Where I live is a place as mysterious as the path that brought me to it. I never wanted to live in Florida. Before I moved to St Petersburg nine months ago, I imagined Florida a hellish pink and teal abyss, as flat and uninspiring as the postcards depicting it. A place to visit and promptly return home from. I was certain that my heart spoke only in the language of rolling hills, yellow maples, and gurgling creeks running down mountainsides. I thought that beaches were for the birds and palm trees were artificial. I picked St Petersburg because it is close to where my dad lives, and I am too sick to live independently. St Petersburg is a mid-sized city on a peninsula off of the larger Floridian peninsula, so it is surrounded by water on three sides, and you must drive across a seven-mile bridge to come here. To the east is the bay and to the west is the Gulf of Mexico. I live in an apartment six cobblestoned-blocks from the shoreline of the bay, in a neighborhood of old bungalows and small apartment buildings. Lately, I’ve been paging through my journal, trying to unravel the last year.
This, written my first week in St Petersburg: Night enters quietly as Jez and I walk through our new neighborhood. The houses here are all different and each is nestled in a haphazard symphony of drooping, wide-leaved banana plants, thin, spine-like palms, and ancient, gnarled oaks. The eldest trees have thick branches, which arch and stretch across the road and are draped in sage-green moss that hangs soft and heavy as if just laid to rest by a giant in the sky. Every home has infinite precious details. Walking through this world is like reading a hundred little poems- haikus being written in this moment and also stretching back into the histories of each ragged heart. It feels as if people here are living their lives well. I am really overwhelmed by the energy here of kindness, authenticity, and peace. Weaving down the dark sidewalks on our way home, I pass the kind of homes I imagine creating someday. How bizarre to see my vague, emotional musings suddenly articulated, real and plentiful. We pause in front of one particular bungalow, glowing amber through the jungle-like overgrowth. The front door is propped open into a screened in porch. From the sidewalk, I smell the complex warmth of sautéed garlic, opening and mingling with curries and sweet onion. Inside the home the walls are deep red and there are plants and framed photographs of children, artwork and books about. I breathe in love and reassurance and the slow, comfortable passing of time, which can only be eased to this pace by the communion of two compatible beating hearts. Is there a road from Here to There? I am so broken and so very alone, but it occurs to me how quickly this could change. They say it only takes one person to make you feel like you belong in the world. I linger…. Crickets, cats, a table set for two with a tiny bouquet, and on the corner, a rope swing that says “Just go with it.”
What a surprise, this instantaneous and deep recognition in an unfamiliar place. I remain enthralled with my neighborhood and the people here and enjoy being surrounded by happy homes- these visions of someday- even if it feels remote and improbable that I will ever fall in love again. “Someday Maybe” rings like church bells, far away and constant.
The land here wears a different sort of beauty than what I had known. The beauty here is sticky, ripe, and unruly. There are no mountains to get lost in, no trails that lead skyward. The horizon is bare and shapeless. But wait. Walk outside and there are lizards as tiny as your pinky-nail and trees with blossoms bigger than your face and flocks of bright green parrots that fly wild through the neighborhood, squawking madly mid-air. Yes, there is heart-stopping beauty here.
I don’t know if I will ever see mountains again or feel the endorphin-rush of burning thighs working up steep switchbacks. But do I care? The older I get, the less interested I am in the sensation of a single moment, and the more interested I am in the accumulation of moments, the slow steady trod of a life in some direction. Maybe inward. I am drawn to the things between things. The line forming between my brows. The thumbprint of the moon in the late afternoon sky. The snails that cling to the dumpster.
In my journal, on my fifth day here: Another morning in this new place. I open the windows and a bright cool wind carries in birdsongs and the swish of street traffic. Saturday morning is bursting wide open and I am so happy to be here. I don’t know why- in spite of everything I am dealing with, physically- I have the strangest, most overwhelming feeling that I am exactly where I am supposed to be in the world. Like I have stumbled into a familiar place, as bizarre as this city is. Is this luck, finally turning? I am so blessed. Yesterday- weary from nothing and aching all over- I lay down on the sand by the bay and watched the seagulls and giant herons and felt the breeze and sunlight kissing up and down my body and thought that even if I’m ill forever, this is enough. Maybe these moments are enough. Emptied, filled, and re-filled.
Pretty quickly, I found out that Florida is not what I thought it was. St. Petersburg is a place that is stunning in facets all its own, and the beauty here continues to unfold. It’s dizzying, really. But this is not what I am trying to understand. The thing is, most of my time is spent in my apartment. These white walls could exist in any city, cradled by any terrain. I could be in Kansas.
It is something non-physical that makes a place stir you inside; it doesn’t make a difference if you backpack through Thailand or if you live your whole life in the town you were born in. There is no hierarchy amongst landscapes; there are no secluded, sacred grounds. God is as much in the back alleys and hospital wards as God is in the blue blanket of the Himalayas. I guess I have to discover this day by day. While my illness keeps me confined in many physical ways, my life is not empty because it is small. There is so much here. So much. And the blessings bloom forth and open up, perhaps even more so because I have had to be still and do very little for a long time now. I want you to take comfort in this. The rooms of our lives- no matter how desperate, alone, and painful- can never be empty.
Give thanks. I will never exhaust the supply of blessings, never finish naming all of the beauty here, never look around and find myself truly bored or deserted or tipping my glass for the last drop of spiritual milk and coming up dry. Yes, I have bad moments, bad hours, bad days. But I believe God’s love is infinite and everywhere and when I can remember this, joy abounds and it runs circles around pain, illness, and fear, making them small and mute. When I can remember this. When I can remember this.
One thing about palm trees is there are a million and a half different types. Yes, arecaceae is a massive botanical family, in which the tropical-clones I had pictured are only a sliver of what is. Some palms are short and stocky with braided trunks. Others are spindly, five-stories high, and arch gracefully at the top, leaning towards the earth. During storms, these palms thrash so wildly that the wind can rip apart the tops and throws their heavy, tattered leaves into the street. And when I lay beneath the weathered palms by the bay, they are like angels hovering over me. Their wiry trunks wind towards the sky and explode at the top, where branches dance like tinsel in the sunlight. Plenty.