“I believe that true identity is found, as Eckhart once said, by ‘going into one’s own ground and knowing oneself.’ It is found in creative activity springing from within. It is found, paradoxically, when one loses oneself. One must lose one’s life to find it.”
Sometimes you accidentally happen across a book, maybe you can’t even remember exactly how, and somehow this book is like reading into your own life, seeing yourself – perhaps calmer, more balanced, more objective – looking back on your own life through the lens and wisdom of another’s. And it’s soul-stirring, a little frightening, perhaps, and yet extraordinary. Gift from the Sea was like that for me, a book that washed over me like a series of waves, its quiet wisdom soothing and inspiring me. Anne Morrow Lindbergh was an author and an aviator, perhaps most famous because of her husband, Charles Lindbergh who was also a rather famous aviator, and the kidnapping and death of her infant son. A Gift from the Sea was written some time after these events, when Anne had five other children and was spending some time alone on an island, refreshing herself from the daily trials of life as a woman and mother.
“But I want first of all – in fact, as an end to these other desires – 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 from the language of the saints – to live ‘in grace’ as much of the time as possible. I am not using this term in a strictly theological sense. By grace I mean an inner harmony, essentially spiritual, which can be translated into outward harmony.”
There’s a sense of recognition almost immediately as Lindbergh expresses her desire to achieve a kind of harmony in her life, an end to desires that push and pull and obscure our intentions and values. As she describes, she desires to live ‘in grace’ or, perhaps, in a state of ‘wu wei’ which I read about earlier this year as part of the Tao te Ching and which expresses, as Lindbergh does in slightly different language, a form of effortless action, or ‘non-action’ in which we are entirely at one with our purpose and our environment. It is the reason I retracted from social media, from reading endless news reports and watching the television news, because I found myself so pushed and pulled by the emotional demands, though they were not necessarily directed specifically towards me, that these media outlets place upon us. Though Gift from the Sea was written in 1955, it is clear that Lindbergh understands what I mean, perhaps due to her unique experience following the kidnapping of her son:
“For life today in America is based on the premise of ever-widening circles of contact and communication. It involves not only family demands, but community demands, national demands, international demands on the good citizen, through social and cultural pressures, through newspapers, magazines, radio programs, political drives, charitable appeals and so on. My mind reels with it. What a circus act we women perform every day of our lives.”
In fact there are a number of occasions where she mentions this widening circle of contact and the way it encroaches on our ability to be effective, to act effectively. Lindbergh recognised that the ever-widening circle of information placed specific demands upon women who, perhaps largely thanks to social conditioning, are more prone to caring and trying to solve the horrors the world seems to have an endless capacity for, as she describes here:
“The inter-relatedness of the world links us constantly with more people than our hearts can hold. Or rather – for I believe the heart is infinite – modern communication loads us with more problems than the human frame can carry. It is good, I think, for our hearts, our minds, our imagination to be stretched; but body, nerve, endurance and life-span are not as elastic. My life cannot implement in action the demands of all the people to whom my heart responds. I cannot marry all of them, or bear them as children, or care for them all as I would my parents in illness or old-age. Our grandmothers and even – with some scrambling – our mothers lives in a circle small enough to let them implement in action most of the impulses of their hearts and minds. We were brought up in a tradition that has now become impossible, for we have extended our circle through space and time.”
There’s a strange timelessness to Lindbergh’s observations, though the book was written over 60 years ago, like the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, she seems to tap into something universal, something fundamental to the human experience. Unlike Aurelius, she was not concerned with matters of governance or leadership, but the smaller yet equally challenging lot of a woman. She recognises how women are spent and spent, how they are required to give of themselves and behave like an ever-refreshing well that everyone can drink from at will, that is supposed to have no life or desires of its own. Yet she also recognises that a woman of her era, living in the United States, the problem is not necessarily one of want but of abundance. She has an abundance of desires, an abundance of desires are thrust upon her by advertising, by social mores and expectations, by the need to do everything:
“When I go back will I be submerged again, not only by centrifugal activities, but by too many centripetal ones? Not only by distractions but by too many opportunities? Not only by dull people, but by too many interesting ones? The multiplicity of the world will crowd in on me again with its false sense of values. Values weighed in quantity, not quality; in speed, not stillness; in noise, not silence; in words, not thoughts; in acquisitiveness, not beauty. How shall I resist the onslaught?”
Yet her time by the sea is a tranquil one, and in this small space of time she is able to live simply and explore her creative self. In many ways you could argue that Gift from the Sea is a natural successor to Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, because Lindbergh is an example of someone who has a room of her own, economic freedom has been established and rights for women have been hard won. Yet having won those rights, women, Lindbergh argues, don’t know what to do with that room, with that time. Instead they fill it with activity – with socialising and voluntary work, plus the general burden of housekeeping. She argues that having won the room of your own, women still need to fight for the time to use it. Women, she says, are the only workers who never get a day off, who can take time to go to the hairdressers or a coffee with friends, but not to have an hour or so to oneself, to refresh themselves with down time. Women must always be doing and doing. She argues that the focus has been on mechanics, woman as a function and an object, but little progress has been made in satisfying the woman’s soul. She saw that as the next battleground for women, the right to do nothing, to be alone, to refresh ourselves with creative enterprises which grow out of lack of other expectations.
There’s a sense, much like I found in the work of Marcus Aurelius, that Lindbergh is exploring her own demons. She explores the necessity for isolation and time to oneself along with the ways in which inter-relationships, particularly between husband and wife, change during life. She also expresses some interesting thoughts on middle-age, a time she would have been in the grip of during the writing of this book. She used the ideas, the experiences she’d had on the island to inform her thoughts about many of these things. Principally she uses the concept of the shell to express the various stages of life. Middle-age, she decided, was a time to shed our shells and protections, to let go (Taoist links, again) of our illusions, our armour, our petty and useless possessions:
“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. Perhaps one can shed at this stage in life as one sheds in beach-living; one’s pride, one’s false ambitions, one’s mask, one’s armor. Was the armor not put on to protect one from the competitive world? If one ceases to compete, does one need it? Perhaps one can at last, in middle age, if not earlier, be completely oneself. And what a liberation that would be!”
Gift from the Sea was an extraordinary read, a book which came like an unexpected gift, some flotsam washed up on a beach, at just the right time. It expresses with such balanced clarity many of the thoughts and feelings I’ve been trying to explore over the course of this year, precipitated by my plan to read more slowly. I could have pulled from every page a quotation that spoke to me. With space in our lives, we can learn what it is that we need to refresh us, to keep us feeling purposeful and intentional, to keep us in that state of oneness with our actions. Lindbergh recognises that retreat from the world, a hermitage, is not a viable choice for most of us, that we may have families to care for, people we love, jobs to do and things we desire. But she also recognises that sometimes we need time away from those things both to remind ourselves why they matter, and also to restore ourselves so that we have something still to give when it is needed. It might just be an hour blocked out to be alone, a weekend walk or, if we’re lucky, a little beach hut to ourselves by the sea. It’s not selfish, it’s self-care. In this world of instantaneous communication, when there is endless TV and online distractions, it is harder than ever to justify time spent alone, quietly, not doing anything. But this may be exactly what we need. I know it’s what I need, and Lindbergh’s lovely book has emboldened me to seek it out more openly, to not feel guilty for wanting to be permitted a life of my own.