Once upon a time there was a paradise land where all the life was wrapped in an aura of magic. Tucked inside the watery embrace of two lakes and a pond was an almost-island . This almost-island was covered in giant live oaks whose branches creeped across the sky and tangled among the palms of their jungle neighbors.
All of their leaves were covered in gray haired Spanish moss and their arms filled with egrets, hawks, eagles and owls. The lakes were spring- fed and so clear that any living thing who gazed within their ripples would see a whole host of fish, mussels and gators. Snake birds, flamingos, herons, and otters danced along the shores as they caught their meals.
The warm, sweet breeze soaked across the scaly skin of the sun-bathing snakes. In the distance an osprey calls for her young while a pad-footed Seminole woman quietly heads to the shores to fish for dinner holding a freshly picked tangerine.
At least, this is how I imagine a day in my childhood paradise before it became the place that hosted a new form of life- my family. This magical land still lives and breathes in and out the seasons of change that slowly surround its precious shores with suburban Tampa. Five generations have swam in the silky waters of Boot Lake.
Naked babies dipped their toes in crystal waves while they caught minnows and kept a eye out for mother gators. The natural world hasn't changed much here.
Even the name of this special land is magical: The Doll House. As long as I have been alive our family has made several trips a year to this wonderland. My sister and I would delight in the jungle as we climbed trees, created forts, and swung from zip lines across property.
Granny would send us flying through the trees as she pushed us for hours on the tire swing. We would catch turtles and make them our friends.
Tearing around the property at night we'd play a game the family created a generation ago which sent us screaming for joy as our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles hid in the dark and jumped out right as we passed by. Screams of delight and laughter echoed across the mirrored waters.
There were long nights on the dock with my cousin watching shooting stars, satellites and once a UFO. Hours were spent picking, peeling and devouring tangerines, oranges and grapefruits from the grove. We rode bikes, took wild rides in the back of Papa's truck or a few times on the front of Aunt B's car.
In this magical land bathing suits were optional, baths happened in the lake, nap time was on sandy sheets, and imagination was the life force that kept us all laughing.
Here, grapes could give you courage, you could become one of the fish that Granny was feeding off the dock, birds could eat seed out of your mouth, ice cream went well with cereal, morning came before the sun woke up and the day started when the raccoons would come for breakfast.
Today, as I cross the threshold of the Doll House I am met with the smell of black, sandy earth and iron-red water. Inhaling deeply, I know I am home again, in paradise. This is a place where my inner child bursts from her fleshy cave and runs to leap into every bed housing a sleeping relative until everyone is awake and ready to play.
Even paradise is not immune.The confusion of the adult world has invaded the hedge-fortress over the years.
We have experienced many forms of loss together over the years. It still sparkles in the morning as the sun glitters across the lake and into the Florida room window where we have talked of joy and pain; experienced both joy and pain.
The losses that have met us here have not diluted the magic that whips our hearts into submission to the child-joy that quickly takes hold as we learn and grow together.
When I leave this place sometimes I weep. I used to weep for the missing that I knew would soon come. Today, I weep out of gratitude that the magic of this land has been planted in the soil of my soul. I am this paradise place and it lives in me. I close my eyes can I can see it, feel it. When I dream, I am on the shores of Boot Lake again with my family.
Where is your paradise?
When you leave it, do you weep for joy
of having experienced such a place?
Or do you weep for missing that you
know will soon come as the dust starts to fade from your sandals?
Does the magic linger in the missing?
Or does it manifest itself in the gratitude?