I wrote this several years ago in the middle of moving from Florida back to Virginia. I came across it recently and thought you might enjoy it.
I was born in the mountains, not really, but my life began in the mountains. I was actually born in Frankfurt, Germany, the daughter of a military man and his wife. My father was a drunk and my mother was a martyr. My mother was tough enough but always folded when push came to shove in favor of the middle class okay life. She had grown up in the mountains, on a farm, a hardscrabble existence, and had no desire to return to anything like that. Perhaps I got my love of the mountains from her or more likely, in spite of her. I lived a dichotomy life. I was controlled yet ignored. Play was for lazy people and yet there was no work to be done by me, lest my feeble attempts be found wanting by my father and create another one of “those nights”. I learned to read early and so I read. I was not allowed to take lessons of any sort in case I might get good at something and in so doing cost a lot of money for my development. In my parents’ world, nothing was to be done “half-assed” as my father would call it. I wanted to take ice-skating lessons. My mother explained over and over the incredible expense of getting good at ice-skating, the rink costs, and the coaches. She feared I would become an Olympic star; I just wanted to be able to skate backwards.
I was, by God’s Grace, allowed to join the Girl Scouts. For while I passed my time on Tuesday afternoons making crafts and giggling. To best explain my mother I should tell you about the pinning ceremony. When a girl joins the Girl Scouts she must learn the promise and the laws and then her pin is placed on her uniform upside down. To have the pin placed right she is to do a task for her family every day until the pinning ceremony. Other girls got tasks of taking out the trash, or watching their baby brother. My task was to “be good”. In other words, don’t upset your father. Somehow I seemed to upset him quite a bit but never mind. It just wouldn’t do for me to not get pinned. That would be embarrassing for my mother and so I was pinned without any mention of my failure.
And then one day, I went with the Girl Scouts on a camping trip. I loved everything about it except the night. For some reason, I was always afraid at night. At home I slept facing one window and had my dresser mirror placed so I could see the reflection of the other. There were streetlights and it was never completely dark. I cannot remember my first overnight camping trip or anything we did, but I can remember that first night as if were yesterday. My leader was a gentle, loving, but stern woman who turned her flashlight on for me but cautioned me that the batteries would not last all night. I woke up in the night to find a blackness I had never seen before and steeled myself to make it through to morning. And in that steeling I began to hear the night noises, the gentle breeze in the trees, the howl of a wolf (most likely a dog but I thought it a wolf) and the very idea of everything going on, free and unordered, became wonder to me. I lay awake and watched the morning come up and ever after I have loved to hear the morning come to life. On that day I was born. I loved the activity, the tasks of camping, but most of all I loved the mornings. I would slip out of my sleeping bag, in the cold, and bring back to life the campfire from the night before. I would sit alone with my thoughts and for those short hours all my life made sense.
Through the following years I went on many camping trips and hiked many trails. I learned how to play guitar and sang around many campfires and then brought them back to life on cold mornings. And I went away to two weeks of Girl Scout camp in the summer two glorious times. Each time I would come home with a sense of peace and love to the jarring difference that was my home life, where nothing I did was right, where peace could be shattered by an improperly washed plate. It was not horrible there. I had a roof over my head and food in my belly every night at 5PM sharp. I know now that my father was in the grips of a terrible disease and my mother was doing the best she could to keep that perfect façade for the outside world. But what a difference there was between the mountains where the sense of peace was palpable and home where the sense of tension replaced the peace. I know now, that the Girl Scouts, Camp May Flather, Peter, Paul, and Mary and Mrs. Harsch, who drove me back and forth to meetings for seven years, saved my sanity.
One might ask, with my love of mountains, what am I doing in Florida? Well, while there are wonderful memories that pull on me every time I go to the mountains, one can’t grow up the way I did, without a lot of painful memories as well and with every rumble of a bulldozer it seemed the peace of the mountains was moving further and further away. And without the peace of the mountains, northern Virginia is a difficult place to live. House prices are high, traffic is awful, and the winters are cold. I lived forty years in one area and memories surrounded me everywhere I went.
History has a way of weighing a person down to where you cannot change. There came a day when I just felt I had to get out, that I would go crazy if I stayed one more day. Things were not going well for me. I hated my job, my house was too small to even have a corner of my own, and there was a woman who seemed intent on becoming best friends with my husband to my exclusion. I didn’t move to Florida, I ran away from Virginia. I tried to stay. I remember one particular Thanksgiving where I took a few extra days off and every day drove to the mountains and hiked and took photographs. On Monday I went back to work and within an hour it was worse than ever.
I remember the day I left. I had gotten a job in Florida and the plan was that my husband would stay behind and sell the house and then join me. I knew very well I was leaving him to the influences of his “friend” and I wondered what changes were coming for us. And I didn’t care. Well that may be a bad choice of words, I cared but it was his decision now and I would no longer try to influence it. There is a favorite saying of mine that there is freedom in powerlessness. And I was powerless over everything except the fact that I had to get out. I have always found comfort in the words, Thy will, not mine, be done. I was surrendering, turning it over to God, and with every mile on I95 I felt better and more empowered.
It all worked out okay. My husband missed me. I loved my new job and it was warm. I would never need to see snow again. Florida was a blank slate, an empty page, a brand new spiral bound notebook. It was a chance not so much to reinvent myself but to become myself. The shy, a little bit scared of life, shell around me slipped away and I emerged.
