Day 86: J.R. Blackburn

Dear J.R.,

Having good neighbors is such a pleasure. It’s difficult calling it a neighborhood without the good neighbor part.

We will miss you so much in our little Culberhouse Cove.

The “For Sale” sign remains, but you and Terry are gone now. I love the way you cared for everything – the grass, neighborhood common areas, a clean truck at least once a week – always busy, always doing something. We’re so glad you were here for a time.

Best wishes in the new home, and thanks for leaving our neighborhood a better place than you found it.

Your friends and neighbors,

Steve and Dana

Day 85: David Landis and Anna Dintaman Landis

Every morning’s typical breakfast routine, planning the day ahead and thinking just a bit about tomorrow.

Dear David & Anna,

Everyone approaches things differently, I suppose. Some people try planning every detail as much as possible. Others go at it knowing almost nothing. Getting ready to solo walk 40 days across a country, I wanted a balance somewhere between the two. Your guidebook was the perfect planner.

It may be true that anticipation of an experience like pilgrimage is one of the very best parts. As part of my anticipation, I searched all the popular guidebooks and chose yours as my companion before, and during, the walk. It seemed it had everything a person could need.

Adventurers and authors, David and Anna Dintaman Landis

Reading through the sections in the weeks before departure, your descriptive narratives, elevation charts, beautiful photos, and historical sidebars only increased my excitement. If the trip was as good as the book, I was bound for a great experience. Just before departure, we purchased two additional books for my wife and mom, and for their own daily account of my progress across the Iberian peninsula. Dana carried hers a year later in 2016.

On arrival, and from Day 1, the guidebook was among my top three most valuable possessions. There was a quick routine study every morning, lunchtime, and just before bed. Your work became a trusted daily planning tool, and even remedied a few jams along the Way.

I still have it. It survived a nearly white-out, seven-hour blizzard down O Cebreiro, the constant dampness across the Basque countryside, and even a few accidental spills of a refreshing second-breakfast San Miguel. Dog-eared, worn, and crinkled from so many wet-dry-wet cycles, it sits on the bookshelf as a prized, trophy-possession of perseverance and the best of times with new friends and great adventures.

Thank you for your gracious endorsement of my own book due out in a few months. It’s such an honor. In a different sort of way, I hope it contributes something just as special to the body of literary works dedicated to the place that means so much, to so many.

Buen camino, y vaya con Dios.

Your friend,

Steve Watkins

Day 84: Monette Class of 1984

 

Dear Classmates, (all 23 of you)

How can Day 84 pass without each of you coming to mind? My original society. My gang. My tribe.

Weren’t we the lucky ones living in the heart of small-town America, free to come and go and find as much trouble as we could, even though there was honestly so little trouble to be found? For 12 years we propped one another up, laughed until we cried, and tasted the beginnings of how we’d write our individual life stories.

When I think of you all, I think not of who I wish to be, but rather the heart of who I truly am – a small-town farm boy from rural Arkansas.

Cruising main, ball games every Tuesday and Friday night, maybe a Saturday night movie and pizza in Jonesboro if it had been a good week. There was much predictability to our young lives. I think we rather liked it that way.

If you have as many fond memories of those 12 years as I, you occasionally get lost in your thoughts as you sit in the stands at a grandchild’s ball game or a sixth-grade graduation. You reflect on the most innocent times when your priorities were consumed with things such as finding time for your next car wash or who wouldn’t completely turn you down for a date to the junior prom.

Memory still smells the hallway smells, and hears the familiar voices, and it still hears young cheerleader voices reverberating through that old gym I called home:

We’ll be loyal to you, MHS, to your colors be true MHS; We’ll back you to stand as the best in the land, for we know you have pep, MHS, rah, rah. So, answer the call, MHS; We are backing you all MHS. With brain and with muscle, we’ll get right down and hustle, and win for you all MHS, Rah, Rah!

M-O-N-E-T-T-E! MONETTE! MONETTE! MONETTE! RAH, RAH!

(In memory of Shawn Perrin, student council president, teammate, friend.)

 

Day 83: Paula Miles

 

Dear Paula,

I’m not certain if everyone does this, or even if it’s good or bad, but at some point a few years ago I realized a subconscious pattern where I’d file away certain thoughts, and even create categories about the people I’ve known.

Paula Miles (left) and Linda Hinton.

There’s a small file for the troublemakers, a special file for the mentors, one for the people whom I really need to do something nice for some day, and another that I just call “the good people.” There are dozens more files actually, but you get the idea.

During the times I’ve reflected on you and Rick, you’ve both always been at the front of “the good people” file. It may not sound like much, but it’s one of my favorite, most treasured files.

