It started out with a hole in our hearts. There were peaks and valleys that have followed since.
Our lives will never be the same following the unnecessary loss of our friend (Dana’s best friend) Alissa Reynolds. Outside family, she was the person who walked through our front door most frequently, the person I called to consult on just about every gift for Dana, and she worked for me in two different capacities as an advertising manager. We loved Alissa, and there are still moments that are almost too much to comprehend.
I spent most of early 2020 planning our Tranquility Base Retreat for Writers & Thinkers beginning with our Phase 1 lodge. We dug the footings in early March and finished up the last details in October. It is a beautiful 6-acre parcel of land smack dab in vast Ozark Mountain valley with 500 feet of White River frontage. It is the place I always dreamed about. Quiet. Secluded. A place where a man can go and think, or enjoy a great day with family and never see another soul. TB is my place for peace and joy.
It was a major milestone year for each of my three children. Adam completed med school, and is now in residency as an ER doctor at UAMS in Little Rock. Emma entered her second year as director of the Jonesboro Public School Performing Arts Center. She encountered major adjustments in her work this year. After blowing the lid off her ACT, Sophie entered pre-med study at Arkansas State with a full ride. These are the kind of “kids” you pray for. Amazing in every way.
After the discovery that we enjoy some of the most fertile soil in the world here off the banks of the White River, I created a garden of about 1/5 an acre. With my new bee hobby nearby, it produced massive quantities of produce and I canned, pickled and froze garden vegetables for a solid two months. I’ve expanded the size for next year’s garden by about 4 times. When will I ever learn?
An unexpected opportunity popped up in early fall when I mentioned to a longtime friend and editor of the local Mountain View paper that I’d be open to helping out from time to time. Lori Freeze and I go back to at least 1986 when we shared responsibilities at the college newspaper. As it turned out, a longtime employee was off with a new baby the timing was right, and I now work there about 32 hours a week. It’s been a joy getting back into the journalism world. Outside family, it’s what I know and love most.
Dana spends part time helping me with my publishing operation and she also works as business manager for the Arkansas Crafts School in Mountain View. The flexible nature of our jobs allows us to travel frequently back and forth between Mountain View and Jonesboro checking on parents and visiting with children.
On October 1, I published The King of Highbanks Road, actually four versions of that book – a hardback, paperback, ebook and audiobook. It became an Amazon #1 New Release five hours after it launched. There was also a companion cookbook. The process of writing that memoir was an incredible journey into my past, and mostly helped me learn more about why I am the way I am, not to mention giving me an all-new appreciation for the rural landscape where I grew up.
We continue to maintain a home in Puerto Cayo, Ecuador, which for obvious reasons, has not been seen in more than a year. I’m getting the hankering for some hammock time back there at Latitude 1 South.
We’ve both had COVID now. Thank goodness they were relatively modest cases. My heart breaks for families with more serious situations, especially those who’ve lost older loved ones in long-term care facilities where the visits were few and far between.
It has been a year for spiritual growth, though I’ve not attended church since January. I’ll write a book next year about the Bible-Belt church and its impact on believers like me. I’ll also write a book about my life of storytelling in the mass media.
We’re not complaining. It’s been a busy, sometimes exhausting year. But we are blessed with family and friends around the world, and can’t wait to hug your neck the next time we see you.
Via con Dios, for now.
One favor request: There are several contact forms at various places on this blog site. I’m building an all-important email list for next year for newsletter distribution and other purposes. It’s the biggest favor you can do me right now. Many thanks for your consideration.
(Blogger’s Note: This is Part II in a series of year-end blog posts.)
Last week, I published the newly developed foundation of core ideas that will guide my 2021. They are:
- Mission (the Great Commission)
- Gifting (writing/mass communication)
- Passion (food/hospitality)
- Love (family)
With these in mind, next year shapes up like this:
•We’ve set into motion a collection of legal paperwork that will create the Tranquility Base Charitable Foundation a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that I’ll lead. Our goal is collecting enough financial support to purchase a nice food truck or food trailer. We will feed the hungry wherever they exist and travel to different disaster locations feeding front-line emergency workers and others in need. I have board of directors spots open if this is something that might strike your interest.
