Tuesday, August 7, 2012
Gift from the Sea, Review, part two
I must note here some biographical facts that are omitted from the book. In the early 1950s, just before this book was published, Lindbergh herself was involved in an extra-marital affair. It ended, and a few years later, her husband began a cluster of affairs with three European women that lasted until his death in 1974. He knew about her affair; it is unclear whether she knew of his, which produced an additional seven children for the hero. Regardless of what they knew, behaviors like this show a broken, damaged marriage. Add to this the effect of the kidnapping and murder of their first baby and the decades of suffocating fame and notoriety, and one can say with certainty that the Lindberghs had no common marriage, no norm from which to extrapolate standards for other couples. Thus, I take her advice on how to succeed in marriage with steady spoonfuls of salt.
Next to the early bliss of sweet romance, what can compare? Lindbergh calls the early love a pure experience -- simple and unencumbered. She chides humans for mistakenly sensing tragedy when the early pattern of purity and elation don't last. She's quick to avow that a woman's real identity is not found in her marriage; her "creative identity" is shown in having "something of her own to say or to give." "I believe that true identity is found, as Eckhart once said, by 'going into one's own ground and knowing oneself.' It is found in creative activity springing from within." Always, she is about self-discovery, self-fulfillment. It is not found, she states, in a relationship with another human.
Lindbergh encourages couples to attempt to revive the feelings of early love by spending time alone together, away from children, distractions, commitments. Effort is required to snatch a few moments alone at breakfast. Sweet moments, but she says they are temporary visits to one's past, and that couples can never reclaim the exuberant love and romance of the early relationship. Hmm. I doubt this.
She then launches into a strict admonition against the human longing to be "loved alone" -- to be loved by one other person, to the exclusion of all others. In other words, the kind of marriage we all want, in which you choose a mate and he chooses you, and you are faithful to each other in a love that grows and enriches you both, never turning these private, exclusive affections to anyone else. She concedes that this type of love can happen, but it cannot last. "There is no one-and-only," she says, "there are just one-and-only moments."
I find myself saddened when she says, "There is no permanent pure-relationship and there should not be. It is not even something to be desired." If this is true then my entire marriage to Adam is a disaster and mistake. I can only imagine that Lindbergh looked at her own ravaged marriage and assumed, with the input of the feminism she clings to, that theirs was the norm. For her to posit that this norm is applicable to the rest of us is rather arrogant, but she does say it so beautifully. Her writing style carries the day when her content is alarming. "There is no pattern here for permanent return, only for refreshment," she says, and, "This is not tragedy but part of the ever-recurrent miracle of life and growth."
And that was the happy part, folks!
In 1955, Lindbergh considered herself to be in the middle years of her life and her marriage. She was 49 years old. Her life, like the oyster shell, "is untidy, spread out in all directions, heavily encrusted with accumulations and, in its living state ... firmly imbedded on its rock."
These years of busy marriage are full of "struggle to achieve a place in the world." The couple "forms ties, roots, a firm base." Career, family, friends, groups, causes, children -- these concerns fill one's life. The marriage relationship at this time if made of years of familiarity, habits, shared experiences, conflicts. And then, as quickly as it all became tumultuous, it all recedes. The children leave home, the activities diminish, and the woman is left quietly alone. "The tide of life recedes." For years, one's life was all about function, about doing. What happens now?
She compares this point in life (midlife "crisis"?), with its "discontent, restlessness, doubt, despair, longing," to adolescence. We accept these feelings as normal in teenagers. Why do we condemn them in a 50 year old? They are signs of growth, of movement from one comfortable stage into the next strange one. These feelings are normal to any awkward, painful transition, Lindbergh says. She doesn't see middle age as a period of decline. On the contrary, the middle-age woman enjoys the time when, "having shed many of the physical struggles, the worldly ambitions, the material encumbrances of active life, one might be free to fulfill the neglected side of one's self."
I identify with this. I'm experiencing this period of transition. God has placed me in a very pleasant location to go through it. He's giving me time to feel my way, a loving patient husband to hold my hand, an exquisitely beautiful locale to feed my imagination, and one last child at home so that I don't feel quite finished with all my responsibilities yet. Lindbergh seems to assume that a distance widens between the marriage partners over these years. An ease with each other, but a distance too. This saddens me as well, because I have not found it to be true, yet I'm afraid she found this. It did not make her lonely, and she seems to be trying very hard to say it did not hurt. But what great joy is found in a marriage that rocks and shifts with decades of life's trials, and draws its participants much closer, more in love, more fond and happy, then ever they were on a honeymoon! This marriage is possible. It involves patience, faithfulness, and sacrificing to one's mate.
