I came to Jackson sight-unseen in 2011 when I arrived for new student orientation at Union University. Removed from the South since 1999, I had developed a proper Midwestern wall around myself. People like to talk about Midwestern friendliness, but let me tell you, there is none of this "chat with strangers in the grocery store line" or "call everyone ‘hon’" there. As in architecture, walls may be breached with effort, but it's usually easier just to leave them alone.
So it was that I, a sheltered nineteen-year-old from an Indiana town of 10,000, appeared in the South after a twelve-year absence, guarded by not just my Midwestern wall but also a metaphorical moat filled with alligators. I had convinced myself I longed for the effusive friendliness of the South, but, in truth, I did not want to participate. Cutting a doorway into an established wall is hard work, and doing so always leaves one open to invasion. If I kept my wall and my alligator moat, perhaps no one would see the real me.
I didn't like the real me. She was a very lonely girl, eccentric in her hobbies and habits, who turned to writing almost as if to make some friends for herself. She thought too deeply and felt too strongly—about everything. She was called sensitive and weird. And she was afraid. She had seen The Two Towers; she knew walls could be breached by one evil Orc with a barrel of gunpowder and the Olympic torch. Better to keep a wall than risk pain.
Walls can also be breached by chisels and long, sustained effort. I was surprised to come to Jackson and find people equipped with both. I made friends in my Life Group at Union—people who didn't think I was weird or eccentric but loved what I contributed to the group. When I look back on that first semester, I can hear the steady refrain of mortar being scraped out and bricks slowly being removed to make a window. Then another one. Then a door.
There were setbacks, of course; friend and roommate drama nailed boards over the windows a couple times, but they were always torn down again with laughter and a good, healing cry. Chink, chink, chink. One scrap of mortar at a time, one brick at a time, until sunlight could shine in.
That's what Jackson has been for me: a place to safely cut windows and doors into my wall. It has been a place to grow, to lower a drawbridge over the moat and chase off the alligators. Here, I have met some of my best friends, who see the real me and see kind instead of sensitive, creative instead of weird—friends who make it okay for me to be, which in turn empowers me to extend that same grace to others. Here, I have met the best church family I have ever known, where I was wanted and accepted from my very first visit, where every small group or event is one more chance to learn how to live in community, to throw open the door in my wall and leave it propped open rather than locked tightly.
There has been a lot of learning here. I've learned to be a good friend and to accept the friendship of others. I've learned to live by myself but not alone. I've learned to participate in a church body rather than passively observing. I've learned to love the real me and watch that girl lose the loneliness. Chink, chink. I've learned that I matter in other people's lives and that they want me there, even on—especially on—those days when I feel like I'm annoying and it doesn't make sense why anyone would still be friends with me. Chink.
Jackson is an odd little city. It's got more restaurants than it knows what to do with, some of the worst traffic I've ever seen outside a major metropolis, and intriguing divisions of upper- and lower-class parts of town. But it also has heart stemming from the people who want a better city and community. For all its faults, which any city has, I've found it to be a city of grace and chisels, a city of people trying their best to cut openings for windows and doors where there were none before—to lower drawbridges over the moats around us. I hope it always remains that way, because who knows when a walled-off soul will next enter in.
Formerly a Louisianian and then a Midwesterner, Stephanie Traylor graduated from Union University in 2015, and Jackson hasn't been able to get rid of her yet. She lives in a cozy, yellow-doored midtown house with two born-and-bred Jackson natives: her cats.