“Glad to Be Alive”: May Sarton, At Seventy: A Journal


Such a peaceful, windless morning here for my seventieth birthday–the sea is pale blue, and although the field is still brown, it is dotted with daffodils at last. It has seemed an endless winter. But now at night the peepers are in full fettle, peeping away. And I was awakened by the cardinal, who is back again with his two wives, and the raucous cries of the male pheasant. I lay there, breathing in spring, listening to the faint susurration of the waves and awfully glad to be alive.

I really enjoyed puttering through May Sarton’s At Seventy: A Journal. It is much less artful than Plant Dreaming Deep or Journal of a Solitude — more simply a diary, recording the minutiae of her life, from gardening to poetry readings. She’s both thoughtful and observant, though, and along with her accounts of day-to-day events we also get her reflections on current events (she’s not a fan of Reagan’s America), on history (she’s especially preoccupied with the Holocaust), on aging and mortality, on friendships and lovers, on poetry and Virginia Woolf and her own novels and the selfishness of the writer’s life.

Sarton would have known (I assume) that the journal would eventually be published, so there are traces of self-consciousness sometimes, and there are also some hints of reticence about details that would be intensely personal. Overall, though, reading At Seventy feels a lot like hanging out with her for a year, through some tough times, some petty annoyances, and a lot of pleasures and even joys that make her “glad to be alive.” “The autumn of life,” she says on September 25, contemplating autumn’s coming “glory of crimson and orange and yellow overhead”

is also a matter of saying farewell, but the strange thing is that I do not feel it is autumn. Life is so rich and full these days. There is so much to look forward to, so much here and now, and also ahead, as I dream of getting back to the novel about Anne Thorp [The Magnificent Spinster] and to good silent days here when the hubbub of this summer dies down. And right now there are hundreds of good letters to answer and hundreds of bulbs to plant. I do not feel I am saying farewell yet but only beginning again, as it used to be when school started.

Once again I found myself fascinated with Sarton’s solitary life. She didn’t always live by herself, but it’s pretty clear by this point that she prefers, needs, solitude — not every moment (and she actually has a lot of visitors to her house in Maine, and does a lot of visiting and traveling herself) but as the default. After particularly busy periods, she’s always immensely relieved to be free just to live on her own terms, and to breathe, mentally, without the psychological distractions of other people’s company. I don’t know how she was able to live on her own, and on her own terms, for so long: can she have made enough money from her writing, and then from related speaking engagements, for the luxury of so much space and independence and autonomy, or did she inherit or otherwise come by the funds to support it? I haven’t read an actual biography of her, so there’s a lot about the concrete circumstances of her life that I don’t know. At any rate, there’s something really inviting about her descriptions of having her house all to herself, setting her own pace for meals and walks and work and reading and just being.

journalsolitudeOf course, I’m not sure I would like that much solitude in practice (any more than Sarton’s friend Carolyn Heilbrun did), and I’m also aware how much it is Sarton’s writing that makes her life sound spacious and colorful and inviting. She writes beautifully about her house and her garden, with a poet’s attention to the rhythm of her words as well as to the shapes, sounds, and sights around her:

Nothing can change the happiness I felt when I went down this morning to get my breakfast at five and saw the marvelous light, as the sun, not yet risen, flooded the rooms with a kind of pale green, touching the paper-white narcissus and every chair and table with its blessing. This house becomes then a great shell filled with the incessant rumor of the past and I wander through its rooms, enchanted.

“I want to pause here,” she says at another point,

to celebrate asters, the low pale-lavender ones that dot the field now, starry among the long pale-gold grasses, the tall white ones that line the road in the woods, the deep-purple ones I found here in the picking garden, and the cultivated Michaelmas daisies, as they are called in England, that I have planted over the years in the border below the terrace. Some of these are almost a true blue. One of my favorites (Frikartii) is bright lavender with large flowers. They come when the phlox is over and always seem like a special gift of autumn. Rare in color at this season, they light up the garden and make a splash with the oranges and yellows of zinnias and calendulas in vases in the house, a new spectrum for me, and delightful.

Remembering the “bleak rented rooms” she lived in years ago in London, she thinks of how

by arranging books on the desk, buying a few daffodils from a cart in the street, putting up postcard reproductions of paintings I loved and a photograph or two, by leaving a brilliant scarf on the bureau, the room became my room and I began to live in it, to live my real life there, to know who May Sarton was and hoped to become.

At Seventy seems like the journal of someone who knows just who she is and is living her “real life.” Her appreciation of what a lucky and beautiful life that is seems well-earned, and probably the most inspiring thing about this unpretentious and often rather artless book is her own self-consciousness about that, and her determination to live up to what she has found for herself:

To live in eternity means to live in the moment, the moment unalloyed–to allow feeling to the limit of what can be felt, to hold nothing back, and at the same time to ask nothing and hope for nothing more than the amazing gift of poems. A love affair at this point is not in the cards, but poetry is here, and that is all that matters.

Reading this made me feel uncomfortable that I have never been moved by any of her poetry. And The Magnificent Spinster, into which she is putting a great deal of herself over the year this journal covers, is the one of her novels so far that I put aside unfinished. (I’ve only read two others, The Small Room and The Education of Harriet Hatfield.) Maybe it’s time to give it another try, if only to honor her effort and thank her for the other happy reading she’s given me.

2 thoughts on ““Glad to Be Alive”: May Sarton, At Seventy: A Journal

  1. Theresa August 6, 2016 / 3:26 pm

    The Education of Harriet Hatfield may be the only Sarton I’ve read cover to cover. I used to assign it in a history of sexuality class, and students were intrigued.


  2. Anthony Bermeo February 4, 2022 / 12:31 am

    May Sarton. What a Soulful woman.! I started reading her book when in my 60’s. Now that I am pushing 80 yrs away from me……. I want to find and start reading again; her Heart and words describing the plants, the sky, the fauna of God’s wonderful World that will include Ms. May Sarton always. God Bless her. deo gratias


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