Tuesday, June 2, 2020

CENTERED IN PADUCAH




“Nothing grows unless it taps into the soil.”
William Carlos Williams

In his collection of essays, Scott R. Sanders writes about the influence of place in determining his centeredness.  He vividly describes growing up in northeast Ohio, absorbing the landscape and the mid-western psyche.  Reading his account, I began to wonder how his perspective on personal history applied to my own experience.

My story is not unique. After leaving home for college I returned only for family affairs.  For the next 14 years I lived in Annville and Philadelphia PA, Akron OH, Havelock NC, and Wilmington DE.  Seventeen years in Wilmington were followed by seventeen more in Elkton MD. This summer will mark our fifteenth year in Paducah.  The series of earlier moves were prescribed by the educational and career paths I chose.  Later moves were personal choices dictated by life’s evolving journey. Wilmington provided my first real sense of community, primarily the result of active participation in the medical community as well as involvement in church affairs.

In Maryland our initial focus was on making a “fixer up” farm our home. Patience was deeply involved with the horses, and later, her dogs.  I was busy with my art, and we both had part time jobs.  Later we both were committed to our new medical practice. None of these interests and activities created any significant sense of community. My art, and Patience’s interest in dog shows created for us a wide spread regional network of friends and activities, but involvement in local affairs was minimal.

It was in Paducah that we first experienced involvement with the entire community, and not just isolated professional or special interest segments.  The Artist Relocation Program created an almost instant community for those of us who arrived from distant states.  But it did not take long for us to feel welcomed, and appreciated by the community at large.  (Within weeks the mayor appointed Patience to a special committee to review Paducah’s dog ordinance.)  Our circle of friends and acquaintances gradually grew beyond the Lowertown neighborhood as we became involved in community affairs. It wasn’t long before Paducah felt like home.

“Why Paducah, so far from where we started? What is it about the city that allows us to feel this way?  When describing Paducah to family and friends back home, descriptive words that come to mind are: contained, intimate, sophisticated, and authentic.

You know where you are wherever you are in Paducah.  Perhaps not immediately; first one has to figure out the “loops”, and not get thrown by seeing signs for routes 60, 62, and 45, every where you look.  Neighborhood boundaries are well defined, and every area and neighborhood has its own unique character.  The city doesn’t sprawl.  Downtown is small, friendly, and intimate.  One can easily walk to and from all of the entertainment sites, restaurants, and shops. The mall area, midtown, the growing “Strawberry Hill” area, and the “south side”, are easily reached from all points in the city.

Paducah’s intimacy is more than geographical. It also exists at a personal level, in local government, institutions, and civic organizations.   Anyone with an interest can become involved with any or all of the above.  In Paducah being on a first name basis with city officials and other local leaders is commonplace.  In spite of all that it has to offer: art, music, theater, museums, and fine dining, Paducah is a small town.  But as former mayor Gayle Kaler once said to me, “Paducah is a city that lives larger than it is”. There is nothing pretentious about Paducah and Paducahans. The default psyche of this city and its citizens is one of friendliness and openness that together foster a sense of belonging.

After 15 years here my only regret is that I did not go to Tilghman High School.  I am convinced that everyone in Paducah not only went to Tilghman, but they were in the same class as everyone else.  And those that didn’t grew up on farms in Graves County before moving to Paducah.

If Sanders is correct regarding the influence of place in determining one’s centeredness, then Paducah must weigh heavily in my own case, along side of those first 18 years on a our family farm in southern NJ.

We may have tapped into Paducah’s soil a little late in life, but not too late to grow.











Tuesday, April 21, 2020

FREEDOM = RESPONSIBILITY




FREEDOM & RESPONSIBILITY

There has been a lot about Freedom recently. Protesters with guns are complaining that they are being denied their freedom to work, to go to church, and to congregate in large crowds. They embrace the word freedom, but ignore the responsibility that comes with it, reducing it to a meaningless word designed to trigger an emotional “gut” response in the listener or reader. A recent diatribe on social media against some perceived broach of “freedom” ended with the declaration, “we are born free”.

