fresh-start artist may sarton

11/25/1992 -- York, ME -- May Sarton, poet at home with portrait of her when she was 25 years old. BGLSCANNELSON, NH, THE SIGNPOST SAID, pointing off to the right of my backroads route to a bookstore event I gave in 2011. I knew it led to the former home of a favorite author, May Sarton, but there was no time to detour, at least not then. With the late Sarton’s 99th birthday looming on May 3, 2011, I took time to take a peek into her writing and life—and celebrate.

Sarton, who today is sometimes mentioned in the same breath as phrases like “women’s literature,” or covered in women’s studies curriculums, wrote more than 50 books. She actually came to my attention thanks to two men, at different times in my life. I might have missed her altogether if not for a one-two punch by Sydney Schanberg, an ex-New York Times colleague who thirty-odd years ago offhandedly said, “You would like May Sarton,” and then years later my therapist (who gave me “Journal of a Solitude”).

It wasn’t her emerging influence on feminism that provoked their decades-ago recommendations. They knew that the natural world, and specifically the garden, called to me, as it did Sarton.

“A garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself,” she wrote.

SARTON, A PROLIFIC POET and author of fiction, also wrote memoir and journals—the latter to come to terms with herself, she said in interviews. She did not explore the journal form until her 50s.

“I wrote the first one, ‘Journal of a Solitude,’ as an exercise to handle a serious depression and it worked quite well,” she told “The Paris Review.” She sorted herself out, I see now as I reread her with an older eye, with the process of recording those reflections. We all need a story of ourselves—or actually a series of them each for different life stages—that we can live with, right?

“We are all myth-makers about ourselves,” May Sarton wrote in 1968 in the memoir-style “Plant Dreaming Deep,” when she was 54, the age I was when I gave up the city for a rural life, “but part of growing up is the shedding of one myth for another, as a snake sheds its skin. I have no illusions about ever becoming a true countrywoman—there is too much behind me of a different kind.”

She had left Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1958 for tiny Nelson, and later would live for 20 years until her death in York, Maine, which will honor her with a centennial event next May.

HERS WAS A LIFE marked by fresh starts and reinvention, the underlying subject of my recent memoir, “And I Shall Have Some Peace There.” Sarton had a varied career (she turned down a scholarship to Vassar to become an actress), and survived breast cancer and a mastectomy, and later a stroke, writing again afterward and taking each as a catalyst to start over.

Sarton’s first memoir was “I Knew a Phoenix,” named for a mythical bird consumed by fire that then rises again from its ashes. “That was D. H. Lawrence’s symbol,” she told “The Paris Review.” “I’ve appropriated it. I think I have died and been reborn quite a few times.”

(Photo made in 1992 of May Sarton in front of Polly Thayer Starr’s 1937 portrait of her is from Cambridge Historical Society. Also, Federal regulations require me to disclose that if you shop from any links here to Amazon, I receive a small commission, which I use to buy books for these giveaways..)

how to win the may sarton books

HAVE YOU MADE A FRESH START lately, or at some important past juncture? Fresh starts are the subject of this giveaway. I’ve bought two sets of Sarton’s “Journal of a Solitude” and “Plant Dreaming Deep” to share with you; both touch on times of transition. [Update: The giveaway is now completed.]

Simply comment below, sharing such a moment. But you know me: If you’re feeling shy, just say, “Count me in,” or “I’d like to win,” and your entry will qualify. If you’re willing to offer a short tale of a moment repechage (as they call the do-over’s in rowing and other sports, where you get another chance at a spot in the final)…all the better. Do tell.

Winners will be chosen at random after entries close at midnight Saturday, May 7, 2-011. Good luck!

more may sarton

  1. Lynn Mc. says:

    The older I get the more I am bothered by stuff! I’m making a fresh start by decluttering my life of things I don’t need/use and to become a more conscientious consumer. Books are the one thing I find the hardest to part with.

  2. naomi says:

    I read “Plant Dreaming Deep” years ago, I got it from a wonderful mother-in-law, though her son did not live up to her. I read as I worked my garden, the garden he did not want me to have because it imbued ownership of his house to me. I thought I had love, our second year of marriage was supposed to be my last on earth, or so four doctors told me, along with the doctors in my family, two uncles, and my grandfather telling my mother to prepare for losing me. I made it, I got past the bad marriage, though I had to give up his family too, which was hard. Six months after it was finalized, walking home from work, on the sidewalk, thinking, “I shouldn’t pay attention to those feelings – today wasn’t so bad . . .” and looking up to see a car coming straight at me. I joke I wanted to lose five more pounds, and I lost them in seconds too short to count. I don’t recommend spot weight reduction – a foot and ankle weigh five pounds. What’s a foot to still being alive? Now, it’s been fourteen years, I no longer have my wild woman mother, I left the city which cocooned me in love after that accident, I moved further South, and have a most wonderful partner. I’m making my art, and this past year, I firmly believe I am an artist.

  3. Kathryn says:

    I made a fresh start in 2004 by selling my condo in Oak Park, IL, quitting my job at Cook County and moving to MA. This fresh start has continued by my putting my law licenses on retired status, becoming certified as a life coach, deciding to use my intuitive abilities to help people, and creating a set of mediation cards and book with a friend. That, of course, is leading to its own fresh start in a way. It seems that I am constantly on a fresh start.

