I have this yellow mesh bag that I use for collecting shells and rocks whenever I’m away from home. I use it mostly on trips where the terrain is really different from the one in my daily life. Tonight is my last in one of those places, actually one of my favorite places, the Gulf Coast of Florida. I’ve been coming here to vacation for almost fifty years. My husband had family lived who here, making lodging affordable during our early years together. I was smitten immediately, in my early twenties. Although I appreciate the majesty of mountains, the meditative beauty of forests and the endless vistas of the plains, I have always been a water person. Sitting on a beach and scanning the horizon is blissfully peaceful for me. I love watching busy shore birds skipping through waves, bobbing for meals.
And I adore the gulls, pelicans, herons and other large fliers swooping overhead, occasionally taking a breather on the beach, or dive bombing headfirst into the ocean for fish. This past week, I’ve had the pleasure of watching dolphins lope through the water in front of me, with the occasional fish leaping out of the sea to avoid becoming dinner. Simple moments that are just perfect. But is anything really that simple? Unfortunately, not for me.
I’m staying with my friends Betsy and RW, who inherited their place from RW’s parents. His family, like Michael’s, ultimately retired from their jobs up north and moved down here to escape winters. They are keenly aware of what a luxury it is to have a home in such a beautiful environment. Both are concerned about the recent red tides which up until I arrived, had made beach-going impossible. A red tide is an overgrowth of algae, often called an algae bloom, which can be toxic to all marine animals and can also cause serious respiratory problems in humans. Although they occur naturally, red tides become more complex when they contain chemicals from farming, factories and sewage plants, absorbed by land water, which then runs off into the Gulf. With fewer controls over what can be dumped into ground water, that makes for a deadly situation. One nearby beach had over 10 tons of dead fish hauled off its previously pristine sand. Poisoned fish mean threatened birds, a death cascade which goes on and on through the ecosystem. Paradise is vulnerable. I feel lucky that I got my little window of calm, clear water on my trip. But I can’t escape my worries about this scary stuff.
I rarely read at the beach. Reading is for bedtime on the Gulf. Instead I walk, hunting for shells for which I have an inexhaustible desire, or dip myself into the magic water which always forgives my body its weaknesses. Mostly though, I sit and just look around, allowing the glittering waves and their primal tones, that either crash loudly or murmur as they meet the land, set a rhythm for my ruminating. My ruminating is a free-form mental exercise that mimics whatever flow is playing out in front of me in this brilliant, yet soothing amalgamation of color and sound. Thoughts ebb and drift, moving from one topic to another, stimulated by the scenery and the leisure time to think, uninterrupted by the usual daily tasks of life.
I also watch the people walking or running by. Some are sturdy and business-like, getting their daily exercise done like it’s their job. There are the amblers out for an easy stroll, the collectors like me, always looking down to snap up that one shell or section of coral, once so alive and now just a vestige of itself. I always ponder what it did before washing up on the shore and I wonder if those other people are having the same thoughts as me. You see all body types on this beach. The ones that are all rippling muscles, wearing skimpy bathing suits. The ones that people are trying to reclaim, some previous form, from whatever circumstance caused them to get out of shape in the first place. The wraiths and the ones bigger than that. And the wounded ones which look like just putting one foot in front of the other on sand is a victory in itself. Until I had knee replacement surgery I was one of those, struggling to keep going without toppling over. Mostly though, I was aware that during my trip, I saw only two naturally dark-skinned people on this beach. There are no whites-only signs posted anywhere but this area is clearly segregated. I feel uncomfortable in this kind of racial divide. Then I remember that I’m in Florida, a state with a lengthy history of institutional racism and which currently, is on a fast-track to an authoritarianism which is stomping on the rights of anyone “other.” Seeing so many people with scary tans that look so unhealthy is ironic – why is getting dark okay but being dark is not?
At one point, I was just strolling along, trying to distract myself from these unbidden thoughts which keep popping up to interfere with what is supposed to be my relaxing trip. A very thin older woman, her tan the color of a deep brown leather suitcase, her mouth twisted into an angry curl, sweeps by me into the crowd of birds, pictured above. She waves her arms, shouting, “get out of here, get lost.” I tried to imagine her sense of entitlement, thinking this beach was actually hers to control, rather than being home to the natural inhabitants. A little moment to be sure, but still so illustrative of what I think are the most intrinsic problems in the world today. We’re not the only ones who count. At least I’m not. How do we take care of this planet with so many people who think like her?
