Book: Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Publication date: 1973
Source: Print copy from library
Summary: May Sarton expected, in the late summer of 1970, a year of solitude to write her poems and explore the thoughts that arise in isolation through a journal. A previously published diary, Plant Dreaming Deep, made her comfortable with the form. Plant Dreaming Deep, however, felt a bit false to her. She’d shared little of the rockier, sharper parts of her personality and how they broke the peace in her quiet home life in a village in New Hampshire.
From the first entry:
I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my “real” life again at last. That is what is strange — that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone here and “the house and I resume old conversations.” (September 15)
One purpose for her journal was to gain a little structure in her day.
I am in a limbo that needs to be patterned from within. People who have regular jobs can have no idea of just this problem of ordering a day that has no pattern imposed on it from without….In the mornings steady work at this journal, then copying and revising at least one poem for the book I plan for the spring of seventy-two to celebrate my sixtieth birthday. If there is a motivation here, it is always self-ordering, self-exploratory, a perpetual keeping gear in order for that never-ending journey. (November 10)
To a large degree, it worked for her:
Today I feel centered and time is a friend instead of the old enemy. It was zero this morning. I have a fire burning in my study, yellow roses and mimosa on my desk. There is an atmosphere of festival, of release, in the house. We are one, the house and I, and I am happy to be alone–time to think, time to be. This kind of open-ended time is the only luxury that really counts and I feel stupendously rich to have it. And for the moment I have a sense of fulfillment both about my life and about my work that I have rarely experienced until this year, or perhaps until these last weeks. (January 8)
Thoughts: I started reading Journal of a Solitude on the day that St. Louis County imposed greater restrictions due to the strain on our hospitals, closing indoor dining. The new safer-at-home rules didn’t change how I’ve been doing things since March, but it still felt like the right day to start this book.
Under the circumstances, it was natural to compare Sarton’s solitude with my isolation.
I don’t live alone — a big leap out of aloneness, compared to May Sarton.
On the other hand, during her year of solitude, Sarton traveled, went to town regularly, visited with neighbors, and received house guests. None of those activities are on my current list of possibilities.
The political and social times are other areas that are ripe for comparison when reading a book that was written fifty years ago. Here, I was mostly struck by how much things are the same. A visit to Dallas opened still-fresh wounds over the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, but the observations about “the race question” felt current. The observations of Richard Nixon by Sarton, a self-described New England liberal, aren’t that different from liberal criticisms of Republicans today.
May Sarton was 58 when she started this journal, the same age that I am now. Fortunately, this aspect of her experience is in complete sync with mine:
I am proud of being fifty-eight, and still alive and kicking, in love, more creative, balanced, and potent than I have ever been. (January 7)
Appeal: This book is short and quickly read, worth it for the beauty of the prose and the description of the natural year.
A quote about Christmas is both illustrative and appropriate for today:
This December I have been more aware than ever before of the meaning of a festival of light coming as it does when the days are so short, and we live in darkness for the greater part of the afternoon. Candlelight, tree lights–ours, tiny ones–are reflected in all the windows from four o’clock on. (January 2)
Reading this book opened my mind to a suggestion made by two writers I admire. Elizabeth Gilbert (Big Magic, The Signature of All Things, Committed, and Eat, Pray, Love) and Karen Karbo (How to Hepburn, Julia Child Rules, The Gospel According to Coco Chanel, How Georgia Became O’Keeffe) both recommended Wintering by Katherine May as a book for the times we’re in. I started the audiobook yesterday and I think it’s going to be more what I want.
My personality is more like Katherine May’s than May Sarton’s — more given to melancholy than tempest.
Also, I live in the modern age. Here’s a quiet day for May Sarton:
Today, Armistice Day, there is no mail. It makes a huge emptiness around me, and I am going to try to use it well, to write poem. (November 11)
In the part of the audiobook that I listened to this morning, Katherine May fretted about whether she was doing enough at work when colleagues were still sending emails after midnight. For me to achieve the sort of quiet day that I want for creativity, I need to log off email and Facebook — the mailbox is way down the list of possible distractions.
Have you read this book? What did you think?