Funny how life corrects our courses and perspectives, re-calibrating our best intentions and prompting the re-imagination of ways to go forward. When we’re going through transitions, it’s not always pleasant, and, more often than not, it involves discomfort, contorting, and even writhing to shake off a kind of dead snake’s skin, outgrown and no longer the protection it once convinced us to sit trustingly within.
Detours become the re-routes needed to loosen our grip on worn out assumptions that straight and narrow paths are always the more protected way. Sometimes the past is best left in the rear view mirror with less reflection, if we’re intent on moving forward. Doubts creep in as we realize the former ways no longer serve present challenges, until we become trusting of something deep within us saying “this is the way, walk in it”, as new trail-markers are recognized and risked. The courage to venture “do-overs” is then born when a healthy desperation shakes off everything trying to cling and restrain us from moving out of spaces and relationships saturated in dark and stagnant energies. Those with a drive to survive, become like fish propelling themselves through still bodies of water, instinctively moving to oxygenate their gills, until flowing streams and rivers open into larger, less polluted reservoirs. At least, this is one visual I hope will flush out the bitterness of injustices and move us beyond thwarted plans, too many have experienced in recent months.
Preparing for a hurricane can produce similar dynamics. Unless you choose to hunker down and ride out the storm in a place you think is “safe”, there is a shaking and questioning that causes a quick reassessment and distilling down about what’s most vital to carry away, before a major event does the reality check for you. There is always the angst of one in a household wanting to stay, and another feeling an urgency to leave. So it was with my Mom and I, as Isaias headed towards Florida’s east coast in early August. Veteran storm-residents of the appendage state, casually dangling its vulnerable “swing-state” arm between the Atlantic and Gulf, seemed resolute to stay with hatches battened down. Residing just two blocks off the ocean front, I had no such assurance, since two previous hurricanes had produced mandatory evacuations of the barrier island, accessed by three wind-vulnerable causeways. Extensive power outages were nothing unusual, but in the easy-bake-oven of a Florida summer, I had no desire to endure another such possible outcome deprived of air-conditioning. I too claim the right to live and breathe, as a female carrying a unique blend of DNA —as do we all, by the way. (Between 8 am and 8 pm, most days in July and August of 2020, it’s been hard to catch a breath outside; not to mention the congestive effects of recycled air in temperature-controlled dwellings.) It’s enough to make a person long for cooler climates a few hundred miles north where fresh air invigorates body and soul.
Upon waking from a disturbed sleep ahead of the dawn, a few hours before Isaias was forecast to come knocking, an unidentified object had slammed against the hurricane shuttered bedroom window, followed by a heavy tree branch crashing near the house and a vehicle in the driveway, crushing potted plants on a patio table. Suddenly the “let’s sleep on it” suggestion of the night before offered by my Mom, became a consensus of opinions in favor of leaving. So, we finished packing supplies for a few days, as advised by local officials, until Isaias’ slow moving eye and far-reaching rain and wind bans had time to flail its turbulent arms further up the eastern seaboard. Despite a neighbors’ sideways glances and disdainful smirks, and a brother’s text suggesting we’d be more comfortable just staying put, their opinions didn’t carry much weight at this point. Our safety and the nerve-wracking effects of lightning and thunder on three dogs, and a strong aversion to seeing a replay of downed power lines across the backyard, added to a resolve to leave without delay.
I am not a native Floridian, and I have no aspirations to be a resident any longer than necessary in the current global pandemic and resulting economic crisis. It’s “mucked up” in more ways than one—no disrespect to friends or family who choose to call it Home. I’ve just tasted and seen too many other places that resonate more with personal values and a preferred lifestyle. I’ve consistently NOT been a fan of flat-lands with high water tables, Disney fantasies, opulent cruise ships, drunken beach parties, high-maintenance Palm trees, skin cancer, and reptiles that scurry out of every crack , crevice and retention pond trying to reclaim territory. Tropical storms, hurricanes, and the encroachment of residential and commercial development on faulty foundations has only added to an aversion for east coast living in recent years. No apologies, only sympathy for those duped by Florida’s promises and allures promulgated by marketing. Florida’s political “leadership” is a whole other ball of wax I’d rather disengage from than try to strong arm. (I vote, but honestly don’t have much expectation the system will change as the result of an electoral process being undermined from within our own government, and the probable interference of foreign governments in recent American elections.)
