Learning from May Sarton by Cynthia A. SnavelyWhen I advertised this service I said June was Gay and Lesbian History Month. That is not so. October is Gay and Lesbian History Month. June is Gay and Lesbian Pride Month. On June 27, 1969 in New York City at Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village the crowd in the bar resisted when New York Beverage Control agents and New York City Police raided the bar. Word spread quickly and crowds gathered on the following nights to protest the historic mistreatment of the gay community. The next year a parade marked the first anniversary of the event. Today Gay and Lesbian Pride parades and events are planned for June across this nation and internationally.May Sarton's 1965 novel, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing is often referred to as Ms. Sarton's "coming out" novel. In an article on Sarton on the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography section of the UUA website it is noted that Sarton admitted that she could not have written this novel before her parents'deaths. It is also noted that, "With (the novel's) reissue in 1974 , to which Carolyn Heilbrun contributed an important introduction, Sarton's work gained academic recognition, especially by feminist critics. Subsequently her work began to be studied in literature classes and college women's studies programs. Although she appreciated the recognition, Sarton believed the label 'lesbian writer'might limit and distort perception of her work." May Sarton's literary work speaks universal truths. Those truths may touch us no matter her sexual orientation or our own.May Sarton was introduced to the Unitarian Church as a child. A neighborhood friend's family attended the First Parish in Cambridge and May must have at least occasionally been the family's guest at their church. In her memoir, At Seventy published in 1984 she remembered a line from a sermon heard there in her childhood.A quote, again from the UUA biography site: "As an adult Sarton did not become a member of any Unitarian church nor did she regularly attend religious services. She believed, however, that the Unitarian Universalists helped her 'get over the hump'from small poetry audiences to larger engagements. In 1972 at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly, Richard Henry, minister from Denver, presented a special service based on Sarton's work, 'Composing a Life,'to an audience of five hundred. Following this event, other large audiences gathered at various Unitarian Universalist churches to hear Sarton speak. In 1976 Sarton was invited to lecture at the Unitarian Universalist Thomas Starr King School of Religious Leadership in Berkeley, California, from which she also received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. In 1982 she delivered the Ware lecture, 'The Values We Have to Keep,'to the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly. President Eugene Pickett introduced her as 'our poet.' In addition, she received the Ministry to Women Award from the Unitarian Universalist Women's Federation."In spite of these positive associations, Sarton could be critical of Unitarians. 'I feel them a little sentimental,'she wrote in a letter in 1978. 'Perhaps because the emphasis is almost entirely on human relations.'When she read her religious poems at the Unitarian church in Brattleboro, Vermont, she was not satisfied with their reception. 'I suppose it went all right,'she recorded in Journal of a Solitude, 'but I felt…that the kind, intelligent people gathered in a big room looking out on pine trees did not really want to think about God. His absence… or His presence. Both are too frightening."Still it is often Sarton's observations about human relations that I personally find most spiritual or religious. In a file full of readings and quotes that I keep for service ideas I have a clipping from some other UU congregation's newsletter. It is titled "An Observation by May Sarton" without any further note as to from which of her works it is drawn. It says, "True gardeners cannot bear a glove between the sure touch and the tender root, Must let their hands grow knotted as they move with a rough sensitivity about under the earth, between the rock and shoot, never to bruise or wound the hidden fruit. And so I watched my mother's hands grow scarred, She who could heal the wounded plant or friend with the same vulnerable yet rigorous love; I minded once to see her beauty gnarled, But now her truth is given me to live, As I learned for myself we must be hard to move among the tender with an open hand, And to stay sensitive up to the end Pay with some toughness for a gentle world." I think any parent of a baby who has had to say, "no," for the first time, any parent of a teenager who responds to rules by believing the parent is a relative of Attila the Hun, any couple who is still in love despite all the times one has hurt the other may understand Sarton's thought. I strive for a "vulnerable yet rigorous love" knowing that such love requires some toughness and resiliency. Sarton takes time to think about life. It is so easy to get caught up in the daily hubbub of things to do, people to see, places to go. She begins her Journal of a Solitude by saying in her first entry that, "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 discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone…." A fellow minister once advised me to be aware that it is often the interruptions to one's work that are one's true work. I think what he meant is that the phone call or person stopping by the office are often better opportunities for ministry than the report one had been working on or the meeting to which one was just on one's way. His point is valid. But so is the point that if one is so busy one never truly thinks about what one is doing the doing itself will suffer. I have known ministers and others who complain to the point of bragging about the number of hours they work. But I agree with Sarton that one must take "time alone in which to explore and discover what is happening or has happened." Life will rush by us in a blur if we do not occasionally stop long enough to examine what life looks like.Time apart, a tender love willing to be tough, and a facing of the horrors of life with hope, these things I admire in Sarton's writing. In A Journal of a Solitude in the entry on January 5 she writes, "At nine I forced myself to look at and listen to Nixon's nonconversation with four TV pundits. His answer that one cannot be asked to project a vibrant dream when in the middle of a nightmare summed it all up – his total lack of vision in the humane sense. For it is surely just in the nightmare time that vibrant dreams are born and can be communicated effectively….Churchill in 1940, Roosevelt in the Depression years. What a cramped little soul comes through from Nixon!" The words on the cover of the order of service are from her five part poem, "The Invocation of Kali." In section 2 she says, "Every creation is born out of the dark. Every birth is bloody. Something gets torn. Kali is there to do her sovereign work Or else the living child will be stillborn. She cannot be cast out (she is here for good) Nor battled to the end. Who wins that war? She cannot be forgotten, jailed, or killed. Heaven must still be balanced against her. Out of the destruction she comes to wrest The juice from the cactus, its harsh spine, And until she, the destroyer, has been blest, There will be no child, no flower, and no wine." Sarton knows that the nightmare must be faced for a vibrant dream to come. To hide from the nightmare to ignore it is to be as Sarton described Nixon, "a cramped little soul." In the third section of "The Invocation to Kali" she writes, "Ages ago we closed our hearts to blight. Who believes now? Who cries, 'merciful God'? We gassed God in the ovens, great piteous eyes, Burned God in a trash heap of images, Refused to make a compact with dead bones, And threw away the children with their shoes –"Millions of sandals, sneakers, small worn shoes – Thrust them aside as a disgusting blight. Not ours this death, to take into our bones, Not ours a dying mutilated God. We freed our minds from gruesome images, Pretended we had closed their eyes. "That never could be closed, dark puzzled eyes, The ghosts of children who went without shoes Naked toward the ovens'bestial images, Strangling for breath, clawing the blight, Piled up like pigs beyond the help of God….With food in our stomachs, flesh on our bones.