This all came to mind a few days ago when you volunteered to send a letter of support for something I’d asked about, and shown an interest in pursuing. You went out of your way in doing something really nice, and it was such a kind gesture. We live in a time when that kind of thing should really be more appreciated. Some people have a better understanding than others that the mission field begins right outside our front door.  I’ve always seen you and Rick as two people who get that.

Well, I do declare…

So many great things in Arkansas have been set in motion with your help – treasured histories helping us recall our connections to Ernest Hemingway and Johnny Cash, the Southern Tenant Farmers movement, Lakeport Plantation, and the Sultana tragedy.  The low-key role you’ve played in so many things is the true indication of a pure servant’s heart.

Thank you for all the big things, and for all the small things. Your gesture toward me a few days ago may seem small to you, but it was a big deal to me.

Thanks for being one of the “good people.”

Your friend,

Steve Watkins

Day 82: Sophie, Averie, and Maggie

 

Averie, Sophie, and Maggie

Dear Girls,

Well, it’s time to pack up and hit the road for home. Another spring break at the beach has come and gone.

When this season rolls around every year I’m afraid you three will be too grown to let me share this trip with you. The day is coming, but luckily for me this is not that year, and I pray it won’t be the next. We’ve made some good memories at this place.

It’s always a pleasure to be in the company of good kids. Thank you for being the kind of kids where there are never any worries or concerns. Thanks for just letting me come along. You three are the best. You’ll always be the darlings of Period Key to me.

How long will I bring you on spring break at the beach?

As long as you’ll let me.

Love,

Dad/Steve

 

 

Day 80: Stephanie Curton Kenley

Dear Stephanie,

When it’s time to assemble a team, you’re always looking for people with diverse qualities and individual talents. The pieces and parts should come together to complete the whole.

Stephanie and husband, David.

When it came time to hire a new development officer for a growing and diverse team eighteen years ago, you entered the picture at a moment when we needed something fresh. Some energy. Some spunk, if you don’t mind my saying. Every team needs a bright, young, spunky player who will challenge the old ways of thinking. I knew it would be you before the applications were ever mailed – before you even graduated, honestly.

Life moves so quickly.

A few days ago, Dana mentioned from across the room that you were off on a 40th birthday celebration vacation. It bewildered me.

“She’s not 40. She’s not even 30. You’re way off on that one,” I said.

“Well, that’s what it says,” she said.

“Something’s wrong. There’s no way that’s right.”

Sure enough, you’re celebrating the Big Four O today. I’m so happy for all the ways you’re still using your gifts and talents.

Stephanie and sons.

You have the family you always dreamed about and I know the responsibility you take most seriously is wife and mom. You’ve always known that family is the core of everything real. I suspect you learned that as a child.

You’re now a successful medical professional – a labor and delivery nurse ensuring the safety and care for new moms and babies as God creates new families at Arkansas Children’s Hospital every day. It’s hard to imagine you fulfilling a calling that fits you better.

I’m glad we were on the same team for a time. We all learned some lessons in fundraising we can apply to whatever it is we pursue, wherever we might pursue it.

It’s not even my job to be proud of you. I’m proud of you, nonetheless. I hope that’s okay.

Happy, birthday, kiddo. You’ll always be that spunky kid to me.

Your friend,

Steve Watkins

 

 

Day 79: Dan Wagaman

 

Dear Dan,

It’s funny how times change.

When I was a teenager spring break meant my dad got a week of free labor as we readied for cotton planting season. The suggestion of a vacation would have been laughable. My kids have almost always thought spring break is an automatic ticket to the beach.

It was a late-season, last-minute call last week and I knew it wouldn’t be easy finding a place. Thank you very much for going out of your way to accommodate a condo for a few days. I have to take these opportunities when they come. Every year I fear my youngest daughter will be too old for me on the next.

Thank you for helping us, and again, for going above and beyond the call. That’s increasingly a lost art in this world.

See you in about 8 hours. We’re Perido Key bound for SBMMXII.

Bringing the check,

Steve Watkins

Day 74: Monette Buffaloes 1980 Junior High Championship Team

(Note: In 37 years we lost two members of this wonderful group, Doug Pannels, a feisty guard (#20, second from left) who died in a tragic auto accident at 19, and Shawn Perrin (#41) who we called the “garbage man,” and who played an unheralded, but  important role. He passed away unexpectedly two years ago. Our final achievement would not have been possible without them.)

Dear Teammates,

Oh, the splendid glory.

It was about this time of year, 37 long years ago. Gosh, that seems a long time. But we will never forget it, not a single player.

For years, we wore the grass away around every basketball goal in our parents’ back yards. We chose teams, replayed the championship games we’d seen on TV, emulated our favorite college and professional heroes. And each day we got better and better. More cohesive. More familiar with one another’s talents. And more determined. Everyone knew that ninth-grade year was destined for something special.

Everyone had their job. Everyone did their job.

Monette Buffaloes, Junior High, 1980. All Champions.

