It’s a thinly veiled secret on From Swamp to Summit that I’m from Orlando. That Central Florida city where one looks in vain for a hill to train on and ends up resorting to staircases. Staircases have been good to me. I’ve made it up Kilimanjaro, Mt. Elbrus, Illiniza Norte and Cotopaxi. And more to come. I hope.
I may not have grown up here, but Orlando and Florida reach out to you with their sticky sweaty humid hands and hold you close to their hearts. I moved here in the middle of 1989. Sight unseen. True story. It was a snowy night in New York and husband J, who was finishing his Ph.D. at NYU received a tenure track offer at a small liberal arts college here. I’d never even been to Florida on spring break but after J interviewed in Orlando and described the smell of orange blossom, I was sold.
So after a brief diversion through Greece and Turkey (another blog post in and of itself) we found ourselves, our one room of furniture, and our cat Chelsea in this city we’ve called home for over 25 years.
A swamp does describe life in Orlando this week. But not the life giving jungle green of the Everglades wetlands. More the brown slough of despond. Exactly one week ago I awakened early, despite having been out in downtown Orlando the night before at a concert. And across my phone came word that at least 20 had been killed at the Pulse nightclub, not far from where we had been and a few blocks from my office. By mid morning the number had increased to 50. 49 victims and the gunman.
This massacre was framed by the Friday night shooting of a singer from the Voice, followed by the suicide of the killer, and the tragedy a day after the Pulse shootings of the drowning of a two year old by an alligator at a theme park lagoon.
The City Beautiful, as Orlando likes to call itself, didn’t look so beautiful anymore. On Monday evening I found myself at one of many vigils around the city at a makeshift memorial that has sprung up in front of the Performing Arts Center. There’s not enough public space in Orlando and what has happened there shows why people need to have a place to come together. There are candles, ribbons, photos, posters, notes written on paper chains. People standing are reverent. Nearly everyone I know has made a trip there.
On Thursday, President Obama and Vice President Biden arrived. I watched the motorcade from my office window, together with some of my partners. I’ve seen many grown men cry in the last few days.
That night, J and I went back to the memorial. A motorcycle club had its bikes lined up, illuminated in rainbow colors. They revved their engines, and a speaker for the club stepped forward and asked the several hundred assembled there to hold hands and observe a moment of silence. Everyone did.
Rainbow flags are flying all over the city and practically every public building has been illuminated in the now familiar red, yellow, orange and blue colors. Tonight is a city wide commemoration that is supposed to be non religious, non political, and non branded. Just a time for people to be together. We’re going to walk down there.
Perhaps after today, and the symbolism of one week later, healing will start.
It’s a long way up any mountain. And it’s going to take Orlando a while to slog up this one. But I know that Orlando and its people have what it takes.