A New Foundation to Build On

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:

•MISSION•PASSION•GIFTING•LOVE

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.

-30-

The Letter Every Man Should Get

The writing is done, the editing complete, just wrapping up a few details now, then it’s off to production on Tuesday.  We move from writing a book to creating one. Things are well on track for a week-of-Thanksgiving Pilgrim Strong release.

(This is purely by accident, but I just this moment realized how appropriate it is to release a book called Pilgrim Strong a few days before Thanksgiving. No one will ever believe it, but I swear, the idea never entered into the marketing plan. I’ll take the lucky break and run with it anyway.)

I wept many times yesterday applying some of the final finishing touches. So many memories, so many things learned. This has been a long walk, indeed, and in many ways everything about my life is somehow now relative to the experience of walking and telling the story.

Last week I made acquaintance with an author/speaker/entrepreneur who I’ll work with in securing book reviews later this year. I asked her to read the manuscript and offer a blurb if the story so compelled her.

One of the many comments she offered was regarding a short color sidebar story about a letter Dana wrote the night before my departure. She commented about the beautiful language Dana used and the depth of thought in her last sentence.

She’s so right. Not only was it an encouraging letter. It was magnified by her self sacrifice.

I don’t know what it’s like to live as a woman. But I have 51 years experience now at being a man, and am pretty good at it. Every man should know the peace and comfort that comes from a letter like this when it’s penned from the person he loves most in the world. I’m a lucky man.

Dear Steve,

There is a flood of emotions right now. I am so proud of you. Anxious. Excited. Curious. Every feeling you can imagine. You are sleeping now as you prepare to go.

Thank you for scheduling your trip around our anniversary. It was all so special.

I know you can hardly contain your excitement. Do me a favor as you walk. Enjoy. Smile. Laugh. Be amazed. You deserve this, darling. God is excited, too. He will enjoy this time with you.

Love,
Your basherte for eternity.
Dana

-30-

My Camino Family

“The only rock I know that stays steady, the only institution I know that works, is the family.” ~ Lee Iacocca

“A man that hath friends must show himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.” ~ Proverbs 18:24

 

My Camino Family. My sisters, Naomi and Aida.

My Camino Family. My sisters then and now, Naomi and Aida.

One of the best parts of family is how it functions as a unit. One member falls short, another picks up the slack. One becomes weak, there’s strength in the group. Disagreements abide, but kin always cheer one another onward. The family is the original cheerleading squad.

Ten years ago when I developed a passionate interest in travel, it was mostly about exploring those places I knew nothing of, and learning cultural ways about which I’d never heard. And indeed, I’ve learned so much. But for me, the unexpected benefit of distant travel is the family connection it’s created. Doing difficult things in far-away places inevitably creates a special relationship with others most akin to brothers and sisters. I’m a 50-year-old only child. I longed for siblings as a youth, and wonder what it might be like to have them now. As I’ve traveled different places and experienced different things I’ve filled that void with brothers and sisters around the world. And I love these people as my own.

After 28 days walking, my Camino family was loose, but unbeknownst to me, coming together rapidly. It came in the unexpected form of two sisters. Naomi and Aida.

***

It’s a long, downward descent from Cruz Ferro, easily an entire day of negative grade. It sounds easy enough until you actually do it. Walking down miles at a time with a 24-pound pack jars the knees in potentially dangerous ways.

Twelve miles in, the small village El Acebo (population 37) looked like an inviting place to end early and break up a hard day, and it was the beginning point of a long stretch where the vistas became gradually more thrilling. A restaurant/bar, nice beds, and wifi for 7 euros at Mesón el Acebo made the decision easy.

Awaiting a patata tortilla and cold beer I checked online messages and noticed a social media post from Naomi. She was nearing Cruz Ferro several miles behind but still connected to the internet. I sent her a quick message to catch up and told her I was done for the day. A nine-time Camino veteran, she knew exactly where I was. Her next message changed everything.

“See you there in a few hours.”

***

Just as unexpectedly as I’d found the unusual depth of certain Camino relationships, was the virtual relationship I now experienced with past and future pilgrims online. Regular posts – sometimes photos, sometimes videos, often just a metaphorical thought for the day – somehow resonated with certain people, and I had a list of virtual friends that grew daily. As I shared certain thoughts and feelings, they responded with amazing support. It was the strangest and most unconventional sense of family cheerleading and encouragement. And the way it affected my attitude and determination was amazing. Family is found in the least expected places.

***

Our backpacks at a resting point in O Cebreiro.

Our backpacks at a resting point in O Cebreiro.

A few hours later, Naomi arrived, and though we’d spent no more than a couple of hours together four days back, it was like seeing an old friend. We shared our experiences from Cruz Ferro and selected bunks for the night. After a good meal and a peaceful night’s sleep we woke the next morning, packed up and headed out together. We never spoke about it, but somehow understood, I think, we’d walk on together to the end. I sensed Naomi approached this undertaking much as I did. We were both just fine as soloists taking care of ourselves but knew the benefit of having trusted, at-your-side support. In the end, I probably got the better end of that deal.

Two hours short of Ponferrada, and after we’d discovered a mutual love for cooking, Naomi had an idea that produced one of our best times on the Way. She knew the donativo albergue where we were headed and how its accommodations lent themselves to a special sense of community.

A magnificent evening dinner at San Nicolás de Flüe albergue in Ponferrada. I believe we have 7 countries represented here. It was a great time.

A magnificent evening dinner at San Nicolás de Flüe albergue in Ponferrada. I believe we have 7 countries represented here. It was a great time.

“Why don’t we pitch in and buy some groceries and cook for everyone tonight?” she said. I laughed out loud thinking how I literally had nothing else to do.

“Okay, what’s the menu?” I replied. And so we thought it through for the next several miles.

The sleeping setup at San Nicholás de Flüe albergue in Ponferrada is much like that in Roncesvalles – small, pod-like rooms that sleep four pilgrims each on two bunks. We landed a pod near the communal kitchen and showers, and cleaned up before a trip to the mercado. Naomi was a stickler for backpack organization, and as we tidied up the room after showers, our bunkmate for the night walked in. It was a young, professional Spanish girl from near Barcelona who’d started solo at Leon a few days back. Relationship dynamics are often the strangest thing. We were a public school teacher from California, a hospitality industry professional from Barcelona, and journalist from Arkansas. Oddly, it was as if we were all immediately connected as a group.

We told Aida we were putting on a group meal for all interested pilgrims. Word spread quickly and we’d feed about a dozen peregrinos from around the world that night. Aida offered to wash our clothes in a group while we shopped, and my Camino family was finally born.

We were a unit now, walking one another home. I was the older brother with the funny accent, viewed often, I’m sure, as one sometimes the good-natured, good ol’ boy, and other times, a bit cantankerous. Naomi was the middle-child rock, the glue, with a deep understanding of where we were, exactly what we were doing, and furthermore how it might potentially affect each of us. Aida was the essence of our collective pilgrim spirit – professional, fun, strong-willed, with a little touch of rowdiness. We were quite the unlikely threesome.

Our dinner that night was completely cosmopolitan – one of the best experiences in my life.

Early the next morning, we moved on as family, bound for 10 final days of adventure, cheering each other as we walked.

-30-

The Truth About Her. This One.

Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 4.00.38 AM

“A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.” ~ Proverbs 31:10-12

For some reason I’ve yet to understand, it happens at least a couple of times each month. At some point in the night, I’ll enter a dream-like state where Dana and I have somehow become separated and there’s a sense we’ll never find one another again. So we’ve gone on about living separate lives.

In the dream, I go about my daily business, but at a point, the reality of our “separateness” overcomes me with the deepest melancholy. It could only be described as a complete, desperate emptiness. It reaches a point to that borderline place where your consciousness tells you it may be a dream, yet you can’t pull out of it, and you’re sucked back into the sadness. It’s absolutely horrible.

It inevitably evolves to a moment when I realize I’m actually in a bed, and my hand reaches across to find Dana beside me, right there where she’s always been.  It’s the ultimate sigh of relief. Yes, she’s still right there.

***

We married six years ago today.  She was previously married. So was I. That label was something neither of us ever intended. There is no good circumstance for, or about, divorce, and it’s not a thing for celebration. I’ve lost friends telling them that very thing. Don’t celebrate your divorce. We trust God’s grace over all that’s past.

***

Screen Shot 2015-10-16 at 10.22.23 AMI’ve known a lot of people. I’ve simply never known a better person. She loves my kids. She loves her parents, and mine. And if you’ve ever known her as a friend, you know there’s not a more loyal, dedicated or trustworthy companion.

She possesses a quality the world could use a lot more of. In any room, any circumstance, any situation, Dana is the tie that binds, the connector, the common denominator that brings people together. She exudes love and goodness through both her actions and her words.  If there’s a person who better exemplifies the joyful servanthood of Jesus, I simply don’t know who it is.

***

DSC_0457

IMG_2424

IMG_9352

Screen Shot 2015-10-16 at 10.21.39 AM

***

As do all, we’ve experienced our circumstantial challenges. Not in our commitment to one another, but rather the things that come along in everyday life.

We’ve known the financial, social and professional difficulty that comes with closing a business. We’ve known times of depression, family loss, and uncertain outcomes to situations we’ve both created, and others we’ve been randomly handed. And we’ve known the redemptive power of the greater glory that can come from every circumstance.

In those times when one is weak, the other is strong for both. Along with a shared belief in a God who loves and cares for us, I think it’s the strength at our marriage’s foundation.

Screen Shot 2015-10-16 at 10.23.47 AM

We’ve literally traveled the ends of the earth together – been as lost as two people could be. But it’s the great and humble honor of my life that I’ve never felt pressure to lavish expensive gifts on her (even though I want to), or work to put us in some categorical social standing. A wife that loves just being by your side … well, it’s a gift I’d wish on every man.

This isn’t a sermon, these are just words from my heart, but I think it bears repeating Screen Shot 2015-10-16 at 10.24.55 AMthat when I see Dana, I see Jesus.  I see faithfulness, virtue, humility, obedience,  patience, charity and forgiveness. And I see joy, in her, and in all those who experience a relationship with her.

Together, we live this thing we call our “laughable dream.” Oh my, what a laughable dream we live.

Dana, thank you for the privilege of calling you my wife.

I loved you then. I love you now. You know I do.

Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 3.55.13 AM

-30-

The Parable of Waste Management

“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” ~ John 8:32

***

Each morning’s routine was different, but there was always a routine.

It went something like this:

Four o’clock wake-up call, two cups of decaf coffee (half teaspoon Splenda, one small splash French vanilla cream); 10 minutes of Seinfeld; 4:30 dress for run with all the attire perfectly placed on the guest bedroom floor the preceding night; out the door at 5 for a three-mile run; back in the door at 5:40 (give or take); think about breakfast for the twins; lay out their matching clothes for the day; shower; then wake-up call for everyone else in the family, and the madness begins.

Parable of Waste ManagementAnd Monday mornings were especially exciting since it was garbage pickup day.

Jenna was totally OCD.

***

Her organizational skills trumped all others. She was super wife, super mom, super friend, super bank vice president; super community volunteer and super everything. Schedule and a daily checklist were her inspiration, all coordinated from the calendar and notes of her mini Ipad. She managed an unmanageable schedule with total, masterful control.

Almost always.

If she could only control her garbage…

***

Weekly curbside garbage pickup came to Jenna’s quiet cove about 10:15 every Monday morning. Around 5 p.m., each Sunday, Jenna wheeled the garbage can to its proper place near the driveway curve and parked it at a proper 90 degree angle adjacent to the street. It brought a certain feeling of triumph each Monday morning when the garbage was picked up, and hauled away.

Checklist. Check.

The garbage was gone, hauled to a distant landfill, and never seen again. Sort of.

As much as she loved taking the garbage out and sending it way, one thing still really nagged at Jenna. It was her trash can. Specifically, the bottom of her trash can.

