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In Time Like Air: May Sarton - A Sermon by Rev. Eva S. Hochgraf


" . . . if one looks long enough at almost anything, looks with absolute attention at a flower, a stone, the bark of a tree, grass, snow, a cloud, something like revelation takes place. Something is "given," and perhaps that something is always a reality outside the self. We are aware of God only when we cease to be aware of ourselves, not in the negative sense of denying the self, but in the sense of losing self in admiration and joy."

A Sermon by Rev. Eva S. Hochgraf

Consider the mysterious salt:
In water it must disappear.
It has no self. It knows no fault.
Not even sight may apprehend it.
No one may gather it or spend it.
It is dissolved and everywhere.

But out of water into air
It must resolve into a presence,
Precise and tangible and here.
Faultlessly pure, faultlessly white,
It crystalizes in our sight
And has defined itself to essence.

What element dissolves the soul
So it may be both found and lost,
In what suspended as a whole?
What is the element so blest
That there identity can rest
As salt in the clear water cast?

Love in its early transformation,
And only love, may so design it
That the self flows in pure sensation,
Is all dissolved and found at last
Without a future or a past.
And a whole life suspended in it.

May Sarton wrote many volumes of verse, each one bringing out a treasure of images. Some full of hope, some full of despair. But often they wrestle with the really important ideas of who we really are. As she grows and develops and matures, her poems take on a richer patina of life lived fully and deeply. But always at the heart of her writing, I find a sense of struggling, wrestling, trying to identify what it means to be human.

She was never really religious, although she attended the Unitarian church as a child. But her writing rings with the questions and experiences of life that have attracted scores of Unitarian Universalists over the years to pore over her words. The ideas she contemplates, the themes she chooses, often are ones that are dear to the free thinker's heart. And so she has often been thought of as a UU poet. At the height of her fame, she even spoke at one of our General Assemblies.

In this called Letter to an Indian friend (from her visit to New Mexico, so this would have been a Native American Indian), we hear her watching and learning to connect with the spirituality she sees in the Native peoples.

Was it a long journey for you to begin
To grow peaceful green things
To harvest well, to watch the sun
Go down, to find the ancient springs?
What human pain, what wild desire
Did you burn in the fire,
Long ago, Tilano?
What is the first step, Tilano,
toward the wisdom of your feet,
Treading the dust or the snow
So quiet, so tender, so fleet?
I have come from far
To the warm sun and the shelter,
A long journey to reach here,
And now it is clear
That I do not know
The first step.

What is the first act, Tilano,
Toward the wisdom of your hands?
They plant the corn;
They bring in the lamp in the evening,
Wood for the fire, and each thing done
With rigorous love, with devotion.
It was a long journey to you and the sun,
And now it seems I clasp your hand
A land of work and silence, a whole land.

What is the first prayer, Tilano?
To go into the forest
And be content to sit
For many days alone,
Not asking God to come
Since He is present in the sun,
Simple and quiet in the tree and stone.
How many times have you watched the sun rise
That when I look into your eyes,
So old, so old and gay, I see there
That I have never learned the first prayer.

To watch the sunrise, this is prayer she begins to see. It is this beauty and metaphor she sees in nature, which speaks to many of us UU's. Like this :

December Moon

Before going to bed
After a fall of snow
Shining there in the moonlight
So calm, untouched and white
Snow silence fills my head
After I leave the window.

And if she left it there, it might be a kind of meditation, but she sees the delight in life, and shares that with us too, along with the magical wonder. She continues:

Hours later near dawn
When I look down again
The whole landscape has changed
The perfect surface gone
Criss-crossed and written on
Where the wild creatures ranged
While the moon rose and shone.

Why did my dog not bark?
Why did I hear no sound?
There on the snow-locked ground
In the tumultuous dark?

How much can come, how much can go
When the December moon is bright
What worlds of play we'll never know
Sleeping away the cold white night
After a fall of snow.

She makes us laugh as we wonder with her, about the creatures in the night. And she makes us ponder, what other creatures dance in our lives while we are unaware, while we sleep. Raymond Holden, of the New York Times captures her writing well, he once said: "May Sarton's extraordinary gift, [is] her ability to make the actualness of physical existence and motion, serve as the imaginative metaphor pointing to a metaphysical reality." And for me this is such a wonderful quality she brings to her writing.