What does it mean to be born free? That we are not born into serfdom or slavery? That we are born with the freedom to think, say, and act anyway we choose, free from the restraints of the rules of the state, or the community, or our families? That we are born free from any obligations to others, to our community, or to our government? To say we were born free is meaningless.  In this country we share living space with 310 million people, and whatever freedom we want for ourselves must take into consideration everyone else.  This means making compromises and accepting restrictions that would have made no sense 250 years ago. Freedom comes with responsibility to others and to our community. Freedom cannot exist at the expense of the wellbeing of others.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

LUNCH WITH DAD













 I get along well with food. My life long relationship with it can be divided into 3 stages. The first was growing up in a house dominated by my mother’s kitchen, the center of our family life, and heavy with the aroma of garlic, basil, and oregano. Food was seamlessly connected to family and friends, and was an integral part of all social gatherings. All visitors were directed to the kitchen table where they were offered coffee, food, wine, or any combination of the three. This experience was comfortably tucked away in my psyche where it quietly remained for most of my adult life - the second stage. The third stage began gradually as I entered into the so-called Golden Years. As those childhood experiences of food re-surfaced I began to appreciate how much they helped define who I am, and I eagerly embraced them. And the association between food, family, and friends so firmly ingrained in my mind, continues today. I enjoy food more than ever before, and the enjoyment is always greater when Patience and I are sharing our table – or kitchen counter – with family and friends.

In recent years I have become a big fan of the mid-day meal. Regardless of where I am or what I’m doing I usually manage to find time for the lunch. It doesn’t matter if I’m hungry or not. At 12 o’clock I leave the studio, cross the breezeway into the kitchen and call – actually yell – to my wife that it’s “time for lunch”. The meal is usually a simple affair with little cooking required, and generally consists of whatever I find in the fridge: leftovers, roasted peppers, cheese, Mortadella or salami, and a fresh tomato when available. With Patience’s homemade bread, and a little olive oil and Balsamic vinegar, anything is possible. A recent addition to my lunch menu is the 8-minute egg – an undercooked hardboiled egg cut lengthwise, drizzled with olive oil, salt, and black pepper - simple, elegant, and delicious.

But in addition to being one of the simple pleasures in my life, lunch has become a constant reminder of my father, a man who could not hide his enjoyment of food. Like all farmers, my father’s life was defined by long hours of hard work. His day would begin with early morning chores and end late in the afternoon or early evening, interrupted only by breakfast, and the mid-day meal. I can see him sitting at the kitchen table with his face breaking into a satisfied smile as my mother places the food on the table. I can even here the soft audible sigh he would invariably make. It didn’t matter if it was a few leftovers from the night before, or an assorted collection of cheese, bread, peppers, and other “whatever’s”, his enjoyment of each meal was obvious and genuine. Of course if it was pasta the sigh was always a little louder. His mid-day and evening meals were always accompanied by a small juice glass of his red wine from one of the barrels in our cellar.

This simple mid-day meal has become a welcomed oasis in my daily routine. In addition to the delightful flavors that make it such a treat, there are those moments when a particular taste or smell triggers a fleeting memory of my mother’s kitchen. It is easy to imagine my father sitting across from me now, sharing the joy of this simple meal. We raise our glasses and silently toast one another. It can’t get any better than that.

Luciano Pavarotti was correct when he said,
 “One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.”

Bill Renzulli can be reached at wfrenzulli@mac.com

Sunday, November 10, 2019

I AM WHAT I AM


Paducah Sun  ll-10-19

We said our goodbyes, and as he walked away he turned and said, “I’ll see you shortly”, not see you later, or see you next time, but I’ll see you SHORTLY. Even if he was unaware of it, I knew what he was implying.

I was born short, and have remained short in stature all of my life. Sadly, with the years taking a toll on my spinal column, I am becoming even shorter. Most of the time it has been a non-issue. I think the first time I became aware of my shortness was in my pre-pubescent years. I remember aunts and uncles telling my mother that it was only a matter of time before I would “shoot up”. That was the phrase they used, and it has stuck firmly in my mind – shoot up. I don’t remember ever asking my parents about it. They were both short, as was the entire lot of the Renzullis and Rondinellis. I wonder if my parents were concerned about my lack of height. Were they disappointed that I did not “shoot up”. Did I fail them? I don’t want to think about that.

