Friday, September 21, 2007

On Being Right

Recently I complimented a friend on the amiable relationship he and his former wife enjoy. I haven’t met her, but based on his comments about her, she must be one of the good people. I wondered aloud why so many relationships end in seeming hatred between the parties. “Self-loathing,” replied my friend. In another conversation—I don’t recall with whom I was talking—love and fear figured prominently into that person’s explanation of what drives human behavior. “Hmmm,” I’ve been thinking, “that’s simple”. It’s not, course.

In the heat of argument, as we hammer in the nail of truth—our version any—forefinger punching the air, fist pounding into open palm, open hands pleading to gain ground, we’re convinced that what we think and feel is, as some say, gospel. Oh, how good it feels when we think, “I am right”! At least, it feels good right then.

So if we are inclined to charge through life and relationships, we have plenty of opportunities to think “I am right”. We have plenty of opportunities to realize how relative right is, opportunities to realize how little being right matters at times, and yet more opportunities to realize how much damage we can do when we insist on being right. Forget logic, forget formal argument. Let go of ego, get humble.

My mother reminded me from the time I was a child of an observation a family friend made when I was just an infant. “He’s going to be a lawyer,” the friend said. Maybe the friend was a lawyer. I have always loved making a point, at times making the point. I know my limitations, though. I never had an interest in going to law school or being a lawyer. The stories my lawyer acquaintances have told me about law school, law books, lawyering, and the 15 years I spent working for lawyers toward the end of my professional career, underscore my lack of interest. It helps to enjoy the good argument if the objective is to win for your side. Suit coat buttoned, high heels poised, not for me. I’m stereotyping lawyers. They certainly do more than argue.

We are in the middle of taking another important step in coming to terms with our mother’s death this year. We are selling the home that was her official residence for a good part of the last ten years. Thirty-five hundred square feet of worldly possessions, plus a garage. We had all deposited a little or a lot of our own overflow there. In a way it feels good to know that we won’t have to worry with upkeep, insurance, utilities. We won’t have to dread the inevitable task of cleaning up after ourselves in this particular place. Poring over this mixture of worldly possessions—laying claim to favorite pieces of furniture, smaller objects with individual meaning, a box of small tools that our Daddy relied on, an amazing collection of yard tools. Where did all those yard tools come from?

We have argued, and we will continue to do so. Some of that is deep rooted, of long standing. There’s some distrust, some resentment. We are all different from one another, and we don’t seek the same from life, even though we were raised in the same household by the same parents. And we are all grappling with our own set of fears. Even though we love each other and want the best for one another, we somehow forget that each time we have an opportunity to disagree over who and what is right. I’m trying to accept that this won’t change, and probably can’t change. Pick your battles, but walk away from most of them. Learn to say, “it doesn’t really matter who’s right, does it”? The best thing to do is let go of the need to be right.
On Being Right—Normangee, Texas (September 21, 2007)
R. Harold Hollis

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Show, Don't Tell

It seems appropriate on my birthday that I should try putting into words something profound, worthy, or at least, something that speaks to me. After all my years of massaging words—promising high school journalist, English major and graduate student, teacher, writer of business communications ad nauseum—I’ve had plenty of practice.

Many years ago, when I was a relatively new teacher, an important theory relating to writing appeared, once again, in school textbooks. Simply put, “show, don’t tell”. Don’t tell me that the soap on the kitchen counter smelled really fragrant. It happened to me in my great Uncle Henry and Aunt Stella’s kitchen. The counter was covered in faux marble linoleum, fashionable for the late 1940s-early 50s. The soap dish held Lifebuoy, a fragrance that smelled distinctly clean. I was sitting at the kitchen table, apparently expected to wait for something to happen, what I do not remember. Maybe I was just being quiet and attentive. Maybe I felt intimidated having been left alone at their home. Perhaps from that same visit, I can call up images of the iron beds and wardrobes arranged sparely on linoleum-clad Texas pine floors and the windows raised high, allowing sheer curtains to flutter in the breeze on cool spring nights.

At times when I feel inclined to let my fingers do the talking, I am reminded of Eliza Doolittle’s wonderful frustrations put to music, courtesy of Lerner and Lowe, from MY FAIR LADY. “Show me,” she exclaims:

Words! Words! Words! I'm so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?

