Monthly Archives: May 2020

Reading May Sarton in May

My reading this spring had been academic, for a biography I am researching, or compulsory, novels for reviews. But now with the semester over I had come not to a writing block but a reading block, that moment when your bookmark in the latest volume just refuses to move a page. I had to do something.

So I roamed my own library, looking for escapist adventure, a journey story of someone tramping across the Arctic or climbing mountains or traveling across the country in a covered wagon. I own plenty of such books. I thumbed through a few and even eyed my well-thumbed copy of John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley.”

Nothing satisfied. And then I spotted May Sarton.

I first read May Sarton when I was newly married and a new mother. I don’t remember which book I discovered first; it might have been one of the novels, “Kinds of Love” or “The Birth of a Grandfather.” But I think it was “Journal of a Solitude,” the first of the journal memoirs about the house she leased in York, Maine beginning in 1973. I was instantly captivated by the intimacy of her voice, her acknowledgement of her deepest anxieties (though she remained almost pathologically blind to her own faults), and crystalized vision. And though we had nothing in common – she was single, childless, a lesbian, Belgian by birth and still somewhat European in her thinking – she related her inner life with such exactitude it didn’t matter. That is precisely the reason why her fans were male, female, straight, gay, religious, agnostic, and from every corner of the globe. She spoke to the human heart.

So I picked up “At Seventy,” the journal written in 1982-83 and published two years later. Instantly I was cocooned back inside May’s seaside world in that rambling house, Wild Knoll, where she slept on the second floor listening to the sea and wrote from the third floor with a view of the same. Here again were her two pets and walking companions, the faithful dog Tamas and the bird-killer Bramble. A whole host of friends came and went – women she had loved, neighbors whom she depended on, fellow writers and artists who nourished her soul.

Familiar, too, were the wild swings of her moods, which were never her fault – the friendships ruined by her outburts and crying fits, the door slamming, the angry phone calls, the obsessions with women who often were neither gay nor interested. But it’s a package deal: If you want to step into May Sarton’s inner life, her musings about art and roses, you have to accept the tempestuous and irrational mind in which they lived.

It has become a cliché to say that we never read the same book twice, because we as readers have changed. Certainly at 60 I am not the same woman I was at 30, with a new baby and a husband who worked nights, leaving me a scarce hour in the evening to read.

For one thing, I know more about writers and writing than I did then. Although I had read Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” in my twenties, I had yet to read any of Woolf’s other books, biographies of her, her letters or her journals. Now, with a little more of that background, I was keenly interested in May’s tea times with Virginia, who never gave the newly published poet and novelist the plaudits she sought. How ironic that Woolf would write to Sarton in the way May herself years later reacted to such need: “I was glad to get your letter, in spite of the request you make in it; and in spite of the fact I have no time to answer it.” (Sarton was trying to get the Hogarth Press interested in a friend’s manuscript, actually, not her own.)

I find myself underlining and commenting on Sarton in the margins, a habit I had not developed at 30. I was mostly reading library books then that could not be annotated. Now I freely underline and comment, and as I ranged through “At Seventy” to “After the Stroke” and “Endgame,” I took up pencil in hand.

In “Endgame,” Sarton’s close look at a daffodil – “When you think about it, we almost never pay absolute attention” – reminded me of what Georgia O’Keeffe wrote: “Still – in a way – nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” At 30 I knew little more about O’Keeffe than she painted desert flowers. Now I could have a conversation with May about just this.

And when Sarton wrote about New Mexico, where she met her longtime companion Judy Matlack, the “gentle, magnificent” Sangre de Cristo mountains instantly brought to mind Edwin Way Teale, who evokes them so vividly in “Journey into Summer,” the second volume in his Pulitzer-winning “Seasons” series of journeys across America. So the more we read, the more writers talk to each other – even when there is no evidence they were acquainted.

Mostly, reading May, I am rooting for her still, although she died 25 years ago. I want her to feel some of the equanimity she had in “At Seventy,” when she “look[ed] forward with joy to the years ahead and especially to the surprises that any day may bring.” By the end of that book she has met another would-be lover and is writing poems again, which would be collected in “Letters from Maine” the same year “At Seventy” was published. This is from the title poem:

“Read between the lines./Then meet me in the silence if you can,/The long silence of winter when I shall/Make poems out of nothing, out of loss,/And at times hear your healing laughter.”

And this is from the last poem in the collection, “This Image is a Garden”:

“This self has lately come to solitude/Who long demanded love as source and prime./Now the wild garden and the ragged wood,/And the uncharted winter’s fallow time/Become the source and the true reservoir:/Look for my love in the autumn flower.”

The more miserable Sarton was, the more unrequited her love for the new woman (a fan, a stranger), the better her poetry. The lesson Sarton had to learn, over and over again, was to make her own inspiration, as Emerson said.

