I’ve owned Plant Dreaming Deep for a couple of years at least. It’s always funny, isn’t it, when a book that has just been sitting on the shelf suddenly catches your attention, as if its moment to be read has finally arrived? I sometimes think of it as a ripening process — though whether it’s me or the book that needs to mature, I’m not always sure. I picked Plant Dreaming Deep from the shelf almost at random on Monday morning, to look at as I enjoyed a leisurely cup of tea in honor of Victoria Day — and then I stayed at the kitchen table for two hours straight until I’d read the whole thing. I fell right into it, which isn’t an experience I’ve had with a book for a while.
Plant Dreaming Deep is one of May Sarton’s memoirs. When she was 46, Sarton bought an 18th-century farmhouse in Nelson, New Hampshire. Her parents had recently died, and part of their legacy to her was furniture – big solid pieces that traveled with them from Belgium (where they had survived the First World War), and then moved with them from place to place until they settled in their own house. Sarton, who to that point had never owned her own home, had to store the furniture in the cellar (“my mother’s desk with its many pigeonholes and secret drawers, the bahut, the long refectory table that matched it, and two eighteenth-century chests of drawers”), and she found she could not bear having these “great pieces of our lives” stashed away:
After a year they began to haunt me as if they were animals kept underground and dying of neglect. How long would they stay alive? And how long would the life in me stay alive if it did not find new roots?
And so she went on a quest — one which took the form of finding, renovating, and then living in her farmhouse, but which is really about integrating all the parts of her life and history and finally being, not just settled in her house, but at home in her self. Plant Dreaming Deep is the story of that adventure, including both its literal, external parts and its internal adjustments and revelations.
A central conceit of the book is that the house she moves into doesn’t just have character, as we often say of buildings, but is a character. It has needs and pleasures, and makes demands:
I found out very soon that the house demanded certain things of me. Because the very shape of the windows has such good proportions, because the builder cared about form, because of all I brought with me, the house demands that everywhere the eye falls it fall on order and beauty. So, for instance, I discovered in the first days that it would be necessary to keep the kitchen counter free of dirty dishes, and that means washing up after each meal; that the big room is so glorious, and anyone in the house is so apt to go to the kitchen windows to look out at the garden or into the sunset, that it would be a shame to leave it cluttered up.
She has moved there to write, which is difficult work: “the writer, at his desk alone, must create his own momentum, draw the enthusiasm up out of his own substance . . . the writer faces a daily battle with self-questioning, self-doubt, and conflict about his own work.” Music helps Sarton “through the barrier,” but also, she finds, “the house itself helps”:
From where I sit at my desk I look through the front hall, with just a glimpse of staircase and white newel post, and through the warm colors of an Oriental rug on the floor of the cosy room, to the long window at the end that frames distant trees and sky from under the porch roof where I have hung a feeder for woodpeckers and nut-hatches. This sequence pleases my eye and draws it out in a kind of geometric progression to open space.
Thus she finds reflected in it, supported by it, the “clarity and structure” she seeks for her poetry and prose.
The book is full of things to savor, from lyrical descriptions of her garden, to her fond but unsentimental stories of her neighbors, to her meditative (but not always tranquil) reflections on community, family, aging, and writing. “I am happy when I am writing,” she tells us, but “the demons come as soon as I stop and consider what I have done, as the critic takes over from the creator”:
These demons, which might be called the demons of reputation, have two masks, and I do not know which is more distressing. There is the demon who wears the mask of rage: Why have I not been recognized? A young writer may be able to turn that demon away by taking refuge in the delusion of his genius, by thinking as a child does, “They’ll be sorry when I am dead!” For the middle-aged professional writer there is no such consolation. He has, willy-nilly, become a realist. He has to face the other demon, who wears the mask of self-doubt: Why have I failed? Where have I been self-indulgent, lazy, not honest enough? Or is my failure written into my very bones?
