In 1955 Anne Morrow Lindbergh spent two weeks at an island beach to reflect on her life and the need for balance in her daily patterns of work and relationships. When she returned to her home, her husband, and five children in a New York suburb, she took five shells with her to remind her of the island precepts she had observed.
In Gift from the Sea, Lindbergh asks what roads one can take to live life from an inward harmony. The channeled whelk shell provides the first suggestion: simplification. Leading a simple life runs counter to American habits of ever-widening circles of connections and communication; this multiplicity, however, leads to fragmentation. What one learns from the channeled whelk is the art of shedding. At the beach one can get along with not only fewer clothes and less shelter but less vanity, less pride, and less hypocrisy.
The moon shell, with its perfect spiral and single eye, suggests another principle: solitude. In spite of poet John Donne’s belief that no man is an island, Lindbergh knows that in the last analysis, we are all alone. Although we avoid it, we must relearn to be alone, for only when one is connected to one’s core can one be connected to others. The inner spring is refreshed in solitude. Still, as simplification runs counter to our lifestyle, so does solitude. Our world does not understand the need to be alone. We apologize, make excuses, hide the fact like a secret vice. Lindbergh speaks of feminists gaining long-awaited external rights and privileges; now women need to be pioneers in inward attentiveness.
Three shells provide metaphors for phases of relationships. Although these could be friends, children, or marriage partners, the shells speak most clearly to marriage. The double sunrise is a perfectly matched bivalve, symbolizing the first part of a relationship—pure, simple, unencumbered; yet how quickly this relationship changes. No permanent relationship can stay exactly the same, nor should it. To do so would exclude growth and reality. Life must go on; there can be no single, fixed form. Because a relationship changes or is not lasting does not mean it is an illusion. The sunrise shell signifies the validity of all that is beautiful and fleeting.
The oyster bed describes the middle years of a marriage—untidy,...
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