This month our parish women’s book club is reading Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” I finished it this morning, in an old anthology from 1947 that I had kept from our homeschooling years, when twice my late husband and I taught a short story course to our children. That collection is A Treasury of Short Stories edited by Bernardine Kielty. When I closed that volume I opened The Norton Reader, Seventh Edition, to see if it included any Tolstoy stories, but when I saw the title “From Journal of a Solitude,” I continued reading the first few excerpts taken from the book by May Sarton.
Her musings in the first paragraphs were on topics that were also among those so powerfully treated in the story of Ivan Ilyich: depression, dying; the perceived absence or presence of God, both “too frightening.” I don’t have any comments on those themes, but I would very much recommend Tolstoy’s story to your own reading. I thought I had read it before, but maybe I only started once. It is powerful.
I don’t know anything about May Sarton except what I read just this morning, but I appreciated the thoughts below; these came just down the page, after she’d moved on from writing about her dying friend. They are not so obviously linked to the Tolstoy story, except perhaps by their highlighting the need for patience in every stage and situation in life, not least at its end. “By your patient endurance you will gain your souls.” (Luke 21:19)
“In the mail a letter from a twelve-year-old child, enclosing poems, her mother having pushed her to ask my opinion. The child does really look at things, and I can write something helpful, I think. But it is troubling how many people expect applause, recognition, when they have not even begun to learn an art or a craft. Instant success is the order of the day; ‘I want it now!’ I wonder whether this is not part of our corruption by machines. Machines do things very quickly and outside the natural rhythm of life, and we are indignant if a car doesn’t start on the first try. So the few things that we still do, such as cooking (though there are TV dinners!), knitting, gardening, anything at all that cannot be hurried, have a very particular value.”
-May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude