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.

You Are What You Eat

I am swamped right now. In fact, writing this is my way of taking a break. What I really should be doing is reading a book, taking a nap, watching Netflix, or mindlessly scrolling through Pinterest. However, making time for my own blog is really important to me.

Something crazy happened after I wrote Sugar, We’re Going Down. In that post, I said that I wasn’t ready to make a change in my eating… but I admitted I had a problem. I’ll tell you what, admitting the existence of a problem truly is the first step. After my admission, something unnameable shifted in my consciousness. For a whole week, information about nutrition and food manifested in my life. My readiness to open my mind transformed me into a magnet for things that support my intentions. I went from being totally unwilling to take action to actually taking action. J.L. and I previously declared we would do a sugar detox once summer arrived. Now we are making changes immediately. Over the next seven to ten days, we will be eating our way through our unhealthy pantry/freezer and restocking them both with new, healthful food. I have designed a recipe board, made a list of basic staples to buy at Whole Foods (which we will supplement with produce from a cheaper source), and created a list of bottom lines to guide our lifestyle change.

Through this process, I am going to write about my feelings and experiences. I have to admit that I am really, really scared. It sounds ludicrous to be scared about not eating certain types of food… but I really am. I bought a bunch of frozen vegetables at Target this afternoon and I thought: “No more macaroni and cheese?” It made my stomach ache with sadness. Later, I thought about milkshakes, root beer floats, and blueberry pop. I felt a little despair. I love those things.

One of my bottom lines is to be gentle with myself. If I fall prey to weakness – which I may – I am not going to punish or shame myself. Relapse is sometimes an unfortunate part of recovery. When it happens, you get back on the horse and move on. Moreover, this new lifestyle isn’t about deprivation; it’s about giving myself the precious gift of good health. I have been sickly for most of my life. Most kids don’t have a colonoscopy in their teens. Most twenty-somethings don’t have to withdraw from a physical dependence on Imodium. Most thirty-somethings haven’t spent almost an entire lifetime on antacids. Or…maybe that’s the norm in this day and age? Our diets in the United States are atrocious. Beyond atrocious, even. The word doesn’t do the debacle of our eating justice.

Let’s be clear. This is not a “diet”. I don’t need to lose weight. I need to get healthy. But what am I going to eat? I tried the whole gluten free thing for a year. I found out that I don’t have a wheat intolerance. I also found out that being gluten free did nothing to reduce my inhalation of processed food. So…what now?

Plants, baby. Plants.

We are about to embark on a journey of plant centered eating. No more meat. No more dairy. No more added oils or high sodium content. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts. Period. Anything else will just not be available in our house.

It sounds extreme. I don’t deal in extremes anymore, right? Truth be told, I think it’s extreme to know that I am incredibly unhealthy and yet do nothing. I think it’s extreme to know my risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer is astronomically high (due to making poor food choices) and do nothing. I think it’s extreme to know that the food industry is destroying the planet and the health of millions and do absolutely nothing. I think it’s extreme to rip a baby cow from its mother, steal the mother’s milk, and sell the spoils at the local grocer. I might as well kick the baby cow in the face, throw myself under its mother, and start suckling.

When I think of it that way, giving up the milkshake seems a little easier.

Good grief, I swore I would never become a torch carrying vegan. I just “can’t even”…as the kids say these days. I also swore I would never become that girl who regularly shops at Whole Foods. I’m about as hippie as they come…but I like people and things to have a down to earth quality. Whole Foods is supposed to be “down to earth” (haha, get it?), but on the few occasions I’ve visited, it felt kind of  pretentious. The older I get, the more I realize I need to examine my biases. Maybe people find my blog pretentious. When I have one finger pointed at someone else, I have three pointing back at me. I think that sometimes we are judgmental because we, ourselves, fear being judged. I am also learning that I should never say never. Like…ever.

I am not going to be militaristic. If I’m a guest at someone’s home, I’m not going to expect them to cater to my food preferences. Luckily, the changes we made when we decided to start saving more money for retirement have already reduced our take-out and restaurant habit – but if we do go out to eat and I make an unhealthful choice, I’m not going to spend the following week self-flagellating and saying Hail Mary’s. By the same token, as much as I am more sympathetic to the very serious plight of cows (and I mean that sincerely), I still haven’t given up the idea of the waffle and milkshake bar on our St. Augustine vacation. However, I’ve also looked to see if there are vegan options in town so we can make healthier choices the rest of the time. It’s progress, not perfection.

I’m not really sure what this crazy journey is going to bring. In two weeks time, I may have already failed. Maybe eating plant based food will make my heartburn worse rather than better. In May, maybe I’ll stuff my face with waffles and milkshakes every day for a week. Or maybe my skin will clear, I’ll have more energy, and I’ll feel like a million bucks. Maybe I won’t be willing to give that up for a morning (or seven) of gluttony. All I know is that when I look at J.L., I want to do better. When I bring unhealthy foods into the house – or plan less-than-nutritious meals –  it has an impact on my wife. Not only because we consume the same poisonous things, but because when I harm myself, I am harming her, too. When I don’t feel good, the look on her face breaks my heart. We have many years of adventuring and hand holding ahead of us. But we have nothing if we don’t have our health. Eating well isn’t just the self-loving thing to do, it is an act of radical love for my wife.

