We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be. – May Sarton
I have a new friend. Her name is May Sarton and although she died in 1995 at the age of 83, she has become my friend through the beautiful words she uses to express her views on aging, isolation, solitude, friendship, relationships, love of nature, gratitude and appreciation for the simple pleasures of living. She was a prolific novelist and poet, but it is in her poignant, honest journals that chronicle her life that I discovered this woman was my friend, for a friend nourishes you and confides their innermost thoughts to you. It is an intimacy that I will cherish forever and seek when I need to commune with someone who truly understands what it means to live in this tenuous world.
Sarton was born in Belgium but her family fled to England, then the U.S., when Germany invaded Belgium at the start of WWI. She published her first collection of poetry in 1937. In 1945 she met Judy Matlack, who became her partner for the next thirteen years. She lived in New Hampshire for many years before moving to York, Maine where she would live for the rest of her life in solitude by the sea. Sarton wrote about her relationships and many of her earlier works contain vivid erotic female imagery. She did not see herself as a “lesbian” writer, instead wanting to touch on what is universally human about love in all its manifestations. She said of her book Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, “The fear of homosexuality is so great that it took courage to write a novel about a woman homosexual who is not a sex maniac, a drunkard, a drug-taker, or in any way repulsive, to portray a homosexual who is neither pitiable nor disgusting, without sentimentality.”
I first became aware of Sarton when she was featured on a Maine PBS documentary, World of Light that she narrates herself. At the age of 65, she contemplates her long career and the nature of her work, reading poetry, discussing her loves and her influence. It is in her reflections on solitude and her life in Maine that entrances me. She is compelling, gentle, articulate and so honest it tears at my heart. I can see myself sitting down with her to share a cup of tea and later we will stroll in her garden that she has lovingly nurtured. I know that my visit with her would be soothing, it would have laughter and I would leave feeling uplifted.
I am not alone in my perceived friendship with Sarton. In her later years, she lived alone and came to value her solitude and some consider her Journal of a Solitude her best work. Her memoirs make her seem so human and approachable that many people, strangers to her, but friends in their hearts, would show up on her doorstep. She always took time to meet with people but in her love of solitude that filled her later life, these visits were dreaded. This longing is reflected in this excerpt, “There is no doubt that solitude is a challenge and to maintain balance within it a precarious business. 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 feel dispersed, scattered, in pieces. I must have time alone in which to mull over my encounter, and to extract its juice, its essence, to understand what has really happened to me as a consequence of it.”
So as a fellow solitude I would never show up on her doorstep if she was still living, but I will visit her often when I read her glorious words. In a world where thought and observations are reduced to 150 characters or less, settling in a comfortable chair to read her flowing, sometimes fragile, reflections, especially as I am growing into my old age, are moments I treasure. May Sarton was much loved and will remain so as future generations discover the beauty of the written word as only she could express it. To read her works is to enter into her world, with honesty, and whether or not you agree on certain points of view, you will leave her works enraptured with her legacy, and you might say, as I do, “This is my friend and for that I am grateful.”