Florida Beach Cottages

This autobiographical piece was a series of journal notes that were a long time in the making. Because I am a native Floridian and a true Florida“cracker,” these notes were compiled from visits to the beach over a series of several years. The impressions of the old versus new surrounding a way of life and cottage industry led me to create some kind of arc to this story.  Because I am a devout fan of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gifts from the Sea, this was an attempt to bring her very salient musings and creative prose into the realm of the beachgoer living in the twenty-first century.


The oddest thing about the beach cottages of my youth is that some of the old ones are still there. They still exist by the seashore as you drive down the beach and look at high-rises that float above the horizon. As you are driving by, the impersonal landscapes and gated areas tend to make you feel very small and insignificant, especially when you think about the number of people sandwiched into an average condominium at the beach.

But the beach cottage of the fifties was unique and individual and existed as a stand-alone that was your very own beach getaway.  It was created to be unique and accessible.  The cottages were not like the indifferent cookie-cutter condo sets that you now see littered down the highway just as far as the untrained eye can see.

The beach cottage was a place where it was hot and there was sand and grime.  The grittiness of the sand was felt beneath your feet, and you never cared about being too clean while staying at the cottage.  It was meant for you to crunch in sand as you walked and ate and slept and read.

The weird thing was that no one seemed to mind the fact that there was the crunch of sand in your sandwiches as you stayed at the cottage, perhaps because the food was something that you could not get at a fast food joint, but instead was fixed as you stayed right there on the beach.

You would make your sandwich while the overhead fan blew everything about and the jalousie windows were open, and they conspired to announce to all and sundry what you were fixing.  You came to stay on the beach when you went to the beach in those days.

Now when we go, we look out a window from an air-conditioned view. Air conditioning has changed the landscape.  It has changed the fabric of our lives, and it has changed us, not always for the better, I might add.

The beach cottage did have units with air conditioners, but they didn’t control our lives. There were usually one or two wall units small enough to fit in the windows.  They rattled like mad, and one could switch them on or off at will.  We controlled the units then, but automatic air can control us at a constant rate now. Oh, we talk a good game, and everyone will admit to loving the air-conditioned way of life, but we are the ones who are “conditioned,” not the air, and that’s a sad fact.

I have an uncle who used to swear he hated air conditioning.  I didn’t know what he meant and couldn’t possibly fathom anyone hating a/c, but now that I am older, I know what he meant. I, too, would love to be able to say I hate air conditioning, but I am as much a slave as are we all to that unit that blows through our lives and controls and conditions our every waking moment.

We have seen the enemy, and it is us.  We are doing this to ourselves when we live in the splendid isolation of the bubble.  We are all losing bits and pieces of our lives when we live indoors to the extent that we do now. The a/c and the confining nature of our surroundings have changed us into something other than primal man.  What then do you suppose will evolve from all this cozy nesting that we are doing?

Bears hibernate in winter and come out for the spring air, but we simply cocoon our lives away.  Video games, I suppose, are going to be our legacy.  But in a different era, beach cottages were open to the elements of earth and wind and sun and water.  Something happened along the way, but at one time, we could return to nature by the seashore.

The truth is sad that we cannot go home again, a least not back to the simpler lives that we lived when we were young.  Now every portion of our lives is lived in the fast lane. Everything is accelerated and sped up to the extent that no one is ever alone, and one is always isolated at the same time. How did that happen?

How did we begin to live in such a bubble of isolation? We seem trapped in the room that Stanley Kubrick isolates his spaceman in at the end of 2001.  Our lives seem to parallel a movie, where we hurtle through space and time in an exciting vortex of events that all converge on one single point of remembrance to find us back in an isolated room that is completely quiet and devoid of life and filled with antiseptic white colors.  That has become the existence of “future man,” if we are not careful. Perhaps, like Scrooge, we may avoid such a fate if we learn to live outside the ever-expanding vortex of isolation that cocoons us.

