Thursday, May 13, 2010

Going to Church

By Cathy Salustri

I am not religious in the conventional sense. I was raised Catholic but it didn’t take. I was always looking above the altar at the statue of Jesus on the cross, wondering what was under his loin cloth, comparing his outfit to Tarzan’s, and feeling a general sense of unease about praying to a tableau that looked like something out of a Wes Craven movie. To make matters worse, I married a protestant. Of course, I later divorced him, so I’m not sure if I go to hell twice or if the second sin cancels out the first. In all, I found Catholicism not to my liking.
If someone tried to label my beliefs, they might say I endorse ideology that’s part pantheism (the idea that you can find god in nature) and part Buddhism (I think Nirvana is a nifty idea). It’s much easier for me to find proof of a higher power while I’m paddling my kayak through a mangrove tunnel than it is in a climate controlled building where everyone’s dressed up to impress each other, and I get a glimpse of nirvana every time the sun sets. There is no hypocrisy in nature; it transcends humanity.
When I start to lose my way, I find my way down to the water. The smell of the beach at low tide brings me peace. When the things that fill my days threaten to overwhelm me, I sit by the sand dunes and watch the sun go down. It reminds me that there are grander notions in the world than my set of problems.
If I believed in church, Fort DeSoto would be mine. A walk on the east beach clears my head; hiking the trails north of the Arrowhead picnic area refreshes my soul. It is the place where I go to, as Buffett said, to count all my blessings and remember my dreams. I’ve walked countless miles on its beaches, mending a broken heart or meditating on a life change. I brought my Dalmatian, Madison, there on the last day of her life and held her in the water. We went there so many days of her life it seemed the best place to say goodbye.
These are all reasons I wholeheartedly applaud the idea of charging admission to the park. The Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners considered it last year, but ultimately discarded the idea. Commissioners say it’s a budgetary issue. I don’t know; I haven’t looked at the budget. I favor it because I think it would keep some of the idiots at bay.
I love Fort DeSoto on Tuesday mornings the most. Nobody’s there. The beaches are clean and the wind is the loudest thing I hear. The hush over the park is not unlike the quiet I remember from church as a little girl.
Still, there are four times a year when Fort DeSoto is off limits for me: weekends, Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day. I went down there once after Memorial Day and I wept at what I saw: crows picking through garbage on the beach, plastic bags blowing into the water, and starfish and crabs brought up on shore and left to die. Partiers broke into my church, peed on the altar, and covered stained glass windows with graffiti.
On these days it’s a different park entirely. To follow through with the church-type sentiments, it’s a den of iniquity, a boozefest with sand. No one there has any respect for the sanctum of the park. Loud music drowns out the sound of black snakes over the leaves or the swish of an owl’s wings at twilight. You can barely see the grass for the trash around the picnic areas; dirty diapers and empty beer cans litter the park and beaches.
The park staff does an amazing job cleaning up, but when some people don’t even attempt to put their trash in the garbage, they’ve got an insurmountable task. After the weekend warriors climb into their RVs and old Buicks and drunkenly swerve their way home, these templars of the park move about with trash bags, trucks, and gloves, undoing the ravages of the day.
I don’t expect the proposed admission fee-- $8 a car—will keep folks from throwing their beer bottles and paper plates on the ground, but it will do two other things: reduce the amount of people entering the park and funding the positions to keep it clean.
Like many others who frequent Fort DeSoto, I think of it as “my” park. I have my own private places there, off the beaten path, where I can be the only one in the world. Seeing my places desecrated after Memorial Day makes me alternately angry and sad.
It’s like this: I’m there more than three times a year. Some days I’m there four days a week, sometimes it’s just once a month. But the people who come once a year to throw a party? They’re Christmas Catholics who come to church once a year; they don’t know the congregation and they don’t get what church is all about.
I know my church. I know the birds and the hare and the raccoons and the snakes; I know where to find baby horseshoe crabs and where to see manatee. What’s more, I feel responsible for them. The pigs who come and trash their home? They don’t know the park. They don’t want to know it.
Admittedly, an admission fee won’t keep the pigs out or make them care. It will, however, slow them down. Because until I reach Nirvana, Fort DeSoto’s the closest I can get. To me, that’s worth the price of admission.

3 comments:

  1. Dear Cathy, Again you take my unarticulated words and my breath away. Thank you for a lovely meditation that goes way deeper than the stated intention (Budget and entrance fees to the parks)

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  2. Dear Cathy,

    Thanks for the reflection. As a Gulfport resident, I can kayak or bicycle to Ft. Desoto and I consider the Arrowhead Picnic Area my personal "dojo". Whether I walk the self-guided nature trail or sit on the swing bench and look for dolphins, just being there has a calming effect. (Once, when I was leaving FL for an indeterminate length of time, I went to Arrowhead to say goodbye. I did not say goodbye to most of the people in my life. It is that important to me.)

    However opposed to the desecration of our "church" I may be, I oppose charging an entrance fee. Ft. DeSoto needs to be enjoyed by all and I think the $8.00 fee would be cost prohibitive for many.

    I hope Pinellas County can figure out a cost-effective way to clean up after every event. I, for one, will volunteer for beach clean-up after reading your post.

    Thanks for the motivation.

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