On this birthday, I am waiting out the morning and an invitation to drive down to Huntsville with my oldest sister Joan and my Aunt Edna, who was married to Mother’s only sibling. Virtually everyone is gone, as in gone, no longer part of the world we know. When I was six Aunt Edna and Uncle Bubba gave me the sterling and gold western buckle with my name, Harold Hollis, engraved in the gold ribbon that adorns the lower portion of this two-include square piece of art. I wear it almost daily. She is just about all that remains of the previous generation from the first 64 years of my life. Only Aunt Mary, one of Daddy’s sisters, who turned 90 on September 2nd, a birthday that my mother missed by only eight months this same year, remains from the Hollis siblings. Birthdates: Mary Louise Hollis Todd (9-2-17), Tena Elizabeth Fuchs Hollis (9-9-17), Russell Harold Hollis (9-16-43). Mother’s heart gave out. Aunt Mary’s mind is giving out.

The year 2007 has been especially tough for our family. I’m telling you that, perhaps showing it as well without realizing. What I’m not telling you about is all the growth that is also a part of this year. We’re changing, sometimes sad, sometimes frustrated, at times resentful and angry, other times overwhelmed, and probably the most damaging of all, at times afraid. At times my heart is filled with hope, and always with thanks. In spite of the emptiness and loss washing over me on the first birthday I have to celebrate with out my Mother, it’s my 64th, and I choose to make the best of it.

Eliza’s song about making love count, a paen to carpe diem really, is filled with hope-tinged determination. Odd, perhaps, that love characterized by physical fire would be juxtaposed against loss and nostalgia associated with the loss of a family loved one, especially one’s Mother. Who teaches us first about love? And who understands the wounded heart we experience along the way? What better definition of hope than love in action!

Don't talk of stars burning above;
If you're in love, Show me!
Tell me no dreams filled with desire.
If you're on fire, Show me!
Here we are together in the middle of the night!
Don't talk of spring! Just hold me tight!
Anyone who's ever been in love'll tell you that
This is no time for a chat!
Haven't your lips longed for my touch?
Don't say how much, Show me! Show me!
Don't talk of love lasting through time.
Make me no undying vow. Show me now!

Sing me no song! Read me no rhyme!
Don't waste my time, Show me!
Don't talk of June, Don't talk of fall!
Don't talk at all! Show me!
Never do I ever want to hear another word.
There isn't one I haven't heard.
Here we are together in what ought to be a dream;
Say one more word and I'll scream!
Haven't your arms hungered for mine?
Please don't "expl'ine," Show me! Show me!
Don't wait until wrinkles and lines
Pop out all over my brow,
Show me now!

Show, Don’t Tell
R. Harold Hollis—Normangee, Texas (September 16, 2007)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Accepting the Assignment

Genesis 32: 26 “Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’”

Perhaps one of the greatest rewards of not having to clock in each work day is the opportunity to be available for what the day might bring. “Your mission, should you choose to accept it…,” goes the script of Mission: Impossible. Indeed, being available, which implies a degree of openness, is the assignment.

I guess I’ve paid my dues. Regardless, I did stop “clocking in” six years ago, and while I’m penalized to be sure for withdrawing funds early, both my pension and social security are helping to keep me afloat these days. My 401K had begun to show signs of severe abuse. Now, the modest good fortune of my parents, a legacy shared with my two sisters, is indeed a blessing. I am blessed to be living a somewhat ongoing vacation for the next several months in a place that has drawn me to it for 40 years.

For the past five weeks I’ve watched, sometimes waited, sometimes participated in the pageant of humanity that comes and goes at Santa Fe Baking Company, that place where I spend most early mornings. I’m always prepared with a book, which rarely holds my attention well enough to keep my head from bobbing up and down as people and sounds enter and exit the patio entrance where I usually sit.

It’s difficult for me to screen out conversations that are conducted at a volume that allows everyone on the patio to share the good news of what others think about just anything you can imagine. There’s healing, metaphysics, hucksterism, strife-laden cell phone conversations between estranged spouses, art therapy with a heavy coloring of Southern Baptist evangelism, and a good measure of bullshit, sometimes interesting but mostly not. And then, of course, there all those conversations that are conducted tete-a-tete. Those are really my favorites. If they prevailed, I’d make more progress on the book in hand.

