Sunday, January 31, 2010

Middle Age and Oyster Shells



I'm reading a sweet little book written by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea, during a vacation she took by herself in 1955. It has an island setting, and is the result of her spending two weeks by herself. You'll remember that the Lindbergh's suffered the devastating loss of their first born son to kidnapping. They went on to have five more children, and a bustling life. This book is about life, marriage, change, and the beauty of ourselves, something that we often miss as we age.

In her narrative she uses shells as metaphors for life stages. The sunrise shell for early marriage. All pink and smooth, as with the first blush of love. Then comes the oyster shell with all of the little shells attached to the outside, like our homes, expanded to accommodate our growing family. The oyster is firmly attached to the rocky shore through tough, intertwined netting. Much like the lives we build to support our families, secure our place in society, stability for our children. We are busy during this time. Competing, striving, accomplishing, accumulating.

But then the family begins to leave for shells of their own. And we begin to wonder if we haven't outgrown our oyster shell. Lindbergh writes:

"Perhaps middle age is, or should be, a period of shedding shells; the shell of material accumulations and possessions, the shell of the ego. Perhaps one can shed at this stage in life as one sheds in beach living; one's pride, one's false ambitions, one's mask, one's armor. Was that armor not put on to protect one from the competitive world? If one ceases to compete, does one need it? Perhaps one can at last in middle age, if not earlier, be completely oneself. And what a liberation that would be!"

Middle age should be a time to take stock, let some of life's ambitions go, be okay with being average, everyday, extraordinary in our simplicity. Shedding the things that we've outgrown like our oyster shells, we are now free to explore life in new ways, unencumbered by the things we thought we needed to be happy. Free at last to explore, learn, teach, and nurture our own personal gifts. 

Middle age is a time to shed the old, embrace the new, and be happy with what is.

46 comments:

DJan said...

I read the book, long ago, so thanks for reminding me about it. I do have to wonder, though, what exactly is "middle"age? When does middle change to old? I'm now 67 and feel young inside but not outside. The first couple of years of retirement have made me excited for the next bit, but everything can change in the blink of an eye. Maybe it's time to re-read that book...

lakeviewer said...

It's a beautiful metaphor. I think, automatically at certain times in our lives, we take on different roles, different shells.

ellen abbott said...

When I turned 50 I found myself free from being the dutiful daughter, free from being the protective parent, free from the necessity to prove myself, free from the expectations that go with all the roles and free to just be me.

C.M. Jackson said...

Thank you for reminding me about this book--it is a perfect re-read for this point in my life--I will probably get more from it this time then when I read it some 20 years ago--wonderful post-c

Von said...

Lovely post Nancy and so true if you let it be.In my case I'm now, nearly free of being 'the good child' for adoptive parents but will probably always have to work on it and be vigilant.I've learned to speak out about it and stop playing 'the adoption game'.

Marguerite said...

Great metaphor and so true. I have found my fifties to be most liberating and imagine that the sixties will be even more so. And I would love to live on the beach, too!

Bee said...

This is a favorite book of mine. I first read it when I was 20, and it definitely bears rereading every few years -- or at least every decade!

DJan's comment made me laugh. Middle age seems to begin in the 30s, and then it just goes on and on. Maybe it needs to be further divided into early/middle/late stages?

Your thought about being okay with being average really stuck out for me.

Doris said...

Her comments are "spot on." There is an even better time - it comes later when you are not responsible for anyone but yourself and you can sleep when you want, eat what you want and truly be happy about yourself and your life. I hope all of you live to see this stage!

Nancy said...

DJan - It's a great read. And middle age was never really explained in Human Development - at least not to my satisfaction. I think we're as old as we feel, and middle age can seem really hard, depending on health and vitality, or as easy as you seem to make it. :-)

lakeviewer - I agree. I think I'm in the stage of wanting to shed my shell. Lighten my load, and explore for awhile.

ellen - It feels really good, doesn't it?

CM - I don't think I would have appreciated it as much 20 years ago. It came into my life at the perfect time.

Von - Putting things behind us and finding peace is so important for midlife, I think.

Marguerite - You and me, both!

Bee - In college the midlife range seemed to not have a good description, I remember. It jumped from midlife, which seemed young to me (30's), to what they termed senior, old, and old old. Not very professional, in my opinion! Couldn't they have found a better term for aging?

Doris - Thanks - I think that sounds great.

Brian Miller said...

a great metaphor...will have to check out that book...

Joanne said...

I so second your final comments. I think one reason too that we feel happy with what is, in middle age, is that we've gotten to the point where "what is" is actually what we've just spent years creating.

gayle said...

This sounds like a book that I would enjoy reading!! Great post!!

Emom said...

Oh thank you, one of my favorite books, and I agree on the shedding idea....freedom becons...smiles.

Nancy said...

Brian - I think you would like it - if not - it's a great gift for your wife. A small book, read easily in a day or so.

Joanne - I agree. We've worked to get here.

gayle - I'm thinking of looking for her other books, as well. She was a very intuitive lady.

Emom - I'm so glad you enjoyed it as well.

California Girl said...

Nancy: where does middle age begin and end for Boomers? I honestly don't know. I refuse to think of myself as old yet I'm just a few years away from 60!!! I feel as though my husband and I are just now shedding things, our home, our belongings; all of them were downsized and/or discarded when we sold the house and got rid of half our things. It is freeing but I can do more. There is so much more to do.

Glimmer said...

I so love this concept. Because my mother and MIL have gone the other way. They have been so attached to their things as they have aged, desperately so. Which is not so bad for my mother, she is amazingly healthy for 90 (in two weeks). She shops for recreation, filling her many closets with clothes, shoes, purses. A fashion plate! But it makes her happy.

But for MIL, not so much.

She is on the cusp of her next move, the third. This time into assisted living from the retirement cottage. Each time is a trauma because grown children have to take time off from jobs and fly in and try to help her part with more possessions. It's horrible, for everyone. She's in very bad shape. She keeps falling. I am not a professional, honestly I don't know. But it seems to me, from a common sense angle, that if she could part with some more of the big furniture she has insisted on keeping that she could negotiate her cottage more easily and actually use the walker she is supposed to be using. But she doesn't. It's difficult for anyone to move in her small cottage, it's crammed with possessions she refuses to part with. Possessions that are too big for the space.

I'm going into such detail as a cautionary tale. For all of us. We really do need to shed these things as we grow older. For our mental AND physical health!

Glimmer said...

I so love this concept. Because my mother and MIL have gone the other way. They have been so attached to their things as they have aged, desperately so. Which is not so bad for my mother, she is amazingly healthy for 90 (in two weeks). She shops for recreation, filling her many closets with clothes, shoes, purses. A fashion plate! But it makes her happy.

But for MIL, not so much.

She is on the cusp of her next move, the third. This time into assisted living from the retirement cottage. Each time is a trauma because grown children have to take time off from jobs and fly in and try to help her part with more possessions. It's horrible, for everyone. She's in very bad shape. She keeps falling. I am not a professional, honestly I don't know. But it seems to me, from a common sense angle, that if she could part with some more of the big furniture she has insisted on keeping that she could negotiate her cottage more easily and actually use the walker she is supposed to be using. But she doesn't. It's difficult for anyone to move in her small cottage, it's crammed with possessions she refuses to part with. Possessions that are too big for the space.

I'm going into such detail as a cautionary tale. For all of us. We really do need to shed these things as we grow older. For our mental AND physical health!

Rob-bear said...

I also remember reading the book a long time ago.

Middle age: that's me in my mid-60s. Lots of old things being shed, some new things picked up, many things re-evaluated; a few new lessons learned, and some old ones re-learned.

Nancy said...

California - When I was studying the life stages mid-life started in the 30's, which I felt was very young. But they base it on the average life cycle for men and women - which is now 75 for women, I believe. So mid life would be 37.5. It sounds like you are shedding your oyster shell and are ready for what's next.

Glimmer - You make an interesting point. So many people are attached to their things. My FIL said the worst day of his life was when we helped them downsize from a small condo to the retirement home where they had their own apartment. But my MIL didn't have as much a problem with it. I think if they had very little growing up, their attachment issues maybe different. My FIL grew up very poor, working his way through medical school. But you're right - best to deal with some of these issues now, while we are able to do so easily. I keep in mind that my children won't necessarily want to inherit my things - they have their own style and idea of what to value, and it isn't the same as mine.

Rob-bear - Beautifully said. I think that sums up where I am at 56.

leilani said...

This is a wonderful blog! thank you!

susan said...

Inside the oyster shell may you find a perfect pearl.

Nancy said...

leilani - Thank you, and thank you for stopping by!

susan - Thank you, too!

Star said...

What a delightful post and the oyster shells are just wonderful. I have never read this book but you have inspired me to do so.
Blessings, Star

Mental P Mama said...

Oh...I need to re-read this one! It will have much more meaning for me.

Anne said...

Oh my. I first read this book in college, when I was stuck at my (eventual) in-laws' house while my car was being repaired. It's been one of my all-time favorite books since, and it's precisely for passages like the one you quote that I should read it again now that I'm in a new stage of life.

And I hope your husband likes his Nike Frees. Unfortunately, barefoot is the worst way to run if you have my injury, but maybe someday....

Gaston Studio said...

Love the metaphor and agree so much with knowing when to let go.

Reya Mellicker said...

The book sounds great. I'm going to have to check it out.

Thanks, too, for the confirmation that middle age is for letting go. What a relief!

Rochelle said...

well said. I've read that book since I was in my 20's and had a redo in each decade. Now that I AM middle aged, lol, and letting go of a lot, I should pick it up again.

otin said...

