Day 59: Barbara Kriesel

Dear Barbara,

screen-shot-2017-02-28-at-4-52-36-amWe’d crossed paths on occasion but never spent much quality time with one another until that overnight in Terradillos, just short of the Camino’s halfway point. My new friend Marie and I were captivated with your story from just a few nights before when you encountered an experience every pilgrim fears. Chinches. You showed us the evidence: a half-dozen moderate to severe bedbug bites, the red, swollen marks along the arms, ears and neck now insufferably itchy and a constant painful distraction.

But it was the story you told as we walked together the following day on that beautiful, crisp fall morning that really got my attention.

Barbara Kriesel

Barbara Kriesel

Nearing your sixtieth birthday, you’d experienced a series of illnesses in recent years that resulted in a complete energy depletion. Doctors said you had about 10 percent the energy of an average person your age. Determined for a remedy, you traveled from home in Germany to Sri Lanka for promising non-traditional treatments that, in fact, restored you to new energy levels, near 70 percent. It was enough, you thought, to challenge yourself on Camino pilgrimage, and when we met, you’d already walked more than 250 miles.

You came to the Camino with a simple goal. Just move. That was it. The idea of taking the initiative and putting yourself in a radically challenging situation was satisfying enough early on, but not any more. Your thoughts now turned to more transcendent notions. Alas, attempting the hard thing, and the courage in that decision to try just wasn’t enough.

“It was just about the moving in the beginning, and it was so very difficult crossing the Pyrenees. It took a few more days than I thought to recover, but over time I became more serious about the walking. Now, I’ve gone beyond even that, and my number of days here is limited, but I’ve begun to let myself think about arriving,” you said.

You’d gone from a goal of moving, to a new goal of walking, now, to new purpose – arriving. It’s that certain look a person gets in her eyes when a cause is planted in her heart. Barbara decided she had the wherewithal to finish. I loved seeing that look in your eyes and hearing that tone in your voice. And I love that you finished. Ultimately, Barbara arrived.

Move. Walk. Arrive.

Thank you for a great lesson you shared with me that day, Barbara.

Sometimes, there’s no substitute for the Power of Arrival.

A fellow pilgrim still looking to arrive,

Steve Watkins

 

Day 58: Harvey

“Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.” ~ The Old Man and the Sea

Dear Harvey,

I’d come to Spring River that beautiful fall weekend with a tent and a fishing pole desperate to relax and enjoy the scenery. All the movies made trout fishing look so peaceful and tranquil.

As I stood knee-deep in the chest-high water casting line after line there was nothing. All day for hours not a single bite. Just upstream a hundred yards I saw you bringing in the nicest rainbow trout, one at least every 15 minutes. By days’s end my peace wore thin.

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Later your form gradually made its way clear as you walked into the campfire light and asked if you could join me for a bit. By the time you got around to asking me about the fishing, I’d already conjured up all kinds of excuses for the zero take.

“Let me see how you’ve got that line made up,” you offered. I passed the rod down into your weathered hands.

“Well, that’s your problem, you didn’t tie a leader. Your bait is staying on the bottom and the fish can’t find it. Let me show you how to tie for these fish.” You completely took over and I was more than happy to watch and learn.

“There. Now you’re all set. Come down tomorrow morning for breakfast at 6 and we’ll go out to my honey hole.” You disappeared through the darkness again.

screen-shot-2017-02-27-at-6-36-12-amThe fog lay low over the spring-fed waters early that October morning. The sun’s first soft light cast a glorious hue across the oak-laden Ozark countryside. There wasn’t a sound to be heard save our carefully placed steps through the 60-degree waters.

“Cast right about here and let the line flow down with the water,” you said. “I’ll move down about 20 feet and do the same.”

The line moved downstream gracefully with the water and I thought back briefly to our fireside conversation just as the rod’s tip jerked hard. And then again, but harder. I pulled back, set the hook and the reel screamed with pleasure.

“We’re gonna have a good day,” you smiled, looking back with sly satisfaction.

screen-shot-2017-02-25-at-6-13-44-amBeautiful rainbow trout one after another all morning long. What a glorious three hours we shared that day, and again later that afternoon, and yet again the next morning.

I will never forget that day, the fishing we shared together in the years ahead, and the friendship we created between old and young. All because you walked up out of nowhere into a young guy’s campsite to start a conversation. You started the conversation, Harvey.

