What We’re Reading: A Journal of Solitude
A review of A Journal of Solitude by May Sarton
Review by Prof. Claire Catenaccio, Department of Classics, Georgetown
I recently read a beautiful, slim volume by May Sarton, called Journal of a Solitude. Sarton is most famous today for her poetry, but she was also a prolific diarist and nature writer. From September of 1970 to September of 1971, Sarton, then nearing her sixtieth birthday, lived alone in a cabin in rural New Hampshire and kept a journal recording her thoughts and feelings. Her entries wrestle with questions of art, aging, sexuality, and solitude, but she also acutely observes the natural world around her as it changes over the course of the year.
For Sarton, solitude is necessary for the creation of art. She suffers bouts of boredom and panic, but she also enjoys periods of happy and fruitful isolation, where she can quiet her mind enough to think and work deeply. Solitude has its joys, chief among them the opportunity to pay close attention. If one looks long enough at almost anything, Sarton writes, “looks with absolute attention at a flower, a stone, the bark of a tree, grass, snow, a cloud, something like revelation takes place.”
I think many people have had this transcendental experience in the contemplation of nature. We grow aware of something outside ourselves and become rapt with admiration and joy. It can be a religious experience. To quote one of Sarton’s favorite authors, the French philosopher and Classicist Simone Weil: “Absolute attention is prayer.”
Reading Sarton’s book encouraged me to appreciate the natural wonders that are all around me. The splendor of cicadas is a gift. I dance to the beat of rain on my roof during a summer storm. Sarton reminds us that at any age, under any conditions, we can enlarge our consciousness by looking at the world in new ways. Her journal is full of entries where she stumbles upon something ordinary, but transformational. On October 8th, for instance, she writes: “Later on when I was wandering around watering flowers, I was stopped at the threshold of my study by a ray on a Korean chrysanthemum, lighting it up like a spotlight, deep red petals and Chinese yellow center, glowing … Seeing it was like getting a transfusion of autumn light straight to the vein.” I wish all students, professors, and staff back on campus that same life-giving rush!
This is part of the Common Home series, What We’re Reading where we welcome reviews of emerging works in the environmental publishing world.