Monday, May 9, 2016

Who is May Sarton? and Why Do I Love Journal of a Solitude?

Journal of a Solitude
May Sarton
Published 1973

I envy your solitude with all my heart, 
and your courage to live as you must.

I am partial to reading journals by real people, especially when solitude is a central theme.  May Sarton's Journal of a Solitude reminded me of a female version of Henry David Thoreau's Walden, one of my favorites.   

Being an introvert who loves nature and prefers solitude, this journal resonated with me wholeheartedly.  I still do not know very much about May Sarton, except that she was an American/Belgium author and poet (none of her works I had heard of); but I am extremely grateful that I had an opportunity to read this.

"Reading her mail"

The journal covered one year, while Ms. Sarton lived alone in Nelson, New Hampshire, 1972-73.  It was like an experiment, though I do not believe she referred to it as so.  She wrote for the purpose of finding out what she thinks and where she stands.  She wrote very candidly about:

her depression and anxiety; 
her love of nature, her garden, birds and other animals; 
struggles for artists, poets, and authors; 
opinions on culture and love; 
defense of maturity; 
and challenges for women in marriage and motherhood.  

Here are just a few ideas from her journal:

On Solitude

Sarton said she lived alone because she is an impossible person to get along with and called herself "an ornery character."

She also believed that the way one handled "absolute aloneness is the way in which one grows up."  It is "the great psychic journey of everyman."  She chose solitude, but it was not without a great emotional price.

One idea that encouraged her self-made solitary confinement were these questions she asked of herself:
'What if I were not alone?  What if I had ten children to get off to school every morning and a massive wash to do before they got home?  What if two of them were in bed with flu, cross and at a loose end?'  That is enough to send me back to solitude as if it were - as it truly is - a fabulous gift from the gods.
Sarton acknowledged problems with solitude, but stopped short of denouncing it.
There is no doubt that solitude is a challenge . . . But I must not forget that, for me, being with people or even with one beloved person for any length of time without solitude is even worse.  I lose my center.  I feel dispersed, scattered, in pieces.  I must have time alone in which to mull over any encounter, and to extract its juice, its essence, to understand what has really happened to me as a consequence of it.
On Art and Poetry

 She declared that art comes from tension.
The fierce tension in me, when it is properly channeled, creates the good tension for work.  But when it becomes unbalanced I am destructive.
She described poetry as a dialogue with self and novels as a dialogue with others.
. . . poetry is for me the soul-making tool. 
I love this quote about women and poetry.  Sarton explained why she believed women were more interested [than men] in "self-actualization": that is, we are fulfilled in realizing our full potential.
Women internalize their lives to a greater extent [than men], and the poetry of internalization can be valid.  What bothers me is nakedness as bravado.  Then it becomes embarrassing: 'Look at me . . . Aren't I shocking?' But transparency does not shock: 'Look through me and find everyman, yourself.'  Somewhere between the minute particular and the essence lies the land of poetry.
Another time she said, " . . . women should quietly realize that theirs is creatively the primary role; man and his mind are an offshoot like sparks thrown out; women is at the centre of 'be still and know.'

May Sarton, school girl

On Women in Marriage and Motherhood

She made the case that "women's lives are fragmented" and stretched in many directions.  While men's lives remain whole because their work is hardly disrupted by marriage or children, women's desires are certainly interrupted or put on hold.
. . . how rarely a woman is able to continue to create after she marries and has children.
Sarton realized, via letters by young married women who "envied her solitude," that women struggled between their desire to create, think and solve problems and their longing for marriage and family.   For a woman who was college educated, marriage meant switching her mind from an intellectual process to a labor of housework and child rearing.    Meanwhile, the man was not affected the same way.

A woman asked Sarton, "Can one be within the framework of a marriage?"  Sarton contemplated,
It is not irresponsible women who ask that question, but often women with children, caring women, who feel deeply frustrated and lost, who feel they are missing their "real lives" all the time.
She believed that men still undervalued a woman's contribution to society; but further still, women "equally devalued their own powers."  She added,
There is something wrong when solitude such as mine can be "envied" by a happily married woman with children.  Mine is not, I feel sure, the best human solution.  What I have is space around me and time around me.  How they can be achieved in a marriage is the real question.  It is not an easy one to answer.
Then she reminds us that we try to control of too much; ". . . we are not asked to be perfect, only human."

Portrait of May Sarton by Polly Thayer, 1936

A Personal Perspective

This book is not for everyone, but it may be appreciated by anyone who loves nature, art, poetry, women's perspectives, or solitude.  Sarton's journaling on solitude resonated with me because I desperately covet peace, order, calm, and quiet; I could have been one of the women who wrote to Sarton, asking how to find balance between marriage and family and tending to one's private soul.  

There are six other people in my house, and four of them I homeschool five days a week.  Three or four of them talk continuously; I rarely, if ever, hear my own thoughts.  I finally had to institute the "sanctuary rule." After watching the 1939 version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" with my children, I told them that when Mommy is in the bathroom, and the door is closed, that is my sanctuary - just as Esmeralda found sanctuary in Notre Dame Cathedral.  Unless someone is hurt or the house is on fire, you cannot carry on conversations with me through the door.  I'll be out soon, and then you can tell me all about your discovery, realization, or conflict with your sibling.  

I know Sarton did not talk about introverts, but of course I relate to her story.  Introverts thrive on solitude.  Like Sarton explained, she needed time alone to process her interactions with others. Extroverts may not understand this.  In fact, growing up, I was branded "anti-social" and marked as someone who "hates people."  This is so far from the truth; in fact, introverts have big hearts, and we love people deeply; we just love people in smaller, more intimate numbers.  