But, let’s return focus to The Great Hurricane Preparedness Adventure….
Our destination was a place only identified on a map as outside the original projection of Isaias’ reach— Madison, Florida between Live Oak and Tallahassee. It wasn’t research that landed us there, but a local Days Inn that seemed affordable online, if our stay needed to be extended, and where accommodating three dogs wasn’t supposed to be a problem. As soon as we turned onto the first of two interstates heading north, bands of torrential rains alternated with sections of sun and clear skies, tagging us all the way to the westerly turn off at Interstate 10 heading west. A short pass through The Villages, a planned retirement community, at my Mom’s request, added an hour to our travel time. The numerous golf carts with clear-vinyl wind and rain shields were amusing, as well as the noticeably senior demographic surveying each other as they skirted even through the rain. Exceptions were the fewer-in-number service providers, whose youthful appearance and presence were surely unsuspecting targets for aging energy vampires. (Interesting to note The Villages have one of the highest STD and COVID positivity rates in the state of Florida.) I was thankful to only be passing through on a rainy day, discouraging any further engagement.
The off-ramp to the Days Inn of Madison was unflattering. Potholes, abandoned storefronts and un-kept grounds surrounding the few struggling local businesses and the motel were uninspiring, but we had arrived. Time for a taste of rural Florida, living on the fringes with those entrenched in a depressive basic survival mode. Check-in was uneventful, and there was evidence someone had read the reservation note requesting a first floor room. For the next half an hour, we unloaded coolers, food sacks, overnight bags, and dogs on leashes not sure this was the kind of adventure they’d anticipated. Turning on the AC in the room yielded one setting —High— and without a sheer curtain, the heavy vinyl-backed upholstery on a wand with one end in a dark corner anchored firmly in place, gave one option for creating privacy, even for a late afternoon nap. During the unpacking phase, a pickup displaying a “Wide Load” escort banner parked uncomfortably close to my newer vehicle, and two disgruntled workers began carrying on a dialogue filled with expletives and more information than I cared to know about their work and personal lives. Despite earbuds with relaxation music playing from my phone, there was little chance of resting to recharge, after a fitful night of disturbed sleep on the coast and the long drive to this less than savory place. Mom didn’t seem to be bothered, because of her limited hearing, and she rested comfortably for an hour or more on her bed, farthest from the window and door. When she woke up, we decided to get in the car and explore the roads and town, away from the motel, hoping the two men would exhaust their rambling need to spit and fume outside our door.
Driving down long country roads with trees dripping Spanish moss was some comfort. Eventually, finding the center of town where we got out and walked dogs on paved pathways, away from sticky burrs that had caught in their paws on the motel grounds, offered a little more relief. One of the first things I noticed was a lone Confederate statue, still standing in the wake of others nationwide being taken off their pedestals in recent weeks. (Mom’s research, later, found that Florida is one of several southern state where it’s illegal to remove them.) Of even greater interest were three other monuments along the park’s sidewalks, including a memorial to a Civil Rights activist of color, a commemorative statue of “The Four Freedoms” promoted by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, and a Veterans’ memorial stone acknowledging local men who’d died in historic wars. We both decided before sunset, Madison was a town we’d like to revisit in the daylight.
Returning to the motel proved disappointing, as the men who’d been standing outside the door to their room beside ours, seemed to have a lot more venting on their minds. I could feel their stares as I parked with a space left between our vehicles, and we re-entered the room where my Mom and I had been assigned, without engaging. Shortly thereafter, I ventured a trip to the front office to report the noise disturbance. A soft eyed, corpulent front desk attendant promised she would “have a talk with those boys—-you’d think they’d have been taught better.” Apparently she thought it was enough to placate me with another revelation: “They’re due to check out tomorrow, so after that it shouldn’t be a problem”. Great I thought. What about sleep after we’d traveled and paid to get some rest on this particular night?
