Saturday, August 18, 2007


It’s been a while since I last read through May Sarton’s “Journal of a Solitude.” The second copy, replacing the first copy loaned to a friend who then lost it, is dated 1989 and already falling apart, so perhaps it’s been that long. My new third copy, a trade-paper-back edition published in 1992, arrived this past week. It seemed like a good time to read it for probably the fifth time over a span of three decades.

In more than one sense, I’ve always been a loner. So I seem automatically attracted to books about solitude, mostly considering its impact on creativity, particularly a work like Anthony Storr’s “Solitude: a Return to the Self.” As a composer, as a musician, I am conscious of the amount of time spent in solitude writing or practicing and, despite the presence of an audience, performing as well. But never having really been or seen myself as a performer, it is the work of composing that I find infinitely involved with the idea of solitude.

This journal, then, was the first of May Sarton’s books I discovered, most likely when I was living in Connecticut, teaching at UConn in Storrs when I was 20-something. After living in non-solitudinous New York City for two years (where it was easy to feel so alone despite the millions of people around you), then returning home to Harrisburg, I began collecting her other journals, beginning with the earlier one, “Plant Dreaming Deep,” which then necessitated another reading of “Journal of a Solitude” before going on to the rest of the series: “A House by the Sea,” “Recovering,” “At Seventy” and the more austere and often frustrating journals of her old age, “After the Stroke,” “Endgame,” “Encore” (a journal of her 80th year) and “At Eighty-Two.” In between I gathered up and read ten of her novels and, considering the fact she’s more recognized as a poet than a novelist, even though I’m not into reading much poetry, a large volume of her collected poems.

Creating is a very personal journey and not every artist cares to get into the deeper, emotional aspects of ones own creativity, having already done it once to bring a work of art into being (or, until it is seen, read or heard, a closer state of being). So given my own difficulties dealing with creativity, it was helpful to read someone else’s, written from their own viewpoint.

For instance, in the opening pages of this journal, she comments about her first one, “Plant Dreaming Deep” which

“... gives a false view. The anguish of my life here – its rages – is hardly mentioned. Now I hope to break through into the rough rocky depths, to the matrix itself. There is violence here and anger never resolved.”

Like me, she says she “live[s] alone for no good reason, for the reason that I am an impossible creature, set apart by a temperament I have never learned to use as it could be used, thrown off by a word, a glance, a rainy day....” Dealing with too many letters and writing too few poems, she continues,

“It may be outwardly silent here but in the back of my mind is a clamor of human voices, too many needs, hopes, fears. I hardly ever sit still without being haunted by the ‘undone’ and the ‘unsent.’ I often feel exhausted, but it is not my work that tires (work is a rest): it is the effort of pushing away the lives and needs of others before I can come to the work with any freshness and zest.”

Two days later, she writes

“Cracking open the inner world again, writing even a couple of pages, threw me back into depression, not made easier by the weather, two gloomy days of darkness and rain. I was attacked by a storm of tears... that appear to be related to frustration, to buried anger, and come upon me without warning.”

At the same time, she is watching an old friend die, a farmer of rough New England stock who for years had scythed and trimmed the grounds around her house, taming Nature. He’d worked hard, struggling to maintain the beauty of her gardens, of the yard, keeping the woods at bay, just as she worked in her study, struggling with words, keeping the demons at bay, in order to make sense out of her ideas to write a poem.

She likes the fall, rain and gloom aside, because the brilliance of the leaves is one thing but seeing the trees bare down to their branches, then, is like revealing the inner structure, the reverse of a poet ordering words into sense, filling in the structure (a natural form or pre-ordained) applying words like leaves. The structure is something fascinating to me, too, and perhaps for that same reason, I like watching the transition from fall into winter (if only one could do without the dreary damp rains and then the cold biting blizzards of reality).

But it is the “depression” – a word too easily tossed about – that is the hardest to cope with. In the past I have felt “depressed” when I’m not composing (or perhaps, more accurately, unable to compose) but even when I am composing, “depressed” that it is not going well or as well as I’d like. Or, for that matter, that I must stop what I’m in the midst of because the reality of the day intrudes: an unexpected visit by a friend, going to work, contending with interruptions from a neighbor’s noise, the Doberman Next Door.

These past four months have been difficult because I have been unable to compose for lack of the piano. The irony is, it sat in my apartment where now the second-floor neighbor had moved out meaning I could play or write whenever I wanted to without waking her (she slept till noon, I needed to finish writing by noon). But I was finally able to find someone who could move the piano for me, bring it out to the house and, ironically, return it to the wall it occupied when we first bought the instrument, brand new in the late-60s. As I write these words, the piano is now being tuned. Already I have been playing Bach Preludes and Fugues (music good for the soul’s contemplation) past midnight, unconcerned about having upstairs neighbors or people’s lives on the other side of my walls.

A few days after the previous quote, Sarton writes,

“The value of solitude – one of its values – is, of course, that there is nothing to cushion against attacks from within, just as there is nothing to help balance at times of particular stress or depression... So sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands.”

The reasons behind it, she goes on to explain, are not as interesting as how one handles it. Waking up too early in the morning with a sense of doom – “a bad state” – she realizes what lifts this may be a daily routine like watering the plants or feeding the cats (a “living need,” she says, not like dusting which may explain why she is such a poor housekeeper, something else I can identify with).

Like her, I have sat at my desk in an unproductive funk because it is cloudy and miserable outside and this colors my creative disposition as well; then, after longing for a mild sunny day, I find I am too distracted by the sense that I should be out doing something “constructive” before realizing what I am doing is “constructive” – it is constructing a world – but much of it I just can’t do sitting out on the back porch.

At least in the city: on a beautiful late-summer day like today – temperatures and low humidity that make me ask “this is still August, yes?” – I could probably be working on some aspect of a new piece if I had that new piece ready to go. Unfortunately, I do not, and so that must wait. My porch, here, is inviting, looking out over a yard with my little garden, shaded by trees and shrubs my mother had planted decades ago, but knowing it is there is an improvement of the dread of contending with another summer, another winter in an apartment that had, unfortunately, become a liability.

So periodically, as I continue this on-line journal and get back into being creative again, there may be references to May Sarton’s journal, reading an entry or two here and there rather than sitting down to consume 200 pages in as short a time as possible before going on to the next book.

Dr. Dick

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