Stars Dancing in the Water {Gift from the Sea 1: The Beach}

We drifted over silvery waters from the big island to the tiny one. I looked out the panoramic window onto open sea and atmosphere. It was like scales had fallen from my eyes to take in that view, that true blue sky. For four months, I’d been living under a man-made sky, a firmament of soot, in the city where I was studying abroad. But there on my holiday away in Thailand, the sunlight glinted so hard off the waves that I couldn’t even make out what was underneath.

Next to me, my sister gave in to the boat’s gentle rocking and fell asleep with a pair of headphones in her ears. My friend scratched something in her journal. I had a stack of books to read and postcards to write and a lot of thinking to do on our ten days on the island. I was looking for closure on a bad relationship, looking to get out from under that kind of grey. The happy island life, away from cars and computers, and near the sand and sea and people who loved me– it was just what I needed.

When I thought of our destination, somehow I had pictured a hill of sand with a scattering of palms. But as we neared, what I saw out the window made me gasp. No one told me it would look like this. I wanted to nudge my sister, but I couldn’t look away from the sight of the two enormous limestone cliffs glowing bronze in the morning sun. They stood like twin guards to the secrets beyond the gate. Our boat entered slow, the engines relaxing, bringing us inside the huddle of rocks.

Later, when I took a book out to the beach, I fell asleep to the rhythm of the waves and got the worst sunburn of my life. If only I had read Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s words by then, how “one carries down the faded straw bag, lumpy with books, clean paper, long over-due unanswered letters, freshly sharpened pencils, lists and good intentions,” I would have been wise to the fact that the “books remain unread, the pencils break their points and the pads rest smooth and unblemished as the cloudless sky.”

The body and mind need first to breathe fresh air and clear out the smog of urban noise, busy schedules, and complicated relationships, and to become “like the element on which one lies, flattened by the sea; bare, open, empty as the beach, erased by today’s tides of all yesterday’s scribblings.” Oh, that…and the body needs sunscreen.

In the morning, I walked to the empty beachfront from our bamboo bungalow. The sandy path was strewn with fragrant flowers, good morning mercies fallen from the trees overhead. I had this sense that my Maker was romancing me, bringing me simple joys to erase complicated hurts.

Out on the sand, smoothed by the night tide, I sat in a tattered lounge chair. In the cove, the cliffs shone golden and the water lapped gentle. A kitten sneaked up and batted his paws at the strings of my swimsuit. I sparred with him, then tickled him under his chin. Soon, two wild pups trotted out and put their paws to the sand, each in their own spot scratching for something just beneath the surface. The alpha quickly left his post and nuzzled his brother away from the hole he was digging. He took over and worked fast, flinging wet sand into his white mane.

Suddenly, I noticed a little surprise poking out from the little pit, a claw of a different sort. From its hiding spot, a crab danced out into the open and clicked his claws like castanets, the prey teasing its predators. The pups ran in circles around their little jester, snapping their teeth and pawing at the creature. Right within reach, the crab could easily have been breakfast, but they missed him on purpose and chased him in silly circles back into the bubbling surf.

When we three girls came to the spot that night, the pups were out again wrestling, one taking the other by the scruff of the neck, both growling with their tails up like little exclamation points. “Remember when we used to act like that?” my sis asked. Lights glimmered in the distance from the karaoke stage. We took our footprints as far away as we could.

In pitch black, where the sand met the foliage, we threw our towels into a pile and waded into inky water. When we got waist high, we double-checked that it was still just the pups keeping watch. Then, we tossed our suits in the pile, too, and giggled at the freedom of nothing between us and the water. I ducked under to wet my hair, then rose up and kicked onto my back to look into the dotted deep of the sky. “It’s like we’re snorkeling in the stars,” I said.

When I turned toward the girls where they were treading water, I saw something strange. Glints of light followed their arms and legs as they moved. I shook my head. We were too far from the stage lights for this to be a reflection. There was so little light that I could hardly see the details of their faces. Again, they moved their arms and the fairy dust followed. I dragged my fingers through the water. Flourescent glitter shimmered there, too, stars dancing in the water. I blinked my eyes to check my vision. “Do you see that?” We were all watching by now. Again and again, it happened, magic before my skeptical eyes. There are no words to do justice to the feeling that came over me. This water was alive and I was fully alive in the moment, jumping and clapping like a happy seal at the wonder of it. I thought of the One who thought this up, this bioluminescence. I looked up, down, all around…surprises everywhere.

As Anne Morrow Lindbergh said, “One never knows what chance treasures these easy unconscious rollers may toss up on the smooth white sand of the conscious mind….”  The wild pups went digging for their pleasures, but I don’t have to. I can wait in faith for all-out joy.

In C.S. Lewis’ memoir, Surprised by Joy, written the same year as Gift from the Sea and situated on the same shelf in the bookstore, I read that “…Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is,” and then meditated on the fact that, “All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be.’” Anne concurred, expressing that “to dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith.”

No one told me just how breathtaking that place was going to be. Instead, I got to be surprised by joy, to walk and swim in the moment by moment attentiveness of my First Love, every wonder leading my thoughts away from man-made troubles and back to Him.

{This week’s post is based on Chapter 1, “The Beach” in Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. View all entries in the series here. Special thanks to a fellow blogger who got me thinking on the theme of Surprised by Joy this week. Also linking up with my friend Charity at Wide Open Spaces for the High Calling’s Summer Writing Project.}

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So, what’s your take? Pick one or more of the reflection questions in the comments section and enter a reply to share your thoughts. All subscribers’ comments on the weekly Gift from the Sea posts (shared on Mondays in June and July) will be entered for a drawing at the end of our Summer Book Club 2012.

55 thoughts on “Stars Dancing in the Water {Gift from the Sea 1: The Beach}

  1. REFLECTION QUESTION #1: The author describes a process of settling in at the beach. “At first the tired body takes over completely….Rollers on the beach, wind in the pines, the slow flapping of herons across sand dunes, drown out the hectic rhythms of city and suburb, time tables and schedules…. And then some morning in the second week, the mind wakes, comes to life again. Not in a city sense–no–but beach-wise.” Does this resonate with your experience (even if you only have a shorter time away)? What is your routine for settling in on your getaways?

    • This is so true, isn’t it? It takes a while to readjust from the journey to the getaway, and then the unloading of “stuff” and prep for the week(s). Then finally, the rest in the serenity of the purpose to begin with – escape.

      • Her line about how the “tired body takes over completely” reminds me of the first several days of my honeymoon. After planning a wedding for six months, I was (happily) exhausted and when we were still for any length of time, or whenever we got in the car to drive anywhere, I would fall into deep sleep. Any of the reading or writing I brought along quickly gave way to the thing I really needed, rest and re-orientation.

    • I think it’s just nice to lose the routine and the “have to’s”. With kids, it’s a little more difficult to experience such a relaxation but it’s still nice to get away from all the other things battling for my time and attention.

    • My husband and I just returned from a long weekend in Egg Harbor, Michigan, right on the coast of Lake Michigan. The purpose of the trip was to celebrate a friend’s nuptials, which happened to coincide with our wedding anniversary. I’ve often referred to the “water effect” – you know, that sense of clarity and calm that people possess when they’ve been in the presence of water – and was desperate to experience that water effect on this trip.
      We got lost on Saturday morning and didn’t find our way back until late afternoon, just an hour before we needed to be at the wedding ceremony. Normally, getting lost would have thrown me into an anxious whirlwind. But that day, I found myself sort of relishing in being lost with my friend, my partner, my chosen life mate. In that moment, we weren’t lost; we were exploring the unknown. And I how we might capture that spirit – that water-effect-vacation-type spirit in our busy, everyday lives.

      • Oh, I just love this. It gives me goosebumps, your words about finding your way on back roads and embracing relationship and the scenery rather than stress. I wrote on my “about” page (http://messageinamasonjar.com/about/) that sometimes it takes a little catastrophe to make me see things new again. I love how you describe the “water effect” of the lake setting you at ease and letting you feel the adventure of being lost with your husband. Beautiful!

    • Something in me balks at our semi-annual getaways. Too much time, money, and prep work, it seems. But once I get there and unplug from electronics and soak in reading, being, and the quiet (except for the hubs acoustic guitar), I realize that I forget that God and nature are created for joy. It reminds me of Sara Groves’ song, play.

    • I always get the grumps when it is time to prep for our semi-annual get away, but am always glad when we find a retreat out in nature to soak in joy and play.

  2. REFLECTION QUESTION #2: What are your thoughts on the author’s assertion that, at least at first, “The beach is not the place to work; to read, write or think…. Too warm, too damp, too soft for any real mental discipline or sharp flights of spirit.”? What is the beach for, if not for these functions?

    • It takes time to shift from the responsibilities to the other mindset we want to achieve. The change of scenery, to let go… to appreciate God’s creation… to give in to the beauty around you.

      • I know that there is beauty all around, even in everyday life, but sometimes it takes moving myself temporarily to a place where I’m not in charge in order for me to be at ease enough to truly experience that beauty.

    • In 1923, AML had a different perspective on what the ocean could provide for her. It was during this time, after a summer trip to Panama, she realized that her life (even before marrying CL) was not the same that others lived. This sheltered, rich, educated woman finally stares into the face of poverty, and it scared the daylights out of her! She was moved by seeing the plight of the abandoned, and it led her to question her right to a life of privilege.
      It was at this same time when she claimed in her diary, “…I had the wanderlust and was dying to run away, far away, to go to the sea. The sea was so peaceful and great and one had time to think and there was beauty and cleanliness and broad swoops of blue.”
      AML needed solitude and she needed to think. And where did she want to go? To the sea!
      So I’m just wondering… was the sea a place for her to think before her kids came along? And then after the children came, everything suddenly changed? Or perhaps once the fame came, everything changed? I’m trying to make sense of this, in contrast to what she claimed in our chapter this week.
      I am childless and am certainly not famous, and I believe the beach is the perfect place to go when I need to think. Or catch up on my reading. Or fall asleep in a comfortable, warm spot. Will life changes also change my perspective on the sea?

      • I was trying to work this out, too, since I often think well at the beach (or anywhere calm and relaxing and away from my regular existence). I think she’s using the same word “think” to describe two different frames of mind. On page 9, she seems to use “think” to mean, “real mental discipline”. But in the journal entries that you mention here, it seems she is alluding more to the idea of reflecting/processing/feeling. As far as life changes, I know that while I love the new discovery of leading my children along the beach, I have accepted that my days of taking a novel and a beach towel out to the sand are in the past in my childless days and ahead when my children can keep themselves out of danger a little better. ;) Thank you for sharing this quote from AML’s diary. I just love the description of the sea with the broad swoops of blue. And I noted her emphasis on the simplicity/cleanliness of the sea after coming face to face with poverty in Panama. Readers may be interested to know that her father was an ambassador for the U.S. Along with visits to various places, the Morrows lived in Mexico for a period of time. How important for her to have had these opportunities to consider life situations so different from her own.

  3. REFLECTION QUESTION #3: I love the thought of the empty beach, “erased by today’s tides of all yesterday’s scribblings.” This, to me, is a beautiful symbol of how God’s mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23). The flowers scattered across my path on Phi Phi island were another picture of this. What are some examples from your own life that illustrate this concept?

      • Tristi,
        I enjoy the greeting of a quiet morning, too. We’ve had a workman at our house nearly every day this week, so I’ve been getting up and out of the house before he arrives. The mornings have been rushed, and I have missed waking up gradually to a quiet morning (and home).
        Yay for you to make time for a run! :)

    • We recently moved fairly close to my university’s campus. Instead of driving, I’ve been walking the two (or so) miles to the library. While it appears to be a time sucker (40 minute walk versus four minute drive), it gives me the time I need to get mentally organized before I sit down to a public computer station to write. While it doesn’t help me “erase” my brain’s “scribblings,” it does help me situate them.

      • I find that physical work has a real correlation with the order of my mind. Last summer, every where I went I was looking for rocks in overturned soil at construction sites. I lugged them home, exhilarated by the fact that I could carry such a load. And then I laid them down as a boundary line between my blueberry bushes and the grass. The exercise was just what I needed to get my mind off of some relational disappointments in my life…and a perfect symbol of setting boundaries!

  4. REFLECTION QUESTION #4: What do you think of the author’s warning that treasures must not be sought for? How do you think this digging could represent a lack of faith? Do you agree?

    • The obvious is that treasures are not easily taken for granted, real treasures aren’t. Not so easily observed. Usually out of hardship comes the treasure of real worth. The valuable nuggets.

      And yet maybe we don’t observe the treasures right before our eyes. We “dig” for different sorts of valuables that provide no lasting joy.

      • Interestingly, in _Surprised by Joy_ C.S. Lewis wrote, “Joy is distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing” (72). So, hardship seems to be an almost perfect backdrop for joy in that it sticks out in such intense contrast to the pain. I think it is because we are feeling back to the innocence of childhood before our full knowledge of good and evil, and yearning for the unveiled presence of God where we are fully loved/known. As I alluded to above, Lewis discovered that the feelings of elation/pleasure are not the end goal and that “all images and sensations, if idolatrously mistaken for Joy itself, soon honestly confessed themselves inadequate. All said, in the last resort, ‘It is not I. I am only a reminder. Look! Look! What do I remind you of?’” (220) and then, “…Joy proclaimed, ‘You want–I myself am your want of–something other, outside, not you nor any state of you’” (221).

    • I think the greatest treasures are found naturally as we seek after God. When we are searching for treasures, we are consumed with our desires instead of God. I love the way God blesses us by seeking Him with the treasures we never even realized we needed!

      • Yes. This is it! I love the way you’ve boiled it down here: “When we are searching for treasures, we are consumed with our desires instead of God.” Real joy comes in being surprised by Him; real joy always leads our thoughts back to Him.

    • Pablo Neruda’s poem “Forget about Me” from _On the Blue Shores of Silence_ urges us to look for secret things.

      Among the things the sea throws up,
      Let us hunt for the most petrified,
      Violet claws of crabs,
      Little skulls of dead fish,
      Smooth syllables of wood,
      Small countries of mother-of-pearl;
      Let us look for what the sea undid
      Insistently, carelessly,
      What it broke up and abandoned,
      And left behind for us…

      …Let us look for secret things
      Somewhere in the world,
      On the blue shores of silence
      Or where the storm has passed,
      Rampaging like a train.
      There the faint signs are left,
      Coins of time and water,
      Debris, celestial ash
      And the irreplaceable rapture
      Of sharing in the labor
      Of solitude and the sun.

      (excerpt)

      • This excerpt has a surprising beginning, not the pretty way we usually talk about the sea. Further down with “what the sea undid” and “what it broke up and abandoned” I feel the force of the sea as a thing with no regard for individual life and there we are at its edge, picking up the fragments and appreciating each piece for what it is and was. Thought-provoking poem. Thanks for introducing it here.

  5. REFLECTION QUESTION #5: The discovery of the fairy dust in the water was all the better because no one had clued us in ahead of time. What are some of your moments of awe, times when you have been surprised by joy?

    • The first thing that comes to my mind is the way my children sat behaved at a birthday party when all the other kids were unruly. It brought tears to my eyes that they were respecting others by sitting in a place where they weren’t in the way of others’ views. I don’t have the big travelling experiences that some have but I’ve learned to count my gifts. and I’m learning to cherish the moments as they come. Joy comes in the moments where I am doing what I believe God wants me to do in the every day simple sometimes.

      • My 15-month-old is my best teacher of late. She squeals with delight everytime she sees our dog; she hugs me fiercely when she wakes up from a nap or when I pick her up after a long day of out-of-home work; she utters, “OOoooooo!” in her most dramatic tone when the wind blows across her face. What better joys are there than what God has offered to us – the love of animals, people who care for us, nature itself?

        • Her response to the wind (and all these things)!!! More goosebumps here. Children are such a gift in reacquainting us with the miracle of all these things that we take for granted. Farah was like that with the moon all last summer. Every night it surprised her.

    • “The most exhausting thing in life, I have discovered, is being insincere. That is why so much of social life is exhausting; one is wearing a mask. I have shed my mask.” She says this so beautifully. This has been the most freeing aspect of my last year. I’ve given up trying to be what others want me to be. I only want to be who God wants me to be. There’s freedom in that.

      • I totally realized just now that I was commenting on chptr 2 instead of chptr 1. Oh, well… I’m really enjoying it though. That was just my day yesterday! Everything felt a bit off.

        • This is one of my FAVORITE quotes. Did you see the video of Holley Gerth and Ann Voskamp during the (in)RL weekend? Holley talked about Brene Brown’s writings on fitting in vs. belonging and it really resonated with me. If I have to force fitting in, it’s not true friendship or functional community. Can’t wait to talk more about this with chapter 2 next week. :)

      • I did. I loved the idea behind the (in)RL conference! Looking forward to your thoughts next week and I’m so glad you’re doing this book. I really appreciate the author’s writing.

      • Absolutely – this was the quote that most resonated with me, too. This letting-go of insincerity is what has made my 30s so much more rewarding than my 20s ;) Of course, it has helped to know myself better, and to feel more secure in my relationship with God, but a focus on sincerity, in particular, has helped me to cultivate a more authentically compassionate outlook. And has anyone else noticed that the more sincere you are with others, the more that sincerity circles back to you?

        • You are so right that our ability to be sincere is linked with knowing ourselves and being secure in our relationship with God. I have found that when I’m sincere with others, they either become more sincere with me or their eyes glaze over. We have SO much to talk about next chapter. Can’t wait!

    • “One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach–waiting for a gift…” (p. 11)

      Darcy, you mentioned Foster’s _Celebration of Discipline_ book last week, and this reminds me so much of the attitude he encouraged for those learning the spiritual discipline of meditation.

  6. Darcy – This post was just beautiful. I loved the flowers falling from the trees, the puppies and crab scratching at each other in the sand, and then, of course, the lovely bioluminescence. I need to read Gift from the Sea, though I fear it will make me long for the beach beyond my reality. I wonder if she has written Gift from the Pond for those of us more land-locked?

    This was the perfect post to link up with the summer writing project. If nothing else, I hope that readers will find their way back here when we publish our conclusion.

    • Thanks, Charity. Of all the places I’ve been, Phi Phi was the most breathtaking. It was devastated by the big tsunami several years back, but I heard they worked hard to rebuild.

      “Gift from the Pond”– I love it. Really the book is a sort of check-up on the state of one’s regular existence, considered in the quiet of a getaway. It’s a very quick read and a refreshing one.

  7. Too funny, Charity! When I think about “gifts from the pond,” I think about my recent wrestling with some of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays. This spring, I picked up some of his essays
    when I visited Walden Pond: (http://www.shopatwaldenpond.org/Meditations_of_Ralph_Waldo_Emerson_Into_the_Green_p/tts0899973524.htm). What I found at “the pond” was way more serious and complex than I had remembered from my junior literature course. I liked the challenge, but I’d rather take a day at the beach with AML any day! :)

    • This is great. Whenever I get to reading the transcendentalists and taking down quotes, I end up quoting almost the whole thing. While I may not resonate with all of their theology, I thrill at their words and experience of nature and how it feeds the human spirit.

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