Many of us have traveled, and in our travels we've had key moments that have stuck with us all our days. Her travel poems teach us about encountering people in other cultures, in wonderful, delightful stories that capture those key moments.

Like this one from Japan,

"When you come
Every evening,
Carrying heavy trays,
Kneeling to serve us,
You of the lovely middle-aged face
And sad eyes,
Who pour sake
And never raise your lids,
Your dignity humbles.
Who are you?
What is your name?"

Kyoko translated for me.
But would the hermetic person
Accept the gift?

"My name is Eiko," she said,
And vanished,
Leaving us abashed,
Lacking a smile.

A week later,
After her day off,
She brought me a long box,
And in it a delicate fan.
Gravely we each exchanged presents,
And then at last
Like the moon
From behind a cloud,
We saw her radiance.

And I love the humor of this one, from her stay in India. I think that anyone who has traveled will appreciate the humor and truth to the moment she captures here.

I had been the woman
With a camera eye
Who notices everything
And is always watched,
The stranger on whom
No one smiled.
Then I slipped,
Fell headlong
In the red dust,
And at once the rickshaw boy
Is there at my side.
Thin expert hands
Feel hard for a break,
Then wipe the blood off
With a filthy cloth.
Worth a scraped knee
To land on this earth at last,
To be helped alive,
To be, in fact,
The unsmiling people
Throng around me,
Smiling their pleasure.
Yes, I have landed.
Yes, I am alive.

Yes, she was alive! Yes, she was alive, and she captures that joy of being alive so vividly. As May Sarton aged, her ability to capture the indignities and difficulties of aging in her clear, soul-revealing way, made her an icon of the seniors around her. Her descriptions of what she is thinking about, and how she is handling things, again makes people feel at one with her. She continued to be alive, in new and sometimes frightening ways. She had a stroke, and after it, set about to record her passage back into being, from that time of the stroke. It was very well received, and helped many people to realize they were not alone.

I love this forthright passage on Aging, which is from the Journal of her Eightieth year:

This seems to be about the darkest passage of my life. I am not only in more pain that I have been in for over a year and more exhausted in consequence, but it is as if the foundations were crumbling; I realize more and more that the foundations have been friendship. And the friends, naturally enough, are getting fed up with my being ill and never getting well. There have been a few incidents recently that rubbed this in, so I have gone back to that bitter poem by Robert Frost, "Provide Provide," which I remember reading when I was in my twenties, and thought , what a terrible man. What a wrong poem, now that I am almost eighty and feel abandoned, I reckon that the poem is true, and I am glad he wrote it.

This doesn't just teach us about what it feels like to be older or in pain. . . . which is good enough reason to read it! But it also resonates with a good many of our experiences of feeling abandoned from time to time. In reality, it is very rare that we actually are abandoned living here on this good earth. In fact the very next paragraph of the journal, May writes about someone kindly thinking to bring her a new electric blanket, knowing that hers was wearing out!

But yet, I think it is a common thread of human existence, to struggle with feeling like no one really cares, we have no one who is really there for us in our lives. In spite of sometimes obvious messages to the contrary . . . . like electric blankets! And May, across the pain of that experience, is able to turn that loneliness into words. And the fight of her heart to reconcile with this pain, and chose again and again life . . . she captures into words to go across the page that we might all feel that we are not so alone in these moments of loneliness. A lot of the breadth and depth of human feeling is realized only as we are able to put words, or images to those feelings. This doesn't come naturally to everyone!

She teaches us a lot about how to feel. Taking her feelings, and placing them in verse, we each have words that can ring in our hearts as we experience similar things happening to us. Someone in the congregation shared with me that this next verse, written at the time of her father's death was a most meaningful poem to them:

After the laboring birth, the clean stripped hull
Glides down the ways and is gently set free,
The landlocked, launched; the cramped made bountiful--
Oh, grave great moment when ships take the sea!
Alone now in my life, no longer a child,
This hour and its flood of mystery,
Where death and love are wholly reconciled,
Launches the ship of all my history.
Accomplished now is the last struggling birth,
I have slipped out from the embracing shore
Nor look for comfort to maternal earth.
I shall not be a daughter any more,
But through this final parting, all stripped down,
Launched on the tide of love, go out full grown.