I’m fascinated by pelicans. They remind of the pteranodons, those flying reptiles whose fossils were first discovered in the 1800’s in this country, millions of years old. Maybe the pelicans will be here long after we humans cease to exist. Extinctions have happened before, are happening now and will happen again. Who’s to say what’s ahead in this unpredictable world? I’m not egocentric enough to believe I’m more deserving of this beautiful environment than anyone or anything else. How did people get so arrogant?
My friends live in a bright two-bedroom villa, its walls decorated with replicas of the wildly diverse creatures in this area. The best feature of this home is its lanai, or screened-in back porch, which overlooks a lake. Palms and tropical flowers make an inviting habitat for all kinds of birds and land creatures. I think we listed twenty bird species before we stopped counting. Turtles peep out of the water. Little anoles scurry around everywhere. I saw a bunny who looked quite incongruous in this landscape. Only the alligators didn’t appear during my trip. Butterflies are everywhere, lured by the milkweed Betsy planted, especially for the endangered monarch.
Anyone would be thrilled to live in a wonderful place like this. A comfortable living space. Access to nature’s wonders. Idyllic views, morning and night. What more could you want?
Apparently you can want more. A lot more. On our drive to the beach one morning, RW was telling me about some of the more insanely high real estate prices of homes along the Gulf. One home which sold last year for $64 million (not a typo) has been listed again this year for $80 million. Mind-boggling numbers like those are outliers but still, the Gulf Coast zip code where I am currently on vacation is in the top ten most expensive places to live in the United States.
The homes in my photos are palatial in size. I am told that many houses along this beach are vacant most of the year, used primarily as getaways for people who live elsewhere. The local airport has a high number of private jet flights ferrying the out-of-towners up and back from the Gulf to wherever home might be. The contrast between those who live these lifestyles and someone like me has always been stunning. I feel like an imposter in an environment where skewed wealth is so blatant. I simply cannot understand why anyone needs such massive fortunes. In my usual daily world, seeing Rolls-Royces and Bentleys in grocery store parking lots is not a common experience. But even more difficult to process is the existence of that type of wealth in a country which has a significant homelessness issue, along with a huge number of people living at or below the poverty line. I include recent estimates from government agencies which track these figures. Other countries have found ways to help provide for the basic needs of their citizens. Why do we lag so far behind? Rugged individualism? I think not.
“The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) counted around 582,000 Americans experiencing homelessness in 2022.”
Official Poverty Measure – U.S. Census Bureau
- The official poverty rate in 2021 was 11.6 percent, with 37.9 million people in poverty. Neither the rate nor the number in poverty was significantly different from 2020.
- Official poverty rates decreased for people under the age of 18 and increased for people 65 years and older, but were not statistically different for 18- to 64-year-olds.
The headline above came across my phone’s news feed as I was stewing about the huge wealth gap in this country. Just who is the Wall Street Journal focusing on in this feature story? Certainly not the almost 600,000 homeless people in the U.S. Also not the almost 38 million living in poverty. According to a March article from CBS News, there are currently only 299,000 millionaires in the country. “The average balance in a 401(k) plan tumbled 20.5% in 2022, reducing the typical employee nest egg to $103,900 at the end of 2022, according to Fidelity.” Given the fact that the population is over 336 million, not many people fall into the uber-rich financial category. I guess the Wall Street Journal is speaking to an audience more likely to direct its focus to those with economic “skin in the game,” (I hate that phrase) than those who struggle on the financial fringe. More people are likely to be treading water to stay afloat in this economy than counting their millions.
One of Michael’s favorite phrases was, “wherever you go, there you are.” I know that some people believe that a change of scenery can be an escape. Certainly switching from the daily grind to doing a lot of not much can be rejuvenating. But for me, despite appreciating where I’ve been on this lovely trip, the me that I am is still ruminating on the same issues that occupy my mind no matter where I go. They’re my invisible luggage. At least I don’t get charged for this baggage.
Postscript: I have departed from the beautiful Gulf Coast. The picture above is actually two photos, one taken on my last beach day and one through the window of the airplane. Obviously they’re strikingly similar. Food for thought. More rumination, homeward bound.