Sunday, December 30, 2007

Returning to Texas 2007

I need to say something important about being back in Texas…something righteous, to the bone. Instead, I just feel numb. I’m thinking that I don’t really know where I’m supposed to be. Although for several months I’ve separated myself physically from the world here in Texas that changed dramatically and with such finality when our mother died on February 1 of this year, I didn’t escape in northern New Mexico, and being back in Texas, especially as we finish out this year, I feel the bruises that have marked me, it feels like forever.

I’ve returned to this place I have called home for the last several years. It is a complicated reminder of some of the missteps I’ve made since 1999. Not to beat myself up, at which I am the master, but I have to face some things, make an accounting…pay the piper. What I’ve tried unsuccessfully to keep out of my heart and mind for most of this year is finally staring me in the face, yes, even clawing my face.

Where do I begin digging myself out of this hole? I’ve come home to the winter image of a garden that grew huge as shovel by shovel I turned over the earth for eight years. In a way, digging became my savior during the long, lonely years we focused our attention on Mother’s declining health. Shovel by shovel, I turned over the dirt, exchanging my frustration for the fragrance of the earth. Stone after stone I transferred from palette to wheelbarrow to ground as I redefined what had been pasture into a landscape.

As gardens are wont to be, this one requires attention, nurturing, maintenance, even though I am quick to say, “I have a native garden”. Weeds still grow…like weeds…roses must be pruned…and not just on Valentine’s Day…and with winter comes the severe grooming that follows a year of growth. Before I started my journey west in early summer, I had given the garden all that it craves in early spring, including 14 yards—yes, that’s a dump truck load—of mulch. The early summer brought much rain, but once we hit mid-July, the water stopped, the sun shone with Texas intensity, and there was no relief through mid-October. I was trying to run away, returning to Texas only to ply my antiques trade for a month. The garden got the slam-bam with what little time I had to give it while I was home, and as I left for the return to northern New Mexico, I wished the garden well and prayed for rain. As we are about to enter the New Year, I am again married to a bucket of yard tools, shovel and rake my mates, and a wheelbarrow my pack mule.

If I could count the loads of gravel and crushed granite that completed the paths through the garden, the yards of mulch spread around plants year after year to conserve moisture, I’d really have to say, “How did I do that?” A better question in hindsight is “why did I do that?” I know the answer. It’s how I deal with frustration. It’s why I tackled a two-story barn, making it into a house—a house that will never be completed and that most people just “don’t get”, although they politely say, “interesting”. Flying by the seat of my pants, I’ve spent my money, gone into debt, mostly because I had no plan, just some sense of urgency. Technically, my house is paid for—technically. House and barn-still-not-house are filled to overflowing with treasure, the product of the perpetual hunt. Someone told me a few years ago, “Harold, just because you like something doesn’t mean that you have to own it.” It doesn’t? Explain that to the ranks of card-carrying junkers, the addicted seekers of the golden egg.

I have been away. The fall in northern New Mexico was a gift. It was my first opportunity to live a season where the weather truly changes from warm to cool, the trees follow nature’s directions, and ah-ha moments are waiting outside, along the rivers and just a short drive up the mountains, where at virtually every bend in the road, you just have to say, “oh, my God”. At least, that’s what I say as I witness such beauty. The weather changed, of course, and winter announced itself, well in advance of its official start. On the day of the Winter Solstice, we had several snows behind us. Scraping ice from the windshield of my truck before heading out to coffee each morning was second nature. Friends came from Texas to visit, some for Thanksgiving, others for Christmas. My daily ritual has been journaling, reading, and sometimes roaming along the Pecos River, driving into the mountains, walking, walking, walking, my camera always at hand.

Ah, but lives change, things end, and we try to figure out how to move forward. That’s where I am these days. That’s where we are, those left behind, the heirs, the owners of an undivided interest in property, trying to do the right thing, disagreeing and conceding, distrusting and suspecting, trying to remember the love we felt for one another as our Mother and Daddy’s children, and trying to claim and honor our rights as God’s children. My great escape is arrested. I have come back to what used to be home, where this property and my house are for sale. The road before me, well, it might as well be a mountain. I have come back to pay the piper.

