. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
On Today’s Menu:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
** Share some birthday cake
for a writer who loves (and struggles with!) living alone.
** Linger to ponder what’s fascinating about other people’s diaries.
** Savor a last ½ cup considering a couple fleeing war with their baby daughter in 1914.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


First Sip:

The value of solitude—one of it’s values—
is, of course, that there is nothing to
cushion against attacks from within,
just as there is nothing to help balance
at times of particular stress or depression
But the storm, painful as it is,
might have had some truth in it.

– May Sarton1


Slice of Cake:

Begin here.
It is raining. I look out on the maple,
where a few leaves have turned yellow

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

I taste life fully only when I am alone here.
– May Sarton1

May Sarton was born in Belgium
just before WWI broke out in Europe.

Her mother was a very successful furniture designer and artist from England,
Her father was a ground-breaking scientist and historian.7

When May was 2 years old, the family fled Belgium.
While May and her mother stayed at her grandmother’s home in England,
her father went to America to look for work.
May was 4 when the family were reunited in New England.

While in high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts,
May published her first poems, and she received a scholarship to Vassar.4

But her real dream was to act on the stage.
After graduating, she left for New York, where she joined Civic Repertory Theatre.

I never went to college and it was a great piece of luck.
This way, I’m ignorant but I’m fresh.

– May Sarton3

When she was nineteen, Sarton traveled to Europe and lived in Paris for a year.
It was her first of many trips to Europe. There she met other writers, including Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen.4

By her early 20s, May Sarton had written at least one play—
and founded her own theater:
Apprentice Theater of the New School of Social Research.

However, this was the 1930s, a tough time for almost any business,
and her theater closed.3

After my theater failed, I never looked back. It was like a fever out of my system.
The theater is an angel with feet tied to bags of gold. You can’t move without money.
It’s much better to be a writer. You just need a room
– May Sarton3

From then on, May Sarton dedicated herself to her writing.

Not only is she a poet,
not only does she write novels and journals,
but she holds herself up for all to see, large, clear…
She examines her thinking in the open, so that one can
see what a writer is, what is being accomplished, why, how.
This artist reveals herself fully,
and outlines the spirit of the times as well.
George Bailin

Sarton was a prolific writer throughout her long life.
Starting from the 1930s and into the 1990s,
she published more than a dozen books of poetry, twenty novels,
thirteen books of non-fiction, a couple of children’s books, and even a play.

I say complicated things very simply.
It’s fashionable to say simple things in
a complicated way

Nobody reads me for plots;
they read me to re-evaluate what’s important.
I make people think, “I have flowers in my house,
why don’t I look at them?”

The thing that is peaceful for me is that
I feel I have helped people. I’m constantly told,
“You’ve said the things I’ve wanted to say.”

– May Sarton3

My favorite of May Sarton’s books is Journal of Solitude (1973)
taken from a diary she kept for one year—September 1970 to September 1971.

“I woke to the sun on a daffodil…
A single beam on the yellow frilled cup…
After a bad night, that sight
got me up and going.”

– May Sarton
photo by Laura Whitman.

During this year Sarton lived alone in a house in Nelson, New Hampshire,
and had been living alone for twelve years.
But—like Thoreau at Walden Pond—Sarton was far from anti-social.
She shopped, she had visitors, she took trips away to sign books and give talks.

Tomorrow the world crashes in again.
I go to New York.

from Journal of Solitude
May Sarton

I think a lot of people will find
something of themselves in May Sarton’s Journal of Solitude.

Writers and want-to-be writers will, for certain. But also…

** Anyone with fantasies—or fears—of living alone will appreciate
the intimate glimpse May gives us of her experiences.

** Anyone who ever feels overwhelmed trying to manage time and moods,
recognizing when to work and when to stop and whether to
keep at it when you feel like giving up, will appreciate May’s struggles.

** And definitely anyone who loves gardening, or loves cats,
will find plenty of both here, too.

Perhaps we write toward
what we will become from where we are.
The book is less and more than I had imagined…

from last page
of Journal of Solitude
May Sarton

Happy 109th Birthday
** May Sarton **

– born on May 3, 1912
in Wondelgem, Belgium

Linger Awhile:

It is all right to wallow in one’s journal;
it is a way of getting rid of self-pity
and self-indulgence and self-centeredness.

