Friday, June 30, 2017

May Sarton: Inspirational Memoirs and The Woman Alone

Solitude in all its myriad forms has brought May Sarton's journals into what one critic calls "the literary." Indeed, due to her strong voice and lyrical takeaways about a writer’s life, her journals offer keen insight into the art of memoir.

Since my work-in-progress memoir is about the woman aloneone who has dedicated herself to writing and realizes that in many ways her solitude fosters happiness and creativity I find myself fascinated with May Sarton’s journey of deconstructing on a day-to-day basis life’s moments large and small … weeding the garden and planting tulip bulbs ... her sixty-seventh birthday, "A perfect, still day, sunshine for a change, and an unutterably blue, pale Fra Angelico sea."

In Recovering: A Journal we're once again brought into the life of the woman alone. Last summer I wrote this blog post about Sarton's Journal of a Solitude which impressed me for its unflinching honesty and vulnerability.


I grew up in a bucolic little Pennsylvania suburb called Strafford where summer days and solitary evenings encouraged me to write in bits and pieces, here and there ... a young girl’s longings for a life of adventure and, of course, writing. My entire world waited, ready to unfold, yet I was terribly shy and unsure of my looks. Writing helped me come out of my shell and I could never envision then that someday I might learn that writing is a life force all its own, as well as a survival tool. This, of course, is Sarton’s message to her readers.

Recovering takes place in the year when Sarton turns sixty-seven. Her laments about having breast cancer and feeling like an old lady made me contemplate my own mortality since this is the birthday I soon celebrate. So, if there is one downside to this book, it is the author’s seeming fixation on aging and the precariousness of life. That said, while many memoirs tend to be “feel good” exercises, Sarton’s genius lies in her willingness to plumb the depths of her own psyche … including her depressive tendencies and how it affects relationships and writing.

As she ages, friends and writing colleagues offer companionship, along with her beloved Sheltie, Tamas. She expresses her appreciation for the grace of those moments in a world in turmoil and the anxiety of living alone. Although written almost forty years ago, Recovering is prescient and timely.

Sarton writes:
"I have always believed that it is quite useless and in a way unsanctified to wish to probe the final mystery until we arrive there. I am disturbed and do not really like the idea of the psychic who believes he or she can reach the dead and communicate with them. I feel we have to live every moment, here and now, to the full and leave it to God as to where we are bound at the very end. If there is nothing, then all the more reason to make something as beautiful as possible out of each moment, to live it to the full."

I am now reading her The House by the Sea journal. Like a good friend, Sarton greets me at the end of the day when I go upstairs to read. Her wit, her willingness to explore life’s treasures and her deep observations offer solace and refuge. Like her, my dreams of late have been filled with all the people I have known and loved and I feel as if my life is passing before me. Perhaps, that is due to the melancholy of another birthday or the languor of summer. One thing I do know is that with Lily by my side, my own home, complete with small garden, I may not be living the romantic seaside life in Maine that so influenced Sarton, but I am still writing, thanks in part to her inspirational work.

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