Dear Florida Keys

Dear Florida Keys,

You were the fourth place to which I moved, not knowing a single soul, and in a few short weeks, you had me hooked. I tried to leave you once, but I wasn’t ready yet. You held tight to me for three years–the longest my nomadic self has ever stayed in one spot. You are the hardest home to which I’ve ever had to say goodbye.

You are where I had my first real, paid, adult, career-oriented job, where I dove head first into the reptile world working with sea turtles. You provided the foundation for me to accomplish my childhood dream of becoming a published author. (Hurray for books on turtles!) (Shout out to the Turtle Hospital.)

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You are where I committed to acting and realized, hey, maybe I want to and can do this professional acting thing for reals. (Shout out to Marathon Community Theater.)

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You are where I realized I don’t have to just carry parasites (ahem); I can be fascinated by them through a microscope, too! (Shout out to Marathon Veterinary Hospital.)

You are where I entered the sports arena again after a doctor-ordered moratorium on flying balls and contact sports. Our team may have lost 98% of our softball games, but my head still works! (Shout out to City of Marathon Parks and Recreation.)

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You are where I realized we can have more than one soulmate in life, and that soulmate doesn’t have to be your significant other; they can be your bestest friend. (Shout out to my Panini at Marathon Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center.)

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You are where I saw up close the beauty and success of restorative justice and second chances, two things I have always believed very strongly in. (Shout out to Monroe County Sheriff’s Animal Farm.)

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You are where I learned about marine mammals and joined a family of humans dedicated to their flippered and finned family members. (Shout out to the Dolphin Research Center.)

You are where I camped on the beach for the first time, where I had my first adventure on a remote island. (Shout out to Dry Tortugas National Park.)

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You are where I choreographed and performed my first solo dance routine.

You are where I ran my first race since being diagnosed with Lyme disease.

7 mile bridge run

You are where I rented my first apartment and lived alone for the first time–in what my sister called a “cute little shed.” You are where I discovered that karaoke needs to be a part of my weekly routine. You are where I made my first key lime pie (it was vegan by the way and super delicious).

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You are where I once fell in love and experienced how a woman deserves to be treated. You are where I held my favorite little four-legged furball as he took his last breath. You are where my faith was challenged. You are where I accidentally played tug-of-war underwater with an octopus, where I lived through my first tropical storm, where I went parasailing, where I experienced how valuable your girlfriends are, where singing Oldies on a boat at the top of my lungs became one of my favorite pastimes.

dragonboat races florida keys

You are where I swam in a mermaid fin, where I rowed in the Dragonboat races, where I became skilled in beach volleyball, where I learned to stop and watch every sunset possible, where I had too many adventurous trips to the hospital, where I kayaked through mangroves and SCUBA dived in the day and night, where I almost had my first on-stage/on-screen kiss, where I spent every evening for 3 months with 14 men and somehow always fit in.

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You are where I learned that friendship doesn’t come with an age requirement.

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You are where I discovered that having the same blood running through your veins isn’t a prerequisite for being family.

You are where I have never felt more loved and never loved so much.

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You are where I realized we only have so much time in this life, yet so much to see and do. You are where I realized I needed to never stop exploring this great big world.

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You are where I committed every day not just to existing, but to really, truly, whole-heartedly living.

I needed to leave you for so many reasons, but a part of me stayed. And I’m okay with that, I want that. Because when you love something–especially as hard as I love in my life–you let it keep a little piece of your heart. That doesn’t make your heart any smaller. In fact, in some crazy defiance of science and intellect, it somehow makes your heart bigger.

So keep my heart, Florida Keys, because no matter where I am, you make it beat from afar.

sunset florida keys

If you’d like to help the Florida Keys–my forever home–rebuild after Hurricane Irma, consider donating to one of the organizations linked in the post. Please note that the islands are still without electricity and may be for weeks. Consider marking a date on your calendar a month from now to return to this post and make a donation.