What we work out in our journals
we don’t take out on family and friends

– Madeleine L’Engle
in her introduction to
‘A Grief Observed’ by C.S. Lewis

Been thinking this week about why I enjoy reading published diaries.
I have a whole shelf of them!
Seems I’ve been collecting for my entire adult life.

some of my collection of published diaries

What it is I get out of these no-rules, rambling, intimate books?
Well, I can tell you 3 things I loved about Sarton’s book…

How honest she was about her moods, up and down,
How she balanced the work of writing with other chores, and
How poetic some of her prose can be.

I first read this book decades ago,
but my recent re-read has meant more to me.
Probably because I’m now almost 60, which is how old she was when she wrote it.

Quotes from
May Sarton’s Journal of Solitude.


August 3
I do not feel quite knit together, rather at a loose end.
Such idleness lately! Why not a holiday?
But I never get any sense of accomplishment if I have done
nothing but housework, partly because it is never ‘done’ once and for all.
Lately it seems as though I were always running to
get through these chores to the real things.

January 7
I have worked all morning—and it is now afternoon—
to try to…craft an ending to the first stanza

I should not feel so pressed for time.
Yeats speaks of spending a week on one stanza.
The danger, of course, is overmanipulation.

February 5
Yesterday I accomplished one big task, clearing out the cupboard by the fireplace in the cosy room,

where I have stuffed paper and boxes for years
Now I feel a sense of relief when I walk past that cupboard and
know it is neat and in order.

Side note:
I love that she calls
one of her rooms
the ‘cozy room.’

January 18
A strange empty day.
I did not feel well, lay around, looked at daffodils

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

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.
Tonight I do feel in a state of grace,

limbered up, less strained.

photo by Patricia Finnegan

January 12
I have been here twelve years
I moved in and immedieately 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.
I could spend the whole day housekeeping, but I won’t,
as long as total chaos is kept at bay
and what my eyes rest on is beauty and order

In the general routine of the year
January is clean-up time and seed-catalog time. Ordering seeds is
my reward for finishing the income-tax figures.


January 27
Loneliness is with me. It was awful coming back to the empty house
I cannot animate my life these days. I feel marooned

A day of small agitations and small anxieties that devoured my peace.
I feel stupid and cross this evening.

It occurs to me that boredom and panic are the two devils the solitary must combat.

When I lay down this afternoon, I could not rest and finally got up because I was
in a sweat of panic, panic for no definable reason, a panic of solitude, I presume.
I am bored with my life here at present. There is not enough nourishment in it.

There are times when the lack of any good conversation, theatre,
concerts, art museums around here—cultured life—
creates a vacuum of boredom….

The adventure of coming to Nelson alone is over now and I
simply maintain what I was once busy creating.
I feel old, dull, and useless.

October 28
I woke in tears this morning.

I wonder whether it is possible at nearly sixty to change oneself radically.
Can I learn to control resentment and hostility, the ambivalence,
born somewhere far below the conscious level?

There is nothing to be done but go ahead with life moment by moment
and hour by hour—put out birdseed, tidy the rooms,
try to create order and peace around me
even if I cannot achieve it inside me.

January 7
I am proud of being fifty-eight,
and still alive and kicking, in love, more creative, balanced,
and potent than I have ever been.
I mind certain physical deteriorations, but not really.

August 27
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

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.


February 2
I’ve been up and down like mercury this morning…
But the sky is so radiantly blue, the
sunlight so powerful an element this morning
I felt
life flow back in like brandy.
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

Again the long, flowing
horizontal lines of tree shadows

made me stop at the kitchen sink
and just look for a few minutes.

It is nearly impossible to visualize the summer

when we are in this strongly-defined black and white
and blue world of the winter,
to visualize how the distant hills disappear behind the trees,
how it all finally becomes an enclosing

jungle of leaves.
All this white against all that green!

In some ways I love the winter best
the austerity and brillance of it.

“Half Cup More”

It isn’t often that I write about someone whose parents’ lives
are as dramatic as May Sarton’s are…

Her mother, Mabel Elwes, was a successful designer of modern furniture,
painter of miniatures, and designer of popular embroidered fabrics.

