If a woman has artificial flowers in her house, flowers that need dusting twice a year but never die, she is closing herself off from any understanding of death.
—May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude
Yesterday I woke up at 4 am to wild flashes of lightning through my window, the shade pulled all the way up. There has been steady lightning here at night without the accompanying sounds of thunder, and very little rain. The July monsoons have mostly left, but the remains linger. The roses from April are back, but less abundant and more wilted. A few butterfly bush blooms from May are here again, but they look a little lost and confused amongst all their dead comrades.
The spiral of time is melting into a muddy-colored puddle.
And the peace I felt here is starting to feel like vines growing around my shoulders and over my mouth. The kitchen is the darkest room in the house—the most central room in the house, how apt. There used to be a kitchen window, but an add-on was built by the previous owner, so where there used to be a window is instead a hole looking into the wall of a hallway and upon that wall is a rainbow-colored zebra.
Paintings on walls and windows looking into halls will never be able to light up a room.
The dark rooms are seeped with sadness and the walls here are too thin. But apparently thick enough to be unable to hear a person’s cries for help.
Things feel like they’re dying here. The dogs are getting old and creaky. The parents constantly discuss and plan their upcoming retirement. The little brother’s ashes sit in an urn, out of sight.
I cut some perky yellow roses the other day and put them in a vase and the next day they were completely hunched over.
Same. I don’t like being inside this house either. I’m sorry for doing you dirty.
Part of me knows this is good. Being uncomfortable is good. Up until recently, I couldn’t imagine myself actually moving out of my parents’ house again. I definitely hadn’t planned to live with them for the past two years, but I lacked the courage to leave. Except when my desire to leave was motivated by shame, feeling like a pathetic 27-year-old loser who couldn’t get her fucking shit together.
I finally, though, gave myself enough kindness and grace to examine this lethargy around moving out. And I realized I’m carrying lots of trauma from the past, making me feel unsafe out in the world.
As if to validate the reality of these fears, two weeks ago I finally set an energetic intention to move out *soon* (no deadline yet, but the intention helps put the heat on), and that very night I had a bad dream about it.
I dreamt that I found this amazing old two-story home for rent in a valley in Idaho, overlooking a river and a field of horses. The rent was only $500 a month, and it sounded too good to be true, so I asked the realtor to explain the pricing to me. She started pointing out a lot of flaws with the house, including the fact that it was cluttered with the previous owner’s possessions, an old man who had died in the home and no one came to claim his stuff. Haunted house? I can handle that for $500 a month. Easy.
And then the day after I signed the lease and moved in, my neighbor broke in and stabbed me repeatedly with a butcher knife and then I woke up. The end.
It’s what happened the last time I moved out. I mean, I didn’t get physically stabbed with a knife, but definitely did emotionally. Everything was magical in the beginning, everything was working out perfectly, it felt too good to be true, and my happiest adult memories were made. And then everything went to shit. Everything broke down, and my most traumatic adult memories were made. I didn’t feel safe in my own home but I had nowhere else to go and I’m still trying to process everything that happened because writing it all out sounds like the suffering olympics because there was just so. much. shit. And I hate that.
But now I know. I’m afraid of good things because I think they’re going to turn bad. I don’t trust myself to create a stable home environment away from my parents. I’m projecting fears of the past onto my future and it’s keeping me stuck sitting at a desk in a room in my parents’ home like Emily Dickinson. I resonate with her so much, I feel her in my soul as if I reincarnated with bits of her in me, I love her deeply—but I don’t want to live like her in that sense, with my parents, for the remainder of my life.
I don’t have a specific location in mind for when I leave. I want to get in my car and drive. Pretty much every day in my journal I find myself writing, “I just want to be free. I want to slim down and have independence.”
Slim down, minimize, zig while they zag.
Like the very first concert I ever went to (Skillet, in 2009), me and my friends were all in the mosh pit and I quickly learned how to move with the crowd so I could move through the crowd. I felt like a little water bug: flow with the mass and then dart through the narrow gaps to get to the front. Until some skank bitch yanked on my ponytail to jerk me backwards so she could take my spot at the front (but that’s beside the point . . . I just feel sad that there are people in the world who must resort to such measures to get ahead in life . . . but I digress . . . lol).
Life is not so slim and zippy lately. It’s heavy and slow. I feel tied to the crowd.
There are so many packages being delivered to the house. Several packages a week. New ones arrive before old ones are even completely opened and unpacked and dealt with. Boxes everywhere. Boxes to fill the hole created by the death of a son.
