A Love Letter to Florida

There are so many things I don’t like about Florida. I hate the billboards on the highway. (I am glad the billboard trend has mostly avoided our home state.) I hate the strips and the widespread prevalence of fast fried food. I hate the intersections – many of them make zero logical sense – and the fact that everyone drives like a suicidal maniac. I hate the trash on the roads and the beaches and the despair of locals who have been robbed of their own resources by tourists. I hate the crowds and the smell of the overheated, unwashed masses. And yet, despite all these things… I am unabashedly in love.

For every one thing I dislike about Florida, there are a dozen things I adore. I love the buzzing of electricity from busy transformers. I love the music of the birds and the cicadas. I love the tropical flowers and the draping, spooky Spanish moss. I love that at any given moment you could have a magical, surprise encounter with a beautiful bird or sea creature. (However, I would not enjoy a surprise encounter with a shark or an alligator!) I love the rustling of the palms in the tropical breeze. I love the tiny lizards, bobbing their heads as they scurry over patios and fences. I love that the sea salt is so sticky and bountiful that you can see it dusting your skin. I even love the humidity; the trickle of sweat feels cathartic and cleansing. (But, for the love of God, please wear deodorant!)

When I look in the mirror in Florida, I see the most authentic version of myself. That’s not to say I’m not “me” everywhere else, but the brown skinned, glowing reflection- with her wild, salt laden hair barely contained in a beach-y wrap – is the woman I know I am meant to be.

Needless to say, I am a little bit heartbroken to be back in New England after our incredible trip to St. Augustine. While we were there, my wife noticed that our favorite food truck was hiring. It gave me serious pause. I doubt the pay would be high enough to cover my bills, but I could picture myself freelancing as a web-content writer in the cool shade of the morning and selling locals and savvy tourists fresh vegan-friendly wraps in the afternoon. The girls who took our orders and delivered our lunches were mostly dreadlock adorned young hippies. I imagined falling into the role of Hippie Mother Hen, dispensing peace and love over hummus and avocado.

Clearly, I got a little delusional. Life never turns out the way we picture it in our minds. When we’re lucky, it turns out better. Otherwise, it’s a lot grittier. The trick is to find the gift in the grit.

Another thing that struck me during our trip is how much I would love to be a travel blogger. Yeah, yeah. Wouldn’t everybody? But I don’t want to do it the traditional way. First of all, I could give a hoot about fine dining and fancy hotels. (However, I am VERY picky about where I sleep… but that’s another story.) And I am not particularly interested in international travel (although I do have an international bucket list and I wouldn’t rule it out). What I really want to write about is Americana. I want to see beyond the billboards and the bullshit and discover what lies at the crux of the United States. I also want to write about how it feels to travel as a sober person. For most people, vacation entails a week of uninhibited cocktail consumption. If this definition sums up your travel mindset, all I can say is that you are seriously missing out. Traveling sober means soaking in every last experience with a sharp, clear mind.

I don’t have the means to road trip the U.S. yet, but I can share about the places I do visit in my regular non-travel blog. So, without further ado, here is St. Augustine, FL, according to Autumn:

First of all, I have a confession to make. I didn’t one hundred percent abide by my minimalist and dietary principles on vacation. And that’s okay. I prepared to let loose beforehand. While we did shop for travel memorabilia and check out the local foodie scene, I am happy to report that I stayed well within the budget I set for myself. We also took liberties with dairy consumption, but I am proud to say that J.L. did not consume one ounce of meat. I didn’t quite squeak through as a dutiful vegetarian but I came close. I love that my wife is so excited about ethical eating; she was watching TV and I heard her yell: “Turkeys are our friends!” We ate many vegan meals at our rented beach cottage, including scrumptious grilled vegetables with fragrant rice and whole wheat bagels with tofu cream cheese.

When we did venture out, the food was some of the best I’ve ever eaten. We never had a meal that was less than three stars. I do my foodie research and plan our stops. If you’re looking for a list of delicious vegan/vegetarian eateries in St. Augustine, look no further:

