How to Plant Roots in the Sand

Sezin Devi Koehler


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The thunder and lightning crash so hard around my home it knocks paintings from the wall and tchotchkes to the floor. A wall of rain smashes down so thick I can’t see the road just metres from my front door, nor the community pool out back. I wait for the inevitable sound of sirens that follow these epic peals of skyscape fury — the majority of my town’s residents are elderly retirees; someone once had a heart attack from the noise. As the wind wails, altering the direction of the wall of water this way and that, I imagine this is what it feels like to be in a meteor storm in outer space, frightened and alone. I wait for the power to cut out as it would in Asia, but it never does. This is America, after all. And while I might have experienced ferocious typhoons in Thailand and savage monsoons in Sri Lanka, all those storms combined pale when compared to Florida’s minor tropical furies. I wonder if I’ll ever get used to these terrifying and magnificent displays of nature.

In all the places I’d imagined ending up for the long term — Buenos Aires, Seattle, Toronto, Pine Ridge, Boulder — if you’d told me I’d end up settling down in a sleepy Florida beach town with the Stephen King-esque moniker of Lighthouse Point, I would have laughed in your face. When I first arrived in this corner of the Sunshine State from almost a decade bouncing around Europe — Switzerland, France, Spain, Czech Republic, Germany — everything seemed anathema to my cosmopolitan life abroad, which also included a childhood spent in Asia and Africa. By the time I arrived in Lighthouse Point, I’d already lived in 13 countries and 17 cities, and my accidental repatriation was a result of a series of unfortunate economic events that precluded many of the troubles we’re seeing now in Europe, including the growing hostility towards foreigners and difficulty procuring work visas. My husband and I returned to my husband’s hometown of Boca Raton, Florida, in 2011 with a grand total of 15 euros and a pile of credit card debt; we had much more in common with our American compatriots than we wanted to admit.

We’d drive past an endless loop of strip malls in Boca’s environs with the same offerings of Italian food, sports bars, pawnshops, and Publix supermarkets, all of which used to be sandy swampland. I’d watch the sweltering humid air rising from the four-lane highways populated with worse drivers than New Delhi and Istanbul combined, and wonder: How did I go from Moorish castles in Granada, and the labyrinthine streets of Seville, and the gothic gargoyles of Prague, and the Stolpersteine of Cologne, to Florida’s absolute lack of culture, history, and beauty? The provinciality of Florida’s residents irked me, with their brazen prejudices like a new language to learn: one of racist subtext. 

For the first two years in Florida I had nothing but disdain to offer this seemingly ahistorical place, a land where culture goes to shrivel up and die. And Florida itself fuelled the fire, with its George Zimmermans and Miami Face-Eaters, and climate-change denier politicians. But at least Lighthouse Point was safe — one of the safest towns in America, boasting zero gun crime — and my own home less than a city block away from the police station.

In those first years, my husband and I didn’t have much disposable income as we slowly got back on our feet like newborn foals, legs shaking from the effort and stumbling as we began to get our American bearings. Plus, as it turned out, all the racism, xenophobia, and harassment I’d experienced an expat, confounded by a gun-crime survivor’s PTSD from witnessing my friend’s death in Los Angeles, led to a crippling aerophobia which made it virtually impossible for me to navigate the horror show that is getting on an aeroplane. Instead, our first big step was leasing a car, a Kia Soul in Alien Green we named Bruce Banner. And with our own wheels my husband began showing me his home state. I grudgingly agreed to co-pilot. At that point, there was literally nothing left to lose.

Our first sojourn from Lighthouse Point was a five-hour drive through the aptly named Alligator Alley — a desolate stretch of highway cutting through Florida’s Everglades — across the state westward and then north to St. Petersburg to visit America’s only exclusive Salvador Dalí museum. Signs warned of alligator crossings, and the rest stops came fewer and fewer between; a horror movie waiting to happen.

While Dalí never lived in Florida during his American years, he bequeathed an enormous collection of his art to the museum in St. Petersburg, and the building itself is a phenomenal example of surrealist architecture: part glass, part metal, part concrete, that somehow looks like an amoeba that will take off squirming at any moment. Dalí’s artwork was so grand and intense, I found myself dizzy. In the museum lobby was The Mermaid Taxi, one of Dalí’s rare art installations. Instead of getting into the taxi to get out of the rain, the taxi itself filled with water; a wonderful exercise in thinking outside the box. We loaded up on prints for our new home, splurging even though we couldn’t afford it in an effort to bring some life onto our still-bare apartment walls.

Coming home from St. Pete, we took the back way through central Florida, and for the first time in my life I saw actual Confederate flags at full mast, as well as what I’ve since called Prison Row: a series of consecutive towns housing Florida’s inmate population. Instead of alligator crossing warnings were signs to beware of escaped convicts and to not pick up hitchhikers. It’s a toss-up which is scarier. I also saw the remnants of my first ‘gator out in the wild, smashed and bloodied, its guts pooled by the side of the road. Someone didn’t heed the alligator crossing warnings which also adorned these back-country roads.

My next sojourn away from my Lighthouse Point bubble was to Key West, the southernmost point of these United States. Four and a half hours through Miami and the long string of dozens of keys (or islands, in non-Floridian terms), water stretched out on either side of the highway in an eternal expanse. Once in The Keys, all that separated the road and ocean were a few feet of rocks and concrete, the road sometimes only rising inches above sea level. Over the world’s longest bridge I held my breath, convinced it would collapse under the weight of so many cars. It didn’t.

From the moment I set one sandalled foot in Key West it felt like home. The city is a lively, colourful, and weird little place, and if a city could be a soulmate, Key West was immediately mine. My home-cut fringe, flowing outfits, chunky jewellery, broad tattoos, and plus-sized body got the first positive recognition since I’d arrived in Florida, with women coming up to me to tell me I was pretty and they loved my curvy pin-up girl style.

