Josh White has faced difficulties that few will ever know. He served a tough tour of military service in Iraq where his Humvee took a direct hit, fought the night terrors of PTSD, and battled depression and addictions through the years readjusting to life in a civilian world that he says has no rules or structure for war veterans.
But none of it compares to the moment three weeks ago when he stared helplessly at the last $2 in his hand and feeling a complete failure.
He remembers looking at his wife in bed that night and apologizing.
“The last thing I remember feeling that night was complete emptiness and embarrassment. There was nothing else.”
Just two hours before, Josh did something extraordinary. He’d given their last $2 away.
Things had never been easy during Josh’s return to civilian life. But he’d persisted enough to get his life headed back on track. He’d been drug-free more than a year, re-established a relationship with his ex-wife, gone from homeless to having a nice three-bedroom home, landed a job with the city maintenance department, and the family now had two new working vehicles.
“I felt like we’d really turned the corner in so many ways,” he said.
When an injury prevented Josh from working earlier this year, the family’s financial situation was tight again, but nothing ever challenged Josh like the Veteran’s Administration letter he received on May 18.
The VA claimed he’d violated the conditions of a felony release from years ago and ruled to terminate his benefits immediately. The ruling caught him completely off guard, especially because of his involvement with a local program that helps keeps veterans on the right side of the law, and he’d been faithful to the program.
“There was no way it could be right, but it was a government agency’s word against mine, so what are you going to do?” he said. “It was devastating.”
As the bills quickly grew, Josh’s biggest burden became not knowing how to provide his family with the basic necessities. “I remember looking up one day and just saying, ‘Lord, I have nowhere to go.'”
Through his most difficult times with PTSD, Josh said he never questioned his faith in God, but would sometimes wonder what he’d done to deserve so many tough breaks. “I knew I wasn’t doing all the things I needed to do, and going to church and being active in church was one of them,” he said.
“I just remember looking up one day and saying, ” ‘Lord, I have nowhere to go.’ “
As they realized the desperate nature of their situation, Josh’s wife looked at him one Wednesday afternoon and said, “Looks to me like we ought to be back in church.” He agreed.
“When we pulled into the parking lot that night, I reached into my pocket and found the $2, looked at Brandi, and said, ‘This is it. That’s all there is.’ And we made the decision right there to give it to the church. I just said a quick prayer and said, ‘Lord, bless this and bless it abundantly.’ And we gave it away and that was that. We were broke.”
The next four days were some of the most difficult the young family had faced.
“My only thought was I’m not going to be able to take care of my family, where is my next dollar going to come from, where is my family’s next meal going to come from? I was injured, depressed, mentally exhausted and couldn’t stop wondering what I’d done to deserve all this. But I can honestly say the night we gave the money away I gave that situation to God and completely turned it over to Him. There was nothing else I could do. I was empty, and genuinely crying out to God.”
Five days later Josh received another letter from the VA and a local senator that read just as shockingly as the first.
The agency made a mistake in its ruling against Josh, the letter said, and found cause to award him $43,000 in cash benefits. When Josh checked his online bank account the records showed a direct deposit made less than six hours after he’d given the $2 to his church.
His first thought (and fear) was there had been some terrible mistake, so he immediately fought through the maze of bureaucracy and automated telephone voice prompts to clear the confusion. When someone finally came on the line, Josh told them the money wasn’t his.
“The lady on the other end of the line said she couldn’t explain the money, and saw no real reason for it, but also could find no reason the agency should reclaim it. She even went and got her supervisor and the only advice they could offer after a long time was that we should use the money to pay our outstanding debts.
“You can imagine all the things running through my mind at that moment,” he said.
The family has since paid $18,000 in debt and eliminated a $2,000 loan taken to pay monthly bills last May, and they’re using the unforeseen circumstances to start a new life.
“We never lost faith during the whole time. It wasn’t easy and I’ve had my share of shortcomings, but we never lost our faith. I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to explain the money.”
The first Pilgrim Strong book trailer titled, Indefinably Changed is almost complete. We’ll distribute via social media on July 4. These are a few photos from last week’s shoot.
- Never be satisfied with what you know.
- Laugh at yourself every day.
- Pursue things seemingly impossible. Put it on the calendar and stretch yourself.
- Give people lots of chances, but know when to walk away.
- Don’t buy into that crap and all those cute memes about forgiving people because you deserve the peace. Forgiveness isn’t about you. That’s a lie.
- You don’t have to convince people your life is perfect, so stop trying. We’re all broken and everybody knows it.
- Life’s greatest adventure is actively searching out your purpose. Along the way, you’ll try lots of things that don’t work. No big deal, that’s why it’s a great adventure, and it makes for good stories. Fulfillment is finding, and using it, and you’ll get there if you keep looking. But you must go looking.
- What matters most is what’s in your heart. But don’t use that as a cop out.
- Encourage others. Every day, cheer for someone.
- Want to learn? Read. Travel. Stop thinking you’re right all the time. And have long conversations with people who think differently than you.
