Thursday, June 21, 2007

Friends Don't Give Up on Friends

The phone rang this past Friday, and the voice said my real name, not something on my social security card. Suspecting a telemarketer with a sly, friendly approach, I asked who was calling. She replied, “This is Patrician Wheaton Harrison.” “The Patty Wheaton who lived in my apartment house in the 80s and moved to Utah to become a Mormon,” I asked. Laughing, she clarified, “I was always a Mormon.”

It didn’t take long for us to pick up the conversation that was interrupted some twenty-three years ago. When I knew her in Houston, Patty became a mother, giving birth with no husband in sight. I didn’t remember that she worked for Children’s Protective Services, but I did remember that she was a kind, loving soul who also impressed me with her bravery. She remembered my kindness to her and her baby. That fall, I invited Patty and her baby to Thanksgiving with my family, who lived in a suburb of Houston. My own daddy, then on the brink of a heart attack that for some reason took us by surprise, was so taken with the mother and child that he wanted to adopt them. My oldest sister lent Patty a rocker, which Patty remembered on this Friday as being upholstered in orange fabric. “My sister still has that rocker. She had it reupholstered recently.” That baby is grown with a child of her own.

I had heard that Patty was in Utah, but I didn’t know that she had remarried—“a dermatologist,” she explained, but not before she had asked me all about my own family. “Mother is still living, 88 and hanging on to life by an unraveling thread,” I answered. She, my oldest sister, and I live on the same 200 acres my parents bought 30 plus years ago as a retirement place.” Daddy had a heart attack in December of that Thanksgiving year and died on the first day of spring, 1981.To my question about other children, she replied, “we have a sixteen and a half year old son,” who is among other things an accomplished musician.

We talked for most of an hour while she was driving up the mountain to her home near Salt Lake, recounting that short time in the early 80s when we were neighbors, her partying mother who came to stay after the baby was born, our apartment manager Paul, Bobby Weeks her upstairs neighbor. “He’s burned himself out, I’m sure,” Patty said. “No, I can’t picture Becky,” I answered, who apparently was my upstairs neighbor for a short time before I moved to a different apartment. Patty tells me that Becky is married with children and lives in a town near me, something she discovered on the Internet, along with finding me. “Do you remember Kevin, the guy off the streets that Paul brought home?” she asked. I didn’t. He ended up living with Becky and sharing her bed, as well as Paul’s. “Paul was not a good person,” she added, and then asked if I knew of his whereabouts. “The last time I saw him years ago, he was in the wasting stages of AIDS,” I replied.

Before we interrupted our conversation for the time being, she invited me to Utah to visit her family, and we both were urged to say it seemed like only yesterday that we were neighbors in Houston. I needed that call on that day. It amazed me, opened the well of hope, inspired me to call my old friend David, now living in New York, Columbus Ohio, New York, commuting to Chicago. He rode the subway to his office near the Twin Towers, but was late getting to work on September 11, 2001. Thank God for some habits. David was Patty’s neighbor as well. He was 24 then. He’s celebrated his half-century mark. The news of Patty’s call brought a smile to my mother’s face and led her to reflect on my history of friendship. Friends don’t give up on friends.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Easter Mae Cossey

Easter Mae Cossey. Saying the name evokes a strong image, something perhaps out of a coffee table book of photographs taken in the historical South, maybe a fine collection of photographs by someone who made his or her name documenting images of Blacks in the rural south, specifically Texas, in the first half of the twentieth century. Easter Mae Cossey, wife of Bub Cossey, living in Kohrville, an old Black community in northwest Harris County. A Google search reveals the following from the Handbook of Texas about what was a depleted, worn-down, rural community during my growing up years in the 1950s.

KOHRVILLE, TEXAS. Kohrville, also known as Korville and Pilotville, was a small black community near the intersection of Farm Road 149 and the Spring-Cypress Road twenty miles northwest of Houston in northwestern Harris County. Freed slaves from Alabama, who made up the community's population in the 1870s, bought land or cut timber for the nearby Louetta sawmill. The town was named before 1880 for Paul Kohrmann, a German immigrant who ran the post office when mail was first delivered in 1881. In the early 1900s the community had a general store run by Agnes Tautenhahn Kohrmann, a cotton gin, and a sawmill, and reported a population of fifty. In 1906 the local school had thirty-one pupils and one teacher. The post office was discontinued in 1911, and mail was delivered from Hufsmith. In 1940 the town reported one business, a school converted into a community recreation building, two churches, two cemeteries, a ballpark, and a population of thirty. The 1980 county highway map showed a school, a church, Solomon Temple, and a cemetery at the townsite.

A Google search of Kohrville turns up mostly real estate advertisements for another rural neighborhood in way northwest Harris County lost to development, bulldozers, concrete, strip malls, tract homes—another name for production homes, mass produced homes. These days this can mean homes well in excess of $100,000—certainly not something that Easter Mae and Bub Cossey could have ever owned, not unless they had owned acreage they could have sold to turn the profits into a big, fine home. Likely, they wouldn’t have even wanted one anyway. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Kohrville wasn’t just another bedroom community for Houston back then. Not so when I was growing up in the 50s, living on West Montgomery Road, aka Tomball Highway, aka SH 149, just south of Cypress Creek. We all lived in the country.