•Also at Tranquility Base, we’ll offer a regular Sunday Brunch for 4-6 people. It will be the ultimate Sunday hospitality experience, not to mention some pretty good food. Give me a call to make your reservation. Proceeds from this project will go directly to our Foundation.
•I’ll launch a new YouTube variety program in January. Honestly, I believe we’ll focus a lot on the culinary world, and interviews with interesting people. This serves no real strategic purpose other than my own personal enjoyment. And we’ll focus a LOT next year on building our email subscription list. Maybe this will be a good tool. Have thoughts about ways you can help grow my email subscription list? Give me a call.
•I’ll continue my work at the Stone County Leader reporting news and writing feature columns.
•Will spend a few hours each month coaching no more than 6-8 clients looking to make headway in the publishing world. If you’re one of those folks, drop me a line. I’ve learned a lot down in the trenches the last few years.
And finally, my two big announcements. I’ll pursue two book projects next year. One is a deadly serious topic that’s timely and needs telling. The other is a “personal pleasure book” designed to help keep my sanity from the deep work of the first one. Let’s begin with the former.
Bless My Heart: Unlearning My Religion in the Bible Belt South – this narrative, non-fiction-ish, memoir-ish book will be a personal recount of what many gospel-focused evangelical Christians have experienced the last four to five years. That is a rather fast evolution where the church that taught us about core gospel principals such as kindness and humility and servanthood and compassion traded in those principals in exchange for hateful hollering matches, braggadocio, focus on self, and downright arrogance. For those of us with a certain worldview, we were called unpatriotic, the enemy, part of the problem, not to mention whatever a libtard is. Bumperstickers in church parking lots boast of guns and ancient racist Southern traditions, and a plethora of other empty convictions. You see, putting a bumper sticker on a truck is easy. Tackling a societal issue like abortion is another. It requires more than running your mouth.
In this book, I’ll discuss from a personal level (with stories from others) what it’s been like seeing the Bible-Belt Christian church I care about become more of a frenzied political group, essentially saying that the values we see exhibited by our current president … well, we need more of that.
The church moved. I didn’t
And I just want to keep the faith.
A final word on this book. Many will perceive it as just another radical taking easy pot shots at the church, written by someone who doesn’t understand the church and what it is, and what it represents. In their righteousness, they will blow off the message and dig deeper into preserving a new creation supposed by people who haven’t dusted off a bible in years.
Those perceptions of this work will be wrong.
I have labored for months about the idea of speaking against the church. It’s a big deal and not taken lightly. There is a certain level of accountability when you begin speaking this language. And it’s a judgment I’m willing to stand in. Because things have reached a point where I believe it is a greater sin to stay quiet than it is to bring these issues to the surface.
On Assignment: How a Job Telling Stories Made a Life Worth Living – I’m SO excited to bring you this book. It serves no particular grand purpose, and will solve no world problem, but it’s chocked-full of great stories about behind-the-scenes life in the newspaper and magazine world. In one story, I’ll share about an 18-month period covering an ongoing (and very public) saga where I must have written the word “masturbation” at least a half-dozen times a week during that long stretch. Not the kind of thing you expect as an idealistic freshman journalism undergrad.
Outside a focused effort to spend a LOT more time with my family, and serve them as a patriarch should (I am rapidly approaching that status in our family if not already there) the plan above is where next year is going.
There is no mantra for next year, but if there was one, it would be “no empty convictions.” I want to make a difference, not just run my mouth.
PS: I’m pretty happy with how the mission, gifting, passion, love concept help get me through these ideas. If I can help you with your strategic plan for next year, drop me a line.
Get it free today with your Audible 30-day trial!
Most years it was just an obligatory exercise. All the personal self-development gurus said it was something you needed to do. So, I did it, sort of just moving through the motions, and by the end of January, most was long forgotten.
