"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" ~ Mary Oliver

Tag: mirror

“mirror, mirror” . . .

DSC_0412 Who is the fairest of them all?

Whilst  (love using that word!) I was looking through more books yesterday, I came across a thick paperback, a biography of May Sarton, a writer of books that had almost a cult following by women during the years when I was a housebound mother of three daughters, living in a suburb of Boston.

Her book, “Plant Dreaming Deep” about moving and settling into a small house in Nelson, New Hampshire and “Journal of a Solitude” fed my fantasies of domestic bliss by a woman writer who described poignant scenes of rooms, furnishings from her family, plants of all kinds on the windowsills, bouquets of seasonal flowers from the rich garden outdoors and delicious meals served with friends and visitors from diverse places. Christmas was a generous preoccupation of decorated trees, loads of presents, bountiful drink and carefully prepared meals with polished silver and napery on the dining table. I loved all that stuff.

Yesterday, while I was reading the biography, I was surprised but not shocked by the portrait of May Sarton’s actual life. She was ignored by her parents, an only child and a spoiled one even though not given much actual attention. Her personality was dramatic and her demands were many. She was often met with disappointment as her temper tantrums and tirades at people gradually and oftentimes put them off from helping her, although a few loyalists pitched in for a long time with housesitting, plant tending and doing chores, even when met with Sarton’s criticism and ingratitude.

Most interesting of all, was the way that she used her environs and the people around her in an idealized way that served as props for her most well-received book, “Plant Dreaming Deep.” I was astonished to read that buying the small house in Nelson, New Hampshire, was meant as a venue for a love tryst with someone who was already involved with someone else in Cambridge. So, this melodramatic back story was going on in parallel to writing “PDD”, an incredible real-life contrast to the beautifully written domestic memoir that inspired legions of women at the time, myself included.

She sought out situations where she fixated on a potential lover in order to stoke her writing, using the projection as a “muse” for writing poetry. The most astonishing example was her pursuit of Margaret Clapp, President of Wellesley College where Sarton taught on a yearly contract until it was not renewed. Flowers, elaborate engraved gifts, incessant phone calls and poems about her were sent by Sarton to Clapp for FIVE YEARS to no avail.

By the end of the book and her life, she hadn’t changed at all. Still complaining and full of self-pity, still searching for a fulfilling love affair according to her terms, there didn’t seem to be much difference between the May Sarton in her twenties from the one who died in her eighties. Granted, she wrote many books and had them published. She had a following of readers whom she wanted but also decried for the attention that they sought from her. She wanted fame but not what came along with it.

She also had a better opinion of her writing than any of the critics and academic writers she knew (serious writers such as the poet, Louise Bogan and teacher, Carolyn Heilbrun.) She refused to learn from comments that her work was “sloppy, casual, not rigorous enough and often too sentimental.” Instead, she felt that critics did not understand her work nor appreciate it enough. She once said, “If I won the Nobel Prize this year, it wouldn’t make up for the years of bad reviews I have received!”

What a revelation reading this biography was yesterday on the heels of the Dale Carnegie golden rules post the day before. For whatever cause in her childhood, she cared about nobody but herself throughout her whole life, criticizing almost everyone she came across, friends, lovers, fans and critics. She did have a long-term relationship with Judy Matlock who was patient, caring and loyal while Sarton pursued other lovers. Sarton’s callous treatment of Judy during her weakened state was something she regretted afterwards but which she didn’t avoid while Matlock was still alive.

May Sarton’s biography is an ironic case study of how not to live your life or treat those who care about you. She travelled the world, had sophisticated friends in different social and literary circles. Her friends helped her afford the luxurious lifestyle that she felt she was entitled to, like renting the Maine house with an ocean view that she let readers think she owned.

I wonder if we lived in parallel universes and if she had a chance to read this biography of herself whether she’d do it differently the next time around.





“mirror, mirror” . . .

mirror 2Do people become more introspective as they get older? Or is it just because we older ones have more time to think about ourselves and how our lives have turned out? I guess there are also plenty of older folks who don’t give a whit about thinking about themselves, carrying on as merrily as they can, day by day.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the “devil-may-care” gene. I’m not afraid to poke at every scab, turn over the rocks of my youth and ponder about what I was doing at the time or what might have been. Guess what though? I’m getting over that bad habit now. How and why? First of all, it doesn’t do any good, as all the self-help books in the world will tell you: because you can’t change the past. You can’t even change very much how you might FEEL about the past. What was, was, with however much heartache or 20-20 hindsight there might have been then and might linger now.

That being said, I feel that the danger is to keep thinking about it, not letting it go, as a way of, what? … torturing oneself? or keeping oneself from enjoying and being happy in the here and now? For me, it’s been the latter. I’ve dragged that bag(gage) for a long time and even hung onto it as a way to remind myself that my life wasn’t that perfect. As though anyone of us has a life that has been perfect! (I haven’t even been to Disneyland so some might say I’ve haven’t yet lived, not that I ever wanted to go.)

So we all have had different ideas of what we wanted from life. In reflection, I remembered that all I ever wanted was being in a mutually loving relationship, making my home and sharing it with a family. I have all of that good fortune, as it turns out. It’s what makes me rejoice and celebrate by making all the little meals that I’ve described on this blog; knitting sweaters for my daughters and granddaughters, keeping house, playing the piano. Sharing a life of music and pianos in a place that my husband has built over the past few decades is my greatest good fortune as it turns out. I am never more thankful than when the power goes out in zero degree weather and G. is up in the middle of the night, checking the systems in the house to make sure we are safe from pipes bursting and/or heating systems that are working as they should be (we have an old geothermal system that heats and cools the house.)

And what about me? Honestly, (and that’s the only way this whole thing works in my opinion) I think I could have been much easier on myself and on those I cared about through the years. I made choices that were the right ones and I didn’t make ones that could also have been the right ones. But that’s water under a very old bridge. Believe it or not, I’ve just (a day or so ago) stopped holding onto that. There’s no way to salvage what was lost so long ago. To think that it isn’t gone, even in our memory, is a waste of time. Moreover, that kind of negative energy depletes the energy we have at our disposal every day when we wake up in the life we now live in.

It doesn’t hurt to think about all of these things, although it might feel like it still hurts while we’re doing it. But as they say, there are some things that you can’t avoid except to go through the middle of it, even if it’s something that’s long overdue. Although you might not know what I’m talking about as it relates to myself, this post may ring a bell (tinkle, tinkle!) in the back of your mind about something that resonates with you. What I’m saying is that when you look in the mirror and clean things up with yourself, it can go a very long way.

Just rejoice when the old hurt stops and you can smile when you look in the mirror.