Our Personal Year-End Review

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.

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.

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2015: Rejecting Invictus

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I wanted to learn about myself this year, and so I did.

And I don’t regret the time I spent in doing so.

After 49 years and change you’d really think a man would know himself, and what he’s about, and have a certain comfort within his own skin. You’d think he’d be mostly focused on things like the ebb and flow of his 401k, the future prospect for grandchildren, and a better way to grow vine-ripe garden tomatoes next season.

You’d think he would have long since moved past such fundamental questions as:

“Who am I?”

“What do I believe?” … and

“What am I supposed to do with all that information?”

But such simple questions are more complex than they once were.  It’s because some unfortunate societal trends took foothold in 2015. I doubt they disappear soon.

First, the world’s thrown us a deceivingly effective curve ball that makes the pursuit of, and answer to, those questions more elusive than during any other time.

New capacities to shape ourselves with countless filters and applications make us nothing more than an edited, superficial, enhanced version of who we truly are.

Just the right angle makes us look 15 pounds lighter; a carefully maneuvered color filter creates a beautiful blue in your otherwise dull, grey eyes; and if you time it just right, that photo of you leaning up against the guy you haven’t seen any time before, or since, the company Christmas party can go a long way to make the guy you’re really interested in painfully jealous.

And tomorrow, you might as well throw up that Cancun photo from four years ago that proves you’re enjoying the time of your life as you actually sit alone on the couch, scoop the next spoonful of Bluebell, and switch the remote to the Lifetime channel. Yes, we’re a completely contrived manipulation of ourselves.

It wouldn’t be quite so bad if it just stopped there with the physical and situational. The greater danger is how the new age of self-deceit goes beyond these arguably less important views from the exterior, and causes us to lose touch with our own reality – the very essence of who we are.

It’s a simple matter of accidental conditioning really. I can only spend so much time at a keyboard sharing with you my meaningless convictions about the social justice issues of our time (pick one: poverty, hunger, abortion, any issue of equality et al) before I begin actually begin believing the expression of that conviction somehow made a contribution to the greater good.

We’ve led ourselves to believe our expressions (completely void of any action whatsoever) are, in fact, action. And we desperately need to stop believing that lie.

Here’s a typical example (at right) you might see on any given day where someone has placed a sign in an elderly person’s lap with the idea that your “like,” whatever thatScreen Shot 2015-12-31 at 8.12.25 AM means, is going to brighten the elderly woman’s day. The truth is she doesn’t even know what a “like” is. The further truth is that a “like” isn’t anything at all. But we’ve somehow come to believe it’s actionable, and that our “like” has made a difference. And, thus, we move along quite self-satisfied with our good work.

This trend toward “inactionable action” isn’t the greatest emergency, but one of the greatest emergencies of our present day. I’m gradually working you toward the greatest emergency of our time, so read on, if you will.

It was an especially difficult revelation for me, because as a part of my own livelihood, I’ve spent years manipulating perceptions with words and images. Sometimes it was for good. Other times, it was a disastrous moral failure and with subsequent regret. Oftentimes, I fell prey to the belief of my own manipulated reality.

And then some time during the last 18 months (I can’t put my finger on exactly when) I grew exceedingly weary of lieing to myself, and began having some self-conversation with the real me. As a starting point, I acknowledged things as they really are, not as the polished creation I could so easily invent.

Acknowledgement #1: I’ve had some amazing experiences, and things in life I’d even consider great successes. And all those things are directly attributed to help from others. In 49 years I can’t think of a single significant thing I did, or experienced, void of support from someone else.

Acknowledgement #2: I’ve failed at certain things and they’re beyond my wildest, conceivable imagination of failure. Certain failures sometimes result in collateral damage. That’s not divine punishment, but rather the world in motion. You can deal with such things, if you face them for what they are, with humility, and without excuse. I call it repentance, because that’s what it really is.

Acknowledgement #3: There is absolutely no good that comes from living in a false reality of yourself. In fact, it’s the focus on myself, reality-based or not, that’s my worst distraction and enemy.

Acknowledgement #4: I am not, as William Ernest Henley so famously wrote in the poem, Invictus, “…the master of my fate” nor “…the captain of my soul.”

These things were the building block in the truthful search for myself in 2015.

***

To aid the mental/soulful processing of these acknowledgements, and to seek further understanding, I did certain things with intention such as:

1. Spent a fair amount of time alone.

2. Engaged in a lot of physical labor.

3. Spent nearly 13 weeks traveling, nine of which were outside the United States.

4. Went on pilgrimage, and walked a very long way in a fair amount of discomfort.

5. Read the Bible more than at any other time during my life.

6. Dumped my CNN addiction cold turkey.

7. Spent a lot of time with people who view the world differently than me.

8. Avoided every conceivable big decision/idea that crossed my mind.

***

In the course of these things, this is what I learned about myself, and this time in my life:

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1. Life is hopelessly unnavigable in the undefined boundaries of subjective truth.

