On Wednesday, August 31, at 7:20AM, a car turned the corner onto Bent Grass Drive and pulled into number 6793. My luggage was already in the driveway. I locked the door for the last time then clicked the button to close the garage. As the driver loaded my things into the trunk and back seat, I stood for one last lingering moment, saying a silent goodbye and thank you.
When I heard the trunk and door slam shut, I took a deep breath, willed the sting of tears from my eyes, and reluctantly turned my back on the place that had been my home for the last full month there in Naples, Florida. Even as the car drove slowly away, I couldn’t seem to pull my eyes from the side-view mirror until the house and yard were out of sight.
I had truly been intentional, each and every day of my stay, to appreciate moments — the sights, sounds and experiences around me. Most often, I’d even voiced those thoughts aloud (whether anyone was there to hear them or not).
What an incredible sunset.
Just listen to those cicadas.
Isn’t that great egret majestic.
Yet as we made our way between the palm trees that lined Crowned Eagle Lane and then turned left onto Wildflower Way, I found myself breathing differently, like I couldn’t fully exhale. It was almost as if I were trying to take everything around me in, in, in, one last time, without letting any of it slip away.
I was comforted a bit as I pictured the little bag of fresh pineapple and the two peaches I’d carefully wrapped and squirreled away in my carry-on bag. It wasn’t much, but a small part of here was coming with me back there.
There’s nothing quite like that very first day of vacation, knowing you still have every moment of it ahead of you.
That day for me was August 1st.
I opened the garage door and turned the key in the lock about 9:00 PM. And there it was: my home for the next full month, perfectly clean and full of possibilities. I inhaled deeply, my grin so broad that my cheeks ached. I could feel stress I didn’t even know I had ebbing away as I exhaled.
I dropped my luggage into the master bedroom and left it unpacked, returning to the main living room and out into the front lanai where I slipped one foot out of its orange sandal and gave my toes their first exploratory dip into the pool. A nearby lizard clung to the screening and turned its head to nod at me, its bright orange dewlap fanning out as if in greeting.
If I hurried, I could still make it to the local grocery store and buy my first round of goodies. For the last five years, part of the anticipation that builds before my trip is remembering just how darned good the pineapple and peaches are in Florida. When I returned from my whirlwind shopping spree, they were the first thing I dug into — and they were even better than I remembered. I’m not going to lie. I said “Yum!” out loud more than once during those first few bites (and many thereafter) without a care for the peace juice dribbling down my chin.
I’d brought three new books with me, all still neatly packed in the brown paper bag they’d been placed in by the shopkeeper the day I purchased them a month earlier. It was a series, and I’d been aching to break the first one open — to get so absorbed that you tell yourself at midnight “Just one more chapter,” only to find you’re saying it yet again as dawn starts to light the world outside your windows.
Part of me wants to recount for you in vivid detail all of the things that made this time away special. Flocks of ibises on lawns. Massive alligators in natural waterways. Swamp adventures. An isolated lightning storm creating a silent spectacle over the ocean late one night, unlike anything I’d ever seen before. From coffee shops to conversations, it was all rather like a movie.
But as much as each of those experiences could certainly be the topic of its own chapter in a book, my present point is that it all felt magical, somehow other — as if I’d been given some sort of cosmic free pass during which real-life time was placed on pause and a sort of alternate-universe time took effect.
No deadlines. No need for alarm clocks.
No bills to pay. No junk mail.
No aging. Birthdays were a celebration without any connection to “since” or “until.” My grandmother, my mother, myself — we were all safely nestled in a perpetual now that would last forever.
I’m not just waxing poetic. This is truly how I felt.
As my time in Naples drew to a close, Hurricane Hermine began to make her presence felt with two days of non-stop torrential rains and winds that littered yards and streets with an extra helping of massive brown palm fronds. Friends and family watching the news up north texted to express their condolences, vicariously bummed that my last few days would be drenched with downpours rather than soaked with sunshine. But to be honest, I didn’t mind. In a strange way, it made it a little easier as I mentally prepared to awaken from the dream — and head back to real life.
Still, I make no attempt to hide the fact that I’m sentimental. The night before I was to leave, I just couldn’t sleep, no matter how I tried. To be honest, part of this was due to a life-long fear I have that I’ll somehow sleep through two alarms and wake up in a start, heart pounding, to realize I’ve overslept and made a mess of things. But another part of the restlessness was a desire to extend those last few moments away.
