Tuesday, December 30, 2008

I Make My Way

She walked across the room.
Taking my arm, she gave it a squeeze,
“I like your robust spirit.”
That made my day, my young week,
And it buoys me now.

Stuff, random stuff,
Waits in the dark and the light,
Waits for opportunity
To vanquish us,
Though we recognize not the battle.

That I could see my face, my heart
That I could know how I look
A wonderful force
To be reckoned with.
I need this jolt of honor.

I move with extra spring in my step
As I cautiously make my way
Down the icy sidewalks
Of the Royal City of Holy Faith.
I make my way
Recipient and bearer of gifts.

I Make My Way—Santa Fe, New Mexico (December 30, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Monday, December 29, 2008

Standing in the Light

I think I have this correct. It is the nature of at least some of us to withdraw into ourselves when we feel vulnerable. The rest of us go on the attack. Some of us vacillate between the two. I’ve seen a lot of aggressive behavior over the years, and to my disappointment, far too much of it has come from somewhere out of me. In spite of reminders everywhere, sometimes I let my pride take over. The part of me that needs to be right grabs the reins, and the kind and sweet part of me is forced to ride shotgun while the arrogant trail boss ineptly has his way. When we get to the destination, we’re both whipped.

On this cold, sunny and powerful New Mexico day, as I listen to an old CD of Gregorian chants recorded by a group of Benedictine monks, and having just cancelled my AAA membership after 22 years, the anger and frustration I felt leading up to and through the phone conversation with AAA seems like such a waste. I tried oh, so hard to explain calmly to the customer service representative my helplessness when I discovered Saturday evening, my truck stranded on the incline of an island of ice in a friend’s driveway, that my needs didn’t fall within AAA guidelines. If memory serves me, I haven’t called AAA for help in over 10 years. Rules and guidelines prevail, as I was reminded by the friend in whose driveway my truck burned rubber as we both tried to move it up the ice in temperatures maxed out in the 20s as the sun made its way down in the west.

I’m really no better off, my AAA membership now history. “Are you sure you want to cancel after 22 years?” asked the customer service representative. I’m puzzled over what difference the years make, given that I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve called for service in all those years. “I need to refer you to roadside assistance for them to explain why you couldn’t be helped (free of charge),” insisted the representative. My option for receiving assistance was to pay $100-200. So she transferred me to that department, where I was told that in winter conditions services are available to people who “really” need help—gasoline, towing, tire changes, battery jumps. I’m reminded of the old story of the person who had both theft and fire insurance on his house, which ultimately proved to be of no value. The catch—the house had to be robbed while it was burning, or equally insane, the reverse. How well the victims of Hurricane Katrina learned the value of their insurance. Was it wind, or rain? Whichever it was, it needed to be the other.

No, I’m no better off, really, my roadside assistance now the product offered by AARP. The rules and guidelines are the same, but I am saving $20 a year on the premium. And in the course of things, I spent precious energy at the risk of being unkind to two customer service representatives who were just doing their job. I managed to cut myself short at disdain, but I didn’t feel any better, or worse, than if I had let loose with both barrels.

I spent a long morning over coffee with my priest and friend, recounting the meaning of light on our spiritual journey. Especially during Advent and Christmas, the light takes on particular meaning. Once again, today I had the choice of shining a light, perhaps standing in the light to look at myself, and learning more about patience, humility, acceptance, and kindness. I chose to make a point, but hopefully not so much as to cut off my nose to spite my face. In a nod to fairness, in a world that asks, and sometimes requires, us to learn every day, where we can choose or not to own our decisions, I stand looking at my choices. I sigh—not willing to give in—and I sigh again, in the hope of letting go—letting go.

Standing in the Light—Santa Fe, New Mexico (December 29, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Friday, December 26, 2008

Here I Am

I’m on the email list of a church where I worship while in Texas part of the year. Usually I look with little interest in the informational messages that come around, but today I saw one that caught my attention. You know, pay attention, even if it is a little inconvenient. We hear too much from too many people about too many things that, let’s face it, don’t particularly call us. The message was simple—a response from someone offering to step up. “…BUT You know me, I WILL if no one else speaks up.”

Last Sunday at the place where I worship here a presentation and conversation during what is called adult forum concerned in part being open, taking risks, embracing opportunities to make a difference. Only a couple of years ago I asked a friend who claims a healthy vertical relationship with God for his definition of an angel. He quickly answered, “Angels are messengers.” How odd, I thought at the time, and even more so today, that I didn’t know—or maybe I had just forgotten—a definition that can be found just anywhere angels are defined and described. All roads lead to Greece in this instance, “angelos”, the Greek word for “messenger”. A few years ago we were entertained and called to action during prime time by a drama called “Touched by an Angel.” Apparently, during its run it was one of the highest rated shows on CBS. Life affirming it was. My mother was a fan, and frankly, so was I. The reason is simple. I believe in angels, and I am sustained by witnessing the life affirming. I long to be an angel. Who wouldn’t want to be that messenger who shows up to shine a light on the path, to shoulder a little extra burden, to cast love where love is faltering, to challenge us to make difficult choices, and to offer peace in spite of the outcome.

I often hear people complain about the demands of their lives. Sometimes we embarrass ourselves, often without knowing how foolish we sound as we go on and on about how stretched we are for time, how tough the circumstances we share with someone, how unfulfilled we feel. How demanding, how tiresome our lives can be. We obviously have to make a living, and if we are involved in family, we clearly have responsibilities there. We can hardly get away without some commitment to community. All the other things we do to oblige ourselves—maybe not so important as we insist or as we would like to believe. Shelter, food, and many, perhaps most, say spiritual nourishment, constitute our basic requirements. I add to that companionship, community, and the resulting sense of belonging. I like knowing that others depend on me in some way, even though at times I have resented the demands, real and perceived. I couldn’t begin to imagine the number of times that I have been one of the recipients of a call to act and instead just kept my hand down and my mouth shut, or the times I mistook a plea for something less worthy, and cast my own confusion, like a pall, over the plea.

I guess that it’s especially the time of the year because I’m in an angel frame of mind. Doing for others, whether it involves food or the nurturing no morsel ever provided, being there as kin and friend, as a stranger called to act, sometimes as a lover, tugs at me right now. While we are busy thinking that life is just going on—up, down, sideways, doing a flip-flop and taking us along for the ride, I am amazed at how frequently the messengers carry out their work right before our noses. Most amazing of all—that we don’t realize when we are the messenger or that we are even a part of some miracle.

I’ll bet the guy who spoke up in the email that went out—to how many people—had not a clue that someone might stop and consider, what a good guy you are. Maybe, just maybe someone thought, I should offer the same. The messages beg our attention. As I drove down St. Francis this morning on the way to Morning Prayer and Bible study, the staples of my Friday morning, a car passed me in the lane to my right. I noticed the license plate read SEEKHIM. My Christian faith tradition calls to mind the obvious. Ever ready to be expansive, however, I prefer right now to let my heart wander. On this cold, overcast day on the high plateau, where snow is predicted for later in the day, what do I do to answer the call? What do I do to step outside my narrow self? Here I am.

Here I Am—Santa Fe, New Mexico (December 26, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Simple Thank You Will Do

It’s just cool enough on my bare feet and arms for me to realize that it’s cold outside—really cold, 26 degrees with the coming of daybreak bringing with it a landscape completely blanketed in white. The snow continues to fall…big flakes…from a sky the color of a dove. I am safe inside my tiny condo home, thinking about the list I might accomplish today, Tuesday. Normally Monday is laundry day, but not this week. In fact, little that I routinely do on Monday happened yesterday. That’s okay. No one is really depending on me to accomplish much of importance this week. Unlike some of those assembled on Sunday for what is called adult forum at the place where I worship, I don’t have mythical legions of people depending on me. I have committed to certain dishes for Christmas day, and they will be ready. I don’t report to a job each day. Even my two volunteer responsibilities are suspended for this Christmas week. It’s up to me to make these days count—or not. I have a choice.

On my stovetop are two pies—one pumpkin and the other mincemeat—both made with affection and good conversation yesterday afternoon with a new friend here who invited me to make pies at her house. The pumpkin is laced with finely chopped candied ginger and honey, the mincemeat made from scratch of organic Granny Smith apples, jumbo flame raisins, walnuts, the peel and juice of Valencia oranges, and lots of Allspice. As we worked our magic yesterday, I was reminded that I hadn’t rolled a pie crust in a enough years for a child to be conceived and graduate from college—for a human spirit to be imagined, given bodily form, and to be brought into full social responsibilities. That’s a long time, but then not so long. Our crusts were one of two types—sprouted wheat flour and organic pastry flower—and both blended with butter, salt and chilled water. The result wasn’t as pretty as the ones with fluted edges seen in any cookbook, but the taste no doubt will be divine.

As we sat around the breakfast room table—the pumpkins pies the last to go into the oven—we talked about people and relationships. Always, I’m trying to figure things out. “Harold, you don’t have to understand everything,” I was advised by a friend, close at the time, a couple of years ago. Our conversation on that day was confounded by personal struggles made complicated and heavy, mostly by choice. That seems to be what we do often. Sometimes the demands of our lives are heavy. We lose our livelihood, our health. We lose people we love, and we are there to witness their passing—in the days of anticipation and dread of the inevitable, praying, bargaining, rationalizing, surrendering. Joy sometimes gets lost. But then there’s pie making with a friend. And that friend teaches me something I guess I already knew—to take time to be grateful. I’ve learned a new term—to go into gratitude. Call it what you will, it is a choice that I can make any time of the day.

