Dead reckoning is how the Polynesians – centuries before the British ever broke away from the shoreline – navigated the Pacific, sailing to and from islands that would register as less than a degree on a compass. Only they didn’t have compasses then. These ancient sailors figured out their path based on the fix of their previous position, only moving forward by knowing where they’d been.
When I first learned of this concept I was floored, namely because I’m someone for whom a sense of place has always felt elusive. “Where ya from?” flummoxes me every time. We moved so much growing up that a boyfriend once dubbed me a rootless cosmopolitan. I thought that sounded cool in my 20s, and on I went, changing cities, states and countries.
As my 30s came to an end however, I became anxious about this lack of constancy, and blamed it for my husband’s disappearance from my life. “To know who you are,” Carson McCullers once said. “You have to have a place to come from.” How could I expect someone else to know me if I didn’t know myself? I’d put so much into learning new places and people, legions had been forgotten. I wanted to reclaim the blank spaces. Finally I consulted a psychic. She told me something to the affect of, “the world is your hometown.” That didn’t help.
At the time I was living in India and desperate for purchase. Florida was the furthest thing from my mind in terms of a place to land, but swimming in any ocean always brings back memories of it.
I learned to swim off Florida’s shores. Well, not too far off, I was maybe two years old. Also learned is a bit of a misnomer. My father flung my body into an enormous crashing tidal wave. I tried to scream, but only managed to silently take in salt water. When I finally bobbed to the surface, cork-like and ready to explode, I heard my dad, not far away in the knee-deep water, clapping and hooting like a maniac. “You’re swimming! Look at you.” From that day on, I was a swimmer.
My next earliest memory of the Sunshine State is when it sent me to the hospital. A few hours in the sun burned my body to a watery blister, which landed me in an emergency room packed in ice. For the rest of the summer I had to wear a thick white zinc paste that shielded me from the sun. But I was a swimmer, so I kept going into the water. I wear the freckles to this day.
We vacationed in Florida because of my grandfather. The Sunshine State saved him from a marriage that lost its luster. That trajectory may have begun when my well-heeled Nana purchased a home in order to escape living with Grandpa’s parents. Or maybe it was when my Aunt Norma died in a motorcycle accident. Either way, he and his new wife lived in St. Petersburg, while Nana lived in Chicago. This was no savior to my father, who had to grow up in the ’50s without a dad.
We visited Grandpa every summer. I loved the matching flowered suitcases my sister and I carried. Mom would have a new straw hat and dark, dark shades, while Dad was the tall drink of water among us.
Grandpa’s house was always cool, dark and quiet. The only conversation I can recall having with him was on what would turn out to be his deathbed, not long after he’d had a stroke. I was 12. Jaws 2 had just come out and we’d just been to Sea World. I was showing Grandpa the shark cast in wax I’d won. He reached for it.
“Thank you, Bobby,” he mumbled, very mannerly even if he was calling me by my father’s name before biting the head off my shark. It seemed he’d forgotten his entire life.
There’s only one conversation I remember with Anna, Grandpa’s wife of 40 years who was nonetheless known in the family as a dirty secret. “The dead don’t need glasses,” she grimaced, as she marched up to Grandpa’s coffin to remove his specs before giving his forehead a peck. Her words made sense, of course, yet it was terrifying, also, this casual relationship with a corpse.
Florida is the one place the promise of corporeal punishment was made good on. Mom often threatened me and my sister with “the belt,” a tool we remained terrified of despite never once experiencing such a thing. That particular day we were in a hotel room with two beds, my parents, my sister and I. We were maybe four and six. A bright square of light shone through the sliding doors, teasing us with the outside, but we had to wait. Dad was on a conference call. The two beds made a natural game, we jumped back and forth. “Stop,” we were warned when we couldn’t keep quiet. But what about the thrill of spanning that chasm didn’t call for giggles and screams? It came when he got off the phone, a short sharp, mortifying smack to the behind.
After Grandpa died we never returned as a family, but Florida did not go away.
My first boyfriend and I visited often because he always wanted to practice some maneuver or other underwater. Mapping. Photography. Wreck dives. We’d gotten PADI certified together, and he went on to become an instructor, obsessed with all things submerged. It was certainly true of his approach to me, he had to really dig. I had little to offer in the way of humanity when we met. This would turn out to be the obsession that killed him.
