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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.
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).
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.
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.
You are where I learned that friendship doesn’t come with an age requirement.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.