Folks of my generation grew up with a Bing Crosby tune about counting blessings. I was 11 in 1954, when Mr. Crosby wrote:

When I'm worried and I can't sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep
And I fall asleep counting my blessings
When my bankroll is getting small
I think of when I had none at all
And I fall asleep counting my blessings

I don’t think about this song but that I remember where I would have been at age 11, and with whom I would be spending my Christmas. I enjoyed the safety and comfort of my parents and sisters. We were indeed blessed. My parents worked very hard to build a life for us, and we were taught to share in the responsibilities of making our home a place of comfort. While in my 11-year-old mind I wouldn’t have thought to give voice to all the things for which I was grateful, I knew.

These days I have my own blessing reminder. I am away from the place that has always been familiar to me. I am an orphan at this stage, although my two older sisters are only a phone call away. I have chosen to chase my star—on my own. And on those nights where I am especially pressed to worry, worry, worry about everything, I remember to reach out with open hands, palms pointing to the heavens, and remind myself that, not only am I blessed, but I am also a blessing. Oh, yes, I am indeed grateful for that.

In the night, I understand.
I am blessed, I am blessing.

Can this be? Yes.
I am blessed, I am blessing.

Yet I wrest. Stop.
I am blessed, I am blessing.

Let me fall. Get up.
I am blessed, I am blessing.

I am wrong. No.
I am blessed, I am blessing.

In the day, my heart divides.
I am blessed, I am blessing.

Come share this bread. Tell me.
I am blessed, I am blessing.

I love you. I love you.
I am blessed, I am blessing.

—Santa Fe, New Mexico (October 23, 2007)

So I give thanks for pie making and for the pilgrims who have embraced me in this new land, as I chase my star, ever my Daddy’s child granted the opportunity for adventure that charged his spirit as well. I am grateful for the family that blessed me, continues to bless me, and enabled me to bless others.

A Simple Thank You Will Do—Santa Fe, New Mexico (December 23, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Give My Heart

Snow has come to Santa Fe. This is a good thing, for several reasons, chief among them, we need the moisture—always—and, of course, snow in this place in December adds to the magic. Yesterday, standing in the kitchen of new friends and looking onto the landscape of their warehouse neighborhood, coffee brewing and cheese sandwiches grilling on the stove top, old-fashioned holiday tunes playing in the background, I felt included.

Sunday, our worship at St. Bede’s was centered on the lessons and carols, a tradition that dates to the late 19th century in the Anglican Tradition. Familiarity is famous for encouraging our minds to wander, as we repeat experiences. I was drawn to the snow falling on an already blanketed ground, outside the expanse of glass on either side of the altar table. In the church yard small trees, branches laden with the night’s offering, farther away, homes outlined in white, and finally, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains—the blood of Christ—crested with snow, the towering evergreens that cover them a dark carpet now decorated in white.

Although I tried to listen to the story of the fall of man, the promise of the Messiah, His birth, I drifted between the readings, the carols, and the story happening right outside the warmth of the church. One carol, Christina Rossetti’s poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” (1872), called me back. It is an Advent season tradition from the hymnal. “What can I give Him, poor as I am/If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb/If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part/Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart”.

Any time is a good time to count blessings. In this place where plenty lives so obviously next to poverty, where winter is more than a gorgeous photograph—where the elements do make a difference in how we live our lives each day—where opportunity waits with open arms, simply and plainly waits for us to reply, the season begs us to remember.

We are exchanging gifts all day long, often not realizing the importance of a greeting or handshake. What we give doesn’t require any more currency than what resides in our hearts. Often the gift comes from the person we hardly imagine being our blessing on any given day. All of the expectations we attach to those who share our walk for a while, however little or great, can lead to mighty disappointment. “You are an angel,” insisted my neighbor this morning on the landing outside our front doors—over my protests that the few hours each week I give to volunteer work amount to all that much. There’s no need for me to trivialize my efforts, but by comparison I know they are small. I have felt little affection for this troubled neighbor whose presence at times has been the cause of angry stirrings in my heart. Today he called me “an angel”. Surely, I am to do something with that news. “Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart”.

“In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.”

Give My Heart—Santa Fe, New Mexico (December 16, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Reaching for the Kingdom

“The righteous shall possess the land and dwell in it forever.” Psalm 37

“Together we have walked, we have suffered, we have cried to God. He has sustained us and brought us to the place where we are. The land of God is here; the kingdom of God is in your heart….Trust him and keep walking.” (from Forward Movement, December 11, 2008)

“It smells like Thanksgiving in here,” I commented to another of the volunteers last night at the shelter, my second night to help out for a few hours in the week when my place of worship is one of two churches staffing with volunteers and food—precious, warm, fragrant food on a night where the temperature was headed for the low 20s here in the high desert. It was indeed Thanksgiving, not only because of the large pans of turkey and dressing, along with meatloaf and baked potatoes, and an array of desserts, bowls filled with fruit, but more importantly because of the spirit of gratitude that washed over those assembled. Some were escaping the cold, ready for a night out of the elements, even if it meant sleeping in scant sleeping bags on a concrete floor barely saved from rock hardness by a cheap, thin layer of commercial carpet. The number had climbed almost to 60 at this overflow shelter by the time I left at 9—mostly men, but a few women as well, and two couples.

Once again, I was amazed by the competence and good humor of the volunteers, although in my eyes I was the least among them. “What do you want to do?”, someone asked. Just assign me something, I said, and then I described the role I had played on Sunday night. It seemed that we had way more volunteers than we needed when I walked in the front door. As it turned out, we stayed busy for three hours, checking in pilgrims, welcoming them, stowing their belongings under lock, assigning rooms and issuing sleeping bags, and encouraging them to the dining area.

I am impressed by the other volunteers, most who seem to have lots more experience than I. A big, imposing but gentle guy manned the locked door, through which mostly one person at a time entered. He quietly greeted and explained before sending people forward to the check-in desk. About an hour into the evening, someone working at the desk commented that he was surprised we hadn’t needed to call the police because of drunken, aggressive behavior from one of the few regulars who had already created a reputation for themselves. Before the words were hardly out of his mouth, BAM-BAM on the exterior door—a young woman with way too much attitude who had already been told not to come back until the regular shelter staff came on duty at 9. At that time she might be admitted if she could get her behavior under control.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that the offenders were equally men and women. The police eventually did arrive, and the drama unfolded, now at the front door. As I left, two of the women exited the shelter and started down the street, one trying to calm the other. They wore coats, but as I drove away, chilled just by my walk from the building to my truck, cold now after three hours in the parking lot with temps already in the high 20s, I wondered, how can they spend tonight outside? Where will they go? Another woman had already laid out her own sleeping bag outside the back entrance, where she apparently intended to camp after choosing to leave the shelter because she didn’t like her room assignment. It was claustrophobic, she had complained earlier in a loud voice—not fair, she added, as other guests watched quietly from the dining tables and chairs situated around the common area. More than a couple of men protested their claustrophobia, realizing they would be one of five sleepers in a 10 x 10 room arrangement. The crowded conditions couldn’t have been news because virtually every one of the guests is mightily familiar with the circumstances. The vast majority was just happy to be warm and safe, at least half of them retiring to their make-do beds after eating—to sleep, to have quiet conversation with their roommates, to read.

An articulate, handsome and fit man—just turned 66—sells Christmas trees during the day. When he rearranged his pack at the check-in desk, I saw among his belongings the wool and nylon pullover shirt with Native American designs that I had brought to the shelter on Sunday night. Along with all of the other things I brought, that shirt had to make its way to a local organization that processes donations, then to be distributed. I smiled, pleased that one of my own gifts had made it to the shelter and onto the back of a really sweet man. Another man asked for a wake-up call at 1:30 a.m. to go to work. I overheard him discussing art with someone across the table at dinner. A woman new to the shelter as of Monday had made her way from 10 miles south, and through the help of others, to the shelter. She hopes to have a job by the end of the week. There’s John and Paul and Mary. There’s the shy, smiling man reading the biography of a 19th c. American female author. They are a mirror. I was told late in the evening last night that one of the volunteers left, offended by the behavior of some of our guests. Allegedly, that’s not what she and her church were there for. Second hand information to me because I was quietly working at my station in the back of the building, where the pilgrims enter. Hmmph, well, what are we there for, to pick and choose those who deserve our kindness?

From my small but warm and safe condominium here in Santa Fe, I can look out the balcony doors onto the remnants of snow on the ground. I look through the branches of a large pine, where a plump pair of doves occasionally light. I shower luxuriously every morning in this place where we are reminded that any time is a good time to conserve our precious water supply. I drink coffee brewed from beans purchased at Whole Foods Market. I cook chili and beans, and I bake sweet potatoes that I adorn with minced meat. Decent bottles of red wine sit on my kitchen counter. I sleep under down on a firm mattress. Books line the shelves of a cabinet at the end of my bed and rest on my softly lighted bedside table. The treasures that I instinctively seek fill this artful space. Yes, thanks to my good fortune—an education, good jobs, my very modest retirement income, the gifts of my own efforts and those who came before me, all the way back to my German great grandmother who landed in Galveston as a toddler with her parents in 1866—I live in relative luxury. And though my lot is not that of those who inhabit homes ranging in value from a half million to many millions in this land of plenty, contrasted sharply with a large measure of meagerness, I am blessed and I give thanks. We are reaching for the kingdom--together. At least, that’s what the prayer says.

