Day 89: Pat Conroy

“I prayed hard and only gradually became aware that this fierce praying was a way of finding prologue and entrance into my own writing. This came as both astonishment and relief. When I thought God had abandoned me, I discovered that He had simply given me a different voice to praise the inexhaustible beauty of the made world.” ~ Pat Conroy

(Note: Generally, these notes are reserved for people I’ve known personally and with whom I’ve shared some personal experience. Pat Conroy was within an hour’s driving distance of my home twice and I never went – one of my life’s great regrets. Though we never met, it feels I know him personally. If you ever wondered if you can love someone you’ve never met, I can tell you the answer is ‘yes.’)

Dear Pat,

Until you, I never knew words could be so beautifully assembled. I’d never known the kind of writing where one must occasionally must stop and breathe because the prose is overwhelming. You showed me take-your-breath-away good.

Gosh, Pat, the talent in your little finger would be good enough for me.

I’m so sorry for the experiences you endured as a child and young man. So thankful you shared them for a greater good giving us all permission to feel at the deepest depths. “The times weren’t all tragic,” I can just hear your response. “Just the ones involving any member of the family.”

Never has there been a writer whose fans loved him more. A man who couldn’t type, hated the word ‘blog,’ and who knew depression in ways most will never comprehend. Charming, funny, unapologetically Southern, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and a rebel who pushed every boundary – that was our Pat.

When you passed last March I wept. If only you could write us once more about what it was like, that experience walking into the next realm. What a great next story you have to tell. I still miss you so much, but I have your words. They will have to do for now.

I hope to shake your hand firmly and give you a big hug some day. There has never been a man with bigger and more humble heart.

You are my hero.

All my love,

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 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

Day 64: Coach Steve Roberts

 

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Dear Coach Roberts,

Before writing you this morning I spent time reflecting on your years as head coach here at Arkansas State. I was on academic staff much of your tenure and recall it as a new, refreshing, even glorious eight years. Something definitely felt different with you in charge. Something surely changed.

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Then a little quick research into your win-loss record at A-State honestly shocked me. I forgot, by the numbers, you never had a winning season. There was a conference championship, a remarkable program “turnaround,” in fact,  attendance numbers grew, you were a conference coach of the year, and we won at home much more than we lost, but we never had an outright winning season. That can’t be right, but the record speaks for itself. Or does it?

What I recall more about your ASU coaching career than wins and losses is the dynamic you brought to a depressed football town hungry for change – perhaps the kind of change we didn’t even know we needed. And maybe one not so much about football.

You brought us honor and integrity. Success on the football field flowed from things of a higher priority.

We’d lost touch with the things most real, most important, and how success really works.

screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-4-47-23-amOur team learned that everything started with who they were in their hearts, who they were created to become, and why. I’m not saying you didn’t know your Xs and Os. You surely did, and I loved the fire in your belly. I’m just saying you had your priorities straight and we hadn’t seen leadership like that in a long time. What’s more, is that over time (and even though you’ve been gone seven years now) you created change with staying power. Your fingerprints are all over this program. We are different, and you did that. That’s what happens in the pursuit of the things most real and when they’re done for all the right reasons.

From the sidelines I watched and learned something important. I learned the value of a mantra you speak out loud. Sometimes we have to say what we believe, so we can hear what we believe, so we really will believe it. Can we speak things into existence? Actually,  I believe we can.

“I will.”

That was the mantra you instilled in your teams.  I will give my all. I will protect my teammates. I will play with honor.

So often now when I find myself challenged or pushed to certain limits, I do the very thing you taught your players. And it’s not an occasional thing. It happens almost every day, coach.

I tell myself, “I will.”

My, oh, my the power of those words.

Thank you for doing something here that really mattered, Coach Roberts.

It’s said we should train up a child (and maybe even one another) in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.

Thank you for reminding us, and giving us all that legacy. It never was about football, was it?

Your fan,

Steve Watkins

 

 

Day 63: Randy Wilson

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“Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.”  ― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Dear Randy:

It was a purposeful but relaxing day for me. Many of the guys at my workplace took the day off to volunteer at the homeless shelter. My job was smoking up a chicken dinner for 80 late that afternoon. I love putting on a big feed. It’s long been my therapy.