Many of my friends–my island family–lost their homes and businesses. If you’d like to help them out, send me an email at smvenzel@gmail.com with the subject line HURRICANE IRMA RELIEF.

And lastly, you can also help the Keys (or one of the other Caribbean tourist destinations affected by Irma) by booking a vacation (just maybe not during hurricane season?). The local economy is driven by tourism. The structures will be rebuilt, but when you visit the Keys, you’re not just visiting a pretty, historic island chain. You’re meeting the locals who make these islands paradise, and they need you to come now more than ever. 

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Is This the Apocalypse? Then Here’s a Glimpse of Hope

I am writing to offer some hope. In the immensity of the disasters happening right now–we’ve got wildfires raging out west, hurricanes and flooding around the globe, an earthquake in Mexico–it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that this is–it must be–the apocalypse. It is easy to give in, give up, lose hope.

My heart right now is breaking. I can’t stop pacing my apartment, I can’t focus at work, I can’t sleep through the night. Strangely, the only place I have wanted to be in the past 48 hours is in Long Island, Bahamas with my island family, threading the eye of the hurricane and riding the spherical needle to its next destination, predictably to its mainland fall in my forever home in the Florida Keys. How helpless we are left to feel when we willingly wish ourselves to be in harm’s way for the sake of leaning on each other.

But that is what we must do–support each other. In the imminent devastation that Irma will leave wherever she goes, we must hold onto the silver linings. Sifting through the aftermath of Hurricane Joaquin, I choked back vomit and tears more times than I can count. And while, admittedly, even from far away Irma has shaken my subconscious into unwelcome flashbacks of my own experience flirting with the dangers of Mother Nature, that is not what I remember most from my island life.

Landscapes, homes, hearts, and minds are not impermeable to devastation, but they are resilient in the wake of it. Trees regrow; buildings are rebuilt; our spirits heal. When life makes us take a step back, we pick up, we rebuild and somehow, sometime, we get back to normal. We have to, because there is no other option.

I remember vividly the strength of the storm I endured in October 2015, but I reflect fondly on a strength far greater than Joaquin. I am humbled by the community that arose from the rubble like a phoenix from the ashes, the neighbors who opened their doors, the locals who distributed home-cooked meals to the now homeless.

What makes these places paradise more than their beautiful scenery is their beautiful people. It wasn’t the turquoise blue waters that I had a hard time saying goodbye to; it was the friends who became my family that made it so difficult to leave.

So, to all of my beloved friends and strangers who have to endure Irma in one way or another, I offer you this morsel of hope: devastation does not mean destruction. Find hope in knowing that whatever happens, together you can and you will rebuild. We did it with Joaquin and we’ll do it with Irma. You, the community, are what make a place home.

I love you all from the bottom of my heart. #longislandstrong #keysstrong

I Feared For My Life & This Is What I Learned

October 2017 will be two years since I lived through Hurricane Joaquin, the historic perfect storm that I remember as the two longest days of my life. I have never known time to stand so still, during which I prayed constantly that my family and friends knew how much I loved them.

Effectively isolated after the storm on a remote island in the Caribbean, it would be eight days before I could hunt down a satellite phone to let the people who mean the most to me know I loved them, I was breathing but far from okay, and please send donations because the island was devastated. I didn’t know when I’d be able to reach my family again.

In the months following Joaquin in which an overseas, across-the-country move took place, I was a mess. Trauma from the storm unlocked trauma from my past until, nearly a year later when I thought I was healed, another window opened that my mind had bolted shut. I started seeing a therapist in the immediate aftermath of the storm who diagnosed me with PTSD on top of PTSD on top of PTSD.

But this post isn’t about fearing for my life. This post isn’t about my PTSD. It isn’t about my past (though that story begs to be told at a later time, when I’m ready).

This post is about my recovery. This post is about me, now.

