
Oh boy, Lea. I echo what others have said. We really needed this today. As I was reading three newspapers this morning, and despairing as I did, I decided that today was the day I was going to read things about writing, about nature, about anything but politics. I started your blog and voila! There it was. A reminder that this is what we need to be reading right now as snow covers the windows.
Great post. I am inspired.
One of May’s journals is sitting on my shelf waiting for me to allow myself the pleasure of reading it. What was I waiting for? Maybe a little reminder in your lovely post about how inspirational she can be.
Lovely, Lea. Thanks for giving me pause this morning . . .
I’m bookmarking this blog post to reread several more times, Lea–I love it! I too loved May Sarton’s memoirs (but then her novels felt so autobiographical too). I wanted to suck in her wisdom on how to lead a good life and how to be a good writer (are those two “how to’s” actually distinct?). Her writing was a gift. This column is a gift. Thank you for reminding me of an “old friend” whom I must revisit.
What a beautiful remembrance. I haven’t read May Sarton, but will have to fix that soon, perhaps when I return to Maine in the spring. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to read more for pleasure, less for “work.” Adding her to my list.
Lea: I am going to save this beautiful, inspirational post. May Sarton spoke out to me as I read this, and you shared many things, as well. Thank you for posting this.
This is a beautiful post about a remarkable woman who is indeed an inspiration. Thank you!
I’m thrilled by so many comments … and, those of you who have said you’ll now read Sarton — I’m so glad! She wasn’t a perfect person … but who is? She was honest about her mistakes and regrets, but kept going. And she was equally honest about her loves and joys and what she wanted to accomplish. Definitely worth reading!
Thank you for this – lovely! One of my favorites by Sarton is “The Fur Person” – a relatively short and touching “must read” for anyone who loves cats. Note to self: buy more champagne.
Love The Fur Person, Julie! So glad you reminded me!
Thank you for this – lovely. One of my favorite Sarton books is “The Fur Person” – a relatively short and touching “must read” for anyone who loves cats. Note to self: buy more champagne.
I was thinking of May Sarton’s journals recently while going through a rough patch. I read them years ago…devoured them, really, and greatly admired the determination and fortitude she embodied. You gave me the push I needed this morning to read them again. Thank you.
You so thoughtfully highlight the enduring influence the written word can have on others. I have not read a lot of Sarton’s work but you have motivated me to do so. Thank you.