Summer rains come every day in southwest Florida. The low-lying area of my back yard transformed into a tiny wetlands about two months ago. This morning, as I sit here and wonder what strange message has compelled me to this blog, a snowy egret blew down and is now stomping along, pecking at the smorgasbord of bugs and tadpoles and very likely small fish making a temporary home next to my equally tiny 6-member palm hammock.
Andy and I have been talking about change.
We have been talking about loving Florida.
We have been planning a marriage, not a wedding, and that is an important distinction.
We have been dealing with manifestations of my alcoholism, a disease hardly anyone understands, and Andy has been learning that alcoholism has as much to do with alcohol as bi-polar has to do with being happy/sad or OCD has to do with a need for tidiness. I have been learning to surrender. Again. More.
We are teaching each other to practice unconditional love. This is good business. It is true.
These times are intense.
These times are vital.
When I was still in Wilmington, teaching, struggling with debt and the daily re-training of an unmedicated mind, drowning in relationships that were more like botched rescue missions, I read a lot. I read about animals. I read about quantum physics and how they are similar in principle to Eastern spiritual philosophies. I was compelled to this information. How could I have known then–three, four, five years ago–that I was being prepared for my life now? I wish I knew how many documentaries I watched about alligators.
Then, when I was having a bout of difficulties walking, as I was, through the darkness of my fake self, I packed snacks and drove myself on an adventure to Orton Plantation, an old rice plantation south of Wilmington that was full of live oaks dripping Spanish moss. Famous North Carolinian James Sprunt acquired the property after an exciting history of swapped ownerships, and he and his wife built a small church on a slight hill overlooking the gardens, and I would go there and pray, then walk the garden trails along the Brunswick River looking for alligators.
One afternoon, while standing on a wooden antebellum platform over the wetlands, I spotted a wild alligator swimming along the surface of the water. It did not see me. This was the first time in my life I saw a wild alligator swim, and I gasped, for no other reason than I felt my soul fly out to it with an ownership of recognition that I never felt in conferences, barrooms, family reunions, staff meetings, or sexual intercourse. I knew that creature. The powerful thing in me understood that animal, that movement, that moment. And it also understood that alligator didn’t give a shit about me, and that felt exactly right.
The incident took place in perhaps four seconds, the alligator disappeared, and I thought no more about it until a few months later, when a friend of mine introduced me to a shaman named Leotha who took me into a meditation where I surprised myself by returning to that alligator moment in my mind. Only this time I followed the alligator under the water, and we disappeared.
I wasn’t afraid. I was just connected to it, and that was that.
When I talk about God, I’m talking about the ways in which the mystery interacts with me through mediums I get. I understand alligators.
I understand books. Music. Dance. Poetry. Swamps.
I understand Andy Fairbanks.
In these ways, I receive truth. Because I am dense matter, sometimes truth resonates merely as a sensation, a feeling, like the one I had with the alligator. As my intimacy with God expands, sometimes truth arrives as instruction. Predictably, I have been known to take liberties with the instructions and negotiate, refuse, or demonstrate what I believe to be superior instructions. These liberties result in disillusion, and not the fun kind where I get the delightful epiphany at the end; these liberties end in therapy or shower crying or tattered relationships. This is just the way it is. I get confused. Totally normal.
In the changes Andy and I have been discussing, I’ve explained to him that my last six years of truth instructions have resulted in my complete lack of interest in success or achievements. These past two years, in solitude in the ways that matter, something has been happening to me, and I’ve watched, almost as an observer, as my overachieving, perfectionist, appear-put-together-to-the-world-at-all-costs-because-their-approval-is-necessary ways withered on the vine like nasty fruit.
I am no more interested in my name or making something of myself than that alligator. It is odd, unfamiliar, discordant with my previous social messages.
The phrase now you can be of real use has passed my mind more than once.
I am here because, in no small ways, I followed the alligator.
Come unto me.
There was a woman who was afraid about making a major life change. She was talking to me about what she heard in her prayer. That’s all she got. Nothing specific. No concrete left turn/right turn/straight after the McDonald’s.
I was in Naples for this, maybe Labor Day Weekend of ’11. I couldn’t decide if I should move to Florida or stay in Wilmington. I hadn’t told anyone I was considering a move to Florida, only that Michael and I had gotten back together and he’d moved to Naples. I was visiting.
Neat, I thought. She’s so lucky!
No. I heard. What?
“I clearly heard, ‘come unto me,'” the woman repeated.
The message is for you. Holy shit, I thought.
That’s how I ended up taking the path to the Everglades, the greatest wetlands in the world, infested with alligators. In the Everglades, I found my soul. I saw it. From the Ten Thousand Islands observation tower.
And then I went all the way in.
When I look into Andy’s eyes, I see the light of God.
I think most people do.
But I am not sure I would have recognized it before. Before, I think I would have mistaken it for kindness.
A few weeks ago, I found myself in my public library clutching a stack of books to my chest. Garrison Keillor, Sandra Cisneros, W.S. Merwin, Maxine Kumin, Michael Palmer. All poetry collections.
I was thirsty and starving. Too much politics. Too much dissatisfaction, grumbling, finger-pointing, smug self-satisfaction, too much facebook. I haven’t read poetry collections since 2010, when I was escaping to Orton Plantation and spending my nights making up poems for my Notes in fb. When I tore into Cisneros’s book, Loose Woman, it healed me. It fed me.
I write and read because those were my first two tools for coping with the world. Later, I got drunk. Then there were three.
Poetry ends my thirst. I get it.
I have written many times in this blog that, before I set foot in the Glades, I thought it was a poem God wrote. I was right.
I have Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery on my lanai coffee table as I type this. This blog has consumed my whole morning, and most of the afternoon.
I asked Andy to pick a number between 1-337, the number of pages in Elizabeth’s collection. He picked 33 1/2, which happens to be the exact age I was when I got sober, but he didn’t know that, and we both laughed when I opened the book to a poem she wrote called “Florida.”
I am sad about closing this chapter, in which I learned about trusting my intuition, finding true love, communicating with animals, detonating the traps of co-dependency, stopping being a selfish dumbass, and following my heart despite what other people think about it. It’s been my favorite one so far, but I know that, poetically speaking, my life is over.
Yet truthfully, it is just beginning.
night, night beloveds. I leave you with the last five lines of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Florida.”
After dark, the pools seem to have slipped away.
The alligator, who has five distinct calls:
friendliness, love, mating, war, and a warning–
whimpers and speaks in the throat
of the Indian Princess.