Mississippi Transplant: Lauren Rhoades
"Here I am nearly ten years later, with a Mississippi dog, a Mississippi house, a Mississippi husband, and a Mississippi baby in tow."
What does it mean to call Mississippi home? Why do people choose to leave or live in this weird, wonderful, and sometimes infuriating place? Today Rooted Magazine founder and editor-in-chief takes her own questionnaire.
Where are you from?
Denver (and suburbs of Denver), Colorado
When did you move to Mississippi and why did you move here?
I moved to Jackson in August, 2013 to work with FoodCorps as an AmeriCorps service member. Before moving to Jackson, I had never been to the Deep South. I had never eaten fried okra, or crawfish, or turnip greens. I was 24 and ready for an adventure, and boy did I get one. I thought I’d live in Mississippi for at least two years, maybe five. Here I am nearly ten years later, with a Mississippi dog, a Mississippi house, a Mississippi husband, and a Mississippi baby in tow.
What does “home” mean to you? How does Mississippi fit into that definition?
Throughout my life, I’ve felt like a hermit crab looking for its perfect-fitting shell, never quite able to settle in, stay in one place. For as long as I remember, I knew I would leave the place where I grew up. It’s not that I didn’t like Colorado—I have great memories of camping and ski trips, hiking the Boulder Flatirons between college classes, and seeing the Milky Way from my grandfather’s home in the San Luis Valley.
But I also wanted to see other places, try on other shells. Neither of my parents are from Colorado, which perhaps instilled in me the idea that home is a place you choose for yourself, not the place where you are born.
For years, though, “home” was wherever my mother and stepfather were. I knew I could always return home to them if I really needed to, even when they moved from Denver to D.C. As much as I enjoyed the thrill of exploring unfamiliar territory far from family, I still had the security of knowing there was a safe place waiting for me. For many years I took that security for granted. I understand now what a privilege that was.
At this phase of my life, “home” carries with it a feeling of greater responsibility and intentionality. Home is the partnership I have with my husband, the space of love and safety we’ve built for each other and for our daughter. Home is our little cinder block ranch beneath a towering oak tree, our neighborhood in Northwest Jackson, which once was primarily white, and now, in the wake of white flight, is primarily Black, filled with young families and a sprinkling of older homeowners whose yards are always pristinely mowed. Home is my garden, which is ever changing, haphazard, filled with perennials, old roses, bulbs, and hardy propagates.
Jackson is my home, too. I became an adult in this city, started a career and made lifelong friends, got married, gave birth here. My dentist and my doctor are in Jackson, my dog’s veterinarian, my daughter’s daycare. The daily scaffolding of my life is intertwined with this place, and what more is a sign of home than the ordinariness of routine and familiarity?
Still, I get restless. The concept of a “forever home” eludes me. I envy people who have that sense of surety.
What do you miss most about the place where you’re from?
I miss the accessibility of wilderness and natural spaces out West. I grew up near lots of public parks, state parks, national parks, well-maintained hiking and biking trails. On Twitter, someone shared a map of the U.S. color-coded by “distance to the nearest national park.” The Deep South has so much beautiful land, and yet little of it is public, protected land. And the public land that does exist here is not well-maintained for recreation.
How have you cultivated community in Mississippi? Who are the people who have made you feel rooted here?
I’m lucky that coming here with FoodCorps instantly plugged me into a network of educators, farmers, and local food system leaders. A couple of my fellow FoodCorps service members from way-back-when have grown their roots in Mississippi, too, and are making ripples of positive change in our local and state food systems. Shout out to Liz Broussard and Robert Raymond.
I’m also very grateful to Jackson’s small but mighty Jewish community. Friends who work for the Institute of Southern Jewish Life are some of the most community-minded and generous people I know.
Plugging into Mississippi’s vast literary network here has been rewarding, too. I’ve met many wonderful writers and readers through the Eudora Welty House & Garden and the Mississippi University for Women’s MFA program. Mississippi is teeming with talented writers, and I’m lucky to call some of them my friends and mentors.
Rooted Magazine is becoming a community, too. I feel like we are all having a collective, important conversation about what it means to live—or have lived—in Mississippi. I started this magazine partly because I was feeling rudderless, battered by conflicting thoughts and feelings about making a home here. Hearing from interesting and thoughtful Mississippians who also want the best for this state has been affirming, challenging, enlightening.
What’s the weirdest question or assumption you’ve encountered about Mississippi (or about you as a Mississippian) by someone who’s never been here?
I really hate when people think that “the Southern diet” consists only of fried foods and sweet tea and Coke.
This assumption about what Mississippians eat belies a total ignorance of Southern foodways, which are chock-full of fruits, vegetables, legumes and an infinite number of ways to prepare them. Many Southern foods have roots in West African cuisine—watermelon, peanuts, okra—as enslaved people brought their seeds and food traditions with them across the Atlantic.
Growing fruits and vegetables is just something Southerners do. Foraging, too. There are all sorts of delicacies like morels and pawpaw and wild persimmon and muscadine and elderberry growing out in the woods (and in parks and ditches and behind certain apartment complexes in Ridgeland), as long as you know where to find them.
Mississippi’s rock bottom health rankings are not a result of traditional Southern cuisine, but are rather a symptom of a nightmarish convergence of broken systems, bad politics, racism, and corporate greed: the proliferation of dollar stores in place of grocery stores that sell fresh food, poverty, inadequate healthcare access, the absolute lack of a social safety net.
How has living in Mississippi affected your identity and your life’s path?
