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