  1. The Kookaburra: I don’t know how the food is at this coffee shop… but I can tell you that the coffee is hands down the best I have ever had in my LIFE. Order an iced Honey Badger or an iced Mocha Nut. Hell, get crazy and order both. Leave me a comment while you’re drinking it so I can weep with jealousy.
    IMG_5974
    Kookaburra on the beach
  2. Crave: This food truck has an additional location in the same building as the Kookaburra’s beach shop. Convenience at its finest. Order a Happy Hummus wrap and sub the carrots/cucumbers with avocado. Then write me a thank you card. Again, the BEST wrap I have EVER had in my LIFE. I could eat there every day.
  3. Casa Benedetto’s Ristorante: I couldn’t resist the urge to have a plate of homemade Sicilian Alfredo while gluttonously imbibing dairy – BUT I have to say that it was the cannoli that really got me. My pasta was outrageously good – I would have liked a little more garlic in the sauce – but the cannoli was so cinnamon-y and perfect. J.L. loved her bread pudding, too. It’s a great place for dessert.
  4. Present Moment Cafe – If you’re strictly vegan, this is the place for you. It’s a little pricey, and the service is kind of slow, but the food tastes like the bomb diggity. I never believed in vegan queso – how can you have creamy cheese without the actual CHEESE??? – but I sure as heck do now.
  5. The Back 40 Urban Cafe – I had something called a “wet burrito” for dinner and, after stuffing myself silly, had to go back to our beach cottage and rest. It was a glorious feast.
    IMG_6414
    My enormous burrito!
  6. Cousteau’s Waffle and Milkshake Bar – This is the place I was drooling over for months before our trip and it ended up being kind of disappointing. The Belgian waffles are out of this world but the milkshakes could use a little work. Still…it is my kind of bar and it has potential.
  7. Crucial Coffee – This one is last but certainly not least. After watching the sunset (including a manatee spotting), we didn’t want our evening to end. I was super pumped when we tripped over this coffee shack which was wonderfully situated on a garden with twinkling lights and shared table space. I had some kind of minty iced lemonade and J.L. had a crazy blended espresso drink with lots of chocolate and other delightful flavors. It was dreamy and delicious and I would consider selling a body part to go back.

So… I clearly indulged. However, I have to say that eating vegan/vegetarian foods, as well as preparing many meals at home, helped me NOT gain ten pounds like I did on vacation last year. No joke.

I’ve covered what to eat. However, what should you do? We did just about everything.(Well, everything except drink from the dank ass Fountain of Youth. Yuck!) That’s one of the greatest gifts of sobriety: you’re not too hung over to do things…and then you remember them in joyous, vivid detail. We met Maximo the crocodile, climbed to the top of the lighthouse, explored the Castillo de San Marcos, had a blast at the interactive Pirate museum, and walked through the historic downtown multiple times. But what other things did we discover?

  1. The St. Augustine Wild Reserve – We needed GPS navigation to find this place and, when we pulled in, my first impression left me feeling a little nervous. However, we ended up having an experience I will never forget. The St. Augustine Wild Reserve is a non-profit rescue reserve, which means all the animals have been saved from negligence, abandonment, abuse, and death. Unlike a trip to the zoo, you can feel confident that your money is being spent supporting a cruelty-free cause. You also get to watch tigers playing in bubble bath. Oh, and you get to see a thousand pound liger…and a bear who eats peppermints. (The sweet bear was smiling even though he (she?) had previously suffered immensely at the hands of man. His claws were beaten off with a hammer.) It’s pretty amazing to hear a lion and tiger growl in person…and even more amazing that the Wild Reserve is educating people about how wild animals are NOT PETS. Seriously, if you think domesticating any kind of wild cat or dog is okay, we can’t be friends. I don’t say that kind of thing very often, but I have to draw the line somewhere.
  2. Washington Oaks Gardens State Park – This park is an absolute must. It is tied with the St. Augustine Wild Reserve for number one thing to do. The former estate is breathtaking. I guess you’d want to make sure the gardens are in bloom before visiting – I’m not really sure how that works in a sub-tropical climate. Among a plethora of other things, there are citrus trees, roses fit for a queen, and ancient, mossy oaks. The park is situated between the ocean and the Matanzas river and you have access to both while visiting. I was so taken by the landscape that I could have wept. My heart is still bleeding several weeks later. As if the experience wasn’t magical enough on its own, we saw wild dolphins swimming in the Matanzas on our way back to our cottage.
    IMG_6281
    Stopping to smell the roses
  3. Basilica Cathedral – I am not a religious person. I’m a spiritual person. There’s a BIG difference. And after watching The Keepers on Netflix, the Catholic church makes me sick. (I wasn’t a particularly huge fan before watching The Keepers, either.) However, this giant cathedral really struck a chord with me. There’s just a feeling in there. I guess that isn’t surprising given that people have been prayerfully visiting the site for four hundred and fifty years. You can sense the history in the air. It felt very meaningful to light a remembrance candle before stepping back out into the sunshine.
    IMG_6222
    The Basilica Cathedral
  4. Ghost Tour – Laugh if you want, but a ghost tour is a fun way to get to know the history of an area. When we went on a hearse tour in Savannah, Georgia, it stopped right outside the renovated carriage house we were renting. Talk about exciting! This time, our tour wasn’t just about hearing the stories, it was also about trying to communicate. We even had those electro-magnetic meters. I went in feeling very skeptical…and I have to say that I probably won’t do a “communication” oriented tour ever again. However, that’s because I think a little boy ghost said hello to me before our tour guide even told us about the building or the ghosts. I had the experience all on my own… without the power of suggestion (other than the fact that we were on a damn ghost tour). I’m too much of an empath for paranormal experiences. Sensing energy intensely leaves me feeling vulnerable and drained. We also learned that Henry Flagler, whose buildings are some of the most recognizable in St. Augustine, was a womanizer and, well, kind of a big ol’ jerk. Flagler College is beautiful inside but you could probably skip Lightner Museum. It needs some updating.
  5. The Golden Gypsy & Grace Gallery World Folk Art – If you want something different from the usual tourist kitsch, search out these two fantastic gift shops. Though I consider myself to be a minimalist work-in-progress, my favorite items tend to be souvenirs from our travels. Some of the things I choose might still be kitsch-y, but at least they’re unique. This time, I chose Buddha and Ganesha figurines, a beautiful lantern, colorful flip flops, a bird adorned notebook, and tye dye shorts.