And every time I bend a hook, just so, exactly as you taught me, so it will set just right, I think of you, my old friend.

Thank you for appearing out of nowhere, coming out of the dark, and into my life that weekend. Thank you for starting the conversation. I’m headed back to our our old honey hole soon, and I’ll surely think of you.

Your fishing buddy,

Steve Watkins

Day 56: Sophie Watkins

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“You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.” ~ William Faulkner

 

At a meet two years ago. I love this girl and am SO proud of her.

At a meet two years ago. I love this girl and am SO proud of her.

Dear Sophie,

Everyone dreams of a day as you have today. If they say different, it’s just not true. I wouldn’t give a plug nickel for anyone who’s never dreamed of a championship.

Today is the day you claim that prize. The Arkansas High School State Swim Championships. In just a few hours we’re on the road.

Back yard practice. Sophia's first year of competitive swimming seven years ago, I think.

Back yard practice. Sophie’s first year of competitive swimming seven years ago, I think.

It seems just yesterday we were coaxing you into the water with your “floatie wings.” They didn’t last long for you were a natural. At 7, you had us timing your laps in the back yard. At 15, you’re a freshman headed to the state championship. I have a feeling we’ll be back again, but let’s bring this one home just for good times.

You’re a remarkable person, Soph. Every molecule in my old worn out athlete’s body emanates pride with who you’ve become.

You’re a committed Christ follower with a servant’s heart. A scholar student. A self-motivated, over-achieving athlete with amazing drive. And you’re the kind of person everyone wants to be around – a friend’s friend. I love that about you so much.

Sophie and her friend, ????

Sophie and her friend, Maggie.

Just a few days ago I wrote you this, but it seems a good moment to repeat. The world is a crazy place right now. It needs more people like you. You’re here for a reason, and you’re going to change the world. I’m sure of it. I declare it.

Every moment of your competition is a thrill and I watch every second. But the moments I most enjoy are those just before it’s time to step to the platform. Showtime. Time to light the candle. Go time.

There’s not an ounce of anxiety on your face. No pressure, no nerves, all business. But when that body hits the water, you unleash the power. I feel sorry for the competition. I really do. Not really. Haha.

Look at that form off the platform. She's a very fast starter.

Look at that long form off the platform. She’s a  fast, powerful starter. Not even in the water and the competition is already beaten.

The thrill of victory is oh, so sweet. I want you to savor every moment today. You’re in elite company, the best of the best in the state. Unleash a fury for 28 or 29 seconds today. You’ve got this. Take it.

It’s a privilege to be your Dad. Thank you for bringing me along on this glorious ride … and I’m not talking about athletics. I’m talking about you. I love you all there is.

Now, let’s bring home a ring.

Your cheerleader for life,

Dad.

 

 

Day 55: Russell and Melda Strickland

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Dear Russell and Melda,

There was never a cooler couple who made their home in small-town America.

Russell, you were the Renaissance Man of your generation in our little town. Melda, you were just one of the most downright nicest and most unpretentious people I ever knew.

Melda and Russell Strickland

Melda and Russell Strickland

For 20 years I sat right behind you in church. Our families attended all the local charitable benefits together. We even worked together later in life when you contributed a sizable land tract to the charitable foundation where I worked. And all the while, I stood amazed and awed at how “different” and progressive and good you both were.

Annual ski trips, African safaris, traipsing unscheduled sojourns across Europe, New Zealand explorations – your travels were unending – every continent, I believe, except Antarctica.

You were philanthropists, conservationists, community volunteers, and pioneers. Russell was 20 years ahead of the most progressive cotton and soybean farmers in the South. The idea of raising cotton without cultivation in the early 80s was unthinkable. But you did it, and today, that’s how it’s done.

And that undeniable voice in our little Methodist choir. I can hear Russell singing now just as he did every Easter Sunday carrying the bass line on He Arose. This is for you, Russell.

Melda, the manner in which you cared for Russell in his final years was among the most beautiful things I’ve seen.  As his condition ultimately required a nursing home (which was the last thing you ever wanted) you didn’t just put him there. You moved in with him, stayed until the end, and beyond. If there’s ever been a greater demonstration of love and commitment, I don’t know where.

Thank you for your impression on an impressionable young man growing up in small-town America. Thank you for showing me it’s okay to be different, curious, independent and to go your own way. I never stopped watching you both and think of you often today.

