I had a bite of French toast in my mouth this morning when I glanced up at the TV in the corner of the diner. A reporter stood in the snow wearing a parka. The headline was snow related. And the weather map was snow related, showing all the places that were under a thick, fleecy blanket of snow. Even Tampa was in the 60s. I looked down at myself and finished my bite. I was wearing short sleeves, as I had been for days, and hadn’t even packed a jacket.
I’m in the Florida Keys, where the wind moans through the mangroves like a wounded animal. It would be terrifying to ride out a hurricane down here, but this place is otherwise brimming with charm. They set their own thermostat, as most cold fronts don’t have the stamina to slide this far south, and meander to the beat of a slower, more fluid drummer. They call it Island Time. It’s a different world. I don’t hate it.
Within the first 16 hours of being gone, three of the five of us received phone calls from people back home that sent us reeling. Each phone call rated differently on the scale of hassle and catastrophe. By the third call, we stopped in our tracks to pray together.
Each phone call and each activity seemed to have an embedded flow chart of cause and effect. Each one had a cluster of options within it that opened like nesting dolls as we asked questions of each other. The lessons seem to be flying at us like tumbleweed. Some of these life lessons might be considered trivial or unnecessary, like:
- Don’t fall asleep amongst friends. Not on a park bench. Not on a dock. Not on the open-air trolley with the gravel-throated tour guide.
- Don’t get too close to a baby chick while eating key lime pie. Chickens are essentially stupid creatures, but Key West chickens recognize good pie when they see it.
- A golf handicap is the degree to which you stink. And before you golf with someone, you should find out what their handicap is and either avoid them or make fun of them.
- If you are over 40, never pass a working restroom without stopping in to use it.
- Tattoos bring people together. And that’s all I’m going to say about that one.
But today, with no agenda and a mind as blank as a piece of paper, I learned some other stuff too. Today I walked along the waterline of Summerland Key and tried to notice everything that washed up. I wasn’t searching for lessons but for souvenirs. I was looking for the prettiest, most perfect thing I could find on the beach. I wanted bright and pristine. I wanted the smooth and the unscathed. I didn’t find a lot of that. What I found was a never-ending snarl of rocks and shell, bearing the marks of their journey and teaching me with each one I picked up.
From those broken shells, these friends, and a bad game of mini-golf, I have learned a few useful things this weekend:
- We need community. For the losses. For the victories. For the mundane, grinding middle ground that bridges our beginnings and endings as we go from thing to thing. We need each other. Sometimes we need a hug. Sometimes prayer. At times we want someone to step into our space for a moment and just listen. Every now and then, a chaotic game of mini golf is just the thing we need. But be careful the handicap there…
- We are shaped by what happens to us. Life happens and we react. I walked the shores of Sandspur Beach and noticed the things washing up in the breaking waves of low tide. Bits and pieces of coral and shell were rolling in the froth, sometimes settling on dry land to be discovered by wanderers like me. Sometimes succumbing to the current and slipping back out to sea. But whatever the case, each object took on color or texture or shape because of its journey through and time in the waves and the tide. We carry the beauty and the scars we pick up in the water.
- It takes all types. The beauty and functionality of the whole is determined by the variety of the parts, so to speak. Picking up coral and shells, my eye was naturally drawn to the flashy pinks and yellows. Often those shells were brittle and broken. The stronger shells were porous, and the color of sand. Not pretty, but able to take a beating, filter the waves, and move on. If there was only pink, pink would get boring. Too much white coral would get lost in the shuffle. But together in a heap, they are perfection. We need all of it. All of it together makes a healthy shoreline. A mosaic of beautiful brokenness.
And while I suppose these are all good things to know on a random November weekend, I think the biggest lesson we all learned from the weekend was this:
If you’re in the Keys with friends, keep your eyes open, your music turned up and your ringer turned down.
And if a call comes in, don’t answer it.
You’re on island time.