- Ask yourself occasionally, “What’s the last thing I think about before falling asleep at night?”
- Remember that no one gets anywhere in life without someone else’s help.
- Be kind, compassionate, and generous, but ultimately have a mature understanding that you are not responsible for someone else’s happiness/joy.
- You cannot unscramble an egg.
- Progress doesn’t mean making all things permissible.
- Some people will always exploit/subvert good things for their own purpose and it will muddy the water about that good thing. Just remember the good thing was not the word itself, but the thing itself. Remember what the “thing” is, what it really means, and that for which it stands. e.g. Christianity, patriotism, charity, freedom of expression, etc., etc. They’ve all been hijacked.
- Small things matter. Jesus washed people’s feet.
- Intentionally focus on some things that take “me/I” out of the equation. Reduce the frequency of those words in your vocabulary. Seriously. Try it.
- Do something charitable that no one will ever know about. Then, do it more often.
- Go away alone sometimes.
- Be a good steward of the environment.
- Don’t plan all the big and fun things in your life for retirement. That day may never come. The number of friends I’ve lost in recent years in their 40s and 50s is far too high.
- The next time you encounter someone with a different skin tone who doesn’t speak your language so well and is causing you some inconvenience, don’t think that person is dumb, or stupid, or less of a person than you. Try immersing yourself in a different culture and see what happens. That person most likely speaks more languages than you, by the way.
- Get over yourself.
- If you want to be one of those people who shares news on the internet, be responsible. Just because it fits your belief system or because you hope it’s true, doesn’t make it true. Don’t be part of the problem. How do you do this? See #10 above.
- Have a personal mission statement.
- Yes, someone may have taught you something a long time ago, and you may have believed it all your life. That doesn’t make it true.
- In contrast to #27 above, some things that were true a very long time ago are still true today. You get to decide what’s true, and what isn’t. Come to those conclusions with great care.
- The expression of your convictions changes nothing.
And truth is after 12 years as beat newspaper reporter, three years as a congressional press secretary, and working in my own publishing business another seven years, it made sense that writing a book would be easy. It’s just a long story, after all. Fifty thousand words or so instead of a few hundred.
That is SO not true.
Completing Pilgrim Strong during the last 18 months has been just as much a test of endurance and humility as walking 500 miles across the Way of St. James itself, the background experience on which the memoir is penned. Some moments were amazing. Other times, walking away altogether came to mind.
There are many books available about the Camino de Santiago experience. In some regards we’re not plowing new ground here and it’s everyone’s right to publish a book. But I wanted to write a good book, different from most others, and one that would occasionally make the reader think about his or her own life and their place in the world. Maybe we’ll achieve that. We’ll know soon enough.
A few updates on where everything stands. Every writer makes a decision early on to publish in a traditional sense (with an agent and a publishing company or some combination thereof), or to self publish. I explored both options in depth. Ultimately, I decided to self publish Pilgrim Strong because I knew marketing the book and managing the publishing process would be enjoyable. Plus, it would all be a great learning experience. Plus, I’m impatient.
- About the publishing process: That means realizing the goal of book in hand, and more importantly book for sale in late October, requires managing deadlines among four people – me, an editor, cover designer, and interior layout designer. If you start at the end and work backwards, get an understanding of what everyone needs and how much time, build in several weeks for frustrating screw ups, you can actually pull it off. We are knee-deep in deadlines for everyone now, and all parties are actively working.
- That includes me and it might surprise you to know at this point the copy is not 100 percent complete. The “takeaway” for the reader suggested in the final chapter and epilogue is important and I wanted to take an extra long time thinking it through. It’s in my head, and in rough notes on paper soon complete. There are several “takeaway” themes in the end including: understanding our need to join something bigger than ourselves, drilling down to our core and having peace when we find it, understanding the nature of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the joy and adventure we find when we take the initiative to go looking for our great identity. I told you this isn’t the typical camino book.
- In the midst of production, the marketing campaign is under way. Truth is, the marketing began a long time ago, even before I made the first step on pilgrimage. It just worked out that way. People who know me know how much I love marketing, and truth is my greatest fear is the marketing strategies will surpass the actual book quality. It’s a fear that nags me every day.
- It’s been a privilege to work with, and receive support from respected professionals in the publishing industry, and in the “pilgrim community.” Pilgrim Strong has testimonial endorsements from Patrick Gray and Justin
Skeesuck, authors of the just-released I’ll Push You; Andrew Suzuki, documentary producer of Beyond the Way and Don’t Stop Walking; Paul Stutzman, author of Hiking Through; Kurt Koontz, author of A Million Steps; and David and Anna Dintaman Landis, co-authors of A Village to Village Guide to Hiking the Camino de Santiago.
- It was a great thrill that my friend Annie O’Neil agreed to write the foreword. Annie is an author and documentary film maker. She directed and produced Phil’s Camino and co-produced Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago. Her book is Everyday Camino with Annie.
