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2004-06-01 - 7:04 p.m.

A Work in Progress

By Joan Callaway

It was almost fifty years ago, as a 24-year old mother, struggling with the balancing act of motherhood, wife and self, I first discovered Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea. I have reread it at least every ten years…and it has remained timelessly pertinent – pertinent for the young wives of today and for me at whatever age I happened to be at the time.

I find myself amused each time I read, “With a new awareness, both painful and humorous, I begin to understand why the saints were rarely married women. I am convinced it has nothing inherently to do, as I once supposed, with chastity or children. It has to do primarily with distractions.” And Lindbergh had no idea the number and complexity of distractions today’s woman would face, but she went on to say that woman’s normal occupations run counter to the contemplative or saintly life. (She doesn’t mention men!) Her solution was to simplify, to cut out some of the distractions.

I marvel at my daughters’ distractions, as they like most young mothers these days hold full-time jobs, manage child care issues, hustle their children to and from activities, arrange for doctor and dental appointments, supervise homework, as well as get meals on the table. There is little time for their own self-nurturing.

Simplify? – Easier said than done. Lindbergh went to live at the beach. Not everyone has that option. Just as one does when they travel, she found she needed fewer clothes, thus shedding vanity. Next came shelter. She used the very words abandoning “Martha-like anxiety” about slipcovers, tidiness and cleanliness! (Surely, she could not have meant our very own Martha Stewart!) How relieved I remember being when I first read her suggestion that you only invite to your home people with whom you could be completely honest, people with whom you could shed your mask – thus shedding hypocrisy. Once you ask yourself how little, not how much, you can get along with, simplification begins to seem possible. I still remember the day my front doorbell rang as I was simultaneously wildly cleaning the house and baking pies for a going away party that night for my husband’s secretary. Who should I greet at the door, but four of my children? In answer to my somewhat grouchy, “Well, what do you want?” Valerie, the eldest at about seven, replied, “We just wanted to see your company smile!” Paring down, shedding mask, shedding hypocrisy – that seemed like a really good idea at that very moment.

My daughters are much more casual in their entertaining style and for the most part have adopted the “invite to your home only people with whom you can be completely honest…” attitude. They have to be; they have little time for fussing with details ahead of time, and are apt to put their guests to work setting table, preparing salad, or filling water glasses.

Many of my older friends are doing the paring down, removing the clutter from their lives as they move from their family homes into smaller quarters. On page 84, about the middle of Lindbergh’s small book, she writes of middle age as the period akin to the “shedding of shells; the shell of ambition, the shell of material accumulations and possessions, the shell of ego.” She suggests that all of the things one needs to compete in the work world – the masks, the armor, pride, ambition – can be abandoned just as the other clutter of our lives as we reach middle age. (I continue to think of myself as middle aged, but my husband laughingly says, “How many 140 year olds do you hear about, Joan?”)

Even as someone far beyond middle age, there are more things to understand and think about in the passages of this book. For instance, I was concerned about what I would do when I retired. For twenty years I had owned and operated my own businesses. What would I do? But I came to understand that I did not lose a job; I gained an opportunity to redefine myself.

It was time to read a Gift from the Sea once again. I found this little book has weathered well and is as current and relevant as if it were published yesterday. It addresses the “false assumption” that middle age is a period of decline and encourages rather an attitude of time, at last, to nurture and fulfill a neglected side of one’s self, to perhaps practice the art of solitude.

Solitude – now there’s a concept I rarely think about. I’m so accustomed to having the walls reverberating with children’s laughter, chatter, music, and, yes, sometimes squabbling, that there is rarely a time I do not have the TV or a CD playing in the background just to make it seem like home.

Inspirational thoughts for yet another rite of passage for I’m obviously still a work in progress.


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