The amount of stuff in this house is at a level that makes me feel pinchy and claustrophobic. Even my room started getting uncomfortably full. Which is weird because I’ve long been a minimalist vagabondy type person. Nothing makes me happier than sauntering alone through the world with a single backpack.
Plus I hate shopping, so I’m really confused as to how the fuck there came to be so much shit compiled in my room. Are people giving me stuff? I really can’t remember. Very rarely are the boxes on the front porch addressed to me.
But the fact remains: there is too much stuff and I find it difficult to leave the house.
The reason the stuff accumulates and life stops flowing is due to trauma. Everyone’s favorite buzzword. Trauma traps your emotions leading you to re-live that shit on a loop, causes health problems, leads to addictions.
Finally starting to admit that the past got me fucked up and I was too wounded to deal with it, has helped me to slowly untangle from the pile of stuff everywhere. I find it an easier task now to compile things to donate, shred papers, let go of attachment. I even have a budget and am contributing to my IRA and savings each month. Pretty adorable of me, I know.
I don’t want to be stuck with stuff. I want to be free flowing.
A frozen, stuck-with-stuff life terrifies me.
When my brother Zach died last year, we fought over . . . the remains. My dad wanted his ashes stored in a mausoleum in Idaho. I told him that was creepy as fuck. His ashes, for now, are stored in a purple urn, somewhere unknown in the house, as I freaked out at the idea of them being on display. My mom asked us siblings if we wanted little mini urns with some of his ashes. I told her absolutely not.
I’ve been an ornery bitch throughout this whole process.
I’ve always found “death stuff” to be fascinating in a general sense: open caskets at funerals, this dead body display we saw at a museum in Portland when we were teens, skulls and bones, walking around cemeteries at night like every other anemic insomniac writer chick.
But when it comes to my brother, when it’s fucking personal, I hate everything. Associating this shit with my brother sucks.
We’re not supposed to cling to the remains of death like this. Not when it’s done as a coping mechanism for pain.
These two concepts are colliding.
My brothers ashes being trapped inside an urn, and me feeling like I’m slowly being buried alive at my parents’ house.
I love my parents, I truly do, but I need to be free. I’m trying.
I’m not ready to settle down like a coffin in the ground or an urn on display. I want to be unfettered like ashes on the wind. Under a tree or in the river. I want to explore the earth before my body becomes a part of it. I’m not scared of death personally. I’m scared of other people’s fears. I can feel their fear like a palpable substance in the air. I’m scared of a frozen life. Gone too soon. Trapped by hasty decisions and restrictive belief systems and heavy fear.
Ghost house, get out.
I think I’m afraid here because Zach didn’t get to live enough life. And now they want to store his ashes in the same house where he died. I just . . . want him to be free. And I want my parents to be free.
Grief can bury us while we’re still alive.
I feel more myself again after facing my fears and traumas. Meditating, journaling, crying. The usual. Whatever it takes to get the weight off. I feel more like the me who hopped on buses and trains, slept on benches and in parking lots, dumpster dived for groceries, hitchhiked.
I don’t have to sit at a desk in my parents’ house for the rest of my life like Emily Dickinson. I really did accept that as my fate for a while. But the fire is coming back. The heavy greasy lethargic layers are peeling, healing.
This poem by Laurie Halse Anderson, from her book Shout, perfectly sums up how I’m feeling now, so I’ll leave you with it:
I can’t stand this
I can’t stay here
I should leave
I want to leave
rose into a tidal wave of
If a woman has artificial flowers in her house, flowers that need dusting twice a year but never die, she is closing herself off from any understanding of death.
—May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude
I see my brother in the halls. He flickers and doesn’t speak. At night, if I’m lucky, he visits me in my dreams. I wish he came every night. Maybe he’s busy, maybe he’s resting. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough yet.
If I could, I’d bring him outside with me, to stand in the sun. But he never follows me out. So I whisper to him instead, in the wind, to the trees, hoping he can hear me. Maybe I’m not listening well enough yet.
The last time we hung out, one on one, was in the backyard gazebo. Warm stone, smoothed over with dirt and leaves. It was windy that evening. I’ve swept it clean. I sweep it every day now.
I wish I could give him flowers. People never give flowers to boys until after they die. I’ll plant him flowers and sing to them until they grow tall. Taller than me and the room and the house.
Flowers always die, but still we plant them in the ground.
I wish I could cut you down and take you with me, dry you and keep you pressed in my pocket, but I want you to keep growing so I’ll leave you there and visit often.
Title: Journal of a Solitude
Author: May Sarton
Read In: 2021
I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my “real” life again at last. That is what is strange—that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone here and “the house and I resume old conversations.”