For the most part I am oblivious to my shortness, and it’s only in certain circumstances that I’m forced to deal with it. One that seems to becoming more frequent is being in close proximity to a very tall person. I make a concerted but subtle effort to avoid being so close that I have to look up at them. I will move away to allow some distance between us - 10 or 12 feet for casual acquaintances and 4-6 feet for close friends. My wife says I look all “shifty” when I’m creating this buffer zone, but I don’t believe it.

I recently stumbled across an article about famous Hollywood actors who were short. I thought this would give my self-esteem a big boost, but it was not to be. The actors they were calling short were all taller than me! If you’re 5’5” tall, 5’7” is not short! That’s tall. Over a dozen actors were listed, and they were all taller than me. The only one shorter than me was Danny Devito, my new role model.

The real reason for today’s diatribe is a recent encounter with our new washing machine. It was early morning and I was getting ready to get in the shower when I realized I needed a towel. I yelled to my wife who said clean towels were in the dryer. Still in my underwear, I made my way to the laundry room where I found a towel and proceeded to remove the remaining dry cloths from the dryer. The problem began when I decided to transfer wet clothes from the washer to the dryer. This was my first encounter with our new top-loading washer. The task went smoothly until I reached the last of the cloths, mostly socks, at the bottom of the tub. I stretched by lean sculpted arms as far as they would go, but could not reach the bottom. I stood on my toes and pressed my abdomen hard against the edge of the washer and came tantalizingly close, only to have the *&%#@ socks slip from my fingertips. After several unsuccessful tries I became a cauldron of frustration and determination and would not be satisfied until I got that last miserable sock. I managed to lean over until my feet were no longer touching the floor, balancing on the edge of the washing machine that was now quite familiar with my belly. It was then that I realized the elastic band of my underwear was caught on something, and was the only thing keeping me from reaching the socks. I thought if I began rocking back and forth I might reach the bottom, but quickly dismissed that notion when I almost did a header into the tub and was saved by my underwear, which was now being severely tested. I could only imagine what might have been a nightmare scenario for my sweet wife – finding me lost in the bowels the washing machine with only my legs and feet visible and my underwear around my ankles.  I loved her too much to expose her to that. So I carefully settled back down to the floor, checked my underwear for tears, and grabbed a coat hanger. With some creative twisting I fashioned a hook with which I eventually retrieved the socks. I met Patience in the hallway on my way back to our bedroom. She looked at the deep large red line across my lower abdomen and said, “Oh dear, you didn’t empty the washer did you? There was one more cycle left for that load.”

I wonder if Danny Devito does his own laundry. Probably not.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

I NEED GOD part 2


I need God, but which one? There are at least 5 major religions in the world today, each with their own sacred texts describing the nature of the God they worship. Some believe that theirs is the only true God. It seem obvious to me that there can be only one God, and mankind has interpreted Him differently over centuries of civilizations. (I do not think of God as a person with specific gender. I use the male pronoun only because of tradition and simplicity.) Therefore any narrative about such a supreme deity can quickly become quite complicated. God’s role in the creation of the universe, like everything else about Him, is a matter for debate. For some, He created the universe and everything in it, while others suggest He designed it and set it in motion, allowing the laws of nature to take their natural courses. Still others believe God had nothing to do with anything. Personally, I’m inclined to go with the Grand Designer concept.

As I seek a place for God in my life I have learned that the simpler my concepts of Him are, the easier it is for me to overcome the intellectual barriers I have established. We read stories about God in the Bible, and listen to the words of priests and pastors, but this is all second hand information. Accepting the Bible as the word of God is itself an act of faith, and believing it makes it true for the believer. No one can claim to know God better than anyone else. Some have studied the sacred texts learning about what others have written about Him, and some may be experts on religion and theology, but none of this equates to knowing God. It is impossible to know God. He can only be experienced.

