“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,” writes Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
Gift from the Sea
In her inspirational book Gift from the Sea (1955), I found nuggets of universal truths applicable to my life sixty-three years since its publication. A mother of five, a busy community figure, and wife of the accomplished aviator, Charles Lindbergh, Anne’s pursuit of her writing career must have been waylaid from every angle. Her first successful publications recounted historic flights she and her husband completed. Later many of her published writings are those of personal letters and diaries. Despite that success, Lindbergh felt the distractions of life’s “multiplicity.” In Gift from the Sea Lindbergh recounts her solitary vacation on Captiva Island, Florida where she retreated to write and reflect. Her search for shells on the beach revealed five of special significance: a channeled whelk, a moon shell, a double sunrise, an oyster bed, and the argonauta. Each shell provided her with a pattern for a more contemplative life. For anyone open to the deeper meaning that exists in all things, I recommend the book.
Over the month of October, here on Wellesley Island, we have had the usual mix of fall weather with plenty of rain, wind, and dreary skies. But each week we receive a gift, a day of radiant sun and cerulean skies. All the vegetation glows vividly in the clear, crisp atmosphere of autumn. I had the opportunity to take a walk yesterday afternoon in the breezy, yet bright fall day. Inspired by Lindbergh, I set an intention to look for natural gifts that might help me interpret my own “balance of life, work, and relationships.”
At first my cluttered mind skipped among mundane topics. What to make for dinner, should I have put on a wash before I left, did I put a Kleenex in my pocket…etc. My eyes danced from the shimmering trees to the scudding clouds, unable to settle or focus. A quarter mile into the walk, my thoughts quieted with the rhythm of my steps. I crossed the wooden bridge over the canal and all the colorful fall images settled on me.
The Feeble Willows
The first mass of trees I stopped to contemplate is one I have noticed before. Several feeble willows persevere in the center of an overgrown area, amid tall grass that attempts to swallow partially decayed logs, piles of limbs and scrap wood. The base of the trees appears to have become a dumping area for discarded sticks and grass clippings, an ever expanding diameter of debris. The willows hold their leaves, but roots will not grip much longer under the weight of the leaning trunks. Surrounded by the confusion and deteriorating state of the vegetation around them, the willows appear to have given up their own will to live. It seems to me that any individual might lose sense of purpose if surrounded by others in circumstances of decay and decline.
The Resilient Willow
A dozen steps further I observe a massive willow. All of its limbs droop and shudder in the wind, like a giant who weeps under the weight of deep despair. The willow’s leaves even resemble tears. Yet its foliage appears as vigorous and green as ever despite its mysterious sorrow. It appears to flourish in a depression that often floods. Nearby an electrical transformer often halts due to the water, interrupting our power. Yet, neither the saturated ground, nor the recent strong gusts appear to have affected its health. I see the truth in the cliche that a willow bends but does not break. Likewise, we can thrive despite sadness, and apparently grow stronger with adversity.
Further on I stop to study intriguing skeleton-like trees. One bare bony hand reaches downward; two others grapple and extend into the air. A natural Halloween tableau set in front of the leafy shrubs behind. Like the twenty-seven bones in the human hand, their complex structure once so vital, now brittle, a foreshadowing that all living things eventually degenerate from their prime. I can’t help but think about loved ones whose late-life physical appearance resembled these stark figures. A natural transformation we accept when it comes to trees.
As I return from my walk I am now engrossed with all the vegetation. The milkweed plants along the path evoke memories of teaching and the annual search for monarch eggs and caterpillars. No elementary classroom met the rites of seasonal passage without an aquarium of very hungry caterpillars munching their way into a chrysalis. I walk on to notice a brilliant red vine encircling the gray bark of a double trunk. I can’t take my eyes off of it. Just a common weed, yet it adorns the bark like a brilliant accessory. If I hadn’t been intent to see the gifts I may have walked on past and never given this vine its moment of recognition. I think about how the days come and go and I don’t always attend to the small fleeting beauty of insignificant things.
Short Walk of Fame
I walk under the standing-ovation of sumacs, an honor only possible on this trail. I approach the bridge back to my neighborhood. The trail, lined with solid granite boulders, guides me onto the bridge. I attempt to channel my life in just this way, lining up the obligations and responsibilities, one after the other, an apparently predictable course, with little chance of deviation. Or that is the way I thought life should go, with reliable landmarks to show the way. I love the symmetry and the symbolism of the bridge over the water and the expectation of safely crossing the bridge to the far side.
Around the bend I am rewarded. Two glowing maples radiate in the sun, one luminous yellow, the other blazing orange. After a season of wearing humble green to coordinate with the surrounding forest and grass, the trees have their week of glory. On this section of the island, all roads loop around or dead-end. Not many foliage viewers will admire these trees. No matter, the trees participate in this grand finale of the growing season, wearing their most elaborate costume. All days cannot be a glorious culmination, but every so often we should reveal our hidden talents, even if no one else sees.
The final stretch to my house takes me up a slight grade, so I put in a bit more effort. I know exactly what lies beyond the hill, how the trail slopes again past Musky’s tree on the left, the granite cliff towers on the right; our house nestles under oaks. I don’t know what lies over life’s hill. But that uncertainty, combined with hope, adds enough suspense to venture over the hill anyway.
I thank Anne Morrow Lindbergh for her gifts.