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In the storm's aftermath (Taking risks)

     As I type these lines my neighborhood still doesn’t have power. Every street and yard is a mess. Branches of trees lie everywhere. Fences and railings have blown over, and almost everybody is dealing with something broken on their house – from lost sidings, to leaky roofs.

     And if we dare to complain we deserve a whipping. Because that’s nothing compared to the losses so many people have suffered in the rest of Florida, in Cuba and the Minor Antilles Islands.

     Do I wish to rewind time and change the moment when I moved to Florida?

     Absolutely not.

     Years ago, when I announced at Northwestern Memorial Hospital that I had accepted a job in Central Florida, my teaching attendings said, “You’re crazy! Look at those beautiful Frank Lloyd Wright sky scrapers! Chicago has glamour, culture, cuisine, shopping and nightlife, just like New York City, but people are nicer. How can you trade that for The Middle of Nowhere, Florida?

     I didn’t argue. Yes, Chicago is beautiful. But how could I explain that, after growing up in a island, being away from the ocean gave me claustrophobia?

     And no, my dear Chicagoans, Lake Michigan is not the same. No matter how much you try to pretend you’re at the beach, it doesn’t smell or sound like it. It’s a fake ocean.

     And how could I explain to my friends that, after growing up in the tropics, where it was sunny all year long, the winter was literally killing me?

     I’m not kidding. My seasonal depression was so severe I could feel the years being subtracted from my life every winter.

     I’m the woman who gets chilled if the thermostat falls below 75 degrees. I couldn’t stand thermometers displaying negative numbers and living on the verge of frostbite with windchill temperatures incompatible with life.

     And the cold weather in Chicago lasted forever. It started September 1st and I still had to wear jackets in June.

     But the worst killer was the darkness. The winter days were so short it was dark when I got up to go to work and dark again when I came back home – weeks and months would go back without me seeing the sun.

     I couldn’t live like that. I’m from the Caribbean. I operate in solar batteries.

     If I explained it to my friends, the knee-jerk answer I got was, “Oh, yes, we have bad winters in Chicago. But Florida has hurricanes!”

     And here I wanted to answer, “So, you’re telling me that in order to avoid a possible hurricane, you’re willing to put up with the guarantee of depressive weather for nine months a year?”

     What’s wrong with us, human beings? We try to avoid the theoretical possibility of acute suffering by holding on to the guarantee of chronic joylessness.

     No, thank you. I’d done that too many times in my life. That was what I did for too long in my first marriage.

     Some things in life are worth risking everything. That’s my interpretation of the parables about finding the Kingdom of Heaven. “You find a pearl so fine, you don’t mind selling all the other ones you have to buy it. You find a treasure so rich, hiding in a field, you sell everything you own to get it.”

     You’ll know you’ve found your “Kingdom of Heaven on Earth” when you feel so passionate about something that you don’t mind sacrifice – it’s worth any price.

     Have you ever loved something or someone with extreme passion? A lover? A baby? A pet?

     To find your Kingdom of Heaven on Earth ask yourself what you really want, ignoring what everybody else is telling you you’re supposed to want.

     Sometimes my Chicago friends argued so strongly in favor of the city it was as if they felt it was a personal offense that I could dare to want to live somewhere else. And although their arguments were true and logical, they didn’t apply to me.

     “And also, besides the scare of hurricanes, Florida Summers are so hot!”

     Big deal. They were also excruciatingly hot in Chicago. And nothing will be hotter than where I grew up, in the Dominican Republic.

     “Aren’t you going to miss the majestic nightlife, theater and culture?”

     Not really. I had little kids. I made it to the theater in Chicago exactly twice in four years – and one time was to watch Dora the Explorer.

     “Aren’t you going to miss having four seasons? The gorgeous fall colors of the leaves in the fall?”

     Not really. I didn’t grow up with seasonal changes. I didn’t feel the few days of beautiful fall colors were worth it, considering what came next – months of depression in a black and white world – black, naked tree branches against gray skies, next to white and muddy snow-covered streets.

     But at least those friends trying to talk me out of moving to Florida did it out of passion! They had found in Chicago their own Kingdom of Heaven and felt obligated to recruit others.