Every two weeks, Jenna made a trip to Wal-Mart to stock up on household supplies. Garbage bags were almost always on the Ipad list, and Jenna didn’t skimp for the cheap bags. She bought the 40-ply, scented bags that held everything and covered up the odors accumulated by a family of four each week.

But frequently, there was a problem with the bags, and for someone like Jenna, it was a nagging problem she could never quite release.

No matter how carefully, how strategically, how methodically, Jenna Parable of Waste Managementplaced items in the trash can, something always seemed to pierce the best bags money could buy, and what remained behind was awful.

Whatever pierced the trash bag on a given week facilitated the dripping stuff that quietly oozed to the bottom of the can. Spoiled milk, spaghetti sauce, yogurt, all the disgusting liquids that never stay in the tightly wrapped boneless chicken breast package.

They all made their way to the bottom – a collective, offensive concoction – the foulest of reminders of the family’s garbage – and it was putrid. Every week.

Each Sunday evening, Jenna would take the garbage out, pleased to send it on its way, only to come back to the trash can, see the remaining filth, stare it down, and curse it. She washed it thoroughly with bleach every week, but it always came back. Some weeks what remained was less grotesque than others, but, in some form, it was always there.

She often wondered what it would be like if there were a garbage bag that could hold everything. Everything? …and be sent away forever so she could move on to other things.

-30-

Why She Loves Me I’ll Surely Never Know

 

 

“A man has only one escape from his old self: to see a different self – in the mirror of some woman’s eyes.” ~ Clare Boothe Luce
Steve and dana watkins jonesboro ar
It often amazes me why anyone would particularly love a guy like me. I’m just glad there’s one who does.

The first time we ever spoke of a relationship between us, I asked Dana a simple question. “What do you want?” I asked, in a critical moment of transparency.Dana and Steve Watkins Jonesboro ar

“I want to take care of you, and I want you to protect me,” she said, with an answer that oversimplified anything I ever expected.

And so our lives began together with that simple foundation.

I’m not one of those dashing GQ cover guys with a sculpted body and perfect hair. Stimulating social conversation has never been my particular forte’. And the older I grow, the more set I become in my quirky ways.

But she loves me. It’s a thing I never doubt. And it’s an amazing thing to know as perfect truth. Why she does, I’ll surely never know.
new york new yorkDana’s unconditional love gives me a freedom I’ve never known. Permission to be free, imperfect and to pursue the most outrageous of things (what we call laughable dreams). It’s an uncomplicated life, and makes things much easier than they otherwise could be.

If I take four hours out of the weekend to play a round of golf with my buddies, it’s okay. There will be no passive-aggressive silent-treatment-type stuff when I return home.

If I hole up in an office for an entire weekend to write without distraction, it’s okay. She understands I had to get it out of my system.

A few months back while traveling several days on business, I returned home only to find she’d taken a spare bedroom in our home and turned it into a “man room,” especially for me.

When she throws her leg across me in the bed at night, it’s a subtle reminder that she just wants to be close, and it causes me to smile, even at 3 a.m.

I’ve been known to give her presents that were things I really wanted. She never says a word – just comes along for the ride.

Four years ago, I pursued a business dream, invested everything we had, and ended up flat broke. It was a laughable dream that laughed right back at me. For a time, I gave up on everything. She never flinched.

She calls me babe, sweetheart, darling … I often wonder how anyone could think of me in that way.Steve and Dana Watkins jonesboro ar

She’s never given me an ultimatum, quid-pro-quo, or a single demand I can recall.

She calls my mom most every day, just to talk and express her thoughtfulness.

She’ll text me later today and tell me she loves me. I can count on that.

How did I get so lucky?

Why she loves me, I’ll surely never know. I’m just glad she does.

Lord, help me do my part, and help me take care of her well.

-30-

Becoming My Father’s Son

duck hunting on the Mississippi flyway

Of all the memories of my dad, this one is perhaps the most vivid. This photo, taken some time around 1973, shows my dad at his finest, completely in control, at peace, living precisely in the moment in a duckblind on the St. Francis River.