2. Most of the world now prefers undefined boundaries of subjective truth. This, as mentioned above, is the greatest emergency of our time. You might simply call it, chaos.

3. The expression of #1 makes causes people (many of whom I consider close friends) to view me as intolerant, judgmental, bigoted, sexist. Those things aren’t true, but they’re the reality of what many will believe.

4. In the New World of Tolerance, many important convictions I hold are not tolerated.

5. I’m more of who I truly am than I’ve ever been before.

6. I am broken, just as we all are broken. Yet, I am strong.

7. A pilgrim’s walk never ends. There’s a lot more to learn. I’m willing to keep walking.

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The Absolute Worst Trends of 2015

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… in no particular order…

1. The increasingly casual remark of putting others in our “thoughts and prayers” as an expression to pretend we care.

2. Sending “good vibes” to one another. What’s a vibe? How do you send it? And how do I receive it? Does it show up on my utility bill? Those words literally make me cringe.

3. An evolving, growing shift from a primary focus to love and have genuine concern for other people, to a love for, fascination with, and almost worship of,  animals. There’s some deep, disturbing, profound sociology/psychology there.

4. Mainstream media’s (particularly cable broadcast news’) evolution from at least pretending that it still seeks to inform you, to its complete disregard for that idea, and blatantly acknowledging it cares only to entertain, divide and create conflict between you and your fellow man so that it may perpetuate its own interests at any cost.

“SuperPacs may be bad for America, but they’re very good for CBS.” ~ CBS Corporation CEO Les Moonves.

5. The growing notion that somehow “the universe” will provide all our needs if we’ll just be open to that idea, and listen to it.

6. The crystal clear evidence that so very many young adults in their 20s and 30s have absolutely no idea who they are, or where they’re going because they were raised by a generation of parents in their 40s and 50s who had no idea what they were doing.

7. The idea that “religious liberty” somehow also means all things can be true.

8. “Relevant Truth,” the very idea of which, conflicts itself.

9. The United States’ growing isolationist philosophy based in fear, and propitiated by those most likely to lead the country after the next election cycle.

10. For that matter, fear-based everything.

11. The manner in which we’ve falsely come to believe we’re actively making a difference by expressing our convictions on social media. It’s so serious, most of us no longer even know who we really are.

12. The unnecessary devaluation, and outright ridicule of Christianity as vehicle to legitimate religious liberty for other beliefs.

13. The degree to which we’ve allowed symbolism to heighten our convictions, most of which don’t matter anyway if all you’re going to do is run your mouth about it. See #4 above.

14. Failure to do something (anything) and have civil conversations that can produce real results to keep innocent people from being murdered by the masses in the United States.

15. Bruce Jenner, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, The Duggars, Barack Obama, CNN, FOX News, Starbucks cups, Good Morning America, Disney and more. But moreover, our fascination with each of them.

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2013: Kill the Status Quo and SEE Your Laughable Dreams.

Steve and Dana Watkins in Ecuador

“It is impossible to travel South without turning one’s back to the North.” ~ A.W. Tozier

Gordon McKenzie’s unofficial title at Hallmark was vice president for creative disruption.

Not too many years ago, McKenzie conducted an informal, yet profound experiment.

He visited a nearby elementary school, walked into five different classrooms, grades one through five, and asked each student group this same question:

“How many of you consider yourselves creative artists?”

His findings? Nearly every student in the first grade raised their hand. Second grade, maybe two-thirds. Third grade, half. Fourth grade, one-third, and by the fifth grade, only two or three students raised their hands, and they were obviously embarrassed to do so.

How could this be?

McKenzie surmised that the school – the students’ actual supportive organization – actively  participated in the suppression of creative genius, and that it’s a trait among almost all organizations. Schools, the workplace, church, anywhere you might imagine, it’s the organization’s desperate attempt to maintain the status quo. At the heart of it all is that the organization takes on its own life to radically curtail change, that which would often be change for the good.

The organization, you see, wants to “survive” just as it is, and always has been.

I’ve learned to hate the status quo. Succumbing to the status quo would have prevented every dream I ever had.No Status Quo

A go-along attitude would have quashed my dreams as a writer, creative marketer and I’d surely never have written this post from a new base in the peaceful fishing village of Puerto Cayo, Ecuador, a place I consider an entrepreneur’s paradise where the risks are low and the potential for success is high.