I’ve found myself party to a few conversations, what I’m calling accepting the assignment, and repeatedly I find myself smiling inwardly at the realization that there really are no accidents when it comes to meeting people. We just have to pay attention. Indeed, we have to be willing to pay attention. It may matter only for the moment, and then it just might change how we feel about everything that is happening in our lives.

Today I met Louise. I noticed her first as she walked onto the patio carrying her paper napkin and cutlery, obviously anticipating her breakfast. Shortly, as I stepped over to a large trash container to empty my cold coffee, I noticed that Louise was having what I call the farm boy breakfast, and lots of it. I also noticed her hands, fingers very gnarled and incompletely developed. I winced with embarrassment for allowing my eyes to linger for even a second. Seated, I continued writing in the journal that I began keeping only yesterday.

Shortly, the lady of the farm boy breakfast stopped at my table and commented, “I see you’re reading THE ARTISTS’ WAY. It’s one of my favorite books.” An hour later, Louise, now seated and finally introduced by first name, we’ve made great strides in covering the waterfront…her husband, their travels, her time and their time in Texas and Houston, the death of her husband, her children, her painting, her very dysfunctional childhood, religion, reincarnation. She asked me many questions…what had brought me to Santa Fe, if I am an artist, about my antiques business. It seems that I asked a lot more questions than she did, and that my attempts to answer her questions were met with repeated interruptions. Every answer I started to give reminded her of something else she apparently needed to say. I tried to stay focused on all that she needed to say and even wrote down in my journal names and titles.

Among many other things, Louise commented on God, Christianity, great mystics, including Jesus, organized religion, spirituality, psychics, fear, sin, judgment, and forgiveness. I learned that in spite of her husband’s successful career as an engineer, following his death she has been forced to live on an amount of money that makes me shake my head in distress. And last week someone stole her car from in front of the apartment she rents here. Fortunately, the daughter who lives here in Santa Fe is able to provide Louise with a very used vintage diesel Mercedes. Her car, which was paid for, remains in absentia. She has forgiven the person who stole it.

During our conversation I had asked Louise if she had email, which led to a lengthy monologue on her husband’s death, their poor money management, his many marriages and children from each, her current meager resources, and of course, no email. I felt so thankful for my relative prosperity, in spite of indebtedness that I can manage without too much pain. Debt too is all about choices.

I told Louise about someone I had met at the baking company who is facing serious medical problems. She was led to tears. We had talked about forgiveness, letting go of judgment and anger. And though our conversation at times felt like a wrestling match, I kept reminding myself that she needed to talk on this morning in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a morning graced with 65 degrees and sunshine as we approached noon. We parted with her offer to help someone she had never met, and I was reminded that there really are no accidents when it comes to meeting people.

Accepting the Assignment
R. Harold Hollis—September 11, 2007 (Santa Fe, New Mexico)

Monday, September 10, 2007

Yet Another Chance

I was reminded in church yesterday that Muslims are approaching Ramadan, and it is especially a time of asking forgiveness from those whom we have hurt over the last year. Of course, the time to ask for forgiveness is hopefully somewhere near the time of the offense one has committed against another person. That led me to try to put an end to a hurtful series of email exchanges I’ve had with a former associate in the antiques business, an exchange that began early in the summer and culminated yesterday afternoon. In my thinking, I give thanks to God for the words I heard during yesterday’s sermon and the courage to ask someone to forgive my hard headed behavior and accusatory words. Regardless of where the truth lies in such exchanges, it is ultimately important to acknowledge our humanness, and if appropriate, ask for indulgence, and then try to do better in the future. I’m learning, slowly, to think about doing the next right thing, not just for others, but for myself as well.

In the course of sitting at the baking company virtually every morning since I’ve been here in Santa Fe, I met a guy who finally told me today that he is facing a test for crypto-coccal meningitis. Until today, I had never heard of this. The extent of our contact has been our several conversations on the patio there. It’s obvious from talking to him that he is bright, educated, well-read and funny. Today I discovered that he is also scared shitless. He’s been in Santa Fe this time for about three weeks, and he’s living out of his van, along with two Great Pyrenes. He says that he’s degreed, an artist, a certified EMT, the list of his credentials is long. Who knows? I’ve just sort of taken him for what I see and enjoyed the verbal sparring we’ve shared. Today, he asked me for a ride to deliver his two dogs to a friend’s home out on Rodeo Road. The conversation on the way back finally led me to ask him if the test for meningitis he’s having is HIV-related. You know the answer.

