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Gift from the sea

As mentioned previously, one of my favorite books of all time is “The Aviator’s Wife,” by Melanie Benjamin, a historical, imaginative account of one of the world’s most well-known couples: Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. I knew a little about Charles Lindbergh from elementary school days and my current close proximity to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, Washington, D.C., but did not know much about his personal life and more specifically, the particulars of his wife, Anne Morrow. The book shines a spotlight on her story, and I was enthralled from beginning to end. What an extraordinary woman Anne was: A true pioneer of her time. Anne was first, a loyal, loving wife and mother whose role was to nurture a growing family and conform to the societal norms that came with her husband’s fame… But she was more than that: An intellectual, a creative, innovative spirit that surrendered to the box that the world, her husband placed her in. Although “The Aviator’s Wife” was a fictional reenactment, I was so intrigued by the main character that after finishing the book, I ordered Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s own novel, “Gift From The Sea,” to learn more about her true ideals.

The book is short, only 129 pages, but is filled with beautiful insights about Anne’s thoughts on life, love, friendship, marriage, womanhood, and lessons she’s learned. The musings materialized, at first, through quiet contemplation- the backdrop, a beach setting- but soon blossomed into something greater once conversations with other women reinforced Anne’s sentiments.

“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.”

The “gifts” Anne refers to are shells that she collected while taking walks on the beach, vacationing in Florida’s Captiva Island in the early 1950’s. Each type of shell reminds her of various facets of life.

Channelled Whelk: A deserted, gentle, spiral-shaped haven. Anne compares herself to the crab that once occupied the shell, fleeing from her day to day to make peace with herself, to find grace. She craved simplicity in a world that pulled women in so many ways, saying, “ For to be a woman is to have interests and duties, raying out in all directions from the central mother core, like spokes from the hub of a wheel. The pattern of our lives is essentially circular. We must be open to all points of the compass; husband, children, friends, home, community; stretched out, exposed, sensitive like a spider’s web to each breeze that blows, to each call that comes. How difficult for us, then, to achieve a balance in the midst of these contradictory tensions, and yet how necessary for the proper functioning of our lives.”

Moon Shell: A snail shell, full and glossy as a horse chestnut. Self-contained. Anne writes about solitude in this chapter, stressing that if it is a woman’s function to give, she must be replenished too. “Every person, especially every woman, should be alone sometime during the year, some part of the week, and each day.” “…These are the among the most important times in one’s life- when one is alone. Certain springs are tapped only when we are alone. The artist knows he must be alone to create; the writer, to work out his thoughts; the musician, to compose; the saint, to pray. But women need solitude in order to find again the true essence of themselves: that firm strand which will be the indispensable center of the whole web of human relationships.”

Double Sunrise: A shell with two halves, identical, joined at the middle. Anne compares this type of shell to a married couple, stresses that time alone, together, is the key to a happy partnership. She writes, “ Husband and wife can and should go off on vacations alone and also on vacations alone together. For if it is possible that woman can find herself by having a vacation alone, it is equally possible that the original relationship can sometimes be refound by having a vacation alone together.”

Oyster Bed: The oyster can be best explained in the following lines, one of the book’s best excerpts. “Yes, I believe the oyster shell is a good one to express the middle years of marriage.  It suggests the struggle of life itself. The oyster has fought to have that place on the rock to which it has fitted itself perfectly and to which it clings tenaciously. So most couples in the growing years of marriage struggle to achieve a place in the world; Here the bonds of marriage are formed. For marriage, which is always spoken of as a bond, becomes actually, in this stage, many bonds, many strands, of different texture and strength, making up a web that is taut and firm. The web is fashioned of love. Yes, but many kinds of love: Romantic at first, then a slow growing devotion and, playing through these, a constantly rippling companionship. It is made of loyalties, and interdependencies, and shared experiences. It is woven of memories of meetings and conflicts; of triumphs and disappointments. It is a web of communication, a common language, and the acceptance of lack of language too; a knowledge of likes and dislikes, of habits and reactions, both physical and mental. It is a web of instincts and intuitions, and known and unknown exchanges. The web of marriage is made by propinquity, in the day-to-day living side by side, looking outward and working outward in the same direction. It is woven in space and in time of the substance of life itself.”

Argonauta: (I will not lie, I folded down every other page of this chapter: Anne’s words were so inspiring.) The Argonauta, also known as the “paper nautilus” is a rare creature who is not fastened to its shell at all. Anne speaks of a good relationship, in comparison. “A good relationship has a pattern like a dance and is built on the same rules. The partners do not need to hold on tightly, because they move confidently in the same pattern, intricate but gay and swift and free, like a country dance of Mozart’s. To touch heavily would be to arrest the pattern and freeze the movement, to check the endlessly changing beauty of its unfolding. There is no place here for the possessive clutch, the clinging arm, the heavy hand; only the barest touch in passing. Now arm in arm, now face to face, now back to back- it does not matter which. Because they know they are partners moving to the same rhythm, creating a pattern together, and being invisibly nourished by it. 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. Lightness of touch and living in the moment are intertwined. One cannot dance well unless one is completely in time with the music, not leaning back to the last step or pressing forward to the next one, but poised directly on the present step as it comes. Perfect poise on the beat is what gives good dancing its sense of ease, of timelessness, of the eternal.”

Anne then talks about the swinging pendulum of a relationship- the back and forth nature of how we together, float through time. She says, “The ‘veritable life’ of our emotions and our relationships also is intermittent. When you love someone you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way, from moment to moment. It is an impossibility. It is even a lie to pretend to. And yet this is exactly what most of us demand. We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity- in freedom, in the sense that dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern. The only real security is not in owning or possessing, not in demanding or expecting, not in hoping, even. Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what is nostalgia, nor forward to what might be in dread or anticipation, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now. “

I usually do not document full paragraphs in my reviews- I often look to provide brief takeaways, teasers, paint pictures of what lies between the pages of the books I’ve read. But Anne’s words were breathtaking and I know that I will be referencing them in the future. She ended her narrative once it was time to pack for her return home, tucked away her favorite shells to remind her of the lessons she learned while on her solo journey.

I finished this book today on my own beach towel beside my sister: It was a vacation day for us as well. I read these words aloud to her as waves crashed in the background- they held so much weight, truth, promise. Once again, the book is a one-day read: I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy, highlighting your favorite gems- or shells, rather- and keeping the published journal closeby when your own patterns shift.

FINAL SCORE: 4.2

BEST FOR: Those who seek balance, simplicity, and deeper truths.

NOT GOOD FOR: Readers who don’t prefer essay-like narratives: There are no true characters or plotlines in this book. It is, rather, an introspective stream of consciousness.

IF THIS BOOK/ AUTHOR WAS A HIGH SCHOOL STEREOTYPE: It’d be the old soul. The wise one.

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