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Finding beauty in the ugliness

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image A new bride at sunset on the beach at Little Harbor. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Through grace or fire, we live our lives through our own choices.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

I took a vacation last week. It was needed. I’ve mentioned before in this column how some people have told me my entire life is a vacation but, as is often the case, the truth is different than appearances. Vacations for me are actually pretty rare. I’ve been writing for this paper for about a decade now and there have only been a handful of weeks that I didn’t submit something for publication. Things in South Hillsborough don’t stop happening just because I take a few days off.

I spent my vacation right here at home. I’ve been feeling a little Florida’d out recently, what with face-eating zombies and a steady stream of bad news on the doorstep and all. I was hoping to find a little inspiration — something that would tell me that it’s good to be here, that there is value in spending my ever dwindling number of days here. The jury is still out on whether that was successful, but I did learn a few things.

I started out at Ft. DeSoto Park — arguably, one of the world’s most beautiful places and a unique Tampa Bay area treasure. I wasn’t looking for things so much as I was looking for people. Sometimes it feels like Florida is populated by a handful of natives with a remnant of Southern gentility that are overwhelmed by a mob of people who were driven out of the decent states up north.

At Ft. DeSoto I begin to see that was not the case. I saw families with children playing in tidal pools. I saw an elderly couple walking hand in hand, they smiled at me and said hello. I saw people enjoying each other, enjoying the beauty that surrounded them.

Some of us are lucky enough to have a partner in this life, someone to support them through difficult times without question. I don’t care if you are a 250-pound police officer with muscles in your forehead, there are times when you need someone to hold your hand; someone whose mere presence helps to calm life’s storms. There are incalculable benefits of going through times both good and bad with someone you can trust with your own weaknesses. To me, there is incalculable benefit in knowing that you aren’t alone.

Others of us aren’t so lucky. For those who are alone, hard times are a solitary dance, with occasional glances over our shoulder to see that, indeed, no one is behind us and no one will catch them should we fall. We are on our own. Of course, some of us prefer the latter, not having to worry about depending upon another, facing life on our own terms. Regardless of whether you are dancing with a partner or dancing alone, for all of us, what is, is. Through grace or fire, we live our lives through our own choices.

At Ft. DeSoto, I saw the value in the former. I saw the value in being able to share something beautiful with someone else. It is easy enough to see the other side of that coin in the grocery stores and post offices in South Hillsborough. I see people who are alone and so desperate for a human connection that they chat up the cashiers, asking question after question, lingering just for an escape from their own quiet world as the people in line behind them impatiently look at their watches. It’s easy enough to imagine how they got there — plans were made to purchase a retirement home in paradise but before that could happen — or shortly afterwards — one of the couple passes away. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. For all of us, today is all we have.

I moved on to Ybor City, which isn’t all that far in miles but is a world away from Ft. DeSoto. I walked the famed 7th Avenue, watching people begin work in the restaurants. The bar hoppers from the night before had been gone for just a few hours. I saw people whose world has collapsed to the images only they know, talking to people only they can see. I saw restaurant workers and shop owners opening up their establishments with grim expressions on their faces. Ybor is a beautiful part of the city but on that morning, there didn’t seem to be a lot of happiness to be found.

I pulled out my camera to take a photo of a brick building across a side street. Just as I was framing the shot, a car approached and then stopped in the middle of the street — the driver didn’t want to interrupt my photo. That was such a kind gesture on her part. I smiled at her and she smiled back. And for a moment, there was a human connection with a person I’ve never seen before and will never see again, but it will stay with me. That small act on her part changed how I saw things. Suddenly, there was happiness to be found in Ybor City. Until that woman smiled, I had somehow missed it.

I watched sunsets from Bahia Beach at Little Harbor. I watched a young couple be married on the beach as the majestic curtains were drawn on a beautiful day. Over the Memorial Day weekend, the resort was packed with people enjoying each other’s company. For a few minutes, the world seemed to stop for the newly married couple as they posed for photos with the sun setting behind them. It was a beautiful thing to see.

I’m not sure I accomplished much of anything on my vacation, but I’m not Florida’d out anymore. For all of the horrible headlines and all of the bad news on the doorstep, there is incredible beauty here; there is life here. There are good, decent and caring people here and they far outnumber those who make the seemingly non-stop weird Florida news. But despite the 19 million people crowded into this state, there is loneliness, too.

As Americans, we pride ourselves on our rugged individualism, but that’s a very small part of our story. It seems to me that much more was accomplished in the past, when neighbors turned out to raise a barn together, rather than when a rugged individual went off to seek a fortune for himself. There aren’t many people raising barns in South Hillsborough anymore, but what I learned on my vacation is that sometimes a smile is all that it takes.

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