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2023 in review- condos, sharks, lifeguards, and love

 Writing always brings me back home to myself. When turbulence comes, and life gets uncomfortable, writing is the sturdy, strong rescue buoy in the storm that pulls me back to shore.

Many days in 2023, I told my partner, Kelly, "I wish to live today all over again."

We'd wake early with the sunrise, make our coffees, and drive to the ocean -- just a few minutes away from her house on the west end or mine on the east. Some mornings, we'd jump in, swimming with the seasons. Cooling us in the summertime, when our skin (mine) was usually slightly burned. In the fall, we dove under the water and in-between Portuguese man o' war, smaller innocuous jellies, and though we never swam next to them-- dolphins rising out of the water, sea cows (manatees), sting rays, and others. 

I was once stuck with a remora for an entire swim in from the end of the pier, which terrified me then. I kept brushing it off my bare skin belly, but it kept coming back and finding a new piece of skin. It stayed upside down and suctioned to my skin like a leech for the entire 300-yard swim back to shore.

I learned later that remora is also referred to as "sucker-fish," they are known to adhere themselves with their oval-disk mouths and ride along with larger sea creatures-- typically sharks.

And yes, I did see a few sharks.

2023 was my first entire season as a beach lifeguard. Over 27 miles of flawless coastline, with only six lifeguard towers. There should be at least one lifeguard tower every half-mile, making 54 towers.

Panama City Beach was named "America's Deadliest Beach" due to the high number of drownings in 2023.

In our zones, we had zero fatalities-- but we responded to calls outside of our zones, hopping onto ATVs or into trucks, and some of those individuals we lost. They did not make it back alive.

I was never on one of those calls where we had to pull in someone who didn't make it, but several of my co-workers did. Rip currents are very serious, especially if one does not know what they are and how to navigate when pulled into one. 

The best thing to do is swim parallel to the shoreline. Maintain your breath and float. Stay above the water-- do not fight the current by trying to swim against it (this is like being in an Infinity Pool)-- escape sideways, float, and then return to shore. 

Our shifts are 10 hours long. They are loonnggg days, from March-October.

My first call was a young boy, a teenager-- stuck in a rip current. My heart began beating intensely, and my breath quickened. Beach patrons started yelling to me. I grabbed my buoy, ran to the water, dove under a few waves, and quickly pulled him sideways out of the rip current and to the shore.

A few other calls were different: a girl going into anaphylactic shock after getting stung by a jellyfish; a drunk mother not noticing her child was drowning right next to her -- when I swam out to get her child, she looked at me with surprise, and said "OMG!! Are you a REAL lifeguard??" She had the floatie, and her child had lost grip. I watched as this little girl did not call to her mother for help. My heart sank as I watched this little girl struggle and not call for help. I pulled her into shore, asking the mother to also come in.

I bought my first home. A condo on the bay. 

It drained me financially after paying all the hidden little fees one has to pay when they purchase a home entitled under "closing costs." It was thousands higher than we thought it would be. But through the process, I met a hard-working, solid woman who fought and fought for me to get a place of my own. I found Tracye Crass through Zillow, and she toured home and home with me and my parents when they were in town. She was always available and ended up closing with me on a one-bedroom condo. 

My parents left the roller-rink they were at with their grandkids to sign documents and get them in before the end of business on a Friday. It was all rushed and intense, and I was stuck without a home for a few weeks as the closing date kept getting pushed back due to unforeseen issues.

My parents were warriors. Tracye was a warrior. Kelly was a warrior for helping me move from my apartment to a rented room for a month, to her place for a week, and finally to my place.

I adopted a rescue pit bull named Goldie. I'd never been around pit bulls before and did not know of their protective nature. Or their high prey drive. Or their constant, never-ending need for cuddles and love. She has caused me a lot of anxiety because she is highly reactive. She is okay with some dogs and others, with no warning, she is not okay. I stopped taking her to dog parks and worked with two different trainers to learn her temperament. I started watching videos on how to train pit bulls. How to break their locked-eye stare. And began to learn her body movements more. Tail straight up -- no good. Tail wagging-- good. 

Living alone, however, I never have to worry about my safety. 

When a stranger approaches that she doesn't feel good about, she wraps her body around me, peeking her head next to my knee like an eel ready to attack. This tells me she doesn't think this person is safe. In other cases, she leads, tail wagging, body wiggling low to the ground-- I know she feels this person is safe.

I have loved this process with Goldie, learning her behavior and how to support her feeling safe. Dogs react because they do not feel safe. They are anxious. Something happened in her past, things which I will never know, but I get to work with her now to learn how to make her (and me) feel safe.

I fell in love, slowly.

This love has been unlike any other (and no, not just because she's a woman). Kelly and I's love was slow, built upon trust and patience. She never made false promises to me and manipulated me to do things with her-- she is the King of Self Care.

She has shown me how to better care for myself and others. She has a servant's heart. She prays for those who pray against her. She waits.

And she has waited for many, many years. 

I didn't share much about my relationship because I knew there would be great questions, Christian division, and since sharing about our engagement-- there have been. I have lost friends; a few have "unfollowed" or "unfriended" because of my love with her.

That's okay.

They have the right to feel how they feel-- but so do I.

Since our engagement in October, I've had a lot of hard conversations. I've been informed that my life is out of God's will and that I am not living as God intended. I expected all of this. And though I cannot tell them they are wrong if they feel this way, I only expect the same respect in return. I get to experience love, true love, for the first time in my life. Not built upon what "I think love should look like" or "what others want for me."

In 2023, I listened to many We Can Do Hard Things podcasts and Taylor Swift. Spotify Wrapped was all about it.

Taylor Swift had a smashing, down-right dominating year. And she did it gracefully, without throwing shade on the many haters who have come against her.

I find her path inspiring and encourages me to continue living the way I have been for a year-- simply, quietly, happily me.

I ask myself what TJ would say, and all I see is him smiling slightly, eyes sparkling, watching me with delight, and wondering how in the world I have become so carefree, so unapologetically, Emilee.

I'm grateful he always made me safe to be me. And still today, I am grateful.

My one word for 2023 is healing.



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