It had been a long day of alphabet learning, number counting, napping, and recess. Dirt stains on the front of my Little Mermaid t-shirt were telltale signs of hide-and-seek in the giant front schoolyard. As I lay on my mat slowly stretching after a nap, my eyes wandered around the room, resting on the touch spot number posters and then gradually following the brightly colored train with letters A to Z that stretched around the room.
I am convinced that every young person dreams of leaving their hometown, going to a larger city, and making it “big.” That was definitely a dream of mine. Born in Memphis, I moved to Jackson with my family at the age of four. Jackson is my mother’s hometown. This is when my understanding of what made living in Jackson special began.My siblings and I were in a childcare program, and Jackson Parks and Recreation’s summer program is where I met many friends.
Let’s suspend our thought for the next ten to fifteen minutes and imagine what could be. Let’s not think about dollars and cents or logistical structure. While those things are necessary, they’re not for us right now. What we need are open minds and unencumbered ideas about what our downtown might possibly be if we could just think a little bit beyond what we’ve always thought. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen beyond. I’ve seen what downtown Jackson could be if we could just all get on board.
It’s funny how a reunion can make people nostalgic for their younger days. It’s a time to reflect and think back about how we grew up and memories we made. I feel blessed to have spent my childhood in Jackson, Tennessee. It’s the foundation to who I am as a person, and I can’t imagine growing up in any other place. With that in mind, I thought I’d share some memories I have with you. I’m thinking if you lived in Jackson in the 80s or 90s, you might relate to many of these.
Sometime between fifth grade and high school my dad altered my musical taste. I didn’t understand it at the time, and I have to give him credit because it was subtle, but now that I have two kids of my own toting around digital devices, filtering all means of communication in the home is an important part of parenting. What does that have to do with the short documentary I recently produced? Today lovers of R&B music have no fewer than four radio stations in Madison County to get their fix.
I moved to Jackson a starry-eyed eighteen-year-old ready for the “real world.” I came to Union University to play volleyball and study my way to becoming a chemical engineer who would change the world with brains and athleticism. Three months into my first semester, I had quit volleyball and was failing at my chemistry courses. A few days into my second semester, a tornado blew away all my belongings, including those starry eyes.
Sitting in an intro philosophy class my sophomore year at Union University, I was asked a question: Would it be ethical to sacrifice a person (or a few people) in order to find the cure for cancer? Well, yes, of course it would, I said. We’re talking about cancer, right? I was nineteen and, apparently, omniscient—or so I thought at the time. The certainty of an arrogant college student is a certainty like no other.
She made the best mincemeat pie,” Cousin Diane recalled, and everyone nodded. The minister for the funeral service had asked what made Janet Bennett unique, and this couldn’t be left off the list. Together with her love of Jeopardy, her skills at sewing clothes for the family, and her impeccable penmanship, the mincemeat pie stood out as an example of Grandma Bennett’s talent, service, and love. Grandma Bennett was a great cook.
An expansive flock of slate grey clouds span the sky as I drive along the narrow highway. The landscape rolls beside me, before me. The hills and subtle ridge lines guide the highway that bears my passage. Rural fields are dotted with gigantic cotton gins, dilapidated barns. Small colonies of trailers and rented houses populate gravel side roads, sprouting like branches from the main highway. I am northward bound, driving into an increasingly brisk wind.
You could say I’m a reluctant convert to Jackson, Tennessee. Prior to accepting a job at Union University, I had only ever been to Jackson once—an emergency bathroom break at the Starbucks on Vann Drive. Even when I agreed to the offer, it was with a begrudging sense of the inevitable. My wife Beth and I knew if we turned down the job it would be the wrong choice, but there was nothing in us that relished leaving the vibrance of a city we loved for the sluggishness of a lackluster town we didn’t know.
The precious things are always removed first. They’re handled with care, preserved, and safeguarded so as not to disturb their history or perceived beauty. Careful hands wrap them in padded blankets or quilts and gently set them in an arrangement that will in no way cause a fracture. The pieces that are disposable or not as aesthetically pleasing are swept into a pile or thrown away or burned or sold. And so goes the process of preparing for the demolition of a building.
When I tell people that my family moved from Seattle—and that we didn’t move to Jackson because of family or a job—I often get the response, “Why would you move here?” Really it all started with woods. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, about his own time living in the woods, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
My first semester of graduate school in Greensboro, North Carolina, the main thing I remember about poetry workshop—besides the necessity of snacks to feed the muse—was a diagram that my professor drew on the whiteboard one afternoon. Becca wrote WHAT THE POEM IS ABOUT above two intersecting arrows. Then, she labeled each end of the arrows. Viewed as a compass, the west represented the start of the writing process; the east represented the end of the writing process.
I was never a baller. I wanted to be one, though. The grace and fluidity with which truly great basketball players move is unparalleled in any other sport. I was jealous. I’m tall and used to be pretty thin, but I never had the grace the true athletic players seemed to have. Gravity appeared to have a stronger hold on me than it did my teammates and my opponents. Sure, I was able to dunk a ball for a period of time in my 20’s and early 30’s, but it was off one foot and more of a “rim grazer” than a true “flush.”
