I hadn't read this book since my teens. Then, I enjoyed it so much I went on to read her poems, diaries and letters. Anne Morrow Lindbergh became the core of one of my first extra-curricular reading projects. For a long time they centered on authors, where I would read the author's entire oeuvre, one or two biographies, and some critical writing. I went on to projects about some particular interest of mine, like World War I poetry and journals, Canadian literary theory, and English ritual traditions.
During a two-week vacation on an island, Lindbergh walks the beach, collects shells, and considers the trajectory of her life. She values being on the island not only because it separates her from the world's demands, but because the simplicity of its way of life enables her to examine each item in isolation, a single shell on a plain wooden table, not buried in the jumble of possessions back home. She also describes such vacations as “Islands in time . . . The past and future are cut off; only the present remains.” I hear the echo of Rousseau's island idyll.
Gift from the Sea is a short book, exploring “my own particular pattern of living, my own individual balance of life, work, and human relationships.” This is an ongoing concern of mine, and I expect of most people. My life constantly falls off-balance, work taking over for a few weeks, or too many social engagements leaving me cranky and needing some alone-time. A few tweaks can put it right if I catch it in time.
Each chapter uses the image of a particular shell—moon shell, double-sunrise, etc.—to focus her thoughts and also, almost imperceptibly, making it seem as though you are walking along a beach with her, casually chatting. And for those of you who have been to my home, no, I started obsessing about shells long before reading this book.
Rereading favorite books can be a dangerous activity. Some of it does seem like a time capsule to me, in terms of society and myself. Men's and women's roles have changed since 1955, when the book was first written, though much remains the same. I, too, am not the same person I was so many decades ago, when most of the sentences I underlined had to with love and marriage.
Also, much of it has become embedded within our collective consciousness, such as her call to simplify our lives, revolutionary in the 1950s, or her discussion of the importance of finding our own inner stillness. I found familiar sentences here that I'd forgotten came from her. I also found sentences that resonate for me now that I am older, such as “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.” I like her appreciation of the oyster shell, “humble and awkward and ugly” but admirable for “its tireless adaptability and tenacity”. I laughed at her use of Zerrissenheit, which William James described as “torn-to-pieces-hood”.
I recommend this lovely book, full of gentle wisdom and questions that make you look at your life in a new way.