Gift from the Sea: A Book Review

Gift_from_the_sea_by_anne_morrow_li

I found the perfect beach read for modern moms, and it was written fifty years ago:  Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea.  Yes, she’s that Lindbergh—wife to Charles, and mother to five children.  She wrote this gem of a volume while taking a brief hiatus from family life alone in a beach house.  The book was published in 1955, nearly a decade before Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.  Lindberg was no bored housewife—a bestselling author and acclaimed aviator, she lived a life of adventure and career and family.  She went to the beach to find a center of peace within herself from which all else could radiate.  And in this volume—a quick, poetic read barely surpassing a hundred pages—she provides both timeless advice and a deep respite for any mother balancing work and family.

The author uses a collection of seashells to frame her meditations—in each, she finds a treasure to keep in thought as well as form:

  • A Channeled Whelk:  In this brief essay, Lindberg describes the peace she seeks.  Not an end to life’s demands, which after all are generated by love and her choices, but “…a singleness of eye, a purity of intention.”  (p. 17) Lindberg believes this peace must be grounded in spirituality.  She wants to “…achieve a state of inner grace from which I could function and give as I was meant to in the eye of God.” (p.18)  She got my attention there, as I have been working toward such as state for the past few years, and for the same reasons.  In the rest of this essay, Lindberg describes the life of the modern working mother, and discusses its demands on both parents.  If I didn’t know the book had been written fifty years ago, I would have believed it was written yesterday.  Listen to this:  “The problem is not merely one of Woman and Career, Woman and the Home, Woman and Independence.  It is more basically:  how to remain whole in the midst of the distractions of life….” (p. 23) And that, my friends, is what we are really talking about when we say we want to “have it all”—we want to be whole.  The lesson of the Channeled Whelk, Lindberg finds, is simplification.
  • Moon Shell:  In this essay, Lindberg focuses on a woman’s need for solitude.  Truth is woven into every paragraph here—the truth of woman “spilling herself out” to meet the needs of others, never stopping to refill herself.  And Lindberg wonders why—is it an economic problem?  Partly.  But mostly, she concludes, it is one of self-value:  “If women were convinced that a day off or an hour of solitude were a reasonable ambition, they would find a way to attain it.  As it is, they feel so unjustified in their demand that they rarely make the attempt.”  (p. 43) The author makes the case for women insisting on some solitude, for themselves and for those they love, as an absolute imperative.
  • Double-Sunrise:  Here the author turns to the purity of a relationship in its first stage, before time and life’s demands complicate it.  She focuses mostly on romantic love, but discusses the purity of any relationship in the beginning—the mother-child bond and even friendships start in infatuation.  Lindberg recognizes that married couples must find time alone, to reconnect to the sense of oneness they had in the beginning.  She also recognizes that this state cannot be sustained:  “The sunrise shell has the validity of all beautiful and fleeting things.”  (p. 68)
  • Oyster Bed:  The oyster bed describes the phase of life the author is in as she writes—a life in the middle of itself, comfortable with habit and yet full of conflicting demands.  She contrasts our societal view of middle age as a time of decline with a well-kept secret about the truth of middle age:  it can be a time of great growth, of freedom.  Either way, it is not an easy time to inhabit, and the author provides many insights for inhabiting it both well and fully.     
  • Argonauta:  Lindberg imagines a future in which both she and her loved ones are free to separate and reconnect, recognizing the wholeness in a single being while reveling in the joy of companionship when it arrives.  As she contemplates this way of relating, she theorizes about what it would take to reach it:  “Such a stage in life, it would seem to me, must come not as a gift or a lucky accident, but as part of an evolutionary process, an achievement which could only follow certain important developments in each partner.”  (p. 87)Fifty years later, we are struggling with the question of what those developments might be, and what kind of partnership they would create.

I haven’t described every essay in the book, nor every insight—there is too much beauty and wisdom here for me to capture adequately.  I bought the 50th anniversary edition, which includes both an introduction by the author’s daughter and an addendum the author wrote 20 years after the book’s publication.   Both add value to this already precious book—do yourself a favor and read it this summer at the beach.  That’s where I read my copy—in the middle of my oyster bed of a life, during a few moments of solitude while my husband played with my kids in the ocean.

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