Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea is a book that can be read as a young person and returned to again and again and something different can be taken from it with each new reading. I don't think it's possible to read the same book twice--the content may be the same but the reader isn't. Life is lived, experiences are absorbed, and attitudes change. But in AML's writing I can see myself at various stages of my life and found myself mentally nodding my head and agreeing with so much of what she said. Although I think I would have appreciated this as a younger woman, I found many truths in this lovely little book. Originally published in 1955 it reads as if it was just written so timeless and fresh are her observations.
"I began these pages for myself, in order to think out my own particular pattern of living, my own individual balance of life, work and human relationships."
I'm at a point in my own life, after a few life changing experiences in the last few years where I, too, have been trying to think out a new pattern of living and find balance and ultimately my own type of--if not always happiness--then contentment. It's easy to think that our situations are unique, but really human nature across cultures and over time is really pretty universal.
" . . . I found that my point of view was not unique. In varying settings and under different forms, I discovered many women, and men, too, were grappling with essentially the same questions as I, and were hungry to discuss and argue and hammer out possible answers."
Anne Morrow Lindbergh puts it so very eloquently, what I am looking for--"to evolve another rhythm with more creative pauses in it, more adjustments to their individual needs, and new and more alive relationships to themselves as well as others". She begins with the general and slowly moves in to a much tighter focus. And she traverses age as well, following the course of a woman's life filled with her concerns and anxieties, expectations and needs which over time often change so drastically. She likens this all with the sandy beach where she spent one summer.
"The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach--waiting for a gift from the sea."
I have found a few treasure of my own through her observations--to be at peace with myself ("to have a singleness of eye, a purity of intention") and to live "in grace", a simplification of life (maybe this one should be moved to the top of the list), learning to be alone and learning to connect with one's own core, that life needs some empty space, and that often it's not the known that is chosen but it's the unknown "with all its disappointments and surprises that is the most enriching".
She begins with the beach and then looks closer at the shells that wash ashore and how so very like a woman's life they can be compared. A channeled whelk, once home to a hermit crab perhaps, but now empty was a protection to the creature living there. AML's own shell has become messy and for a very few weeks she has shed it for beach life. Here is the shedding of life, the simplification and the need to find an inner peace.
The moon shell is a snail shell, comfortable and compact. It is like an island in itself. A reminder that we are all like islands, solitary, even though we don't always like to think of ourselves as alone, as though alone means a wallflower or unpopular. But being alone and being attuned to our inner selves helps find that inner core and keep us centered. The double sunrise is a shell with two perfectly matched sides with the same pattern and shape. They are like a pure relationship and bound together in unity--"two shells meeting together, making one world between them." Relationships change over time, maturing, and sometimes even coming to a natural end, but always morphing into something new and different in time. The oysterbed is filled with oyster shells--"with small shells clinging to its humped back, sprawling and uneven and irregular." This represents the middle years of life as "it suggests the struggle of life." And the Argonauta, or Paper Nautilus, is not really a shell at all but is used as a cradle for the young. When the eggs hatch the fish swim away and the mother leaves the shell to start a new life, so perfect for the latter years and perhaps a chance at a second flowering in life.
If I am not yet middle aged, I am fast approaching it, so it was the oysterbed that spoke to me most strongly in this book.
"Most people by middle age have attained, or ceased to struggle to attain their place in the world."
So what to do next. I don't have children but for many women there is the moment of the child becoming an adult and no longer needing quite the same amount of care and guidance. But for me there is the question of did I make the right choices, and what now?
"Perhaps middle age is, or should be, a period of shedding shells; the shell of ambition, the shell of material accumulations and possessions, the shell of the ego. Perhaps one can shed at this stage in life as one sheds in beach-living; one's pride, one's false ambitions, one's mask, one's armor."
I like that she reminds the reader, and it is something I am telling myself, too, that maybe now it is time "to be completely oneself", though I feel still as though I am searching for just who that is! What a liberation that would be, she says! Indeed.
What she says isn't necessarily new, but it's a reminder of those things most important yet often overlooked in the haste and bustle of daily life.
"Perhaps this is the most important thing for me to take back from beach-living: simply the memory that each cycle of the tide is valid; each cycle of the wave is valid; each cycle of the relationship is valid. And my shells? I can sweep them all into my pocket. They are only there to remind me that the sea recedes and returns eternally."
This is a powerful and beautiful book, from which much wisdom can be gleaned. I highly recommend it. If you do read it, take it slowly and savor each and every word.