I was 16 when I first started talking seriously about where I would spend my college years. New York University took the early lead. I refused to give credence to any other school in the country. I was bound for New York City, where I would no doubt spend my days in class and my evenings playing viola in a Broadway musical.
The days were numbered before I would wander off into the horizon of adulthood and freedom, and I was mound for the most magical of all cities…
Until I visited the school.
There were no gates surrounding the university. Nothing to protect me from the world outside or insulate me into my college environment. It wasn’t like the movies or tv shows, with only college students as far as the eyes could see. The only way you knew you were campus was the NYU flags lining the street, but even then, you could walk into what you thought was the School of Business to find out that you were in an actual place of business.
And, on top of that, there was no football. No bonfires or pep rallies. No marching band. The magic of the city did not match the magic of college for me, and I found myself wandering too far out of my comfort zone.
So, back to the drawing board.
At 17, I entered my senior year with a “short” list of schools I might consider. There was Indiana University (my first college visit outside NYU and my state school of choice), Vanderbilt, and Belmont. And at the top of my list, way in the armpit of Texas, was Baylor University.
Oh, I wanted to go to Baylor so badly I could taste it, and almost 14 years later, I can’t even tell you why. Maybe because it was the furthest away of all my potential schools. At 17, I was ready for adventure and independence. If I was going to go away for school, I was going to do it right and go AWAY!
The week I visited Baylor, my mom stayed home and prayed and prayed that I would not enjoy my visit. She had counted the miles. The hours and dollars it would cost me to come home. She knew that if I wandered off that far, I would not often find my way back home.
I loved my visit to Baylor. I went in October, so the weather was perfect, the campus was beautiful, and everything felt just like it looks in the movies. That December, when my youth group went to a Stephen Curtis Chapman concert, and he talked about his daughter, Emily, who went to Baylor, I yelled out, “My name is Emily and I’m going to Baylor too!”
My mom spend the next few months begging me to reconsider. Reminding me that I wouldn’t be able to make it home quickly “if anything happened to my grandparents.” I would never get to see my beloved Cardinals play. And, I would lost touch with so many of the friendships I had worked so hard to create and maintain. She knew she wasn’t going to keep my feet from moving, but “did I really need to wander that far?”
Long story short, I obliged my dad by visiting his alma mater, Samford University (a mere 5.5 hour drive from home), and I fell in love in the parking lot. My mom’s prayers were answered that day, and many of mine where too.
In August 2005, I wandered down I-65 and arrived at the door of Vail Hall, where I would spend the next year leaning into the independence and freedom I so deeply desired. I didn’t go back to Kentucky at all my first semester, intentionally trying to gain my footing in Alabama. But, I never lost sight of that marvelous I-65 – the long, winding, mountainous road that would always guide me back home.
Not all who wander are lost. Often, in wandering, we find ourselves. But all wandering comes at a price. The farther we stray, the harder we have to fight to find our roots again.
At 16, I thought I was ready to wander off into a fantasy world. At 17, I felt finding myself meant getting as far away from what I knew as possible. What I discovered at 18 was that, as long as I could still feel the tether guiding me back to the place of safety and comfort, I could find the freedom to explore. The freedom to find myself, still ever connected to the home that first formed me.
Nearly a decade after I drove across the state line with almost everything I owned, I made the journey back home again. I brought home a loaded car, an expanded heart, and a mind packed full of new understanding and wisdom.
I step into Lent in the safety of home. The hometown that shaped me as a young girl. The home I created for myself out of my wanderings. The home I now share with the man and two dogs who wandered their way into my heart. And, from this place, I can wander with Jesus into the ministry at the root of this whole journey.
This post is a part of a Lenten discipline I am participating in to write each day on a specific word. These posts reflect daily thought processes and conversations with God as I journey through this season of repentance and reflection. I hope they will be meaningful to those of you who find this space and journey with me.