Remaining Teachable

Unless you subscribe to the school that says ignorance is bliss, one arguably fun thing about recovery is that the layers of your own personal onion keep unfolding. You discover more and more about yourself as you go along. I think there’s a grand myth that once you have a few clean and sober years under your belt, you’re fixed. Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom. Cured. The thought just made me snicker out loud in my living room like a maniac. Because nothing could be further from the truth. If all goes well, I will have 7 years of recovery next month..and I still have my fair share of issues to slog my way through. The good news is that most people could stand to do a little “issue slogging”, so I’m not alone.

One can ascertain a lot about my present brand of crazy by either observing my recent purchases or peeking at my shopping list. The items I have collected lately include 3 pairs of athletic shorts, other assorted articles of athletic wear, and a beginners yoga DVD. The items I have on my “to-purchase list” include a book on living with adult ADD and a Missy Elliot CD.

This is a hilarious amalgamation for a number of reasons. Those of you who know me are fully aware that I hate the idea of doing anything that requires exertion or sweat. I was possibly the most awkward girl in my high school gym class. The poor teacher didn’t even know what to do with my lack of eye-hand coordination. I can’t eye-hand coordinate, make my limbs look natural, or do math above a second grade level. It’s just who I am.

Missy Elliot is there because she’s my go-to for what I like to call “ass-kicking anthems”. When I need to get pumped up, Missy is my girl. And lately I need some help to get in the mood for ass-kicking.

I have a lot going on. Not only am I managing a day job, a (struggling) photography business, and a sparsely updated blog, I’ve also started a (successful) social media campaign called “Human Too” to combat stigma against addicts and alcoholics. If that list doesn’t perfectly illustrate my ADD, I don’t know what does. On top of that, my body is changing in a way I do. not. like. If I could sum up turning thirty in two lines, I would say this: Don’t expect to even LOOK at a dessert ever again without gaining two pounds. And don’t expect to drink coffee on a road trip without almost (or actually) peeing your pants at least once.

That brings us back around to the shorts and the yoga DVD. Lately, I’ve gained some weight.  My unhappiness with this has delivered me face to face with the fact that food has become just another drug for me. In fact, it really always has been just another drug for me, but I HAD a great metabolism so I could live in happy denial. Stressed? Donut time. Bored? How about a cookie? Or a cupcake? Or a bag of cheesy popcorn? Or a bowl of sugary cereal topped with whipped cream? Or just a plain old bowl of whipped cream with a spoon? Because god damn it all, I have NO VICES LEFT. No credit cards. No weed. No Jack and Pepsi. And MOST CERTAINLY no bat shit crazy women.

It sucks to get honest and admit that food is another item on the list of things I need help managing. When I was a teenager I got really sick and really thin. People reacted positively to the weight loss. Since then I haven’t experienced being any other size and my self image is struggling. I’m used to being a notch or two above sick looking. Now I just want to get to a place where I feel healthy. I’m hoping the fake-it-til-I-make-it approach will work. If I LOOK like I can run a 5k, maybe I’ll get to FEELING like I want to run a 5k. And let’s face it – that flexible waistband feels a HELL of a lot better than trying to squeeze my ass into last summer’s clothes. But I’m not living under the delusion that I’m going to jump right into running. Ohhhh boy, just the idea is funny. I’m starting off small with some regular walks, irregular sprints, and possibly some light yoga. There are muscles in my body that I forgot I even had.

In my last post I talked about how the group I joined for 8 months helped me to stop jumping into things so quickly and also to stop quitting. I’m still doing really well with that. I haven’t quit my job. I haven’t quit any of the things I’ve started (blog, business, campaign). I haven’t decided to sign up for a 5k or join a Cross Fit gym. I’m trying baby steps. (A. Find shorts that don’t cut off your circulation. B. Stretch out muscles that you forgot existed. C. Stop pounding carbs.) The other thing that helped was when the gears of my brain finally clicked into place. I was on a marathon of self-berating about my perpetual career woes when a tiny, timid little part of my brain piped in and said “Hey, you remember when you were a kid and you got diagnosed with ADD?” I did some reading, and my whole adult life finally made sense. The 18,000 tabs always open in my head, the inability to complete one task without starting 10 others along the way, the boredom, frustration, and irritability at work, the constant noise in my brain, the success I have when I’m hyper-focused on a task I like…

I think it’s important to acknowledge that sometimes a recovery program can’t address all of your needs. Before I’m able to explore other career options, it makes sense that I’m going to need some help treating my ADD.

I SUFFERED at school. If I go back to school or back to a professional work setting, I don’t need to suffer anymore.

Sometimes this whole growth thing can be a little overwhelming. Especially with a noisy brain that NEVER. SHUTS. UP. But at the end of the day I am so thankful. My life may not be perfect, but the beautiful thing is that I KNOW myself. I am aware of who I am on a very deep level and I become more and more in tune each day. I seem to remember an ad on TV that says “Know More, Do More”. That is a great summation of what recovery is all about. When I’m not in the process of actively learning, I’m in the process of actively dying. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think I would prefer to remain teachable.