In the year that I turned two, I bid farewell to both of my grandmothers. Elsie flew away to Heaven. And Mamie bought a one-way bus ticket to West Palm Beach. If you would have asked me as a toddler what made her pack her bags for the Sunshine State, I would have said it was the palm trees, their coconuts bouncing like beach balls, their long arms waving toward the shore. I remember being there and running across the street to them when nobody was looking. Where there were palm trees, there was water. And where there was water, that’s where I wanted to be.

In the comments on the Stars Dancing in the Water post, one friend talked about the “water effect…that sense of clarity and calm that people possess when they’ve been in the presence of water.” Maybe that’s what my grandmother had in mind. Or maybe she was looking for a better fit like “a little hermit crab, who has run away, leaving [her] tracks behind [her] like a delicate vine on the sand.” She and her heartache had seemed to outgrow the Indiana neighborhood she had called home for so long. Had she, like the hermit crab, needed a change of shell? “Did [she] hope to find a better home, a better mode of living?”

She had come with only a suitcase, the perfect beginning for simplicity. But two years later, her tiny apartment was already overstuffed. And when we visited again when I was 18, we had to put our lanky teenage arms at our sides to make it through the narrow passage inside the door. Boxes, books, papers and tins all teetered in precarious stacks that reached to the ceiling.

Outside, a woman whizzed by on a bicycle, calling out to a neighbor in happy Spanish. Inside, my grandmother waddled about, shuffling newspapers and file folders and needlepoint kits, making rooms for us to sit. Grandma was a woman trying to pedal a bike with a wobbly wheel. She had lost a spoke to broken marriage. And she had let her relationship with every one of her four children bust loose.

She had not endeavored to solve Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s question: “how to remain whole in the midst of the distractions of life; how to remain balanced, no matter what centrifugal forces tend to pull one off center; how to remain strong, no matter what shocks come in at the periphery and tend to crack the hub of the wheel.” Without dealing with the complications of her life head-on, she could never fully change. She hadn’t come to this place to simplify and reflect on her life. She had come to laugh with the bubbly surf and pretend the hurts never happened. She had come to escape her life altogether.

I feel fortunate that I haven’t had to face those shocks and deal with such difficulties, but even “the life I have chosen as wife and mother entrains a whole caravan of complications.” I have to catch my breath from merely reading the author’s summary of a mother’s work…let alone attempting it. How can it ever be done? And that’s not even to mention my desire to find “creative pause.”

Here, we can walk alongside Anne Morrow Lindbergh as she seeks “inner harmony, essentially spiritual, which can be translated into outward harmony,” and “inner spiritual grace from which I could function and give as I was meant to in the eye of God.”

This then affects the way we interact with our environment and our responsibilities. I know too little of the “first happy condition” in which “one seems to carry all one’s tasks before one lightly, as if borne along on a great tide…” And I know too much of “the opposite state” in which “one can hardly tie a shoe-string.” Too often, I feel that centrifugal force pulling me off center. Too often, I feel more like I’ve been sucked in by an undertow rather than the sensation of surfing on a great tide.

“It has to do primarily with distractions,” the author wrote, “The bearing, rearing, feeding and educating of children, the running of a house with its thousand details; human relationships with their myriad pulls–woman’s normal occupations in general run counter to creative life, or contemplative life, or saintly life.” But does it have to be this way? What if we could look at our activities and accumulations and ask “how little, not how much, can I get along with. To say–is it necessary?–when I am tempted to add one more accumulation to my life, when I am pulled toward one more centrifugal activity.” When we endeavor changes in the outward life, we learn about the inward life.

If we can simplify our homes and our schedules, we have more room to invite people in, the friends with whom we “can be completely honest.”  If we can start the day in prayer and de-clutter the inner life, we come at those relationships unencumbered, able to be authentic, to avoid “the most exhausting thing in life…being insincere,” and to shed the mask. If we sit a bit with our Maker and get His take on how our time and talents can best be used, we come with new clarity to the “ever-widening circles of contact and communication….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.”

For Anne Morrow Lindbergh, her simple “sea-shell of a house” is the perfect place to consider all these things. But she knows the place is not one for dwelling permanently. After all, “total retirement is not possible” for a woman who wants a life with her family, “to share with friends and community, to carry out…obligations to man and to the world, as a woman, as an artist, as a citizen.” As she said, peace comes not in “total renunciation…nor in total acceptance. I must find a balance somewhere, or an alternating rhythm between these two extremes; a swinging of the pendulum between solitude and communion, between retreat and return.”

I think my grandmother only realized this at the end, as my family bridged the waters between us and her, that we needed her to return from retreat in one form or another, to shed her mask and experience authentic relationship. On my last visit, as my husband rolled her wheelchair back into her room at the nursing home in West Palm Beach, my grandmother, normally full of jokes and laughter, began to sob. She pushed herself up onto her feet, shuffled over to a corner and opened the lid to a messy box of stuff, the only remains of her cluttered life.

She pulled out a framed needlepoint rendition of the poem, “Footprints,” and handed it to me as a souvenir. My eyes flowed too. Her spoken words and the work of her hands in that frame were evidence that even if she hadn’t yet figured out how to mend her family relationships, she had found a starting point, a trust in Jesus. In this simple, over-used poem, my grandmother had discovered a metaphor for her need, that when her wheels went wobbly and she grew too old to walk straight and she didn’t know how to return from retreat, she could trust Him to carry her to a place of simplicity…all the while marking out a path with those not-so-lonely footprints in the sand.

{This week’s post is based on Chapter 2, “Channelled Whelk” in Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. View all entries in the series here.}


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