  4. Kathy B says:

    Please count me in.

    I am turning 60 this year and my youngest is moving out. . . two awesome milestones in one year!

    Can’t wait to see what the rest of the year will bring.

  5. Joni J. says:

    Fresh starts . . . hmm . . . I never thought of it that way but that is what my life has been. My first marriage, and the garden he helped me dig, shoveling the ‘sheep shit’ as he so laughingly described manure . . . and the births of our three daughters . . . his death when we’re both 36 . . . A new start – alone, just me, no ‘we’ . . . still the garden . . . My second marriage at 49, a new house and a new garden, a country garden this time. Transplanted the hostas with the snow falling, a knife in hand as I sawed them into fourths. Transplanted daylilies, monarda, rudbeckia – all the ‘hardy ones’ – me, too. Divorced at 62 . . . another house, another garden, my third. Transplanted the hardy ones. We’ve come full circle back to town. I told my daughters I want to go out of this house in a ‘box’. Throw whatever is blooming on top! Life is good . . . the red tulips are blooming – Praestans Fusilier, great name. And I have sort of made my peace with Creeping Charlie although I will continue to do battle to keep it out of my gardens, but now I will let it become my front lawn – and then I won’t have to mow. Another fresh start . . . the no-mow life.

  6. Coastal Jan says:

    At a friend’s recommendation, I read “Journal of a Solitude” a few years ago. Since then, I’ve thought of May Sarton often, but our little library only carries one of her books (Recovering: A Journal).

    I would be thrilled to be the recipient of any of her books. Please add my name to the list.

  7. Linda Fleming says:

    Please count me in. I have had May Sarton’s Plant Dreaming Deep within my reach for many, many years.

  8. Bettina says:

    Less than three weeks ago, I left my full-time job sans the safety net of a replacement. It was an almost two-year journey towards the realization of a self-imposed opportunity to slow down and reflect on where I’ve been these last 50 years and where the the next 50 will take me. An inner longing cried out for a more creative existence after having spent the last 29 years supporting myself working in corporate America, with a few creative detours taken along the way.

    After reading about May Sarton on your blog, Margaret, I sought out Plant Dreaming Deep in my local library. I spent several hours yesterday at Garden in the Woods, the nearby place I call my garden and sanctuary for contemplation, immersed in the book while enveloped in the the sounds of flowing water and the warmth of sparkling sunshine. I look forward to reading more of May’s work and would gratefully welcome these two volumes.

  9. Pat says:

    Please count me in. I finished reading your book today- truly,it sang to my soul. This
    evening I checked my library for May Sarton books and will actually be picking up these two this week. But if they touch me as yours did, I’d love to have my very own!
    I’m on the threshold, starting with changing a series of small things. Finally, I’ve discovered that changing one small thing can change everything. And I’m getting past being scared.

    1. Margaret says:

      ENTRIES ARE NOW CLOSED (but comments are always welcome, if you are reading this post after the giveaway deadline).

      I will pick two winners at random using random {dot] org and notify them privately by email.

      Thank you all for your outpouring of comments. It was wonderful to introduce some of you to Sarton, and also to hear from some of you who have known her for years and treasure her as I have.

  10. As a professional gardener, I enjoy books about the gardening life. I happened to pick up “Plant Dreaming Deep” at a library book sale and have been reading May ever since. I end most every day by reading a few pages of May’s works, mostly her non-fiction, and am presently reading “The House By The Sea”.

    Not a lot of guys I know read, or have even heard of May Sarton, but her humanness is very special to me.

    Please count me in.
    Thanks – Brian

  11. julie a. smith says:

    Two weeks ago, I re-read The Fur Person after a 30-year hiatus. My recently deceased Mom’s cat came to live with me, became acutely ill, and I had to put Molly to sleep. May’s cat insight did me much good.
    Dealing with chronic depression for many years, I decided to read Journal of Solitude–not knowing that it focused on not only solitude, BUT also her depression. In all this time, I have NEVER read anything that totally registered with me! We also have paralells with animals, plants, weather…just looking at the sky to find solace.
    This boils down to…PLEASE ENTER MY NAME!!!
    Thanks, Julie

  12. Linda says:

    oh my goodness, May was born the day before me, what an appropriate name her parents gave her for the month of her birth…..I would love these books for my friend who is going thru a very difficult time.


    I recently donated my May Sarton collection to the Women”s Studies department at our university. I have read everything she wrote and corresponded with her during my 50s. She was a generous correspondent, writing when she was so busy, lecturing, writing, conferencing.

    She had so many interesting friends and she introduced them through her fiction/non-fiction accounts. She was a lesbian and had many affairs, trysts, and “crushes”. At my age, reading her was a real eye-opener. Throughout her love affairs, she was always sincere but could not abide those who were not her intellectual equal.

    And now I am 79…and wish I could still talk with her. j

    1. margaret says:

      Him Joanna. Yes, she was ahead of her time, and suffered many indignities I suspect as a result of her lifestyle. She was (as my father would have said) a “pip.”

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