“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.