Suddenly, in the mid-50s, it’s an important, drawn-out, thoughtful three weeks that has become the most important time I spend each year – often away and alone. Using time wisely now is more important than it’s ever been. The clock is ticking and each passing year feels more urgent than the last.
And this year, it went deeper. To figure out how I wanted to invest my time and energy in 2021, I tore everything down and started over, being honest, and really assessing what’s important.
The strange thing is, the realization that came with my 2020 self-assessment and new-year plan revealed I’d become the very thing that several years ago I pledged never to be again.
I’d become a hypocrite.
It was well-intentioned, but I’d become a hypocrite, nonetheless. In the desire for “validation” in an ever-changing publishing world, I’d become a marketing guy focused on making it in the traditional publishing world and crafting myself as a product the big publishing houses would desire. I conformed to a set of rules I didn’t even believe in, to achieve something that I’m no longer sure is worth the effort. Certainly not so if it means that I’m no longer true to myself.
Because at this stage in life what’s really important is authenticity, keeping it real, and servanthood that comes from a well-meaning heart.
No longer will I work to become a product that sells stories and books. I’ll pursue what’s real, and genuine, and peaceful, and joyful. So I tore it all down to define these four things:
This is tricky, and in the fog of pursuit, I’d lost my sense of these things – that is what they really are. But this is what will guide my life in 2021, and by definition, here’s how it works for me.
My Mission: While I respect everyone’s right to believe as they choose, I am a believer in the Christian faith that aligns with the gospel accounts of Jesus. It is my core belief, at the heart of all I feel, think, and trust. This is not something to be pushed on others, but I enjoy sharing the lessons learned in my faith walk with Christ. In some way, it permeates my writing, and my approach to life, and my hope for the future. Mostly because I believe Jesus Christ is the source of ultimate truth. So, my mission is the Great Commission. For me, this means sharing stories, and loving people regardless of the label the world has assigned them. Just love people. Most of the rest will take care of itself.
My Passion: To anwer this question, we must ask ourselves this simple question: What most stirs your heart? And in answering this question for myself, I almost made the mistake of not drilling deeply enough. This sounds silly, but at first thought, I saw my passion as cooking. But cooking doesn’t qualify as a passion, really. I think down deep what any person who loves preparing good food loves most is the hospitality of making people happy. Serving them. Bringing satisfaction to a guest’s most instinctive desire. I love cooking great food, but what I’m most passionate about is the hospitality that can be given to people around a table sharing stories, experiences, and letting the boundaries come down. I will spend more time serving people on the mission outpost retreat center we call Tranquility Base.
My Gifting: My biggest mistake has been confusing gifting with passion. Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean it’s your passion. God’s gifting to me is communication, and particularly the written word. I am not a mathematician, or an engineer, or even a good handy man. But I can write, and tell stories. It’s just important to keep the gifting in its place and not let it become the overpowering element of your life just because it’s what you’re best at. I am guilty here. You can use your gifting to fulfill your passion and your mission, but your gifting is a tool to be wisely used. I’ll use this gifting in a handful of specific ways next year, and will share more on that later.
My Love: Ambition, work, the desire to be accepted, or validated in any area can consume a person to the detriment of his/her best interests. Sometimes, we are just running from what’s important because there are things too hurtful to face. I have an amazing wife who for some crazy reason enjoys being by my side. We believe in the principal of helpmates, and she is my go-to friend and helper. My relationship with my mom has literally transfigured to one where I consider her my best friend. Funny how age will make that happen. And after the long-lasting wounds of divorce, I am lavishing in the joy of renewed relationships with my three adult children, each of whom is a model of good citizenry, decency, and potential to change the world for the good. This is a God thing. I will spend the rest of my life celebrating all these people, serving them, and basking in the joy of their goodness. More than anything else moving forward, I will honor these people.
And so, these are my guiding principals for 2021.
How they specifically translate into action and not just empty convictions is the focus for my next blog post in the series.
