When I transferred to the University of North Texas and moved away from home in 1990, I quit going to church.
While I have some wonderful recollections of my childhood/teenage church years, I also have a lot of bad ones. I grew up in a church that judged people. I grew up in a church that closed its Mother’s Day Out program because the “wrong people” were enrolling in it.
Only once did a black family attend Sunday services. And that’s the day a member up front said something racist.
My childhood church liked white people. It liked middle-class or affluent people. It reveled in sameness.
It had no pity for the poor. No compassion for those who struggled. No desire to throw open its doors and let anyone “different” enter.
I thank God for parents who DID care about those less fortunate. And who DIDN’T fear change or diversity. If not for them, that church might have tainted more than my memories.
Speaking of memories, my last recollection of that church is spring semester of my senior year in high school. Five of us were graduating. We’d grown up together. Four of us were going to the “appropriate” college — a private one associated with our denomination.
Me? I was headed to a public, state university. Oh yeah. I was totally a heathen.
For weeks, the young adults in our church told me I was wrong in my college choice. I remember sitting up late, sobbing, and asking my mom why a state school was so “wrong” or “bad.” I wanted to be a journalist. Shouldn’t I pick a university that would help me become one?
I will never, ever forget the Sunday that the pastor called my four friends up to the front of the church and gave them scholarships.
Me? I didn’t matter, even though I’d grown up in that church. I had chosen differently, and therefore, I was undeserving of a scholarship. A loving and non-judgmental church doesn’t make an 18-year-old kid feel worthless about going to college. I mean, really? It hurt my mom even more than me. After all, she’d been the church pianist there since I was a toddler.
Anyway, once I left home, I was done. No more church. No more judgements. No more haters.
Once I had kids, I tried out a few places. But none seemed to fit. Or rather, I didn’t fit in.
And then four years ago, I decided to become a Girl Scout troop leader. I found a co-leader. I had girls already assigned to my brand-new troop.
But we had no meeting place.
My co-leader, who lives in Argenta, suggested that I call First Presbyterian, which is located in Argenta.
I called. Left a message. And the pastor called me back and said, “Sure! We’d love to host you. When do you want to have your meetings?”
And just like that, I had a place for my girls.
Over time, I met the pastor, Anne Russ, in person. I met members of the church. I walked by their bulletin board every other week. I eavesdropped on congregants who showed up at odd hours and chatted just outside our meeting room.
I met the people who rented space from the church. Artists. The community booster club. The guy who ran a recording studio there. We talked.
I liked what I heard. And what I saw. This church welcomed everyone.
I also noticed that this church did a lot in the community. It wasn’t afraid of poor people or black people or gay people or transgendered or “different” people.
It just was. It was itself. It didn’t care about who walked in or what their “Christian qualifications” were. It was there and it accepted. Period.
Intrigued, I started going to the occasional service. I mentioned to the pastor that I might be kind of sort of interested in hearing more about First Pres.
I went to Wednesday-night Bible study — which was and still is held at Crush Wine Bar.
I made stealth appearances at a couple of church functions.
And then, in December 2012, my husband, children and I became members of First Presbyterian in Argenta.
There, we found acceptance. We made new friends. We could just go to church and just … be.
No judgements. No questions. No chastising.
I love that my church isn’t afraid to open its doors to the community. I love that it welcomes EVERYONE. I love that couples and families of all types are welcome. Divorced? Gay? Poor? Struggling? Doubtful? Agnostic? Atheist? Doesn’t matter.
I was 42 when we joined First Pres. So yeah. I quit church at age 20. And then I randomly stumbled across a church and liked it. Why? Because I spent three years watching from the wings. I spent three years watching members of this congregation and their pastor. I spent three years quietly assessing what I saw and heard.
These poor souls had no idea they were being watched. But what they did and said unknowingly is what made me want to become one of them.
A lot of churches out there are worrying about attracting new members or retaining current ones.
I can tell you — it doesn’t matter what your services are like. I don’t care about your in-house coffee shop or way-cool Kid Zone. It doesn’t matter how many members you have. It doesn’t matter what is said from the pulpit.
