The Pie Was a Final Draft: Tourist Eyes

By Michaella Thornton

Florida is a myth and an amusement park for its tall tales and figurative language[1]. Astronauts who launched from this place recount the moon smelling like fireworks. A cheesy mini-golf course where the history of swashbuckling pirate queens Anne Bonny and Mary Read is on display at Hole 15. The gatekeeper at the Kennedy Space Center who jokes with my six-year-old daughter that her footwear isn’t welcome here: “Gators only, kid; no Crocs,” as he shows us a picture of an alligator eating a turtle on his cell phone. “I took this one right outside of the gates.”

Coastal homes painted aquamarine, lilac, coral pink, Spanish moss green, and lemon yellow—colors not usually seen on buildings in the earth-tone-loving Midwest. The Fairchild Oak, one of the largest living live oak trees in the South at well over 400 years old and 78 feet tall, scares my child so badly that she implores me to get into the car and to drive far, far way from this haunted place (and I do, though I am still a sucker for things and places that will outlive us all).

I’d come to Florida as a tourist from the Midwest. I’ve been visiting since my mother brought me and my kid sister when I was about 7 years old, almost 40 years ago. I remember the smell of the ocean and grit of sand on my feet as a land-locked lake-goer. The sheer wonder a new setting conjures, the problems I had elsewhere shaking loose and becoming visible, solvable in this new light.

This June, I feel the heat, well over the 90s, drip down the small of my back and the fierce urge to strip down my writing to its core. To be playful and descriptive and surprising and sleek yet buoyant, for myself and my readers. And while I usually love to explore a baking metaphor in this column, I’m not sure such a metaphor works this time. I could share the bad key lime pie I ordered (why would anyone drizzle strawberry sauce on real key lime pie let alone make it with powdered sugar?) or a recipe for vegan no-bake cookies I’ll make when I get home, but I rather dream about the mermaids of Weeki Wachee or watch the Daytona Tortugas play the Jupiter Hammerheads at Jackie Robinson Ballpark.

I’d rather drive up the Atlantic coast in a Jeep truck I’d never rent or afford because somehow I was upgraded by the rental-car gods and the six year old screamed in excitement when she saw this vehicle in the Jacksonville airport. Tom Petty sings about free falling, and I’ve had enough sleep and caffeine to make such a descent sound appealing.

Which is all to say, whether you travel in body or mind or heart this summer, what would happen to you and your writing if you shifted what you paid attention to, let yourself get a bit more colorful, fantastical, and weird? How might you see old and new writerly problems with tourist eyes? What happens when we shift the scale of our observations to the landscapes and worlds that exist beyond us?

I think a lot about what writer Natalie Goldberg said about Southern writers:

“No matter what a person does to cover up and conceal themselves, when we write and lose control, I can spot a person from Alabama, Florida, South Carolina a mile away even if they make no exact reference to location. Their words are lush like the land they come from, filled with nine aunties, people named Bubba. There is something extravagant and wild about what they have to say — snakes on the roof of a car, swamps, a delta, sweat, the smell of sea, buzz of an air conditioner, Coca-Cola — something fertile, with a hidden danger or shame, thick like the humidity, unspoken yet ever-present.

Often when a southerner reads, the members of the class look at each other, and you can hear them thinking, gee, I can’t write like that. The power and force of the land is heard in the piece. These southerners know the names of what shrubs hang over what creek, what dogwood flowers bloom what color, what kind of soil is under their feet.

I tease the class, ‘Pay no mind. It’s the southern writing gene. The rest of us have to toil away.’”

So, I toil away in a funky little coffee shop next to a frame shop as I write this column on my phone as my daughter enjoys screen time and a sugar cookie with sprinkles. We will lather ourselves with all of the SPF and ready our land-lubber bodies for the great and gorgeous vastness that is the ocean, a body of water, an ecosystem that inspires me to pause and reconsider what limits I’ve put on my attention and imagination.

[1] And a nightmare for those of us like myself who identify as queer, especially LGBTQ+ youth in Florida.

Read Michaella’s other work here at Reckon.

Michaella Thornton

Michaella Thornton

Michaella Thornton learned how to bake at the hips of her mother and her grandmother Anna Lee. A lifetime ago, she baked professionally before realizing baker’s hours require early mornings. Kella’s prose has been featured in Brevity, Essay Daily, Fractured Lit, Hobart After Dark, Reckon Review, New South, Southeast Review, among others, and her writing has been nominated for a James Beard award and Best of the Net. Many moons ago, Kella received her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her daughter.