Florida: Vacation Vignettes

May 5th: Gypsy Landing

One of my bucket list items is to become a travel blogger. When we vacation, I normally post daily Facebook updates chronicling our trip. I don’t feel up to it this time. It’s a testament to how tired I am. The desire to write is there, but I need a quieter way to reflect.

At the moment, thunder is rumbling in the distance and I’m drinking a melting iced mocha on our jungle-like patio (Starbucks only gives you cardboard straws here, which makes me much more enthused about their exorbitant prices). We’re staying in a bungalow that can only be described as ramshackle meets updated; the owner calls it “Gypsy Landing”. There are lizards and snakes in the garden and I am unbothered by their presence. I like watching them scurry and slither.

Gypsy Landing Ornamentation

We chose this town as part of our continuing real estate exploration process. Gulfport is known as the Florida destination for artists and hippies – which is right up my alley. So far, the town motto “keep Gulfport weird” seems to mean inebriated and tangled with greenery, but my first impression could be off base. That’s not to say I don’t like it. Yesterday, for example, I would’ve happily bought two pieces of locally painted/refinished furniture if the store had been able to ship them home. It was probably for the best that they couldn’t; we are trying to pack as little as possible when we move south. After we relocate, I will come back to furnish our home. Although I will be leaving sans coffee bar and funky side table, I was inspired to add a new item to my bucket list: learn to refinish furniture. Growing up, my grandparents ran an antique shop out of their coastal Maine barn. If I could manage a little custom furniture shop in Florida, I would be overjoyed. This stuff runs in my blood.

Another goal I have is to be a one car family (or a one regular car/one vintage car family). I have this romantic vision of walking to work from our own bungalow. Laugh at me if you will, but I choose to keep an open mind about the future. These dreams certainly won’t manifest if I get caught up in the reasons why they’re unrealistic – and the idea of driving doesn’t do much for me. The strip malls and terrible drivers are part of what I hate about Florida. It makes me laugh that there are so many things I find repulsive and yet I am bewitched. Despite having Scandinavian ancestry, I feel more attractive unshowered and covered in sand in Florida than I do freshly groomed in New Hampshire. The humidity wraps me in its arms, gently curls my hair, and pulls the toxins from my pores. I’ve heard people describe heroin as a warm hug. That’s how I feel about the sweet, heavy tropical air.

May 7th: Keep Gulfport Weird

This morning we went to a farmer and artisan’s market in town and I fell in love. We bought fresh sourdough bread from a German baker and light, spongey rum cake from a woman with striking eyes. She said, “God is good and blesses us all”. I am normally wary of these messages as an openly gay traveler in the South, but I felt like she meant it and was inclined to agree. We could smell the sugar from her cake long after it was devoured. We also picked our official souvenir: elephant wind chimes from a woman who travels to Nepal twice a year. Everyone at the market greeted us with a cheerful “good morning!”

Bread from the market with a spicy sauce

The simple pleasantness of the marketplace gave me a lot to think about on our afternoon drive south to further explore the region. I was enchanted by Anna Maria Island, but a quick real estate search revealed it to be way out of our budget. As we passed through Longboat Key – a route characterized by mansions, luxury condominiums and golf courses – there was a continued shift in the socioeconomic and racial landscape that left me feeling a little sad. Suddenly I understood the phrase, “keep Gulfport weird”. I was relieved to return to the greater St. Petersburg area – to the rainbow flags, wild gardens, and spectrum of skin colors.

I can’t judge a place based solely on one afternoon drive, but I know that I don’t want the gate and the golf course.

Instead, I dream of a bungalow and a stone patio (so snakes can’t make their home underneath) and dinners outside in the evening. I dream of a little yard, a lime tree, and a plastic swimming pool for Cedric. I dream of grilling vegetables from the market. I dream of stone Buddhas and seashells in the garden.

Even if we were billionaires, I wouldn’t want the gate or the golf course. I’d buy the Don Cesar Hotel on St. Pete’s Beach and make it my palace. It’s one of my favorite buildings in the world.

The Don Cesar

May 9th: Temple of the Divine

St. Petersburg is home to Haslam’s Books – a gigantic new & used bookstore that has been in operation since 1933. Despite our minimalism, we are suckers for a good bookstore. We have a few rare and collectible pieces in our own tiny library. Amazon Kindle is great… but nothing compares to the smell and feel of a real book. We decided to spend the morning checking Haslam’s out. I loved the lettering on the side of the building and the resident cat. Unsurprisingly, I was immediately on the hunt for anything Florida related. I didn’t find any must-have antiques, but I did pick up a gritty memoir-style collection of essays based in the sunshine state and a Pulitzer Prize winning history of the Gulf. Some might wonder why I’m so obsessed with Florida. Simply put, I am driven to connect with “real Florida” and “old Florida”. This place was once an untarnished paradise. Every time we visit, I get a little taste. As for “real Florida” – well, we do intend to live here. I am a writer and a social-worker-of-sorts. I want to bear witness to the humanity of the place. In my experience, the quickest route to the human essence of any region is through storytelling.

Haslam’s Books, St. Petersburg

When people come to Florida, they often intend to fulfill their basest desires. But I think there is something more primitive at play than the desire for escape – something beyond the bars, strip clubs, strip malls, and theme parks: the human need to connect with nature. When you peel back the ugliness with which it has been suffocated, Florida is a staggeringly beautiful temple of the divine.

Tonight I stood in the Gulf and watched a manatee peak its face above the water. It was no more than fifteen feet from me. Another manatee swam nearby. At least two dolphins fished behind the manatees. Approaching storm clouds turned the water an otherworldly turquoise and a light rain pelted my back. I didn’t care that the waves splashed my legs and soaked my shorts. At sunset, the Gulf is warmer than bathwater. Conch shells rolled around my feet and I grabbed them in fist fulls. A fisherman, seeing the unadulterated joy on my face, nodded and smiled. As the manatee and I coexisted for a few blissful minutes, tears welled in my eyes.

Where else can you experience that kind of connection? What could be more spiritual than the converging grace and power of sky and sea?

Pure joy post manatee/dolphin sightings
Fuzzy evidence of our dolphin encounter

May 10th: The Monk

Today was the last full day of our trip. Ironically, a monk made an appearance on our final evening walk. The Buddhists teach that attachment – or craving and clinging – lead to pain and suffering. These teachings play a huge role in the Buddhist approach to recovery. While the monk disappeared into the dusk, the wisdom he symbolized didn’t. As darkness shrouded the shells and silhouetted the sea birds, the tide pulled the sand from under my feet and my balance became unstable. I thought of transience and resisted.

J.L. finally tried to coax me out of the water. “Let’s go see our pup,” she said. Still, I lingered. Walking back to the car, I swallowed my tears.

Thank God for our dog – my North Star. There are heavy things waiting for me. But so is he.

I actually tapped out on this vacation – which rarely happens. I think living out of a suitcase was just another reminder of the unsettledness of the past six months. The feeling passed, however, and I am reluctant to leave.

The thing about recovery is that the clinging doesn’t stop and the craving doesn’t go away, but I don’t permanently live there. It comes and goes like the sand under my feet.

I hate to concede but perhaps it is a good time to say “see you soon”. Despite frequently reapplying sunscreen, I somehow burned to a crisp. As a tattooed person, this is a cardinal sin. Sometimes I shake my head at the lobster red bodies on the beach. Clearly I am also still working on the Buddhist concept of loving kindness. I see you, Karma.

And I’ll see you soon, Florida.