Word and photos by Ken Billett
Birds, mostly gulls, swooped and squawked, playing in the oak trees lining 4th Avenue North in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida. Ignoring the world and its problems, I put down my phone and took in the surrounding scene. Cars and trucks rumbled along 4th Avenue on their way to work or wherever. A pleasant breeze rustled the leaves on those same trees where the birds played. Overhead, thin, wispy white clouds drifted towards Tampa Bay.
I sat on the outdoor deck of our apartment-style hotel room, enjoying a beautiful, relaxing morning . . . in a word, peaceful. Rising up in front of me was the apex of a church, Trinity Lutheran. With its blonde brick façade and long narrow stained-glass windows, Trinity Lutheran Church sits at the corner of 4th Avenue North and 5th Street North, right next door to our hotel. In fact, the church’s pale brick exterior was no more than a dozen feet from an iron railing that surrounded our third-floor room’s wood deck.
Like a sentry standing guard, the church’s proximity created a feeling of security and certainty…maybe even reliability. We’ve stayed at The Avalon Hotel four times now, and in that particular third-floor room on our last three visits.
As I’ve written in previous travel pieces, Vicki and I love familiarity when we travel. Not that we don’t want to go new places, or try new things, but there’s a certain sense of calm or peace knowing that everything will be just so. Once we discover a place we love, like The Avalon, that spot—hotel, vacation rental, craft brewery, restaurant—becomes our sanctuary, our temporary home. Safe and secure.
At that moment, on a gorgeous April morning in downtown St. Petersburg, our temporary sanctuary was seemingly protected by a real sanctuary.
A little situational serendipity? Or, just a fluke? Perhaps a sign? Divine or otherwise.
Maybe only He could answer that one.
For me, self-examination has never come easy. Many times, I simply deal with the present—acting and reacting to events around me. Handling the good and the bad, then moving on. The challenges (to put it mildly) that Vicki and I, and our kids, have faced over the past 10 to 15 years have conditioned me to do rather than to think, or reflect.
This past year and the last six months, in particular, have challenged me in ways that are almost impossible to describe. Enduring the ups and downs of a cancer diagnosis and treatment (read Just Another Day), the death of my father around Christmas (read Family Ties III: Winnie Ille Pooh), and other on-going sagas have taken a toll on my soul. (Yes, an intentional rhyme.)
Suffice it to say, my soul’s not been at peace for a very long time.
For many years now, God and I have had an on-again, off-again relationship. My closest friends know that what I believe, maybe, more importantly, what I think, is based on a spiritual relationship, not colored by the trappings of religion. Religion, as I firmly believe, is of men (and women), but spirituality is of God, or some other higher power.
And like any relationship, God and I have had our good days and our bad. Unfortunately, the bad have outpaced the good recently, but, as my beautiful spouse reminds me—just about every day—we’re still here, we’re still together, and we just need to keep moving forward.
In my darker moments, however, I still ask Him the same question, “Why?” Why, well…just about everything. There are no simple answers or explanations. We just seem to endure a lot of stuff—a more polite word than the one I typically would use.
Believers might adhere to strict scriptural reasoning for why some people suffer more hardships than others. I’m a bit of a realist, which can interfere with introspection, so I look for causes, real world explanations, and, as I alluded to earlier, solutions to those questions of Why, especially concerning my family.
More than simply being angry with God, I just don’t talk with Him any longer or place Him in my thoughts. After a while, I kind of forgot how…so, I stopped trying.
Losing my dad to Alzheimer’s and the sad circumstances of his final years forced me to look inward about family, love, and relationships. There’s so much I don’t understand about my parents, and now, sadly, I may never find out.
Which hurts…more than I’m willing to admit, at times.
However, pain along with suffering can be a motivator.
In March, I spoke at a conference in Washington, DC. For the scientists and researchers in that ballroom, hearing me tell my story of perseverance helped them better understand the importance of the work they do in combating melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
As I wrote two years ago in Happy Birthday, Spider-Man, with good fortune comes greater responsibility. As an advocate, I use my good fortune to help others whom, like me, have been saddled with this dreadful diagnosis.
That morning in DC, I finished my speech by saying, “My advocacy work has purpose. I have a purpose. And as long as I’m able to advocate, I’ll continue to fight for others with melanoma.”
Even in the darkest corners, a little light will shine through.
Maybe He listens, even when I’m not talking with Him.
Trinity Lutheran’s apex points up…to the beautiful blue skies and to the heavens above. Another gorgeous morning in our own earthly paradise. I took a deep breath, remembering how truly fortunate I am. At that moment, I felt at peace, or as close to peace as I may ever know.
Staring at those blonde bricks with the sun bouncing off a nearby rooftop, reflected in the panes of the stained-glass windows, the peace inside me grew. Comforting. Calming. Reassuring…as it should be.
Perhaps it’s time for a nice long chat.
Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively. StoryBoard Memphis is proud to present Ken’s columns Time Capsules and Get out of Town as ongoing features here on StoryBoard.