Mississippi introduced me to a handsome man from Toomsuba who became my husband. Mississippi’s rock-bottom real estate prices (plus a first-time homebuyer’s grant) allowed us to purchase our house. Mississippi gave me a beautiful daughter who loves cornbread and collard greens. Mississippi taught me how to grow food and flowers. Mississippi taught me how to turn cabbage into sauerkraut. Mississippi introduced me to the words of Eudora Welty, Margaret Walker, Kiese Laymon, Jesmyn Ward, and the deep well of Southern literature that keeps on giving and giving. Mississippi set me on my path as a writer. Mississippi introduced me to some of the most interesting and funny and generous people I’ve ever known. Mississippi gave me the words “y’all” and “might could.” Mississippi has helped me to see myself and my country with hard-earned clarity. Mississippi made me into a Mississippian, which is the most unexpected part of it all.
What is something that you’ve learned about Mississippi only by living here? In what ways has Mississippi lived up to your expectations?
The Mississippi heat has lived up to my expectations, but the cold surprised me. Southern cold snaps are brutal. I’ve learned that you can grow vegetables in the winter here, and that a frost will make your greens taste sweeter. I’ve learned to identify the seasons by what’s blooming and growing and ripening. (My daughter’s birthday is smack dab in the middle of fig season—lucky kid!) I’ve learned that pine trees have pollen, and it’s neon yellow, and you can see literal clouds of it each spring wafting through the air and into your sinuses. I’ve learned about dry counties and tornados and cicada husks and fire ants.
I’ve learned that it’s hard not to romanticize Mississippi, its beauty and its stories. And maybe the romanticizing is partly a defense mechanism, a way to make the hardships more poignant, more palatable.
But there is a lot of hardship and suffering here, and most of it is mundane, insidious, and cruel. And not at all Romantic.
Have you ever thought about moving away? Does a sense of duty keep you rooted here? Do you have a “tipping point”?
I love my life here, but I also think about moving away every day. Still, the longer I stay here, the more complicated the act of leaving would be—logistically, emotionally, financially. But it’s hard to be far away from my family, and ultimately that’s what would likely pull us away. That, or a job offer too good to refuse.
So many of my tipping points have already been reached and breached—access to clean, safe drinking water, abortion rights—I’m no longer sure if a final straw exists.
Having a child has also shifted my sense of duty to this place—and to her—in unexpected ways. I think often of my daughter’s claim to the South. I want her to feel connected to her inheritance, her ancestry—the Jewish and African diasporas that have carried her to this fraught place in this fraught time. I want her to feel that she has a home in Mississippi, that it’s hers to love, to criticize, to make better. I want her to know Mississippi even if she chooses not to live here, even if we choose not to live here.
I’m haunted by the unknown regrets of an unknowable future. If we stay, will our daughter long to escape as soon as she’s able? And if we do leave Mississippi (and the South), will she resent her lack of a connection to the place she’s from? That remains to be seen.
What do you wish the rest of the country understood about Mississippi?
The most radical, progressive, forward-thinking, change-making people can be found right here in Mississippi.
Do you have a favorite Mississippi writer, artist, or musician who you think everyone needs to know about?
I think everyone needs to know about Bobby Rush, for reasons that are at least in part due to my own nostalgia. Just weeks after I had moved to Mississippi, I saw Bobby Rush play at the Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival in Clarksdale. He was wearing a salmon-colored suit, surrounded by a troupe of voluptuous, scantily clad dancers, his hair slicked back in his signature Jheri curl. He was bawdy and funny and captivating. (And eighty years old back in 2013!) The crowd went wild over him. It was one of my most memorable experiences in the last ten years. I recommend his fabulous 2021 memoir I Ain’t Studdin’ Ya, which tells the tale of his humble sharecropping roots and his hard-won rise on the Chitlin Circuit. Knowing his life story will make you appreciate the music even more.
If you had one billion dollars to invest in Mississippi, how would you spend your money?
This question occurred to me last summer, when the Powerball had reached about a billion dollars and Jackson was experiencing a water crisis whose fix was estimated to cost around a billion dollars. I told my husband that if I won the lottery, I’d buy Jackson a brand new water infrastructure.
That’s my original answer, and I’m sticking to it. But if someone gave me another billion, I’d continue to invest in our capital city. I’d pay all our public school teachers a salary of $100,000/year. Then I’d update all of Jackson’s public schools into state of the art facilities that would put the segregation academies to shame. I’d buy up a ton of blighted properties, renovate them and give them to house-less people. I’d build a whole private library filled only with banned books. I’d turn the giant parking lots downtown into public parks full of fruit trees and native plants and places to picnic and play.
(And I may have just spent ten billion, but who’s counting?)
What or who do you want to shamelessly promote? (It can absolutely be a project you’re working on, or something you are involved in.)
I want to shamelessly promote this publication, which has been a lot more work and a lot more fun than I could ever have imagined. (And I’m deeply grateful to Maya Miller and Shira Muroff for their editing and ideas and social media assistance which make this whole thing possible.) I want to continue featuring the stories and voices of interesting Mississippians, along with original prose, poetry, and photography that deepens our understanding of what it means to have roots here. And thus my plug: subscribers make this whole enterprise possible. (Paid subscribers walk around with little halos on their heads—y’all are pretty dang awesome.) Forwarding this email or sharing the publication with someone who might find it interesting means a whole lot. Thank you.
Lauren Rhoades is a Mississippi transplant, pro-choice mom, and Eudora Welty fangirl. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Rooted Magazine.
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It always feels like a gift to read your writing. This piece touched me, knowing about some of your triumphs and challenges along your journey from Denver to Boulder to Washington state to Mississippi. Thank you for showing me the parts of Mississippi that make your heart sing. I want to see your garden in full bloom.