Gift from the Sea

“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. And since I think best with a pencil in my hand, I started naturally to write.”

So begins Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s book Gift from the Sea, written while vacationing by herself on an island, living in what she called “a bare sea-shell of a cottage.”

She had come to this place in order to contemplate how to live.

In some ways, I feel far from that place. Not on vacation, but in the midst of everyday living, I sit at my desk in the early afternoon, and look out my window at the new layer of snow and the dull sky. “Every person, especially every woman,” she writes, “should be alone sometime during the year, some part of each week, and each day.” I am alone now, but only conditionally, temporarily for a few minutes before I am needed.

“Total retirement is not possible,” she concedes. “I cannot shed my responsibilities. I cannot permanently inhabit a desert island. I cannot be a nun in the midst of family life. I would not want to be.” The solution is not a “total renunciation” nor “total acceptance” of the world. But there needs to be a balance, she urges, “or an alternating rhythm between these two extremes.”

Gift_from_the_SeaI imagine Lindbergh, sitting at her simple desk, with a view looking out to the sea. She contemplates her life by examining it through the shells she has lined up in front of her. She picks one up, considers its shape, and then poignantly asks. “What is the shape of my life?”

I likewise take out my own small collection of shells from over the years, and put them on my desk in front of me, as though in pantomime of Lindbergh, and consider the shape of my own.

She picks up another shell. “This shell was a gift,” Lindbergh writes. “It was handed to me by a friend. . . . . Smooth, whole, unblemished shell, I wonder how its fragile perfection survived the breakers on the beach. It is unusual; yet it was given to me freely. People are like that here.”

I was given Gift from the Sea by a friend — a connection I cannot separate from the book. I sat with Vanessa in her living room one ordinary Sunday afternoon when she offered it to me. She’d recently wanted to read it again, she told me, and only after ordering it had she found her old copy. She now offered this new one to me, intuiting that I would enjoy it. Given freely. She was like that.

“The shape of my life today starts with a family. I have a husband, five children and a home . . . . I have also a craft, writing, and therefore work I want to pursue. The shape of my life is, of course, determined by many other things; my background and childhood, my mind and its education, my conscience and its pressures, my heart and its desires.”

What were Lindbergh’s desires? To “give and take from [her] children and husband, to share with friends and community, to carry out [her] obligations . . . as a woman, as an artist, as a citizen.”

Of these desires, Lindbergh writes, “I want first of all . . . to be at peace with myself. I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can. . . . I would like to achieve a state of inner spiritual grace from which I could function and give as I was meant to in the eye of God.”

Shortly after receiving the book, I began reading it, and realized how many similarities there were between Vanessa, my friend, and Lindbergh, the writer: she too was a wife and the mother of five children. She too was a woman of simplicity, and complexity, and great faith, all in one.

“How much we need, and how arduous of attainment is that steadiness preached in all rules for holy living. How desirable and how distant is the ideal of the contemplative, artist or saint. . . . With a new awareness, both painful and humorous, I begin to understand why the saints were rarely married women.” I pause at this statement, curious. “It has to do primarily with distractions.”

Lindbergh sat by her desk, facing the sea, among her shells away on her own for a few days, and, in this setting absent of distractions, she wrote about relationship, about solitude, about outgrowing shells, about motherhood, about the various stages of  marriage, in essays seemingly about shells which, together, were collected into Gift from the Sea.

Instead of going to the sea on vacation, away from her family and responsibilities, Vanessa — at least it seemed to me — embraced these moments of contemplation as she lived with family and responsibilities, in the way she decided to live her life every day. 

Vanessa gave Gift from the Sea to me at a time when the shape of my own life was changing. I had recently moved to a city in which I only knew a handful of people. Incidentally, Vanessa was one of them: we’d met a few years before when we were paired to share a room at a conference. When we met, she’d been living in Newfoundland, but at the time she gave me the book, she had since relocated with her family so she could receive treatment for the cancer that had been discovered in her body.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I associate the book so strongly with Vanessa — not only  because she gave it to me, not only because of the similarities between she and the writer, but also because when I met Vanessa, she was, in my mind, connected to the sea.

But she had not only visited it, she had lived near it. When I visited her in her home, I saw the picture of the view of the sea from her home in Newfoundland on her living room wall.

“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 a 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.”

Lindbergh began writing for herself, to figure out her “own particular pattern of living, [her] own individual balance of life, work and human relationships.” But ultimately, many readers have been touched by the words she’s written.

It is difficult to take a text like this and substantiate it, or explain how it has touched you— you can only witness that you have been. Likewise, this is how I feel the influence of Vanessa’s life was upon me.

I do not mean to collapse Lindbergh’s words and Vanessa’s life into a single voice in a simplistic way. Both women are far too complex for that. But as I read Gift from the Sea for the first time, and then began it anew on the day that Vanessa died, I recognized again how she had patterned her life: in giving intentionally. Her life was a testament, a series of sermons, on how to live.

It is a relatively easy thing to look at someone else’s life and say ah! That is a good way to live. Far more difficult to be introspective, see the ways in which one needs to change, and then implement these changes into one’s life — my own life.

“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.”

This past weekend, I attended Vanessa’s funeral. A few months ago, she and her family had moved several hours, but again, to live by the water. Though it was a different location, in my mind, it was like a return to the sea.

As we drove on windy, snow-packed roads to her cottage after the funeral to visit her family, we came around a sharp bend and I saw the water, and the beauty and blaze of a winter sun glowing through the clouds. It was beautiful, and more so because it was so unexpected.

Later on, taking a few minutes to walk on the snowy beach across from her cottage, I  found a pebble at my feet and considered taking it home. I decided not to.

I already had my gift from the sea.


Question: What book has changed or shaped your life in a meaningful way?