“When I began writing those poems I had had the dream that I would celebrate my sixtieth birthday with a book of joys, a book speaking of fulfillment and happiness. But on the final re-reading I saw clearly that is an elegiac book and that the seeds of parting were in it from the beginning. This is where poetry is so mysterious, the work more mature than the writer of it, always the messenger of growth. So perhaps we write toward what we will become from where we are.” — May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude
A poem for me begins with a phrase that swims its way up from deep within my body, or a snatch of conversation that tumbles over and over on my tongue, or sometimes even a method—a collage poem or something excavated from someone else’s text. But it never starts with an idea. There is no plan for what I will write. Though I know I will discover something in the writing, I do not know until the words are secure on the page what my question is. Writing poetry—and actually all of my literary writing—is like speaking in tongues: I let go and let my better self takes over, the part that never strays from its intimate conversation with the Creator. I remember when my first chapbook was published how shocked I was when everyone said that the poems were so sexual. It took years for me to see that the poems I thought were just a celebration of music and musicians who moved me were also poems about hunger, about longing, about wanting to be touched. In retrospect it’s clear that the person I was then—caught between my fear of intimacy and my equal fear of being in relationship—would puzzle that out on the page. Writing is my way of thinking, it is my safe place to feel and my safe place to reveal myself to myself.
I have always thought my best poems were the ones I didn’t understand. I instinctively know that the logic of them makes sense, that they are “right,” but I usually can’t articulate why I feel that way, what is so right about them, or even what I am trying to say in them. Over time I’ve found that those poems, the ones where I almost can’t decide if they are successful or not, are usually the ones in which I’ve made some huge leap forward—in style, in understanding—and it may take months, and sometimes years, for me to understand what the attempt is.
Poems are mysterious creatures to me. I am suspicious of high school teachers who claim that what is going on in a poem can be assessed with multiple-choice tests. While I agree that there are many poets who are better at probing the mysteries of their poems than I am—I am not the type of reader (or writer) who needs every metaphor to be logical or every motive to be crystal clear for a poem to be satisfying—I also think that even the most ardent sleuths of their own work are, at most, just giving their best guess of what the poem is about. And that to me is the most joyful part of writing, that the more we write, the more still there is to be discovered.
Tonight I mostly want to say a huge thank you to everyone who’s starting following my blog recently and to everyone who’s stuck with me as my blogging has waxed and waned. I don’t have much to talk about today; it’s been a day of mostly transcription so someone else’s voice is currently buzzing in my head. But I do want to share with you a double quote—May Sarton quoting Carl Jung—which stuck with me when I read it this morning. It’s about suffering, not with a capital “S” but the ordinary sorrows that give life their texture. Sarton and Jung believe, and I agree, that suffering is necessary to growth. And by choosing to avoid suffering, or as we do in many cases, choosing to not acknowledge our suffering by squashing it deep down inside through opiates (both dangerous and benevolent) or sheer will power, actually arrests our growth and keeps us from walking fully as the people God has made us to be. But Mmle. Sarton and Messr. Jung say it much better than I do:
“We fear disturbance, change, fear to bring to light and to talk about what is painful. Suffering often feels like failure, but is actually the door into growth. And growth does not cease to be painful at any age. Jung says, ‘The possession of complexes does not in itself signify neurosis, for complexes are the normal foci of psychic happenings, and the fact that they are painful is no proof of pathological disturbance. Suffering is not an illness; it is the normal counterpole to happiness. A complex becomes pathological only when we think we have not got it.'” — May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude
Tonight I decided to nix quality time with the blue-and-white couch in favor of pretending that I’m not socially awkward and actually know how to socialize with people. The occasion was a book swap party at the (glorious, art-filled, can I move in for a weekend and just write, write, write?!) pad of my writing buddy Philippa at which I knew I’d also get to finally meet our fellow blogging buddy Karen IRL. I was struck by how Pippa and Karen both felt like a safe harbor to me simply because we have started off the new year blogging together in what has become an atmosphere of mutual admiration and support. I am so grateful for that gift.
The premise of the party was that each guest would bring a book that changed his or her life inscribed with the reason why that book was the one they’d brought. I had planned to bring Jane Eyre (the first book of fiction in which I remember strongly identifying with the main character), figuring that I wouldn’t be able to find a copy of Journal of a Solitude in time (which is why I had blogged about it here instead of saving it for the book inscription). Serendipitously, I discovered a copy at Silver Spring Books this weekend so I printed out a copy of my blog post, wrote a long note about why I was including a copy of the blog post, and then inscribed the inside cover with one of my favorite Sarton quotes from that particular volume.
