Saturday, January 26, 2008

Don't Leave Me Out


A few years back, when furor erupted in the Episcopal Church over the election of an openly homosexual bishop in New Hampshire, I finally felt secure enough about my own sexuality to take a stand against bigotry and exclusivity. In the tiny rural Episcopal mission church where I worshiped at the time, a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” but loving environment, I was faced with what I saw then and see now as living, breathing primal ignorance. Seated at the table with 10 or so others for Bible study that Sunday morning—including one other homosexual male and a lesbian—our study was interrupted by the late arrival of two regulars, who looked like something the cat had dragged in. As their tale of explanation unfolded, they made apparent their utter, irrevocable sadness over the news of Gene Robinson’s election. To them, it was all about his sinful lifestyle, one they saw as chosen. Even the priest leading our study, someone I considered a friend and who knew my sexuality, commented that a Bishop should be held to a higher standard. He later recanted to me that position.

The latecomers had, in fact, been awake most of the night, and they looked it. After listening to their nonsense for a few minutes, where neither my gay brother or lesbian sister had the courage to speak up—she even went so far in her usual misspoken explanations about things to compare homosexuals to thieves and murderers, something like “well, some people don’t want to associate with thieves and murderers”—I commented to the person sitting to my right, “I sure would hate to be a newbie walking in on this conversation.” Then, something in me said, “now’s the time, Harold, speak up”. Fearful, yet disgusted and offended by the ignorance I was hearing, I finally directed to the woman of the couple, “V., you do know that you’re talking about me, don’t you?!” “Well, I thought…”, she said—frankly, I don’t remember what else she said, but it somehow suggested that in her compartmentalized heart and mind she had set me apart, to some degree, because she knew me. I had led Morning Prayer many times, but I don’t know how she and her husband felt about that.

I don’t remember what else I said to her as we disbanded for worship. I do know that I felt incredibly strong that day, and to be honest, proud of myself. What did I really do, except pull back the curtain on myself, revealing something that everyone already knew? Don’t ask, don’t tell? Not good enough. Later that afternoon, I received at least one phone call from a fellow worshiper, a heterosexual, reaching out to me, and in the mail later in the week, a note of affirmation from someone who had been absent for this defining moment in my life and surely in the life of that little gathering of pilgrims. A few weeks later, J. & V. left that little church for their home church in a larger nearby town, an old parish that has spent years earning the sadly well-known moniker applied to many Episcopalians, “the frozen chosen”.

I am reminded that when asked about the ugliest word in the English language, Carl Sandburg, American poet, historian, novelist and folklorist, and Poet Laureate during the defining days of civil rights, replied, “exclusive”. There are many things exclusive—churches, organizations, neighborhoods, stores, schools, families, indeed, entire cities. Today, while searching the internet for Mr. Sandburg’s exact statement about exclusivity, I discovered a sermon from the pastor of Northside Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Rather than give my own spin on Rev. Booker-Hirsch’s miraculous words, I’d rather that you read his sermon.

http://www.northsidepres.org/worship/sermons/sermon/104

My goal this morning was to explain to myself what I understand about the story in John’s gospel, John 4: 27-42, about the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. In part, it is a story about reaching out to strangers, especially those who are somehow different than we are, and in the case of historical Jews and Samaritans, a story of exclusion that has deep roots. This is a lesson about deep-seated fear and distrust, choosing to hide in what we perceive is our safe zone, a characterizing of people based on time-honored codes of rejection. If we are blessed enough to be able to arm ourselves with the trappings of experience and learning, if we are blessed to have learned what all world religions teach about compassion and love, we have a choice—to engage or not to engage.

27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ 28Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah,* can he?’ 30They left the city and were on their way to him.

From the meditation for today found on the website Forward Movement (http://www.forwardmovement.org/), the writer comments—“I know a bishop who says that every congregation in his diocese claims to be "friendly." His honest and humorous retort is, "Yes, because everyone who finds you unfriendly has gone elsewhere!" The writer continues that “…the ministry of hospitality is important in the life of the church. Welcoming and conversing with guests, following up with newcomers, and embracing a process of community integration are part of sharing the gospel.” This is a simple, straight-forward statement. But it is bereft of the real challenge of the church, and that is welcoming everyone, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, or other worldly condition. Here’s where the rubber hits the road. Here’s where reaching out to strangers feels unnatural, fear-evoking.

