Countdown 2020, last 24 hours: Old wisdom for a new year

We’ve nearly reached the end, folks. The last day of our terrible no-good very bad year. To close out this series, I’ve selected a gentle poem, May Sarton’s “House of Gathering.” It’s like a deep cleansing breath. I taped it to a bench in a complex where my friend Sister Pat, 80 and going strong, lives with her fellow Mercy sisters.


poem is on bench in background between statue and tree


House of Gathering

by May Sarton


If old age is a house of gathering,

Then the hands are full.

There are old trees to prune

And young plants to plant,

There are seeds to be sown.

Not less of anything

But more of everything

To care for,

To maintain,

To keep sorted out,

A profusion of people

To answer, to respond to.


But we have been ripening

To a greater ease,

Learning to accept

That all hungers cannot be fed,

That saving the world

May be a matter

Of sewing a seed

Not overturning a tyrant,

That we can do what we can.


The moment of vision,

The seizure still makes

Its relentless demands:


Work, love, be silent.




We’ve lost too many old people this year. It makes me cry every time I think of it. By God, we need them. We need their perspective. We need their wisdom. Their love.


May Sarton’s “House of Gathering” is a beautiful reminder of what we’re missing when we lose our elders. I’ve been sitting with this poem like I’d sit with a beloved grandmother, listening to her life experience, gleaning what I can for my own. Here’s three things this grandmother/poem offers us:


—A cure for our addiction to outrage


Work, love, be silent.



—A sage perspective on frustration


Learning to accept

That all hungers cannot be fed


—A call to action available to everyone


. . . saving the world

May be a matter

Of sewing a seed



Happy New Year, dear readers. I’ll be taking a short break after this marathon of postings.



Here’s a picture of Sister Pat on her 80thbirthday. Before her quarantine began in March (she was confined to her room for months), Sister worked with local immigrants. I’m sure that as soon as she gets the all-clear she’ll be back in action, spreading her love and wisdom in the community.





May Sarton (1912-1995) was born in Belgium, the only child of an artist mother and an academic father who studied the history of science. When the Germans invaded Belgium in 1914, the family fled to England, and then moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. There her father taught at Harvard.


Although she had a scholarship to Vassar, Sarton decided to become an actress. She joined a theater company, all the while writing poetry. At 19 she gave up acting and left the country to spend a year in Paris while her parents were in Lebanon. This became a lifelong annual trip to Europe. She met many of the famous writers of the day, including Poem Elf favorite Elizabeth Bowen. She published her first novel seven years later.


She had a fourteen-year relationship with Judy Matlack, an English professor. Sarton had breast cancer and later a debilitating stroke, and spent the last twenty years of her life in Maine.


In addition to a prolific output of poetry, Sarton wrote novels, memoirs, and children’s books. She toured the country giving readings to standing-room–only crowds. At various points in her life her work met with acclaim; at other times, derision. Criticism intensified the depression she suffered. Eventually her work became popular in Women’s Studies classes in universities, which did not please Sarton. She didn’t want to be known as a lesbian writer, which she considered a limiting label.


She died at age 83.



  1. Suzanne Henley

    No way to adequately thank you for the joy you have brought into my life. But thank you.

    Wrestled with “of sewing a seed“ until I decided to Google. Although the “sewing“ appears in several other sites, I found the one below with “sowing.” It’s interesting that spellcheck—or whoever the gremlin is who mischievously changes spellings—did not correct “sewing“ to “sowing,” placed so close to “seed.“

    I wish you would continue this on a daily basis, but it must be exhausting! Do you ever hide—or even hide in plain sight with a rolled up newspaper—to see who if anyone stops and reads and what you read into their expression as they leave? What a delight!

    Happy, good, solid, grateful, seeded new year— Suzanne Henley


    1. poemelf

      Thank you, Suzanne! That’s a really nice response, appreciated.

      You are right! It’s definitely “sowing” not “sewing.” I’m sorry to have perpetuated the error. I checked my original source, an anthology….where it was spelled correctly. I made the mistake when I typed it. Looks like others have done the same.

      Oh well….I’m picturing someone embroidering a small seed on a piece of muslin….I know I should fix the mistake, but when I go back to edit on Word Press, all my spacing gets messed up and I have to re-do the whole post. Maybe I’ll get to it in the new year.

      Yes, if I’m not in a hurry I do enjoying hanging around the poem site. Without much luck. I’m continually surprised by other people’s lack of curiosity.

      Again, thanks for reading and taking the time to write!

  2. Nancy

    I have loved this very thoughtful collection of poems! Thank you for sharing! I appreciate your compassionate perspective.
    Happy and healthy 2021!

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