Easter Mae. I can see her coming up the back sidewalk, head wrapped in a faded cotton rag—I see all of this in monochrome—very black skin covering her prominent cheekbones and the little bit of leg and feet left uncovered, worn down shoes, dress and apron like the head rag washed to what must have been heavenly softness, and carrying her big satchel, stuffed to overflowing with who knows what. In later years my mother and sisters have referred to their totes as Easter Mae bags. Those prominent cheekbones suggested some Indian heritage, Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Black Seminole. According to an Internet source, the historical relationship between Native Americans and African-Americans has been called, "one of the longest unwritten chapters in the history of the United States." No doubt, Easter Mae is part of that unwritten history.

Easter Mae was our ironing lady, not maid. She did cook sometimes, I’m remembering a cobbler here and there, but mostly, she ironed. Back then everything was cotton, mostly khakis and white short-sleeved shirts for Daddy, jeans and shirts for me, dresses, skirts and blouses for my mother and sisters. Easter Mae dipped snuff and Mother used to complain about the snuff specks on Daddy’s white shirts.

Another thing I remember about Easter Mae is lunch time—just the two of us, a selfish perhaps rewritten memory—and how I had to insist that she sit at the round oak table in our kitchen with me, rather than at a TV tray. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember conversation. And I do remember one time her husband Bub helping me clean our large yard, filled with fall leaves from the many hardwoods and thick mats of wasted pine needles. He told my parents that I was “a working ass.” I smile at this early recollection of my time in the yard, and I’m proud that Bub found me a hard worker. I’m still digging in the dirt 45 years later.

Easter Mae’s time with us spanned several years, including the leap frog of our house from one side of Tomball Highway to the other when the State bought right-of-way to widen the road. Our family’s response was to buy six acres on the other side of the road and move the house. This happened in my senior year of high school—1961—and it was so noticeable that Dr. Bleyl, the school superintendent, had this to say when he announced that I had made the All-State High School Band in Dallas. Harold’s family is so proud that they moved their house to the other side of the road. Not so much a logical cause and effect relationship, but a fond memory nonetheless. House resettled, Easter Mae continued her work for us—ironing, pulling garments from the plastic, zip-up bag stored in the refrigerator where Mother had placed them after completing the task that had to be performed before ironing. Clothes went from the washer, to the starch pan, to the clothesline for drying—khakis and jeans on metal stretchers—to the kitchen table where they were sprinkled (we still have that sprinkle bottle), then rolled and stored in the plastic bag in the refrigerator, awaiting ironing day. Easter Mae day, maybe a peach cobbler as lagniappe.

I don’t remember when Easter Mae wasn’t around any longer. I guess I’ve probably asked Mother somewhere along the way. I remember Easter Mae as already old when she ironed for us, although my mother says she probably wasn’t as old as we thought. Anyway, what do children know about age? She like everyone else had to sit down eventually and embrace the inevitable. I have no doubt that Easter Mae knew her God and probably shouted Hallelujah many a Sunday morning in her Kohrville church, although I don’t even know if she was religious. In my experience, most country Black folks are. It is their God and faith that have lifted them up through the hard times they’ve known. “All my trials, Lord, soon be over” go the lyrics to a beautiful American folk song. "All my trials lord, soon be over….If religion were a thing that money could buy, the rich would live and the poor would die. All my trials lord, soon be over."

I trust that Easter Mae is with her Lord, Bub as well, along with my Mother, Daddy, Grandma, Mamaw, and all the uncles and aunts I have loved—all these saints who for a time God shared with the world.

Harold Hollis (December 9, 2005 – Normangee Texas)

Daddy, My Uncles, and Jake Goodson

A few years back our neighbor and friend Jake was helping me hang a sign at the entrance to the drive of our family land in Leon County Texas. In truth, I was helping him because he had the knowledge to do the job right. This knowledge comes only through experience that we normally consider a guy thing, although I know women who can sling a hammer, wire a room and hang a ceiling fan with the best of them. The sign is cut out of sheet metal that has been rendered art by Don Austin, a sign maker friend the next county over. At the center is our family name—HOLLIS—and surrounding the name are representations of all the things I love—old stoneware jugs and pots, cactus, even an owl perched on a branch set inside the letter O. The design is totally Don’s creativity at work after visiting my house and seeing what I’m about—at least as far as the objects that own my living spaces.

Like Jake, Don is a guy’s guy, and his story is an interesting one as well. But this tale is about Jake, who has been friend and helper to this family since before our Daddy got down in 1980. That year a heart attack on December 15 ultimately led to Daddy’s death on the first day of spring 1981. For many years after, no one lived on these 200 acres. After Daddy’s health began to fail he wanted to have a home nearer Houston and other members of the family so that Mother wouldn’t be alone. We had cattle on the property, so Jake took care of them, produced hay from the hayfield, took care of the fences, mowed the big lawn that surrounds the house, cut firewood from fallen Post Oak trees, made sure the guard lights kept burning, wrapped pipes and then cut off the water when the temperatures fell below 27 degrees for sustained periods. When the family did spend time in the country, Jake dealt with a cranky albeit new septic system when the infrequent rains persisted at times. Frankly, I guess I don’t really know all the things that Jake kept up with, but I do know that he treated this place as if it were his own. In his nephew’s words, if there are saints on earth, Jake is as close as it gets.