IMG_6517
My Ganesha figurine in its new home
If you had asked me when I was younger, I would have told you I NEVER wanted to visit Florida. In my mind, it was a tourist trap and an overheated snowbird oasis. And, yes, it is, indeed, both of those things. But it is also weird, spooky, and unique. It dances unabashedly to the beat of its own drum. It has its own magic. It jives perfectly with my wild heart.

For now, all I can do is write love letters to the palms and the sand, the cicadas and the birds, and each and every salty, humidity-wrapped surprise. I have to remember that dreams, even when they come true, dissolve into the grit of life. I have to honor that the Universe needs me in my cold New England city. I have work to do here. The gifts are in the grit.

IMG_6460

Losing the Mess

Life is invariably messy. But does it have to be? There are so many factors in the world we can’t single-handedly control. Right now, the tension within the United States is palpable, never mind the tension brewing with our neighbors on the same continent and across the ocean. I try to steer away from taking heated public political stances because I personally believe it doesn’t help push our society forward – rather it perpetuates the backward momentum – but it is undeniable that we live in scary times. If you look beyond the inflammatory headlines and simply examine the legislation, available as stark, inarguable, fact, it is impossible not to feel a chill of existential anxiety run down your spine and sit like a rock in your stomach. Who can say how it will all conclude? It doesn’t matter which side of the aisle you’re on; we collectively have a lot riding on the less-than-pure-white White House.

If that isn’t enough, we are each fighting our own messy personal battles. For example: I can’t control the fact that my upper G.I. system has recently decided to stage a rebellion in my esophagus. No specialists are immediately available, and the discomfort has resulted in being pulled from medication that helps me stay focused, patient, less impulsive, and less irritable. Just when I thought I was starting to get ahead with my health, my body threw a curve ball.

With the world in such an uncertain state of chaos and the circumstances of our lives often out of our control, how can one possibly be content? How can we attain even a modicum of serenity? Doesn’t the grand scale of all this uncertainty make us VICTIMS of circumstance? I think society would respond with a resounding “hell YES”!   But lately, I have been questioning this programmed “victim” attitude in both the personal and political spectrum.

With my personal circumstances, for example, I could ask: “How am I supposed to function?” One version of the aforementioned question would be rhetorical and soaked in self-pity. I would be lying if I said that wasn’t the first version of the question that I did, indeed, ask. I panicked. I shed some tears. I’m a recovering worrier. It’s what I do. But then I asked the non-rhetorical, pro-active question: “Okay, what can I do to function as best I can until this situation gets resolved?”

I think that victims become victimizers. It’s standard practice for political discourse on social media. It’s identity politics. One group feels victimized by another and retaliates by trying to make the other group feel as miserable as possible. Or, in a more general sense, one individual has a miserable life so he or she does x, y, or z and these behaviors detract from the general benefit of his/her personal relationships and society as a whole.

