I arrive in Seaside, Florida on a grey northern Gulf coast January afternoon. Here I have come to join six other artists for the luxury of a month long residency. For one whole month I will live and work here. My days are dedicated to writing and creating a one-man show I debut here for townspeople, most of whom are snowbirds in winter.
Seaside is a tony community in the middle of the Florida panhandle where the sand is white and the water is a chatoyant emerald green. This master-planned community is where the affluent have their second, third and in some rare cases, even fourth homes. This is a place where homes start at $1.2 million. With this residency, I am provided a small weekly stipend, a guest house and a housekeeper for the month, Mrs. Alvarez, who arrives weekly on Tuesdays driving a Cadillac Escalade.
I live in a butter yellow colored guest house with living room furniture upholstered in a tropical print of what looks like large purple cabbages settled amidst other multi-colored flora. Outside the guest house, above the garage is a placard that displays the name of the house: Sunrise Surprise.
Here in my cabin between the beach and the neck of the piney woods, I pick kumquats off of neighbor’s trees and sprigs of rosemary from their bushes.
Seaside is notable for its architecture, a study in New Urbanism, the prize-winning model that found its way into many architectural programs worldwide. The architecture is uniformly modern with pitched ceilings, bell-towers, private gardens, and sandy paths.
The movie, The Truman Show, was filmed in Seaside. It’s an apt place for a movie about a man unaware that he is living in a constructed reality TV show broadcast to millions. He lives in a proverbial bubble. And here, I do, too.
Everything is taken care of here. Nothing seems real. I’m living in a temporary space as if I am on set or living in a dollhouse. Time is never of the essence, I have no worries, and that drives me insane.
How I wish I would see a cobweb, a dirty dish, or a rusty clunker of a car-something to offset the sterling veneer of this community. Here I am sequestered away from the problems of the world. Separated from them, I realize that most of my problems are of my own design. When all is perfect around you, one quickly recognizes one’s own frailties and inadequacies.
I don’t understand my place in this community. This is a community that I will entertain, that I will perform for. In less than two weeks.
I’m desperately seeking inspiration that I usually find so readily in my community back home in Kansas City. I’m desperate to get out of my head, to assuage my stabbing anxiety, to quell this strange new feeling of disconnection and loneliness.
I bike to the town square. I catch my reflection in the windows of the businesses that I bike past and I don’t recognize myself. I see posters of my upcoming show in a town where I know no one.
The clerk at the record store makes several recommendations all of which I impulsively buy. He recommends a new band, Alabama Shakes. He tells me that they don’t even have an album out yet but that I should look them up on youtube.
I bike back home and look up the band and I hear their song “You Ain’t Alone.”
“You ain’t alone, so why you lonely?”
I watch the video compulsively over and over again. I sit at the dining room table, singing along and weeping.
I try to write but I don’t know what I’m writing or who I’m writing for. I don’t know my audience and I don’t know who I am in this place.
In the next few days, I make it a mission to seek out stories, to glimpse behind the curtains and the sleek facades.
I discover a lonesome Occupy sticker on an Airstream, I see a man with a tattoo sleeve, I see a person of color. I commiserate with the other artists.
I spend a lot of time at the bookstore. I talk with the clerk and she tells me a story that shocks and inspires me.
Behind the perfect exterior of this beautiful town there is a terrible story, a scar on the beautiful sunkissed skin of this utopia. Shortly after the community was developed in the early 1980s, a young married couple moved to Seaside.
One night, the man, high on a drug and alcohol bender, attacked his young wife by repeatedly smashing her head into her nightstand. She became paralyzed from the neck down and her husband soon killed himself, presumably out of guilt.
Shortly thereafter, the woman fell in love and remarried—this time to a man who devoted himself to videotaping the splendidly numinous sunsets from different vantage points along the beach. He does this daily and plays the videos for her from the multiple monitors they have peppered through their home so that she may always see, so that she may always be connected to the beauty of this place, the beauty of this life. The bookstore owner tells me about this woman, about the documentary made of her life in which she says of her situation:
“If you hold still long enough, the world comes to you.”
I think of this as I go out to the beach where I sit and draw circles around me in the sand. Nothing is as it appears and perspective is everything.
I stare out beyond the sunset and onto the horizon, the line between earth and air, and I take a deep breath.
I think of the show that I have to write, of the words that I will speak that have yet to come. On the beach, I close my eyes and listen, holding still just waiting for the world to come to me.