On the day that Jake was hanging the sign from the back of his flatbed truck, with me holding and fetching and cocking my head just right, I realized that Jake, although he is only 14 years older, was playing father—or at least big brother, the one I don’t have—to me, and that he reminded me so much of my Daddy and a couple of uncles who could do just about anything. And like all of them, he has the patience required to see something through, in spite of challenges, complications, and setbacks. Jake grew up in the country, the product of Texas German stock, a good, conservative Missouri Synod Lutheran, who doesn’t question the teachings about God and church that he was brought up with. After serving time in the military, he became a lineman for the telephone company, and because he just knows things that lots of guys know—especially ones who grow up in the country—he can “do just about anything”. He cooks as well, at least beans and cornbread.

On that day as I watched Jake, reminded of Daddy and my uncles, I also realized that Jake wouldn’t always be able to do the things he was doing. He was then 72. I recorded my feelings about Jake, and as the fates would have, lost them when I got a new laptop in April of 2004.

When the floodgate of illness opens up, the torrent can seem unstoppable. At 76, that has begun for Jake. He was already plagued by macular degeneration, and in spite of severely compromised vision, still driving the roads, including trips into the nearby town. Usually trips between his house and ours, separated only by the county road and a short leg to our west, he usually makes on his four-wheeler. In spite of vision problems, Jake is an avid reader, sharing with me a passion for Texas history and stories and biographies of the West. These days his eyesight has deteriorated to the point that he doesn’t drive to town anymore, and he can’t read like he did. All the other onslaught of health problems began with gall bladder surgery a few months back, followed by severe stomach pain, skin allergies that led him to take his back to the door jam for frequent scratching, general lack of energy and shortness of breath, and now to a heart catheterization this very day.

In the record I lost of that day four years ago, I remembered that watching Jake made me think about my daddy and two uncles, who were married to Daddy’s sisters. Like men are supposed to be—at least where I grew up—these guys were problem solvers. Daddy truly whistled while he worked—his way of expressing pleasure at the task he was doing, as well as his unconscious artful expression. My middle sister and I picked up the same habit, but unfortunately for me, I didn’t get Daddy’s genes that enable one to fix things and make things. Like Daddy, Uncle Bud and Uncle Frog were products of pre-World War II America, exposed to farming and the Depression, and because of things they learned early, instinctively strong in work ethic.

When Daddy died, I was already well into adulthood, finished with a career in teaching and trying to establish myself in the world of private enterprise. I was way past the point of teaching—at least the point of being interested in building a box or a life-sized dove house, or tinkering with the lawnmower. All I ever really learned to do was change the spark plugs in an old truck one time with Daddy’s help, clean the filter and change the spark plug in the lawn mower (and if that didn’t solve the problem I was SOL and done with it!), and help him with minor building projects and fence building. Oddly, Daddy always chose to work on fence in August—in Texas!—and I remember the agony of being out there in the sun on a Sunday afternoon. My biggest outdoor help to the family was yard work, helping with the menagerie of livestock that we had once we moved to the country, and trying to stay ahead of Daddy’s instincts to junk and make clutter. Every once in awhile I would take on the garage, move things out, sweep, and attempt to throw away things that seemed useless to me (Daddy would risk life and limb stopping on the blacktop roads of northwest Harris County to stop and pick up a bolt). Before I could reach my personal objectives, though, everything would come back into the garage at Daddy’s insistence. Ironically, these days I’m lousy at staying on top of the junk I accumulate—much of it valuable because of its age and other merits.

While I recall that Uncle Bud’s outbuildings were always fairly well organized, he certainly had his share of tools and projects in progress. Uncle Frog really had the “bring it home” mindset. Even more than Daddy and Uncle Bud, Uncle Frog could make something out of anything, sometimes giving totally new meaning to an object, other times enhancing while letting the object maintain its intrinsic integrity. All three men shared the same passion for junking, and I clearly inherited that gene, although I have taken it quite a few rungs up the ladder. I call most of my stuff antiques and Texas relics.

Daddy’s vehicle legacy at his death was a truck that had frustrated us all to no end. You could drive it from point A to point B, cut off the engine, and then find upon trying to fire up the SOB that it just wouldn’t turn over. Give it a little time and it mostly likely would start. It had done this from the time it was still in warranty, but the GMC dealer couldn’t correct the problem. Does that surprise me? As things must be, the truck always failed at the worst time—for example, while pulling a loaded trailer down I-10 toward San Antonio, 100 miles from home, in the parking lot while grocery shopping. It met its fate in the Wal-Mart parking lot some 20 years ago. My middle sister had borrowed the truck from Mother to go Christmas shopping. Headlong into the local Wal-Mart, she certainly had no inkling that someone would want an old yellow GMC with an ugly aluminum camper top. Wrong. On that day it did start, and I guess made its journey to a chop shop. Talk about poetic justice!

I didn’t have as much time to observe Uncle Bud as I did Uncle Frog, but one memory of them is etched in my mind. While the evil GMC was still in the family, Uncles Bud and Frog came to my rescue in the hospital parking lot (what’s the deal with parking lots?) of Heights Hospital in Houston on one of the last nights of Mamaw Hollis’s life. She was about to die at age 93, although her goal had been to make it to 100. Ironically, she outlasted all three of her sons. I don’t remember why I was driving the truck that night, only that I had been to visit Mamaw. Uncle Frog and Aunt Mary and Uncle Bud and Aunt Frances were there. Back in the parking lot, I attempted to start the truck, it chose to throw its weight around, and I went back into the hospital hoping that my uncles could rescue me. We all trekked to the parking light. They raised the hood, looked around, shook their heads, scratched, turned on the ignition switch and the engine turned over. They didn’t really do anything. The comfort they provided came from their ability to do what certain guys can do—sometimes just a matter of being there. The important thing is that they were there for me. They were Daddy, my uncles, and they were Jake. That night I realized that like Daddy, someday neither of these uncles would be there to help me out in the parking lot—to think about a problem, scratch their heads, tinker a bit, and make everything all right.