What matters to people like me is how you live. I don’t want to hear about your Christianity. I want to SEE it. I want to see you continue your sponsorship of Boy Scouts — because, I’m sorry, but what church casts out CHILDREN?
Only a church full of haters.
People like me, those who teetered on the brink for years — we want a church that is nice to people. We want a church that welcomes those who live in the area. We want a church that doesn’t judge us. We want a church that represents Jesus — one that isn’t afraid of those who are different.
So there you go. I’ve given you the blueprint for salvaging your congregation and attracting new members.
Stop judging people. Stop hating them. Stop condemning them and pointing fingers.
Jesus accepted people — lepers, prostitutes and thieves — as they were. And so should we.
When Rick and I decided that we would elope to Big Bend National Park in 2001, I told him I didn’t want an engagement ring.
“Just pick out a wedding ring,” I told him. “Nothing big or clunky. Just something simple.”
Which Rick did, with the help of my best friend Amy Webb.
The first time I laid eyes on that ring was on our wedding day, when he slipped it on my finger. It was an unusual style, with a small diamond set so that you could see all of the stone.
The only time I didn’t wear it was during my two pregnancies, when my fingers got too swollen.
So when we left for our vacation — which we all now know went disastrously awry — I wore my ring as usual. During my time alone in the desert, the ring fell off my finger. I groped around, but couldn’t find it. I was too weak to really look for it anyway.
When my rescuers arrived, I told them I lost my wedding ring. Immediately, several people began poking around the dirt and underneath my tree. No ring.
I was found at 11:45 a.m. mountain time. Once at the hospital in El Paso, I spent hours in the ER. No one could decide where to put me. My temperature was going haywire and I was in acute renal failure. One doctor told me they also were worried about my heart, lungs and liver.
It was around 9 or 9:30 p.m. before they admitted me to the telemetry unit.
When Rick arrived, someone was in the midst of asking about any valuables I might have.
“Well, the only thing would be her wedding ring,” he said.
Our friend Claudia, the reporter sent to be with me and write about what had happened, had to break the news.
“She lost it,” Claudia told him, cringing at the fleeting sadness she saw on his face. But Rick recovered quickly. We were alive. We were together. That’s what mattered most.
But when we got home, I cried and cried over the loss of that ring. It’s a silly thing, I know, given what we went through and what could have happened.
But that ring represented to me not just love, but the trust we have in each other.
I trusted him to pick it out for me.
He trusted me enough to marry me, even though his last marriage ended in divorce.
He trusted me to be a stepmother, even though I’d only ever cared for a dog.
I trusted him on assignments together, even while driving through downtown Houston as glass fell from skyscrapers. (Hurricane Ike.)
Over the years, we dealt with all of the issues involving blended families. We had another two children together. We juggled weird jobs with weird hours.
Our home was always busy with people coming and going. Four kids. Their friends. Our friends.
All of our family still live in Texas. But we’ve cultivated another sort of family in the newsroom. Other couples. Singles. Rick’s famous for his venison chili parties. And Amy, remember all those nights the three of us spent watching Sex & the City? Rick grilled steak, offered commentary on Samantha’s antics and then went bed while we sat up late and gossiped?)
On one occasion, when Rick and I had an argument, I went over to Amy’s to vent. “But ya’ll are the perfect couple,” she said. “That’s how I’ve always thought of you.”
And we are. We fit. I’ve always known that I can depend on Rick. He knows I will always be here.
That ring represented all of that.
In the desert, we faced the ultimate test of our marriage when I told him to leave me.
Best-case scenario: Rick would make it out, find help and I would be rescued.
Next-best-case scenario: Rick would make it out and the kids would have at least one of their parents.
Worst-case scenario: We would have done our damndest to save ourselves and return to our children.
I can’t imagine what Rick felt when I told him to go. I can’t imagine having to make that choice. But he knew I trusted him to get out of there. And he believed me when I told him I would wait for him.
When we went back to the state park in November, a kind game warden accompanied us to my little mesquite tree — the “tree of life,” yet another game warden called it — and helped us look for my ring.
When we got home, the first thing our daughter asked was, “Did you find Mama’s ring?”
“No,” we told her. “But we tried.”