One night we caught a documentary about pearl divers in the Persian Gulf, and he became captivated with the idea of free diving. On a single breath, these divers hunting for pearls could descend to depths of 100 feet or more—the height of a 10-story building. The problem lies in resurfacing, when you can black out in an instant. Survivors of shallow-water blackouts don’t remember dizziness, or even feeling a need for air.
Jeff drowned in his mother’s pool while practicing holding his breath under water. And that was when Florida fell away from my life. He didn’t die in Florida, but it didn’t matter. I’d lost the taste for sunshine.
Years passed. When I found love again, I clung to it like the life preserver I believed it to be. This is the only rationalization sufficient to explain how I missed I was about to be cut loose from my marriage. I happened to be living in Qatar at the time and wanted to leave immediately, but I was paralyzed under a pile of sorrow. It was then that I met Eric Weiner, who happened to be writing a book about the dictates of geography on bliss.
“We’re told… to look inward when much of our happiness depends on our environment,” he would later write. “Change your environment and you can change your life. This isn’t running away from your problems but simply recognizing that where we are affects who we are.”
This was my worst nightmare come true. I’d changed my environment many times, and the promised land of happiness had not resulted. If where I’d been was any indication of where I was heading, I reckoned I was screwed. So compelled was I with disproving his theory, I wrote my own book. What the women in Qatar had shown me, women who were truly trapped by forces beyond their control, was that circumstances did not need to dictate happiness.
By the time I finished my memoir, however, I reconsidered what I might learn from the
Polynesians. Thinking it was a formality because we’d discussed writing about Qatar as part of our reason for going to Qatar, I emailed my ex-husband to tell him my book was about to be published. He was surprised. He then went on to describe how he was living the exact life we’d dreamt of together, only, with another person. I had joined the legions of the forgotten. When it came to knowing where I’d been, memory was the real force to be reckoned with. Florida came to mind immediately.
After the obligatory visits with Grandpa and Anna, we’d head for the Keys to fish and sail. Dad was a former marine, so this meant really learning, slipknots, hard alee, anchor’s aweigh and all that. My mother could light a cigarette from a single match on the open sea. We’d find deserted spits of sand and picnic. We were all at our best then.
Then, too, my boyfriend’s death didn’t change our Florida. Our times there included boats, salty spray and palm trees. I’d even had an otherworldly encounter once when we were diving in a cave somewhere. A manatee with her baby came upon me, pressing me toward the wall. Female manatees can grow to some 12 feet in length and 3900 lbs. I’m quite certain she was twice that size. Had I posed a threat? She came right at me. We swam together for a while. She didn’t so much as graze my body. My fear melted in her presence, which seemed to be saying, we’re all in this together. We’re here for you. These memories were so shadowy I’d almost buried them. I wanted to remember them always.
This isn’t where I move to Florida. This is where the anchor tattoo lands on my wrist. There are many reasons for the symbol, but the tattoo itself is in recognition of memory.
Memory shapes the life we’re in right now. At any given time, what is place but your memory of it?
Trying to remember everything as positive leaves me as vulnerable to the harshness of reality as my blistery skin was to the sun, whereas forgetting is an obliteration. And in fact, to be truly untethered is terrifying. Unlike the man in the space suit, the cold and the black won’t kill us in ten seconds. It can take a lifetime.
Still, I don’t feel I can answer the question, “where ya from?” I relate more to what the poet Brendan Walsh recently said in an interview with Bloterature, “without travel and writing I’d barely know how to swim.”
Because, the truth is, I’m not lost either. Coming to Florida was no accident, I’d visited as part of my book tour, and what I found was that thing I didn’t know I’d always been seeking, a thing beyond and yet tied to place and memory, and that’s the feeling of being rooted. I’m not rooted because of place but because of people, and those connections aren’t stifling or weak. Legions are remembered. Perhaps Rumi put it best when he wrote, “Be crumbled. So wild flowers will come up where you are. You have been stony for too many years.”
After all, those Polynesians were on the move.
This was written for Wordier Than Thou’s “Saved by the Sunshine State” panel at the 2015 Miami Book Fair. You can find more at Lisa L. Kirchner.