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Do you revisit the places that formed you?

Every year after Labor Day, when the tourists have mostly cleared out from the Florida resort town where my parents live, I pay them a visit. I haven’t lived in Florida since I was five years old, but in my youth we vacationed here a lot, and my parents retired here in 1990. My sister built a business here, and it was on the “sugar sand beach” of the Redneck Riviera that I’ve made some of my best decisions.

I have a love-hate relationship with this place. When the water is calm and clear it is hauntingly beautiful, and there are people I love here. It’s a friendly place, where everyone says hello. But I hate being hot. When it’s 90 degrees and 90% humidity and the Gulf is 85 degrees, you can  walk from the sand straight into the water and hardly notice the difference. Much of the Emerald Coast was ruined by uncontrolled development, and while my parents live between the blight that is Destin and the blemish of Panama City, I still think it’s gorgeous only as long as you’re facing the water. Turn inland and it can be depressing.

But I love visiting here, and I especially loved visiting our house in old Destin, before it was torn down. It was one of those classic Florida houses, built on pilings to weather storm surges, as it was right on Joe’s Bayou. Returning to the places I’ve lived pulls at something deep within me. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn,” says Isaiah, “and the quarry from which you were dug.” I do the same thing whenever I’m in Rome: I retrace the way to my old neighborhood and the complex where we had a penthouse apartment with a pool on the roof. Those were the days when my father’s company thought they had to compensate him for the hardship of living abroad, so he was making money hand over fist. It was our Dolce Vita.

But it was something more than that. The last time I stood on our tiny street, paved long after we left, and gazed up at the jasmine draped over our terrace, I wondered: Why is this ritual so important to me? Why do I make my way back here, like a salmon fighting its way upstream, as if something important is waiting for me at the end though I’m not sure what?

In the salmon’s case it’s Sex and Death, but the last time I stood on via Bernardino Molinari and asked that question, the answer was clear: “This is a place that formed me.” It was here I learned that my country is not the center of the universe. It was here I got to experience being different from the majority: being blonde in Italy in the years before women colored their hair meant standing out in every crowd. Strangers on the bus would run their hands through it. Of course, Roman men on public buses had free-range hands, so it was there, too, that I learned the combination of glaring and swearing that proved effective most of the time.

It was also in Rome that I first encountered the idea that the Christian faith is more than church services and being “nice.” The story of Pentecost tells us that Christianity should set your hair on fire, and if it doesn’t, you’re missing something important. I met Christians in Rome who were definitely on fire, and if some of them blazed out of control, they still taught me something of what it looks like when people take this stuff seriously.

Do you revisit the places that formed you? Maybe they’re not geographic places; maybe they’re books, or films, or even people. We visit the places that formed the saints, the People of the Blazing Hair, and call it pilgrimage. What if we went on pilgrimage to the important places in our own lives? Would that mean taking the call on our lives a little more seriously? Who knows, we might end up becoming saints ourselves. When I’m in Florida, even my hair feels hot.