     I’m glad they were happy. But watch out for well-intentioned people who don’t see the real you. Many lives have been spoiled by other’s good intentions.

     The people who really made me feel bad were those Floridians trying to talk me out of the idea of living close to the beach. The truth was that many of them secretly wanted to live beachside, but had talked themselves out of it. They’d convinced themselves that they couldn’t afford it, or that it was dangerous. They’d talked themselves out of the idea out of fear, and now they wanted me to join their club of “Safety above Joy.”

     The excuses were sometimes understandable.“Don’t live on beachside! They’ll make you evacuate during the hurricanes! What if the ocean-surge gets your house during a storm?”

     Sometimes, the excuses were pathetic. “The salty air will rust your bicycle.”

     Contrary to my Chicago friends, whose fault was being so passionate about their choice that they wanted to push me to it, these people were lukewarm about where they lived. Thinking about it, their slogan was not “join my club,” but “misery loves company.”

     For a while I fell into the trap of avoiding the beach. I fell for the Realtor’s argument of buying “more house for my money” (AKA, a newer home in an “up-and-coming” neighborhood where nobody wanted to live). It took me years – and encouragement by a special friend – to take the final step to move beachside.

     How to begin to describe my joy when Florida became my home state? I was ecstatic! The blue skies and the pleasant weather even in the depth of the winter made me say a prayer of thankfulness every day. Sometimes, the sight of green trees in December moved me to tears. My guilty pleasure, for the longest time, was watching the weather forecast for Chicago, celebrating that I wasn’t there.

     And the ocean again! Sometimes a whiff of ocean scent carried by the wind would hit me unexpectedly and my heart would jolt with joy.

     And then, after getting spared for many years in a row, Matthew came. And now Irma.

     And here I am, on my second hurricane close-call aftermath in eleven months.

     I admit it. Hurricanes suck.

     And, by the way, the beachside is the first place to lose power and the last one to get it back.

     Did I make a mistake by moving to Florida? Did I make a mistake moving beachside?

     Absolutely NOT!

     Even if my house had blown away completely, nobody will ever be able to take away from me these years of joy. Daily beach walks at the sunrise. Sunsets at the Indian River. Spotting baby sea turtles making the way to the water – and even their gigantic Mother turtles. Graceful dolphins, in the ocean and in the river. Pelicans, seagulls, sandpipers, crane birds…all of nature celebrates life at the ocean.

     The beach side of Florida is my Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Even a small dose of it would be worth more in my life than a huge dose of something else.

     The other example in my life where I have found my Kingdom of Heaven is in my husband David. The treasure I wouldn’t have minded risking everything I had in order to get. One of the biggest obstacles I had to overcome to welcome him in my life was my own fear of loss.

     I’d lost my mother young, and had just lost my father a year back when I met David. I was barely getting over my grief. Suddenly finding myself loving him so much – someone who until recently had been a stranger – was terrifying.

     What if he left me? What if he died too? (Statistically, women live longer than men and he’s older than me. Chances are, he’ll leave this planet before me)

     But he is my Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. My risk worth taking. If I lost him tomorrow (God forbid), if he left me for another woman or dropped dead (Double God forbid), it would all have been worth it. Nobody will ever be able to take away from me these years of happiness – Happiness beyond what I ever believed possible.

     I love how David and I are so different, yet we’re also also so similar, including in our eccentricities. He shares my love for the warm weather. The story of how he made a decision to move to Florida and leave Upstate NewYork since he was nine, still makes me smile.

     Guess what his winter guilty-pleasure is?

     Watching the weather forecast for Western New York, celebrating he doesn’t live there.

     Yes. He’s my Kingdom of Heaven. Just like Florida.

     Guess what. Playing it safe comes with no guarantees. I could have stayed on the mainland and get my house destroyed by a tornado – like it happened to may unfortunate people.

     I think I’ll better risk it here at the beach. Life is too short to be where you’re not absolutely sure you want to be.

     By the way, my husband David is that special friend, the one who convinced me to move to the beachside.

     And I’m eternally grateful.

     But that’s another story.