When I am alone the flowers are really seen; I can pay attention to them. They are felt as presences. Without them I would die. Why do I say that? Partly because they change before my eyes. They live and die in a few days; they keep me closely in touch with process, with growth, and also with dying. I am floated on their moments.
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The ambience here is order and beauty. That is what frightens me when I am first alone again. I feel inadequate. I have made an open place, a place for meditation. What if I cannot find myself inside it? I think of these pages as a way of doing that. For a long time now, every meeting with another human being has been a collision. I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation. But the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting, and tormented self. I have written every poem, every novel, for the same purpose—to find out what I think, to know where I stand. I am unable to become what I see. I feel like an inadequate machine, a machine that breaks down at crucial moments, grinds to a dreadful halt, “won’t go,” or, even worse, explodes in some innocent person’s face.
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I live alone, perhaps for no good reason, for the reason that I am an impossible creature, set apart by a temperament I have never learned to use as it could be used, thrown off by a word, a glance, a rainy day, or one drink too many. My need to be alone is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge empty silence if I cannot find support there. I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour, and keep alive only by imposing upon myself inexorable routines. I write too many letters and too few poems. It may be outwardly silent here but in the back of my mind is a clamor of human voices, too many needs, hopes, fears. I hardly ever sit still without being haunted by the “undone” and the “unsent.” I often feel exhausted, but it is not my work that tires (work is a rest); it is the effort of pushing away the lives and needs of others before I can come to the work with any freshness and zest.
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In the mail a letter from a twelve-year-old child, enclosing poems, her mother having pushed her to ask my opinion. This child does really look at things, and I can write something helpful, I think. But it is troubling how many people expect applause, recognition, when they have not even begun to learn an art or a craft. Instant success is the order of the day; “I want it now!” I wonder whether this is not part of our corruption by machines. Machines do things very quickly and outside the natural rhythm of life, and we are indignant if a car doesn’t start at the first try. So the few things that we still do, such as cooking (though there are TV dinners!), knitting, gardening, anything at all that cannot be hurried, have a very particular value.
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But the storm, painful as it is, might have had some truth in it. So sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands. The reasons for depression are not so interesting as the way one handles it, simply to stay alive.
We have to believe that each person counts, counts as a creative force that can move mountains.
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Found this in an old journal of mine—Humphry Trevelyan on Goethe: “It seems that two qualities are necessary if a great artist is to remain creative to the end of a long life; he must on the one hand retain an abnormally keen awareness of life, he must never grow complacent, never be content with life, must always demand the impossible and when he cannot have it, must despair. The burden of the mystery must be with him day and night. He must be shaken by the naked truths that will not be comforted. This divine discontent, this disequilibrium, this state of inner tension is the source of artistic energy. Many lesser poets have it only in their youth; some even of the greatest lose it in middle life. Wordsworth lost the courage to despair and with it his poetic power. But more often the dynamic tensions are so powerful that they destroy the man before he reaches maturity.”
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He taught me a great deal. His slow steady way of working taught me patience—“ Easy does it.” His infinite care about small tasks, the way he knelt to clip around the trees after cutting the grass, the way he worked, not for me but to hold up his own standards of a good job—and he must have known very well that half the time I could not really appreciate what that “good job” had involved. I loved him, loved that streak of wildness in him that might make him lay down his tools and walk off, at war with some demon. He lived in a state of intense personal drama, and that, perhaps, is what lifted him out of the ordinary. Deep down we recognized each other long ago as of the same breed, passionate, ornery, and proud.
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She and I have lived through a lot of joy and grief together and now they are “woven fine” through all that we exchange. I am an ornery character, often hard to get along with. The things I cannot stand, that make me flare up like a cat making a fat tail, are pretentiousness, smugness, the coarse grain that often shows itself in a turn of phrase. I hate vulgarity, coarseness of soul. I hate small talk with a passionate hatred. Why? I suppose because any meeting with another human being is collision for me now. It is always expensive, and I will not waste my time. It is never a waste of time to be outdoors, and never a waste of time to lie down and rest even for a couple of hours. It is then that images float up and then that I plan my work. But it is a waste of time to see people who have only a social surface to show. I will make every effort to find out the real person, but if I can’t, then I am upset and cross. Time wasted is poison.
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Does anything in nature despair except man? An animal with a foot caught in a trap does not seem to despair. It is too busy trying to survive. It is all closed in, to a kind of still, intense waiting. Is this a key? Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.
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I DON’T know whether the inward work is achieving something or whether it is simply the autumn light, but I begin to see my way again, which means to resume myself.
Once more poetry is for me the soul-making tool. Perhaps I am learning at last to let go, and that is what this resurgence of poetry is all about.