She went into her bedroom and returned a few minutes later.
“Hold out your hand,” she ordered. Then she put one of her own rings on my finger.
And once again, I cried.
For Christmas, Rick bought me a wedding band. It’s simple. Looks vintage. This time I picked it out.
So yeah, there’s a ring on that finger again. And I know that in the coming years, it, too, will come to represent the love and trust we share.
But sometimes, I still feel the sting of knowing that my first ring — THE ring — lies somewhere in the desert…
… just a few hours’ drive from where Rick first put it on my finger.
Disclosure: This is my annual please-consider-volunteering-with-our-children post:
I get kids. And kids get me. Even as a teenager, the little ones flocked to me. Why? Because I feed off of their enthusiasm and their trust and their need. And because I remember all the stages: eager-to-please child, awkward middle-schooler, rebellious high-schooler. I can put myself back into any of those phases in a split second.
There is no greater gift than to be needed by a child. They look to us for advice, support and love. And when the babies looking up to you aren’t your own — well, the gift is even more precious.
Today, at our annual Girl Scout Milk & Cookies with the Mayor event, I was besieged by little girls asking if they could “help.”
This is the magical age, parents, when kids WANT to be given grown-up assignments or chores. I had little girls tripping over themselves to carry plates, take out trash and set up dishware. They want to do good. They want to feel responsible. They want to feel like they matter.
To be involved in their lives at this stage — it’s a gift. Seize it. Make the most of it. Because this is when we will have the most influence on their lives.
Today, I watched little girls make cards for another little girl who is critically ill in the hospital. I watched them listen with rapt attention as a former police chief and current chief of staff for the mayor told them how they — even at their young ages — can make a difference at their schools and in their communities.
A lot of you already volunteer — at schools, churches, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, sports teams, etc… Thank you.
If you don’t — please consider the opportunity before you. These little people are our future. What we teach them matters. And they do actually listen to us.
Yeah, I know. It takes time and hey — who has time? Well, actually, we all do. Or, rather, we all should, especially when it comes to caring for and teaching our children.
You say you’re too busy caring for your own family. Please consider that there are a lot of kids out there who don’t live in the kind of family that you do. They don’t have a parent or parents like you. We send them off to school and expect our teachers to fill that role. Our teachers cannot be a parent to every child who needs them to be one. That’s where we come in.
These children need you. They want you. And if you let them in and lead them … well, these are the wee ones who will prove to be the most loyal and determined bunch of kids you’ve ever encountered.
As a reporter, what I’ve noticed over the years is this: The people you would think to be the most cynical or hardened — police officers, judges, journalists or attorneys — are the ones who are most eager to get out in the community and work with kids.
That’s because despite all of the bad things we see, we’re still just a bunch of idealists. We know better than anyone that there is only a small and fleeting period during which you can effect change.
So yeah, that’s great if you enroll your kids in Scouts or take them to church or whatever. But it takes a multitude of adults to help just one child.
So, please. Get out there. Volunteer. Lead. You have more to offer than you can possibly ever know.
This morning, the older children at our church (hello, First Presbyterian-Argenta peeps!) performed in a Christmas pageant.
The little ones — the toddler/pre-K set — also were tapped to participate. Toward the end of the play, these tots were supposed to gather at the manger with presents for baby Jesus.
So at this morning’s service, all of the littles who normally would be in the nursery occupied a couple of rows in the sanctuary. You could feel their excitement. Big-people church! We’re in here with the cool kids!
Once the service started, the wandering began, with our pre-K kiddos exiting pews, roaming the aisles and, in one case, taking the stage during a mom’s rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas” — which btw, is one of my faves. I adore Dolly.
But the best moment was when a little girl — the same one who followed her guitar-playing, singing mom onstage — hopped right back up there when we were listening to a song about Mary and Joseph.
It was totally awesome for many reasons.
For one, I love the fact that the youngest members of our church feel comfortable enough to wander the sanctuary and take the stage. They’re not intimidated at all, and that’s because they know they’re in a place that radiates love and acceptance.
Also, I think Jesus probably appreciates such an enthusiastic response to his birthday. “Let the little children come to me,” he said. Well, this morning, they did.