I spent a great deal of time talking with C., a young woman from Charleston (who it turns out knows my friend Cate who’s from an old Charleston family) about the challenges and opportunities of being a full-time writer. C. brought Salinger’s Franny and Zooey (a favorite of mine), and talked about how she identified with Franny’s twin states of joy and depression over her artistic success. I also spoke with Z, a young woman who was born in Poland, grew up in Germany, and now lives here. She told me that she identified with Pippa’s sense of cultural dissonance (that Pippa wrote about here), and ultimately I ended up swapping books with Z thanks to Pippa who insisted that Z needed to read Sarton. Curiously, Z and Pippa had brought the same book to swap—The Little Prince. In another moment of serendipity, I had actually been contemplating adding The Little Prince to my list of books to read this year as I couldn’t remember if I’d actually ever read it, and the fact that so many people treasure it both intrigued me and scared me.
Karen brought a book by Dave Barry, which satisfied her dual loves of humor writing and music. She swapped books with a drummer who gave her The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which I’m borrowing once she’s done.) She talked about some of the excerpts she’d read during a humor writing workshop she’s just back from in Key West (read about it here), and I was surprised that the reading list included Moby Dick. (I can’t remember what the other surprising titles were—it’s past my bedtime—but Karen if you’re reading this, I’ll read Moby Dick with you when you get to it.) We talked about how much we both loved living alone, the price you pay when you surrender your singlehood, how you know if someone’s worth sharing with, and how when I move in with Michael Fassbender I will allow him to still smoke (okay, maybe I was talking about that last bit by myself).
I should mention that Karen and I also passed time with T., a young woman wearing gorgeous turquoise eye shadow who was torn between swapping Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones and a little pocket-sized book of humorous anecdotes about romance. It was interesting that T. thought Ward’s novel was the kind of book she should swap because it’s “serious literature” yet it was so clear from her expression and voice that the other book was the one most dear to her. I suppose it’s a lot like how the Matt Dillon Quiz Book (pub date June 1983) is an important book to me because, let’s face it, why wouldn’t you want to know that Matt Dillon’s nicknames are Flick and Bounce, but also because it was a gift from my sister to me the year I turned 13, a hint of the deep friendship it would actually take us decades to develop.
At one point Pippa and I talked about the challenges of writing a daily blog, how in some ways it’s a little easier each day, and in other ways it becomes more difficult, especially if you insist on grabbing yourself by the heart and squeezing for each blog post. We’re each learning to accept that not every post has to be brilliant. It’s interesting that Pippa suffers on that front because she doesn’t consider herself a writer, and I suffer on that front because I do. I think ultimately, however, we both believe that truth trumps polish (and I believe we are both writers).
Karen and I left long before the party was over having bonded over our fellow introvert status and our dwindling stores of social energy (it’s amazing I work in PR, isn’t it?), but I am glad that we’ll continue to meet each other over the Interwebs and surely in person as well. And there’s a particular painting in Pippa’s apartment—in a little alcove by the patio door filled with a double row of books and sculptural treasures—that started whispering its poem to me as soon as I saw it, and I hope to be in conversation with both it and Pippa again soon.
I want to leave you with a quote from May Sarton that I think speaks to the reason why we all showed up book in hand, eager to share what had sustained us, taught us, compelled us, revealed us to ourselves. And I hope you’ll linger an extra moment to share what book you would have swapped and why, or maybe what book you might have hoped to receive…
“If we are to understand the human condition, and if we are to accept ourselves in all the complexity, self-doubt, extravagance of feeling, guilt, joy, the slow freeing of the self to its full capacity for action and creation, both as human being and as artist, we have to know all we can about each other, and we have to be willing to go naked.” — May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude (January 5th)
Today’s one of those days where I feel like I’m living my “real” life, which is the life I take up when I can set my own rhythm, when the phone doesn’t ring (except once which resulted in me ordering FIOS), plans haven’t been made, and the only sounds in the house are the turning of pages (I’m making my way through Journal of a Solitude), the ticking of the clock fashioned out of an old tin tart pan that I bought at an arts fair in Provincetown more than a decade ago, the dragging of ink across a page (I finally wrote down my list of 50 Things to Accomplish This Year and started the lists of movies I’ve watched and books I’ve read), and the plodding of my slippered feet up and down the polished floorboards of the hallway as I accomplish little tasks (take down the Christmas tree in my room, make my bed, write a few more New Years cards, eat the entire box of generic baked wheat snack crackers that was on top of the fridge).