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Whole lines run through my head and I cannot stop writing until whatever it is gets said.
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It is an age where more and more human beings are caught up in lives where fewer and fewer inward decisions can be made, where fewer and fewer real choices exist. The fact that a middle-aged, single woman, without any vestige of family left, lives in this house in a silent village and is responsible only to her own soul means something. The fact that she is a writer and can tell where she is and what it is like on the pilgrimage inward can be of comfort. It is comforting to know there are lighthouse keepers on rocky islands along the coast. Sometimes, when I have been for a walk after dark and see my house lighted up, looking so alive, I feel that my presence here is worth all the Hell. I have time to think. That is the great, the greatest luxury. I have time to be. Therefore my responsibility is huge. To use time well and to be all that I can in whatever years are left to me. This does not dismay. The dismay comes when I lose the sense of my life as connected (as if by an aerial) to many, many other lives whom I do not even know and cannot ever know. The signals go out and come in all the time. Why is it that poetry always seems to me so much more a true work of the soul than prose? I never feel elated after writing a page of prose, though I have written good things on concentrated will, and at least in a novel the imagination is fully engaged. Perhaps it is that prose is earned and poetry given. Both can be revised almost indefinitely. I do not mean to say that I do not work at poetry. When I am really inspired I can put a poem through a hundred drafts and keep my excitement. But this sustained battle is possible only when I am in a state of grace, when the deep channels are open, and when they are, when I am both profoundly stirred and balanced, then poetry comes as a gift from powers beyond my will. I have often imagined that if I were in solitary confinement for an indefinite time and knew that no one would ever read what I wrote, I would still write poetry, but I would not write novels. Why? Perhaps because the poem is primarily a dialogue with the self and the novel a dialogue with others. They come from entirely different modes of being. I suppose I have written novels to find out what I thought about something and poems to find out what I felt about something.
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It has been next to impossible to keep at this journal lately because I am writing poems and they take the marrow of my energy. Things stir and buzz in my mind but do not get sorted out on paper. Today I want to think a little about loyalty, and it is a fact that I can think something out only by writing it. It is interesting that there is very little about loyalty under that heading in the Oxford Book of Quotations or in Bartlett; yet it must be one of the crucial concepts having to do with human relations, closely connected with trust. I am accused of disloyalty because I talk about things that many people would keep to themselves, and especially because I may discuss with people who “should not know” a human situation in which I am involved. I am not at all discreet about anything that concerns feeling. My business is the analysis of feeling. It is the same with money—both human problems and money flow out of this house very freely, and I believe that is good. At least, it has to do in both cases with a vision of life, with an ethos. Might there be a valid distinction to be made between gossip (re human affairs) and boasting (re money) and this free flow in which I believe? I am always so astonished, after all the years when I had none, that I now have money to give away that sometimes I may speak of it out of sheer joy. No one who has inherited a fortune would ever do this, I suspect—noblesse oblige. No doubt it is shocking to some people. But I am really rather like a child who runs about saying, “Look at this treasure I found! I am going to give it to Peter, who is sad, or to Betty, who is sick.” It reminds me of the old days with Kot* and James Stephens when we made up endless fantasies about what we would do when we were rich … and being very rich then meant not having to worry about every week’s expenses! Being very rich so far as I am concerned is having a margin. The margin is being able to give. I do not feel disloyal when I talk about my own life or that of the many others who pour in here in one way or another. What I am loyal to, I hope, is something more complex, i.e., I would not use things I know about anyone’s private life to further my own ends. That would be both indiscreet and disloyal. But I believe we learn through the experiences of others as well as through our own, constantly meditating upon them, drawing the sustenance of human truth from them, and it seems natural to me to wish to share these aperçus, these questions, these oddities, these dilemmas and pangs. Why? Partly, I suppose, because the more one is a receptacle of human destinies, as I have become through my readers, the more one realizes how very few people could be called happy, how complex and demanding every deep human relationship is, how much real pain, anger, and despair are concealed by most people. And this is because many feel their own suffering is unique. It is comforting to know that we are all in the same boat. Into this house comes the despair now of many middle-aged women, to take one example.
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D and I are the same breed of cat, responsive and sensitive close to the surface, willing to give ourselves away. Such people rarely lead happy lives, but they do lead lives of constant growth and change. Gerald Heard’s saying “he must go unprotected that he may be constantly changed” always comes to mind when I am speaking of what it is to be a poet and to go on writing poetry beyond the meridian of life.
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The delights of the poet as I jotted them down turned out to be light, solitude, the natural world, love, time, creation itself. Suddenly after the months of depression I am fully alive in all these areas, and awake.