She says, "I shall not be a daughter any more." And the truth of what it means to lose one's connections to the past, to the birth and childhood, and special kind of love . . . all are captured there. I really love how she captures some of the hardest moments of the human condition. This, the death of a parent is one of them. And deep abiding pain is another:

She writes:

Pain can make a whole winter bright,
Like fever force us to live deep and hard,
Betrayal focus in a peculiar light
All we have ever dreamed or known or heard,
And from great shocks we do recover.
Like Wright's hotel, we seem to have been fashioned
To take earthquake and stand upright still.
Alive among the wreckage we discover
Death or ruin is not less impassioned
Than we ourselves, and not less terrible,
Since we nicely absorb and can use them all.

It is the small shock, hardly noticed
At the time, the slight increase in gloom,
Daily attrition loosening the fist.
The empty mailbox in the afternoon,
The loss of memory, the gradual weakening
Of fiery will, defiant to exist,
That slowly undermines the solid walls,
Until the building that withstood an earthquake
Falls clumsily among the usual days.
Our last courage has been subtly shaken:
When the cat dies, we are overtaken.

She shows us the yin and yang of life . . . and reaches us with that small touch of humanity . . . one that many of us know: the death of the cat. How can something so small make us so sad, and yet time after time, age after age, we humans find ourselves torn apart by just such things.

This poem, she wrote toward the end of her life, as she struggled with not being able to do what she wanted to do, and how to have a life fully lived, while in pain.

There is a thin glass
Between me and everything I see.
The glass is pain.
How to slide it away,
Unblur my vision?

"We must rinse the eye"
My old friend, the poet,
Used to say.
But that was in Belgium
Many years ago.

Raymond is dead
And I am in exile,
Old and ill.

My eye turns inward
To rest on three poplars
And a lost garden.
The delphinium is very blue.
The columbine, purple and white,
Trembles in the breeze
And there are tall yellow daisies.

"We must rinse the eye"
The poet reminds me
While his wife calls out
To the children to hurry.
The garden must be watered
Before dark,
And we run for the pails.

Nothing is blurred now,
Everything is quite clear
In the poignant evening light.
An explosion of memory
Has rinsed my eye.

It is a good lesson. Rinse your eyes from time to time, especially in times of pain.

Even in encountering a stray cat, she can find such meaning, and lessons to be learned. She is able to capture her own feelings about the situation, and then open it all up to the breadth of general human pondering about life.

I was thinking about solitude, its supreme value. Here in Nelson, I have been close to suicide more than once, and more than once have been close to a mystical experience of unity with the universe. The two states resemble each other: one has no wall, one is absolutely naked and diminished to essence. The death would be the rejection of life because we cannot let go what we wish so hard to keep, but have to let go if we are to continue to grow.

When I talk about solitude I am really talking also of making solace from that intense, hungry face at the window, starved cat, starved person. It is making space to be there. Lately a small tabby cat has come every day and stared at me with a strange, intense look. Of course I put food out, night and morning. She is so terrified that she runs away at once when I open the door, but she comes back to eat ravenously as soon as I disappear. Yet her hunger is clearly not only for food. I long to take her in my arms and hear her purr with relief at finding shelter. Will she ever become tame enough for that, to give in to what she longs to have? It is such an intense look with which she scans my face at the door before she runs away. It is not a pleading look, simply a huge question: "Can I trust?" Our two gazes hang on its taut thread. I find it painful.

"Can I trust?" A haunting refrain of many beings lives.

And trust is truly an issue of great importance in a refugee's life. And May was a refugee. She writes one book, telling about her roots, and in it describes a visit back to her old birth home outside Ghent, Belgium. It was a dream home, bought by her romantic and idealistic parents, and lovingly created to nurture each of their creative spirits. A large garden--her mother's love, an expansive library--for her father who dreamed of writing a history of science, furniture designed and handcrafted by her mother who was a designer. But all of it, abandoned in the wake of the German invasion of WW1.

May, an only child, and her 'twin" the manuscript her father had given birth to in the same year she was born, escaping with her parents in a baby carriage. This left them to lead a life of refugees, traveling to England, and eventually to the US. But her mother always told stories of Wondelgem, the name of their old home. And finally after the war they managed to return to their home at long last, only to find it in ruins. As they sifted through the contents of the old home, she writes:

"But just then my mother cried out, "Look George!" She had lifted out of a pile of rubbish a single Venetian glass on a long delicate stem, so dirty it had become opaque, but miraculously intact. How had this singe fragile object survived to give us courage? It went back with us to Cambridge and it was always there, wherever we lived. And now it is here, in my own house, a visible proof that it is sometimes the most fragile things that have the power to endure, and become sources of strength, like my mother."