- Beth Jusino, pilgrim friend, writer, editor, and publishing professional has provided invaluable advice along the way, and without her willingness to act as a sounding board it wouldn’t have been pretty. Among other works, Beth is the author of The Author’s Guide to Marketing. She is currently publishing her own camino memoir. Beth’s giftedness promises it will be one of the very best in its genre.
- Promotional trailers are currently in production. The first is scheduled for release on July 4. These are actually fun to imagine and create with the help of my friend Raney Rogers.
- The cover is scheduled for completion next week. Still thinking about the best way to execute the big reveal, (understanding this is a bigger deal to me than anyone else, ha).
That’s a general recap of where things stand at the moment and with some luck Pilgrim Strong will be available on pre-sale in late October and for direct purchase the week of Thanksgiving.
As mentioned above, the awareness campaign begins now. There are lots of ways you can become a part of the group that helps spread the word from now until November. Drop me a line if you’re interested!
Buen camino for now.
“Travel does not exist without home. If we never return to the place we started, we would just be wandering, lost. Home is a reflecting surface, a place to measure our growth and enrich us after being infused with the outside world.” ~ Josh Gates
Few experiences will bring a person to a full knowledge of their senses as traveling alone. Maneuvering a far-away land will heighten your awareness at every level. It’s the thing I’ve learned over time that brings me most alive. It’s not so much the getting away from things as it is the freshness of new, uncharted experience. Traveling alone builds confidence, character, and offers a perspective on the world that is achieved no other way. Comfort zone boundaries are demolished and necessarily overcome when you have no idea what to do next, and no other choice than to figure it out. But there is nothing that stirs the blood as standing at the helm of your destiny.
Solo travel can also have a life-changing effect on how a person thinks about home.
After a walking a million and a half steps across Spain it was comforting and exhilarating thinking about the familiarity of home, but I was petrified of the conversations surely ahead in future social situations.
Somewhere over the ten-hour North Atlantic flight home it occurred to me. People are inevitably going to ask you to talk about this. And most of them are going to say, ‘Well, how was it, and what was it like?’ As surely as the sun rises, people would ask that question just as if it had been a long weekend vacation on the beach. I feared my any given trigger reaction to the empty questions.
All of a sudden there was a keen awareness of an inadequate fragility that goes with returning home after a hallowed and humbling experience that has changed you in ways too early to understand. Never speaking of it again would have been perfectly fine. That’s how it felt at the time, anyway.
Wheels down in Memphis concluded a remarkable seven-week odyssey. As the reverse engines roared I exhaled deeply blowing out what seemed every emotion God ever made.
Stepping out from the aisle seat on Row 10, I reached to the overhead bin and strapped on my backpack a final time. A text from Dana brought a wide smile. I’m here! The Delta captain stood at the cockpit’s entrance as passengers deplaned. I thanked him and shook his hand for the safe trip home.
The C concourse for arriving flights at Memphis International Airport is simple and uncomplicated with the feel of a regional terminal. From the furthest arrival gate it’s no more than a five-minute walk past security to the point where friends and family await weary travelers. At the last left turn there’s a final thoroughfare short enough you can see past the TSA checkpoint and make out faces in the eager crowd. Home always happens when I see my wife’s face there.
Just before the turn my hands went automatically to their familiar spot on the backpack straps and a sequence of images from the last seven weeks raced vividly through my mind. It was incredible what had happened really, and the fragility came full-bore.
Fifty yards down the concourse she was smiling the purest most familiar smile I know. It easily came to mind what a blessing she’d been and how much I loved every single thing about her. Reaching around her neck I began crying unexpectedly and couldn’t let go. It was so hard, I remember choking out and holding her tight. It was just so far, and so hard but I didn’t quit. The embrace must have lasted a minute as travelers walked politely around us. Home can be anywhere for me as long as Dana’s there.
At home, a long hot steamy shower with fresh smelling soap and a soft towel was a momentary rejuvenation from three consecutive days of non-stop travel, but short-lived from a desire for sleep in my own bed. For the next twelve hours things went black.
We avoided people for days and Dana kept me well insulated from the outside world, aware of my desire to stay clear of people and conversation. Eventually visitors came. “We want to hear all about it,” they said. The predictable sweeping nature of the question made me ill.
“You’ll have to ask some more specific questions,” Dana jumped in. “I don’t think he really knows how to answer the big open-ended questions yet.” She saved me.
The truth is that most people ask these questions only for the sake of polite social chit chat. It’s required decorum, and the only thing we know. They really don’t care, and it’s not really their fault because they could never understand. Some have labeled it the Seinfeld Effect. You’re telling a story answering someone’s question about one of the most unique experiences of a lifetime, and in five minutes, they’re staring off into space, completely uninterested, wondering which Seinfeld rerun will air next. This happened countless times and it’s one of several reasons the story of pilgrimage is so personal and private.
In some ways I was completely prepared for what came next. In others, I’m still figuring it out today.