On the morning I left Nashville to move to California, my Uber driver picked me up and asked me what kind of trip I was taking. "A big one," I told him. I looked over at my beautiful city. At the brilliant reflection of a six o'clock rising of the day on windows of buildings and sides of bridges that weren't there when I moved here. A stunning city that has grown up and become something I didn't know it could.
The night before, I had hopes to go out with best friends and paint the town one last time. But real life doesn't always match expectations, and plans didn't work out. So I had leftovers and wine in the kitchen by myself. It was a strange way to spend my last night in Nashville, but it felt more honest than believing that anything I did that night would allow me to soak in any more than I already had.
Because I have so much.
This city and community have filled me to overflowing.
I arrived at 22 years old on a muggy July day in my '97 Honda CRV, packed with everything I owned, including my dreams and uncertainties. But over time, Nashville surprised me as volunteers, artists, donors and mentors emerged — and we built a movement that proved a passionate community in one part of the globe can dramatically affect change in communities on the other side of the globe. And I found the best of friends along that journey.
I rooted myself in East Nashville before it was the hip thing to do, and joined a church committed to knowing its neighbors, no matter their race, background or creed. There, I found the most loving, thoughtful and generous congregation who became my closest friends of my twenties. I met James in New York, but a grad program at Vanderbilt (and his love for me) was compelling enough for him to take a risk on this small city, too. We bought our first house together in East Nashville on a street that wasn't the safest, but we were blessed by neighbors like Mr. Robertson and Mr. Jenkins who had been there for 40+ years. I quickly and naively watched our neighbors leave because people like James and me moved in. I've both celebrated and wrestled with the developments that have happened over the last 5 years, in particular. I carry a wound of disillusionment that I'm not sure will ever go away. But I will forever love my neighborhood.
We take it for granted that our city's blocks host spaces where artists can share the words and melodies to express what many of us cannot. We take it even more for granted that those talented artists are our friends. The church James and I found ourselves in for the last five years brought Grammy-award winning artists with simple instruments and blended voices to the altar every Sunday, huddled around one microphone. They were the same musicians who played while our church community baptized baby Jude in the river.
The memories will be treasures for me. The friendships, forever a gift.
There is a soul to this city — and the rest of the country is discovering our best kept secret. As more people from the outside move in and bring great talent and energy, I hope the core of Nashville will stay true to itself — that it will not sell out, despite the growth, despite the "it-ness" that it enjoys today.
"Small town feel,"my Uber driver said as we continued toward the airport. "That's why I came here." Me too, I thought. Not why I came here, but what I have loved most — what most Nashvillians have boasted about over the last decade.
The brilliant red sun looked like an African sunrise.
"I heard in California, like in San Francisco, that the earthquakes are so bad that you have to tether your furniture to the walls. Stuff flying at you like that? Not for me," he concluded. "So, where in California are you moving?"
I walked through security at the airport like I have a hundred times before. But that was my last time as a resident of Tennessee. No longer would Nashville be the place I return to after my journeys around the country or around the world. But I left at 33 years old forever changed by the generosity of this loving and creative community.
I hope the other twenty-somethings who have moved to Nashville today with a dream and a prayer are out there now with open hands, open to letting this community teach them and surround them as they embark upon their journeys. I hope I have left this place a little better than I have found it — that I have somehow paved the way for others to follow their dreams, too.