Monette was just a little more cosmopolitan, and had just a little more flair because of you, and that’s God’s honest truth.

Your grateful admirer,

Steve Watkins

Day 54: Gary Eubanks

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(Note: I haven’t seen Gary Eubanks in years. He was a member of the first church I joined after first becoming married in 1988.)

Dear Gary,

This will sound strange to many people. Religiously bizarre and progressively out of touch to some.

It was selfless and pure. And let’s fan the flame a bit further even – one of the downright manliest things I’ve seen.

Gary Eubanks

Gary Eubanks

There was never a more honorable servant leader at Highland Drive Baptist Church – no one who modeled Christ’s love better. You struck all the younger men (including me) as the kind of man we aspired to become. No hidden agendas. No ego. A single standard of what’s right. A servant. My, how we forget the greater must first become the lesser. I digress.

The entire church body clearly believed all the same things about you. When it came time to cast the votes for deacon that season your name collected more votes than any other. And then you made one of the most honorable and humble gestures I’ve seen the the body of Christ.

You said you’d been previously divorced.

“Let the deacons be the husband of one wife …” 1 Timothy 3:12

You were thus unqualified, you said. Ineligible for the servant role we wished to convey upon you.

Gary, that simple verse could ignite a half dozen different debates today, none of which really interest me here. There’s a much greater behind your action.

You examined your heart, asked the will of your Lord, checked the standard, and decided for yourself that the words citing deacon qualifications simply said what they meant. You decided they were uncomplicated, unobtuse, written as a clear unconfusing communication.

For you, there would be no “WhatAboutism.”

Many would have said, well, let’s check the context, or the translation is confusing … even, well, that was written for a different time. It doesn’t really say what it says.

Not you, sir. The words speak exactly what they mean, you said. If there was error to be made on this important decision in Christ’s church, you would err on the conservative side. You perceived a boundary, and chose not to cross it.

Almost no one does that anymore, Gary. We are a society plagued with “WhatAboutism.”

I’ve reflected on your actions that day so many times. In fact, I view it as one of the most meaningful lessons I’ve learned. It’s easy to complicate some of the simplest things. In what seem times of stress, there’s often no decision to wrestle with at all. And there’s perhaps nothing more important than how we see our own reflection in the mirror every day. What God sees most is the heart. My, oh my, that’s good news.

Sometimes, things are painfully simple.

Thank you for that lesson in how you live.

Your friend,

Steve Watkins

Day 53: My Dad (and his birds)

A purple martin colony as they would appear on my dad's housing each spring. Dad was meticulous with having the housing just right for his birds.

A purple martin colony as they would appear on my dad’s housing each spring. Dad was meticulous with having the housing just right for his birds.

(Note: This is the first of several notes I’ll write to my Dad this year. He died from complications with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in 2012.)

Dear Dad,

To be honest, I thought for the longest it was senility and a general propensity to reclusiveness. I think you cared about those birds as much as anything else I’d seen.

A favorite photo of some female house finches on my back yard on a cold winter day.

A favorite photo of some female house finches on my back yard on a cold winter day.

You’d clean the housing sterile, repaint for the new season, systematically track the migration north, and at just the right moment (not too early, not too late) you’d raise the housing. And just about this time every spring they rewarded you with a season of pleasure. The purple martins arrived gracefully by the dozens. Nothing made you happier.

For the longest I wrestled with jealousy over how much you loved the birds, versus how much fun it was seeing you love something so simple and innocent. I’d never seen anyone sit outside for hours on end just watching birds fly around.

You surely loved “your birds.”

A goldfinch I captured in full spring plumage.

A goldfinch I captured in full spring plumage. He’s munching on some nyjer.

Now, all these years later, look at me. It raises minor panic if we’re low on bird seed and bad weather’s on the way.  I have 10 seed feeders in winter, a dozen hummingbird feeders in summer, and just this week I scrubbed my own martin housing in hopes of their arrival. Those birds are so elusive in the city. But every day I’m watching – just like you.

I wish you were here to see the little backyard habitat we’ve created. The birds love it and we have a bunch. Beautiful cardinals, gold finches, house finches, tufted titmice, several woodpecker varieties, carolina wrens, chickadees, upwards of 50 hummingbirds during the southern migration in August, blue jays, and the occasional indigo bunting. If the martins are coming it will be any day now.

