It feels oppressively hot this morning, a heat that seems incongruous in the face of crimson tipped leaves on the trees and fading blossoms on the impatiens. I’m not one who loves hot weather, and though I dread winter with every fiber of my being, I still prefer to be just chilly enough that I need to go to my closet for a soft sweater.
But weather - like life - is nothing if not surprising.
Happily, life has not surprised me this week. Mine is blessedly quiet, which means I’ve had plenty of time to read.
I don’t plan my reading ahead of time, although I have a shelf in my library of TBR books, I am easily digressed from that orderly line up. If something at the library takes my fancy, if I get a new recommendation online or from a friend, if I feel an old book calling my name off the shelf, I go wherever my fancy takes me.
Somehow in the past week I’ve latched on to reading about poet and novelist May Sarton, first reading her novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, and then a biography by Margot Peters that I picked up at a library book sale. It’s possible you’re not familiar with Sarton, and I confess I’ve not read a lot of her actual written work myself. But she’s one of those women whose lives interest me almost more than their body of work. Born in the early 20th century, she came of age with authors like Virginia Woolf and also Anne Sexton. On the forefront of The Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970’s, these were women who spent a lot of creative time and energy grappling with inserting themselves into the previously male-dominated literary world, trying to reconcile how to live a domestic life, a personal life, and a writing life.
As a self-confessed “process geek” - someone who loves to peek at the daily routines and regimens of other artists, it is passages like these that attract me:
“She wandered the Paris streets, browsing in the book stalls along the Seine, drinking coffee in sidewalk cafes, reading Baudelaire on a bench under a chestnut tree. (...) There was a grand piano in her studio; she decided to keep it and take lessons, since she must study something. She quickly got into the habit of going out early to the marche, coming home with an egg, a tomato, or a wedge of cheese tucked into a basket of narcissus and yellow daisies. A young Polish friend came to practice the piano every morning: she breakfasted and made her bed to Chopin and Liszt. ‘I have a sense of freedom here - and peace,’ she wrote."
While this sounds idyllic, Sarton, like many of her contemporaries, was a tortured soul at best, so prolific in her writing she almost seemed possessed by demons rather than by the Muse she sought and cultivated so obsessively. Cautioned by literary friends and editors to “slow down, take time, revise and reflect” on her work, she continued to “hammer away at her typewriter,” constantly in a hurry to produce, publish, get work out in the world, even though it was rarely well enough received to bring her the positive attention she so desired.
It was attention that was at the heart of all this for Sarton. An only child, born to parents who were often remote in their affection as well as their physical presence, Sarton was as greedy about her friends and lovers as she was about her writing: she could never have enough. “If only I cared less for people and more for ideas,” Sarton laments. But it would always be people - particularly women - who fired her imagination yet endangered her work at the same time, her obsessiveness about her lovers eventually driving them away and causing her fits of personal anguish and angst.
She was in her late 50’s before she began to appreciate the benefits of a home, a quieter life, and the ability to “take time.” Living in her own home for the first time, a “cozy" house in Nelson, New Hampshire, Sarton begins to prize her time at home, alone. “Increasingly she saw that she had created something beautiful and good there that nothing could take away,” Peters writes in the biography.
Sarton herself validates this realization in poetry:
The cat sleeps on my desk in the pale sun;
Long bands of light lie warm across the floor.
I have come back into my world of no one,
This house where long silences restore
The essence and to time its real dimension;
All I have lost or squandered I examine
Free of the ward and the long searing tension;
And I am nourished here after the famine.
The pleasure inherent in a “world of no one,” in a “house where long silences restore the essence” is a pleasure often difficult to obtain. I have always loved it, always been nourished by it, always sought it above and beyond every “long searing tension” of life. And so once again, I am enlightened by reading, especially by reading about the true lives of others, of all the ways we can live and work creatively in a world that’s so often filled to the brim.
Reminded to take time.
How about you? Do you enjoy reading biographies of writers and artists, comparing the way they live their lives to the way you live yours?