I was born in the mountains but I became an adult in Florida. Free from the bondage of daily reminders of my past I flourished in Florida and I grew up. One of the things I told myself that I wanted to do when I got to Florida was to “do something with my photography”. I didn’t know quite what yet but I wanted to do “something”. First I had to take photographs. Florida is very different from Virginia. At first I looked around and thought “what have I done?” I had the room to work, I had the camera, I had the time, but the inspiration was lacking. I remembered, despairingly, a part of a story I had read. I can’t tell you the title, author, or even any more of the story but there was a part that stuck. One of the main characters was a writer. He had written for years using a typewriter in his kitchen and had found some success. And with that success he moved to a bigger place where he had his own writing room, the latest tools, and a view of beautiful countryside. He promptly froze. He could not write at all. And here I was in much the same position.
At first glance, Florida is ugly. The vast majority of Florida, at least where I was, is populated by spindly pine trees and scraggly palmettos. In Virginia, one need only get to the right place and look around to find beauty. I found I had to look harder in Florida. One day, after a particularly frustrating day out taking photographs I got on the internet and I ordered “Cross Creek” by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and I set out to find the essence of Florida.
The first things I found were the birds. For a person used to cardinals and blue jays, beautiful birds in their own right but small and difficult to photograph, the great blue heron, the osprey, and the occasional bald eagle were magnificent. And they congregated among us. When it rains in Florida, numerous ponds and puddles spring up and the birds come to visit. It was not uncommon to see an Osprey sitting beside the highway on my way to work and the Sandhill Cranes would cross the road slowly, purposely and with a look that said, “You are in my environment now”. Gradually I found places to photograph and learn about the birds.
The Great Blue Heron is a beautifully colored bird and it is almost impossible to take a bad photograph of a great blue. The Egret is another story. Not only is it difficult to take a photograph of a white bird, but they are more afraid of people. Many times I stopped along the side of the road to get that perfect shot but no matter how quietly I approached Egrets always flew. The Sandhill Cranes were particularly frustrating. They would stand quietly while I set up the camera, even taking the occasional slightly uninterested glance at me. And then just as I got ready to press the shutter, they would not fly, they would simply move slightly out of range.
Next I set my sights on the Everglades. My first sight of the Everglades was a disappointment. As with most of Florida, the Everglades requires study to discover the beauty. My first trip to the Everglades was prior to my move to Florida. I envisioned the Everglades as one big swamp. To me a swamp was darkness and overhanging branches. The openness was not something I expected. It was vast, and to the naked eye, rather boring. But I had longed to see it for so long. Longed so much, that I convinced my husband to drive from Disney in Orlando all the way to the Everglades, not a short trip. Yet when we got there my main thought upon seeing it was “This is not at all what I expected”. But I knew there was more there.
My next trip to the Everglades was with a guided day tour where I learned a lot about the glades but didn’t get any good photographs. Note to any budding photographers out there, if you want to take photographs of a place do not take a guided tour. There are actually people out there who can see something and appreciate it without taking a photograph of it, while driving by it even! I spent a great deal of the tour, mentally shouting, STOP, that was a perfect photograph, why are you not stopping? My next trip was a photo workshop and that was much more satisfying. On that trip I took some of the photographs I still display today.
I’ve been to the Everglades many times since then. It always awes and amazes me. But you have to look. Once cannot merely drive through the Everglades, stopping occasionally at a roadside view, and get any sense of the place.
I found that when you live in a hilly or mountainous area that you never really get the full effect of sunrise or sunset. I understood when someone told me that if you miss the mountains in Virginia, look at the sky. I have found plant life in Florida that inspires me, the Cypress that are hundreds or even thousands of years old, the Mangroves with their tangled aerial roots, the Tababoulia with its beautiful yellow flowers, and the Bougainvillea with its tumbling beauty and sharp thorns but nothing is as impressive as the skies.
I took many photographs. I traveled all over Florida. I found myself walking in the Everglades one day, tripod on my shoulder, and I recalled a movie I had seen recently where a man is visited by his eight year old self. I thought that if my eight year old self came to visit me, she would think “Wow, this is cool”. I did art shows. I went from a trembling mass of nerves to confident with people. I worked on myself. I found forgiveness for my parents and kindness for the world around me. I went to battle with demons and slew some and accepted some. I lay in the sun and soaked up its warmth. It was a good life.
And then one day I really started to miss the mountains and the change of seasons. I play a little game online where you set up a farm and grow things and over Christmas they offered the option to make it look like it snowed. To my horror, I found myself nostalgic. For SNOW?! And each time I visited Virginia it got harder and harder to leave. I would be in a deep funk for several weeks after, made worse because I didn’t understand why I didn’t love Florida any more.
Or maybe I never did. Part of moving away to Florida was moving away from my past. Sometimes one must step back to get a better view. I was happy to get to Florida but it was more that I was happy to be away from Virginia. I was happy to be away from the snow, from an unsatisfying job and from a tiny house that had no room for my dreams. Now what I was away from was my daughter, my grandchildren, and the good memories. I am stronger now and better for having been away.
I will miss Florida. I just looked out in the back yard at the Sago Palm I planted that has gotten huge and the Robelline Palms that have also gotten huge. I remember planting the first Robellini as a small plant and lovingly covering it when the freezes came. And then one day I looked at it and realized it was taller than I was and I told it you are on your own. I am tall now and can confront my own freezes.