Reaching for the Kingdom—Santa Fe, New Mexico (December 11, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Monday, December 8, 2008

Out of the Valley of the Blind

I don’t remember when I first heard the expression, “In the valley of the blind the one-eyed man is king,” but I suppose I’ve understood it to mean that by comparison, any one of us can have insight that could put us in a position of power. I’m thinking of power for good. Today I’ve discovered that the expression is actually “In the country” etc. etc., and the source is the H. G. Wells short story, “In the Country of the Blind”. For some reason, this expression came to mind this morning while I read today’s meditation from Forward Movement. “Teach me what is good and what is not, Lord, for alone I cannot tell. Let me see the pieces with your eyes.” (Forward Movement - Monday, December 8, 2008)

The Wells story concerns the inhabitants of a valley in Ecuador who, after generations following a natural upheaval of the land that effectively cut them off from civilization, had become completely blind as a result of some plague. The sight of those who weren’t born blind dimmed gradually, and all the children born henceforth were born without sight. Eventually blindness became normal, even revered. All this occurred against the backdrop of this valley that ”had in it all that the heart of man could desire--sweet water, pasture, an even climate, slopes of rich brown soil with tangles of a shrub that bore an excellent fruit….” “…life was very easy in that snow-rimmed basin, lost to all the world, with neither thorns nor briers, with no evil insects nor any beasts save the gentle breed of llamas they had lugged and thrust and followed up the beds of the shrunken rivers in the gorges up which they had come. The seeing had become purblind so gradually that they scarcely noticed their loss.” (H. G. Wells, “The Country of the Blind”)

Word of this valley had traveled outside through a man who went in search of aid, but was lost. After many generations those who occupied this paradise of sorts had grown very adept at living without sight. Indeed, their other senses were finely tuned, and it wasn’t even possible for the trekker who eventually happens into the valley to explain sight to the people. On the contrary, his efforts lead to peril. He is considered an idiot who suffers from delusions, “newly formed” and not to be trusted. After his life is spared as he tries to escape, the intruder decides that he must succumb to the forces of the “blind” when he falls in love with a young woman, and in order to marry her he agrees to surgery for removal of “those queer things that are called the eyes”—to have those “irritant bodies” removed so that he will be like everyone else. So much for what had become legend about this place—“In the Country of the Blind the One-Eyed Man is King." Ultimately he realizes the insanity of agreeing to such calamity, and he escapes to that which is “drenched with light and beauty”.

So how frightening it is that in the midst of paradise we become blind, that our loss becomes the norm. God forbid that we would rob others of a gift that we, through some toll that life exacts, have grown accustomed to living without. “Let me see the pieces with your eyes.” Blindness takes many forms. Perhaps one of the worst is our failure to see what is going on right before our eyes. Last night I spent three short hours helping out in a local homeless shelter. My role was small, my time there of little consequence, especially compared to the time I realized others on duty had already given, as they talked about more hours in the coming days.

In they came, first the women and then the men. Fewer than 10 women, one husband and wife, and close to 40 men before 9 o’clock. They were screened one at a time, then at the next station asked to empty their pockets into a Ziplock bag, which was returned to them. The remainder of their belongings were labeled and stored in locked rooms—one for women and one for men. If they didn’t already have a sleeping bag marked with their name because they had been to the shelter on previous nights, they were issued one, along with an exercise-type rubber mat for additional cushion on the concrete floor, carpeted but with no padding. The men were assigned four and five to a room, some choosing to go into the “overflow” room, which was larger.

Local churches have taken on the responsibility of staffing with volunteers during the hours from 6 to 9 p.m. each night, at which time shelter employees come on duty. This week the church where I worship is partnered with another church to provide staff and food. Last night the offering was lasagna and beef vegetable soup. Coffee, cocoa, and milk, along with dessert, completed the menu. The tables lined up in the dining space were decorated with large bowls filled with apples and oranges. I learned that the morning, which begins at 6 a.m., would include a breakfast of cold cereal and milk, juice and hot beverage.

Frankly, I didn’t know what to expect last night. I wasn’t surprised by the appreciative response as one by one people made their way through the points from exterior doorway to their rooms. The good natured conversations among our guests and volunteers was heart warming, as were the table games—cards and chess—and open books. Some guests retired quietly to their make-do quarters after eating, folded into their sleeping bags with a paperback. Some went to sleep right away.

In spite of the rules and the cautions we new volunteers were to learn about in our short time on duty, the helping spirit of the shelter was obvious. “Thank you for being here,” we heard from many. “Thank you,” replied the female pastor of one of the Methodist churches in the city, many times. She’s volunteering several nights this week, although her own church has no official responsibilities until next week.

I was a little apprehensive as I made my way to the shelter last night, bags of clothes in the bag of my truck from a friend who owns a consignment store. From my own closet, I had taken some flannel shirts and a wool pull over shirt to accompany a new jacket I had bought a couple of weeks ago to donate on my night of volunteering. As the evening began, I realized quickly how great this act of generosity, this shelter on a cold high desert night, these volunteers, the smell of soup and the beautiful, generous servings of lasagna. I understood, again, that there but for the grace of God go I. I had my eyes opened to the intelligence and handsomeness and seeming goodness of pilgrims for whom life has dealt a blow for reasons I can only imagine. And I was rewarded—oh, that I might be part of the reward—by the difference we can make when we allow ourselves to see what should be so obvious around us. “Teach me what is good and what is not, Lord, for alone I cannot tell. Let me see the pieces with your eyes.”

Out of the Valley of the Blind—Santa Fe, New Mexico (December 8, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Breathe In...Exhale Slowly

"Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could, some blunders and absurdities have crept in. Forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day." - Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

"No matter what looms ahead, if you can eat today, enjoy the sunlight today, mix good cheer with friends today, then enjoy it and bless God for it. Do not look back on happiness or dream of it in the future. You are only sure of today; do not let yourself be cheated of it." - Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1878)

A friend reminded me recently of something I don’t like about myself. I am impatient. Giving things a positive spin, I like to think of myself as eager. Truth is, however, that I am my father’s child—my impatience a gift from my Scots Irish Daddy, Russell, my namesake. It was probably his lack of patience that stymied my already puny aptitude for excelling at many things that came so naturally to him. A tinkerer, he was adept at a little of this and a little of that. My sisters and I all have something from his capable hands—a Felix the Cat drawing, chest for holding treasure, bookshelf, a table. I remember times that he attempted to engage my help in one of his projects. “Here, let me do that,” he would say in exasperation when I either didn’t catch on or I just wasn’t doing it to his satisfaction. So, no builder, electrician, or plumber am I. Gladly, I did develop his instincts at the stove, and I have taken his love for collecting treasure to an art form. And while I don’t recall ever feeling, as a child growing up, that Daddy and I were just enjoying one another’s company, in my gut I know that we had those times. Otherwise, I couldn’t hold his memory the way I do in my heart. So at times, in the heat of my eagerness—my champing at the bit—I smile, understanding that I am Daddy’s child.

For the record, I am impatient with my impatience. Mother used to say, “You’re just like your daddy. You want everything now.” I admit that I’m a lifelong devotee of immediate gratification. I go like “a house on fire,” according to Mother, a perception of me apparently so noted by those who know me well enough that they either remind me—not so much…only my oldest sister, Joan—or, I trust, they certainly note it to themselves and one another in my absence. I see a goal or a problem to be solved, and I go after it like, as the saying goes, there is no tomorrow. As my friend kindly pointed out to me the other night, making quick decisions can lead to regret, even in things as simple as—or maybe not—oh gee, a choice of material to drape a patio door. Keep in mind that the result must be artful, pleasing to the eye, aesthetically just. Name the task, buying screws at 40 cents each or comfortable sofa and chair for an otherwise empty living room, I’m on it, and I’m focused, and I ready to toss the dice. Going to the task, even if I’m doing so at someone else’s behest, I instinctively grab the reins. Sometimes, the results are disappointing.

Whatever role genes and modeled behavior has played in the nature that marks me in these senior years, I have come to learn that perhaps my impatience grows out of some lack of contentment. At least, some would suggest so. If I were content with just being on the journey, I wouldn’t have my attention so fixed on the destination. After all, what am I going to do when I get there, except perhaps say, “I’m here.” I don’t wolf down my food, especially if I’m eating with someone else. As a rule, I’m content to enjoy the company—that is, if the company merits the enjoyment. I can nurse my glass of wine with the best of them. Some people I know drink a beer or a glass of wine like it is water. A friend from long ago mastered the art of making the last four ounces of iced tea at a meal seem like nectar, to be sipped in some kind of delight that no thrice refilled glass of Lipton deserves. It was a form of control to delay our leaving the table, as he sensed my readiness, to be on! To where?

These days, in this place of conscious-raised humanity, I am reminded often of the importance of being present. You hear people talking about it. You see it on the walls, even displayed in the bathroom where I go for massage. “Live for Today,” the nicely framed piece rendered calligraphically advises. I wonder if a lot of people throw this term around without being truly keen on what it means exactly. The Internet serves up many websites devoted to Zen Buddhism and yoga, where one can read simple explanations of what it means and how it feels to be present.

Recently I went to a gathering that was supposed to be about journaling and being in the present. Unfortunately, the facilitator was a little caught up in the sound of her own voice, so much so that she didn’t really listen, unrelentingly eager to tell about her own journey, her own struggle to just be. Do as I say, not as I do. I guess what I am to learn from this modeled sense of urgency about oneself is to remember to take a breath, in fact several. Meditation guidelines routinely direct you to inhale and exhale slowly over a period of minutes, as you focus on the experience, letting go of past and future. Slowly, bend your neck to the right, now to the left, back and then forward. Aahh, I can feel the tightness in my neck and shoulders fading away. I wonder how long it takes to form this habit—wherever we are, to just stop, take a few deep breaths, and get over ourselves. My massage therapist tells me that she’s read new habits require 30 days to form.

