There is nothing beautiful about a neighborhood razed and left for kudzu and vines to swallow trees whole, while grass begins forming veins in the cracks of the abandoned streets. There is nothing beautiful about a lot tended only enough to keep back tall grasses. So when I say I love the patch of abandoned land called Westwood Gardens, I get that it’s kind of weird.
It’s just that sometimes in the evening there is golden light that slants through that field, leaving gilded silhouettes and long cast shadows of trees choked in ivy. There are days after the dead of winter when patches of bright yellow daffodils appear among the dead vines and grasses, followed by summer when Queen Anne’s lace and wild lilies begin to grow. Sunlight warms your face when you’d forgotten how it felt, and you can set your table with a wild bouquet gathered on a walk with friends.
Staying in Jackson has felt much the same to me. If I told a stranger I loved this city, it might make little sense. There are very little obviously appealing things about it. The stretch of the 45 Bypass with all the signs clamoring for attention, cars backed up on Vann Drive, the handful of successful local restaurants.
There are seasons any place can wound us and leave us buried under what feels like dead weight. Seasons when friends leave, businesses fail, judgment hurts, churches wound, community disappoints, poverty and crime destroy. Even on days when I feel so at home here, I have to wrestle with the times I’ve watched it become what seems like a dead and cold environment for people I love. I have moments when my surroundings grow dull and my desire for new and better experiences grows greater, and I fight a sense of doubt about where I should be.
If I’m supposed to confidently tell you why I stayed here, the story just comes to a normal mix of post-grad angst mixed with chance encounters. I’m only twenty-four, and I don’t know a lot about anything, really. So I can’t tell you if staying in Jackson is a good idea, or if it’s a good place to raise a family, or if it’s a good place to start your career, or if you’ll be happier if you go somewhere else. You might.
I just know that I stayed here and that when people ask me how long I’m staying here, I have no real answer besides the fact that this is a place where I am learning and growing. This is a place where seasons of loss and disappointment have often given way to seasons of hope and fulfillment.
In this place I have seen families take orphans into their homes, caring for children who are not their own. I am in a city where I share meals with and live alongside people who mentor children in after-school programs, build organizations to provide employment and food for the homeless, create art, write music, start businesses, teach students who are struggling, grow healthy food, work to improve life for the disabled. There is no lack of life in this unexpected and unlikely place, even though there is plenty of room for improvement. It’s easy to forget in seasons of difficulty the amount of life that is still at work in our neighbors.
I’m here despite days when I have felt like running to somewhere new would choke out any anxiety or loneliness or fear of the future. I’m not so idealistic that I think all of my friends should stay here and not follow opportunities given to them in other places, where I know their gifts and talents and abilities will make their surroundings so much richer because of what they’ve seen and experienced here. While I sometimes ache for some sort of stability, I’m glad to see that the experience of living here shapes the new endeavors my friends have faced.
At some point during my first year out of college, I realized a sense of home and belonging is not something that is handed to you; it is something that is built over time. It takes the repetition of people deciding that they belong to each other through dark and light days, it takes initiative and time. It takes knowing when being alone is good and when reaching out is better.
There’s not a formula for staying here, although I wish there was. “Culture is not a war to be won, but a garden to be tended,” artist Makota Fujimura writes. So all that I know is that each of us must put our hands to work each day in this city, hopefully tending to the hurt and brokenness in the people around us. Our work here counts for something. Our willingness to engage in the life of our community is tending a garden, that we might walk together in a more beautiful place.
Courtney Searcy likes to design things, take pictures, and write words that tell good stories about their community. Jackson became home after she graduated from Union University in 2014, where she studied Graphic Design and Journalism. One-half of Souvenir Design Company, she currently works as a freelance graphic designer. She thinks the best things in life are porch swings, brunch, art, music, and friends to share it all with.