I now find myself caught in a struggle between my heart and my mind. My heart cries out for God to be present in my life, a God that is not bound down by the trappings of religion and religious authority. I don’t want a god that believes everyone is born into sin. I don’t want a god who demands to be worshipped and punishes those that refuse to do so. That is pettiness unbecoming of a god. I want a God who doesn’t care about what I eat, or wear. One who doesn’t care about sexual preference, church attendance, or religious rituals. The God I desire doesn’t categorize people by race, color, or sex. These rigid rules, regulations, and judgments have been created by man in God’s, and are reflections of man’s imperfections and prejudices. All they accomplish is to diminish Him.


If we are God’s creation, directly, or as a result of an evolutionary process He set in motion, then I believe our greatest responsibility is to respect His creation. We can do this by using all of the resources He has given us - a mind to think, an imagination to create, and a heart to love - to be all that we can be, individually and as a community. When we respect God’s creations, we respect Him. And I believe respecting God is more important than worshiping Him. As God’s creation, we have the capacity for love and hate, greed and kindness, and compassion and indifference. We are free to choose how we behave. If there is to be love in this world it has to come from each of us. We cannot abdicate our responsibility to love others to God.

I would like to believe that God is present within each of us, and is available to us if we make the effort to reach out to Him. I also believe a relationship with God is very personal, and is independent of any formal theology or institutional doctrines. I have been writing from my heart, as honestly and openly as I can. I don’t know if God is real, and if He is, I don’t know if my assessment of Him is valid. The only thing I can be sure of is my need to find Him. After almost 50 years of searching I find myself on a path that is surrounded by questions, doubts, and heartfelt longings, a path that seems to be leading me into the heart of life’s ultimate mystery. Perhaps that is where I will find Him.

Each of us has to find our own path to God. It may not be conventional, but it has to be honest. The God I find may be a little different from the God you worship, but that only reflects our personal differences. In the end, God is large enough to accommodate all of our different ideas about Him. Think of the blind men and the elephant.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

I NEED GOD part 1


I need God, I really do, and that is a difficult predicament for an atheist. It wasn’t always that way. While religion and church were not part of my childhood, and as a young man I was indifferent to both, I uncritically accepted the existence of God and the Bible as “His word.” (I do not think of God as a person with specific gender. I use the male pronoun only because of tradition and simplicity.) It was only as a young married adult that the church became an integral part of my life. For over 10 years I was actively involved in the affairs of our church, serving on committees, participating in Bible studies, and even teaching a Sunday school class. The church was the focal point of our family life. I enjoyed the stimulation of the study groups, as well as the company of the many wonderful friends we made. But something was missing. My faith was in my head, and not my heart. There was a hollowness to everything, which eventually caused me to scrutinize my beliefs and non-beliefs.

I believed the Bible was not the word of God, but that it was man’s attempt to understand the world and to describe his notion of God. I was inspired by the teachings of Jesus, but could not accept the idea of an immaculate conception, or his arising from the dead. It felt like everything I was reading and hearing was about someone else’s experience or understanding of God, and all I could do was wonder – “If God was everything He was said to be, why is it so difficult to know Him?” My entire focus was on establishing a relationship with God, and as strange as it may sound, the Bible was proving to be my biggest obstacles. I found help in the spiritual writings of men and women who shared their own stories about their struggles with faith and their search for a place to stand. I was determined to find God by abandoning all reason and opening my heart to Him, keeping Him in my thoughts and prayers all day, every day. I established a routine of disciplined daily prayer, quietly and alone in an unused room in our home. I cannot recall the precise time frame, but within a few months my efforts were rewarded with a deeply moving religious experience. I believed I had been given the gift of faith. As expected, the glow of that moment gradually faded, but my belief in God remained firm in the years that followed. However I could never accept Jesus as anything other than a gifted teacher with an inspiring message of love.