Though she finds some reassurance in her success with readers, still “the only real way to keep [the demons] out is to shut the world out,” which she finds easier to do in Nelson than anywhere else. But even Nelson cannot shelter her completely from the demon of guilt that demands she weigh her solitary creative life against “teaching underprivileged children” or some other more socially sanctioned set of responsibilities: “For a single woman the question is acute.” The house contains but cannot overrule her anxiety.
Her comments on aging are less fraught but no less thought-provoking:
It is only past the meridian of fifty that one can believe that the universal sentence of death applies to oneself. At twenty we are immortal; at fifty we are too caught up in life to think much about the end, but from about fifty-five on the inmost quality of life changes because of this knowledge. Time is suddenly telescoped. Life in and for itself becomes more precious than it ever could have been earlier . . . it is imperative to taste it, to savor it, every day and every hour, and that means to cut out waste, to be acutely aware of the relevant and the irrelevant. There are late joys just as there are early joys. Young, who has time to look at the light shine through a shirley poppy? The outer world is only an immense resonance for one’s own feelings. But in middle age, afternoon light marbling a white wall may take on the quality of revelation.
Middle age is “time to lay ambition and the world aside,” she tells us, and again the house has a role to play: “Nelson has been my way of learning to do just that.”
Probably the most important thing about the house is that Sarton lives there alone. This is what Carolyn Heilbrun focuses on in her essay on Sarton’s memoirs: “what makes Plant Dreaming Deep unique and uniquely important is that Sarton has written a memoir of the possibilities of the solitary female life.” The chapter in which Sarton settles into the house — once the rebuilding is done, the furniture moved in, the mementos placed — is called “With Solitude for My Domain”: “I was, as I wished to be, alone.” But only after her first house guests depart does it seem that she realizes fully the experience she has sought and found:
It was my first experience of the transition back to solitude, the moment of loneliness, the shadowy moment before I can resume my real life here. The metaphor that comes to mind is that of a sea anemone that has been wide open to the tide, and then slowly closes up again as the tide ebbs. For alone here, I must first give up the world and all its dear, tantalizing human questions, first close myself away, and then, and only then, open to that other tide, the inner life, the life of solitude, which rises very slowly until, like the anemone, I am open to receive whatever it may bring.
I think it was when I realized that the book was less about a house than about being alone in a house that I lost myself to it. I am fascinated by solitude. Often I enjoy it; sometimes I crave it — but I’m also well aware that, as Sarton says, “at any moment solitude may put on the face of loneliness.” I’ve only lived alone (that is, truly in my own quarters, without roommates or family) for two of my 46 years, in the basement suite I rented as an undergraduate. I am chatty and enjoy being in company both intimate and lively, but I also feel a certain exhilaration when I’m alone. It’s not just being freed for a while of the endless negotiations that life with other people inevitably entails, though that’s certainly part of it; it’s also as if some kind of psychological space opens up — if that makes sense. I hardly know how to put it, but I’m sure I’m not the only bookish person with a preference for quiet and difficulty separating herself emotionally from whatever other lives are going on around her (in fact, I’m related to at least one other person just like that!). People sometimes interpret a desire to have some “alone time” as rejection of them, but I find it can be crucially restorative and can send you back to them with renewed pleasure.
Really living alone, though, rather than just spending some time alone, takes courage, as well as inner resources. Sarton’s story here is not of uninhibited bliss: there’s guilt and anxiety, as already mentioned, but also fear, hard work, and constant demands on her self-reliance. Heilbrun notes that a few years after Plant Dreaming Deep was published, Sarton moved again. Heilbrun sees the move to Nelson, the “first, hard assertion of selfhood,” as a necessary step for Sarton in generating a narrative of her own life: “What Sarton did was to write a new plot for women, a new script.” Just knowing such a life is possible, knowing what it might feel like or mean, she suggests, is something other women needed. I’ll never live alone in a farmhouse in rural New Hampshire — I wouldn’t want to! But maybe at this point in my own life it was important for me to imagine the life that Sarton lived in hers. You can be alone even without solitude, after all. We all need to find the resources we need to be at home with ourselves wherever we are. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t stop reading until I’d seen how it turned out.