After my divorce I almost left Jackson to live on the Appalachian Trail, expecting to leave for six months and return somehow different, new, and with a long beard. I also contemplated living in my Subaru, hopping from town to town like a wandering nomad. I even considered becoming a farmer, finding friends among the crops and pigs. These grand ideas seemed like I was running toward an adventure when in fact I was running away from a life that was a reminder of how I married too young and failed, was without a bachelors degree, and was lacking a career. Hitchhikers or backpackers or farmers don’t need degrees or resumés—just clothes and dreams.
In Jackson I’m Anthony with the missing wedding band, surrounded by whispers and rumors, but in Yosemite, or the Alaskan wilderness, or even the Gulf, I’m just bachelor Anthony leaving and being unknown, creating a new identity. For a season jetting was my plan. I had a desire to be mysterious like James Bond or Gatsby, being admired for handsomeness, smooth talk, and a way with the ladies. I coveted their extravagant lives, beyond reach and put together. But as we learn when we watch the movie or read the book, plot developments reveal a lack of community and love, creating a lonely, tragic existence. What would I gain by adventures of solitude? I may create place attachment and acquire stories of near-death experiences, but does this trump shared moments? Yes, we need great stories. But we need listeners of our stories willing to feel with us and participate even more.
Working six years in Jackson coffee shops will certainly connect you. I’ve prepared mochas for Hollywood actors, local musicians, Norwegians, mayors, homeless men, Miss Tennessee contestants, and businesswomen. I know a lot of Jacksonians and West Tennesseans by name. When out with my mom, she jokingly asks, “Do you know everyone?” I don’t go many places without seeing a familiar face and starting conversation. I know people. More importantly I am known by people. Knowing people creates pride, status, and popularity, but being known by others adds an extra layer of humility requiring a level of vulnerability. This transparency is risky and undoubtedly leads to given and received hurt. Through this we understand grace: caring for one another through the hard stuff.
Both me staying in Jackson and leaving Jackson requires baggage, one emotional and the latter physical. As most of my friends know, I process my thoughts out-loud to sort through emotions, insecurities, and excitements. So often I’m assisted with unpacking, whether it be while eating wings, drinking a cup of coffee, or circled around a campfire. My failures and worries aren’t just burdens but a part of my story that friends not only want to hear but to also be a part of. I was surprised by the support of friends who seemed to be overlooking my failures but in reality simply cared for me as I am. My story is heard, somewhat understood, and accepted without judgment. They care for my heart.
Leaving was not necessary to be different and new. If I abandoned Jackson I would still be a divorcee, degree-less, and without a beard. Staying in this place transforms me through commitment to people and places. Christian thinker Timothy Keller writes, “Our character is mainly shaped by our primary social community—the people with whom we eat, play, converse, and study.” Jackson has shaped my character using friends, family, an ex-wife, and coworkers. Yes, I’ve had valuable revelations while road-tripping and in the wilderness, but I am who I am because of the encouragers, the realists, the doubters, and the listeners in my life, each playing a vital role in my growth—sometimes easy and other times challenging. In Jackson I find acceptance discovering a community that fosters inclusion.
Anthony Kirk wears the Starbucks green apron keeping Jackson caffeinated. When not connecting with coffee shop goers he’s reading a book by a campfire or getting lost on his bike riding the back roads of Madison County. Anthony lives in Jackson’s historical LANA neighborhood appreciating its comfort and classic feel. Admiring folks like Bonhoeffer, Donald Miller, and Jimmy Fallon, he knows that people have names as well as phenomenal stories. May those stories be told well and promote community.
Header image by Katie Howerton.