“Community is not something you have, like pizza,” wrote social critic James Howard Kunstler in The Geography of Nowhere. “Nor is it something you can buy. It’s a living organism based on a web of interdependencies—which is to say a local economy.”
Americans, perhaps above all others, have bought into the lie in the last couple of generations that each person is an island, shaping her or his own destiny with nothing but a morning shot of caffeine and a solid WiFi connection. The problem comes when in changing the world, we often don’t take the time to ever know ourselves. The things supposed to set us free—travel, technology, the next job—easily become the cold manacles of isolation and anxiety. This isolation is reflected in the physical landscape of our country as once cohesive neighborhoods are now tract-less wastes of empty storefronts, concrete tundras, and architecturally and functionally schizophrenic bedroom communities. Everyone is preoccupied with their own plans and dreams—everything but the surrounding space.
My “Stay 731” story is different from many others featured so far in that I was born here. While my childhood was happy and fulfilling, staying in Jackson never crossed my mind. My friends and I were fully infected by the modern malaise of discontent. We constantly bemoaned how terrible Jackson was and how we couldn’t wait to leave and go live somewhere that mattered and do something important—although of course where and what that was always remained vague.
Despite such sentiments and mostly through nonchalance and indecision, I ended up staying in town for college. This should have been my first clue that perhaps my teenage angst was misplaced, for right here in Jackson I found my myself immersed in a poignant scholarly community where I was taught how to think critically by nationally renowned professors and peers who could have chosen to go anywhere else.
As enriching as my collegiate years were, though, they did little to make me feel connected to Jackson. A year after graduating, I got married and two weeks later moved to the West Coast. Having finally shaken the West Tennessee dust from my feet, I was never returning—not because I didn’t like it here or wasn’t thankful for the many who cared about me, but because I had too much important, world-changing stuff to do.
As the time passed, my wife and I settled into our new home, made new friends, and slowly burrowed into the social fabric of our new town. Though there were some struggles and loneliness, especially in the first year, we were happy. Still, something wasn’t quite right—a disconnect.
That something would soon become clear.
One bright afternoon as I was pulling away down the hill from the apartment for work, my wife called and told me to come home. I could hear her voice breaking. When I walked in the door a few minutes later, she told me that my grandfather had passed away.
It took us a couple of days to get home, but we were able to be in Jackson with my family for the funeral. Still, I had missed his final days and saying goodbye—for what? Yes, I was mentoring students, studying, and serving at a church, but were there not students and churches back home?
I remember, a week or so later, taking off on the return flight, heading west into the setting sun. The late summer evening light reflected off the Mississippi River and over the sleepy streets of South Memphis as Tennessee and home faded into the distance. I could only think, “We belong here. Why are we leaving?” I realized that the disconnect I had quietly been feeling was due to living in a place without being committed to it.
Though it would be a couple of more years involving a brief sojourn in yet another state, the seeds that were planted that day did indeed come to fruition. My wife and I, along with our growing family, returned to make Jackson our home.
I’d like to say we immediately resolved to stay forever and work for its good, but we didn’t. The truth is it was hard coming home. Many people have an idealized picture of their childhood setting, and I—especially having lived away for a while—was no different. In reality, while I had been gone, Jackson had moved on. It was a new place with new energy, and I wasn’t part of it. I came home to fix Jackson but instead realized I was the one who needed fixing. I spent much of my twenties looking outward, wrapping my immaturity and laziness in a self-righteous cloak, and looking to worldwide problems when my own soul didn’t know its purpose. But where to start? I started, as author Rod Dreher puts it, by “accepting the limitations of place in humility.”
The discipline of hometown living is that it forces us to look in the mirror without pretending. It forces us to stop seeking a glamorous, distant perfection “out there somewhere” and to actually do something about what’s in front of and inside of us. More clearly, it’s hard to be fake around people who changed your diapers. The best thing I could do to change the world, as my twenty-two-year-old self yearned for, was to find peace and purpose for myself, lead my family, and maybe—just maybe—eventually extend that to my neighborhood and town. The problem is you can’t do it if you’re always on the move. As pastor Andy Stanley once said, “Wherever you go, there you are.” Permanently accepting a physical location allowed me to shed my youthful pretense of self-importance and allowed my character to be carefully shaped by the organic but lasting network of family and friends who have made the same commitment to this place.
Some see small town life as stifling confinement, but so does the stone think of the chisel. There is nothing like moving back to your hometown to bring to the forefront all the embarrassments and failures of years gone by and force you to do deal with them. Whether it’s sitting down in church next to a person you wronged a decade and half ago, learning how selfish you were and can continue to be in dealing with family members, or seeing old coworkers and bosses around after you quit a job, Jackson for me has been a place to grow from the past and become comfortable in my own skin. It’s been and remains to be a place of challenges and false starts but mostly of warmth and gratitude.
The U.S. is awash in twenty-two-year-old Ben Burlesons—talented and driven but driving in circles, looking for a cause to latch onto and draw an identify from. It’s such people who have created the “nowheres” of Kunstler’s astute book mentioned above. He describes modern America as “a compound economic catastrophe, ecological debacle, political nightmare, and spiritual crisis,” because we are a “nation of people conditioned to spend their lives in places not worth caring about.”
In the end, Jackson is a nowhere too. It’s an obscure, mid-sized Interstate town adrift in on a sea of soybean fields halfway between two obscure, mid-sized regional cities—and yet it’s somehow much more than that. Jackson is a place of seeing the same people who shaped my life and faith now shaping my children’s. It’s being with Mom and Dad through a cancer scare. It’s spending time with aging grandparents. It’s walking through the hallways of your daughter’s school and passing other parents whose victories and struggles you know intimately. It’s friendships measured in decades. It’s black, white, rich, poor, and everyone in between bound together by this patch of dirt.
Jackson is a nowhere that becomes a somewhere when people call it home and decide to care. The trick is in the caring. By attaching ourselves to a place and letting the time and pressure of life shape us, we can find a life richer than we ever thought possible. Certainly my path is not for everyone. Not everyone needs to live in their hometown or a small town. Some need to be on the go dealing with large-world issues. But, wherever you are, wherever you go, be sure to slow down long enough to let that place in.
Ben Burleson is a Jackson native, husband to Jenny, and dad to three energetic kids. He is a Union University graduate with a background in education, ministry, and most recently accounting. His main hobby is reading history or fiction, preferably while floating.