Editor’s Note: This is the debut column for Sadie Fitzpatrick, who will use this space to explore the character and quirks that make Ocala uniquely wonderful and occasionally irksome.
I swore I’d never come back.
As an 18-year-old desperate to shed my small-town upbringing, I was determined to leave Ocala in my rearview as I set out for college in South Carolina.
Anonymity didn’t exist in our town. As my mother cautioned every Friday night, whatever I did over the weekend could become fodder for “grocery store gossip” at the Churchill Square Publix on Monday morning. Saying my last name caused others to develop preconceived notions about me, which I despised. College would allow me to see more, do more, become more.
Five hundred miles away from my hometown, I experienced the sweet taste of freedom that college provided. There, no one knew (or cared) who my family was, what my high school grade point average was or what I did in my free time.
At Furman, a world outside of my Ocala microcosm existed. I reveled in its newness:
Making mistakes (the warning not to drink anything served out of a bathtub is legitimate), having my social and political viewpoints challenged (did you know there’s a Green Party?) and meeting people from different religions and ethnic backgrounds (turns out not everyone is a Presbyterian). Over four years, my worldview expanded more than I ever thought possible.
And as all good things do, college came to an end. Strangely, I felt a strong pull to return to my home state, realizing I missed the comfort and familiarity of home. Attending the University of Florida would allow me to pursue a graduate degree in mass communications, the perfect combination of my love of writing and penchant for asking questions. My family was thrilled to have me back in the Sunshine State, but I assured them I wouldn’t be there for long and would certainly not return to Ocala.
My mass communications focus gave me an excuse to write about many subjects I always wanted to explore. I shadowed tattoo artists (fact: your significant other’s name on your body will last longer than your actual relationship with said significant other), took a pole dancing class (extreme lack of coordination means it’s not a viable career option for me if writing doesn’t work out) and followed a jail chaplain as he ministered to suicidal inmates (everyone needs a kind word in their darkest hour no matter what they have done to get there).
My two years of graduate school would surely satisfy my yearning to be in familiar surroundings, and I would leave to pursue a career in public relations or journalism in some far-flung locale.
Then, I met a guy.
I had given my number to a friend who said she had someone she wanted me to meet. Stressed with impending deadlines for my graduate thesis, I gave little thought to the idea of my upcoming date. I assumed it would work out like most blind dates do—awkward, horrible and a great story to share at cocktail parties.
Well, the guy from that blind date and I will celebrate our seventh wedding anniversary this October. We live in the town I swore I would never return to. In fact, the first job I took when I moved back to Ocala was as the director of Communications for our Chamber of Commerce, being paid to promote the place I tried so hard to shake. How’s that for a piping hot serving of humble pie?
Creating a new life here with my husband and discovering facets of Ocala I didn’t know existed through my job with the Chamber made me look at my hometown in a whole new way. It has charm. My heart swells every year at the sight of folding chairs lining the Boulevard days before the annual Christmas Parade. And it has flaws. The good ol’ boy mentality drives me bananas. Good or bad, these are all chapters in my love story with Ocala.
The phrase “Bloom where you’re planted” is one of my favorites. Returning to Ocala has taught me that I can indeed bloom where I am planted; I don’t need to be somewhere else to gain perspective and new viewpoints. I can cultivate new friendships and share ideas through reading, traveling and meeting new and interesting people who challenge me right here at home.
Sprinting full force out of Ocala allowed me to learn more about the world and, in turn, about my-self. In coming home, I’ve realized Ocala has so much more to teach me. I have always been a life-long learner, and I want to continue on this journey of discovery. What can I learn from Ocala? Can Ocala learn from me?
At best, I’ll continue to be challenged and my love for and belief in Ocala will deepen. At worst, I’ll be, as my mama once feared, “grocery store gossip.” I’m okay with both.
Have your own observations about Ocala? Share them with Sadie at firstname.lastname@example.org