It seems quite contradictory to write a piece on why people should stay in Jackson on the eve of our move to Nashville. After eight years of choosing to stay, the decision to leave didn’t come easily, and I certainly put up a fight. However, I had to come to terms with the fact that sometimes a dream is for a season, and it’s okay for dreams to develop towards other places. You don’t have to abandon a sense of “place” once you move.
Megan was a fact nut, the kind of girl who was interested in the details in everything she studied. She once committed a semester to checking out a certain number of design books at the library just to keep herself inspired in her trade and always learning. So it shouldn’t have surprised me when began research on her new historic duplex on Arlington and affectionately referred to it by the name the metal sign read outside: The Merriweather House.
I often think of the power of words. The words others use to you about you, the words you use. The words that came before us and the words that will come long after we’re gone. The very same tool that can inspire and lead to greatness also can be used to cut down, leaving only rubble where something wonderful should have stood. Jackson could be either of those, and the power is in those who call it home.
A few months ago, I sat across a table from a four-year-old named Thomas. He and I were waiting on his dad who was in the gym coaching my son and the rest of a high school church league basketball team. I had some paper and markers, so we began to draw. Thomas drew his brother, where he lived, a mystery map, the gate to his house, the family car, his mom, his dad, a basketball, a fish in the water, and much, much more. Did I know this because he was a gifted illustrator?
I still remember my last day of high school. I remember leaving the parking lot and listening to the Dave Matthews song “Number 41,” and I still remember the lyrics that were blaring from the speakers of my Nissan Maxima. “I will go in this way, and I’ll find my own way out. . . .” They seemed poignant at the time, though I’m not sure in what way exactly. As a matter of fact, I’m not really sure that I even liked Dave Matthews. I think I wanted to like Dave Matthews because all my friends liked Dave Matthews.
Women are made to give life. Before anyone shuts down on me, I don’t just mean that women are simply made to have babies. Sure, there is that obvious and very amazing way of giving life—actually giving birth to another human. But truly being a “life-giver” goes far beyond the physical sense of the word. I first heard about the concept of women as life-givers through a Bible study.
Strong is a word I used to hate. What does strong mean? What is strength? I feel like Pontius Pilate as I ask these kinds of questions. When I graduated from Union University a semester early, summa cum laude, I was called strong because I had achieved something. When I crawled out into the barren wasteland called the economy, I was called strong because even though I contemplated suicide, I kept trying to live.
I remember as a little girl, there were two things that topped the list of my least favorites about spring. One was a bright orange windbreaker my mother insisted I wear, and the other was spring cleaning. It never failed, though. She would place the cleaning rag and off-brand dusting spray in my tiny hands no matter how many times I insisted that the house was clean enough.We would scrub away the remnants of seasons past, and at the end of a (very) long day, we would be able to start over clean.
We live in a critical society. Social media is mostly to blame for that, along with twenty-four-hour “news” networks and talk radio. Everyone has a voice whether they have anything worth saying or not. If you have a bad experience at a restaurant, Tweet about it. If your hotel bed isn’t as comfortable as you think it should be, grab your phone and give it two stars on Google. I don’t exempt myself from taking part in the reactionary culture in which we find ourselves.
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.
The garden is a block away from the café, a small oasis of green amidst the severe office buildings and cloudy gray-scale urban landscape that makes up downtown Jackson. It doesn’t draw attention to itself, and many pedestrians walk quickly by without even noticing it, busy with their phones or their thoughts or their plans to hurry on to something, somewhere, sometime.
This past Saturday afternoon I dropped by Lisa Garner’s Love Day Pop-Up Shop at the Neely House in search for a little something for my wife and two daughters. And while I walked out with a small stack of mini valentines for my loves (thanks, Courtney Searcy!), I left being reminded of why Jackson has my heart. As the sun began to slowly warm my skin from the cutting breeze, I realized it had been nine years since I last stood on the porch of the former Murphy Hotel.
I was born in Jackson thirty-two years ago to an African-American father and a Hispanic mother. Our city was a very different place back then. In fact, it was less of a city and more a small town, with a far less diverse population. Growing up I didn’t have many friends that looked like me, and it was made abundantly clear by my peers that I was going to have to choose a side. But choosing was never really an option for me.
Imagine a table. There are many faces, both black and white, seated around that table. Everyone present wants their stories to be heard and their hardships to be acknowledged. Rightfully so. Sometimes I have the honor of sitting at that table. I sit beside my husband Charles and my best friend Melanie. Naturally, I gravitate toward their voices in conversations on racial reconciliation in our city.
In case you haven’t taken note, Jackson’s skies are pretty incredible. Particularly due to the way the sun sets in the evenings, our community has distinguished itself apart from others in the area for hosting some of the most arresting color shows and cloud movements. Whether it’s reflected through curious little wisps or cascading textures and patterns, the sky often transforms into something of a light box when the daylight begins to turn.
To every season, turn, turn, turn. To every new chapter in the book of life, page turn. By closing one chapter it means we have to say goodbye to something that has changed us and transfer our energy into what’s next. It’s hard to say goodbye, especially when you were having a brilliant time, but it’s necessary because it helps remind you that there’s always tomorrow. For better or worse there are more things waiting up ahead. And this is how I currently feel.