My weekly column from The Stone County Leader:
“Black bears rarely attack. But here’s the thing. Sometimes they do. All bears are agile, cunning, and immensely strong, and they are always hungry. If they want to kill you and eat you, they can, and pretty much whenever they want. That doesn’t happen often, but – and here is the absolutely salient point – once would be enough.”
A Walk in the Woods
There it was.
Unmistakable, though I’d never seen one in that context before.
Eyes don’t lie. And with a few buttons pushed here, and a few arrows pressed there, the number four slide on my partner’s game camera jumped out, commanding immediate attention.
She was on all four, big, black, with a massive and burly form that just looked onery. Must have been 400 pounds, and right there not more than a few yards from my hunting spot for this year. The one I’ve been so excited about as I take an all-new adventure into the world of deer hunting.
Immediately, my thoughts turned to the potential headline, likely one my boss would bury on page 5B of next week’s Leader.
Bear Eats News Reporter: Good While it Lasted, the inglorious news likely lining someone’s bird cage a week later.
Ah, the adventures of the great outdoors.
With most of my years spent in the heart of the Mississippi River Flyway, I’ve logged many more hours in a St. Francis River duck blind than in the deer woods. It’s an exciting prospect as opening day approaches this Saturday – my first major investment in pursuing the elusive giant buck. Those days growing up on the St. Francis produced some of the richest experiences a young boy can know, and some of the fondest memories I had with a father who wasn’t exactly Ward Cleaver. Here’s an excerpt from a recent writing about those good times:
When he wasn’t in the duck blind, my dad would sit at a bedroom window for hours, binoculars pointed to the river just a mile and a half west. Duck hunters dream of that magical day when there are so many ducks you can’t keep them off your pond, and the steel of your gun barrel stays hot, no time between rounds.
In those days, you’d find dozens of pickup trucks scattered about Highbanks Landing and the more northerly Jackson’s Landing, hunters having gathered for boat launches oftentimes long before there was enough light to maneuver the tricky river runs. Most could navigate by memory, jumping one log after another and dodging brush along the way. Shooting hours began precisely at sun up, and mallards move early for the day’s first feeding. Run a boat to your blind late between prime shooting hours of six and nine in the morning and you might just find it unplugged and half sunk at the landing tomorrow morning. One of the first rules on the St. Francis River is respect for the other guy.
If you’ve never been there, if you’ve never felt the adrenaline rush that overpowers you when 25 mallard ducks decide they’re coming into your pond, it goes something like this:
Three hundred yards out, a spotter first sees them headed due north. The blind’s designated chief caller, oftentimes an old river veteran in his fifties or sixties, makes his way to the shooting window as he reaches into a camouflaged vest pocket for his long caller. The call, maybe a black P.S. Olt, or a smooth, synthetic Rich-N-Tone, is doubly secured around the caller’s neck with a lengthy cord adorned with duck bands from past hunts. These bands, likely placed around the bird’s leg in the northern nesting grounds, are a research and reporting tool effective only when the hunter harvests the duck and returns the band to the research organization. Many prefer wearing the bands like an Indian bead necklace, each representing the memories of a past hunt and signifying their place within the tribe.
The chief caller takes a deep breath bringing the mouthpiece to his lips and the hopeful long call begins. The long call has a rhythm. A series of loud duck-like calls that grow shorter and closer together as the caller manages his breath with as much perfection as a first- chair trombonist. Almost like a plea of sorts, the long call is loud and imprecise, designed only to get the attention of ducks moving at a distance. Get their attention, and maybe they’ll like what they see. They’ll assess the wind, the pond configuration, decoy pattern, water clarity, and other factors before moving on or breaking for a descent. If he gets their attention, the caller then has a “working” bunch of ducks. Things are serious now, and the beauty of a seasoned caller unfolds.
Instinctively, the mood changes. Hunters give a quick check to their Brownings, Winchesters, and Remingtons. Safety on. Chamber full. Locked and loaded.
