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.
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.