Today I am especially aware that life has once again changed forever. Jake, who has helped me help him so many times—hanging a sign, building a fence around my yard, running water out to an open shed in my garden—Jake with whom I swap books, drink an occasional beer, talk about the forecast for rain, reminisce about his growing up years in Westfield—Jake who counsels me even when he doesn’t know it—Jake can’t ride the tractor like he did anymore, and we’re all the lesser for it.

Harold Hollis (December 6, 2003 – Normangee Texas)

Do the Next Right Thing

I don’t recall who my friend Judy Stone Nunneley was quoting when she told me in the summer of 2005 about something she tries to remember as she meets challenges each day. She said simply, I just try to “do the next right thing.”

As life’s connections go, sort of like the “six degrees of separation” many of us have heard about over the years, I came across the name of Anne Lamott. I think it was through the newspaper of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. What I recall is a blurb announcing that Lamott’s lecture somewhere, sometime, in Houston had been postponed, rescheduled. The announcement included enough information about her that I thought, hmmm, I’d like to know more about her. Later on I had opportunities to ask several people, mostly women, if they were familiar with the writing of Anne Lamott, and almost without exception they were. I’m remembering especially my friends Joy Stone, and our family friend Cherry Moore, who was also our mother’s hospice chaplain and delivered a beautiful eulogy at Mother’s burial service.

Last summer my partner and I read Anne Lamott’s book, “Traveling Mercies,” a story of her complicated, dysfunctional, but somehow privileged childhood, her life with a son she was raising alone, all the men who had broken her heart (but that’s a two-way street, right?), and God’s love and mercy as revealed in her journey. For her she found a welcoming, loving place of worship.

Anne Lamott says, "I took a long, deep breath and wondered as usual, where to start. You start where you are, is the secret of life. You do the next right thing you can see. Then the next."

As it turns out others have voiced the same advice. “Do the next right thing," is a guideline for living in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. is quoted as saying "The time is always right to do what is right." Other persons of note who espouse the same notion, indeed organizations that are built around it, can be revealed from a simple search of the Internet.

What great irony that in the course of doing the next right thing we so often end up doing the wrong thing, or what seems to be the wrong thing at the time, or indeed turns out not to have been the best choice. All we can do is try to do the next right thing. That, however, requires that we can discern what is right and then follow through.

A friend told me many years ago about her own mixed results in love, marriage, and parenting—marriage and divorce, raising a batch of exceptionally bright and very self-willed children. Parents do the best they can, according to Rachel. Parents do not look at a child in the crib and say “I’m going to screw you up.” Rachel was a product of Europe in the years leading up to the second world war, a Jew from Belgium, who with her family fled to London. Alongside her husband, she participated actively in the Zionist struggles of the 1940s, eventually settling in the United States. She had been to hell and back and lived to tell about it. Along with all the turmoil, fear, physical and emotional dangers, she had known love, fulfilling love and beautiful love, even love of great historical significance. I don’t recall that she and I ever used the term, “do the next right thing,” but wouldn’t it have been appropriate.

Each day that we open our eyes and put our feet on the floor, if we are so fortunate even to have those choices, we are asked to choose. Allowing ourselves to love another human being is a choice, or so it seems sometimes. Falling in love, maybe that’s not so much a choice. Sometimes we have to choose whether we intentionally want to hurt someone else. This can be as removed as dealing with someone in customer service over the telephone or as complicated as choosing not to strike back when we are verbally stricken by someone we love.

We have just recently completed a long, four and one-half year journey with our mother, who probably set a record for the local hospice organization. Defying the cardiologist who issued her death sentence, she lived out her tough Texas German heritage, becoming bed ridden only four days before she died. Until the last several days, she continued to make the trip between the den and her bedroom, assisted by her walker, and finally seated on a fancier walker pushed by my oldest sister, who took on Mother’s care giving once Mother was diagnosed as terminal. Mother refused to use the bedside commode until even she accepted that she really had no other choice. The Monday before Mother died on Thursday, our middle sister came to keep vigil with us, accepting the gift to minister to Mother, and to share with us saying good-bye with love to our mother. Unless you’ve been there, it’s impossible to imagine what goes through your mind and heart as all of this is happening.

It is somehow amazing to consider and then understand as best we can in the midst of turmoil that we are constantly choosing. Be the challenge a dying mother, a seemingly intransigent lover, or an outright adversary, we must choose what we do about love. We are told in scripture to "Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee," Exodus 20:12. "Honor thy father and thy mother, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee; that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee," Deuteronomy 5:16. For those of us who adhere to the Christian faith, Matthew’s gospel makes clear our responsibility to love: “Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:37-40

Some months back I was urged into reconsidering the notion of loving ourselves, indeed loving my own self. Think about it. How much time does any one of us spend feeling lonely, forgotten, incomplete, guilty, maybe even self-loathing. Perhaps the ability to do the next right thing begins with loving ourselves. The world we humans have created bombards us with enticements, distractions, and fears. Just living our lives—earning a living wage, supporting oneself or a family if you have one sometimes takes more resources than some people can muster. Keeping up appearances cannot even be imagined by some who fall into despair, giving up because they can’t meet life’s challenges. Sometimes we don’t even recognize another human being in despair because he looks just like us.

