12 February 2010

Book Review: As We Are Now by May Sarton

 
As We Are Now
May Sarton

This short book takes the form of a journal written by Caro Spencer, a retired 76-year old teacher who has suffered a heart attack and has been put in an old folks' home. It is a chronicle of one woman’s attempt to stay sane, engaged, and human in an atmosphere that is devoid of the comforts of home and the associations and artifacts that one builds up over a lifetime. Unmarried and without children Caro’s only link to the outside world is her 80-year old brother and his much younger wife who tried having Caro live with them after her heart attack but the experience proved to be an unhappy one for all involved. A situation Caro later realizes wasn’t so bad.

Although there is a blazing streak of defiance and an occasional description of joy, As We Are Now is devastatingly sad. Caro’s journal not only describes the poor living conditions that lack humanity but it also reflects the gradual slip of Caro’s mental state. The small joys she experiences during visits from the local Methodist minister and his high school age daughter are more than swallowed up by the Caro’s sad living conditions and the hateful treatment shown by Harriet and Rose, the mother-daughter team who run the home.

Perhaps one of the most tragic aspects of Caro’s situation is that after 76 years of living, forging her way as a single woman with a career, and living life in full, she finds herself not only alone and without any of the associations that made up her life, but also effectively stripped of her identity by her keepers. The home is located in a rural area about 100 miles from where she lived so she has very little opportunity for interaction with others. And she finds that the life of her mind, so well developed over the years is not enough to sustain her sanity. She not only misses her house and her books, but more importantly she misses physical sensation. Fresh air and sunlight are sometimes available to her but clean smelling laundry, good food, the smell of flowers all become increasingly harder to come by. The touch of another living thing is what seems most absent in Caro’s life. Pansy, the house cat is one of the few things left to her.
In some ways, As We Are Now is a primer on how to better treat old people facing the end of their life in an institutionalized setting. The basics of physical surroundings and physical care are fairly easy to remedy given a little thought but would probably only add to the already astronomical cost of long term elder care. What is more difficult is figuring out how to interact emotionally and intellectually with old folks that doesn’t make light of their condition with phrases like “Oh, you will outlive us all” or some other nonsensical thing that we say when we don’t know what to say. Caro wants to hear about the lives of others and what is going on in the world, but when it comes to her condition and her inevitable decline, she doesn’t want someone with a false cheery world, she just wants someone to listen and to believe what she says.
She has round golden eyes. I have been told categorically that she must not get up on the bed. But occasionally she manages to sneak in late at night and climb up, first curling into a tight ball, then later, when I stroke her, uncurling to lie full length, upside down, sometimes with one paw over her nose. It is hard to express the joy it gives me to stroke this little creature and feel the purrs begin in her throat. Those nights I sleep well, a lively sleep rather than a deathly sleep. It makes all the difference!


It sounds like a depressing read, and in many ways it is. But there is much to think about in these 127 pages and it is sadly beautiful. Writer, poet, and teacher, Sarton published eleven of her own journals over her lifetime including one after she had a stroke and one in her 80th year of life before dying of breast cancer. Although I have read and loved some of her earlier journals like Plant Dreaming Deep, I haven’t read any from her later years. It will be interesting to compare them to this fictionalized account of Caro’s written in 1973 a good thirteen years before Sarton’s stroke and some twenty-two years before her death.

This won’t be for everyone. But well worth the read.
  

15 comments:

  1. Oh! This was the first book I read by May Sarton, and now I try every one I can get my hands on. It is very sad, and really shook me up.

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  2. I have not heard of this one, but I am very intrigued for many reasons. I would love to hear the inner thoughts of the elderly. I think they have been the forgotten members of society for a while, but with the baby boomers living longer and longer, that will have to change - finally!

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  3. I read this last year, and it was my first May Sarton. Beautiful, but devastatingly sad.

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  4. I had my taxes done on Saturday and our tax lady is a much older woman. She's still sharp as a tack, but this year, she seemed a bit more delicate and in our conversation she admitted to downsizing and moving closer to the city. I could see the worry crease her face.

    You get to a certain age and then you are forced to think about your future. I don't think I could ever live in a home but what if I have no choice in the matter?

    I would imagine this book being a very weighty but important read.

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  5. Jeane: She is a wonderful writer.

    Molly: I certainly think we are more enlightened about eldercare today than we were in 1973. But I also think it is in human nature to not think too much about the elderly--perhaps we don't want to get a glimpse of our own futures.

    Answer Girl: You should check out her journals. Plant Dreaming Deep I think would be up your alley.

    Ti: I think about old age a lot. I don't want to spend my golden years in DC. But the way our care system seems to be set up we have our choice between underpaid, undereducated urban care givers, or underpaid, undereducated rural care givers. Sigh.

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  6. This sounds utterly heartbreaking. It also sounds like something that must be read. This story is what we all dread, isn't it?

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  7. She is one of my favourite authors; I have several quotes from her work on my site and periodically revisit her journals (although have about half of her fiction still to discover). I haven't read this novel, but your review nudges me in that direction and it brought this quote to mind:

    "One thing is certain, and I have always known it – the joys of my life have nothing to do with age. They do not change. Flowers, the morning and evening light, music, poetry, silence, the goldfinches darting about…"
    From At Seventy: A Journal

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  8. Buried in Print: That is a beautiful quote and definitely captures the same idea in the quote in my blog.

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  9. Just come over from your books of the year list - this sounds right up my street; I love reading books about old age when it's done well (c.f. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West, and Tru by Eric Melville)

    Adding to my Amazon wishlist...

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  10. Simon: I love All Passion Spent but this Sarton is a fish of another color. Caro has none of the means or independence, or family as in the Sackville-West. Make sure you are ready for something depressing.

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  11. I've read a lot of May Sarton's work. This novel is the best so far. Her creative imaginings come out of her close observation of her own aging, and that of others.. These she relates in her journals which are masterpieces. She struggles to remain independent and, as in the novel, observes a certain purification that is happening with her plus an opening out in compassion to all. I recommend her poem 'Autumn Sonnet', three sonnets about letting go. "If I can let you go as trees let go their leaves ..."

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  12. Cocuinn53: Interestingly though, she was only 61 when she wrote the book.

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  13. Yes, an 61 was considered old in 1973. A poem by C.S.Lewis written when he was just 50 (died 13 years later, however):

    As One Oldster to Another

    Well, yes the old bones ache. There were easier
    Beds thirty years back. Sleep, then importunate,
    Now with reserve doles out her favours;
    Food disagrees; there are draughts in houses.

    Headlong, the down night train rushes on with us,
    Screams through the stations....how many more? Is it
    Time soon to think of taking down one's
    Case from the rack? Are we nearly there now....


    C.S. Lewis
    1950, Punch

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