I have a tough enough time myself walking up to a stranger at church. I suffer some insecurity that sometimes causes me to wait for someone else to extend a hand—in church! At a gathering of homosexuals where shopping for mates can be part of the agenda, I can understand, even though reticence in such circumstances is still about fear of rejection. But in church? Why should anyone be afraid of rejection in church, regardless of where you live, with whom you choose to be most intimate, or how much extra change you have?

We are all fairly comfortable at nodding and smiling, exchanging an innocent greeting, “good morning,” or in the case of those churches where “the Peace” is exchanged, greeting one another at the appropriate point during worship with “God’s peace” or “the peace of the Lord”. Sometimes people stick close to their comfort zone by greeting in the name of the Lord only those people they know. Some people cast their eyes toward the floor when they shake hands, or they offer a limp, lifeless paw. In the church where I currently worship in Santa Fe, newcomers are encouraged to identify themselves during the announcements and at coffee after church. How long are we newcomers? During my novitiate no one came up to invite me to coffee. And over the past few months, I have failed to behave any differently, nodding and smiling surely, but not taking that important step—“Do you have time for coffee?” What’s that all about? Maybe I’m hung up on my own sexuality, or worse, my worthiness—this worshiping in a church where the Rainbow Flag flies proudly, along with the flag of the Episcopal Church, from the pole in the center of the grounds.

So we can set aside the Samaritan woman or man, or not. I remember a time probably 20 years ago when the Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral in Houston laid low the pretense that causes anyone to shun those who are different. The Cathedral then and now was the home to lots of well-heeled Houstonians, some who traveled many miles to the heart of downtown for Sunday worship, and it was a beacon for the homeless of downtown Houston. I certainly didn’t know much about the seeming outcasts who gathered outside the iron fence of this historic church, or were brave enough to come inside the fence, or scarier yet, the front door of this impressive, Victorian masterpiece of architecture, Tiffany window, regal trappings, antiphons and all. For a very short time in the mid 80s, after I had been laid off from my oil company job, I volunteered in a church program that served the people of the streets. Today, I am remembering a middle-aged woman, probably schizophrenic, who often wandered up the aisle after worship had begun. That day 20 years ago, she had walked to the front pew on the right and almost immediately became restless while the Dean held forth on the Gospel. I don’t remember all that she did, but I know people were aware, and many, including me, were uncomfortable. The Dean stopped his sermon and said, “Annie, you’re safe here.” And miraculously, she sensed the truth of his words.

In the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus offered her water that quenches eternally and finally, and the peace that passes all human understanding. That I should know this peace and be so quenched is my prayer, and knowing this, that I should extend my own hand in peace, unafraid and confident that we are gathering at the same well day in and day out, even when we don’t see or smell the water. Thanks be to God.

Don’t Leave Me Out—Normangee, Texas (January 26, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Joy of Cooking


Just another day in paradise, but I didn’t know it. As is oft the case for me, especially on a winter day when I don’t know what to do with myself—an idle mind is the Devil’s workshop—I punted, all day long. The Devil is distracted by industry.

I didn’t want to burn up the roads, or gasoline, although I made one intentional trip to the county dump that included stops at the lumber yard and grocery store. I was forced to make a second trip into nearby Normangee Texas for plumbing supplies. Just like any other day, I didn’t want to try making sense of the chaos of worldly possessions that fill the barn where I live—still haven't figured out where to start. The plumbing in the outdoor bath area is repaired and wrapped, having suffered the effects of ice for at least the third time since the new Millenium. The latest damage happened, not in my absence of three months that included the beginning of cold weather, but since I have returned to Texas. I’m not a plumber, however, just the lumber yard pilgrim.

