Real Love | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Real Love


JFP Editor Donna Ladd

I may have a tough exterior, but I'm a romantic. And I love love.

Of course, I mean the kind of love I feel for my long-time partner in life and now in business, Todd Stauffer. It is complex, far-reaching, supportive and invigorating even during the tough times. And perhaps most importantly, we challenge each other to live large, think big, and keep caring about other people and each other. That wider love helps strengthen us both.

As I've grown older, though, I've also learned that love is so much wider and deeper and empowering than we ever think it is when we're caught up in the angst of our teens, 20s and even 30s. And I've learned that it's important to love many things, ideas and people--and myself--in order to keep loving anyone or anything.

I've never experienced the special type of love, though, that I have since I returned to my home state and its capital city.

This was a difficult love to rediscover. Let's just say that Mississippi and I fought a lot when I was growing up. It kept me angry and frustrated as it struggled to transition from a hateful and violent place for many of our citizens to the place I know now (still a work in progress). It rejected me because I didn't drink the Koolaid that a (then-)blonde girl from Mississippi was supposed to be polite even to misogynists and racists and to have no higher ambition than to find a husband by the time I hit my 20s (two or three years behind many of my friends).

The state didn't like my so-called "liberal" views (which usually revolved around equal rights for various folks and helping the poor not be poor any longer). And the state's so-called leaders were not good role models for young Mississippians who wanted to live compassionate, loving, accepting lives of others and, as the Bible asks, to be in solidarity with the poor. (Sadly, most still aren't.)

I stuck around to attend Mississippi State University because I had scholarships and couldn't afford to leave. But the day after I graduated, I walked out on Mississippi, running to the northeast. I was in exile for 18 years until, inexplicably to me, I was suddenly called home in 2001.

And I found a place that I love dearly. Of course, I did all those years, too, but was in denial about it. This time, though, I was ready to love my state on my terms, and they involved a whole lot of challenging and working to change the things that drove me away--along with so many others--all these years ago. I'm doing it my way this time.

Now, I'm smitten. I live in a city where the bubble of outspoken, caring, compassion, progressive people just keeps expanding. The other day when I drove by the state's only abortion clinic on my way to work down the street, my heart expanded when I saw one of my college interns from last summer holding a "This Clinic Stays Open" sign with one hand while clearly studying a book she held in the other. I remembered how hard it was to get anyone here to speak out for women's rights to control our own bodies a decade ago, and I teared up.

Then there was the Best of Jackson party at the Metrocenter Jan. 27. I remember the first Best of Jackson party 11 years ago in two renovated lofts in the Ironworks building on South Street. We didn't know who would show up, if anyone. 
 Then you started coming, dressed in all sorts of outfits, from jeans to dresses and ties, until more than 300 folks packed the place (a lot, we thought then). You ate and drank and smiled a lot, as many walked around saying, "I can't believe this is Jackson."

Now, 11 years later, more than 1,500 people--a diverse crowd aged from 20s to much older--poured into the center court of Metrocenter, a mall in a neighborhood from where people and businesses have, in my opinion, irresponsibly fled. You followed the "Night Circus" colors and theme; some had remarkable costumes. And attendees all had the same thrilled, somewhat bemused look about what was possible in Jackson. But these days, you know it's possible, and you know that, as much as your costumes helped decorate the joint, you are doing it.

As I stood on a bench late in the night as DJ Phingraprint simply ignited the dance floor, making complete strangers embrace and wiggle their butts together, I felt immense love and emotion watching Jacksonians remaking their city for themselves (and, hopefully, one day their children). It's hard to beat the kind of passion and pride one feels when you know you are making a difference--and every person there was making a difference. This is real love, the kind I wish everyone could feel every day.

Leading up to the Metrocenter event, I saw a handful of people posting snide remarks in social media about how dangerous they think the venue is, how they feared going there--you know, the old "I see black people" saw. (Sorry, folks, but it's true.)

Meantime, there is a police precinct in the building, massive security, and we brought in several deputies to patrol inside and out, just in case. And the only almost-crime I saw was a (white) man in a business suit trying to walk out with one of my art-signs that I brought in for the night from home. I caught him, said "I own that" and took it back from him; I'll bet you money he doesn't live in that neighborhood.

I spent much of the week before the party in Metrocenter setting up, surrounded by loving, supportive people--from the businesses to the families who shop there to the security guards (black and white), who were so grateful for what we were doing. (One of the white guards later friended me on Facebook; his profile picture is him on duty posing with a woman in a circus costume.) Then there were the clerks in Burlington who helped me remove the security tag on a dress I bought in a shop in a "better" part of town, laughing in delight the whole time at what was transpiring in their mall.

I'm not kidding when I say that Metrocenter filled me with love that whole week. It also made me sad that so many people don't allow themselves to experience the bliss that comes from reaching past your comfort zone and embracing people of different backgrounds, ethnicities and religious beliefs. I truly feel sorry for people who are just bent on spreading negative perceptions about a place most of them haven't been near in 10 or 20 years. They are missing so much.

Not long after the party kicked off, and while many party-goers were watching our fire-breathing magician, I did a couple of TV interviews on-site. I told one reporter, as I said to the crowd later, that I felt like the Best of Jackson were coming together to wrap their arms around Metrocenter and give it a collective hug that night. I don't know if the quote ever aired, but I meant it.

That night at Metrocenter, and nearly every day that I walk and drive the streets of Jackson, I feel the deep love and the possibilities that it creates. I've never experienced anything quite like it. Thank you, Jackson.

Follow @donnerkay on Twitter.

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