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Image by Paul Feberbauer on Unsplash.

So what’s it really like to be in your 80s? 

For one answer I got the library to send a copy of her diary, published as At 82. For most of the book she’s 81. Her 81st birthday would be May 1993. She starts at the end July 1993, 

I read May Sarton many years ago. Would the book be relevant? Would it teach me anything about getting older?

On May 8, 1994, towards the book’s end, May Sarton says her birthday was “tremendous.” That would be her 82ndin in May 1994.

What strikes me is her frank admission right afterwards: “I am simply too ill. I have to give up now. I cannot go on any longer.” And she goes on, “But it is an extraordinary life I am leading because it is all the time impossible. The effort is staggering. The wish to die is staggering…”

She contrasts her pain with “the marvelous joy of Mandela coming into his own.”

This is very May Sarton. She has people in and out all day and she claims to lead a solitary life. She complains about her unsatisfactory life, yet we see she seems to bee fulfilled most of the time. Her publishers seek her poems and journals. She gets invited to accept awards. For most people over 65, that would be a reason for joy. She is still relevant. And still she is miserable.

She hasn’t done any exercise, beyond gardening. She can’t move easily or get off the floor easily.

Some of her ideas are strange. An editor wants her to write about her cat Pierrot. “….Pierrot has been chiefly a joy and a luxury” but he is “not a great soul.” Her previous cat Bramble did have a great soul; Pierrot is “a great beauty” who gives her “aesthetic pleasure.” 

I’ve lived with cats for many years and find it difficult to think of a cat who’s a great soul.

Ultimately it’s a journal of aging. And it’s her personal experience.  If you like her, you’ll like the journal.

I’ve heard that she was in life a very difficult person. She got hysterical. She screamed. Towards the end of the book they give her Prozac and when that doesn’t help they recommend therapy. As I read I found myself thinking she needed therapy much earlier. She had real mental health problems.

She wants to “adjust to old age,” she says, “and it’s not a very easy old age.” I think it’s about her mindset, not her age.

Sarton was writing before the internet and she took many liberties with her diaries. Yet we get to see a person in depth, not a short one-off article. I do know this: she doesn’t have answers. Aging in 1993 was very different from aging forty years later, and she lived in a splendid house (as she would say) in New England.

As I’m reading I try to imagine her in a chic updated condo, in Manhattan. A very different way of life. No stairs, no driving…but not the way it really was, Then again, neither is the book.