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I felt culture in its deepest sense, what civilizes people, as only a thin veneer, like the new houses which turn out to have a brick façade pasted onto some other material. And how incredible it was, in autumn, to swing past acres and acres of fancy French provincial, Spanish, or Tudor houses where not a leaf is allowed to rest on the immaculate lawns! So beautiful in a House and Garden sort of way, so empty of poetry. For poetry lives in places where people work in their gardens or let them go wild and do not leave it to impersonal firms of gardeners to plant and trim.
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This whole month is bits and pieces of time with every weekend absorbed in one way or another. Poetry has gone. No lines jump into my mind; the taut thread gone slack. I myself am slack. What is needed is a frame, an order, to be once again established against the powerful current of letters to answer and the excitement of Kinds of Love coming out. I am in a limbo that needs to be patterned from within. People who have regular jobs can have no idea of just this problem of ordering a day that has no pattern imposed on it from without.
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We are whole or have intimations of what it means to be whole when the entire being—spirit, mind, nerves, flesh, the body itself—are concentrated toward a single end. I feel it when I am writing a poem. Churchill embodied it during the Blitz. De Gaulle, perhaps more than any other leader of our time, was its exemplar. Wholeness does not, of course, necessarily mean being right in a deduction or an action. It does mean not being divided in spirit by conscience, by doubt, by fear. The Japanese call it being “one-pointed.”
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Half the world is feminine—why is there resentment at a female-oriented art? Nobody asks The Tale of Genji to be masculine! Women certainly learn a lot from books oriented toward a masculine world. Why is not the reverse also true? Or are men really so afraid of women’s creativity (because they are not themselves at the center of creation, cannot bear children) that a woman writer of genius evokes murderous rage, must be brushed aside with a sneer as “irrelevant”?
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every man, in the course of his life, must not only show himself obedient and docile. By his fidelity he must build—starting with the most natural territory of his own self—a work, an opus, into which something enters from all the elements of the earth. He makes his own soul throughout his earthly days; and at the same time he collaborates in another work, in another opus, which infinitely transcends, while at the same time it narrowly determines, the perspectives of his individual achievement: the completing of the world. It is only when we can believe that we are creating the soul that life has any meaning, but when we can believe it—and I do and always have—then there is nothing we do that is without meaning and nothing that we suffer that does not hold the seed of creation in it. I
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Two of my best poets at Wellesley, two girls who had something like genius, each married and each stopped writing altogether. Now this year each is moving toward poetry again. That news made me happy. It also made me aware once more of how rarely a woman is able to continue to create after she marries and has children. Whatever college does not do, it does create a climate where work is demanded and where nearly every student finds him-or herself meeting the demand with powers he did not know he had. Then quite suddenly a young woman, if she marries, has to diverge completely from this way of life, while her husband simply goes on toward the goals set in college. She is expected to cope not with ideas, but with cooking food, washing dishes, doing laundry, and if she insists on keeping at a job, she needs both a lot of energy and the ability to organize her time. If she has an infant to care for, the jump from the intellectual life to that of being a nurse must be immense. “The work” she may long to do has been replaced by various kinds of labor for which she has been totally unprepared. She has longed for children, let us say, she is deeply in love, she has what she thought she wanted, so she suffers guilt and dismay to feel so disoriented. Young husbands these days can and do help with the chores and, far more important, are aware of the problem and will talk anxiously about it—anxiously because a wife’s conflict affects their peace of mind. But the fact remains that, in marrying, the wife has suffered an earthquake and the husband has not. His goals have not been radically changed; his mode of being has not been radically changed.
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The danger, of course, is overmanipulation, when one finds oneself manipulating words, not images or concepts.
There is an atmosphere of festival, of release, in the house. We are one, the house and I, and I am happy to be alone—time to think, time to be. This kind of open-ended time is the only luxury that really counts and I feel stupendously rich to have it.
The truth is that I moved in and immediately began to write and garden. That was what I was after—a daily rhythm, a kind of fugue of poetry, gardening, sleeping and waking in the house. Nothing else mattered enough to take the time.
Lunches are just not good. They take the heart out of the day and the spaciousness from the morning’s work.
I always forget how important the empty days are, how important it may be sometimes not to expect to produce anything, even a few lines in a journal. I am still pursued by a neurosis about work inherited from my father. A day where one has not pushed oneself to the limit seems a damaged damaging day, a sinful day. Not so! The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of a room, not try to be or do anything whatever.
If a woman has artificial flowers in her house, flowers that need dusting twice a year but never die, she is closing herself off from any understanding of death.