The next decade was a trial, both emotionally and physically. As her powers waned, Sarton resorted to speaking her journal into a tape recorder to be transcribed later. She was in pain virtually every day and though she pressed her doctors for answers – surely May Sarton was not a passive patient – they paid little attention as she lost 50 pounds and spent every day in agony. She died on July 16, 1995. The breast cancer that had first struck her in 1979 had metastasized.

When she agreed to be interviewed by Margot Peters for a biography, she did so only on the condition it be released after her death. Dipping back into the biography, published in 1997, I can see why. Peters clearly detested her. There’s plenty of evidence that May was a difficult, even manic person, that she used people, that she was self-absorbed. But Peters concludes that May mistook knowing great people for greatness, which seems unnecessarily harsh. In the last paragraph of the biography, she flat-out declares that May Sarton “will never be considered a great writer.”

Perhaps not. But she was a good one, and her poetry, novel and journals touched many people and encouraged them to think more deeply about the world. I think it would please her to know in this time of isolation that the world she wrote about so evocatively at Wild Knoll can still provide so much succor for readers, even the second time around.

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The folly of a summer plan

The morning after spring semester ends has become a ritual. I look ahead to the writing summer, that great blank dune of sand to be written on, the palimpsest of seasons past. Grades done, papers filed away, my office loses the trappings of teaching and slowly dons more creative feathers. 

My mind does the same: the space occupied by instruction plans, student papers, and institutional emails opens up, ready for a new kind of work.

This transition has a familiarity to it, so much so that if I look back on journals past I almost always spend an entry marking the occasion:

May 17, 2019: “First day of break. Here is where I will establish my summer routine.”

May 11, 2018: “Another semester in the books. Whew. Celebrating with a cookie and an iced tea at Dave’s.” Well, that won’t be happening this year – at least not in person.

May 12, 2017: “At Bagelz treating myself to a sandwich and a (very strong) iced tea. Trying to get myself into a mediative state of mind.” Is there a pattern here?
May 17, 2016: “So the writing summer begins! Yahoo.”

After the obligatory celebration, I usually get down to business. What do I hope to accomplish? What can I get done in a span of time that is, after all, only a few months?

2019: “I would feel more purposeful if I had a novel to immerse myself in. I haven’t quite figured out where to get back into Moonshine Swamp. I’m feeling somewhat immobilized by it.” Although I did work on that novel, I spent most of the summer on a freelance history project.

2018: “Trying to get in touch with Waller Lewis and his kinds of happiness. Maybe we should start with his kinds of unhappiness.” Another novel, started in 2013, that has yet to go anywhere. Most of my summer energy went toward an ultimately successful hunt for an agent.

2017: “… I will be in my office every day without fail. New habits will be formed. My subconscious will have its party.” I was rewriting my historical novel about three sisters.

2016: “Looking at my mother’s poem, ‘Surf Off Weekapaug,’ I wonder what poem I would write under that title. … Is that the title of my book? Surf Off Weekapaug. Clouds Off LeConte. Lightning Off Florida. I also like that line in it – ‘the troubled story’ – ‘we stare upon the troubled story’ – everything I write has been a troubled story.” I was deep into the Sisters book.

2015: “Still, despite the prologue, wondering where to begin with Louise. Should she be deeper into the journey at the start? Do I need a scene earlier on?” It would take four years to figure out the beginning of this book, and by then “Louise” would be “Meredith.”

To be fair, there has to be a reckoning in August. What did I actually do? Was I feeling positive about the gleanings of summer, or in despair of all the work left undone?
Aug. 21, 2019: “Well, I did some revisions on Lenore’s C. 6. I’m not sure if it’s working, but I think it’s a little better, and just the act of thinking about the book and making a few changes is gratifying.” After the bitter news from my agent that her boss thought the novel had serious voice problems, I was grappling with a  solution. But I also had a new project: “Caroline Hazard remains vividly, almost obsessively, on my mind.” I had been reading about the Wellesley president all summer in hopes of writing a biography.

Aug. 28, 2018: “The memoir will be next. And (as I take a little hiatus from thinking about it) I know how much effort it will take. This will be deeper writing – more elegant – writing for the long haul. I have to throw everything I have at it. This is for Mary Jane. For Andi, for my parents. This has to be good, as good as I can make it. This is sacred writing. There’s always another novel – somehow I feel that way – but there will only be another shot at this, and it must soar.”  After a summer researching my sister’s death in an accident at 19, I felt burdened by grief and my own expectations. I put the documents – police report, death certificate, news clippings – into a box and did not look at them again.

Aug. 22, 2017: “I have a travel piece in the Journal, a review coming out in the Times, but there’s no money in this. The compensation does not – ha! – compensate! – for the mental energy and time. Which must be counted as time away from my other writing.”

Aug. 24, 2016: “I think the book is done. Oh, it will need rewriting. But it’s solid in its form … I should feel emotional, but somehow I don’t.” The Sisters book. Yes, it needed much rewriting.

Aug. 28, 2015: “I haven’t written [in the journal] in quite some time because I’ve been working on the novel.” The Sisters book.

