Wild and Free

I swear, if it weren't for #fireworkpeople and the season of my life full of Twitter parties with creative, fired-up women all over the world, I don't know where I would be. SO many incredible online friendships came out of being part of that community, and I'm grateful for them every day.

Annie is one of those friends-- from the very first times I saw her name pop up online in my feeds, I knew I wanted to be friends with her. Then, I discovered that she's a gluten-free vegan like me, and I knew having something as crazy as that in common would pretty much guarantee we would  get along!

This girl is just the greatest. I've been a fan of her and followed her blog for a while now, and knew when I relaunched Story Seeker that I wanted her story in the mix. Selfishly, I just wanted to get to know her better and really get to be good friends with her. I knew she would have an incredible story to tell, and I was right. The story she's sharing today is beautiful and made me fall in love with the city she loves and writes about. The stories we continued to swap over long and honesty emails were incredible-- there are few things I love more than two people openly sharing the ways the Lord has been working in their lives and the connectedness and closeness that comes about as a result.

Annie is so full of joy and it's evident in everything she writes and says. She's someone who truly makes the most of every single day of this life, adventuring and exploring and trying new things and loving people and places so so well in the process. I'm pretty sure everyone that meets her instantly loves her-- she's so warm and inviting, always quick to encourage, support and let others know that they are beautiful and beloved. She's like a sunbeam that dances around life freely and confidently. I love that about her.

I'm so grateful that I've gotten to know Annie, and I'm so honored to share her story with you.

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I’m Annie. Newlywed twenty-something with a knack for sassy comebacks, sleeping in past my alarm and dancing awkwardly in public. A lover of exploring, encouraging and passionately pursuing dreams. A lover of Christ, animals and really, really good gluten-free bagels. Trying not to waste this one precious life.

I grew up in the land of the Chesapeake Bay, where black-eyed susans grow wild and free, and the spice factory downtown fills the humid, summer air with a delicious spicy scent. I grew up in the land of water, where you romp in the Bay with your rambunctious friends in the dog days of summer, you catch your own dinner of blue crabs and you ride bikes in the street after dark.

I grew up in the city of baseball, a stadium filled with orange and black, a triumphant cheer of “O” during the last line of the National Anthem rises from the crowd. The city of neighborhood upon neighborhood spilling together, hill after hill, to create a sprawling span of city pouring out upon the earth. Each neighborhood uniquely different and distinguishable, brightly colored row houses, cathedrals-gothic and mysterious, historic monuments left from the past for us to cherish. I was raised in a city where brightly colored dragon-shaped paddle-boats spotted the harbor each Saturday, your dad takes you to the busy, pulsing market for lunch and ornately-dressed horses pull carts with produce through the streets. I’m from a land of history, the birthplace of the Star Spangled Banner, the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and the talent of Babe Ruth.

I grew up in Baltimore and this is the land I’ve always known.

When I was in high school, someone graciously did me the favor of removing my rose-colored glasses, and subsequently all wonder with the city, so I could join the masses and see the city for what it truly was- Dirty. Dangerous. Racist. Trash floating in the harbor. Six shootings in the city last night. Mugging in the park. Teenagers stole the city bikes again. Homeless on every corner. Lowest high school graduation rate in the country.

I was clearly living in the dark. They were right, how could I ever have found this place to be beautiful? My innocence and wonder grew dim and my heart became cold.

When I graduated, I knew college out of state was my only option. Maybe everyone else was complacent enough to stay here and just complain about the conditions, but I am a go-getter and I was getting out. So I moved to the First State, Maryland’s tiny neighbor to the east. The land of no shopping tax, main streets and small town festivals. Delaware.

After one month of living on campus, I quickly realized moving away to college was not exactly how it was portrayed in the movies. It actually was nothing like the movies. I felt small and stupid for being bullied by the people I lived with. Doesn’t bullying only happen to kids in the throes of puberty? I started to spend as much time as possible outside of my dorm. Coffee shops, a random nook in the student center, a bench on Main Street, the dining hall, the grass on the other side of campus, anywhere I could hide with my journal and pen.