I grew up in a family with a mother who clung to the past. Fear loomed large for her. In spite of her great love for family, her sense of loss, both proven and anticipated, claimed much of her energy. Oh, how I wish that I could have helped her be present in her final long struggle. Oh, that I had understood at the time what a difference it could have made for all of us. I can only wonder at the mix of eager, impatient father and anxious mother that nurtured us in our formative years? I don’t want to accept that we get too old to change. I hope that the old dog can learn new tricks. Any day of the week is a good day to let go of regret. Any time is a good time to show the door to fear.

For most of us, the house is not on fire, as we go about each day. For some, dealing with calamity is a profession. While this is not so for most of us, we indulge our restlessness—behind the wheel, in the grocery store line, at table, with those who serve us and those we claim to love. With our thoughts focused on where we think we need to be and what we think we need to be doing, we charge ahead, sometimes elbowing our way. Or wounds of the past lay claim to our present. Either way, we are robbed of precious time. It’s time to redo the tattoos on my forearms. For the next 30 days, that likely must be translated into some infinite number, on the left forearm, Pay Attention, and on the right forearm, Take a Deep Breath—and Let Go.

Breathe In…Exhale Slowly—Santa Fe, New Mexico (December 4, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Thanksgiving Connections

Growing up in Texas, the first signs of fall were a big deal for me. Fall is my season. After the long, hot summers, which seem to have become even longer, I am eager for cool weather to play with my spirit, and though I don’t like anticipating my life away, I look forward to Halloween and Thanksgiving. Of course, fall is the time of harvest, the time for gathering. In my part of Texas, we don’t see much that distinguishes the changing of the seasons. There’s nothing to support romantic notions of changing leaves or smoke wafting from chimneys. In the city you can’t even burn leaves anymore, one of my favorite fall experiences when I was growing up. I love All Hallow’s Eve and All Saints Day, that Sunday in church when we chorus, “For all the saints, who from their labor’s rest/who thee by faith before the world confessed.” Though I have no cultural connection to the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos—Day of the Dead—which traces its roots to Mexico’s Aztec ancestry, I am at least a little fascinated by the celebration that focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and relatives who have died. In a few days we will gather as family and friends to give thanks for our blessings, and again we will remember those who have joined the company of saints, those with whom we have shared Thanksgivings past.

A couple of days ago, a cousin that most likely I’ve never met asked me for some family history from my Texas German maternal side. Her mother and my mother were first cousins. She found her way to me by searching on the Internet for my Grandma Lizzie Fuchs’s name. How wondrous this connection we humans have—blood and otherwise—that brings us together, sometimes for reasons that might just go by unrecognized. How good it feels to be reminded that I know something about from where and from whom I come, that I have a heritage that can easily be traced to Europe. I know that my great grandmother, Louisa Benfer Fuchs, celebrated her first birthday and learned to walk on the crossing from Prussia to Galveston, Texas in 1866. And I am grateful that my mother’s interest in talking about her family translated to me.

These days I live relatively far away from what has been familiar for most of my 65 years. I have traded the Gulf Coast, whose power extends far to the north of the coast, for the high plateau of New Mexico, situated at 7000 feet and at the base of mountains whose Spanish name translates in English to Blood of Christ. In a city of 70,000, I have no family, although I have paternal cousins I haven’t seen since they were young children and I was a recent college graduate. Aside from the Hollis blood we share, nothing connects us. We have no history of affection, nothing to stir us to caring about one another. Some 15 years ago, as my cousin Jimmy lay close to death in this small city—a still young man—I was visiting here with friends over Thanksgiving. I called Jimmy’s home to say hello, knowing that he was seriously ill, yet not having seen him for close to 30 years. His grown daughter answered the phone. I gave her my name, told her that I was Jimmy’s cousin, and asked if she knew who I was. “No,” she answered simply, and then she put her mother on the phone. Jimmy was too sick for visitors. Recently I went looking for his grave, only to discover that he lies at the feet of his father-in-law, but there is no marker noting his presence.

So this email message two days ago out of the blue from a 3rd cousin in Texas that I’ve never met, asking for information about my mother’s side of our family, was delightfully welcome. Perhaps I will never meet this cousin. Most likely, our connection will be brief, once I have supplied her with the information about her grandfather’s siblings that she wants to pass on to her own children some day. I suppose it doesn’t really matter all that much. What does matter is that we have connected, if only in passing. The need to know something about from where and from whom we come is important, even if it’s limited to knowing something about your Grandpa Willie’s sisters and brothers. I remember Great Uncle Willie only a little. I remember that he was a farmer, that he and his wife, Donie, had a large bunch of children. Hanging on a wall upstairs in my Texas barn home is a photograph of Louisa and some of her brood, including Willie, most likely a teenager, he and his older brother each astride a horse. I remember Uncle Willie’s funeral on a hot, late-summer day. It was in the country, probably a Baptist church, constructed of clapboard covered in white asbestos siding. Why Willie, who was raised a Missouri Synod Lutheran by a first generation German Lutheran, was buried from a Baptist church, I don’t know. He had died after a long siege with cancer. Uncle Willie’s only surviving child, number 10 and the youngest, is now 64. She was 12 at the time of his death, and six at the time of her mother’s death. I wonder what she remembers about her daddy’s funeral. Maybe, in the course of connections, I will hear from her, and I will ask her.

It is time once again for us to try to overcome all that separates us and give thanks. Those who are blessed to be with their kin probably don’t realize the extent of their blessing. Those who have created family that isn’t connected by blood—the ones who for the most part choose with whom they celebrate—maybe they think about this a little more. Maybe they don’t take familiarity as license—well, for anything. When I returned to Santa Fe several weeks ago, I was resigned to tough it out for Thanksgiving, to be alone on this my most favorite holiday, cast in my most favorite time of the year—if no one invited me to share their table. As it has turned out, I have received five invitations. How blessed am I. Although I will join a friend, cornbread stuffing in hand—that is my assignment—I will begin the day as a Kitchen Angel, helping a large group of regular and ad hoc volunteers put together the lunch that will be delivered to our 80 clients. The kitchen manager has assigned me cornbread dressing, using my middle sister Sue’s recipe, a recipe Sue has adapted from our Mamaw Hollis, a true East Texas cook. Connections are happening all over this Thanksgiving landscape, and I embrace all reminders of what it means—what is feels like—to belong and to have the opportunity to share our blessed bounty.

Thanksgiving Connections—Santa Fe, New Mexico (November 23, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Angel in Disarray

Genesis 32: 26-28 “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.’”

We sat trapped—we had chosen to be trapped, I guess by what you’d call good sense—as a man, wild about the head and in his head demanded and pleaded for money. Face it. His plea was for our help. Honestly, I felt a little fearful, but I was in the company of a capable friend, trained in medicine and no stranger to people in crisis. At first, not realizing how much clearer and protracted this situation would become, my friend yelled through the closed and secure driver’s window, “Get a job.” After all, our chance encounter had begun with this disheveled man rapping on the driver's window, announcing that he had lice and needed money. I suppose we were to assume that he intended to go to CVS Pharmacy just across the parking lot. From that point on, the situation rapidly deteriorated into something like lunacy.

Our fortress was a new model Toyota crew cab truck, complete with heated seats, a DVD-based navigation system, rear backup camera and Bluetooth wireless technology. We sat enthroned in comfort as this man, barefoot, his pants falling to his ankles as he wrestled with his circumstances. The man walked away, returned, insisted—repeat repeat, repeat—but he wouldn’t go away. “Go away or I’m going to call the cops,” my friend insisted equally. I made no effort to exit the fortress, get into my own truck and drive away. It was the proverbial train wreck, and I was on the front row.

As the drama unfolded, the man moved to the sidewalk in front of our truck. Up and down the walk, he stumbled, clutched for his beltless, oversized pants, half talked to himself, perhaps reaching out to some presence he sensed deep inside. Compromised by alcohol? Drugs or the lack of appropriate drugs? As we waited for the police, a second call having been placed, I suggested that the man really needed an ambulance—that he couldn’t go into the tank in his condition. My friend assured me that the police would do the right thing. Finally, our angel in disarray collapsed to the pavement, his head near the curbing. “Did he hit his head?” my friend asked, and then he heard the guy moaning and crying in his misery. “He’s not unconscious,” he added. Oh, I’m thinking, what do I know? I did know that the man was now nested up against the front left tire of my truck, which was parked to the immediate right of our fortress. One of his legs rested tucked under the driver’s side of my truck.

I had spent a warm, fine evening in the company—indeed, as a guest—of a man for whom I already had high regard, and now the evening had come to a close with two humans being asked to be their best. As it turned out, I was just a passenger who felt safe in someone else’s charge. After the police finally arrived, and I made a move to get out of the truck, my friend advised, “You stay put.” From the comfort of the fortress, I watched the policeman and my friend, remembering what he had said a few minutes earlier, frustrated because he really wanted to get home and attend to his animals...”I’m a doctor. I can’t leave him.” I had told him that there must be a reason for this guy entering our lives—really, his life at this point—this modern-day medicine man. He asked for the reason, but I couldn’t give one at the time. He took care of things, as I watched. This morning, I’m smiling, a little, as I reflect on last night, even knowing that a man in distress went down, as two pilgrims were asked to be present. I, the innocent for this insulated moment, served only to witness, to observe, and to feel safe myself in the presence of someone else taking charge, so obviously capable. Finally, reassured by my friend that this persistent soul in crisis would be going to the emergency room, rather than into the tank, I left for home. Now, I have time to think again about reasons, chance encounters, causes and results, and missed opportunity. As I sort it out, one thing remains clear: the meaning of Wednesday evening, November 19, 2008, is not lost on me.

