Centuries before the British ever broke away from the shoreline, Polynesians sailed to and from islands strewn across the Pacific that would register as less than one degree on a compass, if they’d had compasses then. They navigated by dead reckoning, carving their path based on the fix of their previous position—in other words, you only move forward by knowing where you’ve been.
As a concept I found this bewildering. I’m a person for whom the question, “Where ya from?” flummoxes. I haven’t forgotten, but there is no easy answer. My family moved nine times before I turned 12. It wasn’t anything tragic, we were just circling the rust belt, one declining city at a time. But then I kept on rolling, changing apartments and states, and eventually countries.
In my 20s a boyfriend called me a “rootless cosmopolitan,” which I thought sounded cool. As my 30s passed by, I became more anxious about my lack of constancy. Especially after my husband ended our marriage over the telephone.
"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?
Finally I consulted a psychic. She told me something to the effect of, “The world is your home town.” That didn’t help. At the time I was living in India and desperate for purchase, though Florida as a place to land was the furthest thing from my mind. But I was swimming in the ocean most days, which always brought back Sunshine State memories.
I’d learned to swim off Florida’s shores. Well, not too far off, I was maybe 2 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.”
My next earliest memory of the Sunshine State was when it sent me to the hospital. A few hours in the sun burned my body to a watery blister, which put me in an emergency room to be 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; it was the place that saved him from a marriage that had lost its luster. Despite the annual visits, I’ve long suspected Florida was a black hole in his heart that meant he’d never escape his own marriage, whether it was working or not.
The only conversation I can recall having with my grandpa was on what would turn out to be his deathbed, not long after he’d had a stroke. I was 12. We’d just been to Sea World and I was showing Grandpa the shark cast in wax I’d gotten. 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.
After Grandpa died we never returned as a family, but Florida wasn’t out of my life for long.
One night my first boyfriend — whom I’d met during college — watched a documentary with me about pearl divers in the Persian Gulf. 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. You can black out in an instant. The people who survive these shallow-water blackouts don’t remember dizziness, or even feeling a need for air. What goes down, however, doesn’t always resurface.
He became obsessed with all things submerged. This never struck me as odd, I was an excellent example as I had little to offer in a relationship when we met; he really had to dig. First we got PADI certified together, and soon we were off to Florida every chance we could get. There he’d practice his underwater maneuvers. Mapping. Photography. Wreck dives. But it was a single breath that was his undoing.
Jeff drowned in his mother’s pool while trying to hold his breath underwater. And that was when Florida fell away from my life for a time. He didn’t die in Florida, but it didn’t matter. I’d lost the taste for sunshine.
Years passed. When divorce came, it found me living in the Persian Gulf. My heart was no more prepared for this than death.
“We’re told… to look inward when much of our happiness depends on our environment,” Eric Weiner would write in The Geography of Bliss, after visiting me in Qatar. “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. If where I’d been was any indication of where I was heading, I reckoned I was screwed. So compelled was I with disproving this theory, I wrote my own book about what I’d learned from women in Qatar. Women who were trapped by forces beyond their control had proved to me that circumstances did not need to dictate happiness. True mettle was forged from a flexible soul.
It wasn’t long after my memoir came out that cancer claimed the life of my mother. This hurled me into my past, again. I'd returned to Pittsburgh impulsively to be with her, thus I found myself living among the detritus of my married existence. Each box I opened in search of something needed — a blanket, rain gear, dishes — was a time capsule of a life no longer familiar. Who was this person with cloth napkins in varying colors and fabrics corresponding to seasons?
Tobias Wolfe once wrote that "after stories get repeated enough times, they put on the badge of memory and block other routes of exploration." But if my stories were meant to be malleable, how did that square with what I'd learned about the intrepid Polynesians? My thoughts returned to Florida.
After the obligatory visits with Grandpa and his new wife (30 years the new wife), 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, all that. Even on the open sea, Mom could light a cigarette from a single match. We were all at our best then.
Then, too, my boyfriend’s death didn’t change that our time in Florida included palm trees and salty spray. 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 3,900 pounds. In my mind’s eye she was twice that size. We swam together for a while, but she didn’t so much as graze my body. My fear became appreciation.
These happy memories were so shadowy I’d almost buried them. And until recently, it was believed that suppression was the best one could hope for when it came to traumatic memories, but this often resulted in inconvenient flareups. New understanding of neuroplasticity shows that emotional learning can be dissolved, ceasing the anxiety. In my case this has been certainly true.
The past is gone, yes, but our memories shape the life we’re living now. Trying to put a cheery spin on my history leaves me as vulnerable to the harshness of reality as my pale skin was to the sun, whereas forgetting is an obliteration. To be truly untethered is terrifying. Unlike the diver, the cold and the black won’t kill us in four seconds. It can take a lifetime.
Even if I still can’t say where I’m from, I’m not lost. Moving to Florida was putting a stake in my future beyond the fixed time and space where I live. After all, the mind and heart are more than mere ephemera, and those ancient sailors were on the move.