Let’s give the guy a name. Chad has told me more than once now that his goal is to feed one other person…I guess that would most likely be a homeless person…each day Monday through Friday, and three on Saturday. I didn’t ask how he came up with these numbers. Again, I just took the statement at face value. He started a part-time job at Trader Joe’s last week. If what he tells me about the spinal tap he’s having is correct, he will be in the doctor’s office in less than 15 minutes, and soon he will know something that will change his life forever, again. He told me that he sat in the rose garden that separates Galisteo from Galisteo Parkway after he found out the doctor’s initial concerns three weeks ago, and he couldn’t take a deep breath. He’s been HIV+ for 20 years.

I’m getting the opportunity again to think about the preciousness of life, on the heels of watching our mother die after a long, debilitating illness, one that robbed her of what she valued most, her sense of independence and self worth. She would have been 90 yesterday. I already knew life is precious, but I also know that we hang to life by a thread, and we see miracles everyday without recognizing them.

From where I sit, I know that my creator has blessed me with a mind and a heart that can be used to make this place a better one. I have stumbled and fallen more times than I can count. I don’t need anyone else to punch me in the gut to remind me of my humanness. I do a good enough job of punching myself. I thank God for this life, and I thank God for all the opportunities I get to recognize and do something about the privilege of being here.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Kodak Moments

Everywhere you turn it’s a Kodak moment. The problem is my Canon Power Shot doesn’t capture sound and scent. It can’t register breezes or the feel of rain against my skin as the temperature drops quickly from 75 to 53 degrees during a mountain shower.

As I returned home from a long walk around noon today, the sound of a raven rattled the air. Except for me, on the ground there was no one else to pay him any attention. His voice led me across the street. There, the largest raven I’ve ever seen continued to let himself be known from his perch near the top of a Pinon Pine on the state government campus. He looked a little out of place so high up, sort of like an over-sized ornament that should be adorning the lower branch of a Christmas tree. Loud, unruly, he repositioned himself as I moved quietly with the hope of catching a shot. My presence meant nothing to him.

In the early afternoon I made my way to the absolute top of Canyon Road. Because my driving knowledge of Santa Fe is still like speaking a foreign language in the present tense, I had to make my way from the bottom, through galleries, foot traffic, and way too many cars that cost as much as many homes in middle America. Finally the name changed to Upper Canyon Road, and the landscape became a mix of deceptive stucco dwellings, some littered with what appeared to be tree waste. Much of it could have been Juniper branches destined to become coyote fencing. Both sides of the road were lined with dirt yards, the ubiquitous Hollyhocks and Chamisa, functional SUVS, and a BMW sports convertible tucked parallel with the gravel road here and there. A sign reads, DO NOT USE THIS DRIVEWAY TO TURN AROUND. In some places there’s barely enough room to pass an oncoming car. Any hope of turning around hinges on using someone’s driveway, their private property. DO NOT. NO PUBLIC RESTROOMS AVAILABLE.

At the very top of Canyon Road, you reach the Randall Davey Audubon Center, 135 acres of primitive New Mexico, nestled in Santa Fe Canyon. Aside from the home, which was originally a sawmill built in the early 19th century and then converted by Davey into a home and studio in 1920, and the dwellings which form the enclave of the Audubon society, the end of the road, the Upper Canyon Road, is essentially wild. The sound of silence, interrupted with the chatter of Bushtits, the scolding of Stellar Jays, hummingbirds in a feeding frenzy, and on this afternoon, a late summer rain shower. The smell of wet pines, the thirsty ground, 25% humidity, and your forearm as you wipe the rain from around your eyes and nose.

It’s quiet here at the end of the dirt easement that leads to this enclave on Galisteo Street. I hear a raven in the distance and the softer speculation of songbirds. High above a jet makes it way. The late afternoon air wants me to take a deep breath.

Kodak Moments
R. Harold Hollis—September 3, 2007 (Santa Fe, New Mexico)