To love our neighbor as ourselves is a tough assignment, especially if we don’t love ourselves, indeed if we don’t understand how to love ourselves. Then how can we possibly love another human being? We may be shackled to another out of some sense of responsibility—parent-child, brother-sister, lover-lover, friend-friend, associate-associate—but without love in some form at work in the connection we are simply going through the motions.

We all have to face the loss of loved ones, indeed our own death. Further, we can’t escape failed relationships, the consequences of poor choices, the complications of living in a world that expects much of us. All this begs another choice. Do we despair and lose hope, hold others accountable for our own lives, compartmentalize our pain in an attempt to just keep going, dig our metaphorical hole even deeper, grab the bull by the horns, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps—any combination of the above? Anne Lamott says, you take a long, deep breath, look around yourself and start where you are. To her this is the secret of life. “You do the next right thing you can see. Then the next." If we are fortunate enough to have the wits about us to make this choice, we are indeed fortunate. Some would say blessed.

Harold Hollis (February 2007 – Normangee Texas)

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Art of Believing

I have listened to John Rutter’s “Requiem” at least a hundred times, but always in my auto, where the glorious tones of his music and the words of the Psalms and of the “Book of Common Prayer” have to compete with highway noise. I have this habit of latching onto something—often music—and not being able to let go of it. Perhaps it’s the other way around. The music won’t let go of me.

It is Advent, the season that celebrates the birth of Christ, and at this advanced stage in the journey of a Christian, I just learned that Advent is really concerned with the end of times and preparing us for death. That realized, I have played the Rutter “Requiem” over and over in the course of the last few days, on the trip up that I just made to Tulsa to visit old friends, and today on the return. I tried to listen to other CDs as I made the 450 mile drive home, with only modest results. I found myself inserting and ejecting and finally returned to the Requiem.

Lately I have been reading a book titled “Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief.” And just this morning, as I sat in the neighborhood Panera having coffee and a bagel, I was reminded of ED’s struggle with her religious upbringing—a struggle that she did not resolve completely before her death. Much of her poetry reflects her concern with God, mortality, salvation, eternity.

Last night I watched the movie “Shadowlands” with my Tulsa friends. The movie, which examines the relationship between C. S. Lewis and the American woman who captured his heart late in Lewis’s life, portrays the struggle that Lewis and Joy Davidman Gresham faced only shortly after they married. Truth in this instance is clearly better than fiction. Lewis, known among other things for his writings on Christianity, pain, grief, loss, the struggles of human kind, had his own faith tested to the limits. Because of Joy Gresham’s courage, he was able to endure the loss of her and become a father to her young sons after Gresham’s death. Her own journey had taken her from Judaism through Communism and ultimately to Christianity.

As I listened to the “Requiem” tonight for the umpteenth time, I followed the text that I had printed off the internet earlier this evening. Piece after piece, the words and the music tugged at my heart, reminding me of the strength that can be found through faith. The Psalms and the Prayer Book text around which the Requiem is built truly and deeply point the way of our faith journey. “Be strong, and He shall comfort thy heart, and put thou thy trust in the Lord.” (Psalm 27) “Trust in the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy…” (Psalm 130) “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me.” (Psalm 23) “In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour? I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die.” (from the burial service of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer). To know God’s love, all we really have to do is turn to Him “and He shall comfort thine heart.” How easy and yet how difficult.

I do believe that life is a gift, and that the blessings we receive are gifts as well. Music and words are gifts and blessings. It brings me such joy to listen to John Rutter’s gift. Of all the times that I’ve heard the “Requiem,” the lush sounds of music and voice that usually move me to tears become more complete by reading the text on which the Requiem is based. When I’m angry over the politics of the church—after all, we all are just human beings trying to work together—I want to remember the beauty of the Book of Common Prayer, inspired by Gods’s word, written by man to glorify God and Christ. And I want to remember the words at the closing of Holy Eucharist Rite I, “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” I want to remember that life itself is a gift. I want to be reminded when I’m feeling smug about my accomplishments or any of the things for which we so easily take credit, that these are gifts. And I want to be reminded when I see someone in distress that “there but for the grace of God go I” (attributed to 16th century Protestant martyr John Bradford, who was later burned as a heretic). When I find myself passing judgment on someone else I want to remember the prayer attributed to St. Francis, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.” I want to feel responsible in some way for the other beings with whom I share this planet.

Harold Hollis (December 23, 2005 - Normangee, Texas)

Friday, June 15, 2007

Desert Hearts

As I watch the world change in slow motion, much of it crumbling with aching naturalness, I try to make sense of it. I sometimes reach out to the farthest points, other times steep in anger. When I’m lucky, a melancholy washes over me, allowing me to feel joyously vulnerable. This journey we make leads to wisdom, while forcing us to remain childishly foolish, hopeful.

Regardless of how long we live, most of us are orphaned. It’s more than the loss of parents. It’s all the other losses. Gatherings of family and friends for holiday celebrations become parties of three or one. We travel to a city, remembering the uncle and aunt we visited there as a child and later a young adult, yet feel no connection to the kin they have left behind. The aunt who taught you to waltz with grace now walks with a cane and is rejected by her own children. A neighbor who has been an oak tree begins a decline, seemingly over night. All that we take for granted slips away, as we look around realizing that responsibility is our bed.