Newly-laid concrete pads finished out with river rock set in concrete lead to the two main entrances of my house. With the help of a neighbor for hire, I’ve once more re-done these approaches. As the saying goes, if I had a dollar for every stone I’ve moved here, well, as the saying goes, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. “Why are you doing this if you’re selling your house,” asked a friend visiting yesterday. Gee, do I even know? Is it to solve a problem that really isn’t perceived as a problem by someone looking to buy this property? Do I just like moving stones? Do I somehow know in my bones that I have to behave like Sisyphus, whose curse was to roll a huge boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll down again, and repeat this throughout eternity? Did I somehow miss the chapter on “do it once… and do it right? Yeah, I missed it, and I didn’t get it right the third time. Shadows of the outdoor bath dance in my brain.

I’ve actually been fairly productive since returning to Texas in late December. The antiques show where I exhibited the second weekend of January didn’t produce much return for me, but it required a lot of work nonetheless—loading and getting there, unloading and setting up, packing and loading out, returning home and unloading—truths that John Q. Public doesn’t realize about the life of a junk dealer. If that were the measure to be realized by my mantra—For Sale, All My Earthly Possessions—I am in deep trouble. It is tough times in the antiques business, a reflection of the sluggish, skiddish economy that apparently troubles the globe right now, and not just the United States. Pull up to the gas pumps, or look at the price for a cardboard tomato, a package of generic cheese, a whole chicken wherever you shop.

I’ve cleaned the landscape here, in preparation for spring. Most of this I did by myself, starting the very afternoon I rolled into the driveway from New Mexico. My neighbor-for-hire helped me finish this first push. Now only the roses wait for Valentine’s Day. I’ve worked on my taxes, filed my annual sales tax report, changed cell phone providers, and sorted through the box of mail that collected while I was away in northern New Mexico for several months. The push is still in front of me—getting all my tax information ready for the expert who does my tax return, doing the same for our mother’s tax return…for the one month she lived in 2007…, and somehow trying to liquidate some of my worldly possessions. I’d rather cook. I’d even rather make runs to the lumber yard for plumbing supplies.

Today, with cold, gray skies overhead and a light mist driving the chill deeper, I cooked. At the local grocery I opted for a whole chicken, frozen okra and corn, tomatoes canned with garlic and onions—my taste buds calling for a Southern treat. Outside of treasure hunting, which I have given up even before Lent, two things come naturally to me—digging in the dirt and cooking. All of the things that draw me involve a sense of the past and eyes somehow cast towards tomorrow.

Cooking is something best done for others. Consider the women who don’t seem to figure out how to shop and cook for two after the nest is empty, or when they are finally truly alone in the house. I spent time at my middle sister’s home over the weekend of my lackluster antiques sale. Returning to her place late Saturday—the house in which the three Hollis children grew up—I found a table laden with chicken gumbo and yummy sticky rice, hamburger casserole, peach and buttermilk pies. As the saying goes, there was enough to feed an army. I know how to shop for one because I’ve done it virtually all my life. For the past several years, however, I did learn to shop and cook for my mother, oldest sister and me. Now I cook for one again, but even that can be rewarding, especially in the face of tax preparation or making sense of a dwelling long-growing out of control.

This afternoon into the night an oak fire has burned in the woodstove, a chicken has roasted in the oven, I’ve changed my attention between a biography of Thomas Jefferson and presidential politics on CNN, and ultimately I’ve lost interest in the roasted chicken in the oven and the okra-tomato-corn gumbo on the stovetop. Without intention, I’ve prepared for tomorrow. Company would be nice.

The Joy of Cooking—Normangee Texas (January 22, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Kind Words


Sometimes we are lucky enough, or blessed enough, to be reminded of the lives we touch—those people who have no blood connection to us but who hold us dear for the light we have directed to their path. This morning I was greeted by an email from a guy I haven’t seen in close to ten years. He was barely old enough to vote—or maybe he wasn’t that old—when I hired him as a graphic artist. He is a talented visual artist, and I’ve remembered this morning, a talented musician as well. I remember that like many his age, and especially his temperament, he was somewhat in turmoil over the world, as he saw it—ah, the world weary, young and old. Isn’t that the burden of the artistic, the visionary, the hopeful—to struggle with and against this reality? “You see things and you say, Why? But I dream things that never were; and I say, Why Not?" (George Bernard Shaw, although attributed frequently to Robert Kennedy).

