May Sarton’s At Seventy

Recently I read May Sarton’s journal, At Seventy, about her intimate engagement with the Buddhist principles of impermanence and the inevitability of aging, sickness and death. In hopes of stimulating a rewarding discussion, I’ve selected some of the pithiest quotations from the journal by this Belgian-American poet and novelist to share with you.

“I take joy in the friendship of someone older than I. It is a rest to be with someone who has made her peace with life and enjoys everything…I am keenly interested in the young women who come here with their fervors, their problems, their hopes, who come to me, I suppose, to reaffirm a vision of life or a way of living that appeals to them. But they cannot know what such a life costs. They take so much for granted, and when I look back at myself at twenty-five or thirty, I am newly aware that so did I. Youth is a kind of genius in itself and knows it. Old age is often expected to recognize that genius and forget its own, so much subtler and gentler, so much wiser. But it is possible to keep the genius of youth into old age, the curiosity, the intense interest in everything from a bird to a book to a dog….” (p. 75)

Right here in our sangha, we notice that insight meditation practice develops a capacity to be in the moment instead of distracted by our “monkey-mind” thoughts about the past or future. When we cleanse the dust from our sense doors in meditation, we meet life with more fresh attention, approximating what Sarton terms “the genius of youth.”

As much as she might be reconciled with her advancing age, May Sarton admits, “I have to face wrinkles, the first sign of old age. It’s not easy to accept, but I remind myself that they do not really diminish the beauty of an old face. [My friend] Lotte Jacobi, for instance, has never been as beautiful as she is now, and one simply does not see the wrinkles. What one does see is the aliveness inside, the twinkling humor and the wisdom in her eyes. [Although we may] ‘love the things we love for what they are’…, an old face that looked too young would be troubling. Still, I do mind. If old age can be an ascension, it is at the same time a letting go, yet maybe it is only a true ascension when one does let go. Much harder than for me, of course, must be the wrinkles of a woman who has been a real beauty, her identity bound up in that beauty and the homage it elicited.” (p. 306)

You might take a moment to consider your own attitude towards wrinkles that are appearing on the forehead, mouth, neck and eyes. Do you welcome them as a badge of experience or try to mask the process of aging?   My maternal grandmother was naturally grey and wonderfully etched with wrinkles that provided a map of ninety years of living. As a child, I liked to sit in her lap. On the other hand, my paternal grandmother had a tight, smooth face, thanks to repeated facelifts. Her carefully applied make-up, platinum-dyed blond hair, and heavily clinking jewelry made me feel hesitant to approach her.

Referring to a creative life, May Sarton says, “ If you are a writer or an artist, it is work that fulfills and makes you come into wholeness, and that goes on through a lifetime. Whatever the wounds that have to heal, the moment of creation assures that all is well, that one is still in tune with the universe, that the inner chaos can be probed and distilled into order and beauty.” (p. 106)

In regard to solitude, she muses: “[I]n many ways, a three-day visit is a good length of time. Less hurried and intense than a short visit, for the guest begins to find her own way around and to be able to help too….Why then, with such a beneficent presence here, do I get so exhausted? Because the inner life comes to a complete stop. The self who writes, thinks, gardens, the solitary compulsive is temporarily absent. And I miss her.” (p. 107)

Sarton continues, “deep silence—at this moment I hear crows cawing but they only punctuate it briefly—is nourishing. I suffer for the lack of it in any city now. And in these weeks of work and silence, when I see only two or three people in seven days, I am never lonely. I feel well, so full of ideas and “things to do,” so fully conscious, so centered in work, that this is as close to happiness as I can imagine. For what is happiness, but work in peace?” (p. 252)

She journals about “two days of real rest, breakfast in bed and two hours or more each day of just lying there and thinking, watching birds come and go, and ruminating without pressure on what I may be able to do with the [latest] novel. It is so rare that I ever have open time like that, it felt like several Christmas presents rolled into one.” (p. 321)

Regarding long-term friendships, which she values most highly, “…we all have illusions about what we give to each other, and we rarely realize that receiving is also giving. I suppose that in the end the only gift, the most important, is simply to be there for each other.” (p. 263)

An admirer of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., Sarton has a strong sense of justice and compassion. She bemoans what Katharine Taylor of the Unitarian Service Committee called the globally unmet “basic needs” of children—food, clothing, protection, and spiritual needs such as:

  1. the longing for respect and love
  2. the sense of belonging, of being included and of being able to contribute
  3. the need to feel…that one can develop one’s powers and take part in society—[seeking] skills, more understanding, some form of creative expression [and] good human relations. (p. 281)

It occurs to May Sarton that “every middle-class ‘safe’ person should have to go to prison at some point to find out what that locked world is like. It is hard to imagine what one has not experienced, and this goes for life in the slums, for unemployment, for illness. Rare is the person who has the imagination to share in the suffering of others….” [About] what we have not experienced on the pulse, we are dreadfully smug.” (p. 312)

She reflects, “[H]atred and violence are so close to the surface in all human beings, it would seem that it is very easy to give them free rein. How infinitely harder to bring tolerance and love to the surface! And why is this so? I think it is because hatred and intolerance spring primarily from fear of what is different in any way from ourselves—they are self-protective….Love and tolerance are vulnerable, always. And the miracle of the spiritual genius of a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King is that they are able to persuade us that love can be strong and tolerance can be strong, stronger than hate. [Gandhi’s life] makes tangible the dignity of nonviolent men and women and the loss of it in their attackers. A man beating another man has no dignity….The tragedy is that war, even non-violent war, rouses the heroic in men and women, but the day-to-day struggle after victory to maintain human rights, to make peace among factions within the free, to go forward from there, is infinitely harder.” (p. 255)

Just this past week, we have witnessed the power of love and forgiveness in the congregation of the black church in Charleston where nine worshippers were gunned down by a man who is disconnected from his own innate divine nature and from that of his neighbors. I recall the Dalai Lama’s prayers of compassion for the closed hearts of the Chinese oppressors who have harmed so many Tibetans. He recognized the bad karma and suffering that results from hardening one’s heart and separating oneself from those who appear different. Let us take a moment now to connect to our hearts and to send Metta to those who lost loved ones in the Charleston massacre.