Last week, we took a trip to the sea.

Steve and I had saved and planned; we reserved a condo and mapped out our travel route; we bought sunscreen and aloe vera. We packed more clothes and games and movies and snacks than one family can ever hope to use on a six-day excursion. Then, we loaded up the boys and headed to the beach.

I’m still learning what it means to go on family vacations. For years, I have taken trips by myself to see family or to see places. Sometimes, my mom or a friend accompanied me. Almost always I did whatever I wanted to do. I rested, I read, I ate dinners out. Last year, our long road trip out west with the three boys in the van for days was a far cry from my normal fare, and hardly a minute of relaxation. A trip to the beach, though, had the potential to be a real vacation, even with a family. I was smart enough not to count on it, though.

In her classic book, Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh writes about motherhood and marriage and domestic life and creativity using the metaphor of her occasional life at a sea cottage. For each chapter, she chooses a shell – a gift from the sea – to talk about the pains and ecstasies of modern life. Of course, modern for her was 1955. I couldn’t believe how very relevant her words were for me today, in 2014. She also knew what it was like to walk into life expecting peace but instead finding chaos.

“I mean to lead a simple life, to choose a simple shell I can carry easily – like a hermit crab,” she writes. “But I do not. I find that my frame of life does not foster simplicity. My husband and five children must make their way in the world. This life I have chosen as wife and mother entrains a whole caravan of complications. It involves a house in the suburbs and either household drudgery or household help . . . food and shelter; meals, planning, marketing, bills and making ends meet . . . health; doctors, dentists, appointments, medicine . . . education, spiritual intellectual, physical; schools, school conferences, car-pools, extra trips for basketball or orchestra practice; tutoring; camps . . . clothes, shopping, laundry, cleaning, mending . . . friends, my husband’s, my children’s, my own, and endless arrangements to get together; letters, invitations, telephone calls and transportation hither and yon . . . 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.”

And there wasn’t even Facebook and Pinterest in 1955.

So, I went away to the sea thinking maybe, just maybe, there would be a gift for me, the gift of simplicity and rest. After a two-day drive with a night in a motel, we arrived at the beach, and all I wanted was to dip my toe in it. To feel the surf lap up my legs and over my shoulders. To say “hello” again to the sand and the seaweed that had welcomed me before.

But after checking into our room and making our way around the property, one son was hungry, another just wanted to swim but we had forgotten the towels. The third had a stomach ache and didn’t know what he wanted. I saw the water, saw the sand, knew the seaweed was being carried to the shore. But I walked the other way, getting back into the van heading north toward WalMart.

And so it was that our time at the sea was spent grocery shopping and cooking and cleaning up after sick boys while we passed around a stomach virus throughout the week. One afternoon I picked up carry out dinner so we could stay in and nurse sunburns. Another day, we ate greasy beach food on the boardwalk then quickly left for home because the heat and humidity were too much to enjoy ambling.

But a few minutes each day – usually in the afternoon or evening – we donned suits and carried towels and made our way to the beach. Some days the waves crashed high and we rubbed salt from our burning eyes. Other days, we rode on the waves, letting the sea carry us in her arms. Over and over we rocked in the water, laughing and squealing and almost missing the gift the sea was giving us.

Then, we would reluctantly walk back through the sand to the towels and flip flops. We dried off; we rinsed our feet; we walked back to the condo. Sometimes, the boys argued a little. Often, we talked about what we would eat next. We found shortcuts through the parking garage. We wondered if the sunburns had worsened. By the time we were showered and dressed, the gift had been washed away.

The flow of our day matched the rhythm of the water; in and out we came and went. Even to the sea itself, our travel matched its movement: we weren’t there, then we were, then we weren’t again. Now, though, a week of days and a hundred of miles away, I have a hard time conjuring the fishy smell, the gritty feel, the haze that hung thick over the water. I’m all ebb and no flow.

“We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships,” Lindbergh writes. “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 . . . . Intermittency–an impossible lesson for human beings to learn. how can one learn to live through the ebb-tides of one’s existence? How can one learn to take the trough of the wave? . . . Perhaps this is the most important thing for me to take back from beach-living: simple the memory that each cycle of the tide is valid; each cycle of the wave is valid; each cycle of a relationship is valid.”

I didn’t find what I was looking for at the sea, not that I really expected to. Instead, I came home with a different gift, a new understanding that the things that are hard and the things that are good are here only for a minute. Soon they will be swept back to sea or rinsed off in the fountain or patted away with a dry towel.

It’s up to me to receive the gift of the sea before it is gone, to accept the gift of now.



AUTHOR: Anne Morrow Lindbergh
TITLE: Gift from the Sea
WHERE TO GET IT: Follow the link above to order it from Amazon.

Photo by Mr. Nixter, via Flickr, used with permission under the Creative Commons License.

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