Maybe my young friend’s growing up years, his family, weren’t modeled after those of the 1950s, a period in America that our culture has idealized, in spite of the dysfunction that characterized so much it. I don’t remember many of the details of what he shared with me. What I do remember though is a young, kind-hearted, quick-witted, funny guy who still had a lot to learn and lots of solid ammunition in his arsenal of gifts. And I remember that he had great affection for his family…I’m recalling a mother and sister.

So he has written me this day. He has searched me out, although I am not in hiding. He wanted to tell me he’s happy to hear that I’m living out my dreams, that over the last decade or so he’s thought about me and what I did for him, and most importantly, he wanted to let me know that he is doing well too. The last I knew he had left the job that I helped him land, and later I heard that the circumstances under which he left were a bit conflicted. Frankly, I haven’t thought about him for a long time. Knowing myself, the day I heard the news of his departure, I probably vocalized my puzzlement and sadness over a life in struggle. After all, my life was a struggle. It still is.

I am continually reminded that the challenges we face in life are intended to make us stronger. It is what we do with these challenges that matters. It is that we hope and how we hope; it is that we see our common purpose on this journey. Too often, I lose sight of this. Lately, I am reminded again and again of the light—“Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105)—and that part of our job, indeed our purpose, is to direct the light onto the paths of others. What wonder it is to hear out of the blue one morning that we’ve made a difference in the life of someone else, someone with no blood connection, someone for whom we didn’t really have to take that extra step, yet our sense of humanity guided us to do the next right thing.

He said to me on this day, “…so I will leave you with a big e-hug and the kind words of ‘you are a genuine guy, you have made a difference in my life, and you are loved and thought of frequently’. You take care, Harold, my friend.”

Kind Words—Normangee Texas (January 22, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Friday, January 18, 2008

Fire and Rain


I should be working today, making sense out of some of the mess around this place, but it’s a cold, rainy day in rural east central Texas, and I’ve fired up my little woodstove for the first time this season. Fire and rain. This is the best weather for reading and napping, maybe some daydreaming. Often, when reminiscing with someone of my generation about some of the things nested in my memory, one installment from “Nancy and Sluggo” comes to mind. Her Aunt Fritzi had sent her to nap in this short tale. Not sleepy, though, Nancy knew of one sure-fired way to lullaby land—rain on the metal roof. So, she put her two-story dollhouse in the shower. The showers we’re having today are gently pelting my metal roof, a sound that I’ve missed while being in northern New Mexico, where rain is as rare as metal roofs in what some have called the adobe Disneyland. I’m not sleepy. Chicken-vegetable soup is simmering on the kitchen stove.

The landscape around the two-story barn I call home reflects the season. I’ve cut back all of the spent growth in the gardens. Only the roses await the magic date of Valentine’s Day, and the native yaupon so burdened with berries puzzles me a little. With all the birds hanging out around here, I would have expected the berries to have been plucked long ago. Not being a bird authority, I recognize only the obvious—crows, robins, cardinals, woodpeckers, sparrows. My neighbor named some more common to our area this time of year, like the nuthatch. The coralberry and American beautyberry, also native to this woodland area, are stripped of berry and bare of leaves, the birds having done their work I guess.

Sitting in the garden on any day, quietly, listening, a chorus of birds sounds continually. Ever so often I notice a downy woodpecker rat-a-tat-tatting, I guess in one of the Green Ash trees whose health is already compromised. Only the cardinals have insisted on making known their presence in my house. Upstairs in the loft a pair of French doors leads to a deck. A female cardinal has been flying against one of the doors for the last couple of days. I’m amazed that she hasn’t broken her neck, like the male cardinal did downstairs a couple of years back—same behavior, body-slamming so it seems into the French door entrance into the room I have called “the room” since adding it a few years ago. It’s where I keep my laptop and printer, most of my books on antiques and Texas history, a TV hooked up to the DISH, and lots of treasures that continue to tug at my heart in this year of decision, the year where I’m speaking about honoring my commitment to offer for sale “all my earthly possessions”.

