By Mandy Cloninger
Once a year, around my birthday, I rent a beach house at Anna Maria Island. It’s one of my favorite weeks of the year. I arrive, park my car, and try my best not to move it again. We walk, bike or ride the trolley everywhere we need to go. Our daily rhythm follows the sun. If we’re up before the sun, we hustle down to the beach to watch it rise. A short walk is always rewarded with a beautiful display. At the close of the day, as the sun begins to set, we similarly make sure we’re in prime position to see those colors change and shift. Every day is marked by a gentle, natural, fulfilling rhythm. We joyfully sleep past the sunrise many days. We rarely miss a sunset.
If the sun is already up, we leisurely lounge, eat breakfast, read, and watch cartoons. Then, we head to the beach. We ride our wake boards. We build sandcastles. I watch Luna make friends and read as she plays. We spend a few hours sunbathing and then head home for lunch and a nap. We lounge. We go out for ice cream, gourmet donuts, a grouper sandwich, or we grill dinner at home. Time seems to expand all around us. There’s no agenda – no must dos or have tos. Friends sometime join us for a day or two, and the rhythm welcomes them.
The 168 hours that we have at the beach each year seems like so much time, yet I’m always a little disappointed when it comes to close. I want to bottle how I feel at the beach and carry it home with me like sand in its little glass container that marks the passing of time or the seashells we collect and put on display to remind us of our time at the beach. I want that renewed feeling and that natural gentle flow of time every single day.
Time is such a gift. Yet, it’s an asset that is ever depleting. Time feels very expansive at the beach and when I’m in nature.
My daughter Luna and I became campers last year, and we have visited quite a few of Florida’s state parks. While we tend to have short camping trips, a day or two, three at most (so far), I’m observing that the same relationship I have with time at the beach, also occurs while we’re camping.
On our most recent camping adventure to Highlands Hammock State Park, Luna and I felt time expand all around us. The sun shone beautifully on this Saturday afternoon in February, and the temperature creeped up to 80 — just one of the reasons 1,000 people a day move to Florida.
Luna was so excited she was unable to even nap on the two-hour drive there. (This tends to make the days a bit longer with a four-year-old!)
About an hour before sunset, Luna and I set off on our bicycle. We paused at a little gated bridge where an SUV had pulled off and found our first alligator who was slumbering in the muck near a stream.
Luna cannot yet differentiate between crocodiles and alligators – a very important distinction for this University of Florida alumna, and I frequently corrected her throughout the trip, that we were spotting alligators, not crocodiles.
Then we biked on down to see one of the oldest oak trees in Florida on one of the trails. Luna climbed the tree and found some ants. Then we started to walk down a wooden, elevated bridge through the swampland. Not halfway across, we heard a low growl and snorting. The bridge was completely exposed on one side, and in mama bear mode, my protective instinct kicked into high gear. My adrenaline pulsed. I turned us around, sprinted down the bridge with Luna in my arms, and rushed back to our bicycle.
It felt like that first Ferris wheel that I took Luna on at the Strawberry Festival last year. I love rides, roller coasters, elevations, that plummeting feeling in between your throat and stomach when you’re surprised by a dip or drop. Luna had just turned three and was excited to go up way high in the sky! We were seated across from one another in the Ferris wheel, when my eyes immediately zeroed in on the child-size gaps open and exposed on each corner edge of that tiny tin death pod. My mind immediately jumped to the very rational fear of Luna jumping up and down, slipping and falling right through those cracks. Why would they design this with even a possibility of falling out? My heart raced, and my chest tightened. My eyes widened, and my breath started coming in short bursts. I held tightly on to the edge of the seat, and I begged Luna to stay seated and not move around. As we paused at the very top, of the longest ride ever, I scanned every threat, and Luna merrily pointed out the small people and rides down below. I held my breath the whole time and questioned my own parenting by taking the ride at all.
Time couldn’t pass quickly enough until we were back on the ground safe. Until we were on our bicycle racing away from that snorting threat.
We hopped back on our bicycle and as I buckled Luna in her seat, we spotted an otter crossing the dirt road a few feet away. He shimmied with his tail, flop and pull, and quickly crossed, then we heard a splash as he hit the stream. Immediate crisis averted, I took a deep breath, and we adventured on and crossed the path to find the little otter as he poked his head up to say hello and then dipped back down to swim with the current. We followed him a bit, and Luna named him Ollie, the otter. He was a cute little fellow.
The sun started to descend lower on the horizon, and I warned Luna that we did not want to be too far from our camp site at nightfall because of all the nocturnal animals. This state park boasted bats, bears, panthers, deer, wildcats, otters and more.
