Today I have watched the branches outside my window first get shaggy with snow and then become leafy chandeliers sparkling all over with snowmelt and raindrops. The strip of sky I can see above the building next door has stayed a determined gray, heeding not at all the warm-up from snow to rain. As for the wind, it can’t make up its mind if to dance or stay still, changing its mind moment to moment.
On my side of the window, the warm, dry side, I have spent a good deal of the day with books: another section of Tom Lux’s New & Selected Poems ((…That’s why I’m always off/somewhere in my mind with something/stupid (like a monk) or spiritual/(like a teenage girl)…)), another chapter of Sarton’s Plant Dreaming Deep, which I don’t like as much as the journals because it’s beautiful but somehow also too mannered, and The Simple Things, a British magazine that insists—and rightly so—that “most of us already have everything we need for a meaningful life. Sometimes we need a compass bearing to help us track it down.” I have also dipped in and out of my blog roll, treating my eye to beautiful image after beautiful image though none have propelled me from the couch to finish the art wall, not that that particular task was included in the instructions for recovering from major surgery.
This morning a friend from work braved the snow to bring me chicken cooked on a bed of butternut squash, green beans, and brocoli with couscous, which will be more than enough lunch to get me through till the weekend. And I used another friend’s generous gift certificate to order Virginia Woolf’s Letter to a Young Poet (to add to my stash of work by Mrs. Woolf) and Josephine Ryan’s Essentially French to add to my towering pile of shelter tomes. And I ordered a peony soap from Pre de Provence, my favorite soap as it smells so fresh, so green. There is a candle I want to order as well but I’m not sure I’m allowed to splurge on it—it’s small-batch, handmade—when it costs $40 and times are uncertain. But then again, as Colette noted (and I badly paraphrase), “It was easy to do without the simple things; it was the luxuries I couldn’t do without.”
I also have a gift certificate from iTunes and I’m considering ordering a Joni Mitchell boxed set. I play Blue on vinyl rather frequently these days, though there were years and years I found her voice so irritating. That suddenly changed when I turned 40, and there glimmering among the sharp peaks of her voice, I sensed some universal comfort, or no, not universal, but that particular comfort a woman has had when she’s survived her first few decades, perhaps not completely intact, but enough so to not only soldier on herself but encourage the rest of us to soldier on as well.
I have washed the dishes, put away the laundry another friend did, though I was reminded of my sore belly when I foolishly started to lift the full laundry bag out of the grocery cart. I ended by putting away what I could piece by piece though the sheets and pillowcases and towels are waiting for my next set of visitors who I can ask to stretch up to the shelf where those particular necessities live. I broke the rules enough yesterday when I asked M to help me flip the mattress in obedience to my mother’s parting words. (Don’t worry, M did most of the heavy part.)
I have, of course, watched two episodes of Rosemary & Thyme, one with breakfast, one with lunch. I love how ordinary they are: tiny Rosemary with her everpresent fanny pack and gardening clogs, and sturdy Laura with her pants bottoms always tucked into her socks while she somehow gets stuck with the heavy work. I love that on British TV you can have heroines who are not at all glamorous, who actually look like people look when you see them in the supermarket or at the farmers market. I would happily stand them both to a bottle of wine, add them to the circle of crones I am building around me.
I am treasuring these last days of the simple things (well, other than weekends and holidays): watching the ribbon of sky across from me ring its changes, tea with friends who come to feed my spirit as well as my tummy, hours lost in the worlds of other people who demand nothing but that I see through their eyes, and the soft purr of the big blue blanket wrapped around me as I take it all in from my perch on the blue-and-white couch.
“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 to 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.'” — May Sarton, from Journal of a Solitude, September 15th
This may not be how it happened but this is how I remember it: I was browsing the Kalamazoo library bookstore with my friend Danna when she handed me this slim volume, a paperback with a black-and-white cover photo of a typewriter and a lamp seen through a glass door. “Journal of a Solitude,” it said, “The intimate diary of a year in the life of a creative woman.”
I don’t remember if I’d heard of May Sarton before. I was perhaps not yet thirty, I had perhaps not yet lived half-a-year in Provincetown where I wrestled with what it meant for me to be an artist. The years of “undefined depressive disorder” brought on my finally getting into therapy and raking up the hot coals of loss and anger I’d long buried were still a half-decade in the future. I had no reason to suspect that this sixty-something Belgian emigre New England writer, typing up these daily entries in the autumn of 1973 through the autumn of the next year, could have anything to say to me.
I remember the shock of recognition when I read the opening paragraph, that quiet voice that understood why I loved long nights of cocktails and blues bands, but still hungered for long stretches of hours hidden away in my apartment with just a pen and a notebook and perhaps a pile of books. “I have written every poem, every novel for the same purpose—to find out what I think, to know where I stand.”* How did she know that the only sure reflection of myself I knew was on the page? That it was the poems hidden in my body that helped me understand my wants, my desires, my griefs. Line by line I would tell myself my own secrets. Word by word I learned to recognize myself.
When I met Sarton, I didn’t yet know I was an introvert. Surely someone who regularly organized the company happy hours and spent two or three nights a week out at her favorite bar was an extrovert. I didn’t understand then that one could be a social introvert, enjoy the company of people immensely, but still need solitude in order to refill the well, recharge, refresh. Sarton helped me to understand the anger, the frustration I felt when I’d spent too much time in motion, when I’d not gifted myself one of those days when I was out and about but didn’t speak to a soul other than to pay for a purchase or say “excuse me.” She helped me to see that there was a difference between a day given over to contemplation and the completion of tasks that I wanted to do, and those days that weren’t restful even if I lay on the couch all day because of the endless loop of “I shoulds” running through my overcrowded brain.
I have re-read Journal of a Solitude countless times since that first discovery, and I buy copies when I find them to pass on to woman artist friends who too might find themselves struggling with that need for solitude that seems at odds with what women are supposed to want—to be at the center of family, blood or otherwise—even if we are, as I am, single and childless. I find myself craving Sarton’s voice when I feel lost, when I need to re-establish my sense of self because of some crisis or simply because I’m juggling too many projects at once. I have since collected most of her non-fiction, and I snatch up her novels when I find them though I’ve only read two so far—Kinds of Love, and The Magnificent Spinster (I think). I’m not a fan of her poetry though I buy those books too when I find them as it pains me to think of her voice disappearing, unheard by a woman who desperately needs it, and somehow I think that I will eventually grow into her poems, be able to see past the easy rhymes and “old-fashionedness” to appreciate the pure spirit behind them.
Did I mention that Sarton loved Mrs. Woolf too, and even went to visit her, Mrs. Woolf cool and in her declining years, Sarton eager, still a theater ingenue and not yet bloomed into the writer she’d become?
No matter how many times I’ve read Sarton, I find myself scribbling down her sentences again and again. She is my guardian angel leading me home, back to the quiet center of myself, where I rest alone. where I am equal to the task of honesty. She takes me by the hand, leads me to the blue-and-white couch, whispers forcefully, “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.” **
* Journal of a Solitude, September 15
** Journal of a Solitude, January 18th