There is anticipation in this critical moment when it’s important to read what’s happening outside the blind. It takes years to get really good at this. The chief caller and the spotters now work together watching the ducks work the pond, their necks twisting and turning out the shooting window. The calling changes, now more intentional, more precise, as the ducks assess everything around them and make a final decision about a water landing. This is the moment a seasoned duck caller shows his skill alternating between working calls. There are calls to get the ducks’ attention, others that lure them in, feeding chatters, and a “come back” call for those that want to move on. The pros give the ducks exactly what they want to hear. This can go on thirty minutes or more, and callers frequently become so short on breath they find themselves light-headed.
There is not a memory from childhood more vivid than the clarity of my father’s eyes as he worked a bunch of mallard ducks on a freezing cold St. Francis River day. In those moments, all self-consciousness, issues of self-worth, all his imperfections vanished. Fluid, at ease, and seasoned with experience, he demonstrated complete control, perfect peace.
The call is reduced to the occasional soft chatter now. This is what separates the great duck callers from the good ones. A great duck caller knows when to call, and when to be quiet. Then, it’s in that quiet moment you first hear it. They’re coming in right over the blind. If Dad said it once in that thrilled whisper, he said it a million times. Grab your guns, boys. Get ’em on three …
You hear them before you see them, and the sound is unmistakable. Once a four-pound mallard duck commits to landing on water there is no turning back. With feet extended, body bowed, and wings cupped, the ducks flap wings violently for a soft landing. As they do, the wind whistles across long feathers in increasingly quick repetition. Shew-shew-shew-shew-shew. All movement in the blind ceases and you can hear a pin drop. Guns up. One, two, three!
The purest sportsmen will set their gun sights and pull triggers just before the ducks hit the water. Some prefer allowing the ducks to land, giving them even more time and accuracy for a maximum harvest. Either way, there’s not a moment more thrilling than the sound of wind over wings. It’s rare, but on the good days this scenario may play out six or seven times. They are the days you recount to your grandchildren.
I’m hoping to share a few fireside chats with my own grandchildren from this deer hunting thing.
Here’s hoping not to be a mid-morning snack before a long, winter’s nap.
See you in next week’s newspaper.
If you’ve ever thought about self-publishing your own book, but just get overwhelmed at the thought of all that’s involved, and if you’d like to discuss best practices with two seasoned pros who have been in the self-publishing trenches, read on.
Our virtual retreat is scheduled for Oct. 22-25 and we’ll spend two and a half hours each evening speaking directly with participants in an interactive forum covering everything from craft of writing, to audience building, to sales and marketing ,and after the release … what then?
Beth Jusino and I are friends and colleagues. We’ve both authored books on our pilgrimage experiences walking the Camino de Santiago. Beth’s book, The Author’s Guide to Marketing is a fantastic guidebook for all things promotion. She’s a veteran writer, editor and writing coach who launched her career as a literary agent with Alive Literary Agency, and she’s also the author of the award-winning Walking to the End of the World: A Thousand Miles on the Camino de Santiago. Beth has worked as a developmental editor for some of the best authors in the business and counseled dozens of clients as they maneuvered both the self-publishing and traditional publishing realm. She speaks and teaches at the international level.
Check us out on this recent podcast.
I’m a mass communication professional with 25 years experience in the world of journalism, and someone who loves all things self-publishing. My first book, Pilgrim Strong: Rewriting My Story on the Way of St. James won several awards across the country and launched a nationwide speaking tour at 54 locations from the Potomac to San Francisco Bay. My new release, The King of Highbanks Road: Rediscovering Dad, Rural America, and Learning to Love Home Again was an Amazon #1 New Release 10 hours after it debuted just a week ago.
Beth and I love to talk about this stuff and share our experiences! Won’t you join us?
It’s affordable, convenient, and designed to include everyone. There’s even an opportunity for individual consults on your latest WIP, your platform, or even if you just want to talk marketing strategy.
Check us out here, and get signed up today!!!
Here’s my debut column for The Stone County Leader published this week. They decided to call it The Flatlander:
The local real estate agent maneuvered his pickup down and around the winding, increasingly narrowing road with almost no effort at all. Blind curves, perilously low-hanging tree limbs, we descended steadily like an airplane on final approach for almost eight miles. A single deer bounded across Herpel Road, and a couple of little varmints I’d never seen scurried to the safety of the roadside ditch.
