Hell, Church, and the Sylamore

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Photo taken by Arkansas native Jonas Mark

In kindergarten, I would get off the school bus and walk down Sturrock Rd., the long, paved, country road to get home, and some afternoons I knew by the strong smell of asphalt and motor oil that a light rain shower had come through, and I had missed it. I liked school well enough, but I loved the rain. The ditch in front of my house had that red, chalky dirt that, when a little wet, became a young potter’s dream—molding bowls and cups and sitting them out to dry. But after a downpour, that clay became a hellish red color, and I didn’t trust it. I would submerge my bare feet in the mud, count to three, and immediately pull them out. Each second being a measure of courage. And one wet day, I walked the complete length of the ditch, talking to the Devil. My feet would sink low into the Earth, and I believed it was something or someone pulling me down to the pits of hell, grabbing at my ankles and chanting my name. These are the thoughts of a child who watched horror films with her father while occasionally attending Sunday service at her grandmother’s Baptist church. Hell was real and a layer of it was in the ditch of my front yard.

But hell wasn’t the only landscape. As early as I can remember I talked to God, along with the birds and anything else that would listen. It was all very simple really, I could feel that God loved me, and I knew I loved Him back. I felt very close to Him while knowing very little about Him, and I don’t remember a day I questioned if He was real. That came later. I had already chosen that belief for myself, I think. And without a lot of people telling me or showing me, I just gathered from my conversations with God that He was really kind and good. He was peace, and he showed up early for me in my life. I needed that.

But as I started attending church with my grandmother, my Nanna, it was no longer just me and God. Now other people were involved, other voices. Church for me was like finding a special, secret place to play, and then learning that is was open to the public. Church was like sharing the Sylamore creek. My time in the Sylamore in Arkansas is personal and very hard to share.

it was no longer just me and God. Now other people were involved, other voices.

I slowly hobble through water on visible stones below, avoiding any trench that would be too deep. My body is awake and my mind, alive, aware of deep meaning without deep thinking. I turn my body and my breathing toward the flow of the water, toward the bubbling brook up ahead. Clear, cold water. I can see where to place my foot, and I can see that it’s just me and the minnows that have come to nibble my toes.

After the Hymns and after the organ, I sit down in the pew and hear a car drive up on the creek bank. I hear loud hoots and hollers from a father and a mother corralling five, loud and whiny kids. I hear the sound of a large, middle-school-aged boy trying to squeak and twerk his way into his little sister’s intertube. On impulse, led by a charge, they all stampede the Sylamore waters. My minnows scatter, and the water gets murky; I lose my footing, and me — and my flailing limbs — flop into the breath-taking waters. But I hung around church long enough to see that the ripples eventually settle and the good things are often better shared.

Truthfully, I’ve never been able to sit in a church service and see right to the bottom of this whole metaphor. I’ve now learned to embrace the murky waters that we stir up, and I can speak to the value of inviting people in to my Sylamore church. But as a young child who learned God mostly from the East Texas pines, church was disorienting.

It became confusing because “Jesus was the way to God.” Okay yes, if Jesus is God in human form, I believe in Jesus. And so I learned more about Jesus; and I loved Him, too. He was also kind and good, and so I needed him. Done. But then “I had to first pray a prayer and ask him in my heart” and “I’ll know it’s time when it’s time. But do not tarry. Hell awaits.”

Although I began this process with gumption and fight, over time I began to question myself, and I don’t take myself lightly. Okay, Jesus, you can have my heart. I know you are good. Done. Let’s keep going. But I was met with faces that said “slow down. You might be too young.” All that peace tunneled into an underground pipeline, and I found myself pacing in that hellish red clay.

My spirit stayed connected to God’s spirit, and no one could tell me otherwise. I molded clay bowls from the left-over rain until I decided on my own I was His but just like going to school, I had to do some learning in the church or what they called Sunday school. Some of it I would benefit from and some would be garbage, just like school. But since I only attended church with Nanna, my ride to New Hopewell Baptist was limited to mainly holidays and revival week. So here’s what happened: sitting on my metal-framed day bed with my Holly Hobby sheets, alone in my room, I popped a VHS tape into the VCR, and fell in love with the stories of the Bible. A corny cartoon with two kids, their dog. and a robot named Gizmo were sucked into a “Super Book”, the Bible.

My Nanna saw my interest, or rather obsession, with the stories and bought me the whole series as they were released. I cried when Adam and Eve were banished from the garden, I cheered when David defeated Goliath, and I laughed when Jesus was born in a stable. And when I came to the crucifixion of Jesus, I turned the TV off, and never watched that tape again. For five more years, these VHS tapes were my church. I processed everything I learned with my younger sister and our naked Barbies. And for the bigger questions, like that one VHS tape I turned off, I saved those questions for my Nanna at her kitchen counter.

Today in my 30’s I’m making my way back to that little girl before she went to Vacation Bible School and Youth group and Bible College — she’s just as real and as important as the theology that followed her.