(In the online review and subsequent email I received from the manager, following our early check out the next day, I suggested it would have been better business to move us to another room away from the “good ole boys”, who seemed to have no conscience or consideration for other guests.) Apparently my former experience as a front desk agent for a Marriott hadn’t taught me how to deal effectively with management in our present situation. I concluded, sometimes it’s better to turn and walk away from ignorance than pick a fight you’re not going to win.
Morning and repacking the car brought some hope of redeeming time. After finding the coffee maker in the room unsanitary, scores of cigarette butts strewn on the empty parking space between the now vacated “Wide Load” driver’s space and my newer car, and a freshly keyed scrape above a car door lock, the drive-thru at a local McDonalds became a preferred destination. I usually try to avoid McDonalds, except when buying chicken nuggets or ice cream cones for the dogs, but this morning it was the most convenient drive thru in town. (If we had stopped at a gas station’s affiliate eateries nearby, and I’d seen the guys I suspected of keying my car, there’s no telling what I might have said or done. A decision was made to leave them to Karma and the universe’s wisdom.) Mom holding a bag of hot sausage-egg muffins, and a large cup of fresh coffee secured in a cup holder, helped me hold it together, as we headed back towards Madison for a leisurely morning.
Turning into a lake area with a road around its perimeter, we drove slowly past cyclists on the bike path, watched a mother with young children supervise play in their front yard, and elderly residents sit on porches surveying their visual fortune. Playground and exercise stations along the shorelines were eerily abandoned, presumably over concerns about a virus given a lot of press in recent months. After circling the lake, we found a parking space under large Live Oaks with profusions of Spanish moss cascading down from their ancient limbs. When I stopped to take pictures Mom questioned why I was getting out. “You travel with me, I stop a lot to take pictures and make notes”. No compromise or challenge on that front.
Finding a picnic table, we pulled into a wide space, adjacent to some Old-Timers in small pick-up trucks. They had positioned themselves within earshot of each other and didn’t let our presence interrupt their visiting through opened windows at a distance. Dragonflies darted and swooped over cat-tails and thick vegetation along the banks of the lake in front of us. I looked for a place to tie the dogs where sand-ants hadn’t already established their mounds among sparse and shallowly rooted native grasses and weeds. It wasn’t heaven, but it’d have to do.
This place became a cross roads where I made a conscious choice to see through the eyes of a writer, and let this detour be an opportunity to report on something, even if it wasn’t all “pretty”. One survival tactic. Food in the belly and caffeine as a mental fog-lifter another, as the temperature and humidity rose and began infiltrating even the shaded picnic area. God help those who live in the south, especially in the summer. It seemed the term “lazy” should be replaced by the kinder description of “conservatively moving” in places where sweat results from the simple act of breathing.
Madison. Interesting town where the demographics are a noticeable combination of black and white, and opposing political factions, seeming to co-exist without incident—-at least to the casual observer passing through. Half of the downtown store fronts were vacant and begging for attention, while unoccupied habitations languished in apathetic appeal, wondering if they would be found worthy of resuscitation, before crumbling into archeological digs for future generations to excavate and archive. A few “essential service providers” like gas stations, pharmacy chains, law enforcement, fire station attendants, and government offices remained open, but had skeleton crews keeping them operational.
We were making our way back to the town center where a large gazebo offered “the privilege of being used” if a patron called a certain number to reserve the space. The dogs needed to walk, before the heat climbed even more and the sidewalks became melting points for their paws. A young black woman sat on a corner with her breakfast in a bag from the same fast food place where we’d bought ours, steadfastly holding a political candidate’s sign at a central crossroads in town. She had cleverly positioned herself next to the “Four Freedoms” monument. I wondered if the law enforcement car parked across the street, presumably from the “Four Freedoms Police Department” located a few blocks away, posed any anxiety to her sitting there alone. When I offered a bottle of iced water from the cooler in my car, she looked at me curiously and declined, but engaged briefly in conversation when I told her I was a travel-writer making an impromptu stop in Madison. I also wondered if an older woman sitting on a house porch around the corner, holding the same sign with grandchildren busying themselves around her, might be a relative. Two strong and determined women of color, peacefully promoting their beliefs in something they hoped might make a difference in their community—-voting. I was beginning to see the crack in the facade.
