Life at Sixty

I had been dreading the evening when I would no longer have May Sarton’s The Education of Harriet Hatfield to read. Yet, as is often true with the really fine writers, Sarton pushed me along, knowing it was time for another book, another story.

I want to tell you about Harriet Hatfield.

The novel opens at the death of Harriet’s partner. It is the late 1980s in an exclusive, upper-class neighborhood in Boston—Chestnut Hill–where Harriet and her partner had lived for thirty years. It is not a novel in which a great deal happens but, of course, a great deal does happen to a sixty-year-old lesbian who has an opportunity to begin life completely anew. With the money she inherits from her partner’s estate, Harriet moves from Chestnut Hill to a working-class neighborhood where she opens a feminist bookstore that also serves as  her residence.

Harriet soon learns that hatred and prejudice run roughshod over any sense of security she may have once had. The anonymous but ominous threats Harriet receives do not weaken her resolve but strengthen her determination to stay in a neighborhood that does not want a “lady” lesbian or her feminist–and therefore must be pornographic–bookstore, Hatfield House.

Harriet Hatfield’s feminism is a belief in equality for all in all things–jobs, housing, existence–and is a constant source of tension throughout the novel. Hatfield House, with its overstuffed chairs and afternoon teas, is “‘the equivalent these days of men’s clubs…places where women can talk to each other, find sustenance, and come to some idea of who they really are.'” Yet, Hatfield House is much more. It is, perhaps, a “bridge” to and for all in Harriet’s neighborhood–including hate and prejudice–but as Harriet says of metaphor, “‘if you run it into the ground… it suddenly doesn’t quite work.'”

I was introduced to The Education of Harriet Hatfield on Cynthia Newberry Martin’s blog . While I am familiar with most of Sarton’s work, I was not aware of this novel but I was aware of a bit of a coincidence, being a sixty-year-old lesbian myself. Like Harriet, I, too, believe that at sixty I have been given a rare opportunity to live a life I have never lived. Unlike Harriet, I am anything but financially secure–her complete opposite financially–but I am rich in ways that continue to surprise me every day, which is so very like Harriet. One of the greatest perks of growing old is finally appreciating all that one is and how little, how very little is necessary to live a life fulfilled.

“‘I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion.
These are your greatest treasures.
Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are.'”
–Lao-Tzu (Translation provided in The Book of Awakening, Mark Nepo)

Above all, Harriet Hatfield has patience. She does not believe that all of her neighbors will accept her or her bookstore even eventually–she knows she will not outlive prejudice–the temporary truce in the neighborhood is indirectly provided by her dog, Patapouf: “‘there is a residue of compassion… that suddenly comes into view where an animal is concerned, as though the only pure thing left in this corrupt, hate filled world is the love of animals.'” The neighborhood belief that animals are beyond prejudice provides a brief respite as well as some consideration for what another human being may or may not be, even a lesbian.

This is a novel in which not a lot happens and in which everything happens. It is not a novel about understanding one side or the other much less taking sides. It is a novel about living one’s life fully and completely every day–whatever is presented–even if it is a new life at sixty.

“…Given enough time, most of our enemies cease to be enemies, because waiting allows us to see ourselves in them. Patience devastates us with the truth that, in essence, when we fear another, we fear ourselves; when we distrust another, we distrust ourselves; when we kill another, we kill ourselves”
(The Book of Awakening).

(All quotations from May Sarton’s The Education of Harriet Hatfield are from the 1989 Norton edition.)