Jackson, MS

I have, more than once, referred to Jackson, Mississippi as my own personal battleground.

For four years, it is where I wrestled with myself, God, my past, my future, and who even knows what else. I hated the place. I hated what it did to me, what it took from me, how it changed me. I drove away from the city last May with a middle finger in the air and high hopes for what was ahead. Nothing was holding me back from leaving what I would have referred to as cursed ground. I was glad to be rid of it.

Four years before that, at 18, I went to college expecting an instagram-perfect season of life. I thought I’d read my Bible in a coffee shop while a cute, Jesus-loving boy with a beard and good shoes would eye me across the room. I expected my careless high school habits to gain me the same grades as they always had. I was anticipating easy, life long friendships with pretty girls who I’d one day stand next to when they married their own cute, Jesus-loving boy. I thought that college was all about finding yourself and your people, all while you walked across the quad in your modest colorful clothing laughing to show off your perfectly white teeth.

There was an expectation for a college experience that unknowingly only existed in pictures, an expectation that it took about two days to realize wasn’t going to be reached.

If you’d asked me how I was freshman year, I would have told you that I was fine and asked you the same. I would have believed that I was fine, too. That is until on winter day when, in pursuit of a trip to Guatemala, I was told that I’d need to attend counseling in the months leading up to our launch date.

This is when everything changed.

This isn’t the time for the story of Homegirl (my counselor), of my coming to realize that depression had swallowed my life, of my falling for a boy, of my denied self-hatred finally coming into the light, of my dropping out of school in hopes of something new. (Please diagram that last sentence in your head and laugh with me. I can feel Dr. Miller’s horror from here.) Those stories, and more, are important pieces to this narrative, but they will not be told now.

When I was told to go to counseling, I laughed. I thought to myself, “I’m fine. I’m strong. My past doesn’t affect me at all.” I was completely blind to the reality of what it meant to be a follower of Christ, to be sanctified in His image, to let Him make me whole. I thought to be a Christian meant to pick yourself up when life knocked you down, to move on, not to let the trials of this world distract you from Kingdom work.

My theology was, to say the least, faulty. They say that what you think about God and what you think about yourself are the two most important things about you. I buy into that belief now, and I probably would have said I did at the time, but I’m going to go ahead and assume that it broke God’s heart to know what I thought about Him and about myself. Along with about a thousand other reasons, I think that that’s why He led me to counseling.

The first time I walked into Homegirl’s office, I could already count how many sessions I had left. I’d see her for one semester, that’s it, and then I’d continue on in my self-righteous fury that I’d been comfortable in for so many years. I was so blind to the reality of my own story, my own heart, my own Maker.

This blindness was a survival method, and I won’t minimize that for humor or power. I believe, with every part of me, that Jesus played a role in covering my eyes, my heart, my mind from the pain of my past. He was protecting me, but it’s only four years removed from realizing that fact that I’m able to say that with gratitude.

I spent my four years of college getting to know myself and my Jesus. It was less about academics and more about healing (as is regrettably reflected in my GPA). I had some of the hardest days of my life in Jackson, but also some of the best.

It was in that city that I got my first tattoo, met my very best friends, first called myself a writer, drank my first old fashioned, and so much more. To paraphrase the text I sent to Liz, it wasn’t until I went back that I realized just how significant the city was.

They say that time heals all wounds, and in most cases I find that to be a bunch of bullshit, but in this case, in my relationship with Jackson, I think it may be true. I will still, and maybe always, refer to it as my battleground. But, for so long, I thought I was wrestling to survive, trying to come out on the other side just as I was when I started. Now, I know that I was fighting for myself, for who I am, for this freedom that is mine.

I didn’t get the instagram-perfect college experience. It was hard as hell. It was, in every since of the word, a fight. I had no idea that I’d graduate college anything like the woman I am now, but damn, I like this girl so much more than I did that naive 18 year old.

When I drove away from Jackson yesterday, I was sad and thankful. There was no middle finger in the air or bitterness in my heart, but rather a confidence that I was driving away from a significant, critical part of my story.

Ashton Ray