As I ran away from the problems at my dorm, I poured out my heart to Jesus, a Friend I had found when I was 17 at Young Life camp while staring at the stars. His Love overwhelmed me and for the first time, it felt real. And he began to heal years and years of insecurity, hateful self-talk and pieces of my broken heart. If he could heal that, he could certainly heal the mess I was in now. I was alone, exhausted from running, and I could feel the seams starting to come loose, the seams that Jesus had so tenderly sewn to piece my heart back together a year earlier.

 As I poured out my heart and told God that this isn’t what I wanted, that I was miserable and I couldn’t take one more night sleeping on the sofa in the lounge, I felt a whisper from within. “Home” and I felt a sudden, sharp ache for something familiar. “Baltimore. Go home.” That was my answer? Leave? Quit? Become a transfer student? Not many excited college freshmen dream of the day they’ll give up all their hard work of college searching, essay writing, financial aid meetings and awkward new student orientations just to pack up, leave and head home.

After praying, and seeking advice, I made the call to transfer to Towson University, become a commuter student, and move home to Baltimore. When I finally made the decision, my heart leapt with a joyful dance and an ugly heavy pressure disappeared from my shoulders. I packed and sang and smiled as I told everyone the news that I was somehow thrilled about- I was going home to Baltimore. 

And I moved home. I started classes at my new school. Once a week, I headed downtown to get coffee alone and relish in my new excitement to live here. And guess what? I got my rose-colored glasses back. I started to see the beauty in the cobble streets, the hometown pride in every passerby wearing an Orioles jersey, the story of every homeless person, the murals on every street corner, the quirkiness of every small neighborhood. My heart beat in time with the pulsing of the city. I was where I was meant to be.

A few weeks into my first semester, an old acquaintance from my time at Delaware called me. He had just received a job at the National Aquarium downtown. Could I show him around? Of course! I intercepted him before someone could pull him aside and convince him to join the crowd in seeing the worst in the city. No. Let me show you the beauty. And I did. And he saw it. And he took my hand and told me he was with me in this. He would help me love this place.

I’ve been back in Baltimore for three years now. I’m now married to the boy from the Aquarium. He did what he said. He’s helping me love this place. We live 10 minutes from the city line. This is OUR place, now. My heart melted as he agreed to move from Delaware to Baltimore, as I watched him fall in love with this entire area, as I felt our hearts both begin to beat in time with the city.

In April, my heart was shattered into somewhere between a million and a billion pieces, as I watched my city burn on national television. I watched our people- angry, hurt, confused and outraged- destroy their own community. I watched our leaders, freeze, not knowing their job description came with handling riots and police brutality, while CNN reporters crowded our beautiful streets, like hungry animals, waiting to pounce on the first person to make a wrong move, and perpetuating a sense of unnecessary fear.

The rest of the nation may think we are still burned to the ground. They may pity the people who call this barbaric city home. They may criticize our leaders, and our people. They may cancel their plans to visit. They may wait in the shadows for the next soul to make a wrong move in the management of our city. They may think we have nothing to offer. That we are empty, ugly and poor.

I am not naïve. We have many issues in our city.

But while they were distracted with the negative, they were never moved to tears when they saw their community come together the next morning to sweep up the glass from broken windows, and broken hearts.  They never witnessed people sitting on their stoops, praying over the city in a time of darkness. They never saw the police officers playing basketball with kids in the worst part of the city, weeks after the national news lost interest in Baltimore because things stopped burning and people stopped looting, so there was nothing to report anymore.

They’ve never smelled the sweet, salty air of the bay and the spice factory mixing together in the air to form a cocktail that is meant to be sipped slowly through a deep breath, as you stroll the cobble streets of Fells Point at dusk. They don’t know the best coffee is on Pratt Street or that all you have to do to make a friend here is buy them a Natty Boh. They are unaware the most breath-taking view of the city is on Federal Hill and watching a sunset there might change your life forever.

Their hearts don’t thump with hope as they walk the city streets and know something better for this city is right around the corner. They don’t see the colorful dragon boats spotting the harbor again, the sound of laughter and street music in the air, wrapping around you like a warm hug. They don’t laugh with the neighborhoods of the city, as the hills run madly over the ground, packed with history and lives and stories and beauty. They don’t see the black-eyed susans growing, wild and free.

But I do.