On my last day in Brunswick, Maine, I walked into a second-hand bookstore and bought several books. One of them was The House by the Sea by May Sarton. I started to read it — she has such a beautifully lucid style. That’s what I look for when I read — lucidity, a sense of light shining through the words. That and wisdom.
As I flipped through it, on one page I noticed a passage marked with green pen, placed in parentheses and part of it underlined. You can see it in the photograph below. But here is the passage, in case it’s difficult to read in the photograph:
“How does one handle it? The greatest danger, as I see it in myself, is the danger of withdrawal into private worlds. We have to keep the channels in ourselves open to pain. At the same time it is essential that true joys be experienced, that the sunrise not leave us unmoved, for civilization depends on the true joys, all those that have nothing to do with money or affluence — nature, the arts, human love. Maybe that is why the pandas in the London Zoo brought me back to poetry for the first time in two years.”
What an interesting passage this is! It’s about leaving yourself open to the pain of the world, because that is the only way in which you can also experience its joys. It starts with a question: “How does one handle it?” How indeed? There is so much wrong, and painful, and to be wounded by. And yet Sarton says that withdrawal is dangerous, because it’s necessary to experience pain — probably because that’s the only way we can sympathize with it. But at the same time she warns us that we have to experience the joys also, or we are only partially living. Civilization, both our own (being “civilized”) and civilization as a whole, depend on the things that money can’t purchase: nature, the arts, love. If we can’t experience those things, we are poor indeed.
And then she mentions the pandas. I have no idea what that means. I haven’t gotten to that part yet. I’m looking forward to finding out what pandas have to do with poetry.
But there is another mystery here. The entire passage is in parentheses, but a particular sentence is both placed in additional parentheses and underlined: We have to keep the channels in ourselves open to pain. Whoever underlined that sentence did so for a reason: it meant something to her. If I were to play detective, I would speculate that she underlined it because she was in pain, and it was a reminder to herself that the pain was necessary, not to close the channels. Another part of a sentence is underlined, but not placed in parentheses: true joys be experienced. I think that was a reminder to herself too, that you don’t get the joys without the pain. And she was reminding herself that the joys were there, even if she might not be noticing them at that particular moment.
It’s funny, what a little underlining in green pen can tell you. The underlining is light: she did not want to mark up the book, and indeed, there are very few marks in it. This is the first, and the only one in pen — after this, she marked in pencil. The passage was important to her, so important that she marked it. I think she did not want to lose it.
Why do I say she? Partly because the delicacy of the lines makes me think of a woman. But also partly because on the inside back cover, there is a name and address. The first name is Edna. I won’t tell you her last name or where she lives, because who knows, she may be out there, somewhere. Throughout the book, there are a few other passages underlined:
. . . “at some point one has to make choices, one has to shut out the critical self and take the leap.”
“We are lonely when there is perfect communion. In solitude one can achieve a good relationship with oneself.”
“I am simply too isolated and starved.”
“For one person who would focus this beautiful world for me” . . .
. . . “loneliness like starvation” . . .
. . . “a rainstorm to blow off in time” . . .
Under the handwritten (in cursive) word “gardens” (and again this looks to me like a woman’s writing):
“Do I spend too much time at this ephemeral task? In spring, summer, and autumn I work harder at it than at waiting, and I expect that looks crazy, but what it does is balance all the anxieties and tensions and keep me sane. Sanity (plus flowers) does make sense.”
. . . “create the space necessary for achievement, little by little” . . .
What you can see here is a mind moving, selecting, the particular things that feel pertinent. You can see an intellect, you can see thought and even growth. The later passages are more hopeful than the earlier ones, although I don’t know if that has to do with the reader or Sarton. As I read this book, I am not only reading Sarton, I am also reading the previous reader’s reading of it. May is filtered for me through Edna.
And what I want to say about that is, I like you, May. And I like you, Edna. We are a chain of three women, writing and reading and annotating. Living and feeling and thinking. It’s as though we form a small community, right here in the pages of this book. That is the sort of joy, the sort of art, the sort of love that will save the world. Slowly, eventually . . .