Angel in Disarray—Santa Fe, New Mexico (November 20, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Opportunity to Get It Right

I was in a hurry on this Friday morning, even though I had awakened in plenty of time to make my way to Morning Prayer by 7:30. I look forward to Friday mornings, mostly because of what happens during Bible study following a relatively solemn worship. No bunch of Bible thumpers are we—we who gather for Bible study. We simply read the scriptures appointed from the lectionary for the day. It is the discussion that unfolds in this group of earnest pilgrims that makes the morning.

As life would have it, especially in this place where cold weather necessarily calls attention to the plight of those who, seemingly shut out for whatever reason, stand waiting for someone to acknowledge them. Yes, for a welcoming hand, perhaps a humane word, they stand waiting. Such was my journey this morning. A grizzly-looking older guy, not unlike me probably, stood well away from the entrance to the donut shop, beyond the two or three metal stands set up for the daily newspaper and a couple of alternative papers that are popular here in Santa Fe. “Can you spare some change for a cup?” he asked. With a sigh, once again, I confronted a dilemma that shouldn’t even be a dilemma. You either give the guy some change, or you don’t. What he does with it is not my concern. I could have bought him a cup of coffee and a donut. I even considered asking the person behind the counter if the store’s policy allows them to give coffee to panhandlers. I didn’t give change, I didn’t ask, and I didn’t buy a cup of coffee or a donut. As I walked out the front door to my warm truck, shortly to be informed by the radio that our low reached 10 degrees this morning, I one more time ignored the call of the guy, “Can you spare some change for a cup?” I suppose he didn’t know that he and I had already failed each other.

During Bible study, our discussion finally came around to the scripture that reminds us: “For the poor always you have with you…” (John 12:8). I had already been reminded of this sad truth in a message from a friend in Texas yesterday. What that message from Texas didn’t address is what we are supposed to do about this truth. Today, the answer was offered by the priest who, along with his wife, leads us on our Friday morning journey. “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him much is required.” (Luke 12:48) There it is. If you want to quote scripture, pointing a finger at one of the saddest truths about our lives, essentially blaming the bereft for their own plight—it’s all about choices some love to say—then remember the whole story. And we might as well throw in one more oft-quoted phrase: “There but for the grace of God go I.” Apparently not from scripture, the exact origin of this scripture-like expression is not known.

I’m always ready to work over myself, quick to do the mea culpa on my failings—in this instance, specifically the plight of the homeless. I failed the guy standing well away from the front door of the donut shop. And not that it made any difference in the outcome, one person this morning pointed out that I had received the gift of recognition. For a moment in front of that donut shop, I was asked to suspend judgment. I was asked not to wonder about how this guy got into his predicament. I was asked for a moment to remember that there but for the grace of God go I. "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her….Go now and leave your life of sin." (John 8:1-11)

I’m not so sure that I want to be let off so easily. Yet, it doesn’t do me or anyone else any good if my words of compassion do not get translated into action. I can hope to do better at the next opportunity. I don’t have to wait for someone standing with outstretched hand. “I tell you with certainty, since you did it for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did it for me.” (Matthew 25:40)

My Sunday morning habit before heading off to church is to read the sermon found on the Episcopal Church website. A couple of weeks ago, the Rev. Sister Judith Schenck, who is a retired priest and a Franciscan Poor Clare solitary in the Episcopal Diocese of Montana, laid it down, plain and simple:

“So what does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? Do we want to have enough food and shelter for basic human survival? Do we want medical care? Do we want an education? Do we want our children to flourish safely and develop into all they can be?

To love our neighbor as ourselves usually requires two things in our culture: a pocketbook and a suspension of judgment.

If you own a house much larger than you need, and you know there are people being evicted in your hometown, what does that mean in terms of loving your neighbor as yourself?

If your closet is full of new or adequate coats, hats, and shoes, and you know there are children in town without warm clothing, what does that mean in terms of the gospel?

If you buy a new car when the old one still works and others can't even buy gas, what does that mean in terms of your total love of God?

If you eat steak and or dine out in restaurants, and you know a third of the world is starving to death, what does that mean in terms of loving your neighbor as yourself?

The list can go on and on. And we fall short.”

(from a sermon authored by the Rev. Sister Judith Schenck, found on the website www.episcopalchurch.org for Sunday, October 26, 2008)

I believe from the deepest part of my being that, if we are paying attention, all day long every day we have the opportunity to realize, to be reminded, of what life expects of us. Don’t worry about religious beliefs. Don’t worry about religion at all. Walk into the donut shop for a cup of coffee, pick up a newspaper, turn on cable television, watch a movie, sit in the park on the plaza of what some call one of the most magical places in the United States. Dig down deep for your sense of humanity, for your sense of goodness, for your moral center. Yes, get over yourself. Ever ready to be touched by how I choose to entertain myself, I was reminded earlier this week of our spirit to make things better in a film set in England during WWII. In the film, the protagonist, a wealthy English widow, observes: “I can’t bear feeling helpless. I always feel there’s something I can do. Sometimes, of course, there’s nothing. (from “Mrs. Henderson Presents”) I do fall short, and I will fall short. But thanks for the gift of recognition and the opportunity to get it right, opportunities presented over and over and over.

The Opportunity to Get It Right—Santa Fe, New Mexico (November 6, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Learning Something Here

Apparently my marks in the school of hard knocks are unacceptable because I keep getting assigned the same lessons over and over. I’d like to believe that I already knew what I read in the meditation the other day in Forward Movement: “I've heard that recovering alcoholics, when they experience a craving for a drink, often suck a sweet or toffee instead. Getting rid of a bad habit demands more than just not doing something—the vacuum carved out by refraining from something harmful cries out to be filled, and unless we fill it with something positive, we may find ourselves back at square one, or worse.” Maybe I’m more of a hard-headed German than I realized. I just keep butting heads with the same old habits. Or maybe the Scots-Irish heritage claimed on my paternal side—according to some sources, rugged, individualistic, freedom-loving frontiersman—requires that I be challenged regularly and routinely. Hardly rugged here, but I gladly claim a love of freedom that seems somehow to have eluded me for 60 some odd years. Likely, I’ve simply, confoundedly been a prisoner of myself, genetically predisposed and conditioned to believe that I couldn’t walk through a doorway in a wall that doesn’t even exist.

“I played with fire, did counsel spurn/Made life my common stake; But never thought that fire would burn/O that a soul could ache.” —Henry Vaughan (British metaphysical poet, 1621-1695)

We’re odd little creatures with proclivities for one thing or another. As children we learn to respect fire. I recall a lifelong fascination with burning trash. Why as a child I loved to gather and set fire to debris I don’t remember. This instinct one time found me in what seemed like peril when a burning piece of paper wrapped itself around my blue jeaned leg, as I tended a fire that I had started. I couldn’t have been more than seven because we still lived near downtown Houston. All these years later, I can visualize only me with a rake in my hand, the paper clinging to my pants leg, and my daddy coming to the rescue. No doubt, I got a “Son, I told you so”, but I don’t remember a spanking. I remember few spankings. Yes, I have a healthy respect for fire and for the instruments of living made hot for some necessary purpose. You don’t burn in the middle of the summer, when the grass like parchment is ripe for disaster. That’s why we have burn bans. You don’t grab a hot skillet without a mitt. How many times have I failed that test in the throes of a kitchen emergency? No big measure of anything other than instinct to remedy a situation. Perhaps habits are instinctual as much. The result is the same, regardless of the catalyst. Some serve us well, others not.

Late in the fifth decade of my life of lessons a professional friend described me as a natural-born problem solver. I smiled, never having claimed that for my own, not really, even though my mind starts figuring out things instinctively as soon as I’m faced with a dilemma. Let someone tell me about his own wall, and I seize the challenge, sometimes to my detriment. “Harold, you don’t have to understand everything,” I was once advised, in a friendly manner, by someone who ended up telling me that I just need to let some things be. The chaplain who called on Mother during her long illness offered some advice one day, as I catalogued my efforts to get through to Mother, trying, almost in desperation, to help her understand that it could be easier than she had chosen for it to be. “What,” I replied, “pray unceasingly?” I asked, a little begrudgingly, as the chaplain waited patiently to make her suggestion. Smiling, she said, “Just try being silent.” I never got there, and my mother didn’t change either. Damn, I hate being an old dog who hasn’t changed much in all these years.

As I watched “The Trip to Bountiful,” last night, Horton Foote’s beautiful screenplay about an elderly woman’s efforts to reclaim some of her past, only to be thwarted repeatedly by a strong-willed, self-absorbed daughter-in-law and an equally weak son, I embraced its tender, yet strong and affirming message. In the end life is about getting on and getting along. It’s okay to give in sometimes, in spite of our instincts, in spite of what we believe is right. In a late-night conversation, as the old woman passes the time in the bus station of a small Texas town, the station attendant comments that he has two grown children, “raised the same”, one drinks and the other one doesn’t. Figure that out. Figure out why a selfish daughter-in-law digs in her heels, hell bent to deny an old woman a sweet, nurturing visit to her heartland. No, she couldn’t go home again, but having made an attempt, she was reconciled to her responsibility in making the best of a difficult situation. Just give me a little room for making peace. I know I can do it if I believe I have a choice.

