Standing in the center of the walkway, I found myself staring anxiously at the building before me: the University of Memphis at Lambuth. It was my first day back to college since graduating from Jackson State Community College a little over a year before, and I reluctantly confessed to myself that I was a bit nervous. I couldn’t quite pinpoint the reason for this nervousness; I had been through the “first day of school” more times than I could count, yet I still felt the same anxiety as I had in previous years.
The Duncan family greets you as a soon as you arrive. At first you see a quaint gift shop atop a hill, and below to the left, you see a few rows of trees of the first farm. As your wonder begins to take over, you get closer to that tiny shop, and you notice they have hot cocoa for you to enjoy right there on the doorstep. You walk in, and the shop explodes with color and warmth. There are beautiful homemade wreaths, ornaments, and holiday decor that just seem to resonate in a place you’ve long forgotten.
There is nothing quite like southern suburbia. It’s filled with people who just want to sit you down and offer you a proper sweet tea, cars nearly big enough to fly to space, and monograms embellishing almost everything you own. Like most of you readers, I was born and raised in Jackson, Tennessee. I grew up with two loving and supportive parents, a beautiful nanny whom I would come to know as family, a hilarious sister two years younger than me, and a huge black lab named Winston. (He was named this after the prime minister Winston Churchill, of course.)
The air hovers thick. It’s almost too heavy with moisture to breathe in. The field is still green with summer’s gift of abundant rain and sunshine, but the leaves on the nearby trees are starting to shrink up, dry out, turn brown. Fall is coming soon, bringing with it the growing anticipation of a new cross country season.The year is 2009, and I’m in high school at Trinity Christian Academy. It’s another oppressively hot August, but most people don’t notice too much since they’re properly air conditioned.
Inevitability is the evil twin of hope. Hope is when we’re not quite sure what will happen, but we’re certain that we want it to happen. The mystery of hope and, to be quite honest, the appeal of hope rest in its uncertainty. There’s the idea that what we are hoping for will eventually morph into reality and, if we’re lucky, possibly exceed our original expectations. Hope is why the idea of something is oftentimes better than the thing itself. We survive on hope. Hope keeps us moving.Inevitability, however, is certain.
I have always felt some connection with Jackson, Tennessee—possibly because my grandfather was the first chiropractor in Jackson. (For those who might of known him, he was located off 45 down from the Red Cross building.) So in part you could say my roots are here in Jackson.I was born and raised in Lexington, Tennessee. Growing up, my mom, twin sister, and older brother would load up into a red station wagon and head out to Jackson, listening to Neil Diamond’s “Cracklin’ Rosie” cassette tapes.
Eating is an incredibly sacramental act. In fact a feast, regularly celebrated, is one of the universally recognized rites of the Christian Church. It can be a reminder of our lack of complete self-sufficiency. We need things outside ourselves in order to survive even on the most basic of levels. The sacred is also something that is meant to be experienced with other people. Meals are often communal, and I would argue that the best meals are always shared experiences. No matter how good the food is it is always better shared with other people
We have a propensity to glorify revolution. We want to label things as revolutions whether they are revolutionary or not. Perhaps this is because we view ourselves as the by-products of a revolution. We love to celebrate rebels who overthrow and overturn the felt tyranny of the old existing order. This is right and good to a certain point, but revolution has a dark side, too. It is rare however that we pause to reflect on the negative consequences of revolution.
In March of 2016 I began dating my girlfriend Natalie, a girl who was born and raised in Jackson and who had the knowledge to back it up. Me being an out-of-town transplant, she thought that it was of great importance for me to learn a little culture and history of this city that we know and love. I gladly complied. Usually these lessons were unplanned and casual. As things came up in conversation she would explain to me the history as best she knew it. One of those things was Waffle House.
There is a spot in this little city that beckons me come when I am in need—in need of assurance, in need of rest, in need of a change of scenery. I must admit, I did not find this spot on my own. I was dating a boy that understood my tendency for restlessness, and one night at dusk, he drove me to his secret respite in our small world. We sat at the edge of the parking lot of what is now a bustling commercial hub and watched the sun go down over our city. For the first time, I saw life here.
Lambuth University and its small, historic campus seemed enchanting from the first time I set eyes on it the morning I went to register for my junior year in the fall of 1993. I was breathless at the charm and history that seeped from every leaf and brick. Everything from the old oak trees that stood guard like ancient soldiers to the squirrels that ran around chattering (with an attitude bigger than they were) contributed to the magic feeling of the place.
So we were on the hunt again. Charles and I had not been geocaching for a long time, and I decided it was the best way to spend an afternoon off work, to which he replied, “Okay,” in his signature shrug and half-smile. Our first geocaching adventure was nearly nine years prior to this. We had found a few by the Love’s truck stop in Jackson and more by some historical landmarks around town. At the time I saw this as a simple act, two friends doing something random together just because.
In May of 2016, there was weeping and gnashing of teeth—or so it would have appeared. Schools rich in personal and communal history were closing. Their doors were shutting for good, and the buildings would just sit there, rotting. There was no clear plan for what would happen to those buildings other than the fact that they wouldn’t house students.
Growing up into my late teens or early twenties, I had so many people telling me what I needed to do and what I needed not to do. Looking back, it was very overwhelming to someone like me, a naturally meek and quiet person. I had so many opinions thrown at me, and it took me a few years to finally sit down and truly think about what I wanted in my life. I was told countless times by various people how I needed to move away, get out of this small town, and live somewhere bigger because there's so much "more."
“Are we broken?” I saw those three words at the top of an article a couple of months ago. They were referring to the current political climate in our country. Without delving into specifics, it’s safe to say that our present political situation is a bit perilous. Communication between parties vacillates between accusatory and defensive. The president is being investigated for obstruction of justice relating to a foreign country tampering in our election.
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.