It does no good to apologize for all the things that went wrong or didn’t happen. And in spite of the efforts to set things right when they go askew, at best we stand dominoes on end, holding our breath.

I’ve been to the woods, the water, the desert. Each place I’ve remained cautious. Longing for epiphany, I forget that it comes only of its own choosing, when I’ve somehow made myself ready.

When things fall, they sometimes break, and some things can’t be mended. Broken hearts can be mended. Love does heal.

Desert Hearts
Harold Hollis
Normangee, Texas—July 4, 2005


I'm looking at an early watercolor in which a small Black boy is sitting on the front steps of a log cabin. The watercolor is resting on a dramatic old piece-work quilt draped across a cowhide-seat chair. I found both the quilt and the watercolor while on a trip to Houston last Monday. The watercolor came from an estate auction in Prairie View, a historic part of Waller County, Texas. Ironically, I heard about the auction, which had occurred the day before, when I stopped at the Navasota, Texas shop owned by the auctioneer and his wife.

After a short visit, I went on down the main street, eager to discover if any other shops might be open on a Monday. On my last stop, I spotted the quilt, which caught my eye because of the intense yellow and red fabrics used in its composition. These are set off by soft brown and mossy green compliments. In the mind’s eye these colors don’t really work, but the reality differs. My delight increased when I discovered the quilt’s subtle watermelon-striped cotton flannel backing. Only later did I realize I was responding to what I feel is the work of a Black woman, and someone with an incredible eye for graphic impact. The owner of the shop where I found the quilt could tell me nothing about it, but my instinct told me it was local. Pleased with the find, I continued my drive, planning a stop in Waller, Texas to see my friend Donna who also deals in the things I like to buy.

The quilt had an odd feature, a fabric cap over one end, approximately 14 inches wide and made out of a garish sherbert-green cotton-poly, sprinkled with primitive roses. Donna suggested that the cap would have been added at some point to protect the quilt from being soiled by oils from the face and hands. I knew the addition had to come off, but I dreaded the damage to the quilt that we might find underneath. We began snipping away threads. To our delight we found the entire quilt intact, in “mint” condition. As we speculated about the possible Black origin of the quilt, she mentioned a watercolor of a Black boy that she had bought the previous day at an auction in Prairie View. Click.

For many years this watercolor has been dressed in a frame whose finish is alligatored from heat. The backing is tattered cardboard, and the wire used for hanging the piece has been reinforced with cotton string, darkened now with age. In a fashion that surprises and delights the eye, the screws that attach the wire to the frame come all the way through the front of the frame. It is called making do. More than anything, what I like about the watercolor and quilt as I sit looking at them is how they look juxtaposed to one another, how they get along together. They are meant for each other, at least for this moment. They satisfy me visually and emotionally. They encourage me to consider their origins, to smell the smoke from the chimneys at either end of the log house on whose steps this young Black child sits and to see in my mind's eye the old woman who found comfort in pulling that quilt under her chin on winter nights, until she no longer needed to be comforted. Click.

Saturday, August 11, 2001
Harold Hollis—Normangee, Texas

Thursday, June 14, 2007

This Truth With a Face

This truth with a face cannot be settled,
So it should let me be.
Yet I cannot stop its intrusion,
Even through worthy distraction.
I read, I write, I repeat the same,
I look at its face,
But the details make no sense.
This is clear, but then it’s not.
I see that, but then I don’t.
I hear it, but apparently I’m deaf.
Hokus-Pokus, sleight of hand.
Under which shell lies the prize?
This chameleon truth confounds me.
It smiles, it cajoles, it touches my hand,
Breaks bread with me and shares my bed.
It embraces me, then stuns me.
It wakes me in the night,
Leaving me defenseless.
This truth stands me before silent doors,
Day and Night it shakes my resolve,
Forces me to choose over and over.
It pulls me, pushes me, calls Time Out.
I record it, read and re-read it, I sigh.
It takes my breath away.
No, I cannot reconcile this truth with a face,
I must grow cold to it.

Harold Hollis (December 7, 2005 – Normangee Texas)

Simply Peace

For a long time now, sleeping through the night has been a memory. I guess these perpetually disrupted nights began some time in my 50s. Falling asleep is effortless for me. Usually a half hour of reading under the bedside lamp calms my restless mind. Sometimes I just nestle under the covers, and before I can even think about falling asleep, I am asleep. Oh, but those middle of the night disturbances. Once answered, I can almost guarantee that this restless mind will go into action, gnawing on an array of troubles—an unfortunate exchange with another human being (go back as far as you can imagine and pick your category), unfulfilled expectations (falling short in a relationship, falling short in a business deal), concern for a family member, things I need to do but keep putting off.

I remember a time in the 80s when my prayer at bedtime was simple—grant me peace of mind, dear Lord. I even pronounced this prayer to a friend one evening who was detailing her disastrous relationship with a guy her friends thought she only lived with. It turned out they were married. “P-E-A-C-E, Patty, (hands in the air, punctuating each letter). That’s my last thought before going to sleep.”

Over the years, the prayer that seemed to reassure me at night, almost guaranteeing a decent sleep, became only a memory. Reading in the middle of the night could be a solution, if I was involved in something that held my attention. Sometimes even a book that captivated me last session can’t hold my mind.