I wrote in my journal, “I searched for God, and found my soul”. I discovered a previously hidden world of an interior life, where matters of the heart could find respite from the insessant drumming of the world around us. I learned the value of solitude and quiet contemplation and prayer, and for the next 35 years God would be my silent companion, helping me navigate the changing paths my life would take. My goal was to be the person I was intended to be, living a quiet and centered life. I like to believe I achieved some degree of success in this effort, and perhaps it was this success that contributed to my falling away from God. The need for Him, consciously and unconsciously, was no longer there. My intellect began to overtake my heart, and recently I’ve became convinced that man created God in his image, and that we don’t need God to live a moral, compassionate, and loving life.  

So why do I need God if I don’t believe He exists? Because without God there can be no prayer, and in my moments of solitude and reflection, which I continue to vigorously pursue, I miss talking with Him. I miss feeling He is listening to me.
Without Him, the random pain and suffering that accompanies human existence becomes intolerable, and the need for justice for the evil acts perpetuated against men, women, and children by others will be denied. But as much as my heart wants Him to be there, it cannot overcome the litany of reasons that support my non-belief. Ironically, I have lived a lifetime following my heart, and not my head.

This journey is far from over.


Friday, September 13, 2019

A LOVE AFFAIR WITH BARNS


I love barns: old and new, large and small, dairy, tobacco, and well kept or falling apart. I think I can honestly say I’ve never met a barn I didn’t like.  This love affair began long before they became subjects for my art. Barns and outbuildings were a part of life growing up on a farm. The barn was a playground for me and my friends, a place for hiding, building forts in the hay, for climbing, and for jumping out of lofts and second story windows. Our barn had little to offer architecturally. It was a plain 3-story structure with a tin roof.  The stone and concrete ground floor that supported the 2 framed floors above, housed the various livestock. The top floors were home to several hundred chickens. It wasn’t until I was old enough to accept the responsibility of daily chores that I developed a new appreciation of our barn. 

Milking the family cow was one of my assigned chores, a task I did under duress during the deep days of summer. The barn was hot, the air thick and heavy, and seated by her udder with my head resting on her flank I would be smacked in the face repeatedly by her tail flipping from side to side to remove the flies constantly settling on her. But on cold winter days it was an entirely different experience. I recall reading that a cow generates enough body heat to warm a small cottage. I don’t know if that is true, but I can say with certainty that the animal gives off heat. Sitting on that stool with my head pressed into her flank was like sitting in front of a heat vent.  There was no tail to worry about, and her teats warmed my hands better than any gloves could. Completing this experience were the kittens that seem to be found in every barn everywhere. Somehow they knew it was milking time and would gather around the milk pail in anticipation; I loved to watch them scramble over each other after I squirted them with a stream of milk. I think milking a cow one more time before my last breath will go on my bucket list.

In the years since leaving the farm I cherished the fond memories of a warm and intimate space, a docile cow, and a swarm of fuzzy kittens. Forty years later there was another barn in another place, with horses instead of cows and sheep. And once again I think of escaping the cold winter wind and relishing the warmth and the smells of the horses and straw in freshly cleaned stalls. (Note the focus on winter, and not the hot, sticky days of summer.) I should also mention that in this barn, my wife did ALL of the mucking...her choice. I got to enjoy the fruits of her labor.)

Beyond my personal experiences, I love barns for their architectural and historic qualities. I am drawn to the drama and the mood of a solitary barn, simple or elegant, sitting alone in an empty field, or the intimacy of a barn and several outbuildings, huddled together to create a family haven. I am especially fond of the rambling dairy barns, where one or more additions have been tacked on to the main structure, concerned only with function. The result? A mish mash of architecture and texture...much to my great delight. Looking at these rural icons, many of them now abandoned or a little more than storage facilities, I wonder about their stories, and the hopes and aspirations of the families they served when they were first conceived. I imagine the livestock in their stalls, cats milling about, and children running around, playing in the hayloft, the barns, elegant or simple, served a central role in the daily life of all members of the farm family.

It is sad to see so many of these wonderful structures fall into disrepair and treated with such little respect and appreciation for all that they have provided. Even the unpretentious tobacco barns with their simple lines and lack of any architectural flare stand as lonely reminders of a life that is quickly becoming only a memory.