Over the years, I’ve come to enjoy the wisdom and dry wit of May Sarton, a woman whose books — particularly Journal of a Solitude, The House by the Sea, and Writings on Writing — have joined my collection of literary touchstones: volumes I find myself reading and re-reading multiple times.
And yet, another of her highly-praised books remained on my shelf for years, unopened and unread. It seemed appropriate to save it for a particular and quite special occasion. From time to time, I found myself thinking:
One day, I ‘ll be seventy. Then, I’ll see what May has to say about the experience in her book with the tantalizing title: “At Seventy.”
When the much-anticipated birthday came, I celebrated with a trip to the Tallgrass Prairie bottomlands, where I took my first, shadowy selfie.
Then, in the late afternoon, with bees buzzing about in the late gaura and goldenrod, and the Burlington Northern rumbling both south and north, I opened Sarton’s book.
The journal begins on her birthday: May 3, 1982. After a few words about the beauty of the world at large and the daffodils on her breakfast table, she ponders the question of the day:
What is it like to be seventy? If someone else had lived so long and could remember things sixty years ago with great clarity, she would seem very old to me. But I do not feel old at all: not as much a survivor as a person still on her way.
I suppose real old age begins when one looks backward rather than forward, but I look forward with joy to the years ahead, and especially to the surprises that any day may bring.
After another page or two, I stopped reading, moved by her words to consider my own “years ahead.”
Without question, I had changed in the course of the past decade, as had certain of my life circumstances. Once the focus of my life, sailing had been supplanted by other interests: photography; writing; and engagement with the natural world. Freed from the role of caretaker, I’d begun to re-experience the joys of travel. While others longed for retirement, I continued to find work satisfying.
Surprisingly, even after nine years of weekly posting, the phenomenon known as “blogger burnout” hadn’t made an appearance. But nine years is a long time, and the changes in my life hadn’t been matched by changes on this site. A new template, a new photo on my “About” page, some revised personal preferences, and an updating of my favorite books, music, and quotations clearly were in order.
When it came to a new photo, I was greatly amused to realize that my first choice as a substitute for the sailing photo I’d chosen so many years ago would be the abstract “selfie.”
At first glance my shadow, captured at the edge of the leaf-covered creek, might be interpreted as a reminder that people — especially the old — tend to become “shadows of their former selves” under the pressures of time and circumstance. The presumption seems to be that after a certain point in life, the downhill slide, the Cheshire Cat-like fade into oblivion, is inevitable.
On the other hand, what if we could choose to live as shadows of our future selves? What then? May Sarton has an answer.
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 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!
Today, with new templates all around — even for life — and with a sense of yet one more sea-change arriving, I remember the words of Georgia O’Keeffe, quoted in Joan Didion’s White Album:
Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant… It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.
Moving into my own 70th year, I find myself paraphrasing O’Keeffe’s words in a way that May Sarton would understand:
Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant… It is what I will do with where I have yet to be that should be of interest.