Sometimes a change in geography provides a new perspective on a certain time in your past. This happened to me this morning, when I stepped outside of my hotel room in Palm Beach, where I have come for a speaking engagement. Nearly 20 years ago, I lived for a year and a half in Miami Beach. It was a very productive time, but not necessarily a happy one. My boyfriend was living in New York City, and I missed him a lot. But I rented a stuido in an old hotel that had been converted into condos, right on the beach. For $800 a month, I had a 10th floor view of the Atlantic Ocean. There was no kitchen, not even a kitchentte, really, just a hot plate and a tiny refrigerator. There was no kitchen sink, so I had to wash my coffee cup and eveything else in the bathroom. The place had roaches. The lady next door was hard of hearing, and the walls were paper thin. She loved her telenovelas and her telephone. I almost always wore earplugs.
But the view was amazing, just flat, bue-green water stretching to the horizon. When I woke with the sunrise to write at the little table by the window, my neighbor was still asleep. I wrote a novel there, a long one that I never published, and a number of short stories. Most of the stories I wrote during that time would later become a part of my first book, The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress.
The only way to park my car at the condo complex was to valet, and on my $12,000 annual living stipend from the James Michener Foundation, making ends meet was a challenge. Valet tips added up, so I didn’t leave the hotel much, except to drive to Coral Gables twice a week to teach and take classes. Really, though, I didn’t need to leave the hotel. I enjoyed my solitude, and I was on the beach, which was then and always has been my favorite place to be. So when I wasn’t writing or reading, I was walking on the beach. I would walk for miles, and I did some of my best writing during those walks. The heat and motion, the humidity and the dound of the waves, loosened something in my brain, and the sentences would flow. I’d repeat them in my head over and over so as not to forget the, and would rush to my laptop to write everything down when I got back to my room. Smetimes I’d take a notebook and pen on my walks, and I’d plop down on the sand to write whenever a sentence or some fragment of story struck me.
Those days in South Florida in my twenties, I felt lonely but creatively alive. I felt then, perhaps more than any other time in my life, that I was living “a life of the mind.” And while I would not want to be living alone in Miami Beach again–having become too attached, as one does, to my husband and son–I have often longed since then for a life of the mind: less distraction, more time and natural space in which to think, read, and write. For me, this has always been most accessible on the beach. Bodies of water of the salty variety make me feel at peace and at home.
I think of all of this now because, when I stepped outside of my hotel room to write this morning, the warm, muggy air instantly brought me back to those days in grad school. Of course, it is December now, and December in South Florida is a far more pleasant prospect than July in South Florida. And yet, how I miss this muggy warmth, the sun coming up early and staying late. How I miss going sleeveless from morning to night, sitting outside, not bundling up. I have lived for fifteen years in or near San Francisco, where one is almost always bundled up. I love San Francisco, and I even love the beauty and smell of the fog, but between fog and warmth, I prefer the latter.
I texted my husband this morning to tell him we need to come down to South Florida. We have an anniversary coming up in January, our 15th. El Nino will be in full force in Northern California, bringing welcome rain and, along with it, big, frigid storms. When we were first together, he would make the trip once a month from New York to Miami. In those days, I thought of Miami Beach as the place I had to get out of, a way station delyaing the life I wanted to start with my future husband. I was ready to get on with things. Now, I have no such sense of urgency. We did get on with things.We got married, I wrote some books, we had a child and established ourselves in San Francisco. A trip back to South Florida, to warm nights and humid days, bright sun and long white beaches, would be an appropos way to celebrate the life we’ve made together and the years ahead. When looking forward, it is worthwhile to also look back and remember who you were and where you were at some much earlier point in your life, and how the places of your past helped form you.