“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.”
I 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?
First of all, Heather, I’m so sorry on the loss of your friend. This is a beautiful piece in honor of her life and gift to you. Not only the physical gift of the book, but of the kindness of friendship. I read this book quite awhile ago and am now thinking I need to reread. I found it to be thought-provoking also. I know you enjoy memoir/creative non-fiction, I’m curious if you’ve ever read Gladys Taber? She may be a bit slow/old-fashioned for some, but I love her writing. I love what you said about it’s one thing to read these books, it’s quite another to make choices to change our lives based on the beauty we’ve learned from them. You realize it’s next to near impossible to pick ONE book that changed ones life? 😉 I think I will pick Jane Brocket’s The Gentle Art of Domesticity because it gave me “permission” to love homemaking, domesticity (isn’t that a delicious word?), and creating art at home as a primary homemaker. I have always loved this role, and I know it’s not very fashionable place for women these days to be in, however, I’m enjoying it immensely. Yes, it’s very hard, mundane at times, and redundant, but I truly love it and couldn’t imagine my life anything else. My husband is awesome about working outside the home and doesn’t mind my choice and is very supportive.
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Thanks Amy. It was an honour to write. I think that *Gift from the Sea* is one of those books that invites one to read it over and over again.
I hadn’t heard of Gladys Taber, but now I’m intrigued! And would like to hear more! From a quick search online, it looks like she was a mother, a writer, and a professor of creative writing, all the while living in her Connecticut farmhouse (well, she commuted in part of the time to teach). It also looks like she wrote prolifically – both articles / columns and books. Anything you can recommend that I begin with?
And yes, you’re right! How unfair of me to ask for just ONE book which was significant! I think I wouldn’t know where or how to limit my own list. 🙂 Jane Brocket is another writer I need to look up! Just did, and I was surprised that *The Gentle Art of Domesticity* was published so recently, in 2007, it looks like. And now I’m surprised by my own surprise! Here I was going to write about the culture that surrounds me that seems to negate the choice for women to embrace being at home, and then I myself am surprised that there’s a market to publish a book so recently about the subject! I guess that lately I have keenly felt the pressure, or the cultural expectation, for women to be in the workforce, and not be at home. This is supposed to be a feminist and liberating society, and so it’s been a bit startling to me to realize that the acceptable choices for a woman don’t seem to include choosing to stay at home, even if it is to be with her children. Why is that? I’m glad you shared that you enjoy being a primary homemaker. I don’t think I hear enough voices like yours. Thank you.
I’ve been meaning, and wanting, to really dig into your blog, Hearth Ridge Reflections. I’m now looking forward to it even more. I love what I’ve seen you write about home and learning with your children. Such interesting and meaningful content, and beautifully written.
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Yes, Gladys has a lot of pieces out there, I’d steer away from her fiction 😉 (cheesy inspirational romance) and focus on anything nonfiction about her farm Stillmeadow. That’s where she shines. You don’t have to read the Stillmeadow books in order necessarily, I didn’t, but they follow successive years, I believe. A couple favorites are Stillmeadow Daybook and Stillmeadow Calendar. Just gentle reflections on nature, seasonal farm happenings, relationships, cooking, housekeeping, and all tucked in simple, yet beautiful word pictures. I’m in love with it! Of course, it’s not for everyone, but she is one of my four favorite authors. (The other three being L.M. Montgomery, Jane Austen, and Elizabeth Goudge 😉 ) Yes, fascinating subject, I almost wonder if there is a resurgence with traditional life choices for women because of the new hippie trends aka “hipsters”. Albeit, Brocket did get a Ph.D I think or at least a Masters and work for awhile before she switched to home-based work. 🙂 So she is best of both worlds, you can explore outside and gather back in when so desired. I do dislike the idea that you HAVE TO BE BOTH. Why can’t JUST being a homemaker be enough? But that’s ok. I’m totally confidant in my choice. 🙂 And wow, thank you for your encouragement and lovely comments. I’d love to have you visit my blog whenever you can. I’ll pour you a cup of coffee and you can share your MFA wisdom. 😀
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Thanks for your recommendations on Gladys Taber’s *Stillmeadow* books. I’m looking forward to exploring them.
That was a radical idea to me: your comment that “Why can’t JUST being a homemaker be enough?” I’ve been thinking a lot about your comment, have been mulling it over. I had never before thought about “homemaking” as an art, worthy in and of itself to be pursued on its own.
I’ve had a few periods of my life where I’ve elected not to work or be in school, but pursue other things, and I found this would often result in people asking — “But what do you *do*?” — and I had a project I was working on that I could name and often, they were satisfied enough, but were still puzzled. These were important experiences, which taught me that going against the grain like this made other people feel uncomfortable and perhaps disapproving. And so to bring it back to homemaking, for myself, after I was recently married, many people asked when I was going to work (I was new to the city and had just finished classes). I felt the need to justify why I was at home and told them that I was finishing my thesis for my MFA – which was completely true. But I was also doing a lot more work than that at home, work which I’d previously not done that would most likely fall under the category of homemaking – but I don’t think I listed these things to others. I suppose I had always viewed homemaking to be a secondary responsibility, assuming that there needed to be “something else” in the primary position, like education, or writing, or children. And so maybe it was also to myself I felt the need to justify. But why? Why can’t homemaking be a legitimate pursuit, not just “work,” but an elevated art, on its own?
These are new ideas to me, just budding, so I’m still thinking, and will most likely be for awhile.
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