“Life and Wisdom of May Sarton”
Composed by Rev. Peg Boyle Morgan
April 24, 2005
West Seattle Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
We are indebted to Rev. Richard Henry, for his sharing with our study group his presentation on May’s life, and his audio of her memorial service which he officiated.
Assisting today are three of the participants in our May Sarton study group, which met January through March, a class that was part of our adult religious exploration offerings, which we call Common Quest: Peggy Abby, Theresa McCormick, Judy Lyn Sweetland
Chalice Lighting #691
Help us to be the always hopeful gardeners of the spirit
Who know that without darkness nothing comes to birth,
As without light nothing flowers.
INTRODUCTION AND PARENTS
One of the sources of wisdom that Unitarian Universalists turn to is “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” Today, the prophetic woman is May Sarton.
May was a Unitarian for over 70 years. She won awards among us, taught at our schools and conferences, and once proudly boasted that she supposed that some Unitarian minister somewhere in America was quoting her each Sunday. There are three of her writings in our current hymnal.
May Sarton devoted her life to writing 50 books of poetry, novels, journals and children’s stories. Of her work she once said: “Luckily for me my work is an intense joy as well as a necessity for me. I believe in it, and even if I were not to publish another book, I would still do it because I would wish to—because it makes me feel fully alive.” And she hoped her writings would reach others who might be experiencing similar thoughts and feelings.
Truly this was so, and the reason we are spending some time with her this morning is that her writings make her readers come more fully alive. Many of her readers feel that after they read May Sarton they believe they have met their best friend. Someone who understands and with whom you can be wholly authentic with.
May wrote in order to find out what she was feeling, and in the process went so deeply and so transparently, that she tapped into the well of universal human experience. In so doing, her readers feel liberated, for May’s willingness and courage to describe her inner most thoughts free us from thinking there is something not quite right about us. May teaches that nothing human is ever alien.
May was born in Belgium, in 1912, and emigrated with her parents to escape the threat of German occupation. The Sarton family settled into Cambridge Massachusetts, with May being an only child.
Her father taught at Harvard, and became well known for being the definitive scholar on the history of science. From George Sarton she learned that people who are rooted in their work are rooted in life. He believed that “we have only what we are and we only have what we give, but on condition that we give all.” A tall order to live up to, and indeed she did. She would observe at a later time in her life that we find our own self, not by pursuing one’s self, but rather by pursuing some project and learning through discipline and routine who one is and wants to be. May would take this lesson into her life by structuring her days with routine and scheduling. She found a kind of sanctity in her use and structure of time.
Her mother was a teacher. One of the lessons she learned from her mother was to be aware of what every living thing around her needed, whether it was her plants, her cat, or a friend--and her mother showed the costs of rigorous love. Let’s listen to May’s poem, entitled An Observation:
True gardeners cannot bear a glove
Between the sure touch and the tender root,
Must let their hands grow knotted as they move
With a rough sensitivity about
Under the earth, between the rock and shoot,
Never to bruise or wound the hidden fruit.
And so I watched my mother’s hands grow scarred,
She who could heal the wounded plant or friend
With the same vulnerable yet rigorous love;
I minded once to see her beauty gnarled,
But now her truth is given me to live,
As I learn for myself we must be hard
To move among the tender with an open hand,
And to stay sensitive up to the end
Pay with some toughness for a gentle world.
May spent most of her adult life living alone, most notably in New Hampshire and Maine, places where she found the solitude that she required to listen deeply to what was moving in her soul.
She recognized in herself that there were seasons to her soul, times when she would need to be alone, and even then know that the times of her aloneness would, in turn, drive her to need relatedness.
There is no doubt that solitude is a challenge and to maintain balance within it a precarious business. But I must not forget that, for me, being with people or even with one beloved person for any length of time without solitude is even worse. I lose my center. I feel dispersed, scattered, in pieces. I must have time alone in which to mull over any encounter, and to extract is juice, its essence, to understand what has really happened to me as a consequence of it….
“…I am determined to batten myself down, tighten up, go inward. I feel the day must be marked by a change of rhythm, by some quiet act of self-determination and self-assertion….We are overextended. Time to pull in the boundaries and lift the drawbridge.”
Her religious pilgrimage would be to travel inward and reflect on all that she found, the good and the not so desirable but real parts of herself. Robert Coles, the child psychologist/child faith development specialist would say that we are all indebted to May for her “willingness to give her specific fears and desires a chance to be of universal significance; to do that one must believe that private dilemmas are, if deeply examined, universal, and so if expressed have a human value beyond the private.”
And by turning inward, she tells us of the fruit that comes from such a pilgrimage, in this poem entitled:
Now I Become Myself
Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
“Hurry, you will be dead before—“
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent.
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted so by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!
May recognized the dichotomies of life. Serious needed to be balanced with joy. Indeed, joy and humor played an important part of her life. In a letter to a friend she described a night in France when she was kept awake all night by a loud and inexperienced nightingale.
In this poem entitled Sommersault May reflects on our need to balance our griefs with our joys.
Not to rebel against what pulls us down,
The private burdens each of us could name
That weigh heavily in the blood and bone
So that we stumble, clumsy half the time
Unable to love well or love at all!
Who knows the full weight that another bears,
What obscure densities sustains alone,
To burst fearfully through what self-locked doors?
So heavy is our walk with what we feel,
And cannot tell, and cannot ever tell.
