At last – a text as rich in wisdom about age as I have seen. May Sarton At Seventy is a journal of the poet and writer’s life. She takes us through the ordinary ups and downs of life in Maine starting in on the 3rd of May 1982 (her birthday) and ending a year later. This is her seventieth year. Written as a journal and including some black and white pictures it is a very remarkable and beautiful book. Here is a picture of the author:
The focus of part of my sabbatical study is narrative and story – and so I have been working with both the theory of this area and the practice. I am fascinated to see how writers map out in words and images the shape of the significance of age and growing older. It is interesting to see how a writer gives expression to both the internal and external world. From my perspective it is also curious to know what factors have shaped growing older and whether religion has been a positive force.
May is quite a lady! In an answer to a question about age at a poetry reading event she replies, ‘I do not feel old. I feel more myself than I ever have been. There is less conflict. I am happier, more balanced, more powerful’. She argues that real old age begins when one looks backwards rather than forwards. There is real delight in describing the everyday – the wood pigeon, the annoying squirrel, the snow and the rain, the turning of the seasons each with their own shape and smell and feel.
The book is also honest. She acknowledges that there is always unfinished business in any life: the unsolved, the painful encounters, the mistakes, the reasons for shame or woe. Sarton is unafraid to face these and opens up her vulnerability and humanity in doing so. In this process she becomes more attractive – more real – more understandable.
She is clearly pretty active – though is beginning to wonder about help in the garden. She has her name down for a retirement home in five years time and has already started giving bits and pieces away. This is not a life turned in on itself – she is bothered by the world and its injustices. At the time of writing Reagan was in power and he constantly gets a knock for his political and moral stupidity! She is very concerned about the life lost in the Falklands War, unemployment and equal rights. There is balance between the movement inwards and the journey outwards and this gives the writing both balance and wisdom.
As the year passes by, the rhythm of the seasons are described in amazing prose culminating with Christmas and gifts and food and friends. She guards her solitude but uses it as a spring to nourish others. She reminds her reader out of the body of her own life that it is impotant to acknowledge and use our own pain- and that our chief responsibility is not to try and change others for the better but to change ourselves. Be the change you want to become.
As for the religious dimensions – that’s for another day. A great book.