Two carolina wrens acting goofy on some suet. Probably my favorite songbird in our backyard.

Two carolina wrens acting goofy on some suet. Probably my favorite songbird in our backyard.

We could sit back here for hours and watch, you and I. Even Dana has become a pretty good spotter. If you could see what we’ve done with the backyard birds in Ecuador you’d really be amazed.

Am I senile now, or just a recluse? I often wonder, and I bet you think that’s funny.

I miss having you around. We all do.

Your son,

Steve

 

Day 52: Helen Corbett

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Dear Helen,

It may surprise you, but I’ve reflected on what you wrote so many times. It was just a simple social media post, yet one of the most endearing things anyone’s ever said to me.

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Snow in the elevations at O Cebreiro.

Day 39. I’d walked almost exactly 800 kilometers. Up and over a mountain range. Through cold, rainy wind and lots of mud. One night of delusional fever. There was an eight-hour blizzard. And my lower left shin was visually hemorrhaging blood now. But only one day of hobbling remained.

A friend of a friend sent a message suggesting maybe it would be best to call the whole thing off. Come back and finish another time. Nothing is worth that kind of pain, she said. “You gave it a great effort,” I read her final suggestive words as my blood pressure spiked.

Oh my Lord, someone’s recommending I quit.

Never has a suggestion seemed more hateful in the pit of my gut.

The crossroads where I paused to write on that beautiful Saturday morning.

The crossroads where I paused to write on that beautiful Saturday morning.

Moments after reading all this, I remember pausing for a photo at a Galician crossroads just as the sun peaked over the distant eastern mountain ranges. They were so far away. The fog was burning off revealing the promise of the deepest azure-blue sky for a final Saturday walk. Tomorrow, the prize: Santiago de Compostela.

I sat in some dewy grass and crafted a public response to the idea about quitting. The urge to write was overwhelming. That happens sometimes.

“The very thought of quitting is hateful,” I wrote. “I’ve come this far, gone through this much, walked through this kind of pain to quit one day out? Do I really seem a quitter to you?” My words became unnecessarily defiant and obnoxious now. “I’d crawl all the way through oozing Spanish mud to reach that cathedral tomorrow.”

Now, that was very much NOT what a pilgrim should exude at this point, but it sure felt good.

***

It might be the honor of a lifetime how so many people followed along on that walk. Some actively joined in the conversation over 500 miles. Others just quietly sat back and watched. You fit the latter category, I suppose, until you read that awkward articulation of raw emotion on Day 39.

That night I read what you wrote, and I wept with the sincerest honor I’ve ever experienced. I kept a screenshot of your words so I’d remember them forever.

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Crap, I’m weeping again!

From across an ocean divide you chose me to take you to the cathedral? You chose me???

My walking partner, Naomi, practicing a little physical therapy helping me get through the last three excruciating days.

My walking partner, Naomi, practicing a little physical therapy helping me get through the last three excruciating days.

Aside from my own wife, I don’t think anyone’s ever expressed a sentiment more understanding of my spirit. Yes, hell or high water, we would get there, Helen. I wish I’d known you were along for the journey earlier. I might have been less indignant – a bit nicer even – polished things up a bit more.

I’m not sure if I followed up to share this with you, but the final Sunday of walking was glorious. There was much hobbling and it took about two hours longer than it should have to complete those final 12 miles, but I savored every step, much because of you, and others like you.

In the final steps to cathedral square, the trumpets did resound and I recalled your words. I shall never forget the moment. The cathedral spires appeared just to the left, I walked toward the square’s center, laid down on the cobblestones, and cried. Yes, I’m a crier, it’s true enough.

Lots of people and many things ran through my mind as I lay there after 40 days of walking. But one of them was you, and I thought you should know.

It was the honor of a lifetime taking you on that journey.

Thank you for letting me know you were there.

Your pilgrim brother,

Steve “High Roller” Watkins

 

 

 

 

Day 51: Jim Reed

 

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Dear Jim,

Every morning delivering my daughter to school I’d admire that flagpole in your yard. How cool it is to fly the flag so prominently each day, I thought – a simple, personal choice to honor many things.

When I called inquiring how you created it so I might do the same your response was, “When would you like to do it?”

No detailed explanations. No beating around the bush with this or that. Just when

“Well, how about next Saturday?” I replied, still caught off guard by the offer.