So, you ask, how am I now?

The short answer: Freaking fantastic.

The long answer: I’m working on it.

My wounds will always be scabs turned scars that make me who I am. I would never in a million years wish any of these hardships upon someone. But I cannot change my past, so instead, I decided to see how my past could shape my future.

Breaking apart the most harrowing experiences of my life, I made a list of what I gained from them.

Here is that list:

  • Empathy & compassion. Sometimes life has to beat you up to give you empathy and compassion you didn’t know you were lacking.
  • Perspective. My eyes were further opened to the existence of poverty and racism in the world today.
  • Strength in vulnerability. Turning to others for help did not make me weak; it takes a great deal of courage to bare one’s heart and mind so openly.
  • Cultural enlightenment. I mean, I did get to live on a remote island in the Bahamas living the real island life and making lifelong friends turned family. So there’s that.
  • Dreams. I needed to start following my dreams NOW, and never ever stop.
  • Relationship knowledge. I learned what I want, need, and deserve in a relationship.
  • Self-awareness. In order to heal, I had to fully know myself. It was an isolating road to travel down, but necessary.
  • Peace within myself. Knowing who I am meant accepting all of me, including my flaws, quirks, and neuroses. Better yet, it meant embracing them.

Despite having just emerged from the darkest period of my life–and, admittedly, still having moments in which I feel like I take a step back–I am the happiest I have ever been.

My path of healing from PTSD threw me under the self-reflection bus, and I am eternally grateful to it for that. But I don’t think you need to claw your way out of the lion’s den in order to begin this journey.

The three experiences that led to my struggle had a common thread: I felt small, helpless, and insignificant. I have spent the last twenty-four months fighting to be strong, confident, and significant. I have worked hard at believing in myself, taking risks and viewing subsequent failures as successes.

Now, most days, I wear that cheesy ear-to-ear grin on my face that everyone who knew me before I moved to Seattle remembers. But I’ve changed. I have so many layers to me now. Good layers. Deep layers. Real layers.

One of my friends from the Florida Keys, who has always praised me for my positive and uninhibited energy, recently told me, “Stacey, you’re not the same person you were when you left here, and I mean that as the highest compliment.”

As I’ve begun reconnecting with college friends, they say the same thing. I still dance my crazy dance moves in the middle of the grocery store, but there’s more than a zest for life behind those crazy legs. There’s understanding. There’s a profound appreciation for it.

 

My Favorite Part About the Solar Eclipse Wasn’t the Eclipse

Here in Seattle, we skirted the line of totality capturing a 92 percent partial eclipse. It’s nothing like the two-and-a-half minutes of daylight darkness that consumed Madras, Oregon just south of us, but it was enough to warrant stepping outside of the office to look at the sky.

I didn’t have any eclipse glasses of my own, but I stumbled upon a crowd outside the hilltop library just down the street from me. The community had gathered to pass around homemade cereal box viewers and pin hole paper plate designs, as well as the coveted certified eclipse glasses that sold out from stores weeks ago.

I watched shadows get crisper. I marveled at the little crescent moons on the sidewalk from the leafy trees. I saw the orange sun nearly obscured.

Watching this phenomenon was a memorable experience, but it wasn’t this magnificence in nature that astounded me so. It was the people taking it all in.

The crowd was filled with young and old, future budding scientists and grandparents who told of the eclipses they’d seen in their lifetime. It was filled with sharing and small talk and a genuine appreciation for Mother Nature.

Science–my career, my passion–is under so much attack in this country. People are filled with so much rage and hate in this world. But here was a moment where everyone for miles stopped what they were doing and looked toward the sun.

As I rode my bike to work, the sidewalks were still flowing with faces turned upward, brief moments taking in the sun and the moon as time seemed to stand still. As people passed their eclipse glasses from stranger to stranger and explained–educated–to the curious just exactly how this celestial marvel was possible, a sense of unity overwhelmed me.