But most moving to me — even while I was laughing over some of the antics — is the joy that emanates from our youngest members. We’re talking about delight in its purest form. And hey, that kind of happiness should be the predominant emotion this time of year. These little ones get it. And their enthusiasm is contagious.
I know there are some churches where this morning’s impromptu dancing and wandering and singing would be frowned upon.
I’m just so thankful that ours is one that revels in what the little people bring to our services.
Because this morning’s service was just amazing. And, I’m betting, it was most certainly Jesus-approved.
This year, my Girl Scout troop participated as volunteers at the North Little Rock Police Department’s annual Shop with a Cop event.
We leaders try to teach the girls the importance of getting involved in their communities. I hoped this would serve as good example of what even little girls can do to make a difference.
But it was I who left most humbled.
For those who don’t know how Shop with a Cop works — This year, each child was given a gift card with $200 and assigned to an officer and other volunteers who helped him or her shop for the entire family. The children also picked out gifts for themselves.
Right before the crowd of officers and children took off with their shopping baskets, however, there was an announcement: Every child also would be able to pick out a bicycle and helmet.
Upon hearing this, an 11-year-old boy in front of me thrust his arms into the air, looked up at the ceiling and said, “Yes!!! Thank you!”
Clearly, this kid wanted a bicycle.
But there was more to the announcement: If the kids already had bikes, they would instead receive an extra $100 for their shopping.
My daughter was assigned to help this little boy. This is what she told me later:
“He picked out a bike and helmet, but then at the last minute he took them back so that he could use the extra $100 to help buy his grandmother a tablet.”
Having seen that kid’s reaction to the bike announcement, I knew that he was making a sacrifice.
“Wow,” I said to my daughter. “That was really sweet.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “It was. He also bought his mom a really pretty necklace with a cross on it.”
Earlier, I had watched a little girl, maybe 4 or 5 years old, approach the gift-wrapping station with her basketful of presents. The volunteer who’d helped her shop, patted the little girl on the shoulder.
“You’ll have to give them the necklace so that they can wrap it, honey,” she said.
The little girl solemnly handed over a tiny box.
“It’s for her mom,” the volunteer to the woman who was gift-wrapping. “She hasn’t let go of it.”
I watched as a baby doll and other presents meant for a little girl were wrapped. But the young recipient didn’t pay any attention to the toys. She focused instead on the woman who was swiftly packaging the jewelry box in decorative paper.
Once done, the woman started to put it back in the basket.
The little girl shook her head and held out her hand.
Smiling, the gift-wrapper gently placed the present in the child’s small, upturned palm.
I thought of the mother who will receive that necklace.
And I thought of how —so often — those among us with the least, often give the most.
So that’s the name of a book. Which I’m reading. For obvious reasons.
The other day, the sound of a helicopter caused me to have a panic attack.
Yes, ’twas a helicopter that airlifted me out of the desert.
But the sound of those buzzing blades takes me back to the Friday night and Saturday afternoon when a chopper flew for hours near the area where I lay. For me, it’s a noise that reminds me of how it feels to lay helpless.
Last week, Hubs and I went back. A member of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Search and Rescue Team led us back out to the area where I was found.
The hike itself was empowering.
I can do this, I told myself again and again. And I did. I even found my little mesquite tree all by myself.
But the hard part is the now. Because with that trip came new pieces of knowledge.
For one — I didn’t realize how far off the trail I was. Nor did I know that I probably wouldn’t have been found if I hadn’t been able to yell for help when search teams were near. I was in a deep ravine in a cut. No way was the helicopter ever going to see me.
I also didn’t know that coyotes were gathering 200 yards downwind of where I lay unable to move.
Search-and-rescue teams had heard them yipping and howling all morning — calls from one family of coyotes to another. When I was found, a pack of half a dozen had assembled, waiting for the smell of imminent death that would let them know it was time to approach and attack.
I don’t blame them. Coyotes have survived by being opportunists.
This week, my medical records arrived in the mail. Apparently, my body was in the midst of renal failure when I was found.
So the coyotes were pretty dead-on. A few more hours, and I would have been oblivious to their attack.