Before you think I loathe being a wife or mother - well, it is truly a formidable challenge for me, this life I have - but my husband and children are my life.  Sadly, things are a little inconsistent between Dad and Mom, and when Dad comes home from work, he may "check out" for a few hours, in his room, watching Netflix, by himself, and no one bothers him; yet, Mom doesn't "check out" until after the house is in order, every child brushes his or her teeth, washes up or showers, and is in bed. That may come after 9 PM, and by then I am often too exhausted to read, something I long to do all day long, but cannot.  So it is with women and men: women sacrifice so much more of their private beings than men, and this can be a real detriment for us introverts. 

For Mother's Day, my husband asked me what I wanted to do on that day, and I suggested he take the kids to the movies.  He thought this was very strange that a mother would not want to be with her family on Mother's Day.  What I wanted most, since he was granting me a wish, was the one thing I rarely experience all year long: peace, quiet, serenity, order, my thoughts, my time, to read without interruption, my private space, to do what I wanted.  Though I would have also loved to be at the Getty or Huntington Gardens; nonetheless, it was the nicest three hours of solitude in a long, long time.  

P.S. Here is a 10 minute video by TED Talk on introverts, creativity and solitude:


The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of a room, not try to be or do anything whatever.


Cleo said...

I, too, enjoyed the descriptions of Sarton's love of solitude, and you're right, she reminded me very much of Emerson. Yet her intention with this book was to shatter any misconceptions about her life, presenting herself in a very real, stark and honest manner, and I was more affected by her depression and the rather unsettled melancholy that resonated through her writing. I did not feel like she was a very happy person, even though she grasped moments of happiness in solitude. She was living for herself and while parts of her life captured my fancy, overall, the lack of people around her perhaps contributed to her unhappiness. I felt very sorry for her.

I think you hit on it in your review, in that the key is balance. We need those times of solitude but we also need people around to give us life and help us grow.

I had to laugh at your confession. I wanted to be alone on Mother's Day too. In fact, I walked out of church during the worship music, which was just more stimulation that I didn't need, and sat in silence in the park until it was over, then I returned to listen to the sermon. Life is crazy and solitude is becoming harder and harder to find. Today I had to have dinner ready by 3:30 pm because we had leave for sports at 4 pm. Ridiculous. So if you come up with the recipe for balance let me know, because right now I desperately need it. ;-)

Ruth said...

Yes, I don't think she was very happy. She was very difficult to get along with. Sadly, she was (you could say) coddling herself over her sensitivities; and I suppose, if you live for yourself, that is what happens.

Yet, I knew all her burdens and fears b/c I experience them, too. I loved how she referred to NYC as that unlivable city. I'm from NYC, and I never want to go back there again. It's total chaos. Her anxieties over flying or traveling sound like me. Even her burden over Christmas were familiar. But when our lives are intertwined with other people (family, children, spouses, friends) we are kind of forced to face our fears and must function outside of our comfort zones. It's part of life and growing. But when you choose to live alone, as she did, your weaknesses are magnified. Your life revolves around those dysfunctions. Maybe that is why it is easier to be grouchy b/c you are so used to everything being your way.

So balance is important. I still gravitate towards those things that are pleasant and peaceful, but they are few and far between in my life. And I have to agree with you that solitude is hard to schedule. : ( My recipe is just to go with the flow. Service to your family comes first, right? And then just steal those little moments for yourself, either super early in the morning or after everyone goes to bed. If you can stay up long enough. : )

Heidi’sbooks said...

Sounds like a very interesting book! I'm an introvert and need space too. But I'm entering a new season of life where I will have much more solitude. I graduate my last of 5 from my homeschool next month. After 22 years I'm ready. But it may be just a little too quiet at times.

Ruth said...

Five, just like me! My last one won't be done until 2026, and I look forward to that, too. I think women are able to make themselves very useful with their time. You'll find things to do, and then you'll feel like there still isn't enough time to do what you like.

Unknown said...

What a great review! Like you am an introvert and often need waaay more time alone than my life currently allows. I think I shall be getting this book, it sounds lovely :)

Ruth said...

Hi, Claire,
Thank you so much.
Just a heads up, as I know you are a faithful Christian, Ms. Sarton does not share a Christian worldview. So while I focused on her explanations of solitude and nature (what I do wish I had more of in my life), she does have some issues that may have been helped had she been a believer. I talked about them in my comments above, with Cleo. I just chose not to address them in my post. So if you do get to read her book, which is super short and easy reading, you may find some things you disagree with. But I just wanted to let you know b/c I surely left them out in my review. : )

CJ_Apple said...

This sounds like a fascinating book to me. I so relate to this quote: "It is not irresponsible women who ask that question, but often women with children, caring women, who feel deeply frustrated and lost, who feel they are missing their "real lives" all the time." I love my kids and their growing up years were priceless to me. But I also struggled with the feeling of wanting to do my creative work and needing to be alone to contemplate and get my thoughts in order. I actually once saw a show about women in jail and envied them. They might have time to read and write I thought. It's funny to me now. I can laugh because my kids are recently all grown up and I am relishing my first couple of years with some long wished for time. I still work full time of course, but I used to work, homeschool, chauffeur sports, cook, etc, etc. I totally understand your Mother's Day wish Ruth! How precious that time must have been. I admire the excellent job you are doing with your blogs.

Ruth said...

Thank you kindly, Carol. At least we can say that we all understand each other. Women sometimes fall into feeling like we are not doing important work in the world b/c we are home raising our children; but that is the most important work in the world: raising future adults. So we have to make the sacrifices, and hopefully we may find that solitude later. : ) I do hope.