It is sometimes the most fragile things that have the power to endure. I think perhaps most every one of us, have some sort of family thing that we hold on to, with its own story, its own lesson to remind us. And May's words connect us to that deep, abiding lesson that is gained from a object from our past. Most all of us have something dear to us we hold on to, perhaps irrationally, not even knowing quite why. For me, May's story connected me with my own family treasures and the lessons they teach me.
Now one thing about May that sometimes helped her, and sometimes hindered her, was that she was Lesbian. She always thought her poems, the love poems, were just human poems. And she hoped that we would all gain from them. Her early stories were not of lesbian relationships, since the United States, as it was in her early years, was not an open place. She gained a sense of openness and comfort in being a lesbian in a stay in Paris in her early twenties, but even for years afterwards didn't write lesbian literature, and never really wanted to. She did eventually write a love novel with lesbian lovers. And her strength to do this, and reach out to a group of people who were just learning to be out as a group won her a lot of love in that circle. She tells touching stories of book signings in small woman's book stores all about the country, and so in her own way this artist chose to become socially active, but in a way that really, again helped humans to connect. She hoped everyone would be able to see, just two people in her story--two people in love.

One of the most fascinating things to read about May, in her biography, is how difficult to get along with she was. Her lovely, strong connection to emotions moving within her--that we love in her writing, corresponded to emotions that moved without her as well. She was apparently a very strong woman, who didn't hesitate to speak her mind. And she was also a very lonely person, and wanting to have someone to be in love with. Most of her life, she spent falling in and out of love: either too insecure to make a permanent bond, or just not suited to it. However, she longed for that sense of connection, and perhaps that is why the striving for connection comes across so strongly in her poems.

Her not finding a connection also was true of the 'establishment.' She never went to college, never fit in. She taught for short times at Universities, but again never fit in, and never was really accepted--or perhaps knew how to win her way. Early years, full of training in theater, for she thought she was going to be an actress, gave her good training for lecture/poetry reading circuits. She found connection with the common people in these reading circuits, and no matter what the establishment had to say about her poems not really being art, the people found they loved her. And these readings gave her bread and butter to live on, but also attention and popular support. In her later years, she was so very popular she received tons of fan mail. She wanted to answer it all by hand. She felt it was so important to maintain that human touch in life. She had tons of people dropping by,but their experience of a 'surprise visit' varied greatly depending on her mood.
She met so many people and heard from so many people who claimed that she had changed their life So much acclamation from others, so much connection. Loved by so many for her incredible ability to see the wisdom that nature taught us, and to be pointedly honest. At least it seemed that she was being pointedly honest. Her biographer likes to point out that she often hid the worst bumps, the deepest moments of despair, and even the wonderful delightful moments of romance with another woman.
Yet, perhaps the same people who said that her work was not art, because it was too focused on reaching out to people, to healing people, and not polished enough, miss that it was her knowing of how to paint a life, that was not her full life, but it was a rich and deep life--this was her art. And she painted it for us, not with every detail of reality, but with enough reality that we could enjoy and take succor from this art. This was her own art, not really of poetry, but of the art of living. Her own life was full of pain, and mistakes and difficulties. She didn't wish her life for all of us, but she did have a vision of people being connected: connected to themselves, connected to each other, connected to the divine through the workings of nature. And she painted a picture of her vision, that we all might take a few steps in that direction.

So, why did I spend this whole morning reading you May Sarton poems? I hope to help you connect to experiences in your own life, which she is so good at capturing. But also, I hope to inspire you to find your own way to make living your art, to bring the fullness of your sense of divine love into all of your being.

I want to go back to a part of the poem I opened with, In Time Like Air---where she points so clearly to her art, her art of living, living a life of interconnection, a life of the self dissolved and found, a life of love.

What element dissolves the soul
So it may be both found and lost,
In what suspended as a whole?
What is the element so blest
That there identity can rest
As salt in the clear water cast?

Love in its early transformation,
And only love, may so design it
That the self flows in pure sensation,
Is all dissolved and found at last
Without a future or a past.
And a whole life suspended in it.

May we all live, suspended in love.

Closing Words:

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 to me to live,
As I learn 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.

February 10, 2002