Ernest “Papa” Hemingway lived in Key West from 1928 to 1940; his home now a beautiful museum overrun with six-toed cats, all descendants from Papa’s beloved feline Snow White. I learned it was in Key West where Papa wrote the majority of novels for which he is now famous, and once he left he never wrote novels again. I spent hours staring into his writing room, soaking it all in. There was magic remaining. The entire island felt magic. My husband and I parked ourselves at Papa’s old watering hole — what is now Captain Tony’s Saloon — and people-watched. I thought to myself, If Hemingway could write novels in Florida, dammit I will too. So far I’ve finished one, and have four more on the way.

I started to realise I’d written off an entire state without even giving it a chance. Between Dalí and Hemingway, my own enchantment with Florida was just beginning.

I began opening up to my new environs in Lighthouse Point. I finally let my husband take me to Deerfield Beach, just a five-minute drive away, and learned it was as if the beach was made for me, someone who loves the ocean but despises sand. The Deerfield Beach promenade is lined with palm trees and fairy moss between the sand and the road. I would sit on the grass, book in hand, captivated by the coming and going of the Atlantic Ocean, while my husband would swim.

As many things that bothered me about Florida — its lack of public transportation, superficial people, racism, absent culture, gun violence — I was finally beginning to appreciate the remarkable things that do exist. I just had to dig deeper.

In a strange synchronicity, the things I love also started coming to me. The first ever Frida Kahlo exhibit in Florida premiered just 20 minutes from me in Fort Lauderdale, and her first solo show in Florida will be at the Dalí Museum in 2017. Florida will forever be the place I got to see my muse’s work for the first time in person.

I’ve danced under the stars to live performances by The Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson, The Cure, Duran Duran, Dishwalla, and The Gin Blossoms; bands I’ve loved for years and never had the opportunity to see live before—and especially during months when outdoor shows would have been impossible further north. I witnessed an solo Eddie Vedder show in an intimate venue that seats only 400, where he played the entirety of one of my all-time favourite albums, the soundtrack to Into the Wild. I danced until three in the morning at The Clevelander, a marvellous open-air club in the Art Deco haven of South Beach. Happiness is dancing under the stars with the one you love most, the smell of the ocean in your nose, and gratitude in your heart.

I’ve strolled through the McKee Botanical Gardens in Vero Beach amid full-scale replicas of dinosaurs replete with sound effects. I’ve marvelled at the enormous fairy houses built by eco-sculptor Patrick Dougherty, who creates large-scale biodegradable sculptures out of fallen branches and sticks. I’ve worshipped the moon as she hangs pregnant over our home, optical illusions and our southern positioning making her appear closer than usual and ringed with celestial halos.

I’ve laughed my way home from our local tiki bar and one of the rare joints with outside seating, a mere two blocks away, so thankful that we never have to drink and drive in the land of drunk drivers. I’ve eaten fish that was just captured from the ocean. I’ve taken a small boat over my tiny town’s own Lake Placid to Cap’s Place, where once upon a time Al Capone had a speakeasy and used to smuggle liquor up and down the east coast. I’ve smiled at rescue turtles at Boca Raton’s Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, where all measure of wounded sea creatures end up for rehabilitation before being released back into the wild. I’ve sat in the swimming pool while ibis and storks have perched themselves on the pool’s edge, watching me and deciding they don’t like drinking chlorinated water. I’ve been transfixed by jellyfish, barracuda, and pompano fish in the wild off the Lighthouse Point Marina, lit from underwater once the sun goes down, turning the murky water into a window to all the life below. I’ve seen pelicans larger than middle-schoolers, with wing-spans to match a basketball player’s height.

I’ve painted hundreds of canvases, a hobby I could never afford when living abroad. I have my dream room: a home library with a wall of books. My heart has sung along with the family of talkative mockingbirds who choose the bushes outside my library to make their nests. All it took was making a commitment to daily gratitude, which shifted not just how I saw and experienced Florida, but the world at large.

Florida is the place that taught me that happiness is not determined by even all these amazing external factors, but is a daily choice I make to focus on what’s positive and to be grateful. Florida forced me to learn patience, and perseverance. Florida forced me to stop moving and feel safe, even in spite of the sand shifting under my very feet.

To build in Florida requires putting down a slab-on-grade — a huge block of concrete upon which the actual foundation rests — to prevent the sand and high water table from collapsing the structure. I always thought it was wasteful that even abandoned houses have full swimming pools, or that the pools remain full in winter even though nobody swims in them. But then I learned that if you don’t, the underlying bed of sand will push the pool’s architectural skeleton up and take whatever is around down with it. Long-vacated homes soon become overtaken with sand, killing all plants and trees as Florida’s natural environment does her thing.

Putting down roots in sand requires extra attention, and extra effort. You have to want to do it; you have to commit once you start. If you stop early or give up, you’ll have nothing to show for all the work you put in: the sand will reclaim everything you don’t carefully tend.

Once upon a time I was a lotus, carrying my roots with me wherever I floated. Now, I am an amphibious mangrove, my roots digging deeper and settling into Florida’s sand and waters, becoming the archetypal siren described by Anaïs Nin: “I must be a mermaid. I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living.”

In my search to find the treasures that would make Florida bearable for long-term living, I found what I’d always been searching for: a home. My roots have finally found the place where they belong, and in spite of the often-harsh environment, I find them thriving like they’ve never done before. Like so many pirates and intrepid adventurers before me, I should have known that when you start digging around in the sand, you’ll eventually find yourself some buried treasure. Or, you’ll just find yourself, and that can be treasure enough.

Sezin Devi Koehler

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.