Soaring Heights and Tragic Depths in the Life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh

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In 1929, Anne Morrow Lindbergh was on board the first ever passenger-paying flight, part of Transcontinental Air Transport’s (TAT’s) combination plane-and-train trip linking New York and California. Her husband, Charles, was the pilot, while Anne, the only female passenger, recorded her experience, later published as part of Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead: Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1929-1932. How things have changed:

The ship is beautifully decorated inside, painted a cool gray-green, with the most comfortable green leather-covered chairs, that are adjustable. Little green curtains and blue-shaded lights. There is a white uniformed attendant shouting in my ear that he will get anything I want—reading or writing material. . . .

We have each been given an envelope full of data on the TAT organization. . . . Also I have been handed a large folding map (decorated à la old picture-map style) of our route. Postcards of places along the route. The “courier” has just offered me a little aluminum table to write on; there is plenty of room for knees and a table.

. . . .

At Kingman [AZ] we took on two square tin cupboards and one large thermos. The little table was set up by me, covered with a lavender linen tablecloth (tied on), and on metal plates I had passed me a delicious meal: cold chicken or tongue, etc. . . .

After researching Lindbergh’s life for my post on Gift from the Sea. That led me to Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead, which I’ve just finished reading. It covers her wedding to Charles—the first global celebrity—their flights together, the birth of their son, and his kidnapping and murder 20 months later. The first three of the years covered in the book are the golden years, the last one, leaden. Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead is certainly an absorbing read, with Lindbergh’s account of the happiness and the tragedy written down in “real time,” not in the typical reflective style of a memoir.

Another event recorded by Lindbergh is her flight with Charles to Asia, with stops in Canada, Alaska, Russia, Japan, and China.  In a letter to her mother, she wrote about visiting a missionary station among the Inuit at Point Barrow, the northernmost point of Alaska. Again, how things have changed:

The afternoon after we arrived we heard all the little Eskimo children screaming and all the dogs howling, and coming out of the bungalow we were told excitedly, “The boat’s coming, the boat! See—the smoke!” . . . By the time it got in sight every man, woman, child, and dog was down on the mudbank to see it. It was tragedy not to be there. “Oh, poor Kay, she’s on duty at the hospital and won’t see it!” someone said.

An old white boat (like the Hudson excursion boats), the water wheel churning foam, was towing a big barge. Everyone speculated:

“Perhaps my shoes will be on it!”

“Doesn’t look like much gasoline—hope there’s more inside.”

. . . .

“Perhaps Mother sent me some fresh tomatoes.”

. . . .

Everyone trooped on board very excited and looked over lists of packages.

We’ve got a bathtub! You won’t be able to lord it over us any more—a regular bathtub.”

“That’s the new tank for my motorboat. They’ve sent the wrong kind! Look, Lenny, they’ve sent the wrong kind—and I sent them all the specifications. Can’t use it—have to wait till next year.”

In another letter, Lindbergh wrote about the difficulties faced by the missionaries:

I felt as though my life didn’t count for anything against the terrific sternness of that life. And terribly sad. They had been there so long and were old and tired and they dreaded sending David [their 15-year-old son] out. When they first went up there there was no radio, only the one boat, and they heard about the death of one of their sons four months after he died.

About a church service, led by the Presbyterian missionary Henry Griest, she wrote,

It was so strange, terribly strange, to hear Dr. Greist explain the Bible to them.

“‘We have gone astray like sheep.’ Like the reindeer who have scattered on the tundras.”

“‘The power of God.’ Force—like dynamite that blows up the ice sometimes and lets us get a ship out—the dynamite of God.”

During their time in China, the Lindberghs’ trip was cut short when they got news that Anne’s father had died. A few months later, after they were settled back into their rural New Jersey home, Charles, Jr. was taken from his bedroom and killed.

Forty years after the events of 1932, Lindbergh published Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead. In the introduction to the “Hour of Lead” section, she discusses suffering, grief, and courage, and the—sometimes painful—necessity of vulnerability.

What I am saying is not simply the old Puritan truism that “suffering teaches.” I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable. All these and other factors combined, if the circumstances are right, can teach and can lead to rebirth.

. . . .

One must grieve, and one must go through periods of numbness that are harder to bear than grief. One must refuse the easy escapes offered by habit and human tradition. The first and most common offerings of famiy and friends are always distractions (“Take her out”—”Get her away”—”Change the scene”—”Bring in people to cheer her up”—”Don’t let her sit and mourn” [when it is mourning one needs]). On the other hand, there is the temptation to self-pity or glorification of grief. . . .

Courage is a first step, but simply to bear the blow bravely is not enough. Stoicism is courageous, but it is only a halfway house on the long road. It is a sheild, permissible for a short time only. In the end one has to discard shields and remain open and vulnerable. Otherwise, scar tissue will seal off the wound and no growth will follow. To grow, to be reborn, one must remain vulnerable—open to love but also hideously open to the possibility of more suffering.

Lindbergh wrote a full account of her Asia voyage in her first book, North to the Orient. Newsreel footage from the trip can be seen at this link, courtesy of PBS’s Chasing the Sun.

(Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead: Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1929-1932, Orlando: Mariner, 1993)

[photo: “Col. Lindbergh and Wife Get Ready to Fly the Pacific,” courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection, used under a Creative Commons license]

Reconciling the Planetal and the Personal: Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Lessons from the Beach

Planetal awareness.

That’s what Anne Morrow Lindbergh, in  Gift from the Seacalls an attentiveness to what is going on around the globe. In her bestselling book, she wonders how we can balance a “planetal point of view [which] has burst upon mankind” with a “search for outward simplicity, for inner integrity, for fuller relationship.”

Throughout Gift from the Sea, she examines shells that she finds during a respite by herself at the beach, finding lessons from them on how to escape the constant distractions and overwhelming demands of life. It is in the final chapter, entitled “The Beach at My Back,” that she discusses the need to return from the seashore while remembering what was learned there.

Lindbergh’s book was published in 1955, and it uses the language of her day (planetal has since given way to global, and the Internet has replaced “public print” as the dominant media), but it is striking how much her thoughts apply to our present world, with the flood of global information and news threatening to overwhelm our senses and our empathy. She writes,

The world is rumbling and erupting in ever-widening circles around us. The tensions, conflicts and sufferings even in the outermost circle touch us all, reverberate in all of us. We cannot avoid these vibrations.

But just how far can we implement this planetal awareness? We are asked today to feel compassionately for everyone in the world, to digest intellectually all the information spread out in public print, and to implement in action every ethical impulse aroused by our hearts and minds. The interrelatedness of the world links us constantly with more people than our hearts can hold. Or rather—for I believe the heart is infinite—modern communication loads us with more problems than the human frame can carry. It is good, I think, for our hearts, our minds, our imaginations to be stretched, but body, nerve, endurance and life-span are not as elastic. My life cannot implement in action the demands of all the people to whom my heart responds. I cannot marry all of them, or bear them all as children, or care for them all as I would my parents in illness or old age. Our grandmothers, and even—with some scrambling—our mothers, lived in a circle small enough to let them implement in action most of the impulses of their hearts and minds. We were brought up in a tradition that has now become impossible, for we have extended our circle throughout space and time.

Faced with this dilemma what can we do? How can we adjust our planetal awareness to our Puritan conscience? We are forced to make some compromise. Because we cannot deal with the many as individuals, we sometimes try to simplify the many into an abstraction called the mass. Because we cannot deal with the complexity of the present, we often over-ride it and live in a simplified dream of the future. Because we cannot solve our own problems right here at home, we talk about problems out there in the world. An escape process goes on from the intolerable burden we have placed upon ourselves. But can one really feel deeply for an abstraction called the mass? Can one make the future a substitute for the present? And what guarantee have we that the future will be any better if we neglect the present? Can one solve world problems when one is unable to solve one’s own? Where have we arrived in this process? Have we been successful, working at the periphery of the circle and not at the center?

The answer, writes Lindbergh, is to affect the wider circles of the there, the future, and the mass by concentrating on—by enjoying—the centers of “the here, the now, [and] the individual and his relationships.” We must leave the beach, but we leave with our pockets full of shells, reminding us how to “find again some of the joy in the now, some of the peace in the here, some of the love in me and thee which go to make up the kingdom of heaven on earth.”

“It may be our special function to emphasize again these neglected realities,” writes Lindbergh, “not as a retreat from greater responsibilities but as a first real step toward a deeper understanding and solution of them.”

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In 1929, Anne Morrow Lindbergh married Charles Lindbergh, already a worldwide celebrity, being the first person to fly from New York to Paris. They met when Charles visited Anne’s family in Mexico, where her father was serving as ambassador from the US.  After their marriage, Anne learned to fly and became Charles’s copilot and navigator as the two flew the globe exploring and mapping out routes.

Though America’s “first couple of the air” seemed destined to live out a fairy tale, their life together was beset by turmoil. Tragedy struck their family in 1932 when the Lindbergh’s 20-month-old son was kidnapped and killed. A highly sensationalized trial resulted in the conviction of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was later executed for the murder. To escape the media and public attention, the Lindberghs moved secretly to Europe, living in England and France for over three years.

A theme through much of Anne’s writing is the struggle to find the right path in the face of outward pressures and distractions. In living out this struggle in her own life, she sometimes made regrettable decisions. As Hitler began his offensive in Europe, Anne wrote The Wave of the Future, declaring the inevitability of fascism and calling for America not to oppose the Nazis. Also, in a letter, she called Hitler “a very great man, like an inspired religious leader—and as such rather fanatical—but not scheming, not selfish, not greedy for power.” In her personal life, too, Anne had her failings, having an affair with her doctor shortly after writing Gift from the Sea. (Unknown to Anne, Charles was later unfaithful to her, fathering seven children by three women in Europe.)

Anne wrote more than a dozen books, with Gift from the Sea being her most popular. She died in Vermont in 2001, at the age of 94.

(Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea, New York: Pantheon, 1955)

[photo: “Mr. and Mrs. Lindbergh,” Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection, used under a Creative Commons license]