Travel

Sarasota Dreamin’

Sarasota_Florida_-_83d40m_-_from_mainland_across_bay_front_to_Gulf_of_Mexico_-_new_bridgeSarasota Bay from the mainland, showing the marina and the author’s favorite stroll-across bridge.

Of all the reinventions I might have contemplated as I approached my mid-sixties, becoming a snowbird was certainly not among them. Florida? For three months? Me? With all the old people? Are you kidding? Gives me agita.

What? You want me to pick up, leave my life to go live in an apartment with elderly neighbors in pastel clothing who play golf and mah jongg and don’t color their hair?

This life is not for me. What will I do there? Who will I talk to? I don’t play games. I am fit from working out, not from sports. I don’t eat dinner at 5 o’clock.  I don’t need new friends. I am quick to stereotype. I see a bad facelift or duck lips and I’m outta there. I see head-to-toe Chico’s on a woman? Not a friend for me. These are not my people.

I realize, as I write this, that I sound like the rich lady who complains that her diamond shoes are hurting. If you can bear with me through this, though, I hope a truth more universal will emerge.

My husband is from Chicago, and when he pictures Florida, it’s the west coast of the state, on the Gulf of Mexico. When he was a boy, Sarasota was a romantic, aspirational place for him —tropical breezes, a relief from the winter, and a country club where a rich uncle used to let him order as many Cokes as he wanted. He could play tennis in whites and golf on a course where he didn’t need to hammer a tee into hard dirt, as he had to do back home on a public course.

I’m from Brooklyn. You can imagine my Florida, the one on the Atlantic, and it is not a pretty picture. It is the raucous, vulgar cultural wasteland of big-box stores and plastic surgery, gated communities and broad highways crisscrossing each other in stark anonymity. It is also a place of old people. Very old people. People as old as my grandmother was when we used to visit during her winter stay there. Come to think of it, she must have been around my current age. But never mind. I realize that Boca is not Sarasota, and 1964 is not today. Still, the images collided in my mind and it was clear to me: No way was I ever going to “winter” (ugh!) in Florida.

Yet, in December, on a long weekend visit, seated at a Sarasota marina bar in impossibly lovely 4 o’clock sunshine, and after hearing an earnest and wistful plea by my husband about his awareness of the passage of time and how he has long wanted to spend the winter here, I knew I needed to pay attention. I have to say here that we had been renting an apartment in New York as a second home for five years—my heart’s desire driving that choice—with a lease that ended last summer. It was Michael’s turn. That is how, on February 1, we moved into an apartment in downtown Sarasota.

The anticipation, as well as the reality, of being here put me into a kind of panic that made me realize I was dealing with more than just spending three months in Florida. Once I started breathing again, I allowed that I felt afraid to be unmoored. The idea of being a permanent temporary, without a connection to a community or to a daily To Do list of familiar, if tedious, jobs, threw me. After all, being free to do anything requires a kind of internal resolve I feared I did not possess. It brought me to the universal dilemma of “wherever I go, here I am,” and whatever reinventing I was going to be doing, I had better be getting on with it. I struggled over whether it was okay to admit that even diamond shoes hurt sometimes. Michael was right to feel the passage of time, and I discovered that embedded in his fear was mine.

These days, I live most fully in a rich internal construction of my own choosing: my thoughts, the books I read and listen to, the pleasures of discovery here, both intellectual and visual, the sensual delight of magnificent weather, and the affection of friends who, while not here, remain a part of my day. We have six grandchildren we adore, and some of them have come to visit us, but they do not make a life for me.

So, I am who I am in Sarasota, and am finding it a rich and stimulating place to be.  It is a lively, cultured, food-loving little city with way more to do than we can possibly fit in. For the most part, the people I see are like us: active late-middle-age, stylish but not flashy, and intellectually spirited. The downtown, where we live, is right next to the marina, and a causeway high over Sarasota Bay is a great three-mile walk I try to do every day. We have been to the usual cultural activities like theater, opera, concerts and the spectacularly accomplished young ballet company. We have also taken a class on artisanal cheese, learned CPR for children, gone kayaking, seen a baseball game, and attended book talks, films and lectures. And I have made the beginnings of a couple of friendships.

We are talking about whether to come back next winter. Stay tuned.

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  • Johannes Hofmann August 27, 2015 at 10:32 pm

    What is your definition of luxury? Something that is an {indulgence rather then a necessity?

    Reply
  • Beatriz Gartler December 30, 2013 at 3:10 pm

    My husband too wants to go to Sarasota. And he is in Chicago. I am too and I have to say – at this moment (very cold day) it sounds wonderful. Perhaps we will do that in a year or two. I liked Sarasota the few times we were there. But most of all I like the warm weather and sea. Chicago is just too cold for me.

    Reply
  • Letty Watt April 24, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    Delightful insights to our mid age changes. My husband and I are making the drive home from Corpus Christi, Texas and our first experience at taking off and driving until we find a warm destination. We’ve discovered that Texas is a really big state.

    Reply
  • ellen sue spicer-jacobson April 21, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    I, too, have a fear of living in FL for the same reasons as Shelley.
    The article at the end says she lives in MD. I thought she lived in Chicago or NY.
    I would like to move to Calif closer to my 3 kids. My husband (second) has one child &granddaughter here & a son in Calif. who would love us to move.
    How do I convince my husband it’s my turn?

    Reply
  • Toni Myers April 20, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    Shelley, I love your piece and your attitude. Clearly, you know how to make where you are your own.
    Michiganders frequently spent winters or part of, in Florida.
    All my grandparents did Clearwater and St. Petersburg and the parents went to Sarasota. Sadly, I never visited.
    My memories are from my mother’s stories about her “evil” mother wearing a large fake diamond at a stuffy hotel in St. Petersburg, regaling people with her fictional Smith College education and inquiring, after mother told tales of someone overhearing us kids, in charge of the drinks cart at a party, deciding we would “bomb” all the guests, (the old meaning) “my dear, WHERE were all the servants?” Mother responded: “That’s a good question, Mimi.” Hence, my unfair image of the state.

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  • Diane Dettmann April 20, 2013 at 9:23 am

    Considering the ground here in Minnesota’s still piled with snow, the clouds finally cleared out after over a week of gray skies and the temperature’s are in the 20s, makes Sarasota very inviting. Think I’ll put Sarasota on our “Snowbird List” and check it out for next winter! Thanks, Shelley, for the inspiration. 🙂

    Reply
  • Roz Warren April 20, 2013 at 7:58 am

    My dad and his sweetie wintered in Sarasota for years to avoid the Detroit weather. They loved it and we loved to visit them. Your post makes me nostalgic. It’s a lovely place.

    Reply