Certainly, our efforts to figure things out are at the heart of self-preservation, both individually and collectively. How else did we come up with social order and religion? The science of either of those is for someone else to analyze. I know that I’m sharing this planet with lots of people who just keep getting it wrong, including myself, and it is our failure to get it right, in spite of genuine effort, that keeps things moving, sometimes forward. We are victims of our nature and our habits. Christians want to call it sin. Am I too hard headed to just admit, finally, that I am a sinner? “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” I recite each Sunday from the Book of Common Prayer. In the middle of the night, awake and working my list of mistakes, some more clearly definable than others, I pray the same. Help me change. I want to change. Help me not keep doing the things that cause me all kinds of misery, make me want to give up, sometimes.

Surely there’s more to it than sucking it up and going on. Maybe I just have to accept that this old dog learns the hard way. Maybe I just have to keep reminding myself of what Grandma Fuchs said often: “If you can’t listen, you have to feel.” Maybe I need to work harder at learning from my hard-earned habits. Maybe I just have to let some things be. After all, jumping into the fiery bath hasn’t done too much for me, so far. It’s made me wary sometimes, distrusting of myself and others, plagued by regret, apologetic, sad. Even though I already knew it, I welcome being reminded that abandoning old habits, ones which clearly do not make for a better life, insists that I replace them with something, simply good. I don’t want to argue about the relative value of good. I’ll just go with good because I know what it means to me.

Learning Something Here—Santa Fe, New Mexico (October 29, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Monday, October 27, 2008

A Grown Man Cries

Sometimes it’s uncomfortable to watch someone cry. For me, this is especially true when it’s someone I love, like a family member. As a man who has no qualms about showing this vulnerability, this access to what moves me deeply, I don’t recoil at the sight of another man crying. Yesterday I was fascinated as a handsome fortyish man quietly wept while the choir sang Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”. Sure, I could have forced myself to look away, to allow him the privacy we all hold rights to. I did off and on over a period of a few minutes, but I couldn’t stop looking at this guy, nattily dressed in khakis, an open dress shirt and a wool plaid jacket, visiting from out of town and in the company of his dad and his dad’s female companion. I speculated that perhaps he was crying in memory of his mother or that he was going through a painful separation from his own wife and children. It never entered my mind that he might be crying over a man. And now I chuckle as I remember the way he cocked his arm tough-guy style to shake my hand during the exchange of the Peace. “God’s peace,” I usually say. I don’t recall if he uttered any words or not. I do remember his smile, and I wonder if he was aware that I couldn’t really, completely look away while he wept. His own dad had noticed his weeping son, nudged his female companion to call her attention to this touching episode in someone’s life, and finally retrieved his own handkerchief to wipe wetted eyes.

A Grown Man Cries—Santa Fe, New Mexico (October 27, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Jesu, joy of man's desiring,
Holy Wisdom, Love most bright;
Drawn by Thee, our souls, aspiring,
Soar to uncreated light.
Word of God, our flesh that fashion'd,
With the fire of life impassion'd,
Striving still to truth unknown,
Soaring, dying, round Thy throne.

Through the way where hope is guiding,
Hark, what peaceful music rings!
Where the flock, in Thee confiding,
Drink of joy from deathless springs.
Theirs is beauty's fairest pleasure;
Theirs is wisdom's holiest treasure.
Thou dost ever lead Thine own
In the love of joys unknown.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Keeping Herod on His Toes

“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” Matthew 1:12

Funny how on just any old day you end up doing something that you’ve forgotten all the pleasure it has brought you in the past. Like listening to James Taylor’s sweet voice and thoughtful lyrics. The day was shaping up to be a 10. We had just spent a near-perfect afternoon at Bandelier National Monument, a day in the sunshine with temperatures peaking around 50, dry mountain air, cottonwoods bursting out in fall color. Well, it doesn’t get much better. As we drove back toward Santa Fe, the time was ripe for tunes. Old James just needed a listen, although I couldn’t have pulled his name out of the air if I had been asked to make a suggestion. He just happened to be one of the choices in one of the two CD holders I carry around in my truck.

It’s been a long, long time since I wondered what exactly did James Taylor have in mind when he penned “Home By Another Way?” On the surface it’s a tale about the wise men who took precious gifts to the Christ child. Ultimately, however, it is a story about making choices, about discernment, about honor and paying tribute and taking care of those we love, and yes, taking care of ourselves. We all have our Herod who would trip us up—pull the wool over our eyes under the guise of doing good and leave us the worse for having done what we thought was the right thing. “A king who would slaughter the innocents/Will not cut a deal for you…He’ll comb your camel’s fur/Until his boys announce they’ve found trace amounts/Of your frankincense, gold and myrrh.”

Doing the honorable thing doesn’t come easy, it seems. Whether it’s acknowledging the truth about ourselves, telling the truth about others, seeking to have and nurturing relationships that are not about control, and perhaps most importantly in a list that could go on, lifting others up rather than putting a foot on their neck, doing the right thing requires only the best we can give. And so it was for the Magi, come to honor the Messiah, whose birth had been foretold in scripture. A would-be crafty Herod, out to serve himself, fearful that someone, especially an infant destined for a greatness that comes only from God, might unseat him from his position of power, plots and manipulates to save his self-perceived importance. He didn’t get where he was by being the nice guy.

They tell me that life is a miracle
And I figured that they’re right
But Herod’s always out there
He’s got our cards on file
It’s a lead pipe cinch, if we give an inch
Old Herod likes to take a mile

As life would have it, no good deed goes unpunished. The efforts of the wise men to thwart Herod’s plan to destroy the Christ child led to the massacre of the innocents, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, where Herod had all young male children in the village of Bethlehem executed, allegedly to prevent the proclaimed King of the Jews from claiming Herod’s throne. Whether such an event actually occurred—those who write about such things generally conclude “no”—is unimportant. What matters is the measures to which human beings will go to preserve their power. What matters even more is the measures to which human beings will go to honor and to save one another. Medals are awarded to those serving in some official capacity. Others quietly carry out their heroics without history making note, without so much as an epitaph, without an Arlington as their final resting place.

“Home is where they want you now,” Taylor goes on to say, where “You can more or less assume that you’ll be welcome in the end”…”Safe home as they used to say/ Keep a weather eye to the chart on high/And go home another way.” So on a cold, sunny day in northern New Mexico, how nice it feels to be reminded of the choices we have, to take care of one another, sometimes bonded by blood and sometimes by friendship, and sometimes as lovers. Such gifts are indeed safe home.

Keeping Herod on His Toes—Santa Fe, New Mexico (October 24, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Something Like Original Good

Stories, weaving through our lives, remind us, if we are paying attention, of the best and the worst we offer one another. One of my favorite stories is William Sydney Porter’s—we know him as O. Henry—Gift of the Magi. It is a tale of giving and the sacrifices we make for those about whom we care in some way, indeed those we love, perhaps, more than life itself, tinged by great irony and ultimately the possible beauty of human kind. Just what are we capable of? One of the female clergy at the church where I worship here in Santa Fe commented to me a year ago that she doesn’t believe in original sin, but rather, original good, a concept that does have its place in the thinking about our belief systems. “Of course,” quipped someone I met recently. She’s a woman. Or something like that, he said. And surely that makes sense, given the whole Garden of Eden tale that figures large in the creation myth and the so-called fall of man, tempted by woman. That’s for others to wrestle with. Why wouldn’t anyone like to think that at our moral center is the urge to do good—to love immeasurably, to love sacrificially, and of course, to behave ironically in the course of it all?

In O. Henry’s story, the setting is on the Eve of Christmas, some time early in the 20th century. The players are Della and Jim. Their means are modest. The assets of their household are precious few, among them her gorgeous long hair, rippling and shining like “brown waters,” more valuable than the jewels of the queen of Sheba. Jim’s gold pocket watch, handed down from father to son to son, surely the envy of King Solomon, had he been a part of this tale. So on the Eve of Christmas, Della sells her tresses to buy a platinum chain for Jim’s watch, and Jim sells his watch to buy a set of tortoise shell combs for Della’s hair. What a surprise for these two at the unveiling.

I think a lot about choices—good choices, poor choices, some in between, perhaps morally neutral. At times people are quick to dismiss the plight of others as being about choices, namely poor ones. I’ve heard this especially concerning those who live on the margins of society. How cavalier of anyone to suggest that an old man having to choose between medication and food, or an old woman, bereft of inhabitable home after a destructive hurricane, or a single mother seemingly and perpetually down on her luck because she has too many birds waiting to be fed in her nest, how cavalier to suggest that at the heart of these stories is the matter of choice, poor choices indeed. Ketchup labeled as a vegetable in school lunch programs by idiotic bureaucrats, welfare queens so designated by someone who has forgotten his own family’s struggle and pain during the great Depression, families living on the streets because they’re unable to pay for shelter. So many stories, many not nearly so desperate, at least for now. If we were to write it all down, turn it into pictures, learn it “by heart”, we couldn’t stay on our feet under the weight.

A friend is making great sacrifice for one of her grown children, advice and caution from other family members and friends, making their way, succeeding at some level, thanks be to God. There but for the grace of God go I. “I would steal for my children,” maybe, justifiably. Would I steal for those I love? Have I somehow stolen from others without even realizing it? Or maybe I just forgot.