“That sounds fine. I’ll gather everything up and see you Saturday.”

Jim Reed

Jim Reed

Nobody just jumps up and helps people any more. What were you thinking? Don’t you have something better to do than helping me? You made me your priority for nearly a day. Huh? What?

It’s one of the nicest gestures anyone’s made toward me in a while. You just showed up with everything I needed. You dug the hole, set the pole and tied the flag. Now that I think about it I was sick that morning with a fever. You did everything.

Thank you for your radical kind gesture, Jim. It made an impression I’ll never forget.

And thank you for always being nice to a cub reporter back in the day when he covered the monthly City Water and Light board meetings each second Tuesday. You never talked down or showed frustration and impatience. I was always welcome.

Thank you for being you.

Sincerely,

Steve Watkins

 

 

 

Day 50: The Pastor Who Wouldn’t Baptize My Dad

Dear Pastor,

This is delicate. It has to be just right.

It would help to first identity what “it” is, but I’m not sure I truly know. It’s not an apology. Nor is it a rant. It’s not even what we’ve come in today’s world to know as “click bait.”

These are just raw emotions expressed through fingertips and a keyboard. Raw emotions. That’s all this is.

It was the kindest of gestures when you befriended my dad during his hospital stay five years ago. When you came along we didn’t know he’d never leave. But he never really had anyone to call “pastor,” and your kindness and concern was welcome during a difficult time.

At some point the realization came to us all that he probably wouldn’t leave.

My dad, in one of the places he most loved - our duck blind on the St. Francis River.

My dad, in one of the places he most loved – our duck blind on the St. Francis River.

Oftentimes, I say daddy lived a hell of a life. It was surely complicated by the relationships of his childhood which permeated almost everything he did. He never saw himself as good enough, up to the standard, and never grasped higher notions of grace and forgiveness. Until near the end.

In the last week of his life the Holy Spirit did a work as I’ve never seen. Daddy was transformed. Made new. Redeemed. As he slipped gradually and painfully away, there existed a peace in my father not of this world. To this day it’s one of the most amazing things I’ve personally witnessed.

Less than a week before he died Daddy wanted a baptism. The logical thing seemed a phone call to you as you’d gone out of your way with regular visits. Mom called me, the extended family showed up, and you came early that Sunday afternoon. What a magnificent celebration we anticipated.

But you said, “no.” Daddy was bedfast. He couldn’t make it to any vessel large enough for a “full immersion.” Your theology would permit nothing else. I’ll never forget your words as you walked away.

“I’m sorry. I can’t help.”

Daddy just made the decision of a lifetime. How this got managed over the minutes that followed was delicate. Thankfully, as He does, God worked it all out for the good. I rejoice at my father’s citizenship in Heaven which had nothing to do one way or another with baptism.

But for five years, your response echoed in my mind. “I’m sorry. I can’t help.” It unleashed some less than Christian behavior in my own life, was the beginning of my own turning against the Church, and didn’t do a lot for my propensity to depression.

Over time, we’ve lost the art of apology in this country. People will often say they offer forgiveness “for their own sake” because they deserve the peace that comes with forgiveness or some other such nonsense. It’s crazy that such a self-centered society has now made even forgiveness about self. Nothing is further from the truth.

screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-6-48-13-amThere’s no doubt your actions that day were grounded in firm belief, probably even obedience to a cause. I’ve tried to understand, but honestly never have. Adherence to such rigid rules is the stuff of the pharisees it seems to me. The symbolism of a decision is all we’re talking about here. Did you ever have a second thought about your decision, I’ve often wondered? I’ve pondered it deeply. I just can’t see your way here.

Forgive the inference because this specific situation is but one example, but it seems that all of us in the Christian community have become our own worst enemy regarding the spread of the gospel. The conflicts we’ve created and the tone we’ve set recently are the opposite example of that to which we’re called. Because of it all, witnessing to non-Christians and people of other non-Christian faiths has never been more difficult.

I’m not mad anymore, pastor, and I don’t mean this text as some passive-aggressive internet prose. This is simply how I process and express. I’m sorry for anthing I may have said or done that was hurtful toward you. Truly, I am sorry. Everything’s okay.

Maybe this was all orchestrated as some grander plan, who knows? But that moment on a Sunday afternoon five years ago is one pillar for all my thinking now about modeling the servanthood of Christ.

Your brother in Christ,

Steve Watkins