Returning to Texas 2007—Normangee, Texas (December 30, 2007)
R. Harold Hollis

Monday, December 17, 2007


Anyone who knew my Daddy, Russell Hollis, also knew that his generosity was boundless. He grew up poor in East Texas, but not poor in family treasure. Born in 1911, he hadn’t reached his teens when the Great Depression settled in on the United States. I recall from the stories he recounted about leaving Angelina County for the Gulf Coast that he was about 15 when he went off the make his way, along with his older brother Pat. Their Daddy Stephen wasn’t able to provide for the family with his barbering and farming. To say he was a farmer is a stretch, although Daddy’s young years found him starting school late each fall and leaving early in the spring to work on the family farm. His story of repeating grades and eventually giving up is the same story for countless others.Three siblings, Ray, Mary and Frances, remained at home with their Mama and Papa.

It seems that most Americans were in the same boat during the years from 1920 to 1940. Money was scarce, and Daddy earned a living as a soda jerk, short order cook, and other jobs that I don’t remember. He traveled from Galveston, Texas to Sanderson, Texas following jobs and following adventure. He had courage and strong work ethic. Around 1940 he learned the butcher trade after marrying into Mother’s family that had a meat market on Washington Avenue, near downtown Houston. It seems that Mother and Daddy worked seven days a week for much of our growing up years, and my sisters and I learned to work right along side them. When Daddy retired at 65, his health had already begun to fail him. He entertained himself by piddling down at the barn on their place in Leon County, Texas. This is where he hung out. That place in the country was, in his words, as close to Heaven as you can get here on earth. That barn today has become my home. Throughout the building, both in the space where I live and in the part that remains a barn, his treasures touch my life—the powder horn he made and carved with his initials, his workshop apron, bamboo fishing poles, a tooled belt he made for Mother, many odds and ends.

I can’t even begin to imagine all the kind, helpful things he did for each of his children. My sisters would have to tell their own stories. Always a middle-class wage earner, all of it coming through sweat equity, evidence of his efforts to make life better and easier for his kids is woven into the tapestry of our lives—the homes we live in, the mementoes we all have of our parents, and the memories. Daddy was a self-taught artist, although his media wasn’t anything that ends up hanging on the wall. He tooled exquisite belts, built boxes for trinkets, painted wonderful holiday store windows, and he drew Felix the Cat. He was a gifted story teller. These are just a few of his accomplishments. My love for treasure hunting, junking I call it, came from him. He saw value in many things, though, that I pass by. I remember a couple of Friday nights driving home from school football games—I was in the band and Daddy sometimes came to pick me up—when we stopped smack in the middle of blacktop Cypress-North Houston Road, once to pick up a large bolt that our headlights called attention to and another time to catch a large bullfrog. Maybe he used the bolt. We ate the frog.

Christmas in the East Texas where Daddy grew up usually consisted of a couple pieces of fruit and some hard candy. Only he could tell his story, although it was not an uncommon one. John Henry Faulk, a Texas folklorist cut from the same cloth as Russell Hollis, told a wonderful story about the true spirit of Christmas giving. It makes me think of my Daddy, and it makes me count my blessings, again and again. Let me share this with you. Merry Christmas.

Daddy—Santa Fe, New Mexico (December 17, 2007)
R. Harold Hollis

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Promise

I think my parents were married on December 15th. Maybe it was the 14th. My sisters and I knew nothing about their marriage, let alone the anniversary, until we were adults. One of our family secrets. On their anniversary of 1980, they went to the mall, even though Daddy had complained of chest pains. He didn’t want to go the emergency room, and Mother went along with his choice. I think that decision reflects clearly their denial of the health problems he had begun to have a few years before. Fear and denial, part of the family secret.

I didn’t know what the various doctors Daddy had seen had told him. He had a long history of smoking, although he had quit in 1976. He had been diagnosed with hypertension, high cholesterol, and probably had undiagnosed vascular disease. He had at least one bout of mini strokes. On the first day of spring 1981, Daddy died of a heart attack. He had spent the last several days in ICU, one of several stays in the hospital since December. The family was at home, waiting for visiting hours. When we arrived at the hospital, we found that Daddy had been moved to a private room, without the hospital having alerted us. Obviously, he was no longer hooked up to all the various devices associated with critical cardiac care. Were we in denial, or were we just sadly ignorant of the message? Death was near.