You’ll notice I didn’t take any photos of the eclipse. Some experiences are meant to only be captured in our hearts and our minds. For me, the calming feeling that surrounded me couldn’t be captured through a lens, yet that is the part I’ll remember most.

The Art of Listening: Stop Telling, Start Hearing, Give Feeling

My best friend knows me about as well as I know myself, and he is the one person in the world that I have told everything to. Part of the beauty of our friendship is that I don’t feel that I have to tell him everything but I know that I can and want to tell him everything.

He is my confidante, advisor, soulmate, comedian, and one hell of a listener.

Recently, I asked him to just listen, to offer no advice or opinions because even though I respect and value whatever he has to say, and I know it always comes out of love and care for me, and I know he is always right (dang nabbit)… At that moment, I just needed someone to hear how I was feeling. I needed empathy, not pragmatics.

And I am tired of people telling me how to feel.

Do you know how hard it is to shut your mouth and just listen? Humans have a natural instinct to try to fix things, even if it isn’t their own thing to fix. Vulnerability makes so many people uncomfortable that when they see someone else opening up their bag of emotions, they instinctively reach to clasp it shut.

No one wants to pick up the pieces of brokenness, so humans work to make things right and whole again. We hurt to see others hurting, but we’re also scared shitless of it. I know. I’ve been there.

My best friend listened to me, my big mouth, and my bigger heart for an hour. He didn’t set the phone down away from him; I could hear him breathing. He said about two sentences, neither of which was advice. One was a short but welcome opinion. The other was a deep sigh followed with two of the most common words in the English language, a phrase that we dole out like chocolate in a candy store, words that are simultaneously overused and underused because often times we’re too self-righteous, egotistical, or bull-headed to use them.

He told me, “I’m sorry.”

He wasn’t pitying me and he wasn’t trying to fix me. He wasn’t telling me that I would be okay, that it would get better–things I already knew to be true. He was just feeling my feelings, embracing my vulnerability. That simple act, listening and empathizing, acknowledged the courage it took for me to slice open my chest and lay my beating heart on the table.

Sometimes, when I bare myself in this way, the flutter of ensuing commentary is like a meat pounder, and my heart is its victim. Sometimes, those remarks are what I need to hear. Usually, they’re what I should hear.

But sometimes, I already feel so hurt and alone that bringing out the meat pounder only grinds me to a pulp. Words are so very powerful. Sometimes, too many of them can be so overbearing that their target looms smaller.

While speech has a time and place and always a freedom and right, sometimes listening is the greatest act of love we can offer someone who is in pain.

I asked my friend if he was dying to give me advice. He told me no. He said one day, when I’m ready, I’ll hear it. But that wasn’t today. Today he was just sorry.

What Is Courage?

Just a quick note on a thought that’s been rolling around in my head the past couple weeks:

Courageous people aren’t fearless people. They are the ones who are scared to death but face their fears anyways.

They are the ones are who are shaking, sweating, heart pounding, but stare down the barrel of the gun.

I hope you find this empowering. I hope it reminds you that everyone can be and is courageous.

So be brave, be bold, be vulnerable. Because I know you have it in you.

No I Don’t Drink, Yes I’m Vegan, And Can We Move On?

When I was twelve years old, I sat in the back seat of my dad’s car rifling through the beach bag looking for something to drink. I saw the word “lemonade,” opened the bottle, and took a swig.

“Dad?” I said. “This lemonade tastes weird.”

My dad peered in the rearview mirror and calmly told me, “That’s because that’s not lemonade.”

I gave him a confused look.

“That’s alcoholic lemonade,” he said.

I promptly proceeded to spit out the window and dab my tongue on a towel, following that up with a dramatic montage that involved me asking my dad what was going to happen, was I going to be drunk, was I going to die?