In Santa Fe, as I make my way on foot around the downtown area, I am ceaselessly fascinated by the ravens, most especially the ones I hear perched in the large Pinon Pines on the state government office grounds. I can be intent on one direction, and at the KWOK-KWOK of the raven, I quickly change course, searching my pockets for my camera. The American crows common around here are not so arresting, but they are busy. “CAW-CAW,” they announce in flight from limb to wire. Occasionally they gather on the ground to forage for insects amongst spent Post Oak leaves, or the small beds of pine needles from the only two Pine trees that have survived in maturity on this place. We’re not quite far enough East for Pines to be native. This is the Post Oak Savannah, the 31-county region that spans northeast to southwest, from the Texas-Arkansas border, butting up against the Hill Country on the west as you head toward Austin and the Oak Prairie on the south as you make way toward the Gulf Coast. In most rural areas in the eastern two-thirds of Texas, the American crow is as common as dirt and as busy as a cranberry merchant in November. We don’t have much in the way of cranberry merchants in Texas, however.

The forecast is for the rain to dissipate by early afternoon today, but the temperature will hover in the low 40s under overcast skies. And I’m reminded of something I said a couple of years ago, in a winter that followed a typical hot, dry Texas summer that lingered into what we used to know as fall, not unlike the summer and fall just past. I was blessed to bask in true Fall, roaming my part of northern New Mexico, gasping at the show of golden Aspens and Cottonwoods. Now it’s January in Texas, and here’s what I want. I want a few cold, rainy days—cold enough that I crawl into a hot shower in the middle of the afternoon because I just can’t get warm. I want cold and rain that wraps around this house cocoon-like as I lay on the sofa upstairs in my loft, reading the best book I’ve ever read. I want to light the wood burning stove in the room where I keep my books and my laptop and hear the rain softly pummel the tin roof and blow against the French doors. And even though the price of propane disgusts me, I want cold weather, rainy days, winter thunder.

Fire and Rain—Normangee Texas (January 18, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Dog Days


Life has many lessons to teach us, even if too often we don’t pay attention. We’ve all been a part of conversations where we acknowledge that miracles do happen, even in the 21st century, and maybe in those conversations we can even describe something that at the time or in retrospect we know, “ah-ha, that was a miracle”. “Any amazing and wonderful occurrence” says one source in defining a miracle. Sometimes what amazes us and causes us to wonder might not be recognizable to a passerby. Life itself is a miracle, a gift, one we too often treat with disregard, or that we embrace and abuse almost within the same breath. Our lives are filled with gifts, along with all the hurdles and the stumbling that mark our journey. Having the opportunity to love others, including pets, counts among the gifts.

I could never describe myself as a pet person, although I am drawn to animals in my own way. We grew up with dogs, dogs whose domain was outside. As I recall, the only times they made it inside were maybe the first night a new puppy came to live with us. We had one of just about every breed that was common to American households in the 1940s and 50s. The earliest breed I remember was an English collie—named Lassie—whose picture made the Houston Press in the late 40s. She had 11 puppies. The tear out from the newspaper came our way recently when our cousin brought us some keepsakes she had uncovered while going through her deceased mother’s personal stuff. Somewhere in a box of photographs we have a similar image, along with one of Mother, my two sisters, me, and our friend Jim Hulme holding the puppies. I don’t remember what happened to all those puppies or to Lassie.

Over the years our family had various terriers, Chihuahas, Cocker Spaniels, Dachshunds, Pekignese, Scotties, German shepherd, another collie, mixed breeds, and when my sisters and I had all left the nest, Mother had two Toy Poodles—Jacques and Nanette. Later, in the country here in Leon County, they had a Bassett mix named Cleo. The stories of what happened to all of these various pooches can bring both tears and laughter. “I’ve Been Everywhere”, the country song penned in the late 1950s, doesn’t cover much more territory than our family pet history.

