All photos except cypress tree by Bonnie Steward taken in February in the Siesta Key, Fla. area
Reflections on Florida, the state in which I became an adult and also grew up. And those were decades apart.
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I turned off the highway and into Tallahassee, Fla. at the age of 21, a fresh-faced bride ready to begin a completely new life. A family vacation to Florida when I was 12 bypassed the capital city, so I didn’t realize what a truly southern city it was, drawls and all. And different in every possible way from my hometown of Rochester, NY.
Yankee? Meet Rebels.
My young husband would go to law school and I would finish undergrad work and go on to graduate school in this charming little southern town.
Like most folks, I expected to see a lot of palm trees. Florida, right? Instead, I got romantic cypress trees dripping with Spanish moss. My winter coat almost got left behind, but I was glad to have it on those cold, North Florida winter days. North Florida had more in common with Georgia than it did with the hot Florida of our vacations. I’m not saying summers weren’t hot, they were scorching, but that didn’t keep me from playing tennis in the noon heat. Yes, I remember those days of youth in a small, close-knit town that was, dare I say it? A little inbred.
But I came of age in Tallahassee and have so many wonderful memories of it and the life that my young husband and I made there. I did volunteer work, raised cats and, after my divorce, married a Southern Boy on the rebound. Divorced him there, too. I started my PR career in Tallahassee and developed it. I became an in-demand freelance business writer. I was a charter member of the city’s chapter of Women in Communication. And I’d made friends.
Despite being a Yankee girl in a Southern town, I had a happy, fulfilled life in Tallahassee, and the fact that I didn’t fit the Southern girl profile made the place seem all the more exotic.
There were compensations. Tallahassee is land-locked, but not that far from the Gulf of Mexico. It’s in the Big Bend of the Panhandle and the Gulf coast was less than an hour’s drive. As young marrieds, we often piled into a car with our friends–boozed up, usually– and took off to Panama City for its night life– it was on Central time, so we got an extra hour in the bars. We’d eat seafood in Apalachicola and look for shells every chance we got. It was small town life at its best.
Before I left at age 33, I was well on my way to being a big fish in a very small pond. But I’d been through two painful divorces in four years and was ready for something new. That something new was California.
So many people ask, “had you always wanted to go to California?” And the answer is “no.” California wasn’t even on my radar screen. To be honest, huge chunks of the larger world were missing from my frame of reference. My parents were children of immigrants, English wasn’t their first language, although they were super-fluent, but their families were concerned with survival, not the larger world. It wasn’t until I got out on my own that I saw how much more there was to it.
But I had to discover that on my own.
I learned that geographic boundaries were artificial lines drawn to help people feel safe and secure. I didn’t care about being safe and so I didn’t recognize those kind of boundaries. I still don’t. The up side to that is that my friends are a diverse group from all over the world. The down side is that I’d probably be hard-pressed to come up with the same kind of helping team my sick friend has. Not when so many of my intimates remain thousands of miles away.
Sometimes, I wonder, without beam-me-up-technology, who will be there for me if I need help?
It’s a trade-off and the stakes only become clear with age.
My move to California was a fluke, really, a long story whose bottom line was that I needed a change and when one appeared, I took it. Every now and then I tout the idea of creating our own lives, but for me that didn’t mean setting a plan and following it. For me, well, I just evaluated opportunities as they arose and took them or didn’t. I didn’t go looking for them, not until later in life. The current changed and I either went with it or got out of the water. For some reason, it worked out.
After a dozen years I burned out on Silicon Valley and wanted a more relaxed pace for my life. Economic developers can say what they will, but Florida will always be a place where work is on the back burner and recreation is the big draw. Except maybe in Miami, although perhaps even there. I decided to move to Tampa, Fla., where there was a small business community that was still bigger than others in Florida (except for Miami, which held no appeal). A job appeared and I took it. Once there, though, I saw how awkwardly Tampa fit me and how well California’s Bay area had fit.
I loved my friends, let me start by saying that. And I made some good ones! I’ve retained my closest and the rest are now simply acquaintances. Or gone. At first I loved my job, too, for a really long time. And then I didn’t. But all along the way I saw how sexist and racist the business community was. The powers that be were all older, white men firmly entrenched in the status quo, with a few token women and maybe a black person or two. People’s horizons were smaller. Overall, people were narrower. There was very little intellectual or creative life, although I know many people who would disagree with me. But then, they may not need as much exposure to larger canvases and taller cotton.
If I’d wanted to be a big fish in a small pond, there, I could’ve. But the pond was way too narrow with an insufficient variety of fish. I was bored. So I didn’t bother to engage in that way. Not like I had in Tallahassee. No, I had more interesting things to do with my energy.
Don’t get me wrong: living on the Gulf coast was a beautiful experience. In Tampa I lived either on the water or a few blocks from it, and the white-sand Gulf of Mexico beaches were less than an hour a way. A big client was headquartered in Sarasota so I got to take the drive at least a few times month. It was lovely. And far more affordable than California. As they say, “location, location, location.”
I had a wonderful teaching gig, adjunct, at University of Tampa, in addition to my day job. I loved my fellow faculty, my students, the teaching. It was all good. Later, I’d come to see how good that part of it really was and wish I could just beam back into that job with those fellow professors and classes. But I wouldn’t learn that until I taught at a super-dysfunctional California college. But I’m ahead of myself.
As alluring as the Gulf waters were, they weren’t enough to keep me. Not when the crashing surf and cliff beaches of my beloved Big Sur beckoned. Not when the Golden Gate bridge awaited my visits across it to wine country. Not when Union Square clanged and beeped for my attention. And certainly not after my day job became an ordeal complete with secrets, lies and crazy people. I’ve always been someone who looks at that stuff, evaluates it, and will say, “Oh, that’s what you’re about? I’m out of here.” At least as far as jobs are concerned.
The sun was preparing to set on my life in Florida. But as usual, there was a twist.
Readers who have followed along for a while know that the young husband who brought me to Tallahassee in 1972 came back into my life in 2008. We remarried after 27 years apart and that’s when I left Tampa and returned to the San Francisco Bay area. I would have gone anywhere, but he wanted to live there and I was only too happy to agree.
When I think about the number of times I’ve moved back and forth across country it looks crazy. It’s true that I get bored being in one place, and maybe those moves provided me with the kind of stimulation I needed.
And truly, I lived in Florida a very long time, on and off, but I was never a Floridian. It always amused me when people would proudly say they were fifth generation Floridians. It was a foreign concept. I mean, seriously? What did that mean, exactly?
A Californian I knew long ago once said to me, “You’re more Californian than those who were born here.” I think she’s right.
Still, when I’m in Florida, every so often a soft, humid breeze caresses my face and a memory of days gone by wafts back. When I hear the rustle of palm trees and the crashing of the Gulf waters on flat, white sand, I’m transported instantly to a different time, a different place and that very different life.
I wonder what it would like to build roots in one place because mine have always been very loose, even here in California. Still, it’s never more than a wonder and there’s a reason.
I have this Brian Andreas Storypeople print up in my house and I believe it with all my heart. It’s all one big world.
This life’s not for everyone, but it is for me.