This is the first post I’ve written in nearly a year. Partly it is because I’m reading May Sarton. Again. Her journals and novels sit on my new-yet-to-be-organized bookshelf in my new-old house, but I borrowed The House By The Sea from the library. There’s a thing happening where if you borrow and read a book by a Maine author, your name is magically entered into a lottery, and you have a chance to win things like skeins of alpaca yarn, or tickets to Funtown or the local movie theatre. The idea of winning a prize for reading appeals to me, kind of like getting an extra cherry on your sundae. Reading is its own prize–free entry into alternate lives that exhilarate in so many different ways. It’s really a win-win situation, and there aren’t many of those in life.
This lottery reminds me of those library summer reading contests I did as a kid when you could win an official-looking certificate if you read the most books. The idea of competitive reading now strikes me as deeply flawed, but the certificates I won over the years pleased me. I did “cheat” one summer and read every single Dr. Seuss book to up my numbers, even though I was ten years old (I interpreted this as cheating because you were supposed to read age-appropriate books). Even so–or maybe because, in a karma-like way–I didn’t win the certificate that summer. It turned out I won anyway because I discovered Dr. Seuss (my parents were anti-Seuss for some reason, and I’d never been introduced to him…or scores of other brilliant “children’s writers” I’ve delighted in discovering during the ensuing four decades!)
I’m fifty-six years old now, and reading the journal May Sarton began in her early sixties, shortly after she relocated to York, Maine. I read it when I was in my late twenties (and could not imagine that I would be alive for the whole life I have lived since then). As so often happens, reading a book again years later is an entirely new experience–one I always find magical and do not do frequently enough. When I first read The House by the Sea, I lived with my boyfriend north of Boston and spent my days crazily zig-zagging between the intellectual intensity of a graduate program in literature, the ennui of commuting to and working as an administrative assistant in a hospital, and the agonized and mostly failed attempts to keep my creative life alive. Sarton’s journal (along with others like Henry Beston’s The Outermost House) allowed me to enter a world of solitude by the sea where I could be that person who wrote books.
For as long as I can remember, I have wished to have a simple cabin on the water in Maine where I could step away from all the competing pulls of daily life and be alone and quiet for long enough to write and make art. My life has shifted dramatically in unexpected ways in the past eight years, and I now find myself living alone and quietly. In a house. Looking at a big pond through the trees. In Maine. It’s not exactly what I’d dreamed of, but it’s close. And I feel now a different, more immediate connection to Sarton. I am still recovering from the move and adjusting to the seismic shifts in my life, but the creative energy is awakening again. I am hopeful I shall be able to sustain it and finish so many projects that have languished in boxes and drawers, and to create new art.
On Monday, January 13, 1974, May Sarton wrote about what she was reading, I suppose as I am doing now. Among other books, she found herself enjoying Kenneth Clark’s autobiography in which he reflects upon being an artist in society. She quotes him:
“The artist must go at his own speed. His whole life is a painful effort to turn himself inside out, and if he gives too much away at the shallow level of social intercourse he may lose the will to attempt deeper excavation.”
I relish solitude and quiet, yet I built a life that allowed for very little of it. I don’t regret that life, for it was always interesting and challenging and gratifying. I do regret that I could rarely go at my own speed (which is very slow) and therefore rarely finish the creative works I imagined or even started upon. Now I have solitude and quiet nearly all the time, and the will to create becomes ever stronger. I’m restarting my blog, gathering materials to paint and sculpt again, and beginning to pull my memoir into a workable structure. I’m preparing to turn myself inside out. Kenneth Clark’s words echo what so many writers and artists know–we need to be alone a lot if we are to produce work that is true to ourselves and our vision.
Yet I do grieve the loss of social intercourse in my life. Not so much the cocktail party conversation type, or the narrowly focused work type, but the deeper connections. Those wonderful moments of talking with another human being about compelling feelings and ideas. The kinds of conversations that you don’t want to end. I think that kind of social connection is just as important as time alone is for the artist. It’s finding the balance that is a struggle. May Sarton seems to have found her way to it, and perhaps I shall too sometime in the future.
I think my March choice may be a re-read of Sarah Orne Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs (one can enter the Maine writers lottery once per month during 2020). Partly because my daughter is named for her, and partly because like Sarton, Jewett was an intense person determined to make the personal time and space to write, and one who deeply valued time in nature, and moving at her unique personal speed. Now that I think on it, however, perhaps I shall instead echo my 10th summer and read a children’s book instead. Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius is one of my favorites. And perhaps then I shall have more time and energy to put into my own writing.