Sunday, March 11, 2018

Sanibel, Florida

The sound of the waves is the only sound I hear, and seashells are the only thing I see.

J is behind me, slowly wandering away and from the shore. Our host's son is ahead of me, occasionally making an audible gasp as he finds a shell worthy of picking up. His parents are far ahead down the shore, no longer within audible distance, expertly combing the piles of shells for only the rarest ones.
And me, I'm walking in a straight line, sticking close to the water, occasionally letting the still-cool splashes touch my feet. My eyes look mostly downwards, trying to pick out spirals, smoothness, colours. Every once in a while I pick up a shell, only to find it partially broken. I keep it anyway, placing it in my bucket. I lack the experience and expert eye of the locals (or semi-locals, as our hosts are).
Pretty soon, their adult son is lagging even further behind his parents, struggling to hold all his collected treasures in his arms. I quickly pull my bag off my shoulder and rummage around for a plastic bag, which I run over and give him, helping him contain all his shells (amazed at the perfect little creations he's managed to pick out of the mounds of the broken and mundane). "Thanks," he says gratefully, and continues on his journey.
Lived experience counts for so much, and I never cease to be fascinated by it. His collected treasures are all perfect, carefully picked out with the eye of experience from the massive piles of otherwise half-broken or mundane shells. Nevertheless, I am quite content with my own collected treasures, but moreso with the experience itself. It's almost meditative, we comment to each other when we all finally join into one group again when we reach the end of the beach.
We marvel at our collected shells and at the fascinating colours and patterns of the things that come out of the ocean - what need have these shells, creatures, and plants for their vibrant oranges and purples, iridescence and spirals? In the deep dark of the sea floor, who is there to see them? Perhaps that is the allure of shelling... people who on any other beach wouldn't think twice to pick up a shell, are suddenly captivated by Sanibel's incredible shells and they, like us, spend hours lost in meditative searching.
I have known this family for almost thirteen years. I used to tutor their son from age 8 until he went to high school, but have stayed in touch since then. We've been invited to come to their Florida home several times over the years, and decided this was the year we'd finally take them up on the offer. The basement apartment of their home is fully self-contained, with a spacious living area, a cozy nook with a bed, an amazing double-headed shower, small kitchenette with all the ammenities, and screen door access to their outdoor pool and hot tub.

We are grateful for this chance to unwind and experience some warm sun, especially after the deep freeze we'd been experiencing in Toronto (way too many consecutive days of -25 degrees Celcius, not factoring in the windchill... that's -13 for you Farenheit folks!). Winter in Toronto is long, cold, and very grey... especially after Christmas. We are not usually the type to "fly south for the winter", and our decision to go to Florida surprised many of our friends ("Florida?! Not, like, Peru or Africa or something? That's different!") but how could we say no to this perfect chance to escape the cold?
After our long walk on the beach, we headed back to our apartment to relax by the pool with a coffee (what later became part of our daily pattern and dubbed "Coffee O'Clock" by Jen). The sound of birds, the warm sun, and the lush, carefully tended-to gardens surrounded us as we lay on the pool chairs.
Being on a relaxing vacation is new for us, and it wasn't without its share of mild anxiety. We kept feeling like we needed to "do" something - be somewhere, see something, get moving and exploring. Sitting still and simply being, I discovered, does not come naturally anymore - that's how much the daily grind affects us.
After relaxing with our coffee in the sun, we decided to take a drive to the nearby J. N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. This beautiful and large swath of conservation land has a one-way road that runs through it, and you can pull over and stop wherever you like if you see something interesting. We liesurely drove through the area, stopping every few minutes to admire the astonishing variety of birds.
The highlight was the startling pink of the Roseate Spoonbills that we first saw fly above our heads. Later down the road, we parked near where we thought they had landed and there they were, quietly standing in shallow water, getting ready to settle in for the evening.

Almost two months has passed since we were in Florida, but certain things remain.
The rhythm of the kayak's paddle in the water as we explored the bayou close to their home. The sight of Ospreys flying overhead, expertly carrying fish in their talons, landing in large nests to feed their waiting partners. The feel of the Florida sun on our tired bodies as we took a rest on shore, looking for shells. The quietly hiding herons, watching us as we slowly paddled by. When I'm paddling, I feel at home. There is no room for stress or worries or sadness. Only the dipping of the paddle in and out of the water; the burning in my muscles, trying to keep up with the rhythm of the others; the cold water dripping down the side of the paddle. Kayaking in January in the warmth of the sun is an experience I'll never forget, and possibly the highlight of our Florida trip. I'm grateful that our hosts took us out, and showed us this little bit of their home away from home.
These memories keep me warm while the cold March winds blow in my face in the downtown corridor on my way to work.

Another memory that stands out is our hike in Collier-Seminole State Park. We made the drive down there early one morning. It was a special place for me as a geocacher, because it was the location of Florida's oldest geocache, placed in December of 2000. Most geocaches don't last that long, so a really old one like that is rare and most avid geocachers make the pilgrimage to find what we call “oldies”.
The hike itself was mostly on flat, dry ground. It was hot and humid that day. The novelty of hiking in the hot sun in January was not lost on us, and we embraced the heat, the sweat, the stifling humidity. I tried to be mindful of every moment, imprinting the heat and the horizon of palm trees to memory. We knew we'd be flying back into Toronto's cold winter the next day, and we wanted to bring some of that Florida sun back with us.

Florida's oldest geocache
Collier-Seminole State Park

The geocache itself was a large one, hanging in plain sight in a palm tree, hidden just off the main path. It was one of the highlights of the day, for sure, but not as much as that hike was. Sadly we didn't get to see the resident aligator, but we did see many butterflies and even a few lizards. After hiking back to our car, we went back into the park itself and had our lunch by the water, watching beautiful white egrets land silently in the trees, and paddlers heading out for the day.
Later that evening, we went to the beach for one last try at catching the sunset, and the sky did not disappoint. As the sun slowly sank into the ocean, we huddled close together, beach towl around us to protect against the evening's chill, and watched the purples, oranges, and pinks dance in the sky and reflect off the water. 
It has been a short stay, but enough to allow us to press the re-set button in our minds. The hours of shelling, the rhythm of paddling, the repetitive sound of ocean waves lapping the shore, or the songbirds in the palm trees as we lay by the pool – all these things made us mindful, made us still inside, reminded us that we don't always have to be on the move, stressed about work, and moving from one place to the other.
We returned home refreshed and ready to face the rest of the long winter, grateful for the chance to escape and get to know Sanibel from an “insider's” point of view.

If you want to stay at this lovely place that was shared with us, it is available for rent - message me and I'll connect you with these wonderful people and their little corner of Florida.  You won't be disappointed.

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