One spring, while my son was flying south to meet his college pals on break, I made my own escape to Florida’s tiny island of Captiva, where Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote Gift From the Sea during a brief oceanside sabbatical.
I couldn’t have been more desperate for a vacation. My husband and I had been looking forward to the freedom of our newly emptied nest ever since our only child left home for college the previous year. But that freedom was suddenly curtailed by a new set of worries and responsibilities: Each of us had a parent with rapidly progressing dementia.
In those days, neither of us could leave town without making detailed lists for the care management of our folks. Weeklong vacations were precious and rare.
And so, to celebrate my brief pilgrimage to Captiva Island, I purchased the 50th anniversary edition of Lindbergh’s book and reread it on the plane en route. Over the years I’d collected at least five different editions of Gift From the Sea, giving them to younger moms who were juggling the demands of work and family life.
First published in 1955, the small volume spoke to women who were conflicted by what Lindbergh called “the new career opportunities” opening up to them. Using seashells to describe the various stages of a woman’s life, from early marriage to the empty nest, she gave voice to the unarticulated ache of the feminine spirit.
Gift From the Sea became a classic among inspirational best-sellers, yet its success always baffled the author. “The original astonishment remains … that a book of essays, written to work out my own problems, should have spoken to so many other women,” Lindbergh said two decades later.
A friend recommended the book when I was in my early 30s – when everything in my small universe was spinning faster than I could keep up. I was raising a preschooler, working as a travel magazine editor, remodeling an old house with my husband and planting roots in a new community. I was always too exhausted to pinpoint why I couldn’t enjoy what appeared to be a happy, satisfying life.
Mrs. Lindbergh knew how to explain my dilemma.
“There are so few empty pages in my engagement calendar,” she wrote. “Too many worthy activities, valuable things and interesting people. For it is not merely the trivial which clutters our lives, but the important as well.”
In other words, what I really needed was inner peace. Spiritual peace. Until then, I’d assumed the contemplative life was the sole province of nuns, monks or religious hermits. Lindbergh’s book reminded me that making time to nurture my spirit was a necessity – not a luxury. I had to learn how to “be still” in the midst of suburban chaos, whether I was scheduling child care for an upcoming business trip or negotiating time to shop for my family’s groceries. I had to learn, as Lindbergh wrote, “how to remain whole in the midst of the distractions of life.”
During my visit to Captiva, I wondered: If Mrs. Lindbergh were alive today, what would she think of the internet and the ongoing “distractions” of social media? If she felt conflicted by so many activities and new opportunities in 1955, would she feel burdened by hundreds of connections on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram? Would it take more than an ocean sabbatical to Captiva – her warm-weather Walden – to clear her head and soothe her soul today?
Driving past the remote beach where Lindbergh took notes for her book, I reconsidered these issues from a midlife perspective. I thought of the burdens – and the undeniable rewards – of spending one’s life taking care of children and animals and, later, parents.
Once again, I had to be reminded to slow down, breathe deeply and take responsibility for my own needs.
More than six decades after Gift From the Sea was published, most women are still overwhelmed by a banquet of choices and changing responsibilities. Anne Morrow Lindbergh reminded us that it’s never selfish to carve out time for ourselves – and to draw healthy boundaries in ink on our calendars. I’m still grateful for her gift of insight.