Sue, my middle sister, and I were with Daddy. Mother and Sue’s family were in the hallway. Daddy appeared to be unaware of our presence. I don’t remember that he called us by name, or even acknowledged us. “Pee, pee....” We thought he needed to urinate, so we called Mother and Sue’s husband, Henry, into the room. Together, Mother, Henry and I helped Daddy to the commode. We sat him down. I faced Daddy, Mother supporting from the right, Henry from the left. Daddy’s eyes were blue, blue, wide open. He was dead. “Peace, peace…” he had called.

The call went out, Code Blue.
Saviors in scrubs scurried into action,
Their subject already ascending.
They carried out their plan,
Required by law, ethics.
A family stood stunned and numb nearby.
Denial had robbed them,
They hadn’t prepared.
As they struggled, God breathed hope.
Mythical wings sheltered them.
“We did all we could,” said a savior in scrubs.
“Thank you.” The Promise was safe once more.

The Promise—Santa Fe, New Mexico (December 15, 2007)
R. Harold Hollis

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

So to Honor Him

Come they told me,
Pa rum pum pum pum
A new born King to see,
Pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring,
Pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the King,
Pa rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum
So to honor Him,
Pa rum pum pum pum,
When we come.

Little Baby,
Pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too,
Pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring,
Pa rum pum pum pum
That's fit to give our King,
Pa rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum
Shall I play for you?
Pa rum pum pum
On my drum.

Mary nodded,
Pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time,
Pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for Him,
Pa rum pum pum
I played my best for Him,
Pa rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum
Then He smiled at me,
Pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum.

Little Drummer Boy

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Trip to the Mountains

In the afternoon I had driven to the mountains, where snow had visited the night before, blanketing the land and in places reducing the roads to a brown, icy slush. After a slow, 12-mile climb, I arrived at my place, the one I adopted after returning to northern New Mexico in mid-October, in time to gasp at the fall show of the Aspens. There, a stream makes its descent, racketing over tiny falls and passing under the road, into the trees and underbrush on the other side that make easy exploration difficult for the uninitiated.

On this day the stream still made itself known, washing the rocks, while everything else lay in 26 degrees of white, and the noise of any jay echoed in the cold, still air. I headed my truck right up to the spot where the stream passes under the road. A few other mid-afternoon explorers had parked facing the rock walk designated for parking. Most had already made the ascent into the trails at Big Tesuque. I simply faced the noisy stream and did the same thing I’ve done each time I’ve made this journey since mid-October. I cried.

Sadness over loss, conflict, loneliness and half-realized attempts to relocate my body and my heart welled up, and I just let the tears go. I tried to practice the breathing exercises I learned earlier in the fall for combating altitude sickness, although if I have suffered these effects, I’m not aware—no headaches, no nausea. Breathe in through the nose slowly counting to four, then exhale through the mouth, counting to eight. More disciplined people can do this for ten minutes. The result, as one might expect, is a calming. The shoulders give up some of their natural tightness. The world doesn’t seem so unrelenting. Pilgrims experienced in meditation know this experience. It is their friend.

My companion on this trip up and down the mountain was Shania Twain. Maybe it seems odd that the finger-snapping sounds of country music’s hip-hop diva, only infrequently lyrical, could be an appropriate companion for a reflective trip into the wilderness. It’s true, though, for me. Pushing, asserting, longing and wise, her music and lyrics tell me it’s going to be all right, not only this afternoon, but tomorrow. That which we long for—call it happiness, peace, or balance, this dream toward which we move in often times wearying lives, begins inside our own private space—body, heart/mind/soul. And ultimately, happiness is real only if shared.

I can thank Sean Penn—whose current film, INTO THE WILD, which tells the true tale of a young graduate of one of America’s best universities—for what his story telling reminded me of last week. Fresh out Emory, and hell-bent on escaping his past—moneyed, conflicted family and the world’s expectations—Christopher McCandless heads to Alaska and his final frontier, touching and being touched by the lives of many pilgrims along the way. At the end of his journey, facing starvation after a winter of much deprivation and weight loss, McCandless is reduced to eating plants, and he makes a mistake, for which he has no antidote. Just that simple, but it’s not so simple. Allegedly his last written words confess what in his young life of privilege he hadn’t been able to realize, that happiness is real only if shared. He gave up everything to search for a truth that the world has known for all recorded time. No man is an island.