I’ve made some poor choices on this relatively long 65-year journey. I’m making them now, in spite of experience cautioning otherwise, and I suppose that I will continue doing so as long as I have my wits about me. Ever the eager one, stepping out on limbs, damn the consequences, hungry to love and be loved, irony abounding in me and around me, made hesitant by the occasional outrage that life serves up, perhaps foolishly seizing the day, even when I’ve been advised, Harold, take it slow. A friend told me the other day that he doesn’t think he has ever sensed God’s presence in his life. I replied that most likely he has but didn’t realize it. Maybe he hasn’t been paying attention to the messengers. What do I know? I know myself for sometimes assigning meaning, perhaps misunderstanding the meaning, of what comes my way on this journey. I don’t believe in coincidence. We enter and exit one another’s lives for valuable and purposeful reasons. We love or don’t love, give or don’t give, sacrifice or not, and sometimes we mysteriously understand the choices we are making. Sometimes the choices just seem to be made for us. Would I shear my locks for my love? Or if all my worldly efforts have come to nought, would I take on monk's robes? My head is shaved, by some standards. I don't know what else to do, except keep trying.

Something Like Original Good—Santa Fe, New Mexico (October 18, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Aunt Edna

The following about my Aunt Edna Rustenbach Fuchs was written in December of 2005, slightly more than a year before Mother’s death on February 1, 2007. Yesterday we gathered here on the patio of what used to be our parents, then our mother’s, house on the land in Leon County. Our sister Joan now has earned legal ownership of that house, and yesterday was Joan’s 70th birthday. How can it be? That little mopsy-headed girl, the first in this group of siblings, is three score and ten, the same age as our great aunt Minnie when she died in the summer of 1960. I missed Aunt Minnie’s funeral because Jewel Gibson (Joshua Beene and God, Black Gold), my high school journalism teacher, convinced Mother and Daddy, although I doubt that he had much of a vote, that it was important for me to attend journalism camp at Texas A&M. So yesterday I told Aunt Edna that I had written something about her a couple of years ago. “Did I give you that?” “No, I don’t think so,” she beamed, seemingly proud that someone cared enough to put some of her life on paper. And she asked for a copy. Almost three years ago, some of Aunt Edna’s story came to mind, and once again, I am taking a deep breath as I consider the waters that continue flowing through our lives.(rhh…Sunday, October 12, 2008)

My Aunt Edna usually visits for lunch on Sunday. Sometimes she comes out to the land where I live to have lunch up at my mother’s house. Other times, my oldest sister, who is Mother’s primary caregiver, takes Mother into town so that Aunt Edna doesn’t have to drive quite as far. Lately Aunt Edna has been bringing old photo albums. Mostly the photos are from the 70s and 80s, capturing extended family get-togethers, other times that my mother went on jaunts with Aunt Edna and Uncle Bubba, Mother’s only sibling, in the years between my daddy’s death in 1981 and Uncle Bubba’s death in 1989. A lot happened in those years. Daddy died on the first day of spring, then his two brothers died—one in the fall of 1982 and the other in the late spring of 1983. Both my grandmothers died in September 1983, and we buried them one week apart—two Saturdays for any family record book. Of course, many other deaths have occurred in both the Hollis and Fuchs families. This is, after all, life that we are living and giving here.

After Daddy died, and then Grandma Fuchs in 1983, Mother and Uncle Bubba became closer than they had been in all of their adult lives. As far back as I can remember, we did lots of things with Mother’s family, the Fuchses—all the holidays. Aside from Christmas, we were always together at some point for New Years and Easter, and the Hollis/Fuchs barbecues for Memorial Day, July 4th and Labor Day surely were legend. I would have no way of knowing back then because I was only a child who remembers the joy of sticking his hands in the icy tubs of beer (back then Southern Select, Jax, Grand Prize), vying over who got to sit on the burlap sack or turn the crank during the freezing of ice cream, and lots of family and extended family, who technically were friends, but like family, a southern thing I think.

Aunt Edna has photographs of many family occasions during the growing up years of me and my sisters. In 1951 Aunt Edna and Uncle Bubba started their own family, but their two children don’t figure importantly in the photographs. This past Sunday she really dug back—to the early 40s, her school day pictures pasted into a photo album, and some beautiful images set in tin cases that she and Uncle Bubba had made in downtown Houston when they were on movie dates in the very early 40s. Who is that handsome, slender man, cowboy hat cocked to one side? Who is that pretty young girl, with an Andrews Sisters hair-do? As far back as I can remember, Aunt Edna has been on the heavy side, something she has always laughed at, but most likely something that caused her more than a little pain.

Uncle Bubba wasn’t the most sympathetic man—at least not when it came to his wife. Aunt Edna relates more than just a couple of tales where she found herself in distress, and Uncle Bubba was there to show his dismay masked as disgust, blaming her in effect for the distress. Apparently she has always had some problems staying on her feet, sometimes stepping wrong on the edge of the sidewalk and landing in the grass, sometimes her legs just giving away, I guess. She recounts one tale of a family wedding, where as they entered the small lobby of the Lutheran Church, she–baby Mary in arms—took a dive. Uncle Bubba stands there, exclaiming, “Well, goddam, Edna? Did you fall?!”

My Uncle Ray, Daddy’s youngest brother, good-naturedly called Aunt Edna “the Blimp.” He was no small man himself. She laughs, recounting recently a time many years ago when a new diet product called Cambridge had entered the market. Apparently Uncle Ray asked one day, “Has the Blimp heard about this?” Aunt Edna has always jokingly referred to herself as Shamu (the whale), relating incidents here and there, “Shamu got down on her knees and then couldn’t get back up.”

Footing issues established, it was Aunt Edna nonetheless who taught me to waltz, step to the “Put Your Little Foot,” “Little Brown Jug,” “Ten Pretty Girls,” “Cotton-eyed Joe”. She collected vinyl 78 records, stored them carefully in record albums—certain ones in the “Dance” album—and brought them out for the many occasions the Hollis and Fuchs families celebrated when we were much younger. The Harry Owens 1940s tune, “Coconut Grove,” was my favorite.

There's a coconut grove where your happy lover,
Will do his part and soon discover
A rendezvous
In the shelter of a tropical lagoon.

Palm trees will be swaying,
While steel guitars are playing.
Believe what I'm saying dear;
I swear it's true.

There's a coconut grove where I'll be confessing,
The simple truth that you've been guessing
I love but you.

What do you call that dance step we learned from my parents’ generation?

Aunt Edna clearly enjoys remembering old times. Even though she’s approaching her 79th birthday and unfortunately has had a sad, conflicted relationship with her own two children and has more than her share of health issues, she shrugs off misery, accepts physical compromise, and keeps on laughing—at life’s ironies. She loves to recount memories of family gatherings, the humble jaunts where the Hollises and Fuchses went on a holiday—Brackenridge Park in San Antonio, Aquarena Springs at San Marcos, Muecke’s pleasure pier at San Leon near Galveston. She especially loves remembering Daddy chronically getting lost. I never realized that he was a typical guy when it came to looking at a map. I do remember, though, that when we went places, rarely did we arrive without delay of one kind or another.

Back in the late 50s and as late as the early 60s, there were the times at Clark’s Courts in Kemah. For a few days the two families would rent adjoining cabins. The men would go fishing in the wee hours of the morning, but before casting off from shore—I chuckle at the memory that Uncle Bubba didn’t want to be farther out than he could wade back if he had to—the women would fix a full breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast. We kids were all piled into our various sleeping situations, half awake when the 3 a.m. breakfast feast was in progress, as the men prepared to go out and bring in the croakers, sand trout, occasional redfish, which later would be gutted and beheaded, rolled in flour and corn meal diced with salt and pepper and then fried in Crisco. After daybreak the kids and women would head to the pier to find if our crab lines, outfitted with soup bones, would be taut with crustacean resistance, as we tugged the lines to the water’s surface. Crab gumbo—German Texas style—wasn’t far behind. Later in this vacation history, we got really sophisticated and had crab cages.

Somewhere in her bag of photographic memories, Aunt Edna has evidence of just about everything our families celebrated—barbecues, weekend local rodeos, trips to the Alamo and to the bay, and later, the jaunts she, Uncle Bubba, Mother—and sometimes my oldest sister Joan—made to the wild game preserve near Waco, Billy Bob’s in Ft. Worth, the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. She documented it all.

Aunt Edna has many stories tucked away, and of course the small get togethers that happen these days are ripe opportunities for remembering. Some of these stories pre-date my memory, but I have been reminded several times of two especially important milestones in my own history with Aunt Edna and Uncle Bubba. Before they started their own family, I apparently was special to them—special enough to warrant a brown cowboy hat that Aunt Edna spent her last ten dollars on during a trip to downtown Houston. In the late 40s you went downtown for everything, including saddles, cowboy hats and belt buckles. Those were the days of Stelzig’s saddlery and Schudde Bros. Hats. During the days of the urban cowboy craze, Stelzig’s made its way to the chic suburban Galleria of Houston, tossed its hat into the ring of glamour and glitz, but is now defunct. Schudde Bros. continues business in its original near-downtown location.

On one of these trips downtown, Aunt Edna bought me my first cowboy buckle—an engraved sterling Nelson Buckle, adorned with a 10k gold cowboy on a bucking bronc, and a gold ribbon across the bottom bearing testimony to its owner—my name, Harold Hollis, in black lettering. Both the brown cowboy hat and the buckle made the rounds of younger cousins. The hat got lost in the shuffle, but the buckle still figures into my life. In my 62nd year, I recently had an alligator belt reworked so that I could continue wearing that buckle, which I have owned since I was six years old. There probably is a photograph somewhere of me made around the time that I started wearing the buckle. Aunt Edna, who was back then an expert seamstress, made western shirts for all of us. I am told that she made many shirts for me because I didn’t want to wear store-bought shirts.