When I speak of life and love as expanding with age, sex seems the least important thing. At any age we grow by the enlarging of consciousness, by learning a new language, or a new art or craft (gardening?) that implies a new way of looking at the universe. Love is one of the great enlargers of the person because it requires us to “take in” the stranger and to understand him, and to exercise restraint and tolerance as well as imagination to make the relationship work. If love includes passion, it is more explosive and dangerous and forces us to go deeper.
It occurs to me that boredom and panic are the two devils the solitary must combat.
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I dreamed in the night of writing some poems of quiet happiness, descriptions of shadow on snow or light on the walls of a room. Will it be possible? Or is poetry for me always a matter of handling tension, a polarity between tensions?
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There is a fashion at present (Berryman began it) for finding a persona of this sort, an outrageous, dark, humorous, awkward persona into which anxiety, rage, and crazy laughter can be poured. We are tired of being ourselves, naked—is that it? Women do not feel the need of a persona, but I have an idea that women are far more interested in self-actualization than men are. Women internalize their lives to a greater extent, and the poetry of internalization can be valid. Form may create the necessary “distance.” What bothers me is nakedness as bravado. Then it becomes embarrassing: “Look at me … Aren’t I shocking?” But transparency does not shock: “Look through me and find everyman, yourself.” Somewhere between the minute particular and the essence lies the land of poetry. But as I write this I hear no roar of the waves, feel no undertow dragging me under into the fertile unconscious world of creation.
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I felt excited, trembling, at the thought of all I have to say here and of poems to be—gently shifting patterns like seaweed in the ocean of my mind as I lay there—
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A good piece by Auden in the Times. I read it while eating a hot dog at the kitchen counter and felt happy. His theme is that we are losing two precious qualities, the ability to laugh heartily and the ability to pray, a plea for carnival and for prayer, the conscious thumbing of the nose at death. I suppose that the only prayer—reached only after all pleas for grace or for some specific gift have been uttered and laid aside—is, “Give me to be in your presence.” This is really just about what George Harrison, the Beatle, sings in the hit song of the moment: “I want to know you, I want to be with you.” Simone Weil says, “Absolute attention is prayer.” And the more I have thought about this over the years, the truer it is for me. I have used the sentence often in talking about poetry to students, to suggest that if one looks long enough at almost anything, looks with absolute attention at a flower, a stone, the bark of a tree, grass, snow, a cloud, something like revelation takes place. Something is “given,” and perhaps that something is always a reality outside the self. We are aware of God only when we cease to be aware of ourselves, not in the negative sense of denying the self, but in the sense of losing self in admiration and joy. And in a strange way laughter has the same effect. We are able to laugh when we achieve detachment, if only for a moment.
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I asked myself the question, “What do you want of your life?” and I realized with a start of recognition and terror, “Exactly what I have—but to be commensurate, to handle it all better.” Yet it is not those fits of weeping that are destructive. They clear the air, as Herbert says so beautifully: Poets have wronged poor storms: such days are best; They purge the air without, within the breast. What is destructive is impatience, haste, expecting too much too fast.
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the discipline of work provides an exercise bar, so that the wild, irrational motions of the soul become formal and creative. It literally keeps one from falling on one’s face. That is one way to keep alive in self-made solitary confinement. I have found it useful also these past days to say to myself, “What if I were not alone? What if I had ten children to get off to school every morning and a massive wash to do before they got home? What if two of them were in bed with flu, cross and at a loose end?” That is enough to send me back to solitude as if it were—as it truly is—a fabulous gift from the gods.
Each day, and the living of it, has to be a conscious creation in which discipline and order are relieved with some play and some pure foolishness.
I long for open time, with no obligations except toward the inner world and what is going on there.
I am a little sad now because, for the moment, poetry is not here.
Gardening is altogether different. There the door is always open into the “holy”—growth, birth, death. Every flower holds the whole mystery in its short cycle, and in the garden we are never far away from death, the fertilizing, good, creative death.
I wanted to tell someone about my adventures, but with no one to talk to they sort themselves out while I sleep, the chaotic mass of images gradually separated out and reduced to essence.
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on the last day a visit to Ethel Seybold’s ancient farm … a farm once in her family that she has rescued from almost total dilapidation. It has such a wholesome, ancient sweetness about it. She and her sister work at it as if it were a poem. On the brink of their retirement this house has become for them the source of joy and adventure.