When I was 23, I poured some of the punch bowl contents into my cup at a party, being sure to plop the enticing sorbet on top. I then filled up my cup again. I was really unexpectedly emotional that night. I found out later that was spiked punch. Considering I had zero tolerance for alcohol, that may have explained my emotional state. Maybe.

When I was 24, I was playing with my plastic water glass and my friend’s plastic whiskey glass, which looked exactly the same. I took a swig of what I thought was water, then immediately spit into the cup. I told my friend I’d pay for a refill of his whiskey. He denied the offer. He wasn’t mad; he was simply amused.

Those are the only times I’ve ever had alcohol in my life.

In the first five minutes that I begin talking to someone new at a restaurant, based on my ordering, they ask me two things:

1. Why are you vegan?

2. Why don’t you drink?

Despite my attempts to steer the next 30 minutes of conversation in another direction, the table topics continue to revolve around my lifestyle choices, usually due to incredulity and discomfort from the other party because, ohmygod they could NEVER give up cheese and have I really NEVER had alcohol?

It exhausts me.

I’m so very tired, people, of being the spotlight of attention just because I am different from you. Just because I make unique choices. Just because I make you uncomfortable.

I don’t sit at that table and lecture people on their cheeseburger and the beer they are sipping, but somehow, my salad and water make people uncomfortable.

I am all for deep and meaningful conversations, but this is not going to turn into one of those. This is going to be 30 minutes of you trying to mask your judgment of me but failing miserably. This is going to be 30 minutes of me hearing the same insulting jokes I’ve heard a hundred times before. This is going to be 30 minutes of me taking deep breaths while the walls close in and I get backed into a corner with no one to defend me but myself, bored at this point and just waiting for the organic leap to the next tête-à-tête to determine if you’ll ever be able to get past me being different.

Why do I have to explain myself? Why does my being different make you uncomfortable? Why do you feel you have to defend yourself when all I’ve said is “No, I don’t drink” and “Yes, I’m vegan”?

Since I’ve already put out there why I don’t eat animals, I’ll talk about my sobriety, since at this point in our table talk, without knowing my full and short-lived relationship with liquor, you’re probably weighing the odds of me being a recovering alcoholic or a crazy religious nut. I can assure you, I am both. (Just kidding.)

I don’t owe you an explanation for why I don’t drink, but I’m going to give one to you anyway. And you’re probably not going to like it. You’re probably going to have some reflexive retort back at me because I’ve somehow hit a button I didn’t know was there to push. Or maybe, just maybe, you’ll say, “huh” and move on.

I don’t drink because I want to be in control. I don’t drink because I like reality. I don’t drink because I like to be present in the moment, no matter how shitty it is. I don’t drink because I like to face my problems head on and then learn and grow from them.

For the record, I don’t smoke pot for the same reasons (and yes I live in Seattle where I CAN HAVE ALL THE POT IN THE WORLDDDDD).

I am in fact often mistaken for being drunk–sometimes the drunk person–at a bar because there I am making my own dance floor with my signature crazy legs moves, singing at the top of my lungs, laughing my loud and wild and pure and unrefined laugh, and making an utter fool out of myself with absolutely no care in the world.

Maybe I am weird because I’m different. Because I naturally have no inhibitions. Because I’m not easily embarrassed. Because I’m okay with staring my fears and insecurities in the face without any vices and letting the world wash over me leaving me scarred and scared and oh-so-bring-it-on ready.

Because I want to always be wholly, truly, honestly and authentically me.

My lifestyle choices don’t define me. I am not just a vegan and just a sober person. I am a woman who craves integrity and humor, who has insane attention to detail, who is increasingly more curious about the natural world and our role in it, who loves love, who speaks her mind, who has lived here and there and done this and that.

So please. The next time you meet someone who is different than you, don’t define them by a label. Accept that they are different, embrace that they are different, ask yourself why their being different bothers you, make a mental note to address that issue with yourself later, and move on.

never stop dreaming. never stop doing.