When I texted my sister this morning I told her my plans for the day were to nap and read and nap and read. There was only one nap and I did turn on the TV to watch Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death on Netflix Instant, but for the most part, today has been about the little domestic adventures: hanging a small amateur painting I bought at a yard sale last summer in the kitchen by the sink, reading the first half of the January issue of Living, Etc. (which is strangely their Christmas issue), wearing the orange bracelet I thrifted on Thursday for no reason at all other than I didn’t feel like putting it away when I unpacked the bag it was sitting in, idly thinking as I watered the three plants that this is the year I will finally repot the plant my friend A. gave me when I came home from the hospital seven years ago, divvying up all the little babies that have rooted themselves since then, each carving out its own little plot in the green pot, the way I have carved out mine.
This morning I was quite taken by the scene playing out across the living room window in the early light. The sun cast the shadow of a branch across the window, with the shadow of a squirrel chasing back and forth across the branch, so that I seemed to have my very own ethereal animated film. I have come to love this apartment though it was chosen for me, my sister and my mother finding a new place for me to live even though no one was sure I’d recover from the severe pneumonia. While I was in the rehabilitation hospital learning to use my atrophied limbs again, the occupational therapist would ask, “What does your bathroom look like?” “How close is your bed to the bedroom door?” Time and again, I’d answer, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
I hated this apartment when I finally came home to it. It was boxy and ordinary and even the wealth of closets couldn’t make up for its lack of charm. Though the apartment I was living in when I took ill turned out to be a death trap, I’d loved it. It was an English basement of a Victorian house. I painted the floorboards of the bedroom which was off the kitchen, sewed swathes of pink silk to curtain the old-fashioned windows that swung open inward like French doors. I constantly rearranged the furniture in “the great room,” which included a single bed I used as a couch, and sewed curtains for the bay window out of white fabric traced in blue glittery sworls and whorls. I tore pages out of a book of botanical photographs to hang above the radiator, and decided not to mind that there was an actual weed growing through the carpeting directly in front of the radiator. And I spent many nights lulling myself to sleep with a hot bath in the claw-foot bathtub that took up most of the space in the tiny bathroom that you went up three steps to reach.
I knew I couldn’t stay there, in my beautiful neighborhood of hippies and hydrangeas, once it was clear how sick I was, and, in fact, when I was in ICU, I begged my sister not to make me go back there. But still I couldn’t help but mourn its quirkiness and vintage charm when confronted with the quotidian, dingy cream walls of my new place. Now, seven years later, there’s a midnight blue wall in the living room, a shocking pink wall in the bedroom, a collection of crocheted and wool throws I’ve thrifted in the living room, two rugs based on the Gee’s Bend quilts I love, a faux Tulip table courtesy of IKEA, four vintage wooden Danish dining chairs, two Tord Boontje garland lamps—one of the first purchases I splurged on, a pull-out couch that I inherited from a friend and hope to keep forever, a vintage telephone table that I bought for $10 and recently recovered, plants I’ve managed to keep alive, a collection of Eiffel tower replicas including one that’s a combination liqueur bottle-music box, and art everywhere. On weekends, when I can linger in bed, I am often struck by the beauty of the early sun as it chases over my white sheets, and then, when I finally make my way to the living room, pinks the room in a way that is pure joy.
So here I am typing on my laptop, lying on the blue and white couch covered in the afghan my Granny Rosie crocheted for me 30 years ago, having spent the day watching the light move from a shy pink to that clear bright light particular to the winter. Now the outside world is all in silhouette, save for the punctuations of light from the apartments in the building across the driveway. As the twin pines outside my window stand sentry, as I ease into night knowing that the morning alarm must be set for church and that tomorrow evening I will trade this restorative solitude for the sweet balm of the laughter of friends, I am grateful to be an ordinary woman living an ordinary life on this ordinary, magical day.
“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
“The Other Room” (Debbie’s soon-to-be-old house, Charlotte, North Carolina)
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 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. (May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude)