Posts Tagged ‘May Sarton’

Read on 4 December 2019

Long ago, I read and loved Carolyn Heilbrun’s Kate Fansler mystery series and her non-fiction book Writing a Woman’s Life. I had completely missed her memoir about aging until recently, when I learned of it and placed an interlibrary loan.

Here are a multitude of take-aways from what is, so far, my favourite book of my 2019 reading year.

In Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, I was struck by no mention of some of my favourite memoirists, including May Sarton and Doris Grumbach. I was so pleased to see Doris mentioned early on in Last Gift.

And then May Sarton herself appeared at the end of this paragraph about Grumbach.

I knew I was in for a heavenly read.

The subject matter of life over 60 is significant to me because I will soon turn 65.

Heilbrun quotes from a poem by Marilyn Hacker, called Against Elegies.

Soon came the story about one of my favorite things in a memoir, buying a house, coupled with another favorite thing, the joy of solitude.


The idea that something can be happening for the last time is even more poignant to me as I reread this next takeaway a week after an old friend, who wanted to live to be 100, died with no warning, in his sleep, at age just barely 67.

Part of a chapter is devoted to the joys of email (in 1996) and to Heilbrun’s extensive correspondence through that medium. I wonder what she would have thought of the social internet?

Next, I found a whole chapter about May Sarton. What bliss. I once read a disappointing and cruel biography about Sarton which criticized and excoriated her difficult personality. In contrast, her friend Carolyn wrote of her with sympathetic and understanding honesty.


A friend who knew May Sarton and was smitten with her told me a story about being invited over and then being told to go away, because May was in the midst of a writing inspiration. I think it was in her memoirs that I learned the phrase “a person from Porlock”.

I still have these books but must have lent out my two favourites, Plant Dreaming Deep and Journal of a Solitude.

I thought nothing could make me happier than a whole chapter about May Sarton, until turning the page brought me to a chapter about England.



And yet, and yet, something of that first fascination with writings by the English remained, like the aroma of a lost love, pure, fabricated, and enchanting.


I had to look that up.

The chapter goes on with the joys of visiting the home of English friends. Every paragraph is perfection and way too big of a takeaway to share here. Just a glimpse or two:


The chapter ends with this delightful quotation about friendship.


On memoirs in general, with reference to a memoirist named Maxine Kumin, whom I have not read.




More on aging:


Below: I remember as a child taking drives out of Seattle with my parents and being in the countryside in twenty minutes, with pastures and cows and horses and barns.

And I know that nostalgia for the past is a privilege.


On reading as an Anglophile:


The passage below is just how I feel about death. Perhaps if Carolyn Heilbrun were still alive, I could contact her on her Facebook page and we could share thoughts about it.

I am reminded of my favourite song, which I would want sung at my funeral, if I wanted a funeral, which I don’t:

Love It Like a Fool by Malvina Reynolds

Baby, I ain’t afraid to die,
It’s just that I hate to say good-bye to this world,
This world, this world.
This old world is mean and cruel,
But still I love it like a fool, this world,
This world, this world.
I’d rather go to the corner store
Than sing hosannah on that golden shore,
I’d rather live on Parker Street
Than fly around where the angels meet.
Oh, this old world is all I know,
It’s dust to dust when I have to go from this world,
This world, this world.
Somebody else will take my place,
Some other hands, some other face,
Some other eyes will look around
And find the things I’ve never found.
Don’t weep for me when I am gone,
Just keep this old world rolling on, this world,
This world, this world.
As Carolyn Heilbrun says…
….which is ironic, because my next post will go as far back as 1982.
My last takeaway to share :
It bothers me no end that Carolyn committed suicide at age 77, only a few years after this book was published. She had planned to do so at age 70 but had found life to be enjoyable after all. No one among her family and friends knows why she did it. The clue to why she did it that I might understand is that “she didn’t want to be a useless person.”
I left out of this long post a few paragraphs about her decision, in her 60s, to get a dog, even though she did not like the idea of getting up early to let the dog out. (I was so lucky that my dog, Bertie Woofter, liked to sleep late as much as I do.) She loved her dog. I wonder if her dog was still alive when Carolyn decided to depart? That seems a significant point that no one mentions. You can read more about it here, including a mention of how much she loved dogs up to her last day on earth. I am sad and mystified. I wish that she had continued to love now and had lived to write another memoir about being in her 80s.

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I recently received,  through interlibrary loantwo more non fiction books by Susan Wittig Albert (author of the excellent China Bayles mystery series).  Work did not allow the concentrated reading that I enjoy on staycation, so it took me a couple of weeks to read them.  Here are my takeaways (and I apologize to faithful reader MaryBeth for the text being curvy; both books were large and printed on light weight paper that was impossible to hold flat while reading ;-):

Work of Her Own came to me from a library in Boise.


It was published in 1992; there is a newer edition with a new intro that may discuss how it translates to the modern day.

It was published in 1992; there is a newer edition with a new intro that may discuss how it translates to the modern day.

It’s rather bad of me to not know who wrote the foreward.  I did not make a note, and the book has already gone back to the library.


from the introduction

a very good question from the foreward

a very good question from the foreward

I have read Albert’s two excellent memoirs but it had not quite sunk in what a powerful career she had before she became a self employed writer:


I enjoyed learning that this favourite memoirist of mine is on her third marriage (like me!), and that she feels that “home is a warm, sustaining place to be.”  (I already knew the latter from her memoirs about the joys of her life in the Texas hill country.)


From her other memoirs (Together, Alone and An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days) I had learned to my delight that her lifestyle includes, like ours, the economy of living in a “double wide”.  I also appreciate and share the concept of “right livelihood” even though I know that not everyone has the privilege to achieve that idealistic state of being.



I am one of the lucky ones who has the joy of right livelihood.  In 2007, I had the big revelation about doing work that brings joy, and in fact this past month we officially quit one job that did not fit that qualification.  (There had been some lingering vague impression that we still had said job even though we felt it had ended last autumn.)   It is a continuing challenge to winnow the jobs to the ones that do bring joy (even if not all the time, because the work is sometimes extra hard).  One of Albert’s interviewees says “I get paid a living wage, but I don’t work for money.  I work for joy.  All my work is my true work.”  (Working for joy, not money, means making a lot of choices about things one will not be able to afford to do, at least in my case.  Choosing, as Albert did, to live in a humble and paid off abode makes it possible to enjoy some luxuries.) 

 Digression:  The book I am currently reading, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, tells the truth about living in real poverty and would make a good companion piece to Work of Her Own, as not everyone has the option of working for joy.  Author Linda Tirado writes:  “If we could just agree that poor people are doing the necessary grunt work and that there is dignity in that too, we’d be able to make it less onerous.  Put another way:  I’m not saying that someone doesn’t have to scrub the toilets around here.  All I’m saying is that instead of being grossed out by the very idea of toilets, you could thank the people doing the cleaning, because if not for them, you’d have to do it your own damn self.”  (She also makes clear that dignity requires a living wage.)  Since I cleaned houses for 18 years in Seattle (more lucrative than gardening but not as much joy) and often had people respond to my answer “What do YOU do?” with variants of “Ewwww”. I fervently agree with Tirado. (End of digression.)

Work of Her Own addresses the issue of women in big important careers feeling the pressure of setting an example.


I was pleased to discover that Albert is a strong feminist (as I have been since, oh, age 13).  I wonder if in the corporate and university world, could there ever be a power structure that was “power with, rather than power over”.  It’s a world beyond me, as I have never had what my mother called “a real job”.


When Albert writes that some women in the career world, in order to survive, have to develop a “strongly male-oriented bias and a tend to uphold and defend the masculine culture of ideas and ideals” I had a flash of enlightenment that the two women in my life with whom I had the most trouble were my mother, who worked in an office and who often told me she “hated” women and found them “boring”, and another former friend from a high powered career who said she preferred working with men and who strongly hinted that she also preferred the social company of men to that of women.

Below:  Here is what I have never had to do and probably could not do, and it is what a dear friend who works in an office has to do every day:

quotation from one of Albert's interviewees

quotation from one of Albert’s interviewees

dilemma  On an uplifting note, here’s some praise for my several librarian friends and for mothers who encourage reading:  “I vividly remember my first visit to the library.  My mom took me, just the two of us, as soon as I was old enough to have my own library card.  I walked into the womb of the world that day.”  Whatever problems my mother and I had with each other, I am always grateful that she created exactly that same event in my own life.

I’m particularly fond of this passage by an interviewee who says that she


You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens, as not every story has a rosy ending.  Some career-leavers had a difficult time and some could not continue on with “work of their own”.

Writing from Life: Telling Your Soul’s Story


Susan Wittig Albert surprised me in Writing from Life by being more spiritual than I expected, in the women’s spirit way of Starhawk and Z Budapest, both of whom are quoted in the margins.  Like An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days pertinent quotations are arranged in sidebars beside the main text.  Organized into chapters exploring different journal topics, the books is full of excerpts from women’s memoirs and from participants in Wittig’s Story Circle classes. Those were the parts I loved.  I have to admit I skimmed the meditations at the end of each chapter because I am so resistant to that sort of thing.

Authors whose memoirs I have read and adored are quoted in three books about aging: May Sarton’s At Seventy and Doris Grumbach’s Coming Into the End Zone, and Nancy Mairs, and I now intend to read Flora Scott-Maxwell’s The Measure of My Days, “a classic on the experience of aging”.  About An Unknown Woman by Alice Koller (also now on my must read list):


 I appreciated this paragraph about women’s obsession with weight:


And I now use this as an opportunity to recommend the excellent book The Obesity Myth by Paul Campos.

One of my favourite chapters in Albert’s writing book was:


Having been severely judged by a then-friend and found wanting when I went through a period of depression in early 2014 (better now!), I am grateful for these passages.  When I shared them on Facebook yesterday, two friends remarked that severe depression does not inspire creativity.  I feel that Albert addresses this clearly with the words “disabling depression”, and after these passages she cites Sylvia Plath as an example.  I take issue with the “happiologists” who reject all “negativity” and judge people for not being happy and perky all the time.  (I feel negative about always-perky people.)




feelings   I have friends who would be mired in depression without anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication, so we shouldn’t judge either choice.