These days, good memories bring pleasure to Aunt Edna and Mother. Three and one-half years ago, Mother’s doctor gave her the bad prognosis concerning the condition of her heart. Aunt Edna has more than enough physical misery for one person. They’ve outlived husbands, siblings, cousins, and friends. Celebrations these days are not so celebratory, but times to reminisce. Not so many photo ops these days—or at least not so much enthusiasm for capturing these latter day, minor responses to traditional family gatherings that figured so prominently when they were raising their children. It seems that with husbands and fathers gone, things just change. The next generations don’t care as much, or they just don’t care enough to get along, or they’re just trying to make it. Something definitely is missing—the need to celebrate family ties, a failure to recognize the joy in just getting together. Still, Aunt Edna cherishes her memories enough to bring them over on Sundays. She and Mother spend their four or five hours together on these days talking about remembering when, recounting many of the same stories Sunday in and Sunday out. Regardless of physical difficulty and family frailty, Aunt Edna works at finding the bright side of times that sometimes have only the faintest glimmer.

Aunt Edna—Normangee, Texas (December 13, 2005)
R. Harold Hollis

Friday, October 10, 2008

Home is Where You Are

How much greater is the dread than the happening. My efforts paid off—to clean this garden, keeping me bent over (bad), crouched (better), on my knees (best) for a few hours each day over a 10-day period after returning here to Leon County Texas at the end of August. In the course of my labors, I practiced a new mantra—it doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be, it doesn’t. The garden got as good as it was going to get. After several years of turning over soil shovel full by shovel full, faithful pruning, weeding, watering, mulching, I’m trying to learn to just let it be a half-assed effort. After all, to some eyes, it looks just fine. Rustic, yes, that’s a good word. What Samuel Johnson called an “artful wildness” writing in 18th century England, however, would not apply to my patch of earth on the eastern edge of central Texas. My rusticana just looks neglected to my eyes. But that’s getting more and more okay. Six weeks have passed, and the nut and crab grass have had their way again.

Last Saturday, wiling down the hours as the Round Top Antiques Fair was drawing to a close, I told a couple of other dealers on the floor that I would be making another run at my garden before heading back to Santa Fe. “Why?” one of them asked, a guy still in his 20s, probably not a gardener. “You’re just going to have to clean it again come winter.” “Hmph,” I grunted, “you’re right.” I’ll just save myself some sweat and time, and some sore back, a back that’s been on a tear anyway since I arrived here six weeks ago. Bending (bad) and packing, loading, unloading, unpacking, repacking, loading, unloading—all for Round Top—has taken some toll and prompted me to ask my sister Joan to bring me a bottle of acetiminaphen from Wal-Mart yesterday. That trailer load of tired inventory I hauled to auction two days ago didn’t do me any favors, even though it feels mighty good to see more of the concrete floor on the back of barn.

Gardens in some state of neglect, barn sheds still over populated with things all brought here by a self-confessed stuff magnet, trying to accept, to feel it in my gut and bones, that my 60% level of achievement is somehow tolerable, let me learn to like it. As I stow the leftovers, sweep where I can move a broom, get down on my knees (best) with mop bucket and sponge, fire up the Kirby, stack, arrange—hoping, hoping that some three months down the road, when I get back again it will all make some kind of sense to me, I keep sighing ever so often. “You’re going to have your work cut out for you when you have to vacate this place,” more than one person has pointed out to me. “I know, I know,” I say, but I’ll do what I have to do, in that eventuality. In the meantime, I’ll just keep chipping away at it, doing the next right thing, even it’s just moving packing blankets from one stack to another, a better stack. Yeah, that makes more sense.

When I walked in the door of this barn/house at the end of August, I was surprised to discover that my efforts to give some reasonable order to this place before leaving for four months had somehow succeeded. Whether I’m achieving such success as I prepare to head back to the high plateau, to the golden Aspen at 10,000 feet that beckon, to friendships in progress that are calling me “home”—“Where is home,” I questioned myself, as I visited with friend Randy on the eve of my departure for Texas. “It’s where you are,” he offered. Some might say about this barn and these gardens that it looks like no one lives here. Yes, someone does still call this place home. I have been reminded. The wind chimes answering the breezes on this sunny October day, the family of crows lecturing one another outside the room where I sit, the wheelbarrow-shovel-rake, waiting for me to resume my sense making, they tell the story. My work here is not done.

Home is Where You Are—Normangee, Texas (October 10, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Another Minor Miracle

As I milled around my booth at the Round Top Antiques Fair last Saturday morning, thankful, oh so thankful on this last day of the fall market that it had been a good outing for me, and that I could cut myself some slack for just a while, I noticed a woman sitting in my folding chair at the edge of the booth. She commented, “I like your stuff.”

“Thanks,” I replied, smiling.

“Do you mind if I sit in your chair…and enjoy the scenery?”

“Please do,” I insisted, although I became a little puzzled after she had sat there quietly for several minutes.

Her face wore a pleasant expression. And though I wasn’t really watching her, I did notice that she moved in the chair to take in the booths behind and to the left of her. In the mood for another cup of coffee, although I had already over served myself with caffeine, I asked if she would like something to drink, and then I noticed the palsy of what I assumed to be Parkinson’s in her hands, which she tried to keep at rest in her lap. “No, thank you, I’ll just sit here and watch your booth, if you don’t mind” she replied. I extended my hand to introduce myself.

“Harold? Harold Hollis?” she questioned with a big smile. “I’m Bobbie Sanders”. “Harold, you look great,” she exclaimed. I smiled in appreciation, having recently lost 20 pounds—down to about the same I weighed at 17 when I graduated from high school 47 years ago. Bobbie had graduated a year earlier with my middle sister Sue. “Bobbie, you look the same. I knew your face was familiar.” Although her hair was colored, there was not a line in her angelic, 66-year-old face.

After I returned, Bobbie and I caught up at fast forward speed on the last 48 years, mostly about her family and where she lived growing up, her mother, dad and uncle, where she lives now, and who she had married. She was energized to hear that I get to spend part of my year in northern New Mexico. Truly, just say the words Santa Fe, and most people say something like, “lucky you.” “When was the last time you saw Sue?” I asked. It was at their 40th class reunion in 2000. “Sue was a good volleyball player,” she added. “Huh, I don’t remember Sue playing volleyball.” “In a school so small everyone had to play something,” Bobbie commented. How could I not remember that about my own sister? Now, somewhere back in a 50-year-old memory, I see Sue in a maroon and white satin uniform. Yes, she played set up. My heart continued to fill as Bobbie and I talked, and I thought about this chance meeting—no, minor miracle—and another friendship fresh on my mind, one that has been rekindled with a classmate now living in Arizona, another gift, one that came my way following Mother’s death in early 2007.

Oh, the beauty of glimpsing into the past, a past that frankly I had chosen to leave behind decades ago—too many memories of being a boy, out of step as I saw it, with a bunch of kids in a rural high school in northwest Harris County Texas, class of 1961. Back then I felt so different, and inferior somehow, even though I excelled in school, winning honors in band and journalism. I didn’t play sports or excel in agriculture, in a setting where most boys did one or the other or both. As I watched others around me bloom into relationships, I felt alone. Apparently, I didn’t know anything about sustaining a friendship. The few boys from the high school band with whom I felt a friendship slipped into the past as soon as we walked across the stage on that May night. I have consciously ignored every class reunion. God willing, I’ll make the 50th.

After a few minutes, Bobbie’s older sister Joyce made her way back to my booth, accompanied by one of her daughters and another young woman. “Joyce, you look exactly the same as in high school,” I beamed. Yes, I recognized a classic hairstyle surrounding an equally classic chiseled jaw. Most likely, though, I didn’t even know her back then. After all, she was three years ahead of me. But I knew that face. On this reunion day of sorts, although we didn’t visit much more than a dozen minutes, it was ample time for me to realize that I had indeed received yet another gift. After both sisters asked me to say hello to my older sisters, Sue and Joan, Bobbie offered her hand. I didn’t expect a firm handshake. “God bless you,” she said. “God bless you,” I returned, decades old memories rocketing through my body, looking into the face of that slender high school volleyball player, daughter of a dairyman, a solid rural feminine soul, now made fragile by time and the promises of life. I hugged Joyce, as Bobbie was already making her way down the aisle, and asked for confirmation of what I already knew. “Yes,” she replied. “She’s doing fine. She’s a trooper.” How utterly precious, these two sisters, still close, on a Saturday outing that brought them to a little part of my world for a few mountainous minutes.

I’m the first to say that I don’t believe in accidents. And right along with that I know in my gut that we have to pay attention. Angels, from the Greek “angelos”, messenger. They’re out there. Sometimes they emerge from our past, or they are as close as our nose, day in and day out. They are acquaintances newly made—friendships in progress. They stop by unexpectedly, or by invitation, because they’re going to be in the area. They sit next to us on Sunday mornings, or wait in line with us at the grocery store. Some we avoid because they’re homeless or ill and scary looking. Mostly, they don’t wear a sign announcing their purpose or nature. It’s up to us to recognize them for who they are. Maybe it’s to give us an opportunity to view our experience through a different lens. Maybe the messengers need someone to listen or to be welcoming, even if they don’t realize it, allowing us the privilege of serving up some of life’s kindness, as we make our journey home.

Another Minor Miracle—Normangee, Texas (October 6, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis