Tag Archives: Gifts from the Spirit

What is This Thing That is Presence and Yet Not Presence?

Not long ago when we moved my mother and had to break up the home she and my father shared for thirty years, the only St. Louis home my son ever knew, the hardest thing to let go of was my dad’s ancient workbench. This excerpt from Gifts from the Spirit: Reflections on the Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh is for all of us who have lost fathers this Father’s Day.

“My boy is so far away, even here [at her mother’s home]–until I went upstairs. As I walked into his room…everything came back. I looked at his toys, the rooster, the Swedish horse…the little blue stool, his cart of blocks…Then the bureau drawers–each one so full of him. Just the familiarity of my hand on the crib seemed to put him back there. What is this thing that is presence and yet not presence? I went down crying but more satisfied.”

HOUR OF GOLD, HOUR OF LEAD, pp. 257-258

Anne made this diary entry just eleven days after she learned that her infant son had been killed. Charles A. Lindbergh Jr. was stolen from his crib at the Lindbergh’s Hopewell, New Jersey, farmhouse in March of 1932. After two months of raised and dashed hopes for his safe return, the eighteen-month-old child’s body was discovered half-buried in a wooded area less than five miles from their home. He never lived beyond the night he was taken.

Six months pregnant with her second child, Anne was visiting her mother’s home, where she and her husband and child had lived while they waited for their own home to be built. They had not been back since baby Charlie’s death. Anne tiptoed upstairs and gently opened the door to her son’s room. She was flooded with more than memories: she felt his presence. The smell of the tin of Johnson’s baby powder, the little crushed blue jacket he wore over his sleeping suit when he came downstairs to play every night, his gray pussycat with the tail nearly off. In each of these things, she found her baby. She stole back downstairs in silent tears, but was comforted. He didn’t feel so far away.

“What is this thing that is presence and yet not presence?” Visiting my mother in St. Louis a few months after my fathers’ death, this question became real for me. I was there for our annual summertime sojourn, the first time I’d been home since his funeral the winter before. I lived in California now, and the geographical distance had buffered the realization that he was gone. Intellectually, I knew he was, of course. But, emotionally, it wasn’t entirely real; when you don’t see someone regularly you don’t meet the person’s absence as sharply as you do when you live nearby.

While I knew there would be a reckoning with this trip, it didn’t come right away or in any way I expected.

I didn’t apprehend the reality of his death in the places I thought I would. Not in his empty, dark blue, leather recliner, situated in the best possible location in the family room for TV viewing. This was the “dad” chair, reserved for him with unspoken understanding all the years I was growing up and into the present—except when his grandson came to visit. (My son was granted a special dispensation to park there for his morning cartoons.)

I didn’t find it either when I sat at the desk in his study. He’d sit there to read the paper while his grandson took over his armchair in the family room. Tipping back in his swivel chair, with drugstore reading glasses perched on the edge of his handsome nose, my father would peruse the St. Louis Post- Dispatch—even if it was that liberal paper that knocked the Globe-Democrat out of business.

I didn’t realize the fact of his death, either, in what would have been his empty place at the table. Just as his chair had the best view in the room for seeing the television, my father had the best view in the breakfast nook, the place he and my mother took their meals. At his place you could look out a bay window onto a pastoral scene where horses grazed in a field thatpage45image3675840touched their property. Now my mother moved my older brother, who was also visiting, into this spot. (If it sounds like the men in my family get preferential treatment, it’s because they do.) So even his absence at the dinner table didn’t strike me deeply.

That my father was permanently gone did not become real to me until several days into the visit, when I ventured downstairs into the basement. That’s where it hit me.

I slipped quietly down the carpeted basement stairs. Yes, carpeted. My father was the kind of man who not only carpeted his basement stairs, but also regularly vacuumed the concrete basement floor. Instinctively, I made my way over to his workbench.

My dad built his workbench when he and my mother bought their first house. They had moved twice since, and never left the workbench behind.

Standing in front of it now, I pictured it in the tiny laundry room it occupied when I was four, and then later in the larger laundry room in the house where I grew up. It was a permanent fixture in the life of our family. It was the place where things that needed to be repaired were piled, where shoes that needed shining were shined, where my father could often be seen hunched over, working his magic on some electrical gizmo (his favorite word of choice) that needed overhauling.

I grew up believing that my father could fix anything.

Years later, when my parents moved to the new house, he would take my son downstairs to the basement and let him tinker with him at his workbench. I can still see my preschool- age son perched atop a sturdy plastic drum of laundry detergent before scraps of discarded wood, drilling holes with the old manual drill that had belonged to his great-grandfather, and hammering nails with his grandfather’s tack hammer—right alongside his granddad. Some summers they would make special projects together. One year it was a birdhouse; another, it was a concrete-and-tile steppingstone for the garden.

Although I stood alone at that moment with my memories rushing at me, I was surrounded by my father’s presence. He was there.

There, in the stained, scuffed surface of his workbench where he had polished shoes, built Pinewood Derby cars, repaired lamps, painted furniture, framed pictures, fixed the cord on my mother’s iron, and completed innumerable other tasks that kept the surface of our lives functioning smoothly. And each tool, hanging in its spot on the pegboard of his workbench just where he’d left it, was full of him.

I was overwhelmed by his presence. And I knew, for the first time, that he was gone. The reality that I hadn’t been able to access before came now. And along with the tears that came from deep inside my body came the knowledge of what he had meant to me.

My father was a man who wasn’t comfortable with his feelings and didn’t share them easily, and so he showed that he cared in practical ways. Building, repairing, improving, fixing–he loved to do all of these things and we received the benefits. Here was a man who showed care through his handiness. He was able to love through doing the thing he loved. My loss became real that summer day because in my father’s workbench I found his essence.

“What is this thing that is presence and yet not presence?” Anne asked. It may be this: We inhabit the things we love and, even in death, if we have loved we leave some of ourselves behind.

“When one finds a person who has the same thought as yours…”

When one finds a person who has the same thought as yours you cry out for joy, you go and shake him by the hand. Your heart leaps as though you were walking in a street in a foreign land and you heard your own language spoken, or your name in a room full of strangers.”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh: WAR WITHIN AND WITHOUT, p. 33

A picture of a young Anne Morrow Lindbergh sits on my desk. I clipped it from a second-hand bookstore copy of Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead and put it in a brass frame that once belonged to my grandmother. The picture of Anne’s sad face, photographed shortly after the kidnappingand murder of her baby boy, has been a companion for years. It sat on my desk when I lived in Princeton, New Jersey, and it is here on my desk in Southern California, where I live now, right next to a photograph of my grandmother.

It was my grandmother’s copy of Gift from the Sea that introduced me to Anne Morrow Lindbergh. This first edition teal-and-white volume rested untouched on a bookshelf at my parents’ home for years after my grandmother’s death when I was ten. During my teenage years I spent hours talking to my friends on the phone that hung on the wall next to this bookcase. I gazed at the binding of this book nearly every evening as I chatted, connecting to my friends, the world outside my family. Sometimes I even picked it up and looked at it, mildly curious about the woman married to the man for whom my high school was named. But I was not curious enough to read it. Not then anyway.

It wasn’t until my twenties–when I was home on vacation from graduate school at Princeton Seminary and preoccupied about my vocational future and a man in my life–that I pulled the book out to read. I was absorbed immediately. Maybe enchanted was more like it. It wasn’t just what she said–which spoke right to me–it was the way she said it. There was beauty in the way she used words. As I read on I was moved further.

Sparingly etched in blue ink throughout the book were underlines and an occasional exclamation mark: “The problem is not merely one of Woman and Career, Woman and the Home, Woman and Independence. It is more basically: 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…” [i] and “Woman must be the pioneer in this turning inward for strength…” [ii] and “…women need solitude to find the true essence of themselves…” [iii]

The markings were in my grandmother’s handwriting. It had been more than twenty years since her eyes and hand had swept across these same pages, but at that moment I felt she was with me. Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s words became a bridge for me, linking me to this woman I had loved so much and lost.

Discovering who my grandmother was through Anne’s words was important to me because in some way that seemed to tell me more about who I was too. It was reassuring to know that the grandmother who had meant so much to me when I was small thought about her inner life. Maybe this was why I’d felt so connected to her as a child.

When you find a person who has the same thought as yours, you want to get to know her better. My grandmother was gone, but there was much more I would learn about Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

After reading Gift from the Sea, I searched for anything and everything I could find by or about her. Most of Anne’s books were available at the Princeton public library, fortunately; they were nearly impossible to own, though, because nearly everything but Gift from the Sea and her one book of poetry, The Unicorn, were out of print. I became well acquainted with second-hand bookstores, and occasionally was lucky enough to find one of her books. Then the man I married conducted an all-out nationwide search–in the days before the Internet existed, mind you–and, amazingly, unearthed every hardcover volume I didn’t already own, surprising me with them for a wedding present. My collection was complete.

The dearth of availability was a mystery to me. While Gift from the Sea continued to sell millions all over the world and had become an inspirational classic, what about the rest of her work? Why was it out of print? And why was practically nothing written about her?

I discovered Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s work when I was a seminary student, struggling to learn more about the meaning of life and God–and myself. Privileged to be attending one of the best theological schools in the country, I studied with professors who were world-renowned and read widely in fields as diverse as psychology, philosophy, education, theology, Biblical studies, women’s studies, and history. But what I kept coming back to, what I really wanted to read, was more of Anne. Her work touched not only my mind, but my heart, too.

I was fascinated by the life she led. As a major twentieth-century figure married to an American icon, she was both a player in and witness to some of the most important historical events of her time. But what was even more remarkable than that, to me, was her inner life. Here was a woman who, in the eyes of the outside world, seemed to have it all. Raised with all the advantages her wealthy parents could give her, Ivy League educated, married to the most popular man in the world, she was talented and successful in her own right and became a best-selling author. But this wasn’t the whole picture.f866fe37c963cf1e832e8e69a006cfe3

The rest of the picture–the picture that emerged as I read her published diaries and letters, is that of a woman who was alienated from herself, who struggled to understand herself, her relationships, and her place in the world. I saw a woman who had not arrived, but was on a journey–a journey toward self-awareness.

Anne’s body of literary work follows the same theme: The journey of spiritual awareness–of coming home to yourself. Whether it’s her poetry, her prose, or her personal writings in her diaries and letters, she takes her reader by the hand, and graciously, companionably, points the way: Take the inner road, she says. The answers are inside you. My Post-It note-marked, scribbled in, underlined, and highlighted five volumes of Anne’s diaries and letters are scattered here on my desk today, right alongside my pictures of Anne and my grandmother. Bring Me a Unicorn; Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead; Locked Rooms and Open Doors; The Flower and the Nettle; and War Within and Without. These dog-eared, slightly yellowed, tattered book jacketed copies were second- hand to begin with, but they are treasures to me nonetheless, for what they meant to me as a young woman who was on the threshold of self-discovery and what they mean to me still.

Coming across Anne in these books was like meeting someone who spoke the same language I did. Her reflections resonated deep inside me: Yes. I know just what you mean. When I read Anne’s diaries and letters I felt less alone. Here was someone who struggled with the same things I struggled with, who put into words things I felt but could not articulate, who reminded me of some knowledge dormant inside me: that the things I long for are already within me. And who, by her example, gave me courage to get on with my own inner journey.

And so I did, and I’d like to share some of it with you. The passages you will read from Anne’s diaries and letters are thoughts of hers that I’ve returned to again and again over the past twenty years. These are the reflections and observations that leapt out at me, that something inside me said yes to. I wasn’t always conscious of why these thoughts seemed so true during my earliest readings. But as the years have gone by and I have understood more about myself, I understand more about her, too. The truth that I apprehended only dimly as a young woman has become clearer with time and self-awareness.

And so I offer one woman’s take on Anne Morrow Lindbergh–who she was and what her legacy is. I hope that in my personal reflections on Anne’s life and words and wisdom, you too may hear your own language spoken. Or your name in a room full of strangers.

(Excerpt from Gifts from the Spirit: Reflections on the Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 2002, 2014, copyright Kim Jocelyn Dickson)

[i] Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea (New York: Pantheon, 1955) p. 29.
[ii] Ibid. p. 57.

[iii] Ibid. p. 50.