I suppose lots of angsty high school seniors dream of moving far from home after graduation. I certainly did. I couldn’t wait to get out of St. Louis – not because I disliked the city where I grew up, but because I felt like it knew me too well. Like my entire history was imprinted on the city’s walls – a sort of visual prison that kept me from becoming the person I wanted to be.
So I chose to attend college in Southern California.
I fell in love with California – I loved the forever sunshine and beaches, of course, but also the feeling that I could be anyone I wanted to be in that fresh, clean canvas of a place. Most of my college friends couldn’t even point to St. Louis on a map, and there was something kind of liberating about that. I’ve heard it said that Californians are cliquey and self-absorbed, but I found the opposite to be true: I was welcomed into home after home, and the friends I made in college are the kinds that last a lifetime. California truly became home for me.
In one of my college creative writing classes I wrote an homage to St. Louis in the style of Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That.” I meant it as a kind of “goodbye forever” letter to my home city.
Because I never imagined that I would move back.
Unlike Didion’s essay, though, mine is corny and shallow. It covers all the St. Louis clichés: gooey butter cake and frozen custard and toasted ravioli, loyalty to Cardinals Baseball and St. Louis Bread Company, facts about the St. Louis Arch and how to fry eggs on the sidewalk in July. I tried to add complexity by describing broken windows in buildings downtown, and by including a story about how I witnessed a man pickpocket my mom at the grocery store. But, ultimately, the piece falls flat in more ways than one.
Over the years, I’ve tried again and again to revise that essay into something worth sharing, but I haven’t been able to make it work. I have never been able to articulate my relationship with St. Louis in a way that means anything to me or anyone else.
Eight years after that creative writing class, I had fully established the life I always wanted in Southern California. I was teaching writing at my alma mater university; my husband and I had a cute little apartment with tons of windows; we could walk to the beach and to Trader Joe’s; we had a garden that bloomed all year long; we had finally settled into a church that we loved; our California friends had become our second family.
We were exceedingly content.
And then my husband got a call about a job opportunity in St. Louis.
He prayed about the decision and encouraged me to pray too. He sought advice from friends and family. Meanwhile, I did absolutely everything I could to avoid thinking about the decision altogether. I was afraid to open up a line of communication to God because I knew that if I did He might tell me it was time to leave my comfortable, sunny life – a life I had worked so hardto establish. But I didn’t have to hear the audible voice of God to know in my heart that He was calling us back to my home city.
In retrospect, I can see that I struggled over that old college essay because my St. Louis story is not yet over. Since we moved here three months ago, I have already seen how partial and naïve my childhood perception of the city was. St. Louis is certainly gooey butter cake and frozen custard and Cardinals Baseball, but it’s also a city with deep, open wounds: systemic poverty, racism, violence, and despair. Yet, in spite of these issues – or more likely because of them – St. Louis is also a place where God’s work among people is incredibly visible. We have witnessed God moving in the Church, especially, to bring healing to the lives of hurting people, which has been both encouraging and faith-sustaining.
At our church here in St. Louis the pastor ends every service with the words, “You are loved by God, and you are sent by Him.” Those words are a such comfort to me. I cannot know precisely why we were sent to St. Louis, but I do know that the Spirit has been stirring in our hearts since we arrived. I know that we have been sent here for a reason. I know that we are home.