We sped up on our bike, and I covered Luna’s eyes when a car passed us and stirred up the reddish dirt. We continued down the path and chattered about how scared we were of the gator sounds, and then how cute Ollie was. When all of a sudden, to our right, another set of loud snorts and grunts, made us both jump. The leaves and dirt stirred with loud rustling, and three hog tails jetted away from us.
Gator. Otter. Hogs. Oh my.
Luna, 4, wisely connected the dots and implored, “That sounded like what we heard over there. What if it was a pig and not a crocodile?”
“An alligator, sweetie, those are alligators, but yes, it could have been a pig or hog we heard, it sounded just like that didn’t it?”
Luna continued to chitter on about all the wildlife and couldn’t wait to tell her friends at the campsite.
I gave her a little squeeze and a big smile, as she sat between me and the handlebars on my bike, I said, “Luna, this is why we go camping! What an adventure we’re having already!” I peddled, and we reviewed all the animals one by one.
Then just a few yards later, we were interrupted again by even louder grunts, snorts and hog sounds, this one’s hog hiney twice the size of the other three, as he retreated away from us.
Luna decided we just saw the daddy, and the mama and her babies were the ones we stumbled upon earlier.
We stopped to brag to a cotton-headed couple who were checking out the same alligator we’d seen at the start, and the grandpa asked Luna, “Do you know his name?”
“What’s his name?” she asked and cocked her head.
“Cornelius, because he’s on the corner here. And we are a little corny naming the animals we see,” he laughed.
Luna exclaimed, “We saw a gator and pigs and Ollie!”
We rushed to make it back to camp before sunset filled with excitement. After dinner, the moon lit up our campsite, and the stars danced on a clear evening. The family next door planned to head on a night hike, and of course, we joined. One moment we rush to camp for safety, and the next, we venture out into the wild.
Our primitive campsite had maybe a dozen tent sites, a couple group sites, and one toilet. We walked the circle, and then turned down an almost beach-like white sand trail. The dad showed us how to put the flashlight right up to your nose and spot the twinkling, blue eyes that sparkled from hundreds of spiders along the sand. Once the eyes twinkled, we zeroed in on each spider to see how big or small it was. Luna was fearless and mesmerized. I felt the spidery tingles all over my body and wanted to itch.
Time marks so many moments. How we view each one is colored by the emotions, awe, wonder, fear, and pain, we feel. Each day’s rhythm might be draining or energizing.
In stark contrast, I found myself crying to go home the following evening.
Luna’s knee went straight up, connected with my aging neck and chin, and I screamed. The pain shot straight through my jaw, my neck, my face. I saw stars.
Insert any four-letter number of choice curse words, that I may have screamed with clenched teeth in a hushed voice. The white light shot across my field of vision. The tears began involuntarily. My ears rang. I shook my head and stumbled forward.
I cried. I heaved. I fell into child’s pose. It hurt so bad.
I looked back at my daughter.
I snatched the phone away from Luna. My eyes narrowed. Yet, another reason to not give a kid a phone. Where was her compassion, her empathy? She was intently watching Bubble Guppies on youtube, ignoring the obvious pain that she had caused.
“Luna, look at mommy. When someone is crying and hurting, we need to check on them. It’s not ok to ignore them.”
The bold clarity of what I needed and the only human available, my 4-year-old, collided in this teachable moment.
“Luna, come here. We are putting the phone away. You need to put your hand on mommy and ask if I’m ok.” I cried.
Luna complied reluctantly, scooting over the tent floor to place her little hand on my back, and asked, “Are you ok?”
“No, I’m not. That hurt really bad. I just want to go home it hurts so much.” I cried.
“I’m sorry, mommy.”
“I know, baby, you just need to be careful.”
I sat and cried a full-on eternity, or five minutes. It was so dark and windy outside, and I couldn’t bring myself to pack the campsite up this late and drive home. Yet, what did I want most desperately as I was hurting? To be home in a cocoon of safety or to have someone be there with me in my pain.
An evening can feel like an eternity when we’re desperate in pain.
Whether it’s the physical pain of a swift kick in the face or the metal pain of loneliness. Time expands or contracts with the wave of our deep emotions.
Time expands as we seek adventure and joy. Yet, that expansion feels too massive when we’re in pain or hurting.
A little whine and wine made for a good night’s rest, and we were back to exploring the hiking trails the next morning.
When I observed Luna rush over to comfort a little boy crying at the playground a few days later, when she placed her hand on his back, and asked him how he was feeling and if she could help, I thought — that was time well spent.