I recently deleted Facebook from my phone for just this reason. It’s been a long time coming. I’ve taken “vacations” but I’ve never permanently pulled the plug. I log on to manage Human Too and to periodically check my wall, but I don’t read my newsfeed anymore. As a gay woman, I very well could be in the political crosshairs. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to feel like a victim or let my peers suck me into bullying and general misery. You don’t like gay people? Fine. Are you a gay person who feels shitty about the current state of affairs? Fine. I can acknowledge both as co-existing realities but I am NOT going to wallow in the swamp by spending HOURS of my time scrolling through the murk every day. I can’t do anything to clean the water in the swamp if I’m stuck in it up to my chest. When I’m submerged, the water isn’t getting clean. My soul is just getting dirty.

I am learning that we can control a lot more than we think. There are, of course, things I can’t change and must accept. My addiction is one of those things. But I can control my response to just about everything.

Even though the world is arguably more chaotic than it has ever been in my lifetime and I must face life on life’s terms – unexpected hurdles and all – I am also finding ways to invite in more peace and contentment than ever before. And that, my friends, is the beauty of recovery. Recovery is constant learning and growth. But you don’t have to be in recovery to strive for constant learning and growth. One could posit that a life richly lived is the same by definition.

Discovering the Frugalwoods blog a few months ago jump-started my most recent self-evolution. It taught me to let go of society’s definition of success. (I am, in fact, wildly successful! I have a daily reprieve from a deadly disease. And I have a really kind heart.) It taught me about letting go of yet another addiction: consumerism. It taught me how to change my attitude toward money. I didn’t pick a high-paying field but that doesn’t mean I can’t save for retirement. After a few trial runs with some of the principles that work for our family, we are on our way.

It didn’t stop with the Frugalwoods. The Universe has had many things to show me and my heart has been wide open.

I am currently reading a book called Everything that Remains by The Minimalists. The word minimalism often conjures an extreme picture of stark rooms and empty closets. But it’s not really about that. Because when you get rid of all your stuff you are still left with you. It’s about clearing your life of things that don’t add value…and stopping the pursuit of even more things that don’t add value to fill the bottomless void inside.

You will never walk into my home and find barren shelves and empty walls. But I am engaging in a massive clean-out and a firm assessment of whether or not an item/activity adds value. Keeping Facebook on my phone does not add value. An excess of clothes I don’t wear or coffee mugs I don’t drink from do not add value. Buying shit I do not need does not add value.

I said in my last post that I don’t deal in extremes anymore. This is still true. I intend to keep my antique bottles and my seashells and most of my decorations. We will still celebrate holidays and live a full life. It just means that I don’t need more. I don’t need to buy an Audi in two years when my current vehicle is paid off. We don’t need to go out to eat at least once a week. We don’t need presents stacked from floor to ceiling every Christmas. I don’t need to buy everything I see that glitters appealingly in my direction because I “deserve” it.

Every time an item hits the trash or the donate pile, I feel like I can breathe a little easier. Adopting some of the Frugalwoods and Minimalists’ ideologies has added a whole new element of calm and gratitude to my life. I have realized that what I have is enough. It is beyond enough. I have realized that the “things” I value most are time, freedom, kindness, and travel with my wife. I have realized that I can better utilize my money to support these values and that I can quite literally clear both my physical space and my head space for these values.

Everything that Remains also talks about the difference between passion and excitement. As an addict, this resounded so deeply with me that I sat briefly in stunned reverie. I am historically accustomed to experiencing life in highs and lows: excitement and despair. I can fall back onto this roller coaster if I am not careful. Not dealing in extremes does require constant vigilance. The Minimalists point out that passion is not excitement. Sure, passion can feel exciting at moments, but it is also loving something so much that you’re willing to “drudge through the drudgery”. It is discipline and patience. It is putting in the work to master a skill. To say that I needed to hear that message is a vast understatement.

So, yes, while the world burns and my own life continues to be perfectly imperfect, I have been choosing to cultivate an oasis of peace.

I think that the answers to life’s biggest questions are sometimes so painfully simple that it’s appalling that we don’t all “get” them. But the simplest answers are sometimes the hardest to swallow. Recovery programs are full of infuriatingly simple clichés that prove this very point. It has certainly taken me years to get basic principles…and yet I still need constant reminders. I can’t help but wonder, however, what it would be like if the whole world stopped and asked: “How does this add value…to my life and the lives of others? Is this word or action adding value?” And if we all deprogrammed ourselves from excess, consumerism, and an overstimulating amount of technology, would our relationships be better? Would our waste be reduced and there be enough resources for everyone?

The answer is simple but the execution is hard. I can only do my part. Perhaps in cultivating my own oasis of peace, I can skim a little of the murk from the swamp.

*If you’re interested in a FREE copy of the book Everything That Remains, please visit here.