Recent trips to the beach are reminiscent of when I was growing up and loving the beach condo—not a bungalow—that my family owned for many years. Although it wasn’t satisfactory in every way, it served its purpose and was a throwback to the past, as it was built in the fifties. In some ways its very nature was that of a simple and un-fussy old-time beach bungalow. The downsides were many. We couldn’t bring our dogs along—no dogs were allowed—and we had to travel downstairs to sink our toes in the sand.

But there was the view. And there were rushing waves at night as you sat on the enclosed balcony. And there was a pool and lots of privacy and exclusivity from the run-of-the-mill machinations involved in parking our steaming car and carrying loads of debris to run up to a sandy spot on the beach and park ourselves for hours on end. This was far superior. And there were the long walks in the sand. We were located next to a strip of houses where wealthy residents dwelled in big beach houses, which meant that for long stretches of the year, no crowds of people resided there, and large pockets of tourists were not forcing you to run the gauntlet through the crowds on the beach. It was exclusive in that respect.

Now we are going to the beach less and less. There is not even a beach condo, and my last trip found me bumped to a penthouse suite for reason of faulty plumbing in the lesser room with a view. We were sent up high to gaze down amid the clouds and an occasional bird as it floated past. The sunsets were beautiful, and the people were like small dolls. Oddly, I could still feel connected by the music that floated up on a wave of beer and reggae as I sat and looked out at night on the old familiar views of sea and lights turning on.

We were too remote and removed in this place, though. It seemed too high up, and there were too many people on the beach as we walked among the crowds. So there is no satisfaction in a return trip to the sea. The sea is for gazing and for reflection. It is not for crowds, nor is it for far-removed ocean views high above the clouds. There is less pleasure mixed with some satisfaction from gazing so far down onto the beach.  Is this where we will be? Looking down on creation from the world of Metropolis, far removed in a bubble where there are two classes of people in the world?

Someone recently predicted that we will live in a world where only wealthy elites will be able to have the privilege of ownership of houses. The rest of us will rent, I suppose. There is this thought: The ownership class of elites will be composed of those owning houses as opposed to homes, and the rest of the world will be lesser for that.

If you have ever read Gift from the Sea, you come to it first of all simply absorbing the beautiful writing. The second impression is one of isolation of class and wealth and beauty. A woman with time on her hands can contemplate the many days it takes to unwind on vacation at the beach. The gift of the sea is the chance to unwind.

One of our society’s ways of unwinding these days is through meditation. Moments of time that stretched out days and weeks for Anne Morrow Lindbergh now become just seconds and hours stolen away in our world. The modern world often doesn’t translate to the beach life, but then we are so far away from our past that time sometimes turns a circle in our modern minds, and we are back to childhood. In fact it’s only a moment away, and there one can picture the type of life that has slipped away from us.  In our instantaneous world of electronic gizmos and jing tinglers and flu floopers and all the other imagined things we propose to need so badly, we cannot fathom the life Lindbergh led for weeks on end. She sat and wrote and contemplated—perhaps her navel or other things—but she allowed herself to simply exist. That luxury is not afforded us.

We can’t live without our things, yet we can’t live in the same old way when we use all our things. A young girl I knew scrambled frantically for her cell phone in the car one day the same way our dog roots for its bone. The cell phone had slipped through a crack in the seat, and she was pathetically desperate to recover her lifeline. We are hunter-gatherers, and we are hunting and gathering the wrong things, the result of the modern age of information. Almost all of us are armed for intelligent conversation, yet hardly any of that intelligence is on display. It is all going to be information stored away and available at our fingertips, yet none of it is ever questioned or needed.

We need to begin asking the right questions. Take for example Watson, the super computer that played his heart out on Jeopardy.  Let’s ask Watson this:  Is mankind capable of continued existence on this planet? For how much longer are we going to be able to subsist, and what is out future going to be like? Are we ever going to be happy?

What is the meaning of life? Were we sent here to help each other and advance in science and technology to the point where we don’t need each other? What about God? How do we find our true selves, and how do we advance our existence to a higher plane?

How can we truly learn to love one another? To be continued for another space and time, I think Watson would say. And then we may decide it’s time to return to the sea.


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