No Status QuoJust like me, I’ll bet you have dreams for 2013, and I want you to realize every single one of them. Here’s what I want you to do:

DON’T pull out a pen and paper tonight and jot down 10 quick “resolutions” five minutes before midnight.

DON’T get an accountability partner to hold you to your mutual commitment.

DON’T buy new batteries for the bathroom scales.

***

I want you to VISUALIZE your success stories in 2013.

For years, Tiger Woods visualized sinking a 40-foot putt to win Augusta’s Masters.

In many NBA pre-seasons Michael Jordan paid a professional who would help him see his final shot in the championship series seventh game.

A few years ago, I even did it myself as I trained for my first marathon and at the end of each Saturday’s long run (which was just a bit further than the previous Saturday’s training run) I visualized myself crossing the 26.2 mile finish line as a volunteer placed a finisher’s medal around my neck.

So stop hoping, stop dreaming, and start SEEING your laughable dream now.

Try any of these six ways to begin visualizing your laughable dreams, many of which I’ve adopted from the book, On the Verge, by Alan Hirsh and Dave Ferguson.

1. Use this formula: L = P + Q. That is LEARNING takes place when PROGRAMMING (that of your organization’s status quo) is subject to QUESTION. Learn how to ask the right questions to initiate a genuine quest for the answers.

2. Take more RISKS. Conformity is the result of obsession with safety. Diversity and adventure result from a willingness to take risks. Take yourself entirely out of your comfort zone. I’ve failed in a huge way, many, many times.

3. Think like a BEGINNER, not an expert. Even if you must “unlearn” much of what you think you already know.

4. Know that it’s okay to FEEL. I admire the great thinkers around me, but I wouldn’t take anything for my feelings and gut instincts.

5. Learn to PLAY. In the beginning, even if you must be so anal as to require scheduling for

I took this photo on the streets of Puerto Cayo less than 24 hours ago and must have gone back to look at it a dozen times. I love how these guys just threw caution to the wind just to have a little fun.

I took this photo on the streets of Puerto Cayo less than 24 hours ago and must have gone back to look at it a dozen times. I love how these guys threw caution to the wind just to have a little fun.

play, do it, so that it becomes second nature.

6. Develop your personal MANTRA – that is, adopt, or create a set of words with a certain rhythm that resonates with everything you do. Five years ago, I adopted as my mantra a quote by renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead, who said, “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” That mantra changed, and continues to change my life, and it’s the very thing I pursue every day.

Lay claim to your dreams right now.

Don’t be denied.

Hate the status quo.

(Dedicated to my buddy, Brady Cornish, who’s dropped just about 80 pounds in the last 11 months, on the fast track now to his goal.)

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Goodbye to the Old Years: The Ano Viejos in Ecuador!

It's not at all uncommon to see the young Ecuadorian men near the speedbumps at every road, dressed up like women looking for a few extra coins to buy party drinks on New Year's Eve. For a quarter each, these guys gave me a pretty good show.

It’s not at all uncommon to see the young Ecuadorian men near the speed bumps at every road, dressed up like women looking for a few extra coins to buy party drinks on New Year‘s Eve. For a quarter each, these guys gave me a pretty good show.

In Denmark, they break dishes.

In the Philippines they wear polka-dots.

In Ecuador it seems we burn “scarecrows” at midnight.

It’s a cultural New Year’s tradition we’ve just learned, and it really brightens up the roadways in the last days leading up to New Year’s Day.

Since Thursday or so, Dana and I have noticed colorful papier mache-like characters everywhere. The Hulk. Sponge Bob. Minnie Mouse. You name it. Strapped to vehicles driving down the road, on moto-taxis, prominently adorned on peoples’ homes. They are everywhere, and are called ano veijos “the old years.”

These colorful characters are everywhere, and to the Ecuadorian people, represent all the old problems of the past year. They are burned at midnight as a way to represent a fresh start.

And depending on how much one’s had to drink depends on exactly where, and how, it is burned. Some have told us they can be seen burning on cars as they drive down the road as the clock approaches midnight. Can’t wait to see that.

DSC_0287New Year's Eve in Ecuador

Minnie Mouse, and an Ecuadorian soccer player sponsored by Pilsner, pretty much the national beer of choice.

Minnie Mouse, and an Ecuadorian soccer player sponsored by Pilsener, pretty much the national beer of choice.

This poor guy's strapped on with a measuring tape.

This poor guy’s strapped on with a measuring tape.

New Year's Eve in EcuadorNew Year's Eve in Ecuador

New Year's Eve in EcuadorNew Year's Eve in Ecuador