Taking a few more pictures, while Mom and the dogs waited in the air-conditioned car, I tried to envision an investor who might see this small town as a jewel in need of someone to believe in its potential. I wondered what kind of person might choose to invest their time, finances, and networking capabilities in a place like this to infuse it with enough courage to enter a new era. Climbing back into my refrigerated cocoon on wheels, we drove around and down streets with old mansions shouldering wrapped porches, some meticulously kept, and others silently weeping in states of abandonment. Three of the well-maintained ones, located side by side, featured a visual political-sandwich with Biden in Democratic blue secured to tall pine trees like thick slices of meat and cheese dangling between two angry-red Trump supporter’s slabs of plastic “bread”. It was amusing to see one of those slabs of white bread in the ground beside a large white “House for Sale” shingle. (Can’t fault them for wanting to cut and run, as some would prefer to do when the pressure of staying in a particular place gets too unbearable or risky.)
Though nicely kept on the outside, church buildings throughout Madison, representing several traditional denominations, seemed to be museum relics with diminished function. (In all fairness, this was a Monday.) Sparsely occupied parking lots seemed a fitting symbol for the effects of a worldwide pandemic that’s prompted even more questioning about belief systems and doctrinal interpretations within Christianity, not to mention considerations about how unaplogetic political affiliations by particular evangelicals has deepened divisions though its script claims to be “One Body”. It was especially sad to see a building across from a Baptist church with a “Youth Center” sign looking more like a local jailhouse with wide black iron bars covering its windows and doors, contrasted by a beige stucco exterior. What were they thinking? Obviously, it’s not a sanctuary for progressive architects or visionaries.
A couple of days later, two PBS documentaries on the Women’s’ Suffragette movement and a piece about the history of north central Florida, clarified the significant of what we were observing. On the surface, Madison seemed like a community where race and disparate political affiliations co-existed peaceably, but I was beginning to wonder if most people there were just too hot and bothered on multiple levels to spend energy and time creating more discord. Maybe it wasn’t apathy being perceived, but the byproduct of a weariness that paralyzes and leaves one in a state of stagnation, even depression. In this environment, every small effort, like sitting alone on a corner with a campaign sign, could be counted as a carefully presented act of courage, if only by one– or two, by way of education and generational persuasion that the status quo need not be the future. When trying to effect change, too many obstacles or resistance to change, can be deplete motivations. But history has shown, just One is enough to stir the pot and get a new recipe for sustenance off the shelf.
Before leaving town and heading back to the coast, following reports of Isaias’ diverted focus, we stopped at a CVS for rest room privileges behind a locked door requiring permission from a masked and gloved attendant to access. Talking briefly with a senior woman at the check-out counter, when asked if she was a resident and why she’d chosen Madison over her hometown in Ohio, a story line “too close to home” followed: Divorce, to be near aging parents (now passed), and to provide a safe place for her school aged son— 20 years ago—and because at the time it seemed like a good idea. Now she is alone, her parents gone, and her son moved away, and she’s just too tired to make another life change. (All I could think at this point was how this was my own greatest fear—of being too tired or unwilling to make the effort to change or try something new. I understood. I respected her choice, but silently I prayed: God, don’t let me settle for this kind of resigned outcome. Keep pressing outward!)
It was a long drive, but clearer sailing back to the east coast a day ahead of schedule provided a short-lived relief. A couple of neighbors who’d chosen to sit and wait for the storm that never arrived, shot a few more visual arrows and smirks at the unfeeling armor I’d put up to deflect their assessments of me as a “softy” for choosing to avoid a perceived danger. Let’s just say I haven’t unpacked much since returning to Mom’s house. I’m still considering how a detour taken, added to doubts about why I’m still here, and clarified the need to advance another “Do-Over” that’s taking too long to bake in an oven known as The Sunshine State—-with an “active hurricane season” initiated.
Someone with an uncomplimentary tone in his voice recently commented to me:
“You’ll never settle down—-you’ve always got your eyes on the horizon!”
“Better to have your eyes on the horizon than down in a ditch somewhere!
‘Settling for whatever’ is no longer a part of my vocabulary.
Detours may lead to doubts, but Do-Overs remain an option.