Oh, to have the lightness, the savoir faire
Of a tightrope walker, his quicksilver tread
As he runs softly over the taut steel thread;
Sharp as a knife blade cutting walls of air,
He’s pitted against weights we cannot see,
All tension balanced, though we see him only
A rapture of grace and skill, focused and lonely.
Is it a question of discipline or grace?
The steel trap of the will or some slight shift
Within an opened consciousness?
The tightrope walker juggles weights, to lit
Himself up on the stress, and, airy master
Of his own loss, he springs from heaviness.
But we, stumbling our way, how learn such poise,
The perfect balance of all griefs and joys?
Burdened by love, how learn the light release
That, out of stress, can somersault to peace?
May found balance in the joy of gardening. Part of her daily routine was going out into the garden to cut flowers for her study. She inherited from her mother a love of flowers and nature; and so for her a house never stood alone; it always had the companion of a garden. Even those of us who never have found an addiction with the soil, know its hold upon others. Sarton wrote:
Making a garden is not a gentle hobby for the elderly, to be picked up and laid down like a game of solitaire. It is a grand passion. It seizes a person whole, and once it has done so he will have to accept that life is going to be radically changed. There are seasons when he will hesitate to travel, and if he does travel, his mind will be distracted by the thousand and one children he has left behind, children who are always in period of one sort or another. However sober he may have been before, he will soon become an inveterate gambler who cuts his losses and begins again; he may think he intends to pare down on spending energy and money, but that is an illusion, and he soon learns that a garden is an ever-expanding venture. Whatever he had considered to be his profession has become an avocation. His vocation is his garden. (From Plant Dreaming Deep)
May struggled with her own demons. She had a reputation for being at times disagreeable, even destructive with her anger. It could pull her down and alienate people from her. Of this she observed:
I have to forgive myself to keep on creating and being what I can be. If I dwell too much on my lacks, I simply must become useless to myself and others. That they (demons) are immense and terribly destructive I need not be told, but I believe truly that God has forgiven me a long time ago because he knows what he has laid upon me and that to remain as transparent and vulnerable as I must and to go on creating forever, is all that he can ask.
So May was not separate from the dark side of life. She talked about wickedness as an absolute reality, that each of us battles within ourselves. She wrote in search of sources of strength, such as in this poem:
Letters From Maine -- 6
May Sarton – 1984, age 72
“When a woman feels alone, when the room
Is full of daemons, “ the Nootka tribe
Tells us, “The Old Woman will be there.”
She has come to me over three thousand miles
And what does she have to tell me, troubled
“by phantoms in the night?” Is she really here?
What is the saving word from so deep in the past,
From as deep as the ancient rot of the redwood,
From as deep as the primal bed of the ocean,
From as deep as a woman’s heart sprung open
Again through a hard birth or a hard death?
Here under the shock of love, I am open
To you, Primal Spirit, one with rock and wave,
One with the survivors of flood and fire,
Who have rebuilt their homes a million times,
Who have lost their children and borne them again.
The words I hear are strength, laughter, endurance.
Old woman I meet you deep inside myself.
There in the rootbed of fertility,
World without end, as the legend tells it.
Under the words you are my silence.
And she admonishes us that “the hardest thing we are asked to do in this world is to remain aware of suffering. In her Ware lecture to the UU General Assembly she said her most important concept was that in spite of the baffling state of the world “it is still possible for one human being, with imagination and will, to move mountains. The danger is that we become so overwhelmed by the negative that we cannot act.”
REFLECTIONS ON DEATH
As she entered the last years of her life, May wrote in her journals and wrote poems about death. As part of her Autumn Sonnets, this poem depicts her belief that love remains even in death, as the roots of a tree remain strong even as the leaves fall.
If I can let you go as trees let go
Their leaves, so casually, one by one;
If I can come to know what they do know,
That fall is the release, the consummation,
Then fear of time and the uncertain fruit
Would not distemper the great lucid skies
This strangest autumn, mellow and acute.
If I can take the dark with open eyes
And call it seasonal, not harsh or strange
(For love itself may need a time of sleep),
And, treelike, stand unmoved before the change,
Lose what I lose to keep what I can keep,
The strong root still alive under the snow,
Love will endure - if I can let you go.
And of her own end of life, she said:
I have entered a new phase and am approaching my death. If I can accept this, not as a struggle to keep going at my former pace but as a time of meditation where I need ask nothing of myself, will nothing except to live as well as possible as aware as possible, then I could feel I am preparing for a last great adventure as happily as I can.
And in the title work in her last book of poems, she writes:
Coming into eighty
I slow my ship down
For a safe landing.
It has been battered,
One sail torn, the rudder
We are hardly a glorious sight.
It has been a long voyage
Through time, travail and triumph,
Of learning what to be
And how to become it.
One day the ship will decompose
And ten what will become of me?
Only a breath
Gone into nothingness
Or a spirit of air and fire
Greet us at landfall
The old ship and me,
But we can’t stay anchored.
Soon we must set sail
On the last mysterious voyage
Without my ship there
Wish me well.
May lived a long and remarkably fruitful life. It is our hope this morning that sharing her wisdom has somewhere along the way touched in you a knowingness, affirming some truth you have experienced but perhaps haven’t for some time put words to.
May set sail for the mysterious voyage with her death in
1995. Her courage to share her innermost human experience
allows us to claim our whole selves more fully. The works she has
left behind make up a lasting legacy to all of us who hope…
…to be the always hopeful gardeners of the spirit
knowing that without darkness nothing comes to birth,
As without light nothing flowers.
May it be so. Amen