Or maybe I wouldn’t have been oblivious. Maybe I would have been all too aware and yet unable to fight back.
Regardless. On the one hand, I feel good about going back. At the same time, I’m now subject to a new kind of panic attack. I feel like my body remains adrenalized, poised for a fight that’s over.
Right now, I cherish evenings, when I’m at home, snuggled up in blankets and surrounded by my children and husband.
Daytime finds me irritable. Why can’t people appreciate how good they have it? Why can’t people quit bothering me while I heal?
I’m not talking about those who want to know how I’m doing. I’m referring to those who can’t understand why I haven’t just snapped back. Why I’m not jumping when they snap their fingers or call me umpteen times a week.
I’m trying. I really am. But please. Give me a little more time to find the me that was the reporter — the me that wasn’t a victim.
Because right now, on most mornings, I would rather just stay in bed, huddled under the covers where it’s safe.
As most of you know, I’ve been struggling to remove cactus needles from my hands and mouth ever since my rescue from Big Bend Ranch State Park.
First, I want to thank all of those who have called with or emailed suggestions. I so appreciate it.
I’ve soaked my hands, used glue, Duck tape, baking soda and salve. But the needles embedded in my hands and mouth look like small, fine hairs. And they’re barbed. My last resort: hot wax, per the suggestion of websites devoted to cactus-needle removal.
Yesterday, I got another phone call, this time from a man — Terry Holler — who works at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s print shop.
Terry, it turns out, is a licensed massage therapist. But the magical words he uttered were:
“I have an industrial hot wax machine.”
I resisted the impulse to declare my love. But I was, well, rather enthusiastic in my reaction to this news.
“I can bring it tomorrow,” he told me. “It takes two or three hours to heat up.”
No problem, I assured him. Just call me when it’s ready.
The timing was perfect. You see, in the past few days, my body started to reject the needles, just as doctors said it would. This process involves raised, pus-filled blisters, which help force the needles to the surface of the skin.
Today, around 1 p.m., I headed over to the print shop.
Here’s a before photo of one of my afflicted fingers:
Now imagine those blisters all over both hands. Ugh.
Once at the print shop, I dipped each hand into hot wax. Then Terry bagged them up and stuck what appeared to be oven mitts over the bags.
And then we waited.
Once the wax cooled, he peeled it off. Now the blisters were even more prominent. And the needles were even more visible.
Terry took a pair of tweezers and set to work.
I managed not to yelp too often. But my sighs, heavy, “relaxed” breathing and various panicked noises indicated my, er, wussiness.
Bearing in mind that needle removal in the hospital involved a hefty dose of morphine, I thought I was rather restrained, however. At least I didn’t sound like a woman in labor.
Each time Terry plucked out a needle, he held up his magnifying glass so that I could get a good look at it.
And, wow. No wonder I’ve been in pain.
Some of the needles fell to the floor before Terry could lay them on one of the oven mitts. But of those he saved, we counted 11.
So yeah. He managed to get more than 11 teensy little hairlike needles out of my hands and fingers.
The man deserves a medal.
I can’t thank him enough.
Really, I feel as though I was prayed home. My parents and sisters prayed. The congregation at First Presbyterian in Argenta — our church — prayed. And so did countless other churches and prayer groups and, well, people all over this state, many of whom have never even met me.
Several people have noted the timing of my rescue: 12:45 p.m. Central Time on Sunday, pretty much right after church services concluded.
I did a lot of praying myself, granted. But there’s something about knowing that others out there are doing a little chatting-up with God on your behalf.
My mom prayed that I wasn’t scared in Rick’s absence. And you know, I wasn’t. Once he left, I actually felt relieved, because we’d finally made the decision that we both knew was inevitable.
Mainly, I focused on the stars that first night. Out in that part of Texas, where it’s so desolate that there just isn’t light anywhere, the night sky is magnificent.
The Friday after we returned to Arkansas, Rick and I went to our primary-care doctor for follow-up care. He ordered some lab work, which worried me a bit. At the hospital, I had four different IV sites during my time there. And there were a couple of failed attempts to find veins on my hands. I wasn’t confident that there was much left for the lab technician to work with.