I’d need to be up at 4:45 anyway to strip beds, wash linens, close blinds and get the place back in ship shape before closing up. I figured I’d sleep on the plane. So there I was at 3:00 AM, sitting on the edge of the pool with my feet in, shin deep. It was pitch dark all around, except for the shaft of bluish light falling on me from the low-lit floor lamp I’d turned on inside the house. And as the wind howled and the rain roiled the surface of the water, I bawled. Not gonna lie.
It wasn’t that soft sort of snuffling cry you have at the end of summer camp as you’re saying goodbye to your new friends. This one shook my whole body. It contorted my face. And it was loud. I wailed as if my mother were dying or I’d just received the final verdict that I’d been sentenced to life in prison for a crime I didn’t commit.
Silly, I know. But that’s how it struck me. Stepping back through the looking glass cut deeply.
Halfway to the airport the next morning, I recalled something the driver, Mike, had told me when he’d picked me up one month earlier. Mind and senses abuzz with the euphoria of that first day of vacation, I’d asked him, “Man, do you love having the sun and warmth and palm trees all year, or what?”
And he’d replied wryly, “Nah. It all lost the thrill for me a while ago.”
While I understood his reply on a cognitive level, I just couldn’t imagine how all this could ever get old.
I recalled the previous July when my friend Grady had come in from Florida, having never been to New England in his life. I’d been thinking long and hard about how best to entertain him, what special places to show him during his one-week visit.
A drive up the coast to the rugged beaches of Maine.
Maybe a trip to one of the nation’s two largest casinos, both in Connecticut.
But no sooner had we exited the airport onto the highway than he was staring out the windows bug-eyed, craning his neck this way and that, erupting with exclamations of wonder.
“You guys have so many different kinds of trees here!”
“Cool! That marina looks just like a postcard!”
“Wow, there are a lot of these random little graveyards everywhere! How old are these?”
And I’d been reminded then of the truth behind the old saying: The grass is always greener in someone else’s backyard (as are the trees, apparently).
Naples is a resort area and, being August, it was smack dab in the center of the off-season. By off-season, I mean that I found it remarkable when even one other car passed me as I drove to the grocer. In fact, at one point, I gave my sister a virtual tour around the massive resort pool area via FaceTime, and as I panned the third of four lake-sized pools for her, she exclaimed, “Is it closed? Why aren’t there any people there?”
In point of fact, despite the hundreds of striped chaise lounge chairs lining the pools like zebras at a watering hole, I was literally the only person there that day.
Well, the plane landed in Boston, and there was no mistaking it — I was back. As I’d put it to my best friend Dib, “Seems like real life has more people in it than I remember.” For days, I was white-knuckled as I drove the same roads I’ve always driven, I avoided restaurants and other public places, and I startled whenever the local train sounded its arrival.
But somewhere during the next week, my nerves adjusted.
And my eyes opened to some new old things.
Yes, I said new old.
I thought about Mike’s relative disenchantment with Florida, even as I recalled Grady’s childlike fascination as he tried to take in the very things to which I’ve grown accustomed. And this got me wondering — wondering what treasures I might be missing all around me right now for the sake of having ascribed magical significance to other things, solely on the grounds that they were different from what I already had.
I had been pining for the steady buzz of the cicadas. But when I stopped to listen, I had come back to the soul-soothing cadence of nighttime peepers pulsing with the chorus of crickets.
Ibises no longer plucked unwary insects from my lawn with their bright curved bills. But as I looked through my window to where the birdfeeders hung on their cluster of poles below in the backyard, I saw a hodgepodge of animals gather, most of which I hadn’t seen even once while I’d been away. Around the base, squirrels — both gray and red — and chipmunks scurried and darted among one another, unbothered by the morning doves and larger grackles with their purplish oil-slick feathers. The former pecked away at the seeds raining down from amid the fluttering frenzy above: chickadees, nuthatches, sparrows and goldfinches. A lone cardinal joined the melee, unnoticed by the hummingbird who smugly sipped sugar water without competition.
I missed the palm trees. But I’d gained the unabashed extravagance of color that has made New England autumns famous worldwide.
Pineapples and peaches had been left behind in favor of crisp apples freshly picked from local orchards.
Sunblock and swim trunks had been packed away for another year. But the cool night breeze wafting in through my open windows as I slept felt every bit as much a treat after a month of continuously pumped A/C.
And though I know the nights will only grow colder until the frost gives way to snow and ice, I just can’t imagine Thanksgiving or Christmas anywhere else but here.
I guess the conclusion I arrived at — yet again in life — is that, for the most part, “reality” is no more or less than what you make of it.