Wednesday, 23 January 2013
May Sarton: A Personal Remembrance
By Lyn Burnstine
[Upon the occasion of May Sarton's death in 1995]
I once read that good writers can create problems for themselves by seeming so familiar and accessible that readers want into their lives. Such a writer was May Sarton whose death on July 16th, 1995, saddened a vast devoted following of readers of her many novels, journals and books of poetry.
The difference with May was that she truly did welcome readers into her life - and often into her home. This is the story of how I became one of those strangers whom she so welcomed.
Her journals abound with her grumblings, more and more as age limited her energy, that too much time was spent answering the considerable mail from her many fans.
Still, she chose to do so and that custom became a partial solution to her lifelong dilemma of how to carve out the hours of solitude she craved for creativity, yet still have a satisfying social life. I say partly, because, in all her 83 years, she struggled to find that perfect balance and never did. And neither have I.
It was that ongoing cry of frustration in her journals that first drew in this reader. As a woman living alone and working in a creative artistic milieu, I know that struggle.
May Sarton was one of three writers whom I have heard say, in the exact same words, “the deeper you go into the personal, the more universal it is.”
Despite major differences in our life stories - she, from a cultured European background, the daughter of a renowned Belgian scholar, was a lesbian woman who never married nor had children and I, from the rural Midwest, was first a teenage bride, then the mother of three, now the grandmother of five - I found myself on every page of her journals.
"A few years ago, I wrote to May on behalf of a women’s group that was studying her writings half-hoping she’d respond. It didn’t happen.
However, some months later (and I now know she probably would have written eventually), I became the talent coordinator for the Arts Conference on Star Island, in the Isles of Shoals, in sight of her York, Maine home. I knew from reading her journal, At Seventy, that she’d been painfully rejected upon offering her services as a guest speaker in June, 1993.
The letter barely left my hands before her answer came back. “Miracles do happen!” she wrote.
“When I was at Star...I was brutally turned down. It was especially hard to bear because I had felt in those few days that I had at last found my 'community.' Now I am eighty and your letter out of the blue does seem a wonderful gift from the gods.”
She ended the letter with, “much rejoicing and grateful thanks,” and her unlisted phone number scrawled on the outside of the envelope.
Thus began a lively correspondence that, sadly, included the letter she sent to the conference when she became too ill to attend.
She wrote, “When you wrote me in the spring...it was a dream come true...so late in life it seemed like a miracle. Now as I look across the ocean at a silver Star near the horizon, I know it is true. And even not there, I am with you in spirit as you are with me. Bless you all. My love always, May Sarton.”
And she was with us in spirit, as we watched the video documentaries of her life that she sent out to the island and as we signed cards wishing her good health.
She invited me to bring the videos to her home afterwards. Judy and Jim Chase, Star Islanders, longtime Sarton fans and the recipients of one of those letters she was so famous for, were invited also.
Jim took a picture of her as we left, smiling in her doorway. A few days later, a copy of her then-new journal, Encore, arrived, inscribed “To Lyn Burnstine, So kind, so understanding, so talented, with love, from May Sarton.”
An accompanying note said, “How I enjoyed meeting you and your large spirit, bless you.” (her generosity was legion — not only did she send out great numbers of her books to friends, but is reported to have given away much of the money she earned.)
The importance to May of that Star Island invitation was reconfirmed later by a note from Susan Sherman (a close friend and editor of collections of May’s letters) asking, at May’s suggestion, for copies of her letters to me.
On a snowy day in February, the following year (too snowy, few came), Judy Chase, the Reverend Dr. Linda Anderson (our minister) and I presented a tribute to May Sarton as a Sunday morning service at our Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Catskills in Kingston. An excerpt from Linda’s remarks follows:
"At age 17, she chose not to attend college, but to go instead to New York City and study acting with Eva Le Gallienne. She started her own theater company, but it lasted only 3-4 years...
“Turning instead to writing, she had her first book of poetry published in 1937, followed by a novel one year later. Since then she has...continued to create. She has been successful, but not critically so. Her writing about lesbian relationships lost her teaching positions and caused a loss of critical acclaim...”
Only in recent years had scholarship on May Sarton burgeoned as had her popularity in colleges as a heroic feminist figure. She proudly told me in that first letter — in order to illuminate how much the invitation meant to her — that she was commanding fees of $4000 for readings. We sent a copy of the script to May, hoping that she would approve.
A speedy reply assured us with these words, “Your folder full of nourishing treasures is a great gift...Bless you and thank you for the lift. Love, May.”
And then in true Sarton style, she suggested that we might like to do it over again when more people could come. A lifetime of fighting for the recognition she so richly deserved was in that sentence.
May’s readership is loyal — so much so that it is almost impossible for an inveterate used-book store devotee like me to find her works: her readers never part with them. So it was a treat to be able to relate this tale to her.
I was in one of my favorite haunts, where excess books are randomly stacked in narrow aisles, waist high. I had looked in all the proper sections — poetry, diaries, journals — and was turning around to leave when my pocketbook swept the top book off a stack.
I bent to pick it up and replace it, when the name May Sarton caught my eye. One of her books had been uncovered and revealed to me by that accidental move. I wrote to her, “How did you do that?”
May Sarton served as a model for me of an authentic aging woman. She pulled no punches, and denied neither the fears and depressions of aging and ill health, nor the joys of learning that one becomes more genuinely oneself with age, and can still love and celebrate all the things one has always loved and celebrated.
She dared to speak intimately of the peaks and valleys of her life, warts and all. By so doing, she gave me the courage to face mine.
Our last exchange of letters was last Christmas when I shared with her my recent battle with breast cancer, the news of a book award that I had received and a report of a recent concert tour. I begged her not to answer — to save herself for “the work,” — but I will always be glad she ignored my request.
From the woman who has been my role model came these words: “Dear Lyn, What a role model you are! I was transported reading about your tour, and congratulations on the Feminist Theology Award [the book grant]...May yours be a wonderful New Year. Good luck with the book...Love and blessings, May.”
From Plant Dreaming Deep, this passage of hers speaks to me of my own deeply-felt philosophy of life. She says,
“Life...has been, from the start, a challenge. And that is the point–not...happiness, but life lived at its most aware and intense. Not happiness...But something like New England itself...above all the power to endure and to be renewed...[and] here the roses grow beside the granite.”
May Sarton indeed persevered — like the granite, with a body ravaged by cancer, stroke, heart and lung disease. “The work” she left us, her many deathless books, were the roses. I think she would have liked that metaphor: to her, work, friends, and the flowers that she grew were her life.
In her journal, Recovering, she wrote that she “would like to believe when I die that I have given myself away like a tree that sows seeds every spring and never counts the loss, because it is not loss, it is adding to future life. It is the tree’s way of being. Strongly rooted, perhaps, but spilling out its treasures on the winds.”
[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Please read instructions for submitting.]