I was recently introduced to a treasure of a book by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea. It’s one of those small volumes you might find on the bedside table in a guest room, nice to look at and slim enough you could read it through in a few hours. But looks can be deceiving; it would be a mistake to dismiss it for its size.
My first impression of the book, which consists of a series of life lessons for women using seashells as metaphors, was that it was going to be a bit sappy and sentimental. But by the second chapter, I began to see the beauty of Morrow’s well-written comparisons, and I began to pay attention more closely.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh was a busy lady: besides being the wife of Charles Lindbergh, the famous flyer, she was a mother to five children, a writer, an environmentalist and a world traveler. But she was never too busy to take a step back and reflect. Both she and Charles were in the habit of taking vacations, both together and alone, and they liked islands and beaches.
This book was written while Anne was on one of these small getaways, and she found the simplicity she craved in the patterns of life one develops on an island. Every day held a little work, a little rest, and something to stimulate the body and mind—and time, plenty of time, to enjoy some refreshing solitude. I recognized it immediately—it’s the way I feel when we’re sailing instead of living at a dock somewhere, plugged into a “land life.” When we’re living “on the hook,” as we say, in an anchorage, life is reduced to answering a few questions: What’s the weather like? What should we eat? What boat chores need to be done? What should we do when the work is done? There’s no running around like headless chickens. I spend a lot of time with the kids, but also find time to just enjoy a sunrise, an afternoon kayaking, or a sunset drink it the cockpit with Jay. And when we have neighbors aboard, there’s time for leisurely conversation, no feeling of being rushed because there’s nowhere else we have to be.
Morrow writes: “Here on this island I have had space. Paradoxically, in this limited area, space has been forced upon me. The geographical boundaries, the physical limitations, the restrictions on communication, have enforced a natural selectivity. There are not too many activities or things or people, and each one, I find, is significant, set apart in the frame of sufficient time and space.”
Just as Anne discovered, we’ve learned that life finds a nice equilibrium when you are living simply, and closely with the natural rhythms of sunlight and seasons. She talks about finding that simplicity and balance, shedding the unnecessary, both in the outward patterns, but also in the inward spaces. Living life with grace, with an inner stillness, will help when we find ourselves, as we inevitably will, busy again with childrearing, working, cooking, cleaning, volunteering, and caretaking. Stepping away can help reset the priorities, so that going forward, we can make choices that keep us from feeling fractured and frazzled.
She uses the shells she finds on her morning walks to illustrate the various facets of a woman’s life. The characteristics of each shell are looked at closely and analogically—each one representing a phase in life or in a relationship. My favorite chapters were those that illustrated the stages in a marriage. When the relationship is new, she posits, it is like a Double-Sunrise shell, two people in love, a perfect, unclouded union. As life changes for a couple, and they begin a family, the relationship shifts into one of teamwork and functionality, not unlike an oyster shell. It’s not necessarily pretty, but it is efficient at growing and changing to meet the demands of its environment! Jay and I are knee-deep in the oyster beds at this point, so I wasn’t sure where she was going to go next. I had always thought that after the kids left, we would simply go back to being who we were before we had children. Not necessarily so, according to Mrs. Lindbergh. I found her illustration of the possibilities of the empty-nest stage to be so compelling, so exciting, that I actually can’t wait to see what the future holds. It completely inspires me to live and love well now, in this time where we work so often in separate spheres, so that we will come into the post-child-bearing years ready to be something entirely new, having come fully into our own, but also reaching new depths of inter-dependence.
Being a beach-lover and shell-picker myself, I found this book to be so refreshing and eye-opening that I will probably never look at a beach or a shell in the same way. I feel more than ever inspired to live fully in each day, and to seek contentment in the now. If you’re looking for a gift to give a mother, sister, daughter or friend, I would heartily recommend Gift from the Sea for a woman at any age and stage of life.