I’m including the following “clipping” because I have heard so many women express the fear of becoming “bag ladies”.  I don’t think this has as much to do with seeing the homeless as “other” as it has to do with how many of us feel it could happen in our lives.


Of course, as a homebody I liked the chapter exploring thoughts about home:




(I may live in chaos but I still appreciate May Sarton’s point of view.)

In an exploration of friendship, I found this familiar but forgotten quotation and felt grateful that I do have friends like these:


Toward the end of the book, we are encouraged to do good in the world.


I particularly liked the following idea.  Someone more outgoing that me might already be doing this at Golden Sands Assisted Living:


Writing from Life made me think about how, while this started as just a gardening (and boating and Peninsula life) blog, I sometimes hint at more.  And I have so often in the past year written something revealing and then deleted it or, in one case, saved it in a still unpublished draft.  When does a blog dare become about more than just gardening?  Bob Nold’s The Miserable Gardener (one of my two favourite blogs) transformed into more than “just” a gardening blog and he said that when a reader questioned whether he thought it should have stayed just about gardening, he thought about it and said “no”.  I love the personal revelations in Kate Llewellyn’s books about her garden.  Something very personal had crept in to the gardening post that I published earlier today and then I deleted it, as usual. One wants to strike a balance between interesting revelations and self-absorbed navel-gazing.



Nancy Mairs is another favourite memoirists of mine; I recommend all her books.


mairs  Thanks to Susan Wittig Albert for two more “deep reads” and for inspiring the sharing of ourselves.  If any of you want to delve into the story circle sharing idea, I’d recommend this book and also Albert’s Story Circle website.  While her focus is on telling women’s stories, journaling is a catharsism open to all.  (A series of all of the memoirs by Simon Gray became one of my best reading experiences in 2011.)

A rainy day gave me time to write this; now a watery sun is emerging and it is time to go outside and pull some more touch-me-not seedlings.  But no….it is still quite chilly out, so instead I turn to finishing Hand to Mouth.


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During my first week of staycation, I read No Man’s Nightingale, the new Inspector Wexford mystery by my second favourite author, Ruth Rendell.  In it, I came across quite a mystery about gardening gloves.

A gardener is suspected of a murder.  Wexford is told:

“There is other evidence.  A pair of cloth gloves, gardening gloves they are, apparently, found in his home and worn it seems just once.  A gardener––he calls himself a professional gardener–-never wears gloves, but he had these, says they were a gift from a friend, and he put them on only in the presence of the giver when the gift was made.”

What?! thought I, does this imply that English gardeners never wear gloves?

Later in the story, the gloves are mentioned again:

“The gardening gloves he had been given by Mrs. Morgan.  She had heard you could get tetanus through the soil round here if you had a scratch or scrape on your hand.  He never wore them, he refused to, but he had them.”

Yes, indeed, the threat of dread infections lurking in the soil is one reason I wear gloves.  I usually wear only medical exam gloves, because with cloth gloves on I cannot feel what I am doing.  And there have been gardening times in my life when I have wanted to NOT wear gloves.  And other times when the very touch of soil on my hands felt drying and unpleasant.  I have never liked to handle rocks or lumber without gloves on.

So what was Ruth Rendell thinking when one of the biggest clues in her mystery was that a professional gardener would NOT wear gloves?

I thought of British gardening shows I have watched and dimly recalled noticing that Charlie Dimmock, on Ground Force (my favourite gardening show ever), did not wear gloves even when mixing cement, and that I’d found that odd.

Charlie sans gloves

Charlie sans gloves

The Ground Force trio without gloves

The Ground Force trio without gloves

So what about Ground Force leader Alan Titchmarsh?

no gloves!

no gloves!

Alan Titchmarsh

Alan Titchmarsh

I skimmed a Ground Force video and saw nary a glove used except during a carpentry scene.

But wait:  Gold Leaf Gardening Gloves (“for people serious about gardening”) are endorsed by the Royal Horticultural Society!

And an article in the Telegraph tells us ‘Gardeners can never have enough gloves.”

The Daily Express tells us:

“Some gardeners are sniffy about wearing gloves, saying they like to feel the soil between their fingers, but there are plenty of skin-thin gloves on the market that are tough enough to protect yet still let you feel the plants you’re handling.

And they could also be a potential lifesaver: unless your tetanus injections are up to scratch you risk getting lockjaw if you cut yourself badly then come into contact with soil contaminated by the bacteria found in manure.”   Just as I thought!

I remember a poem by May Sarton:

True gardeners cannot bear a glove

Between the sure touch and the gentle root,

Must let their hands grow knotted as they move

with a rough sensitivity about

Under the earth, between the rock and shoot, 

Never to bruise or wound the hidden fruit.

And I remember a quotation from a gardener, perhaps fictional, to the effect that wearing gloves while gardening was like wearing them when making love.  There’s someone who really loves to garden.

Perhaps UK readers can tell me if it is so unusual to wear gardening gloves there that Ms. Rendell found a pair to be such a valuable clue.


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