(image credit the spottedtail.com)
“Our brains are hardwired to think in terms of place and to associate psychic value or meaning to the places we inhabit.” ― Colin Dickey, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places
A friend was talking about Shiloh and Haulover Canal, how the sheer beauty and the discovery of wildlife there — otters and manatees — were life changing. This area south of Oak Hill is a stunning alchemy of land and water, part of the land undeveloped and owned by NASA, where the Indian River meets Mosquito Lagoon.
“Yeah, I know Shiloh,” I said. A bit of an understatement, because I always think if my spirit leaves my body and inhabits a physical place it will go to Shiloh, one of the first places I visited when I returned to Florida. Driving along State Road 3, you can look out over a huge sheet of water and see small islands shimmering against the horizon. Its beauty is picturesque and almost hyper real, like a Highwaymen painting, but it’s the real deal, defiant and breathtaking. It always reminds me how Florida runs to two extremes: really paved over and tamed with Denny’s and condos, or just totally primitive, green, and blue, backlit by dazzling light.
There was a time when I couldn’t wait to leave Florida. But that’s exactly what it took — leaving — before I would claim this flat wet state as my home. There were many years of ‘yeah whatever’ before I could rhapsodize about the river or ocean.
Growing up on the Indian River, I can’t say I took it completely for granted. There was always something going on down by the water. Our turn of the century house was named Salt Aire. The builder had drowned at sea. We lived right next to a drawbridge. Amazing yachts slid through the water, headed south for the winter. I would sit on the porch swing and watch them with binoculars. Dolphins, manatees, and pelicans were common as squirrels. The tide would go out, sandbars would emerge, and my brother, my friends and I ran barefoot. Inevitably, one of us would come home wailing, hopping along the hot sidewalk and dripping blood from an oyster shell cut.
History was packed into the sandbars. Our house sat on the site of Fort Smyrna, and some amateur archaeologist pulled an old cutlass from the river muck at low tide. It belonged to a northern lieutenant from the Civil War, it got lost in a Union-Confederate skirmish, and it was returned to the lieutenant’s descendants who were very surprised that they even had a Civil War ancestor.
When kids absorb fragments of spiritual belief through parents or teachers, some imagine an afterlife and assign it a physical setting. My idea of heaven was always the sky above the Indian River in New Smyrna. So whatever the angels, or the devil, or Jesus in his sandals were doing, praying or forgiving sinners or spying on people, they were doing it from the clouds right above where my dad taught me to fish and where a barge plowed through and destroyed our dock late one night.
Nearly every weekend, we sailed on the river or cut through Ponce Inlet to the Atlantic Ocean. My father preferred sailboats to speedboats, but I secretly lusted after the hull smacking speed of Scarabs and Donzis and the sparkle decked Glastron Carlsons throwing rooster tails. Dad said speedboats were a dangerous and tacky waste of money. That always seemed vaguely hypocritical coming from a man who, on land, was pulled over for speeding about every two weeks and regularly traded sports cars for muscle cars, and vice versa.
I pouted through my entire young relationship with water. I begrudgingly helped out on the sailboat — I spent most of my time reading and eating potato chips. I was a poor deckhand and a chicken shit water skier. My dad tried and failed to interest me in surfing. I’m still an average swimmer, and my mom used to say I swam like a Cocker Spaniel, awkwardly, with my blond hair and ears way out of the water. I resented the way the salty wind tangled my hair. There were screaming sessions of shampoo and spray bottles of Tame to comb the knots out of my hair after a weekend on the boat. This ritual took a good chunk of Sunday evening, through HeeHaw and Wild Kingdom on television.
