I spent my twenty-fifth birthday in Dogtown, which is the neighborhood in St. Louis where I lived. I rented this little, one bedroom flat next door to a bar and just across from the St. Louis Zoo and Forest Park, which is to St. Louis what Central Park is to New York. Words cannot express how much I loved that place.
I worked at this fancy restaurant in downtown Clayton for a few months but I hated it because it was so poorly ran and the computer system was so archaic that I felt unprepared to do my job well. That, and I kind of felt like the owners stole money from the servers in roundabout ways. It was almost a moral decision to quit more than anything. It took me a little more than a month to find another job because I was so determined to make it a good one.
Just before I went home to Kansas City for Christmas that year I made a significant life choice: I got a tattoo. I had been thinking about it for more than a year, things like what it would be and where I would put it. Generally, I feel like the only reason a person should get a tattoo is for him- or herself. Because there is always going to be somebody who disapproves or dislikes it and because you will live with it for the rest of your life, you have to be able to stand by your decision and it has to be able to give you and only you a sense of its purpose.
My tattoo kind of looks like the Timberland brand logo from a distance or with an unfamiliar eye. It is a circular-shaped silhouette of a tree with roots next to a stream of water. I had been looking for an image of a really good looking tree for a while, and then one day I was at this meeting for the church I was going to at the time and the guy across from me was drinking coffee from a mug with a tree on it. I said, "that is a good looking tree." I asked him about the mug and it turned out to be the logo for the church before they changed the name from Greentree to Riverside. He said they had a bunch of those mugs that they couldn't get rid of because of the name thing, so he offered to give me about a half-dozen of them. I took one and a couple weeks later I brought it with me to the tattoo shop.
I picked this particular tattoo shop because one day I saw this lady sitting across from me at a Bread Co. (which is the same thing as Panera, but in St. Louis it is still called the St. Louis Bread Co.) and I thought she had beautiful tattoos. I eventually went over to her and asked her not to think I was weird for asking but, "where did you get your tattoos done?" It turned out that her husband was an artist at one of the more reputable shops on the Loop, so that's how I made my decision. The artist ended up really liking the tree, too, so I gave him the mug.
So I got this little tattoo on the inside of my wrist, mostly because I wanted to be able to see it every day and I liked how people could see it well when I served them plates of food, and at the same time I can easily cover it with a bracelet or watch if I need to. I love it so much and for a while after I got it I had these reoccurring dreams where it got erased, so I would wake up with a gasp and check to make sure it was still there.
Most people who see my tattoo guess that it is the tree of life. I usually say, "yeah, kind of." The thing is that it doesn't mean just one thing to me, it is a symbol of many deep truths. The origin of the name Ashley stems from the ash tree, so the tree is kind of like me. And the most common explanation that I give when people ask about it is that it is from a passage in Jeremiah 17 in the Bible that says this:
Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, who's confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.
It's a reminder of who I want to be.
At the beginning of 2008 I started working at this great, very well-run restaurant in the Lafayette Square neighborhood of St. Louis. I was still traveling a lot, including trips with my new friend, Liz and that summer I got to lead a backpacking trip with my brother and an awesome group of high school students from Kansas City. We actually spent a week in the wilderness that is just miles from where I live now.
Liz and I attended this house group with the church where we both went. One day our group was having a discussion and I chimed in with some statement about how I think that a lot of guys-- Christian guys, to be exact-- seem to be put-off by strong, single women. About five minutes later Liz came up to me and asked if we could get coffee sometime.
So she and I would lament to one another about the woes of being intense and "intimidating," to the opposite sex and then we would spur one another on toward further bad-ass-ness. We would travel together and find adventure and talk on the phone and eat at delicious restaurants.
St. Louis was probably the easiest place for me to make friends since college, where it is easy for everyone to make friends because you are thrown into close proximity with a bunch of people in the same life stage for a significant length of time. There is so much to be said about the good, genuine people of the Midwest, and the neighborhood feel of the city of St. Louis. After my first year in that city I had made several friends and no two were alike. It was an easy decision for me to stay another year.