You don’t have to wear a skirt to follow Jesus

It’s always in the in-between spaces where freedom seems to creep in unnoticed, filling up cracks and crevices of latent longing.

My final year of college, I left my fiancée, boarded a plane with my black umbrella, and touched down where the Inklings once walked. I was spending a semester in Oxford, and I planned to drink it all in–the architecture, the academic rigorousness, the living on my own.  The main dorm was full, so I was placed with six other young women in a tiny, run-down flat a few miles from The Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

We rode our bikes back and forth between classes cutting through Christ Church Meadows. There we met Zoe, an old woman draped in the velvet colors of wood nymphs. She could always be found on her bench, communing with a reality we couldn’t see, her eyes full of poetry and fire. She sat with the tree branches bending back towards the water, their designs on the cards she sold. I slowed down to hear her voice.

In all of the in-between spaces, there was time to meander home each day, to make dinner in our closet of a kitchen, to see deer grazing at Magdalen College.

We’d tape up medieval history timelines on our living room wall between the stenciled fleur-de-lis; we covered it in 5775852977_bc6eb9c7fe_ocolored post-it notes and memorized until we were bleary-eyed. We’d have brilliant thesis statements for papers on Spencer’s Faerie Queen or Jane Austen and forget them in the morning. We quickly learned the routes to and from the city center, hopping on bikes to seminars and spreading out around the city, often leaving bikes in a tangle at the Bodleian Library.

We were thirsty for knowledge and we drank our fill.

Some of us came from more fundamentalist Christian colleges, where women were still required to wear skirts to chapel. Others, like me, came from classically evangelical colleges, where following rules made you holy. If we kept our doors open when our boyfriends visited, if we didn’t skip out on chapel, if we got A’s, then we’d have the boxes checked on the list of Good Christian Woman. We were all caught right in the middle of all of the “if…then’s…” and we hadn’t even known it.

Sometimes it takes moving places to see where you’ve come from. It was in that land of willow trees and spires, where C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein seemed to haunt our Christian memory, that we gingerly stepped into freedom.

We moved out of rules, out of guidelines, and out of cultures that told us how to be a Christian woman. We said goodbye to boyfriends, we jumped on planes to France, and we toured Scotland and the Isle of Wight. We figured out train timetables for ourselves. We drank wine and cooked together.

Slowly, over the course of weeks, our walking, biking, and traveling created intimacy. Then, it was the scholarly living-in-community I valued, where I was finally surrounded by a cohort of similarly serious women. Now, I realize it was my first foray into womanhood and freedom. 

You didn’t have to wear a skirt to follow Jesus.

You could discuss postmodernist literary theory and the practices of St. Benedict in one breath and not be looked at askance. You could be smart and thoughtful and strong and beautiful. You could be everything.

We didn’t want to choose between love and family, and living a thoughtful life. We imagined more for our futures than the version of stay-at-home motherhood our Christian subcultures told us was the epitome of womanhood.

We craved a grounded womanhood, a womanhood rooted in the poetry of the land, with ideas that mattered and voices that were heard – no matter what we did for work or family life. We wanted a womanhood where we could stand sure-footed, warrior-strong, and wear our gentleness like a glorious garment.

We flung our hands from covering our own mouths.

We were women whose voices were no longer silenced, but freed. At the end of the semester, we met around a table in a pub that used to be a church and affirmed one another, our womanhood, and our personhood. We knew it to be a bit silly even then, but with our umbrella drinks in hand, we reclaimed the evangelical rites of testimony. Our words were thick with feeling as we testified to the goodness of each woman, to the Spirit within.  We pushed back our individual darknesses, the lines in sand that said this was how you were to be a woman. We saw one another while the fading icons watched from the walls.

There was more holiness around that table than in the rules we had left.

When I took a plane across the land and across the ocean, I thought it’d be the seminar rooms and the spires of Oxford that would stay with me. It was to be a sort of squeaky clean, pristine memory of old musty libraries, endless cups of tea, the solitary scholar behind a desk, and reams of notes signifying academic progress.