We went 14-0 before losing the first game, an over-achieving 30-6 by year’s end. Every team on the schedule fell to the mighty Buffs at least once that year.

The championship game was a thing of beauty. I remember almost every trip up and down that floor. Down by 10 at the half, we slowly, patiently worked our way back into the game and when the clock ticked zero the score revealed Buffs 43, Bearcats 42. We won it all. Went as far as a junior high team could go.

Champions. I wouldn’t give a plug nickel for a guy who’s never dreamed of winning it all in the big game.

I’m forever proud of what we did that year and think of it often. I love you guys so much. Thanks for everything everyone did in creating such a glorious memory.

Your teammate for life,

Steve – #34 junior high/#24 senior high

 

 

Day 73: The Preacher Who Told Me the Dirty Joke

Dear Pastor,

When you’re 16, the slightest influence can shape your view for the good or the bad for a very long time. Kids are so fragile. I’m thankfully recovered from your influence, probably nothing more than a momentary lapse in judgment, and realize it was just a mistake. But it was one of the great letdowns of my teenage years. Thinking about it still causes me to cringe.

My faith was so new, and I was so impressionable and curious with a desire to learn. The walk had just begun.

You’d served our small-town church a few years, there long enough to become “part of the community.”  And you were a nice man, too, not the most dynamic evangelist with the deepest messages, but a nice man with a friendly disposition. Everyone liked you.

Always the fan of our high school basketball team you never missed a game and would occasionally drop by the late afternoon practices observing from near the doorway and the old water fountain. You were there that day during a practice break just as a friend and I made our way in your direction for a drink.

What happened next is the surrealist of uncomfortable memories.

You pulled us to the side, as if somehow desperate for our approval, and you told us the dirtiest joke I’ve heard to this day. You were my church pastor. The moment was completely out of context with our relationship. You might as well have slapped me across the face with a brick. Did that really happen?

Now, I wasn’t the most innocent kid on the block, and created as much mischief as anyone, but that moment was so sickeningly wrong. Now what?

For lack of knowing what else to do, I remember faking an awkward laugh and turning to the practice floor. I will always recall it vividly as one of the most displeasing and frustrating moments of young adulthood. It’s unfortunate when poor human judgment affects a young person’s outlook toward something so important.

For years, there was nothing else to do except block the moment from my mind, pretend it didn’t happen. But things were never the same again. I suspect you knew it, too, as I kept a respectful distance.

This isn’t a note about forgiveness, pastor. I never really felt there was anything to forgive. I’m sorry for whatever was present in your life that moment that you felt compelled to act this way. We all make mistakes. But I’ve learned that consequences are brutal.

Yours truly,

Steve Watkins

 

 

 

Day 70: Phil Volker

(Note: Not only is Phil Volker a friend, he’s the subject of a great short award-winning documentary. You may read his story at philscamino.com)

Dear Phil,

As a great man once said, “Just acknowledging someone is a gift. Give a gift to everybody.”

It’s an esoteric bond we share, those of us who walk the ancient footpath. But a greater bond still amongst all who reject certain limits in search of greater truth. I recall the day your social media “friend request” appeared. “It can’t be,” I thought. “Is that the real Phil Volker?”

Who is this cool guy?

We’d heard the story that probed our imaginations. Annie O’Neil shared tidbits with the community along the way as this anticipated creative work developed. A man with stage-4 cancer replicated a camino is his back yard of all places, got better, then went to Spain and took a 500-mile victory lap on the Way of St. James. From the moment we heard about Phil’s Camino, you were a hero.

On word from our friend Roni Kay that  you’d visit Arkansas’ Hot Springs Film Festival last October, we dropped everything. Getting there became top priority. Everything else could wait. It will always be one of the favorite days of my life. And since then you’ve often shared an encouraging personal word with a phone call, or social media comment, and you stop by the blog every day. Your acknowledgment is my gift.

***

Partying pilgrim style at the Hot Springs Film Festival.

A favorite writer once penned, “A story untold could be the one that kills you.”

You weren’t looking to create a tory, and certainly never imagined yourself hopping jets to and from film festivals around the country. The spotlight was the last thing on your mind. You simply took responsibility for the hand you were dealt. You didn’t choose a life. You lived one. Yet, we’re so glad your story is being told.

For many of us, you’ve become a great ambassador for hope. With intention, you’ve shown us there really are no limits to time, place or circumstance. You’ve shown us how we might capture a glimpse of heaven if we just pause and take a look around.

But your true legacy is one for sharing with everyone we know.

In difficult times, our priorities are easily transposed. You’ve shown us the difference between a cure and a healing. It’s the healing that reconciles us to the bigger picture. The cure is really secondary.

I’ve got one more line here Phil. Just one more line. I’ve got to get it right, and get it in there …

You’re a hero. I love you, my friend.

A fellow seeker on the Path,

Steve