Of shells and loss

It’s been a while.

Sunset in southwest Florida

               Somehow the longer I’ve been silent, the more difficult it is to find my voice. I don’t understand why, but I know that this is true. During the pandemic, while others wrote novels and mastered the art and science of sourdough, it was all I could do to keep teaching and stay vaguely sane.

               For me, as for many, this has been a season of loss. I didn’t lose anyone to covid, but these interminable years have been a constellation of grief, each sharp star a fresh heartbreak. A dear friend died suddenly in her 40s, leaving a husband and young son. My husband’s father died, his body succumbing to time. Another friend, a beloved vet and mother of two, was hit by a truck while walking. The little grey cat who was the critter of my heart had to be euthanized. My remaining grandparent passed away. And then, four days ago, on the road back to Virginia for a long-anticipated visit home, our dog, Shiloh, suddenly collapsed.

               We rushed her to an emergency vet in St. Augustine and waited in a bare exam room. The prognosis was grim. She had a swiftly-growing cancer that went undetected in her yearly checkup a couple months prior. Surgery might buy her a few months, but there was no cure. We made the difficult decision to let her go.

               All grief is, at its piercing heart, the same. It is all agony. It just takes different guises, erupts into our lives in different ways. It is one thing to grieve at home, another to sob through a mask in a blank room in a strange city. But it is all the same. It is strange to grieve in transit, to wonder if the soul of a dead dog can find its way home from an unknown place. But it is still grief, still the blade of a dull knife pressed in hard and twisted so that you struggle to recall a time when breathing did not hurt. So many of us could not be present for those who died in this pandemic eternity. Grieving comes slow and stealthy when we cannot mark the precise moment of our loss.

               Beside the losses of life, my other losses pale. And yet they still press at the edges, too, quietly demanding my attention. When we moved a thousand miles south to a land of HOAs and wealth and eternal summer, I knew I was giving up many things. Garden, bees, cats, piano. These were ways I knew myself, understood who I am and my place in the world. I did not realize the HOA would spray so many pesticides that I would be reluctant to eat herbs grown in pots on the lanai. I did not know there is a nationwide used piano shortage and that acquiring a piano would be like trying to win the lottery while getting struck by lightning during a shark attack.

               I did not expect the loss of change—that the flat sameness of the land and uniformly sunny days would blur together so that time itself seems no longer relevant. My husband observed that people retire to Southwest Florida because time doesn’t seem to pass and so they don’t have to face their own mortality. It’s funny because it’s true. Every day is exactly the same as the one before. Every day, palm trees frost driveways and sidewalks with pollen. Every day, things frantically bloom. Nothing ever rests. There is no quiet time, no reminder of mortality. No acknowledgement of the presence of grief that hangs invisibly behind the opaque curtain of sunny days. If there is roadkill in the Land of Extreme Privilege, it is whisked away almost instantly. I am still pretty sure there must be some kind of city ordnance that prevents the fifty gazillion town rabbits from leaving any evidence of their passage through lush, manicured lawns. If a tree falls, no one hears it because silent and constantly-toiling lawn maintenance crews whisk it away practically before it can hit the ground.

               Sometimes I feel like a terrible person for not loving this place that so many people would kill to live in. That the constant sunshine is oppressive makes me feel like an utter weirdo. I can understand why people love it here—but I cannot honestly say that I do.

               Sometimes a feeling of panic creeps up on me when I think of all the springs, autumns, and winters I will miss. The ones I already have. I have realized that I have severe FOMO not so much sparked by social media as by the terror that something important is happening in nature and I am missing it. Of course, nature is everywhere. It is in Southwest Florida in riotous abundance. But what I miss is change—the kind of change that marks the passage of time, that keeps me ever mindful of mortality by its constant shifting so that I do not take this wild sweet painful life for granted. So that I do not float undisturbed in a bubble of blue Gulf water rimmed by the constancy of white sand and trees that never lose their leaves.

               I am trying to be an eighteenth-century sailor. This is a voyage. These things take years. I can come home again. Someday. I think I would do better on an actual ship than in retirement paradise, but I am where I am. Some days are hard—some days every fiber of my being resists being here. But I think—I hope—that this place has lessons for me. When all the trappings are stripped away—when there are no bees, no garden, no cats, no piano—who am I? Maybe this is the hard question I am meant to face here. Maybe this is what I am meant to do in this strange seasonless place at this time.

Yes, I know there are seasons in the subtropics. They are 1) hot, and 2) hot with rain. In my book, these do not count. On any given day I can walk the smooth sidewalk and find eggshells indicating someone’s birth. On any given day there are things frenetically bursting into bloom. On any given day, there are honeybees, which on one level is a comfort. On another level, it is sobering. Honeybees in temperate climates have blink-and-you-miss-it lifespans in summer, when the wear and tear of constant foraging means they burn through their brief existences. Winter worker bees live longer, safe in the warm cocoon of the hive. It seems ironic that in the land of eternal sunshine and the denial of the passage of time, these retirement-topia honeybees probably all blink out of existence within weeks. The ease and fertility and thick veneer of orchestrated loveliness is built on the backs of workers, from the gold-striped honeybees to the day-glo-clad Latinx immigrants who labor in the scorching sun so that no upper middle class white person ever has to see a weed.

               I miss weeds. I miss wild places. I miss nature out of control. I miss imperfection. Here, there are breathtakingly wild places, but you have to drive to them, and then you have to pay to enter them, and the whole experience feels like being a tourist on planet Earth rather than a part of it. I am reminded of Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, set in a future in which humans have collectively decided that because we tend to muck up nature, we will sequester ourselves from it and just leave it alone out there while we live out our lives in perfect, contained cities where everything is oppressively ideal.

               I know I need to look for the good. I love that I can wander the beach in search of shells. Shells are perhaps the one reliable reminder here that all things come to an end. A shell is a cast-off home, a marker of a life lived. A shell is an artifact. Past tense. There are so many shells here. So many. Each one is a tiny proof of life and death, a small and beautiful insistence upon the passage of time and the inevitability of change. You can nuke the weeds and bask in the sunshine and botox your shell of flesh and pretend that time does not pass, but you cannot prevent seashells from washing up on the shore, piling up layer upon layer, creating a peninsula literally built on the reality that nothing is forever. We live our lives on the accumulation of countless deaths. This does not feel morbid to me. It is just true. I want to be reminded. I want to remember. I do not want to live a life divorced from the beautiful reality that all things have their season, even in a land that seasons appear to have forgotten. It is an appearance only.

               I think I am having trouble grieving in a place that seems to deny mortality. I need to find a way to accept my losses here. I have not yet figured this out.

               Who am I in this place? Who am I apart from the wild, at arm’s length from the natural world? I know there are people who live magical lives in cities. I am not sure how to do this. I am not sure who I am now. The grief of loss hangs heavy on me. Right now, I know that I am sad. What am I without this sorrow? Who am I in the strange place in which I now find myself? How do we ever know who we are if we are disconnected from home? We are not our homes. We are an adventuring species. A hermit crab is not its shell. A soul is not its body. But the connection between them makes it tricky to parse exactly what we are. My shell has found itself in a strange place, but maybe all places are strange, maybe we are eternal wanderers on this planet. I hope this is true—I hope that all those we have lost only seem lost to us, that in shaking off their shells they have finally, truly come home.