If you credit the idea of reincarnation, during a hypnotic regression a few years back, I discovered — supposedly — that I was a British sea captain about 1803 working for the East India Company who lost a cargo when the ship took on water and sank. (This is covered in my earlier post “Trip Down Past Life Lane” from 2012). I apparently spent the rest of that life haunted by a thin specter of failure. In my current Mimi-life, I still shudder at the murky, unnatural sight of a boat underwater. All my childhood boating adventures were tinged with anxiety. Before we left the dock I’d already imagined us sinking and being rescued by the Coast Guard or getting chomped by sharks. I’d go up to the bow and silently pray Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s that I learned in Catholic school. My parents had no clue what I was doing, just thought I was daydreaming into the wind.
Still, my heart and mind were marked. I’d grown used to looking out my bedroom window and seeing vistas of blue and grey and green, to hearing the dull thrum of boat propellers shifting the water, to the faint roar of the ocean filtered three miles through the mangroves in the early morning.
I moved to Maryland for most of the 1990’s and I lived inland around the Beltway. I was in my late 20’s and freshly out of my first, starter marriage. There were autumn leaves, cherry blossoms, lush green farmland, fun hikes, and even the magnificent Great Falls, but never a large body of water where my eye stretched out to find the horizon.
One winter, my two best friends and I drove to Ocean City, Maryland for an off-season weekend getaway. It was unseasonably warm, daylight was fading, and we had the windows rolled down. For miles we drove across the wetlands leading up to the Chesapeake Bay. As we rolled east across the Bay Bridge, the air hung dense with salt. My mounting exhilaration outweighed the loud music we played or the girlfriend chatter going on between the front and back seat. By the time we reached Ocean City the sky was dark and ozone smell peppered the wind. The street holiday lights were semi-magical in glowing bright shapes of starfish and dolphins. Although I’d never been to Ocean City, I felt like I was home.
I couldn’t see the ocean, but I felt it looming and waiting, its sturdy back rising and falling through the night. When I woke the next morning, the ocean was clear and crisp against the horizon. All the uncertainty, the lack of identity and displacement I’d felt for the past few years just lifted. It was crystal clear in that moment that I would return to Florida and live by the water. Everything was okay and everything was possible.
Simple geography is, amazingly, so emotional. My frustrating old childhood companion, the water, was now a potent, heady combo of excitement, possibility, and comfort. It hits me every time I see places where the sky and water meet and mingle. They are particularly compatible in parts of Florida where the sky hangs over the water like a desperate lover, wanting so much to see its own brilliance reflected and magnified.
Any poetry I’ve ever written is suffused with water imagery. I dream about houses that are washed away by waves, and I’m sporadically writing an Apollo-era astronaut romance that is physically set between the ocean and river. The physical setting is as much a character as the lovers themselves.
Whenever we drove to Ocean City, my friends and I hoped for a lot. We were still young enough to think we could make some kind of impact, that there might be some purpose to our lives. But our soul-searching was always tempered by worldly idiocy. The first year we went to OC we started the weekend with a bottle of Goldschlager and a dance-a-thon competition. We didn’t reach any spiritual plateaus of understanding. Year after year, we looked for meaning in jobs, books, men, foster dogs, academic success, running, diets, sewing, wine, therapy, cars. After awhile, we stopped searching so desperately and life just took over.
And yet. Even if we’re not as successful or evolved or soul mated as we once thought we’d be, years later, the three of us live in physical locations that are perfect for us, and that’s a good consolation prize.
One of my friends lives on some beautiful wooded Virginia acreage. Her home is surrounded by trees and she has goats in her backyard. She has beautiful children– something she always wanted. My other friend lives in a big townhouse in one of the oldest, antique jammed cities in Maryland — it is amazingly decorated and full of her eccentric wonders. I could spend days going through her book shelves.
I live in a river house that hangs so far over the water that when I walk downstairs I see dolphin and blue herons before I reach the next landing. About this time of year, November, I can open the windows at night and fall asleep to the sound of waves lapping the beach. And if I step outside and look up, it’s there in the clouds: the sense of possibility and peace hanging over the river somewhere between Shiloh and the Indian River Lagoon. In this, I am really lucky.