A Trip to the Mountains—Santa Fe, New Mexico (December 11, 2007)
R. Harold Hollis

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Crossing the Bar

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.
Alfred Lord Tennyson

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Patience, But a Word

Those who have known me long enough to see how I deal with what I perceive as stress know that I can have a short fuse. I am short on patience. A boss I once had observed that I take no prisoners. In the war with life, there are winners and losers, and some who stand on the sideline.

Apparently I come from hot-tempered blood. Our Daddy had a quick temper, and my mother observed more than once after his death in 1981—when he exploded, it was with both barrels. Just as quickly, he wanted to get on, I guess hoping that his melt-down had cleared the air—at least for the time being. Mother wasn’t cheated in the temper department either. I remember her being on the warpath regularly while we were growing up. My sisters and I were expected to help clean the house, which Mother referred to as a “sow’s nest” when things were too messy, in her opinion. I don’t remember who the intended victim was the time she hurled her house shoe at someone, but I think it was my middle sister, Sue, who had popped off at Mother while she was raising hell about the condition of the house.

In marital struggles there are always two sides to any story. The same applies to all struggles, at whatever level they occur. Mother and Daddy were kind-hearted, well-intentioned, hard-working people. They taught us early to be responsible. We had chores, including housework, cooking and doing the dishes, cleaning a large yard, taking care of a few animals, and for Sue and me, working in the family-owned meat market. By my junior high years, our oldest sister Joan was in college. The daily grind of work and financial obligations placed a lot of stress on our family, as it always does on families. I can’t say that Mother and Daddy were living the American dream, although owning a home and property was certainly important, probably Mother’s insistent dream. Her family had never rented. Daddy’s East Texas family had known nothing but renting and moving.

While I never felt that we lacked in material things, I was fully aware that we were a laboring family that worked sometimes seven days a week. We usually drove a used car. Joan was a horsewoman from an early age, and when she followed in a modest way the high school rodeo circuit, we had a used truck and a couple of used trailers, the first a stock trailer and then a real double-horse trailer. I showed an early interest in music, so Mother and Daddy made monthly payments to H&H Music Company in Houston to buy me first a trumpet, then a clarinet after I got braces on my teeth to correct an underbite. Sue apparently never expressed an interest in hobbies, aside from homemaking type activities. She became a wonderful cook and seamstress, carrying on our daddy’s artistic ways.

Mother was clearly the driving force in our family. From nose-to-the-grindstone German stock, her formative years were about work. “Hard work never killed anyone” is a common mantra among those who know the value of a dollar. Daddy was no slouch, and he wasn’t afraid of work, but Mother was the driving force. I remember, in my senior year of high school—my bedroom shared a wall with the kitchen, the dining table butted up against the wall. “Godammit! woman”, Daddy’s fist hit the table, and he was out the door to the market across the road. I really don’t know what they argued about, but it generally had to do with her perceived need to get more done in the market.

I know that Mother and Daddy loved each other, although a family friend and former employee observed to Sue after Daddy’s death that he was surprised Mother took it so hard. They had argued so much in front of an audience at work. Both had borne the pain of previous failed marriages. We weren’t privileged to that history, however, at least not until I, the youngest, was out of college and certain circumstances forced a partial confession. There were secrets that both Daddy and Mother took to their graves, in spite of attempts on my part to know more of the truth. I honestly can’t speak to the efforts either of my sisters made to gain more information about our parents’ past. Again, Mother was the driving force.

More than once after Daddy’s death in 1981, Mother observed to me, “You’re just like your daddy. You want things now.” I know my own impatience. Instant gratification, quick solutions, low tolerance for people who in my eyes either impede progress or don’t sense the urgency I feel. Yes, I am guilty of all charges. Yet, I know that I am a problem solver. I hadn’t even thought about labeling myself until a couple of colleagues described me late in my professional life. To me life and work are about making things better, feeling a sense of accomplishment, teamwork, and yes, growth. I can be easily frustrated over people who put hurdles in my path or won’t sign on to the program, those who just don’t seem to care, and the worst, the gatekeeper, hungry for power.

