Over the weekend I must admit to feeling a little depressed. It’s hard to explain exactly why. It may have been the new injections, the surgery date or that I didn’t feel great and was simply exhausted, wrung out in every way- emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually. I was perhaps also a little bummed out at having to move my DC trip to September and I’m sure being alone over the Easter holiday didn’t help. Who knows? Sometimes I feel down for no reason at all, not very often, but it does happen.
Needing some comfort and inspiration I turned to a little book I had not read in at least 10 years, A Gift from the Sea by Anne Marrow Lindbergh. It was the perfect book for me to read at that moment and I devoured it! (It’s not long- 127 pages. Its more of a collection of essays than a book) In the book Anne shares her contemplations after a vacation at the ocean.
Looking at a hermit crab leaving his shell Anne says “He ran away, and left me his shell. It was once a protection to him. I turn the shell in my hand, gazing into the wide open door from which he made his exit. Had it become an encumbrance? Why did he run away? Did he hope to find a better home, a better mode of living? I too have run away, I realize, I have shed the shell of my life, for these few weeks of vacation.”
What a glorious thing such shedding is! I feel the same way when I go to Hawaii. Its sounds cheesy but the mere sound of the waves makes my problems float away and the brightness of the sun makes life feel alive, reborn.
Anne goes on to analyze her life, “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 want, in fact- to borrow the language of the saints- to live ‘in grace’ as much of the time as possible.”
What a grand goal! Of course, life becomes very complicated and busy. Anne says “the life I have chosen as a wife and mother entrains a whole caravan of complications…This is not the life of simplicity but the life of multiplicity that the wise men warn us of. It leads not to unification but to fragmentation. It does not bring grace; it destroys the soul. And this is not only true of my life, I am forced to conclude; it is the life of millions of women in America.”
What is Anne’s solution to such a challenging problem? Well she compares each phase in life to different types of shells found at the beach:
1. The Channeled Whelk- the abandoned home of a hermit crab. “Blurred with moss, knobby with barnacles, its shape is hardly recognizable anymore. Surely, it had shape once. It has a shape still in my mind. What is the shape of my life? The shape of my life today starts with a family…I have also a craft, writing, and therefore work I want to pursue. The shape of my life is determined by many other things: my background and childhood, my mind and its education, my conscience and its pressures, my heart and its desires.”
She goes on to talk about the difficulties of balancing all these shapes. “Simplification of outward life is not enough. It is merely the outside. But I am starting with the outside. I am looking at the outside of a shell, the outside of my life- the shell. The complete answer is not to be found on the outside, in an outward mode of living. This is only a technique, a road to grace. The final answer, I know, is always inside. But the outside can give a clue, can help us find the answer.”
2. Moon Shell- “This is a snail-shell, round, full and glossy as a horse-chestnut. Comfortable and compact…” With the moon shell Anne talks about the importance of solitude and being comfortable in one’s skin. “No man is an island, said John Donne. I feel we are all islands- in a common sea. We are all, in the last analysis, alone. And this basic state of solitude is not something we have any choice about. We are solitary. We may delude ourselves and act as though this were not so. That is all.”
Anne goes on to talk about the crowding in on solitude from modern life. “Women, who used to complain of loneliness, need never be alone anymore. We can do our housework with soap-opera heroes at our side. Even day dreaming was more creative than this; it demanded something of oneself and it fed the inner life. Now, instead of planting our solitude with our own dream blossoms we choke the space with continuous music, chatter and companionship to which we do not even listen. It is simply there to fill a vacuum…We must learn to be alone. ”
3. Double Sunrise- This shell was a gift from a friend. “Each side, like the wing of a butterfly, is marked with the same pattern; translucent white except for three rosy rays that fan out from the golden hinge binding the two together. I hold two sunrises between my thumb and finger.” Anne goes on to talk about the purity of the gift and what she calls the ‘pure relationship’.
“Every relationship seems simple at its start. The simplicity of love, or friendliness, the mutuality of first sympathy seems, at its initial appearance- even if merely in exciting conversation across a dinner table- to be a self-enclosed world. Two people listening to each other, two shells meeting each other, making one world between them. There are no others in the perfect unity of that instant…”
The she goes on to say ‘how swiftly, how inevitably the perfect unity is invaded; the relationship changes’. However, if we look we can find glimpses of the ‘pure relationship’ all around us. Anne also recommends for couples temporary returns ‘to the pure relationship.’ She says our children need these glimpses also “Does each child not secretly long for the pure relationship he once had with the mother when he was ‘the baby’? And if we were able to put into practice this belief and spend more time with each child alone- would he not only gain in security and strength but also learn an important first lesson in his adult relationship?”
4. The Oyster Shell- Naturally we demand relationships that are more than the passions of a the purest moments. This brings Anne to the oyster shell. “Each is fitted and formed by its own life and struggle to survive…Sprawling and uneven it has the irregularity of something rowing. It looks rather like the house of a big family, pushing out one addition after another to hold its teeming life…It is untidy, spread out in all directions, heavily encrusted with accumulations and in its living state- this one is empty and cast up by the sea- firmly imbedded on its rock”
The oyster shell symbolizes the middle years of marriage (or I related it to the middle years of life). It is here that ‘many bonds, many strands, of different textures and strength, form making up a web that is taut and firm. The web is fashioned of love. Yes, but many kinds of love: romantic first, then a slow-growing devotion, and playing through these a constantly rippling companionship”.
As a single girl I must say- that is the dream. ‘a constantly rippling companionship’. I love it!
5. Argonata- “These are in the beach-world certain rare creatures, who are not fastened to their shell at all. It is actually a cradle for the young, held in the arms of the mother argonaut who floats within to the surface, where the eggs hatch and the young swim away. Then the mother argonaut leaves her shell and starts another life.”
With this shell Anne contemplates on the second half of life when children have left the shell. Anne says ‘ I believe after the oyster bed, an opportunity for the best relationship of all: not a limited, mutually exclusive one, like the sunrise shell; and not a functional, dependent one, as in the oyster bed; but the meeting of two whole fully developed persons.”
You may find it odd that I would be so moved by more talk of marriage but with so many evils fighting relationships- pornography, addiction, infidelity, workaholism- it is comforting to read of the potential for complete relationships. Sometimes I am prone to be a bit cynical about love but in reading Anne’s words I thought of the relationships I do have and how they have grown. My relationship with my parents, siblings, friends and myself have all changed and are changing each day. How comforting to know that even more potential love is possible as relationships grow.
Anne says “The joy of such a pattern is not only the joy of creation or the joy of participation, it is also the joy of living in the moment.” She then asks “What makes us hesitate and stumble? It is fear, I think, that makes one cling nostalgically to the last moments or clutch greedily toward the next. Fear destroys ‘the winged life.’ But how to exorcise it? It can only be exorcised by its opposite, love. When the heart is flooded with love there is no room for fear, for doubt, for hesitation.”
I know this was a super long post but I felt so inspired by Gift from the Sea and I wanted to share it with those I love. Like Anne when I think of the ocean I am filled with light and peace. I think this is because the ‘sea recedes and returns eternally’. I believe I am a part of creating eternal relationships, whether it be with a family member or a friend- or someday something more. What we do now has more significance then we realize and Anne’s words helped me remember all of my current challenges are part of my great collection of shells, which eventually will be vibrant, beautiful and eternal.
I hope I have done the book justice. It moved me and felt like a big hug from my Heavenly Father. I loved it. Have any of you read it? What did you think?