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.
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    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.
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    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.
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    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.
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    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.

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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.

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Musings on Food and Freedom

When your body is craving sugar and dairy, it’s amazing where you can find it. Take, for example, the caramels I bought last Halloween for the purpose of melting over apples. They sat in the pantry for months. However, once they were the only available option, we annihilated them. I also dug out a restaurant gift card that had been sitting around since last September. I gluttonously seized the opportunity to inhale two plates of Alfredo and a huge serving of fried donuts with chocolate dipping sauce. When in Rome, indeed!

If I look at things through the lens of these examples, I could conclude that no progress has been made on our healthy eating journey. However, that’s simply not true. Over the years, I have learned that growth and progress tend to be slow…and this experience is no different.

First of all, our grocery cart has been looking ridiculous. And by ridiculous, I mean awesome. I wanted to take a picture for you, but I was afraid people would think I was crazy. However, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t bursting with pride as I admired the bounty of produce and whole grains. I have discovered that I really like whole wheat pasta, sprouted beans and lentils, very suspicious looking Fire Engine 2 veggie burgers (with stir fried vegetables, guacamole, and sprouts), whole wheat frozen pizza crust, and fiber-rich cereal with banana.

I have also discovered that I do NOT like crispbread crackers… nor do I find kale to be particularly appealing. It might have been because I doused my kale creation in so much sriracha that I nearly got sick…but more shall be revealed. Also, don’t talk to me about chocolate almond milk. It belongs in the trash. Don’t make something into a health food if it’s only going to be vaguely-chocolate swamp water.

Bland crispbread and rage inducing “chocolate milk” aside, traveling is going to be much more of an obstacle than I initially anticipated. We recently went on a three day road trip and I got a little out of control. If I want to travel wisely, I’m going to need to start packing snacks. If you set me loose in a service station full of twinkies, candy, and chips, I am going to have an apple hand pie for breakfast, followed by a Hershey bar, chocolate cookies, and honey roasted cashews. (Yes, that happened.) Restaurant eating isn’t easy, either (as you may have already gathered from my opening). On our trip, I chose a salad for dinner…but I also had to have a side of cheese stuffed breadsticks. The following morning, breakfast went straight to hell, too. I regressed right back to my favorite stand-by of ketchup-doused scrambled eggs and corned beef hash. I didn’t even consider a less offensive, cow-friendly pancake.

So… those weren’t shining moments for me. But here’s the thing: When we came home, I got right back on the horse. That’s because our home is a healthy environment. When I don’t have access to unhealthy food, I don’t eat it. Since our environment has changed, I have also noticed some subtle shifts in my thinking. I don’t salivate over the processed shit at the grocery. I have a list and I go right for the things I need. I have also started to consider healthier choices when we go out. Before, I wouldn’t even look at a salad. In fact, the last time we were at that particular restaurant, I had a basket of chicken wings with extra dipping sauce.

These are the key things I have learned thus far:

  1. My home is a safe place and I should eat there as much as possible.
  2. Meal planning and list making are essential for success at the grocery store.
  3. I need to pack snacks if I’m going to survive five hours of driving or a layover at the airport.
  4. I should try to find vegan or vegetarian restaurants as much as possible while traveling.
  5. When I get crazy, it isn’t an excuse to give up. I simply must get back on track as soon as possible.
  6. It’s important to be gentle with myself. It’s about progress, not perfection. I’ve probably consumed more fiber in the past few weeks than I have in a year. And that is most certainly a good thing.
  7. My wife, J.L., reports that routine has been essential for her. She eats certain foods at certain times of day, and her body has adjusted to this schedule. When she deviates from her routine, the day doesn’t go as smoothly.

I’m struggling with the commitment piece but I am determined to follow through, especially since I have my spouse cheering me on. Oddly enough, it’s not the sugar that’s getting to me, it’s the butter. Right now, I feel like the hardest things to give up are butter (on my toast, pasta, and vegetables), plain greek yogurt (SO GOOD in chili), and feta (my salad feels so sad without you, buddy). If push comes to shove, I might have to give Earth Balance a try. The whole “oil free” or “no added oil” thing – while it makes perfect sense from a health perspective – is a little too extreme for me, and, as we all know, I am wary of extremes. However, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes are also extreme…so I should at least try to put my best foot forward.

J.L. and I went on a date tonight and it struck me how profoundly privileged I am to even be making these changes. Some people don’t get anything to eat, let alone a choice. Others aren’t educated enough or mentally sound enough to consider these issues and make rational decisions about their health.

We went to see a documentary called “God Knows Where I Am”. It’s about a homeless woman who died in an empty house just twenty minutes from our city. She was mentally ill and refused to take her medicine because she suffered from psychotic delusions. She didn’t think she was sick. (To be fair, it is an outrage that anti-psychotic and mood stabilizing medicines are still so harsh and debilitating.) She starved to death over the course of approximately forty days. The house she died in was about five hundred feet from other residences… and no one even noticed she was there. I expected it to be a disturbing movie, but I didn’t expect it to resonate with me so personally. There were a lot of parallels to the life and death of my biological father. I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on it, but I certainly remember his delusions, his stays in mental hospitals, and the electroshock therapy. He also died in a very sad, gruesome, and lonely way.

You can’t have a parent like that and not be impacted, but I think that so many people choose to let this kind of trauma define the rest of their lives. That makes me sad…and also a little angry. I acknowledge and accept that I have witnessed and been through some very tough stuff. However, I choose not to be a victim of my past. I realize that I have no control over my other family members, I ask for help when I need it, and I work tirelessly to improve myself. I think it’s a slap in the face to my deceased parent to do anything else. He didn’t have the opportunity to experience freedom from his own mental imprisonment. He was too sick to properly advocate for himself…and so was the woman in the film. You can’t advocate for yourself when you’re psychotic and suffering from morbid cooccurring disorders. I do have the opportunity to advocate for myself and I choose not to waste it.

All of that is not to say that I am strong on my own. I am joyful, free, and mentally sound because I have a whole community of people holding me up. But I accepted that I needed help, asked for it, and I work on it every day. I may not be able to choose where I come from or the cards I have been dealt, but I am free to choose how I respond or whether or not I needlessly suffer in silence. I intend to cherish every moment of my freedom and live my life to the fullest. I am so grateful to be clean and sober and I truly believe that I am only fit to help others when I have thoroughly worked through my own issues.

If you’re out there wishing you could make a change, I hope you will stop selling yourself short and ask for help. You are worth it. There is no shame in admitting that you’re not perfect or that something is wrong. In fact, it’s only human. We all have flaws. I marvel at the fact that I am currently so content and well adjusted. Considering where I come from and the obstacles I had to overcome, it’s an incomprehensible miracle. If it’s possible for me, it’s possible for you. My life is pure magic today. The only way things could get any better is if I could help my wife retire early and we could get a dog. When I look out the window at the newly bursting trees and the gray Spring sky, my heart bursts. Some people try to rain on my parade, but I choose not to let them. Instead, I hope that they can find peace, too.

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.