In her epilogue to the book, written 20 years later, Lindbergh admits that she wrote the book while in the Oyster Shell stage of her life, and therefore had little experience of the final stage which she attempted to describe. And her Argonauta stage was short lived; Charles Lindbergh died in 1974 when she was only 68 years old. We know he took frequent extended trips to Europe without her, to tend to his other families there, for the last 17 years of his life.
What is the Argonauta stage, this rare and illusive period in a woman's life? Lindbergh describes the marriage partners in this stage of life as fully-developed, fully separate persons, involved in a sort of beautiful, intricate dance. They draw closer together at times, and drift apart, back and forth, like the rhythm of the tides. She calls this "the best relationship of all: not a limited, mutually exclusive one ... not a functional, dependent one." (These reference the two previous stages.) The participants become independent of one another, with "space and freedom for growth," "each partner ... releasing the other." The mantras of feminism are stronger here. "The love ... consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other."
I don't know about you, but after the marriage I've had thus far, if I tried that maneuver, I'd be lonely, and Adam would probably kill me, bless him. Two solitudes? If I wanted that I would not have married in the first place. (Yet, doesn't she express it elegantly? She is very convincing.) Lindbergh is speaking from her own experience. She is very fortunate to have had a rich inner life, so that the emotional departure of her husband did not leave her in despair. She coped, I think. She calls this stage in marriage "an evolutionary process, an achievement."
"Woman must come of age by herself ... to learn how to stand alone. She must learn not to depend on another." There is no greediness nor egotism here. She believes in service to one's spouse. "She must ... as a prelude to any 'two solitudes' relationship, follow the advice of the poet to become 'world to oneself for another's sake.'" This state involves "greater self-sufficiency and therefore, inevitably, greater separation between man and woman." Sad, sad, sad! Decades of drifting, happy, smiling separation. What satisfaction is found in that? What is the inherent evil in dependency? But a woman deeply committed to the feminist ideal of mid-century would see dependency as an evil state for a woman.
I hate to be a scathing critic, so let me say that I loved the section of this chapter describing her time with her sister in the beach cabin. What beautiful harmony! They live in simplicity, joy, ease and instinct. "We are even free of thoughts, at least of their articulation; clean and bare as whitened driftwood, empty as shells." I found it fascinating that she used her sister and not her husband as the model partner for this type of easy dual solitude.
Some of her observations about "good relationship" are worth noting. As in a dance, "the partners do not need to hold on tightly ...." "There is no place here for the possessive clutch, the clinging arm, the heavy hand, only the barest touch in passing ... now face to face, now back to back." Truly, marriages do go through breathing periods, times of greater intimacy, and times of gentle removal for refreshment. And a possessive, jealous spouse is a great trial, an unpleasant partner. "It is fear, I think, that makes one cling nostalgically to the last moment or clutch greedily toward the next." Fear destroys the freedom of movement that Lindbergh values. And yes, we should find our joy in the present, not pining for past or future. The Argonauta stage is intermittent. "When you love someone you do not love them all the time .... It is an impossibility. It is even a lie to pretend to." (Okay, so I'm a liar, and so is my husband.) "The only real security is not in owning or possessing, not in demanding or expecting, not in hoping, even."
To me, these are the words of a woman who cannot own or possess her husband, nor can she hope to do so, because their marriage was broken years before. What do our marriage vows say? Are they not exclusive? Is this definition of distant marriage what appealed to women in 1955? These are not the successful, godly marriages I know. Some couples do just seem to clamp their teeth together and bear it for decades, tolerating each other. But I've seen others -- oh, I have I seen them! -- who adore each other in their 80s and 90s, who still hold hands and long for a kiss, who follow each other with their eyes and seem to read each others' minds. Do you know them? The early love never died, it was only added to and made more. With patience, forgiveness and mutual commitment they have created a miracle.
The demands of feminism, as Lindbergh understood that term, could not allow for such a marriage. Lindbergh made many sacrifices for her husband, and stayed with him till the end, but in her heart, she was free of him. I find a great sadness in this, although I find great beauty in the woman herself, in her mind, her lovely words. I hope she found contentment in herself, in the end.