Back in December I was praying and dreaming about what 2015 would hold. I was standing on the cusp of one of the biggest years of my life so far. I was a senior social work major at Union University with only one more semester left of traditional undergrad, and I thought I knew everything as all good college students do. I had secured a great internship with RIFA and was greatly looking forward to what that would teach me. My post-grad plans included grad school at Union and spending the summer away at a camp in my dream job as the camp baker. After the summer I would spend my school year back in Jackson and then launch back out with a ministerial staff job. My best friend Becca and I even wanted to live together in a tiny apartment in Cherry Grove with well planned Ikea furniture and thrift store china.
My life drastically changed when Becca was offered the opportunity of a lifetime pulling her out of Jackson. I was so happy for her but could not imagine living life without her. She and I met my freshman year when she informed me that she would be hugging the president of Union on our first week of school. I didn’t believe her, she did it, and she has been shocking me ever since.
In April I still hadn’t been accepted into grad school yet and was feeling the pressure of not knowing where I would live or work. I wondered if God was telling me that I needed to leave Jackson and move somewhere else for grad school. I was mulling over the idea of moving to Texas and was miserable at the thought. I even looked at jobs internationally until Paige McCormick thoughtfully informed me that if I didn’t want to move to China I should just not move to China.
At the last minute, six days before graduation, I lost my summer job as baker, only further confusing me and causing some of the deepest pain I have ever felt. I was questioning everything and waiting for some kind of wild sign to make it all make sense. Nothing felt steady or calm. I prayed God would show me what in the world any of this meant. I was reminded that back in December, on the verge of my big year, God told me that the theme of this year was “Grow where you are planted.” I even wrote a piece for the school magazine on it. When I wrote it life made a little more sense, and I still had dancing images of throw pillows and some assembly-required furniture. So how in the world was I supposed to feel about growing in city I didn’t really expect to be planted in? I went home to Indiana post-graduation for two weeks to recuperate and regroup.
I decided to stay in Jackson for the foreseeable future. When asked why I would do that after looking all over the world for answers to questions, I can simply say that I am known here. I have visited and loved many other people and places. I dream of traveling the world, but my roots belong in this city. There is a song by Joel Anssett that says:
“Feels like you lost yourself again
Sit in the silence of a friend
When you are fully known and loved
You have a home”
I did what I thought I was supposed to do. I packed my bags and my blinding optimism and headed back down to Jackson. I moved into my first rental house that had its own mailbox, and I started to unpack my new life. Those first couple weeks we didn’t even have any furniture until I found it on the side of the road and took it in like welcome orphans. I was far from my dream of color-coordinated coffee mugs. I was just trying to make sure that nothing was secretly living in my furniture and hoping Febreze would do the trick.
I was uncertain how everything would pan out. I was feeling a little shaky because nothing was going according to plan, and I was trying to brace myself for any more surprises. In the midst of my pain I looked up.
As I started to look around I saw the mighty oaks of Jackson. These people have grown deeply in Jackson, and, if they were to be uprooted, there would be a crater where they once stood. People in my life who let me be a part of it all, like the Hesters. The Ferrells, who invite me over for dinner four nights in a row because the only thing I have in my fridge is rotten lunchmeat and organic butter. The Dunlaps, who invite me to help them put their children to bed with stories. Luke and Courtney, who let me be the third wheel to their relationship and who make me feel more like a tricycle than an unwanted tagalong. The women who let me cry at the kitchen table while drinking tea and getting the chance to be honest. The church body at City Fellowship, who saw me grow from a seed to a sapling.
These people do not hide themselves from me. I see the scars, the dings and scratches. I see the growth rings in their lives and how they choose to stay again and again. These people never tell me I am in the way. They never make me feel foolish. They just pull up a chair and dig in. They help me navigate bills and neighbors and roommates and first jobs. They share their real lives, which are way more beautiful than some surface level façade. Life is too short for short and shallow connections.
These mighty oaks have stood strong in the face of their own life storms and are teaching me to do just that. They are teaching me how to anchor down when the wind comes. They are teaching me that you don’t have to be blood-related to be family. They are teaching me to actually stand up for myself when something hurts my feelings. They are teaching this sapling how to grow where she is planted. And I am forever grateful.
To my parents: Thanks for giving me all the tools I could have ever needed to be successful. Your selflessness and sacrifice never goes unnoticed. You were there for my first steps and now have helped me to take my first adult steps. I will always remember how faithful you were in the small details of life, and I will carry that with me always. You are the first mighty oaks I ever knew, and you have taught me how to spot new ones in my life. You have provided me more precious opportunities than I ever could have dreamed of. Thank you for allowing me to be whimsical and take refuge under your branches.
To my mighty oaks: I can never explain what you mean to me. The countless meals and mundane days are far from mundane with you. One day when I can repay you, I will. Thank you for being there in the midst of the weirdest season of my life as I learn who I am and whose I am.
Social worker-to-be Mabry Gardner is currently working on her Masters of Social Work at Union University. Her crazy life experiences are outdone only by her gloriously big hair and even bigger laugh. She craves adventure, all things local, and unlimited waffles—but in the mean time, she'll settle for being the real-life Leslie Knope.
Header image by Katie Howerton.
tags Jackson TN, Tennessee, Stay731, #stay731, Mabry Gardner, Union University, Christianity, social work, School of Social Work, job, work, college, RIFA, graduate school, Becca Orosz, community, Paige McCormick, growth, city, town, place, Joel Anssett, Karen Hester, Andrew Hester, Brad Ferrell, Kristen Ferrell, Melissa Dunlap, Jason Dunlap, Luke Pennington, Courtney Brown, City Fellowship Baptist Church, church, Young Life, family, friends, Women's History Month