There is indeed a better way. We can define this however we choose. I’m no inventor, but I certainly know we wouldn’t live in a world of great accomplishment if our history weren’t filled with people who envision a better way and work toward accomplishing that end. Doing so is more than nose-to-the-grindstone doggedness. Yes, perseverance counts in spades. So do dreams, so does longing for a better, kinder journey. I don’t know my percentages. Do I take most things to 70-80%? Do I too often give up before reaching even that level? Do I lack in nose-to-the-grindstone doggedness? Has my impatience cost me both dollars and sense? Does it cause me to give up too easily on people and situations?

The jury is still out on me. Fortunately, I sense that I still have some time to solve a few more problems. On this journey I have to continue grasping—“Ah, but a man’s grasp should exceed his reach, or what’s a heaven for?” said Robert Browning. And apparently, Mr. Browning gave us, “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made. Our times are in his hand who saith, 'A whole I planned, youth shows but half; Trust God: See all, nor be afraid!'” Well, I wish I had said that. I didn’t, though. But I can keep the dream alive, honoring both Daddy, and Mother, who sadly never told us her dreams. Daddy’s dream ended early just before reaching three score and ten, Mother’s just short of her 90th birthday. What a legacy they gave us—one a dreamer, the other both feet planted firmly on the ground, and both honest, decent, hard-working products of what Tom Brokaw has labeled, “the greatest generation”.

Patience, Dear Boy

Following is the meditation for Wednesday, December 2007, from

2 Peter 3:1-10. With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.

We give lip service to the concept of "God's time." We may even pray for patience. But in practice, we're on a schedule, and we expect God to get with the program.

Patience is not something Americans do well; we want what we want, and we want it right now. We are unaccustomed to waiting for anything, large or small, necessary or not: well-stocked stores and FedEx make instant gratification easy.

When it comes to our hopes and ambitions, it's not so simple. Instant gratification is out of the question for building a lasting relationship, raising a child, earning a degree, saving for retirement, or pursuing a vocation.

Sometimes things take far longer than we think they should, even with work, obedience, and prayer. It's hard--especially for the impatient, especially for me--to understand, to grasp God's purpose, to accept that God's schedule is not mine. But it's necessary, and with acceptance of that comes peace.
"If you cannot accept it with joy, at least suffer it with patience." Thomas à Kempis (d. 1471)

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

No Man is an Island

The year is 1961, the month February, and the event is the combined concert performances of the Texas all-state band, orchestra, and chorus in the Dallas convention auditorium. A member of the band, I recall one piece we performed, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Procession of Nobles”. I can hear the majestic sound of the trumpets announcing the opening of the procession. That was almost 47 years ago—a lifetime in the early 20th century—and that musical experience marked me forever. What really stands out in my memory of that final night, though, is the chorus, whose program included an American arrangement of John Donne’s Meditation XVII, “No Man is an Island,” and also a performance with the band and orchestra of “God of Our Fathers”.

Even today I am a little embarrassed that I was not schooled in transposing music to the key of my instrument, having had no background in music theory. Apparently having developed that skill was assumed for students who had reached the highest level of high school musicianship. So, while the forces of three incredibly accomplished groups played and sang this gorgeous National hymn, composed for the Centennial celebration of the constitution of the United States, I sat, mouthpiece of my instrument to my lips, and I cried. My tears had nothing to with my abilities. Barely 17 years old, I was touched by the beauty, a beauty that has never failed to grip my soul over and over through these many years when I hear beautiful music. It doesn’t matter where I am, and it’s not limited to any particular genre of music.

In music there is a force that reaches to the depths of my soul, and it speaks to me unlike anything else. Always, always, “Amazing Grace” renders me to tears for at least part of a verse, until I am able to collect myself. “God of our Fathers”, and many other expressions of faith set to music affect me similarly. I laugh, wondering what I would do if I ever had to perform for an audience? I guess I’d learn discipline, to rein in my emotions, but that’s another story.

For all of us there are those defining experiences, maybe little epiphanies where we don’t even say “ah-hah”! Perhaps the light that shines for us in that moment doesn’t even need to be articulated. Whatever happens, we are changed. Maybe we are fortunate enough just to have a gift that opens doors and windows for us. Whether we follow the path in some formal way, or not, doesn’t really matter so much. What does matter is that something touches us, reminds us of our creation, indeed of the miracle of all creation. What does matter is that we realize and understand something much bigger than we are. Something unites us in the human experience, humbles us and lifts us up. “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”