But freedom was somewhere in the spaces between. It was in the orange walls of a run-down flat, and the hallowed halls of pubs; it was the paths between our home and seminars, and it was in a group of women finally released to affirm their personhood instead of static gender roles. It was in all the little particulars – it was in all the places of imperfection where I found freedom, and wholeness, and how I, too, had a voice.

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ashleyAshley Hales describes herself as a recovering good girl who’s been caught by the wide mercy of Jesus. She clings to stories, hot cups of coffee, and “me, too” conversations with girlfriends. She’s mama to 4 littles, wife to her church planter husband, and holds a Ph.D. in English. She writes at Circling the Story and The Mudroom and loves to make friends on Twitter.

“Oxford in the Mist Photo” by lorenzaccio

Pioneer Blood

Home was dusty. Home smelled like cows. Home was New Mexico.

I grew up in one of those small towns where everybody knows your name. Several generations of my family have called this area in the middle of nowhere “home,” even back when it was just a train stop in the desert. I’ve been enthusiastically greeted by people who have known not only me, but my mom since she was in diapers. Six degrees of separation? No one needs that many to find someone you grew up with, dated or are related to. There is a tangible connection between neighbors when anything exciting happens: a new restaurant opens, someone famous wanders through or a school board meeting takes a dramatic turn. There is a sense of unity as we participate in the same traditions as our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents before us, even rituals as simple as dressing in purple to support high school sports every game day.

sunThere’s nothing quite like the community of a small town to build a runway for a dreamer to fly, however. Like my pioneer ancestors before me, I heard the call of the unknown and unexplored. Home was far too confining. I ached with it.

Home then became Baylor, a Baptist university in the middle of Texas. Home was green and gold. Home was red brick and late nights and racing to beat newspaper deadlines.

At this Christian journalism school, I learned to investigate everything. My identity. My relationships. My world. My Bible. If faith is a prism, college threw the light in a different way. I learned a group of people can become your family and then, when their season is done, leave you haunted by their impact. I learned healing can come through quick prayer, but it can also come through years of pain and doctors and hard-earned revelations. I learned a home you choose, even a temporary one, can be a sanctuary. I learned running away from home doesn’t mean your problems stay behind. I discovered belonging and calling and true freedom that isn’t tied to a place, but a Truth.

But college was a training ground, a preparation for the next season yet to come, and in the middle of all this searching for both freedom and belonging, I stumbled upon still another home. I studied abroad at Oxford and found England to feel more home-like than anything I knew. I had studied their history, their culture and the great literature of this little island. Walking down those ancient streets and experiencing Britain for myself was like falling in love – terrifying in its vast newness while welcoming me in as if I had always belonged there. A completely foreign place and culture, and yet, I fit. A puzzle piece snapping into place. It was like nowhere else in my life of traveling and exploring. The loneliness of being far away was nothing new – in fact, it was far sweeter – because I have known the loneliness of being out of place in the midst of familiarity. Out of the two, I’d take the loneliness of adventure any day.

But I wasn’t meant to stay in Britain, not just now anyway, though I’ve been back and will always keep returning, no matter how short the stay.

So now home is a busy suburb in Alabama. Home is a church in a warehouse. Home is mixing up the words “friends” and “family” because here, all are welcome.

Home is a quiet apartment, where the clock can sometimes tick loud in the dark and the battle for joy is tangibly present. But I’ve long since found home to be unrestrained to a physical location. Home is a journey, a path that meanders and crisscrosses and exists in several places at once. A hometown, a homecoming, a home-like feeling, a home address… all of these are simultaneous and equally valid, though still ultimately lacking.

I never really understood this enduring homesickness until I read it described by C.S. Lewis:

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

Though I cannot see it yet, I know the reason I’ll always be searching, a wanderlust girl with pioneer blood. I have yet to make it Home.

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jenna“Pioneer Blood” was written by Jenna DeWitt. Jenna is the managing editor of MORF Magazine, a resource for youth ministers, mentors and parents of teenagers. She has a bachelor’s in journalism from Baylor University, where she edited a bunch of student publications, became a fan of C.S. Lewis and drank Dr Pepper floats with Blue Bell ice cream like a true Texan. She currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama, though if you ask her where home is, she will tell you “it’s complicated.” You can find her on Twitter @jenna_dewitt and on Tumblr at