OPINION

The Flatlander

Caring Is An Active Verb Even When Inconvenient

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“We’re all just walking each other home.” ~ Ram Dass

Most people I know on a casual level believe I’m a risk-taker who makes decisions flying by the seat of my pants, driven by emotion, and figuring it all out (whatever it is) as it evolves.

It’s an easy case to make.

What most people don’t see, however, is the overthinker who lurks quietly in the background assessing every angle and possible outcome.

It’s also true, as you probably know by now, that I’m relatively transparent when it comes to storytelling and the lessons I’ve learned in personal life. It’s complicated, one might say, and bless my wife Dana’s heart, here’s a shocking revelation: I’m not the easiest guy to live with.

Today’s column touches on a bit of all this, the overthinking, the emotion, and the transparency.

A few weeks ago, I shared with you the story of my friend, Phil Volker, the Vashon Island, Washington native who built a simulated walking trail of the Camino de Santiago early into his 2013 diagnosis with stage-four cancer. Phil simulated the entire 500-mile journey, and eventually during a break in chemotherapy, went to Spain and walked the actual pilgrimage. An amazing documentary, Phil’s Camino, followed, and Phil became sort of a rock star in a community of people extending across the world. In the months and several years that followed, Phil continued his walk with cancer as a steady flow of Camino veterans came to visit with him and walk the trail. This, because the documentary portrays a man who you just want to get to know better. You know you want him to be a part of your life.

I am one who visited with Phil a few times, once as his documentary appeared at the Hot Springs Film Festival. I subsequently traveled to Washington to walk with Phil and spend a few days with him. Like so many, I am drawn to this good and decent man. I love him and consider him a dear friend greatly admired.

About two months ago Phil shared with our community that he’d stopped cancer treatments and entered home hospice. This amazing “second chance” as he described it, that Phil lived out sharing wisdom and demonstrating true hospitality during the last six years, was winding down. There was no sadness, only peace in Phil’s message as he’d long ago learned to separate the fear from the thing itself.

Phil invested some time on a cure. He invested more of his spirit in healing. There is a difference in a healing and a cure – this is one of his great lessons to us all.

Several years ago, our community started an annual gathering on Vashon Island. The Oasis event, as it’s come to be known, is held each August right there on his property. It’s a time for wonderful reunions, celebrating the spirit of pilgrimage, and of course, walking with Phil and with one another.

This year’s Oasis became more important because of Phil’s deteriorating health. None of us knows the future, really.

All this transpired at a time when I’d just made a commitment to be more intentional about slowing my life down, especially when it comes to travel. I’ve recently acknowledged a challenge I have taking on too many things at once, and for the first time in my life, decided to work harder at rest and doing fewer things, if that even makes sense. The idea of all the logistics involved in getting to Vashon Island – car, airplane, airplane, car, ferry, car – was almost too much to imagine. Overthinking, I decided to go, and to stay, at least a half dozen times, ultimately deciding the Sunday before the next weekend event that I’d pass on the trip and all that it involved. But it was a decision my spirit never felt any peace with.

That Friday morning, I sat up in bed at 3 a.m., and knew I had to get on a plane.

It all went back to something I sought on my first Camino pilgrimage when I prayed never again to live the life of a hypocrite. That is, to say one thing and live another. I love Phil Volker, and this might be our last chance to celebrate together. I needed him to know how much I truly cared.

At 5 o’clock that morning I began searching the internet for a flight. There was a combination of flights that would get me to Seattle by 11 that evening. As a bonus, I had enough air miles to fly first class and relax a bit. Booked.

I called a friend already on the ground there. Not only did he offer to pick me up at the airport. He had an extra bed at his Airbnb. “Just get here and I’ve got you from there,” he said.

Serendipity.

Twenty hours later, an American airliner jet touched down at Seattle-Tacoma airport with me in an aisle seat on Row 13. It was an amazing weekend with Phil and friends, and I was true to myself and that moment back on pilgrimage years ago.

Sometimes, your gut takes you exactly where you need to go.

See you in next week’s newspaper where I’ll write you from the sunny beaches of Perdido Key, Florida.

(Steve Watkins is a reporter/columnist for the Stone County Leader. Write him at steve@stonecountyleader.com)

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