Recently I saw a church marquee that read “Peace is not the absence of troubles, it is the presence of God.” Ordinarily I cringe at catchy slogans on church marquees. This one seemed to work that day because I was in fact troubled by an unfortunate exchange with another human being. The only resolution to that particular struggle was to cut myself loose. I’m still massaging the slogan on that church marquee. I shared it today with an old friend who responded, ‘that makes sense, if it’s what you believe.’ Okay, that’s true too. A familiar 1950s song goes “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” If you avoid the remainder of the lyrics, you don’t have to deal with the religious implications of the song, although it’s reminder that we are all brothers and sisters sure doesn’t hurt.

Times when we can’t sleep are potentially good times for rediscovering things that have satisfied or reassured us in the past—helping to soothe the savage soul by speaking to some essential need, perhaps spiritual, perhaps intellectual or creative, although I think it’s difficult to separate the three. Such happened to me a couple of weeks ago. Awakened, knowing on this particular night that I was truly awake and struggling with an old demon friend, my mind came to rest on Emily Dickinson, my muse, and for some strange reason, on a book about her that I bought and started reading at least three years ago—“Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief.” Because I have at least three books in progress at any given time, this one had gotten lost in the shuffle. But on this night, at 2:25 a.m., I knew exactly where to find this study of Emily Dickinson’s struggle with her mortal self, her soul, God and Christ, the church. She in fact wrestled with all of these until her death.

While Emily Dickinson had effectively rejected her Calvinist background, had stopped attending church mid-way through her life, she never stopped asking the questions. And even in rejection of established religious tenets which were intrinsic in her upbringing, she remained concerned with this force, showing concern for the soul and salvation of the friends she lost beginning at an early age. This concern is reflected both in her poems and in her letters. During her life, she didn’t seek to publish her poems, although she did at times offer them for response to certain people she trusted. A few were published without her permission. Apparently she saw her sometimes tormented, sometimes angry, sometimes joyful reflections as something for the time after she had finished her earthly journey.

On this night, and over many days since, Emily Dickinson’s documented struggle has brought me peace of mind by giving voice to my own struggle. Her mid-nineteenth century dilemma, although a journey begun in an America that hadn’t yet entered the war of internal civil strife—an America that was largely still an agrarian world—posed the same questions that for centuries before and well over a century since stare us in the face, grab us by the shoulders and shake us, cause our hearts and minds to ache seemingly without relief, and miraculously lead us to some kind of growth. Life clearly became more complicated with the Industrial Revolution, world wars, the cold war, undeclared wars, conflicts, and now terrorism that has numbed us with disbelief.

Emily Dickinson writes,

Apparently with no surprise
To any happy Flower
The Frost beheads it at its play—
In accidental power—
The blonde Assassin passes on—
The Sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another Day
For an Approving God.

I could ask, “Who is this God that approves of pain and loss,” although it probably isn’t the right question. The natural world is full of pain and loss, much of it simply part of life and accepted because it is about that which is not burdened with a soul. We humans wrestle day in and day out, and amazingly we grow from loss. Through it all we are forced to take lessons that confuse us, wound us, rob us of our foolish pride, frighten us, take away that which we love and understand because we are human.

On those sleepless nights I can only hope that there will always be for me an Emily Dickinson to remind me that I am not alone. Though I believe there is a God who is with me—even if I often fail to submit to him—there is comfort in the artful and universal reminders reflecting the struggles of other human beings. I can only hope that knowing this at the very core of my being can lead to some kind of peace.

Simply Peace
Harold Hollis (Normangee Texas – December 19, 2005)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Leaving Well Enough Alone

We’ve all heard stories of the lengths that people will go to score a would-be treasure. There are the dumpster divers who plunge in hopes of making a find. Perhaps the leg of an interesting small table, upturned in its disposed state, beckons from one of those waste receptacles. If luck prevails, the table might have simply been put out on the curb, ready for the plucking.

I have my own table story, which unfolded on a drive through East Texas, but it occurred in a small shop that offered a little of this and a little of that, some of it genuinely old. My table had been recovered from a heavy trash pile in this tiny town of less than a thousand people. It is a rare two drawer, tapered leg East Texas stand, constructed of walnut, with longleaf pine used in the construction of the secondary parts of the dovetailed and chamfered drawers. It costs me $66 and change, plus some restoration work on the drawer top. It’s not for sale.

My particular passions in old stuff include nineteenth century Texas furniture and stoneware. Because of the many cultures that settled Texas, our furniture includes a wide, interesting array of furniture styles, including Anglo from East Texas, German Biedermier, Polish and Czech from central and south Texas, Hispanic from south Texas and those parts of East Texas that were settled early in the 19th century, and Black-made pieces that can be found in any of the areas where Black people were settled in the 19th century. Texas-made stoneware, with prized early examples from East Texas as well as work from many other sites around central and South Texas, hit the news in a big way in the early 1990s when the collection of well-known authority Georgeana Greer was auctioned by a well-known New York gallery. That landmark event made the “Wall Street Journal”, and those who are constantly on the hunt for precious, desirable examples of Texas-made stoneware haven’t looked back.

