I needed to write this while you were still just that: the place I know, through and through, and the place that knows me best, too. Today marks one month left with you, give or take some days I’m not quite sure about. My things are still where they belong, not stacked in boxes or stored in my parents’ garage. So now seemed like a good time.
I have no natural sense of direction, you know that? And that’s what scared me most, the day I moved here. The road that brought me here does not change–it’s a straight shot–but there’s a bit where one rounds a bend and then, all of a sudden, one is here. Before the bend, it’s just a road; after the bend, it’s Tuscaloosa. As I rounded the bend and laid eyes on the city, I thought only this: “I don’t know how to get anywhere.” I’m not saying it was easy, finding all of your shortcuts, learning how to get places on time despite the train, constantly turning down roads untraveled, but it sure was fun. I learned you. That was the first thing you taught me: You can learn.
I know when it happened to us, when you stopped being the city I was in when I left home and became my home. It was the summer after my sophomore year, after the tornado left you empty and ravaged, after the people fled for places still standing. It’s not just because I saw what the wind did to you, or because I watched your people cry and shake their fists at the sky and then build you again; it’s because it seemed, that whole summer, like it was just the two of us, like you didn’t mind taking in my secrets and letting them blow away in your wind. And every night, I would watch the sun set over your waters, and I would learn lesson after lesson about beauty, right there gazing at it across your skies. When all of the people came back, I carried it around with me, this understanding between us that they didn’t know you like I did, that they couldn’t hear you singing from wherever they were in the world like I do. And so, you were home.
The years since then–since the wind rocked us and the summer sun shined beauty again–have just solidified the feeling. Here is where I first met myself; where I first met my best friends in the world; where God met me. Here, on the landing at the library where I hauled my problems and laid on the concrete until I was light enough to leave again; here, on that bench where I’ve both giggled and cried, held someone’s hand and wrapped my own arms around myself; here, in the stretch along the river, where I’ve watched the sun sink so many times, never worried whether it would rise again. Here, the place that was always waiting for me to come back, waiting to remind me that we are a team. It all happened here, a city without an ocean or mountains or skyscrapers. Here is all I needed, though.
And yet, it’s time to go. There’s a stirring in me that knows it’s so, even though the thought of packing all of my books and photos and coffee mugs and taking them elsewhere causes my hands to tremble (not a good thing for mug-packing.) But Tuscaloosa, the very best thing you’ve taught me is how to love wholly, freely, fiercely, without reservation, without worrying about what I’ll lose. And so that is how I love you, and how I’ll love the next place, too. For that reason, I can’t promise that I’ll be back all the time (though you’ll still be home to some of my favorite souls, so maybe.) But I can pinkie swear that wherever I go, I’ll take it with me, the beauty and the joy, the way the sun drops over the trees against the river, but the light lingers all around. I’ll tell them I came from you, that you gave me a place to learn who I am, to be who I am, to love who I am. When I talk about you, my eyes will light up, so they will know that it’s true.
And I will come back. Some day, I’ll bring little ones here, all of us wearing crimson. I’ll take them to the landing at the library, point out the bench, stand them in my favorite nook along the river, where I can see the whole span of trees and light and water. I’ll bend down so that I am level with them, seeing it as they do, and I’ll say, “Brave ones, this is where your mama fell in love.” Their eyes will grow wide, and they’ll look at me incredulously, perhaps knowing that I didn’t meet their father in Tuscaloosa. “Mama!” they’ll exclaim, “With whom?” (That grammar control! Gosh, I love them already.)
I’ll gaze back at that same sun landing on those same trees, the same river singing the same songs I used to hear, and because we had the kind of romance one does not soon forget, I might whisper the answer: “With all of it, loves. With all of it.”