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. Diane Gossett says:

    Dear Margaret, please enter my name. I confess that I am not familiar with May Sarton but I will be soon and am intrigued by the comments about her. I look forward to reading her books.

  2. Janet says:

    58 next wednesday and am constantly evolving (I hope it shows!). Just started 2 blogs and am finding my voice. I garden hard and my muscles ache but it’s that ‘good ache’ all gardeners know and treasure. Thanks for the opportunity to read these books by someone I think I should know more about.

  3. Jean says:

    Please count me in. I am loving your blog. I love to garden alone and in my mid fifties I am learning to play the piano. I giggle and feel so fortunate. So much that you say resonates with me. I was not familiar with May Sarton but now want to seek out her books.

  4. Mary-Jane says:

    Please count me in. May Sarton came to my school and read her poems many, many years ago. I was about 10 and have never forgotten her and the impression she made.

  5. Theresa Chiles says:

    I would love to meet every one of these women,and you, Margaret! After living through a husband’s suicide, raising a blended family of seven, and a son’s heart-breaking trek through bi-polar disorder, I am on my own now at 57 with my beautiful, peaceful land. My unadulterated joy at greeting it each morning wipes away any doubt that this is where I should be. To share it and unite with that same joy in each of these voices, brings me closer to “home” than I have ever been.

  6. Hello! I have made many decisions to change my life, be more authentic, as I discover what that authenticity looks and feels like! Some risks paid off, some have not, but I try to live the results with grace and fortitude. My small experimental “prairie garden” inspires and interests me. I live in NE Iowa and have planted such native grasses and forbes as Big Bluestem, Switchgrass, and Purple Coneflower….just to see what happens! I moved here from upstate NY, via Seattle. Those are huge gardening changes. The soil here is FABULOUS…created by prairie grasses eons ago. My change? To be honest, to be myself, to speak loudly for those without voices, to not back down. It is a lifelong process! Cheers!

  7. Jane says:

    I would also like to win May Sarton’s books! I love to garden but am having problems with arthritis, so don’t do as much as I would like to. My DH who recently retired is a big help now ; )

  8. Jacqui Stuart says:

    I just discovered your blog recently. I am inspired by your words & pictures. I have a lovely grand daughter, Alexia, I would love to share these books with. She is 6 and thinks I am an awesome Mamaw. I strive hard to live up to that. I did order your book for myself & eagerly await its arrival today.

    I started a business with my sister last year that has not gone quite as well as hoped. It is more a one woman place & i am not that woman. I am now looking forward to yet another change in location later this year. This upcoming move will be the best yet tho. Closer to Alexia in miles.

  9. Judith Flynn says:

    Hello Margaret,

    Please count me in. Besides spending loads of time in the garden, I am spending loads of time in the library and reading. The librarian was so enthusiastic when I requested a May Sarton book. She also recommended Stillmeadow Seasons by Gladys Taber – the setting is around a farmhouse in Connecticut. You would like this one.


  10. dd says:

    Have not read these two, but sounds like good summer reading to inspire me as I begin to paint for an important upcoming show. (In between gardening chores, of course.)

  11. Mary Ahern says:

    My garden is my meditation, my calendar, my solace and my gym. I’ve imbibed May Sarton through the years.

  12. Rebecca Reed says:

    I haven’t revisited May Sarton in years, but always loved her books, especially the journals. She made me feel it was okay for a woman to enjoy her own company and yet she did have friends that visited her in her “house by the sea”. Now that I live alone with my own little garden, it would be a good thing to read her again.


  13. Cyndia Montgomery says:

    For the past 13 years, my husband and I have thrown ourselves into creating our vision of a sweet cottage and garden in town. Last year, our plans were completely ripped asunder, when a tornado skipped over and crushed our garage, blew out windows in our home, and worse (to me), severely damaged our garden. We have spent over a year putting things back together, and are nearly back to where we were a year ago.
    Last week, dozens of tornadoes tore through the South, many here in Alabama. Many of our friends and families suffered such horrific devastation to their properties. I drove out in the country yesterday to visit several friends affected. We are all gardeners. Seeing land which used to be heavily wooded and underplanted with shade-loving plants, now bare and open, brought me to tears. Houses are ripped off their foundations, some show only toilet or bathtub remaining. Our friends jokingly say they now have gardening “opportunities” to turn shade gardens into sun gardens, but it is devastating. Much solace is needed here.

  14. Patricia says:

    I’ve added your blog to my list of feeds as part of a new chapter in my life. You see, I’ve -at least temporarily – retired from the corporate world to try my hand at being a mom. While I’m at it, I’m also getting back to my roots and my forgotten loves — gardening, cooking and dabbling in the arts.

    Nine months into my new job of being a mom, and eight months after losing my own beloved mom to ALS, I’ve found myself digging into my cherished memories and trying, at the same time, to move ahead and plant seeds for *future* cherished memories for my daughter.

    I hope that I’m starting afresh with the life I was meant to live!

  15. Linda R. says:

    My toe is in a fresh start, even part of my foot, but I’m not quite brave enough for the full plunge. Like swimming, the only way to learn is by doing it. I have to take a deep breath and jump. I know I cannot drown.

  16. elizabeth says:

    Fresh starts? WONDERFUL!!!

    Every several years we move for my husband’s job and this time I decided my old self was sadly in need of renovation. In a spirit of reinventing myself, I have…..cut my hair SHORT (less time on hair means more time for other pursuits)….tied on my shoes and started running….dug out my shovel and started gardening (again)….and started saving $$$ for travel. First stop? I’m not sure, maybe Africa. Anyway, as a long-time believer in fresh starts, I just wanted to say….

    Pick me. Pick me. Pick me.

    Thanks :)

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