At the end of an emotional week, last night I quietly cried myself to sleep.

It’s not the most masculine thing to acknowledge, but I quit wearing the mask of the facade some time ago.

Last week, life wasn’t particularly wonderful.

Work was a challenge, the writer in me drew a daily blank, it was the first harvest

PS Olt and Yazoo duck calls

The collection of duck calls my dad amassed over his 71 years.

season my dad never saw, and so I mostly went into my quiet place piling up all the emotional junk until it finally had to come out.

And as they have many times over the last eight months, my thoughts turned to my dad who died last January. The memories and mental images came rushing back and I dismissed the week’s frustration in exchange for the memories.

Oh, daddy, if we could just sit down and talk today.

It’s not so much that we had the perfect father-son relationship. Here on earth, I think we may have misunderstood one another as much as two men could. Dad wasn’t a visionary. He was never compelled to achievement or notoriety. The moment in which he lived suited him just fine. And I thought he had it all wrong. Why didn’t he strive for “more,” I often wondered.

And so now, months after he’s gone, I suddenly get it in a retrospective sort of way, and I’m learning by no particular choosing of my own, the value of becoming my father’s son.

I never made a concerted effort to be like my dad. Never particularly wanted to.

The characteristic I most remember about him is contentment. Doing whatever it was he was doing in the moment, he was perfectly content. Driving a tractor, hunting ducks, drinking beer, loafing with his buddies, he was content, and lived perfectly in the moment.

In the 46 years I knew him, I had no particular respect or admiration for his ability to live moment by moment, until now. And now, he’s gone.

Me? I had much bigger plans. The present moments mattered much less than the future ones, because the time in between would be an investment spent working, performing, planning, reaching for a vision that would ultimately be something. I didn’t really know what, but it would be something. That was for sure.

It’s funny how the tide has turned.

In all the time I spent performing … showing him who knew best, it’s a funny thing now who’s showing who what.

In the years of my performance, I checked off certain achievements awaiting his praise. I suppose I thought he’d walk in the door one day and say, “You were right son. You knew better than me.” In retrospect, it’s easy to see the obnoxiousness of it all.

In the process, I went broke trying to get rich. As I tried to manipulate my professional and personal circumstances, and keep it all together, things fell disastrously apart. I learned scrambled eggs don’t easily go back together, and in the process, I became my father’s son.

At this moment, I look down at the keyboard and I see my daddy’s hands. A quick glance in the mirror will show me his face. Maybe I’ll have a laugh later today, and I’ll surely hear his voice.

My achievements didn’t impress him. All he wanted was my time, shared moments and a good laugh or two.

duck call collections

This was his favorite duck call – a P.S. Olt made in Pekin, Illinois.

Fortunately, we did have some special moments on which I can now reflect.

From the time I was 5 years old, I was by my dad’s side in a duckblind on the St.  Francis River. There was never a place I saw my dad happier, more peaceful and more in control than in the duckblind. In the duckblind, daddy was the boss.

There’s an image I have of dad in the duckblind. It’s one of the fortunate images my mind has retained over the years. His face peering out the window, looking eastward, he’d spot the ducks and begin the long call. He could call ducks for hours.

If you’ve never duck hunted … there are good duck callers and bad duck callers. Daddy was good. Very good.

He’d call them in from a mile away, lure them into circling our pond, and as the ducks drew closer his style would change. He’d begin the chatter, the calling would be more strategic. He’d twist his neck north and south, knowing intuitively what the ducks were doing even when they were out of sight. His steely blue eyes actually twinkled as we’d hear them come around from the north side, the wind would whistle over their spread wings and he’d raise his hand in the signal we all knew was his call for complete silence.

“Let things happen naturally now. We’ve gottem’ boys,” he said, without saying a word.

I haven’t duck hunted in 25 years. As much as I enjoyed those times years ago, they became less important because I thought they were moments that really didn’t matter. Now, I know how much they did.

I’m going to hunt again. I’m going to capture some of those moments again. Daddy knew best. It was the moments that really matter.

I know that now.

-30-