Wednesday, October 24, 2012
A Farewell to Florida
As a young boy, I spent many summer vacations here. My freckled skin turning bright red. The saltwater stinging my eyes. The ocean breeze catching in my shaggy red hair. It was a break from the stagnant heat of a Midwest summer. Growing up in landlocked Indiana, Florida was exotic with its fresh seafood, t-shirt shops, and palm tree lined shopping malls. But it was never a place I imagined living. Yet, I ended up here.
On Thursday, I'll be packing up a truck and driving to New York City to begin another chapter of my life. I've been in Florida for seven and a half years. Honestly, these have been some of the hardest of my young life. I've spent the majority of my twenties here and I've grown into some version of a man, I suppose.
I moved to Florida to pursue my MFA in creative writing at Florida State University. Their master's program is strong and selective and when I was accepted I packed it up and headed to Tallahassee with my partner, Dustin, in tow. At the time, we'd been together just a year and nine months.
Tallahassee wasn't the Florida of my summer vacations. It was small, hilly, and very southern. My time there was mostly focused on school and teaching. I grew as a writer and had a good experience academically. My partner and I made the most of our three years. We attended nearly every cultural festival, parade, or dog outing that occurred and there were many.
When I graduated in 2008, we didn't really have a plan, but we were desperate for a real gay community. We both grew up in small Indiana towns and attended a small liberal arts college in Southern Indiana. Tallahassee was the biggest city we'd ever lived in and it had many things, but a strong gay community was not one of them.
In what would turn out to be a poor career move on my part, we quickly packed up and moved to Orlando. It was a short move. We figured it would give us a chance to experience another part of Florida while we decided the next step.
Our first six months in Orlando were terrible. My partner got a job at Disney and I remained unemployed for six months. This was a huge wake-up call. I realized spending seven years getting a BA in English and an MFA in creative writing didn't really impress the folks in Orlando handing out 7.25 an hour jobs. I was basically overqualified or over-educated for almost everything and not connected enough to get an academic job (which there are very few of here). I've had very little work experience outside of schools. My undergrad was in the middle of nowhere, so I worked in a writing center and an art gallery. In grad school, I was a TA and taught two classes every semester. This gave me great teaching experience, but not much more.
I felt let down. In many ways, I had done what people say you should do, yet here I was with two degrees from good schools and no job. Somehow we survived and I eventually got a job teaching for a for-profit school, which has left me unsatisfied.
We've now been in Orlando for four and a half years. These years have challenged me mentally. They have made me face a reality I didn't want to face, but they have also pushed me to work harder and to go after my goals. I was often depressed and fighting off a lot of internal pressures. I'm extremely hard on myself and I know that. I'm my biggest critic and I felt that everything happening around me was somehow my fault. The only thing I could control was my poetry, so I wrote and wrote and wrote.
It was here, in that state of mind, that I wrote He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices. I'm so proud of my first book and everything that has come from it and I know it is just the start of some really great opportunities. I've also spent the last year writing my second poetry manuscript that is currently titled A History of the Unmarried.
Outside of writing, I've found some of the best friends I've ever had here in Orlando and for the first time in my life I've felt part of a gay community. This has meant a lot to me and will always be something I hold on to as I move forward in life.
A year ago, Dustin and I decided to move to New York City. We gave ourselves a year to save and plan and we just went for it. I have to say that I'm extremely lucky to have found a man who is so willing to try knew things and start new lives with me. We've made a lot of big moves together and this one is our most exciting and challenging.
Since I was a little boy, I've always had an idea of moving to NYC, but I wasn't ever sure it would happen. Now it is. I don't know what this new chapter will bring, but I know that I'm excited to have someone to share it with and so many friends supporting our every step. I'll look back on my Florida years with mixed feelings, but I know some of the people I've met here will be with me forever.
At lunch last week, I told two of my friends that for me Orlando has been like riding a really fun roller coaster that really makes you sick afterward. I don't mean that offensively. I've truly had amazing times here, but the city has also left me empty. I need more. I'm not meant for Florida or this much sunlight. I'm a ginger after all.
-Stephen (Moving on)