“How do you even know where we’re going?” I asked, slipping my seat belt on and as I made dubious eye contact with my wife in the back seat.
“Oh, it’s a ways down here, but it sure is pretty,” he said.
The day began earlier at a lovely little quiet area called Cool Water on the Izard County side of el Rio Blanco. We discovered three available residential lots on a corner we could piece together for a nice tract of land where we could build a main lodge and some guest housing for family and friends. And the price was right.
We walked the grounds for almost 45 minutes as I waited for the dirt to speak. When the right caretaker comes along shopping for land, the dirt will speak. Call out to him, actually. Raised on fertile flatlands of the Mississippi River Delta, I know this. Dirt speaks to the soul. It is the sixth love language – a beautiful gift God shares between two of His favorite creations.
The words never came clear, but I’ve always been in too big a hurry, so I suggested we head back to town and sign a deal at the agent’s office. Dana and I were ready to make Mountain View, and this place called Cool Water, our second home.
But God was still waiting to have His say. We often forget that He works on His time, not ours.
“Now, I’ve got this other place, and it’s way down there and right on the river, and the price is good. I don’t care to take you down there,” the agent said, surprisingly not in a hurry to ink the deal.
“Well, what the heck. I’ll take a look,” I said, fighting off the anxiety to just get on with it.
Forty minutes later that November Sunday afternoon and at the end of the eight-mile meandering road, we turned the corner onto six acres of river frontage at a place with a name as original as finely aged moonshine. We were at Round Bottom Landing, he said.
I opened the truck door, took a few steps outward, and did a slow, 360-degree turn.
My jaw dropped and I couldn’t close my mouth.
This is it. You’re home.
The dirt spoke.
And it was with unmistakable clarity.
“I’ll take it,” I said to no one in particular, and not breaking view from what had just captured my soul.
It was like standing at the bottom of a beautiful bowl, the swift flowing mighty White rolling just below and to the northwest, and spectacular eastern bluffs amazingly highlighted with flecks of red and gold from the soft fall light sourced low in the southern hemisphere. There were four surrounding mountains each with its own distinctive character, all infused with poplar, birch, maple and more, and bursting with brilliant colors.
“What did you say?” the agent asked, confused.
“He said he’d take it.” My wife has been there, done that, before, and she knows when something happens in my heart that’s not about to get undone. She took a deep breath, and laughed at the same time, surely both exasperated and thrilled at the next new and completely unknown adventure ahead.
At that moment, Tranquility Base was born, and a flatlander from cotton country just stared at a landscape so beautiful he couldn’t even dream it. I’m sure it’s not the first time it happened.
Ten months later, here we are. I’m writing and reunited with a college friend, Lori Freeze, at the Stone County Leader. Dana is selling real estate with a local firm and loving it. And we’re both waking up most mornings in this place that with every new sunrise, every new fog formation across the valley and river, and every new sighting of some amazing wildlife, thankful for our new home in Stone County.
I think we’ll sit here a spell.
See you next week in the newspaper.
Steve Watkins is a reporter for the Stone County Leader. He is the author of two books including Pilgrim Strong: Rewriting My Story on the Way of St. James and The King of Highbanks Road: Rediscovering Dad, Rural America, and Learning to Love Home Again.
My deepest gratitude to all who bought and helped spread the word on our pre-order launch day September 1. With your help and kindness, The King of Highbanks Road been designated an Amazon #1 New Release in not one, but two categories!
But we could still use your help, and this is why.
From now until release on October 1, we’ll give $1 of every book sale to programs created from Sowing Seeds of Hope, a non-profit organization (1999-2014) dedicated to helping rural and farm families with behavioral and mental health issues. Most people don’t know the American farmer is among the most likely of professionals to take his/her own life. Farm life stress can be overwhelming.
Please join us in our mission to spread the word about this historic time in rural America, and to give back to one of the greatest unsung heroes of our nation – the Great American Farmer.