Thank you for this post! It really plays right into what is happening in my life. I can live by the last line! This was perfect!

Jayne Martin said...

What beautiful sentiments. At 40, I hit my stride in terms of becoming me. Last year, I turned 60 and since 60 is the new 40, I'm looking forward to just getting better.

Deborah said...

My sister-in-law gave me a copy of this book when I was in my twenties and I just couldn't relate to it then. I'm glad to have the reminder of it now, as I still have it on my shelf (in that other place that I live).
Accepting what 'is' would have been a gift for my own mom, whose fear and loathing of ageing made life much harder for her and those around her. This is a lesson I hope I can learn from someone else's experience.
You're a very good writer, Nancy, with a lot of interesting things to say.

Nancy said...

Star - I think you would like it.

Mama - It was the right time for me to read it, I think.

Anne - She writes an additional few pages at the end some twenty years after writing the inital book. It was very interesting to hear how she felt all those years later.

Gaston - It is a dance, isn't it? To know when to let go?

Reya - After reading your post yesterday, I thought, once again, we're on the same wavelength!

Rochelle - You are way ahead of me if you've been reading it every decade or so. I can see how it would be a good book for busy mothers. I wish I had known about it way back then.

Otin - Thanks, Otin.

Jayne - I have no doubt that you will!

Deborah - Thank you so much for your kind words and encouragement. I hope I can age with grace. Although I have to say, there is some fear that goes with it. Dealing with loss as you age is never easy.

JC said...

I'm at that point in my life ...

Rain said...

I couldn't agree more! I'm not sure what "middle age" is defined as, but I certainly feel that I have reached that point where I have shed a lot too!
:)

willow said...

I love "Gift from the Sea" and often give it as gifts. I must dig out my copy for a revisit! Lovely post.

Missy said...

I like that.

GYPSYWOMAN said...

it's wonderful to have that one place you know you can always find something beautiful and inspiring - and your blog is one of those for me, nancy - always something over here with which i can add to my own little whatever and be the better, happier, wiser, etc, for it - loved this book many many moons ago when first i read it - and love it now as you bring it to light again - beautiful post with much to offer - and of shells, lady, hmmmmmm.....great food for thought there! and i can personally attest to the absolute and total truth and beauty of the fact that life only gets better the more one sheds.....

but i cannot allow myself to even get started on that thing of "middle age" - cause i've not even come close, yet!!!

great post, as usual, dear nancy!

Jo said...

I have read this book and I loved it.

I am a minimalist and I have downsized a lot in my *cough* middle years. :-) It makes me feel quite free and light. I have absolutely no debt whatsoever, and everything I own belongs to me. It's a very nice feeling.

Donna B said...

Ironic that you should be reading this book...I LOVE this book. I keep two copies, one to read each February and one to loan out. Wonderful, isn't it?

Von said...

Have you read Gene Stratton-Porter?You might like her work, may need to go to The Gurenburgproject for it online.Enjoy!

Midlife Jobhunter said...

"Shedding the things that we've outgrown like our oyster shells, we are now free to explore life in new ways, unencumbered by the things we thought we needed to be happy"

I like that image. Been talking to my husband about it of late. Not sure he's on board yet.

Nancy said...

JC - An interesting time, isn't it?

Rain - You have!

Willow - It is definitely worth a re-read.

Missy - Not a bad place to be.

Gypsy - You are always uplifiting - thanks for that.

Jo - It is a good feeling to know you can live with less and be just as happy, if not more. Freedom. Something most of us haven't thought about in years.

Donna - It is wonderful! I will keep it on my bookshelf always.

Von - I'll check both out - thanks.

Midlife - It's kind of exciting. The Lindbergh's traveled when their nest emptied doing good deeds and eventually lived for some years in Maui before she returned to Conneticut. A life well-lived.

natural girl said...

I'm fast approaching 50 and refuse to call my self middle aged. My husband is nearly 60 and at times it scares me. How did we get to here so quickly?? I still have a 17 year old at home but he is leaving at the end of the year and I have to say it all feels a bit weird. I still feel so young. And I still have no clue what I want to be when I grow up!. I will definitely look out for this book. Thanks Nanacy.

Pat transplanted to MN said...

This book is one of my favorites. I have given a copy to many friends over the years when they turned 50 or 60 or had another significant milestone in their life. Several years back at a bookstore, I found some gorgeous commemorative copies on a sale table for $1. I bought the lot of 12 or so as I recall. I have only one of those left, awaiting the last right person to gift it to. I was surprised at how many had never heard of the book; so far every woman has enjoyed it immensely. Thanks for the reminder about a great little book.

Deboshree said...

Lovely words yet again!
What a beautiful comparison!
Let's just hope people are as open minded as they were when they were in their teens. Many people tend to become rigid in their outlook of life but with such an attitude as yours, life will TRULY be beautiful ALWAYS.

Lovely post.

Lots of love
Deboshree

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