Halfway through the morning up you walked in starched khakis and a pressed polo shirt. I think you engaged me in some conversation about the grill and just how many chickens it takes to feed 80 people. Most likely, you were an assistant administrator, probably pretty high on the organizational chart, I recall thinking.

We talked all morning and somehow connected well. After the first four hours it seemed the right moment, so I asked. What do you do here, Randy?

“I live here.”

The words echoed. And our conversation moved in a new direction.

screen-shot-2017-03-03-at-6-29-31-amWe sat right there the remainder of the day just talking. A well-educated and successful entomologist for a major farm chemical company, the family legacy made its way into your life two years earlier. Depressed, homeless, and broken, you’d set pride aside because you needed help. The cycle was predictable enough. Sadness. Seclusion. Trouble at work. Hopelessness. Shame. A better day now and then. But the cycle never ended.

“The depression became so bad I couldn’t even force myself to walk to the mailbox.”

You hit home with me on that one. I’d known the very same feeling myself. And so, a friendship was born.

There’s no shame in the need for help. We should all be so real with ourselves each morning as we look in the mirror. Getting help may be the bravest adventure anyone can take.

As you shared your story I remember exactly what you said about the abrupt transition  from successful professional to homeless, and a man in need of help.

“There comes a time when you determine this valley will be your last valley,” you said.

I enjoyed the several visits we shared during the following year. When I called one day, they said you’d moved out, landed a new job, and a place where you could live on your own. I still think of you so often and the great all-day talk we shared.

I hope the shadows have stayed away, Randy, and I hope we might reunite some day. Thank you for your courageous, determined, transparent example. Because, but for the grace of God, your story could belong to anyone.

Your friend,

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 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 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 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 48: Mike Overall

 

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(Note: Mike Overall worked at our local newspaper, The Jonesboro Sun, for 32 years. He was my associate editor and friend for 10.)

Dear Overall,

I can still see you over there halfway across a smoke-filled newsroom incessantly beating on the desk with two pencils as if you were in some sultry jazz hall.

You were one of a kind, if I’ve ever seen it, sir.

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-7-55-22-amReading your newspaper column as a kid I often wondered who is that guy who uses all those words? He must be some kind of a professor or something. Overall Comments appeared in every Monday edition of The Jonesboro Sun. I read every word, every week.

Little did I know 10 years later you’d be my editor and boss.

Kindhearted, aloof, an organizational disaster, you’re the one who brought stability to a newsroom full of personalities as diverse as any place I’ve known. Amongst all the places I’ve called home in a career, no other has come close to that sense of family. You were the reluctant stepfather to us all.

What a pleasant gentleman of a man you were, Overall. A wonderful sense of humor with a laugh as genuine as sunshine. Book lover with a vocabulary that must have been in the top 1 percent. Movie buff. Story-teller. Musician. Chain smoker. General misfit. You belonged in another place where the night life and the music lived large into the wee hours. Jonesboro, Arkansas was never really your gig. How a man of your taste tolerated it here, I never understood.

And you had a special, unanticipated quality I’ll never forget.

Mike and his beloved wife, Jane.

Mike and his beloved wife, Jane.

On a November evening in 1992 we elected a governor from Arkansas the 42nd president of the United States. There were dozens of local race results equally as important to our 30,000 readers. The newsroom was in complete frenzy. Even your counterparts at the editor level were in chaos.

And from nowhere, you became this extraordinary calm in the storm. “Everybody just stop freaking out. It’s just another edition. We’re gonna get this newspaper out. Be cool,” you proclaimed. Was that really you, Mike? Did you just do that? Seriously, who was that guy?

Respect.

Barely more than a month later in the earliest dark hours of a cold and foggy December morning we had an exchange I shall never forget.

As we walked into the hospital anticipating the birth of our son, you walked out having just lost your beloved mother. It was such a sweet exchange we shared. You offered such a heartening word.

Your illness was brutal and I’m so sorry for what you endured. Thank heavens you’re at peace. You are missed as few others.

Thank you for being such an anchor in one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve known.

A reader, admirer, and friend,

Steve