So, there is no real reckoning. Because we are always in the writing moment, looking ahead. There is no crossing-off of tasks the way I keep track of freelance work or household chores. And my expectations and focus continually changes. Emerson said, “The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks.” How true that is. In the last five years I did finish the Sisters book (which has gone nowhere), and 15 chapters of Moonshine Swamp. I have a binder full of research on Caroline Hazard. But that box of family tragedy still sits in the hall closet. Waller Lewis floats around in my head from time to time, seeking purchase in a plot that doesn’t want to come. The Sisters book needs yet another point-of-view correction.

There is no beginning or end. There is just the work. So the summer begins.

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Travels of the Mind

Two contrary news items struck me yesterday. Both speak to how the creative person can cope in this time of isolation.

The New York Times carried a story about three elderly people who are thriving in this forced quarantine. One of them was the literary agent Sterling Lord, a legend in the publishing business. Lord is 99 years old, and in the midst of starting a new agency. How’s that for optimism? One of his clients is centenarian Lawrence Ferlinghetti, equally legendary beat poet and founder of City Lights bookstore in San Francisco.

The reporter also interviewed Janet Wasserman, 85, a historian who is researching a Dutch forger who inspired the titular character in Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” And she’s doing it all online.

Lord, Wasserman, and theater producer Gordon Rogoff, 88 – who’s spending his time catching up on Jane Austen – all demonstrate that for some people, internal engagement is more important than external motion. Whether using online archives, video conferencing or the low-tech hardcover book, they demonstrate that isolation is, well, all in the mind.

Which brings me to the second tidbit. On Instragram I scrolled across a post from country singer/songwriter Miranda Lambert, who just purchased a retro RV and plans to travel in it with her husband – seeing the country in a way that rushing down an interstate in a tour bus does not afford.

My first thought was, “Imagine the contribution she’s going to make to the American songbook.” Fans may love her voice, which can go from soft crooner to edgy rocker in a beat, but Lambert also is a talented songwriter. My favorite is “Automatic,” that paeon to the past that brings in everything from driving stick to using a Rand McNally road atlas in assessing just how far we haven’t come.

It may seem contrary, these two reactions to the coronavirus lockdown. On the one hand, we have an aging writer, agent, and theater producer remaining engaged from the confines of their homes. Then we have Lambert, who can afford to travel in retro high style while maintaining her social distancing. 

I think, for example, of Emerson’s metaphor of travel in “Self-Reliance.” In this classic essay he writes, “Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home.” If that isn’t a motto for the Lost Year of the Pandemic, I don’t know what is. 

But Emerson equates the traveling mind as a loss of the self, of imitation. I think the mind can travel in positive ways; it can remain in motion while all else stagnates around it. 

Stagnation and motion are key here. To stagnate is from the Latin root, stagnum, “a piece of standing water.” Consider what happens to water that doesn’t circulate. Robbed of oxygen, it grows putrefied, full of algae and other stinky growths. We all know about internal putrefaction. Without light or air, our thoughts can grow repetitive, paranoid, and dark. 

We need the opposite of stagnation, which is flow. Flow equals motion. Our thoughts, like rippling water, need to move; whether cascading or trickling, they must circulate if we are to remain engaged and creative. 

To change the metaphor, think of blood circulation. Without it, we would die; absent metaphoric circulation, our thoughts congeal and our best ideas perish.

And so I examine why I was so drawn to these two contrary coronavirus responses. Is it possible to practice both Sterling Lord’s active quarantined mind – traveling metaphorically – while longing for Miranda Lambert’s literal journey into America? I think it is.

Emerson journeyed abroad after his first wife Ellen’s death, and although he denigrated the old country idols, that trip in 1832-33 to Italy, France, England and Scotland energized him. In the span of a few days, he met the poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the essayist Thomas Carlyle, who would become a lifelong correspondent and friend. The trip crystallized his ideas about the need for a new American intellectual identity.

Thus in “Self-Reliance” he distinguishes between travel “for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence,” contrasted with the philistine who “travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry,” a traveler who thus “carries ruins to ruins.” 

I may be imposing my own ideas on a country singer’s journey, but I do not see Miranda Lambert traveling simply for amusement. Her mind is too finely tuned to the world for that. Like John Steinbeck or Henry Miller, she will feel the need to report back on what she sees and hears. 

At home in my office, I embrace these contradictions. My mind continues to circulate. Like Wasserman, I’ve found the internet a fruitful source of research for my biography of Wellesley President Caroline Hazard. Like Rogoff, my head is often in a book. And like Lord, I’ve found my day job of teaching can be accomplished from home. 

But like Lambert, I yearn for the inspiration of literal motion too. My creativity bulletin board this month illustrates this longing. Past destinations, from Florida to Yosemite, tease with their memories, while future ones beckon: New Mexico and Mount Rushmore, Barcelona and Edinburgh. For now, I can only dream, but dreams are the travel agent of the mind.

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