Follow Jonas Mark’s photo journey on his Instagram and at www.jonasmarksphotography.com

High School Sweethearts & The Driveway That Led Me Home

This evening, like countless evenings before, I drive away from my parents’ house, the house of my youth. The house that built me. 

I drive in and out on this concrete multiple times per week. This is not surprising as I live in the same town where I grew up, and visit my parents’ house maybe more often than they prefer…

Life is funny. Not the comedic kind of funny, but more like the one that aches deep, down in your soul. 

This driveway on Rosa Street always welcomes me. No matter my condition, I am never shut out. 

And it always lets me go when I am ready, never holds me back. 

I was 6 years old when we moved into this house and drove down that slope of a driveway for the first time. 

It is the place where I watched my dad and big brother light fireworks on many ‘a 4th of July;  the place my sisters, friends, and I rode bikes and played family neighborhood softball games in the summer… where I accidentally knocked out Bonnie Tucker’s tooth during my turn at bat. 

This is the driveway I rode down on a skateboard because my big brother dared me to do it, and that gracious concrete drive caught me when I fell off said skateboard. 

(It is becoming increasingly clear that I should not be allowed to swing baseball bats or ride skateboards.)

This is the driveway where we gathered to have family pictures when I was 13.  My older, teenage brother, in the height of his rebellious ways, dyed his hair orange to spite my mom and her desire to have a nice family picture. 

This same driveway welcomed my brother and me home later that night, engulfed by trauma and grief, after our dear friend died tragically at age 15.

I learned to drive here. 

When I was 16, my now husband kissed me for the first time at the bottom of this driveway.

This is where he and I backed out in a convertible wearing a tuxedo and backless white dress as we headed to the Batesville High School Prom circa 2003. 

And this is the driveway that held my nervous heart steady as I headed out to college in my black Grand Am.

I hurried home to this driveway when that high school sweetheart and I broke up in college. And it is where we drove home later that year for Thanksgiving break, hand in hand, reconciled. 

My first panic attack ended in this driveway as an ambulance pulled in behind us because I was sure I was having a heart attack. 

This is the driveway my high school sweetheart and I drove our tackily-decorated car – with cake and condoms – after our wedding, to retrieve a suitcase left at my parents’ house. 

(Cake and condom décor happen when you get married at 21 and college boys decorate the getaway car. So classy.) 

And it was here where two nuns dug through our backseat to help us find our keys so we could drive off to our honeymoon suite. 

(That was fun to write!)

This driveway has welcomed my kids to their Docky and Gigi’s house since 2009. 

And this is the driveway that took me in at 31 when everything else came crashing down around me. 

Tonight is mundane. It is the usual.  I drive out of this driveway with my 3 kids in tow. We lament of their daddy’s work schedule and how we miss him. We pass by the high school and one of the girls says, “That’s where you and daddy met, right?”

They then want me to tell them again of when I first saw that high school sweetheart boy. 

So I tell them about missing the first day of 11th grade, and how I was kinda relieved because I never did like the first day of anything. When 3:00 rolled around, my two dear friends swiftly drove to my house – down this driveway – and came in my front door to tell me of “the new boy who was perfect for me”. He was cute and kind and believed in Jesus and liked to sing. Plus, he wasn’t super tall- and neither was I. “Ya’ll have so much in common,” they said. 

He and I, we had chemistry class together. I hated chemistry…I loved that class. 

We became friends. Then we became sweethearts. 

We were only 16.

And now we are 34, with lives much different than we dreamed and hearts more fractured than we ever imagined. 

When everything blew up around us, we separated. 

My heart was broken. His heart was broken.

I think we thought it could never be made right.  

But there’s something very very special about high school sweethearts: they know each other in a way that can’t be known if you didn’t experience high school and youth together. 

There is a lot of research that discusses the pitfalls of getting married young and statistics of how high school loves are pretty much predestined to fail. Because…you aren’t really who you are when you’re a teenager. 

That’s true. And I don’t disagree with the statistics…

But in some ways, I would argue, that I was the purest form of myself as a teenager. And he got to see and know that part of me. And I him. 

Life will surely and absolutely change you. Some ways that are good, some ways not so good. 

But he and I, we know each other. We grew up together. We have seen and experienced so many versions of ourselves together.  

When the darkness came…. And the proverbial locust ate away a few years… I was still able to look at him with knowing. 

I was faced with the reality of my ability and choice to walk away. I wanted so badly to forget what I knew. But with good counsel and truth I began to see him again, in his purest form. I saw that 16-year-old boy. If I had only known him for a year or so before we got married and had kids, I would have been tempted to believe that I never truly knew him. 

Tonight…as our children simultaneously beam and act grossed out by the story of our young love, (total fakers, they love it!) I realize that those 16-year-old versions of ourselves are what beckoned us home again. He knew me. And I knew him.  So we met at the truth of who we were and who we are and who we hoped to be. 

And tonight I remember when I packed up that little red car… with our girls in the back and our boy in my belly… and slowly but surely started backing out. The driveway that always brought me home… was leading me home.