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there is something wrong when solitude such as mine can be “envied” by a happily married woman with children. Mine is not, I feel sure, the best human solution. Nor have I ever thought it was. In my case it has perhaps made possible the creation of some works of art, but certainly it has done so at a high price in emotional maturity and in happiness. What I have is space around me and time around me. How they can be achieved in a marriage is the real question. It is not an easy one to answer. It is harder than it used to be because everything has become speeded up and overcrowded. So everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow cycles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace. It is harder than it used to be because standards of housekeeping and house-decorating have become pretentious and competitive. I don’t blame children for fleeing those House Beautiful houses, nonshelters, dehumanized, ostentatious, rarely expressing an individual family’s way of life. When I was writing a column for Family Circle I had planned one in praise of shabbiness. A house that does not have one worn, comfy chair in it is soulless. It all comes back to the fact that we are not asked to be perfect, only human. What a relief it is to walk into a human house! Is it, au fond, that we try to control too much? Plants, for instance, humanize an interior because they can’t be controlled. But one does not need to show off a house, only live in it, to make a true shelter and nurturing place for human needs. And that means not so much efficiency as life enhancement: a cat sitting on a table to look out, a bowl of flowering bulbs, books scattered about. I knew when I walked in here last Sunday that this house dies when there are no flowers. It felt desolate and I ended the day in tears, as if I had been abandoned by God. Now there are crimson tulips in one room, white and pink ones in another, and I can breathe, am full of joy and at home again.
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I have been thinking that painters are enriching friends for a poet, and vice versa. Because the medium is different there is not the slightest shadow of competition, which I fear is always there between writers. The criticism we give each other, the way we look at each other’s work, is pure and full of joy, a spontaneous response. I envy painters because they can set their work up and look at it whole in a way that a writer cannot, even with a single page of prose or a poem. But how hard it must be to give up a painting! When a book appears it goes out into the world, but the writer still keeps it and can go on giving it to friends over and over again. The painting is gone forever. I suppose I envy painters because they can meditate on form and structure, on color and light, and not concern themselves with human torment and chaos. It is restful even to imagine expression without words.
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it is exhilarating—a whole empty day to try to use well, to get out of the clutter of these last “catching-up” days and what feels like thickets of undigested experience. It is hard not to be thrown by the re-entry into solitude after a week away, for I am at once attacked by many needs; many different kinds of response are required, when all I long for is to have twenty-four hours in which to sort out what has happened to me. I feel like a river when the tide changes and for a while the waters flow in crosscurrent, with no direction, only a pulling from all sides.
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the habitation reflected in a very special way the tone, the hidden music, as it were, of a woman, and a woman living alone, the sense of a deep loam of experience and taste expressed in the surroundings, the room a shell that reverberated with oceans and tides and waves of the owner’s past, the essence of a human life as it had lived itself into certain colors, objets d’art, and especially into many books. The nostalgia comes from the longing to be taken into that world by what the French call an amitié amoureuse, recognized from the start as an attraction that will never be “realized” as a love affair, but where there is a strong echo of feeling on each side, whether uttered or not—perfume on the air of sadness, renunciation even, or the light bitter taste of a persimmon. Louise’s word for this atmosphere was “life-enhancing.” The substance of such relationships lies in certain affinities close to the soul—affinities that will keep the relationship nonpassionate, tender, and full of revelation.
I cried bitterly last night, as if a prison door were closing. But this is a mood, of course. Solitude here is my life. I have chosen it and had better go on making as great riches as possible out of despair.
It is the horses that make one catch one’s breath. They are huge, looming there in the dark. I never see them without marveling that man ever tamed them to his own use, for they seem like gods.
JUST A BIT too much life pouring in lately, so I feel agitated and up in the air. Let me quiet down by copying a letter from Basil de Selincourt, dated December 19th, 1954, about women as poets. I looked it up as I was thinking over some things Carol said the other day. You ask me for a personal pronouncement on women’s poetry (if there is such a thing!). For several years I wanted to make an anthology of them, which several poets have now done. My hunch is that if anything is needed it is that women should quietly realize that theirs is creatively the primary role; man and his mind are an offshoot like sparks thrown out; woman is at the centre to “be still and know.”
Carol would react violently against Basil’s dicta, especially to the phrase that insists on a passive role for the woman, “be still and know.” Where I agree with her, and was refreshed by insights I have laid aside lately, is that every artist is androgynous, that it is the masculine in a woman and the feminine in a man that proves creative. This I have always believed. But where she brought me a fresh image was to suggest that we should place all human lives in a spectrum with the very masculine man at one end and the very feminine woman at the other, and then every gradation toward the middle. I would agree also that the ultrafeminine may be as off the beam as the ultramasculine and that people of the greatest creativity and force, as well as the greatest understanding, come near the middle of the spectrum. If we could lay aside worrying about these percentages, and each of us come to a sense of moving from his own center (wherever it may be on the spectrum) we would obviously be a great deal freer and happier.
