Although Keene has lost all but the most tenacious piles of snow during our recent (and recently ended) stint of spring-like temperatures, there was still snow on the ground in nearby Nelson, NH this past Saturday. As I headed toward Nelson in search of May Sarton’s grave, I worried more about frost heaves than I did about snow, as Nelson’s paved roads were bone-dry but bumpy from Nature’s latest round of freeze and thaw.
I’ve long known that May Sarton had lived in Nelson…but I never connected that her grave might be there. After having written Plant Dreaming Deep and Journal of a Solitude in Nelson, Sarton moved to York, Maine, where she wrote The House By the Sea. All three of these prose works figured in my PhD comprehensive exam on 20th century British and American women writers and nature, an exam I’d designed, prepared for, and taken right before moving to New Hampshire in 1999. Although Sarton is best known as a poet, it is her prose journals that I most admire; as a long-time journal-keeper and transplanted New Englander, I love the way Sarton made the mundane details of her daily life shine through the prism of her honest telling.
When my ex-husband and I moved to Hillsborough, NH the summer of 1999, I was initially shocked to discover Nelson was an easy drive away. After having read Journal of a Solitude several times, I automatically assumed that Sarton lived very far away in New Hampshire: somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere wilds of the North Country, or a similarly secluded spot. That Sarton had written her Journal in a town that wasn’t that much smaller than Hillsborough–a small village, granted, but a village nevertheless–called into question my assumption that “real” nature writers had to hole themselves away far from any sign of humanity…a silly assumption indeed given the amount of time Sarton in her Journal mentions neighbors and visitors and the like.
Like any assumption, my surprise at learning that Sarton had penned two beloved works right down the road from where I was toiling on a stuck dissertation says more about my mindset than it does about hers. When my ex-husband and I landed in New Hampshire, we owned one car and knew no one. On days when I didn’t drive Chris to catch a bus to his job south of Boston, he took the car, leaving me home alone with only a dog and dissertation to entertain me.
Given the loneliness of those times, it’s no surprise that I found repeated solace in Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude, insisting as it does that loneliness is an occasional part of an artist’s path, a blade that hones one’s creative edge. As I’ve written before, living in Hillsborough and now Keene, I felt a connection with the phenomena Sarton saw and recorded and the ones in my own habits and heart:
- As I wrote that last paragraph, the sun came out briefly, illuminating this page and the entire room as if a god had stepped onstage and then fled. And now it�s back, this light, but it�s slowly fading: a flirtatious deity. This morning, as I read from May Sarton�s Journal of a Solitude, a similar light danced and teased, tripping across the page as I read of New Hampshire days some thirty years ago. I was struck at how Sarton describes the highs and lows that writers face: the depression and loneliness punctuated with moments of unmitigated joy. When I read Sarton, I realize the beauty that comes from simply seeing: it�s not about Sarton, but what she�s seen. That�s what interests me, or any of her readers, even if what she sees is light falling on a daffodil that�s been dead for thirty years. That daffodil is long dead, but the light that fell on it is not.
As much as I insist my admiration for May Sarton is “not about Sarton, but what she’s seen,” as I drove up the melt-slicked, mud-rutted dirt road to Nelson Cemetery this weekend, I realized I’d been only partially honest with myself. Although I knew I wouldn’t meet May’s ghost at the site where her ashes are buried, I suspected the experience of visiting her grave would tap into some psychological ghosts of my own. Although my favorite of Sarton’s books is Journal of a Solitude, the book that in a sense changed my life was The House By the Sea, describing as it did during a particularly lonely period in my marriage exactly what it felt like to be alone and coupled:
- �Loneliness” for me is associated with love relationships. We are lonely when there is not perfect communion. In solitude one can achieve a good relationship with oneself. It struck me forcibly that I could never speak of “bone loneliness” now, though I have certainly experienced it when I was in love.
“Bone loneliness” is a term Sarton borrows from a penpal who used it to describe the emotion she felt in an otherwise happy live-in relationship, an emotion Sarton found echoed in letters she received from other women, all of them married or in long-term relationships. When I first read The House by the Sea years ago in a rented house in Randolph, MA, the phrase “bone loneliness” nearly knocked me off my feet, the phenomenon rang so close to my heart’s home.
As I walked through the stone gate at Nelson Cemetery and began scanning for a phoenix-shaped grave marker, memories of my own bone loneliness came flooding to the fore. Mine wasn’t a miserable marriage, nor was it marked with abuse or betrayal, “only” the pervasive loneliness of two mismatched souls trying to keep up the appearance of intimacy. In the years after reading The House By the Sea, though, I’d clung to that notion of “bone loneliness” and how it differed from solitude: being alone wouldn’t kill me, I came to believe, but bone loneliness just might.
When I spotted May Sarton’s grave in the shallow snow, I was struck by how it stands alone.
Whereas Henry David Thoreau rests among friends and family on Author’s Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, MA and Willa Cather spends eternity next to her companion Edith Lewis in the Old Burying Ground in Jaffrey, NH, Sarton’s ashes are buried alongside no one. Sarton’s resting place is marked with the stone phoenix she so enjoyed in her Maine garden, its base covered with stones and mementos from admirers; the flat marker bearing her name, the title “Poet,” and the dates of her birth and death were covered, still, by the weekend’s remaining snow.
May Sarton was fiercely protective of her solitude while she was alive: although she had a rich social life with friends, neighbors, and correspondents, she cherished her home in Nelson as a place to seek refuge from the stimulus of interpersonal encounters. If buried ashes could be said to “face” a given direction, Sarton’s mortal remains look toward a row of gray and crooked gravestones–her eternal neighbors–while no one lies to either side of her. The arrangement is perhaps a fitting visual metaphor for how Sarton preferred to live her life, choosing to eshew an alongside-partner while staying within sight–but not exactly within reach–of her Nelson neighbors.
Just as I found hope all those years ago in May Sarton’s assertion that life alone doesn’t have to be lonely, on Saturday I found hope in the stone phoenix that marks her grave.
In my own experience, there is life after loneliness, the fire of solitude burning away the chaff of heartache. Although there have been times since my divorce when I’ve been poignantly aware that I live alone, I’ve not once felt that sense of “bone loneliness”–an ache that sears to the root of you. There is something about solitude that feels redemptive, and there’s something about being lonely in relationship that is devastating. Remembering all the times I turned away from my husband in bed, wishing I could fall asleep and never again awake to the ache that belied his physical presence, I know that any aloneness I might feel now doesn’t match the searing disconnect I felt then.
Many years ago, May Sarton gave me hope that a woman could live, thrive, and be creative on her own; this weekend, May’s final resting place gave me a deeper sense of closure on the life chapter my own divorce ended. When I returned to my car after photographing Sarton’s grave, I sat in the driver’s seat and wept, the sight of stone reminding me of the bone loneliness of years’ past. Athletes speak of muscle memory: the body’s tenacious hold on oft-repeated motion, a memory which guides a limb through moves the conscious mind has forgotten. I think the soul carries a similiar bone memory, the ache of past heartbreak never entirely dissipating, its lesson echoing through the caverns of recollection.
In the snow of February, May Sarton lies alone, but surely she’s not lonely, for her memory is wrought in the blood and bones of all those readers, correspondents, and friends whose lives were touched by hers: a spot of May that lives even in winter, eternal.