At this point in my life, I have lived in exactly two places where merely walking around made every cell in my body feel alive and joyous, where I really felt like being alive mattered, and where I could feel, almost to the point of tears, the struggle of things all around me – where I felt that this struggle was part of some primordial and unending narrative.
The first of these two places is where I am now: Portland, Oregon. I do not yet have the experience or gravitas to write about this new place of mine, other than to say I definitely made the right choice in coming here and that I intend to make this my long-term home. One supposes I will write more about that at a later date.
The second place, though, was Sarasota, Florida, and it’s Sarasota I want to write about today. All the places and all the people I loved, I’ve left behind, and I’m done with that now. I’m here to stay and I need to focus on developing the kinds of relationships that make me like myself. But I miss what I’ve left behind; I miss my beautiful, warm home with the exotic flora and fauna and the palindromic zip code. I miss the subtlety of seasons that were there if you knew how to look.
But, the past lives in my bones, or at least, that’s how I feel about it. They say all your cells regenerate every eleven years. If that’s the case, then in only 4 years there will be not one cell left of me that has ever been in Sarasota: not a skin cell that felt the bay sunset, not an eye cell that saw an osprey, not a brain cell that considered the rhetoric of Florida and the irrevocable passage of time at an estate sale, not a hair blown out of place dancing late at night with friends.
(( so where do memories live? ))
Soon enough, all my stories and all my memories will fade, so, I keep writing things down in the hopes of launching what Dawkins would call a meme. So. This one is for Sarasota, the place where I became a real person, the place I liked myself most, the place to which I can never, ever return, lest I lose the illusions by which I live my life. Maybe none of this that follows is true, but it is how I am choosing to tell the story.
What I liked about Sarasota was that, at least when I lived there, several worlds seemed to collide at once, constantly. Here, the grotesque postmodern bourgeois retirement world of golf shoes and condos met the beautiful technicolor mid-century dream of picture postcards and modest bungalows and the wonder of the modern highway. Here the picture postcards met the steaming hot cracker heritage: cut-off jeans and boiled peanuts at gas stations. Here the cracker culture met the fertile mixing ground of those who for whatever reason were beginning their Chapter Two in this beautiful swamp. Here, all the above groups mixed with the Amish and Mennonites. In a shadow I could see the past: we used to go to a bar called Tiki Hut, which was exactly what something from the 1960s would have looked like (or so we thought: here is historicity, cf. Philip Rose), complete with ash trays, hula girls, and some truly amazing Mai Tais. In a box at a chilly bookstore, I could pull out the old postcards and try to write a story of my own making onto a history that wasn’t mine, all within in the curl of a neatly-penned cursive G. At an estate sale, I could put on my soberest shoes and affect the kind of person who would care about custom-made furniture, though I only left with vintage paperbacks and coffee mugs.
Sarasota, to me, was a bouillabaisse of all the prominent eras of the long 20th century, discretely preserved and floating around, and I was excited to be part of it. Now I’m gone from it, too, and I wonder if I even left behind any ephemeral traces. A postcard, a coffee mug, even a finger print. What of me remains there? Legend, I hope.
Vuh-Flor-EE-dyuh, I intoned along with the rest of my Elementary Russian I class at 10 AM Eastern Time each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday during the fall 2001 semester.
In Florida, I whispered to myself at night, during my endless walks down Tamiami Trail and the border of the bay, trespassing rules be damned. And that prepositional phrase contained so much, as I came to discover on my long constitutionals, tracing the outline of the bay like a lover’s body.
People are so dismissive of Florida. It’s all about images and Disney and hyperbolic perceptions of weather, but the truth is this: I love Florida because it is just so aggressively alive. It fascinated – still fascinates- me. At night, often barefoot, I would walk to the edge of the water on the bay, where untamed trees met low water. I would lie down in what I privately called the bower (with apologies to Toni Morrison, I suppose), an area of tree branches that sloped down nearly to make a room, with the only opening the water. The Bower was in a dark, wild area, one of the few places vuh Flor-EE-dyuh left that hadn’t been touched by building mania. My small body and my music and the enormity of the nature around me worked in harmony, and I still think back upon that when I think about the isolated moments in my life when I really felt I had any sort of understanding of the world.
I liked to go to the bower and feel a continuity of history, to try to experience what people felt when they came here — there– B.A.C. (Before Air Conditioning). Even the bugs crawling on me, even the pine needles didn’t faze me; I could open my eyes and sometimes there would be a grand, nearly metaphorical bird only a few feet from me in the water. Sometimes there was a fox; once, she and I sat and stared at each other for several long minutes in the beautiful, hot night.
Always I had music on my CD player (oh! obsolescence!) and for once, I felt like I was part of an ongoing narrative; I felt alive and purposeful. Everything was sincere and new, yet part of something bigger and cosmic. A few times, I saw a dolphin in the water and it was all so beautiful I wondered if I was dead. Here there was no Disney; here there was no golf; here there was no flood insurance: here there was only the world as I could believe a God might have intended it, because in those moments I could really believe that there was, in fact, a God.
And every breath I took, I felt like I was part of a larger thing, that even if I lay down and banyans swallowed me up, I would still be part of a larger living system – that the essence of whatever I was would somehow continue. It was there in those nights, when I lay on the ground and stared at the stars, that I really understood the preciousness of life (and not in the vapid American fundamentalist Christian rhetoric, something deeper, something meaningful). It was there that I really understood that life fights, that everything is a battle around us, that the desire to remain alive and survive is common to every single living organism.
The infinite battles raged on scales from the microscopic to the galactic – as I anthropomorphized them. All around me, some organisms were winning, others losing; everything at the expense of something else and all somehow coalescing into a system.
I didn’t do nearly as many drugs as this piece would indicate, but it was there that I felt a connectedness that extended from the dirty under me to every cell in my body to every bacterium in the air all the way up to the stars, overhead.
I don’t really know how to end this. Those nights are so long past I can no longer be sure they really happened. Most of the best things in my life have happened when I’m alone, and I have nobody to share them with. Now, here’s a pat and ready-made ending: This is why I write: so when I finally lose the homeostatic battle, and nothing of me remains, the meme I sent out tonight might continue.
This ending feels like a minor chord, and I hate it, but nobody reads this anyway. And I suppose if it worked for postmodern composers it will work for me.