"We turned away from the stench of bones, Slept with the living, drank in sexy eyes, Hurried for shelter from a murdered God. New factories turned out millions of shoes. We hardly noticed the faint smell of blight, Stuffed with new cars, ice cream, rich things."But no grass grew on the raw images. Corruption mushroomed from decaying bones. Joy disappeared. The creature of the blight Rose in the cities, dark smothered eyes. Our children danced with rage in their shoes, Grew up to question who had murdered God,"While we evaded their too attentive eyes, Walked the pavane of death in our new shoes, Sweated with anguish and remembered God."That ends part 3. Part 4 begins, "For a long time, we shall have only to listen, Not argue or defend, but listen to each other. Let curses fall without intercession, Let those fires burn we have tried to smother." The last section, part 5, from which our order of service words are taken, begins, "It is time for the invocation: Kali, be with us. Violence, destruction, receive our homage. Help us to bring darkness into the light, to lift out the pain, the anger, Where it can be seen for what it is -- the balance-wheel for our vulnerable, aching love…." The vibrant dream will not be a vibrant dream unless it addresses the pain, the hurt, the destruction, the nightmare. I cannot help my teenager discover who she is without seeing the pain she is in as she seeks to separate herself from the people she loves but does not want to be, including when one of those people is me. No one can help the world become kind without facing the torture and murder that are our history. The strength to face the worst and still have hope, the wisdom to take time alone to and put life in perspective, the good sense to know that a strong love will be able to be hurt and continue to love, a sense of the healing ministry of nature, these things I learn from May Sarton. In her journal begun on April 9, 1986 titled After the Stroke Sarton writes, "If I have learned something in these months of not being well it may be to live moment by moment -- listening to the tree frogs all night for I couldn't sleep, waking late to the insistent coos of the wood pigeons – and at this moment the hush-hushing of the ocean." I smile at her poem written for Shio Sakanishi, "A Country House" "Sheltered under thick thatch, The paper walls Slide open To bring those ancient members of the family, Twelve plum trees, Into the house, Their gnarled black trunks And their translucent flowers. Two pots of pink cyclamen And a parti-colored cat Sun themselves On the lintel. I sit on a cushion Facing a brilliant wall of books and look out sideways, Floating between House and garden In the spring air. "Rushing into the house To get bird-glasses, I forgot to take off my shoes – Profanation Of the clean, sweet-smelling Grass mats. Later, having worn socks Into the garden I brought bits of dry grass Onto the velvety blue rug in the Western-style room.Twice-shamed." I smile too at "March-Mad" "The strangely radiant skies have come To lift us out of winter's gloom, A paler more transparent blue, A softer gold light on fresh snow. It is a naked time that bares Our slightly worn-down hopes and cares, And sets us listening for frogs, And sending us to seed catalogues To bury our starved eyes and noses In an extravagance of roses, And order madly at this season When we have had enough of reason." And one of the best things I learn from the writings of May Sarton I save for last. Friends are a treasure worth working to gain and to keep. Names and visits and letters are a regular part of her memoirs and journals. On August 6in After a Stroke she details a long list of friends some of whom have come to stay with her awhile, some of whom sent or brought flowers, some of whom are taking care of her house and pets, some of whom are keeping her up on what is going on at home, some of whom have brought her books, and some of whom have phoned. In At Eighty Two: A Journal on New Year's Day she writes, "I called all over the place because I was feeling so lonely and everyone was having a hard time. But then at half past one, dear Fred Rogers called. It was a lifesaving call, and I think this is typical of that wonderful man. If ever a human being carried out E. M. Forster's saying, 'Only connect,'it is Fred…." It is not poems about friendship or pithy quotes about it that impress me in her writing, but her many, many mentions of her various friends. Her joy in them is apparent. They are a strong beam under girding her life. Which brings me back to the reading from my file, "True gardeners cannot bear a glove between the sure touch and the tender root, Must let their hands grow knotted as they move with a rough sensitivity about under the earth, between the rock and shoot, never to bruise or wound the hidden fruit. And so I watched my mother's hands grow scarred, She who could heal the wounded plant or friend with the same vulnerable yet rigorous love; I minded once to see her beauty gnarled, But now her truth is given me to live, As I learned for myself we must be hard to move among the tender with an open hand, And to stay sensitive up to the end Pay with some toughness for a gentle world." It is all there. The friends, nature, the willingness to face woundedness with hope and love, and the strength and resiliency of love; these are lessons I put aside for my own life.
Cynthia A. Snavely
8907 Blade Green Lane
Columbia, MD 21045410-997-4547