Although I’m privileged to be the caretaker of a small share of 19th century Texas furniture and stoneware, my own collecting experiences include many tales of the one that got away. Back in the 80s I passed on an early alkaline-glazed jar that I had found in a small East Texas shop, not realizing that it was a rare early Rusk County, Texas piece. I just wasn’t in the mood to pay $65 that day. I blush in embarrassment at my own ignorance. When I went back two months later to see if it was still there, if you can believe such foolhardiness, it had sold two days before. I knew the guy who had bought it, and I had to pay handsomely to own the piece.

And so it goes. While leaving a nearby town recently, I caught in my periphery what appeared to be an old piece of stoneware sitting on the front porch of small white frame house. Normally I don’t use this residential neighborhood route. I stopped, backed cautiously into a narrow drive to turn around, and drove back, scanning for the porch where I thought I had seen this treasure. Finally, there it was, sitting next to an old flowerpot. I rang the doorbell about the same time that a small Black girl looked skeptically at me from her driveway. Her name was Tyler and she was staying with her grandmother. As it turned out, the house is currently unoccupied. The old woman who owns the house is ill and lives in Houston for now. The little girl escorted me inside her grandmother Mary's backdoor. Mary was tending an infant and visiting with a friend. She informed me that she had no idea if or when anyone would be returning to the house ("they usually come by during the night," she said), but gave me permission only to "look" at the stoneware jar.

Heart racing, I made my way next door. A small flower pot rested on top of the stoneware jar, and as I revealed the jar, a nest of angry wasps revealed themselves. It took me 45 minutes to get home and put a baking soda patch on my right forearm where one of those big red devils popped me. All the way home I watched the wound grow until it became a quarter-sized biscuit. I thought that perhaps I was being punished for not following Mary's instructions to only look at the jar. Instead, I had moved it, even after seeing the large nest of red, red wasps clinging to its interior. The bottom had broken away from the rest of the jar, and I should have followed my instinct to leave it be. But the impact of spying what had once been a really nice old piece of alkaline-glazed stoneware, probably from East Texas, seized me for that instant. As it turns out, I guess that old pot just wanted to be left alone. It, along with the porch table and chairs, were waiting quietly for someone with rights to return, and inevitably for an official dispensing of the long history found in and around this little frame house.

My forearm stayed swollen for several days, and the wound was hard and sore. I had several conversations about the wasp bite, but not once did I say that the incident spoke to something larger in meaning.

Saturday, August 11, 2001

The Next Golden Egg

I have many times described my antique hunting experiences as having a spiritual quality. Doubtless, a passion for the objects one collects is an important characteristic of the person in search of the next golden egg. And indeed it is always the next golden egg. Many years ago, I read an excerpt from a speech given by the actor Edward G. Robinson, who was at the time the president of a major association of art collectors in the United States. In his speech Robinson described the continual search for a wonderful painting, adding that as surely as one found that painting, took it home, and hung it on the wall, he would be in search again for another wonderful painting. Clearly, a passion for art and all it connotes motivates the collector.

The things I collect evoke for me a sense of history, of family and good lives lived in humble but solid surroundings—complex and unquantifiable feelings. Those stoneware milk pans that I know my great grandmother would have used in rural Harris County, Texas; the colorful and interesting but less-than-sophisticated quilts my family would have had. And I can smell the lava soap at the wash basin on the back porch of my Great Uncle Henry and Aunt Stella's house. I can also call up images of the iron beds and wardrobes arranged sparely on linoleum-clad floors and the windows raised high, allowing the curtains to flutter in the breeze on cool spring nights.

There's nothing more exhilarating than driving down a farm-to-market in beautiful East Texas anticipating what lies ahead in that little town where you found something memorable on your last trip. Depending on the kind of weather you like—Spring is nice, but a rainy day in January works as well—the tone of the adventure is underscored. Every old country churchyard, farmhouse and barn you pass enhance the experience. Sometimes it's hard to separate what you find at your destination from the collection of feelings that builds as you make your way. How many times have you started a road trip with just a feeling that something heavenly waits out there for you? Visions of a tramp art box made in one of the German communities of Texas, or that great Mexican vase that surely is just around the corner, flash through your mind. Maybe what you find is a touching old photo of a group of people gathered American-Gothic style in the general mercantile of some rural store in 1910.

Sadly for me, I don't have among my treasures much of anything to speak of from my farming family that settled around Houston, Texas in 1866—only my Great Aunt Minnie's lovely milk pitcher given to me by my mother and a picture album containing photos of people even my mother has trouble placing. What I do have is a sense of plenty of family gatherings, some at Aunt Minnie's—the big oak dining table that she and her daughter Annie spread with cheddar cheese cut from a large hoop, fresh-cured ham, homemade bread and garlic dill pickles—in her country Victorian house in Hockley, Texas. These many years later I can remember creeping up the stairs off the dining room to the unfinished attic where her bachelor son Willie had a twin iron bedstead, and not much more that I recall. And I remember another room used for storage, among its store old oil lamps and a table or so. I can almost smell the remnants of oil and the fragrance of the exposed Cypress beams of that attic. Most of these dear people are gone, but not the love and memories that rush over me when I recall them, and when I look each night at that milk pitcher standing on my bedside table.

Yes, the antique treasures I am proud to hold for just awhile have a spiritual quality for me, as do old houses—like the one I live in that once belonged to my great grandparents. I can't imagine not associating these treasures with the good folk who made them. Some treasures that are simply beautiful, and others that are simply wonderful. All of them are filled with the spirit of good lives lived.