And it would be easy to assume that May got her poetic side from her mother.

“Elwes’ designs for fabric and furniture
received critical acclaim in London and Ghent.
Her international reputation preceded Sarton’s.
When she and Sarton moved to America in 1915, she
partnered in a firm specializing in peasant-style embroidery.

Lewis Pyenson 2

But it turns out that, as a young man, her father ‘wrote romantic poems and essays.’ 6

Around age 21, Sarton cast his lot with intellectuals
in the Belle Époque who embraced socialism,
feminism, pacifism, vegetarianism, and abstinence.
In parallel with university studies and beginning a career
as an independent scholar, Sarton animated a number of
progressive political and social organizations in Belgium.

Lewis Pyenson 2

Her father is also considered the founder of a field called history of science.

Isis: A Journal of the
History of Science Society

June 2021

George Sarton was born in Belgium and attended university there—
where he was pretty much a rock star.

As an undergraduate he received a very prestigious gold medal for chemistry then got
his PhD in celestial mechanics.

Mabel and George were married and living in Wondelgem, Belgium
when their only child May was born in May 1912.


That same year, George founded a journal called
Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society,
(which is published monthly by University of Chicago Press to this day).

Two years later, in August 1914,

Belgium was invaded by Germany.
George volunteered for the Belgium Civic Guard, but was only able to serve briefly.

Later their home was chosen to billet German soldiers.

Twenty-six German officers and infantrymen
were billeted at the Sartons’ house in Wondelgem,
and Sarton was responsible for their safety—
Had any of the enlisted men failed to make curfew,
Sarton would have been taken out into his garden and shot.
Indeed, it was to prevent just such an occurrence that Sarton
buried his Belgian Civic Guard coat, since members of the guard
were being treated as spies.

Eugene Garfield 7

After the family fled to England, George went on ahead to America,
where he eventually found work lecturing
at Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago.

A few years after he died,
some of George Sarton’s papers were collected and published

by Harvard University Press (1962), edited by Dorothy Stimson.


Take-Away Box

I woke to the sun on a daffodil.
I had put a bunch of daffodils and purple tulips
on the bureau and when I woke
the sun hit just one daffodil, a single beam
on the yellow frilled cup and outer petals.

After a bad night,
that sight got me up and going.

I had gone to bed in tears the night before,
one of those fits of hysterical weeping after a day of
frustrations and irritating demands…
The thread of the morning’s work was broken and
I never got back to my center

I did write a poem, so it was not a wholly wasted day, after all.

photo by Patricia Finnegan

And it occurs to me that there is a proper balance between
not asking enough of oneself and asking or expecting too much.
It may be that I set my sights too high and so repeatedly end a day in depression.
Not easy to find the balance,
for if one does not have wild dreams of achievement,
there is not spur even to get the dishes washed.

One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.

After I had looked for a while
at that daffodil before I got up, 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.’

from Journal of Solitude
May Sarton

Thank you for reading!
Kelly J Hardesty

Thoughts? Questions?
Scroll down to the endand you can leave me a note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.

You Can Read More…

…from another writer with a published diary—
Jessamyn West and her poetic slice of everyday life
plus tales of her time in and out of Hollywood!

Sometimes Alone
July 16, 2019

notes & footnotes

Journal of a Solitude
The intimate diary of a year in the life of a creative woman
by May Sarton
published by W.W. Norton, 1973

Lewis Pyenson

Sarton Chair biography
Universiteit Gent
Ghent, Belgium

May Sarton: Creative Solitude At 71

an interview by Enid Nemy
New York Times
Nov. 20, 1983

May Sarton: A Poet’s Life

by Lenora P. Blouin
University of Pennsylvania

May Sarton: Woman and Poet
by George Bailin
quoted in Poetry Foundation biographies

Doris Hellman
in her biography of George Sarton

for Sociology:Biographies

George Sarton: The Father of the History of Science.
Part 1. Sarton’s Early Life in Belgium

Eugene Garfield
University of Pennsylvania



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© Kelly J Hardesty 2024

1 thought on “Solitude”

  1. “October 28: I wonder whether it is possible at nearly sixty to change oneself radically?”
    Yep. √
    – PEF

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