“Sorry,” I said, as she poked around for something usable. “I’ve been in the hospital. I’m the one who was lost in the desert.”
She stopped, looked up and grinned.
“I’m one of the Prayer Warriors who prayed for you,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said. “Tell the others it worked.”
I also need to thank the many people who brought over food — first for my parents and kids, and then for Rick and me.
We’re fortunate to know some really talented cooks, so not only are we not in the kitchen, we’re eating food that’s better than we would normally make!
Lastly, there are our many friends who sought to help my parents, who were trying to shield the children from what was happening even as they took calls from Rick and remained in constant communication with sheriff’s dispatchers in the area.
They visited my folks at our house, handled all of the media calls and kept the kids distracted.
Which brings me to one of the little miracles that occurred in our absence.
The Sunday that we were due to return, my parents knew that they would have to tell the children that we weren’t coming home and why. At that point, I remained missing. One of my sisters drove up here and prepared to explain — or to try to explain — everything to our kids.
But that day, just before she sat down with them, one of my friends (Moody Mom, in fact), arrived at the house and offered to take the children over to her place for awhile.
As the kids played over at Kristina’s house, the call came: I had been found. Alive.
That means that when my sister had to tell the children that we wouldn’t be home that night because I had been lost, she also could quickly add that I had been found.
It was only one instance of divine timing.
On Saturday, my dad opened a bottle of champagne he had bought to celebrate our return.
My mom wanted to offer a toast to someone she thought needed toasting. She spoke briefly.
And then, as our glasses clinked together, she mused, “I bet that’s the first time someone made a toast to God.”
First, a big thanks to my fellow Little Rock Mamas for their love and support.
I return to work tomorrow, and can’t wait to see them and the rest of my newsroom family.
As for my rather harrowing adventure — yes, I was found naked. I’ve been giggling like a a teenage boy over all of the media accounts of my nudity when rescuers stumbled across me. London’s Daily Mail account is by far my favorite. It manages to use “naked” four times in the top third of the story.
(Yeah, humor is my favorite coping mechanism.)
I will be writing a story about everything that happened out there. Because, yes — writing also is a form a therapy for me.
Right now, however, I want to thank the many people who worked tirelessly to make sure that I was found.
Tucked under my little shade-tree/bush, I felt so tiny in that vast desert.
I yelled at the helicopter each time it flew over me. I periodically called out for help, just in case any search-and-rescue teams might be nearby.
And then, Sunday, that team of men and women rushed down into the arroyo where I had drifted in and out of consciousness.
I was stunned by the number of people who had been looking for me. And I was even more stunned when I found out that my searchers included not only those in the air and on the ground, but also Arkansas State Police, politicians in Arkansas and Texas, and federal authorities working from both states.
I was not, however, surprised to learn of my newsroom family’s efforts. I knew my friends and bosses would be making calls and hounding anyone they thought might be able to help. So even while lost in the desert, I comforted myself with two facts:
My husband, if he was still alive, wouldn’t quit until I was found.
My newsroom friends would be just as tenacious.
When I refer to those friends, I am including those who used to work at the paper before changing careers, by the way. You can take a journalist out of a newsroom, but …
Anyway, thank you, ALL of you.
I’m on the mend. Recovery is quite a bit slower than I’d like, but I’m trying to be patient. Right now, most of the pain comes from my knee — which may mean yet another doctor’s visit — and from the cactus thorns that remain in my hands and mouth.
(Mouth? Uh. Yeah. I ate a lot of cactus out there. Turns out that even the pulp contains tiny, hairlike needles. Ow.)
I leave you with a photo of my poor, battered, scratched-up legs. (Hubs took this picture in the hospital.)
Yes, they look pretty awful. But those legs served me well. And I have a new appreciation for my body — for both its strengths AND its limits. I would, however, prefer not to put them to the test again anytime soon!
Wishing Cathy a speedy recovery today as she heals from the dehydration, bruises, thorns and needles that have been abusing her for days out in the desert of Texas’ Big Bend State Park. And much love to her family and friends, too.
She’s clearly the toughest mama I know!
For those who have missed it, click here for a much abbreviated version of what happened to our Arkie Mama.