Pantheon, $16.00 cloth
“For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.”
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.”
In these difficult times, it is hard to fathom the curves of our lives. So it is with that spirit that I picked up Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s 1955 classic, Gift From The Sea.
I have taught Lindbergh’s work in the past, and I knew her history. Her father was a lawyer, a United States ambassador and a senator. Her mother was president of Smith College. Her childhood was one of learning and privilege, and her life long habits of reading and writing carried her through to adulthood, where she married aviator Charles Lindbergh and learned to fly herself. Of course, history records her most famous challenge, the kidnapping and murder of her firstborn child, Charles Augustus Lindbergh III on March 1, 1932. The kidnapper, Bruno Richard Hauptmann was later tried and executed, leading the Lindberghs to flee America and live in Europe. Their sympathies with Nazism and Fascism created a backlash against the couple here in America, but the Lindberghs quickly recovered their reputations after the Second World War. Gift From The Sea is Anne’s most acclaimed work, and established her as a respected essayist and memoirist.
The book is divided into eight sections, each a meditation on a sea shell or image from her solitary vacation on Florida’s Captiva Island. “I began these pages for myself,” she writes, “in order to think out my own particular pattern of living, my own individual balance of life, work, and human relationships.”
Her meditations center on her life as a woman specifically, and she writes what could be considered both an environmentalist and feminist text, but stops short of being preachy or didactic. Hers is a simple logic of rediscovery of self, and that is the power of her philosophical meditation. In fact, the book is shelved with other works considered speculative philosophy, and therefore her writing avoids the cliché of memoirist navel-gazing. Although she refers often to a woman’s life and women’s roles in the mid-twentieth century American landscape, I find much relevance for men in this work. The power of Lindbergh’s reflections radiates from her humanity and the lessons of the sea. She does in philosophical prose what Hemingway does in the fictional novella, The Old Man and the Sea, but Lindbergh confronts the awesomeness of nature herself, one on one, and does not use a fictional stand-in, yet her work is every bit as moving and intense.
She begins her contemplation with a channeled whelk, a particular shell that once housed a snail-like sea creature. That tenant has vacated the premises, and the empty shell is left to the occupation of other marine life. When she finds it empty on the beach, she sees the tracks of the hermit crab leading away from the borrowed home. “He ran away, and left me his shell,” she writes. “It was once a protection to him...Had it become an encumbrance? Why did he run away?”
She equates this shell with her life, which has become, “Blurred with moss, knobby with barnacles, its shape hardly recognizable any more...What is the shape of my life?” And thus it begins: what do we need to survive? What is important in the baggage we carry through this existence? The shells she contemplates are singular in their beauty and opulence, yet the animals therein abandon them when they outgrow their confines, or when they shuffle off this mortal coil, to paraphrase Shakespeare. When we are gone, will our lives stand up as well? Will they indicate aesthetic beauty when they have outlived their usefulness as our lives?
Throughout, we are privy to gems of startling clarity in Lindbergh’s reflections. They leap out at us from the page. “The most exhausting thing in life, I have discovered, is being insincere. That is why so much of social life is exhausting; one is wearing a mask. I have shed my mask.” In the solace of the sea, in the reduction of life to basic elements like a walk, an evening fire, time spent reading and reflecting, we find the essence of pure existence. Is it the magic of the sea, or something about being alone? Lindbergh believes in both. “The world does not understand, in either man or woman, the need to be alone.” She returns often to this theme of solitude. However, she is not focusing on herself in solitude; in fact, she believes one must lose the self to find her bearings. One finds the self when, paradoxically, “one loses oneself,” she writes.
On the contemplation of mid-life, she writes, “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.” Later she insists that “middle age, because of the false assumption that it is a period of decline, one interprets these life-signs, paradoxically, as signs of approaching death.” Not true. Middle age is the casting off of one life shell for another, a different perspective, possibly deeper due to age and acquired wisdom.
Lindbergh finalizes her thoughts by quoting Saint-Exupery, a fellow aviator and author of The Little Prince: “The life of the spirit...the veritable life, is intermittent and only the life of the mind is constant...The spirit...alternates between total vision and absolute blindness. Here is a man, for example, who loves his farm—but there are moments when he sees in it only a collection of unrelated objects. Here is a man who loves his wife—but there are moments when he sees in love nothing but burdens, hindrances, constraints. Here is a man who loves music—but there are moments when it cannot reach him.”
Here we feel the prose equivalent of Longfellow’s poem, “The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls.” We feel the pull of the tides at our feet, the stable existence of the sea in all its glory, yet the impermanence of the sand, the shifting of our lives with the ebb and flow of all existence from primordial to future tense. In contemplation of the sea, we receive the gift of perspective and what our brief candle might mean to the light of the world in total.
Lindbergh’s slim volume tells us, in the most poetic paragraphs, what the sea teaches us if we listen. She presents life’s paradoxical truths, how we can lie down by the sounding sea with all of its crashing waves and roaring tides, and sleep the peaceful slumber of infants, secure in our knowledge that the journey moves forward, and life is forever revealing its myriad gifts to those who patiently live in the moment.