I find that when I have any appointment, even an afternoon one, it changes the whole quality of time. I feel overcharged. There is no space for what wells up from the subconscious; those dreams and images live in deep still water and simply submerge when the day gets scattered.
Yesterday an unknown sent me, out of the blue, a book called Loneliness, by Clark E. Moustakas. I opened to this passage: “I began to see that loneliness is neither good nor bad, but a point of intense and timeless awareness of the Self, a beginning which initiates totally new sensitivities and awarenesses, and which results in bringing a person deeply in touch with his own existence and in touch with others in a fundamental sense.”
I am badgered by all these anxieties, but they are not what I mean by clutter. Clutter is what silts up exactly like silt in a flowing stream when the current, the free flow of the mind, is held up by an obstruction. I spent four hours in Keene yesterday getting the car inspected and two new tires put on, also finding a few summer blouses. The mail has accumulated in a fearful way, so I have a huge disorderly pile of stuff to be answered on my desk. In the end what kills is not agony (for agony at least asks something of the soul) but everyday life.
I feel cluttered when there is no time to analyze experience. That is the silt—unexplored experience that literally chokes the mind.
As soon as I have a deadline, I work much better. Time unbounded is hard to handle.
How does one rest? I am trying to do it by not hurrying, by not allowing the pressure to build. One step at a time. It is like climbing out of a deep well.
ALMOST TOO MUCH happens these days. How can I be enough aware of all that opens and dies so quickly in the garden? It takes a whole year of work and waiting for this supreme moment of the great snow-white peonies—and then they are gone!
It does not astonish or make us angry that it takes a whole year to bring into the house three great white peonies and two pale blue iris. It seems altogether right and appropriate that these glories are earned with long patience and faith (how many times this late spring I have feared the lilacs had been frost-killed, but in the end they were as glorious as ever before), and also that it is altogether right and appropriate that they cannot last. Yet in our human relations we are outraged when the supreme moments, the moments of flowering, must be waited for … and then cannot last. We reach a summit, and then have to go down again. Maybe patience is the last thing we learn. I remember Jean Dominique, old and blind, saying to me, “On attend toujours.” I was under thirty then and she was over sixty and I was amazed to think that someone so old could still wait for someone so intensely. But now I know that one does so all one’s life.
The days here are timeless partly because they are both orderly and free.
Perhaps the key is in her capacity to make herself available on any day, at any time, to whatever human joy or grief longs to be fulfilled or assuaged by sharing … longs to pour itself out and to be understood. So a teddy bear will materialize as if by magic for a one-year-old who has stubbed a toe; so a young woman who cannot decide whom to marry can have a long talk in perfect peace; so a very old lady can discuss with gusto the coming presidential election and feel a fire to match her own rise up in Anne’s blue eyes. The participation is never passive, shot through with a sudden gust of laughter as it often is, always vivid and original. For me, who am always split between art and life, the wonder is that Anne’s immense capacity for experience seems never to be strained or burdened by the many threads she holds in her hands, especially on the island. This is the heart of the mystery. How does she do it? How does she isolate the moment, the human moment, from all the rest? Perhaps because in this she is a poet. I do not think of what I should be doing in the garden or of an unanswered letter when I am writing a poem. I am all there in the timeless world of creation. Anne lives each moment of the day as if it were the first and the last, with the whole of herself.
I myself am quite irresponsible (at least by my father’s standards) about money. I believe it must flow through me as food does, be spent as it is earned, be given away, be turned into flowers and books and beautiful things, be given to people who are creators or in need, never be counted except as what it is—a counter against more life of one kind or another. It must remain convertible, not allowed to lie fallow. Probably I talk too much about it like someone who has been brought up repressed about sex and tells risqué jokes as a sign of freedom.
I woke with Robert Frost’s poem running through my head, the one that ends, I could give all to Time except—except What I myself have held. But why declare The things forbidden that while the Customs slept I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There. And what I would not part with I have kept. There is only one real deprivation, I decided this morning, and that is not to be able to give one’s gifts to those one loves most. In the month when X seemed withdrawn what was hardest to handle was the feeling I had that it no longer meant very much to hear me read a poem. The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even sometimes a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up.
It is one of those times when the place lies on my heart like a heavy burden and I would like to close the door and steal away to almost anywhere, even a hotel, where I would no longer be responsible for sweeping a floor or getting a meal.
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 its juice, its essence, to understand what has really happened to me as a consequence of it.
This is the first “Nelson day” for weeks, a day when I can stay home, work at my desk in peace, no appointment looming ahead, a day when I can rest after work, and garden in the afternoon. Once more the house and I are alone.