A Few Shells: Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea

Gift from the Sea is a book that enacts its own prescription … which is my attempt to sum up how this book about the difficulty, but also the inestimable value, of quiet meditation prompts its readers (or this reader, anyway) to just such inward contemplation.


It’s a little book, and an easy one to read: short chapters, each focused on a simple idea and using a single shell as an organizing metaphor, written in simple, satisfying sentences. It’s not, ultimately, a slight or insubstantial book, though, because its wide open spaces leave plenty of room for our own thoughts about our lives, relationships, and priorities. I think it would be impossible, in fact, to read it and not test its propositions against one’s own experiences — and not be tempted by its invitation to consider finding a new rhythm for one’s life, one that’s slower and more spacious. No doubt because of where I am in my own life, I was most interested in the chapter on the ‘oyster bed.’ An oyster shell, as she points out, “is untidy, spread out in all directions, heavily encrusted with accumulations”:

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. It is a physical and material battle first of all, for a home, for children, for a place in their particular society. . . . Here one forms ties, roots, a firm base. . . . Here one makes oneself part of the community of men, of human society.

She doesn’t idealize this phase of marriage, recognizing that like the oyster shell’s, its excrescences are “not primarily beautiful but functional.” Yet “it is comfortable in its familiarity, its homeliness.” The early years of marriage – the “double-sunrise” phase – are, by contrast, “pure, simple, and unencumbered,” with a “self-enclosed perfection [that] wears the freshness of a summer morning.” To me, that does seem idealized (we can’t be the only couple whose marriage had its share of complexities early on) but in those years it’s true that there’s a mutuality and an exclusivity to the relationship that can’t be sustained in the changing circumstances of family life.

More than her specific characterizations of each phase of life, I was struck by her theme of accepting changes from one phase to the next, especially within marriage. “Duration,” as she says, “is not a test of true or false,” and perhaps the sagest advice she has is to not to yearn for things to stay the same, or to return to some earlier way of being. The crusty oyster shell is no more the symbol of eternal verities than the graceful double-sunrise: “the tide of life recedes. The house, with its bulging sleeping porches and sheds, begins little by little to empty.” Most of us, she suggests,

insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity, in freedom . . . 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 it was in nostalgia, nor forward to what it might be in dread or anticipation, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now. For relationships too must be like islands. One must accept them for what they are here and now, within their limits . . .

Easier said then done, no doubt, though not so easily said so succinctly or gracefully. The very gentleness of Gift from the Sea, in fact, makes rather light of what could be quite stringent psychological, not to mention marital, renovations! And I personally am always a bit wary of advice to accept things they way they are now, even as I recognize that taking “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” as one’s motto is likely not the route to contentment for us any more than for Ulysses. Still, finding the good in the present and not measuring it against either the real past or an imagined future does seem wise.

But it’s that same aphoristic wisdom that kept me from being absorbed in Gift from the Sea the way I was absorbed in, say, Plant Dreaming Deep — which touches on many of the same life challenges. In making her book so accessible, so broadly applicable, Lindbergh has made herself too generic, her voice and story too impersonal. Sometimes, Gift from the Sea seemed just a shade too close, for my taste, to a New Age self-help book, its eponymous shells dwindling into poetic talismans. The list of “island precepts” for instance — how little separates these from platitudes:

Simplicity of living, as much as possible, to retain a true awareness of life. Balance of physical, intellectual, and spiritual life. Work without pressure. Space for significance and beauty. Time for solitude and sharing. Closeness to nature to strengthen understanding and faith in the intermittency of life: life of the spirit, creative life and the life of human relationships. A few shells.

I don’t mean to deprecate the loveliness of the book, though, or to dismiss its truths. I’m actually surprised to find myself resisting it even as far as I do! After I finished it I thought of at least four people close to me I wanted to recommend it to, and I know I’ll reread it myself.

For a fuller account of the book and its place in its author’s own life, which was certainly “heavily encrusted with accumulations,” read Victoria Best’s wonderful essay about Lindbergh and Gift from the Sea at Open Letters Monthly.