My copy of May sarton's Journal of a Solitude, already used when I first bought it, is now dog-eared and filled with many pencil markings--little asterisks, underlinings and squiggly lines to pull the eye in to special passages I wanted to refer back to later. I wish I had added notes so I could remember what I was thinking when I read each entry that I marked (it's written in diary format), but I've already added the book to my mental list of titles that are going to be yearly (or thereabouts) reads for me. It joins Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea as a matter of fact. Both have so much insight into a woman's/artist's life and so much wisdom. I can relate to what is in both books and feel so many similar things but they both articulate them in ways I cannot.
A Journal of a Solitude covers one year in Sarton's life beginning September 15 and ending September 30th of the following year (the book was published in 1973). There is a lot of introspection and reflection in Sarton's writing. She's an artist, a writer, and so much of what she feels she feels very deeply as do most creative people. She both thrives in her solitariness yet also feels the weight of it and often wonders at her choice to live alone and in such an isolated situation--why would anyone choose such a living circumstance? I think ultimately, however, living alone is the happiest way for her as it is in those quiet moments that she accomplishes so much, writes her poetry and feels inspiration.
"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 interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid."
Sarton was living in Nelson, New Hampshire at the time. She was in her late 50s and was preparing to publish a set of new poems for her sixtieth birthday. Many of the diary entries are quite revealing. She lays bare her soul, shares her doubts about her work and disappointments in how her work has been accepted. Sometimes what she writes and feels is somewhat contradictory, which to me feels quite realistic since life is a work in progress and there is a constant inner dialogue we all have as we work through life's problems, and in Sarton's case as she struggles as a writer. There is a constant reassessment of beliefs, hopes, dreams and feelings of accomplishments--or feelings of lack thereof.
Ultimately it's Sarton's love of solitude, her love of living with the rhythms of nature and her work in her garden, her love of writing poetry and her interest in the world around her that shine through so brightly. Reading her journal gave me a sense of reassurance as I, too, struggle with the idea of solitude--sometimes self-imposed and appreciated and enjoyed and at other times less of choice than a situation not initially asked for. I struggle to find my place in the world and understand what happiness really is and strive for a sense of contentment (which can so often be very elusive).
I could share many wonderful excerpts, but I'll just share two that struck me especially and seem to apply to my own life so strongly at the moment.
"I always forget how important the empty days are, how important it may be sometimes not to expect to produce anything, even a few lines in a journal. I am stil pursued by a neurosis about work inherited from my father. A day where one has not pushed oneself to the limit seems a damaged damaging day, a sinful day. Not so! 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."
I rarely give myself leave to just be, not think, let my worries float away. I always feel the need to be busy doing something. And when I do take a break from work or being (at least trying to be) industrious, I feel guilty about it. As though it has been time wasted (where I could have been doing something). Motivation and ambition is good, but so is resting the mind and body, and this is something I need to work on.
And variations on the same theme:
"I did write a poem, so it was not a wholly wasted day, after all. And it occurs to me that there is a proper balance between not asking enough of oneself and asking or expecting too much."
"Jung says, 'The serious problems in life are never fully solved. If ever they should appear to be so it is a sure sign that something has been lost. The meaning and purpose of a problem seem to lie not in its solution but in our working at it incessantly. This alone preserves us from stultification and putrefaction.' And so, no doubt, with the problem of a solitary life."
So, yes, life is a work in progress, and I need to remind myself of that.
Towards the end of the diary she writes about the possibility of moving to Maine and living by the sea, which of course she does and writes about in The House by the Sea. She also refers to an earlier book which had been popular and was much admired by readers, Plant Dreaming Deep, both of which I own. I am eager to read more by her, though I am not sure whether to go forward to Maine or back to earlier years in Nelson. I hope to pick up one or the other sometime soon.