Pepe the Chihuahua drowned in an open septic tank; Sissy the Chihuahua was run over by Mother’s and Daddy’s friend and employee, Joe Smith; an unnamed Scottie met his fate under the wheels of a car driven by either my maternal grandmother or her daughter-in-law. Bitsy, the terrier we brought to our home in the country in 1951, had formed the habit of napping in the shell street of our quiet Houston neighborhood, a habit that didn’t serve her well on West Montgomery Road. The school bus driver, Clinton Hargrave, had to console Mother and bury Bitsy when he dropped us off the bus one afternoon. Candy, a deer-legged Rat Terrier, wandered onto the highway a couple of times. The first resulted in a broken leg, requiring that she wear a metal brace for a few weeks. Healed, at our daddy’s insistence we let her run loose one night when the family week to Shepherd Drive-In Movie. We found her on the side of the road when we got home. Princess, the German shepherd, and her running mate—I’m amazed but I don’t remember either the dog or its name—met their fate together one night on West Montgomery Road. I ran over a Dachshund puppy in the driveway; Mother drove over one of two puppies from Curley, the Cocker Spaniel; one of our horses stepped on the other. One of our Chihuahuas got in the way of our sister Sue’s bat during a childhood game of softball. The Pekignese, named Pup-Pup by Sue’s daughter in the early 1960s, also found his way to an open septic tank.

Jacques, Nanette joining him later, made their way into Mother and Daddy’s house, and Nanette ultimately lived a relatively long life, by that point living with our oldest sister, Joan. During the time they lived on West Montgomery Road, the highway had become much busier, and I think they had a bad habit of crossing the highway to get from the front yard over to the family place of business. In the end, Jacques had to pay the price. Oddly, he was hit twice, surviving the first time. The family vet told Mother and Daddy that dog’s can have suicide wishes and that Jacques, who was plagued with what the vet diagnosed as severe arthritis, had such a wish. If so, it did indeed come true.

When Mother and Daddy moved to the country—the real country here in Leon County—in the 70s, they brought with them a mixed Bassett they had agreed to take when they bought their previous home northwest of Houston. Cleo was their companion. She loved riding along with my parents to put out cubes and hay for the cattle. On one such venture, she innocently jumped from the back of the pickup. A Brahma-cross cow with a new calf went into defensive mode. Cleo was not a cow dog—just a family pet. The cow knew no difference.

It’s been a long journey to the 21st century, especially in dog years. Since 2000, Casey, a Blue Heeler, has been a family pet here in Leon County. I got her from a Houston vet who volunteered his services to Pals for Pooches. He had rescued her from the family that had bought her as a puppy for two little girls. She became, in his words, too rambunctious for the girls. The vet had owned Casey for several months, trained her to the leash, taught her to retrieve the Frisbee, and she was being supplanted in his home by a Chihuahua—his wife’s decision. Had it not been for Bart the horse, who lived here on the place, our neighbor Jake says Casey wouldn’t have stuck around during the year that I continued to live in Houston. She did stick around though, and while she has no official duties as a cow dog, for which Blue Heelers are bred in Australia, she occasionally asserts her nature and, in her mind, works the cows. She herds Joan’s horse and donkey as well. She used to nip at my pants legs when I walked across the yard. I think Casey is semi-retired, though. She mostly just hangs out now, having just celebrated her ninth birthday last November. She has the heart of a champion, the vet said. Mother loved Casey, but she sure didn’t like Sadie, the Rat Terrier, also a rescue, who came to live here a few years ago.

Santa Fe New Mexico, where I have started living part time, is a dog city. There is even a dog park. Dogs are integral to the landscape. Having a dog is serious business for lots of people. That’s for another story, though. For us, growing up in the 1940s and 50s, dogs were pets who lived in the yard. They had a dog house, or maybe they slept in the garage. After we moved to the country in 1951, they had lots of yard and woods to roam, doing their dog thing. They got a bath occasionally in warm weather. They ate well. We loved our dogs, and I guess they took their chances, just like the rest of us.

Dog Days—Normangee, Texas (January 17, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Sunday, January 6, 2008

For Sale--All My Earthly Possessions




Yesterday, my life changed forever, again. I guess I’ve finally begun to put my money where my mouth is, to honor a slogan I’ve been sporting on t-shirts I started having made about three years ago. The t-shirts are part of the antiques market I’ve hosted in Fayetteville Texas at the same time as the widely known Round Top Antiques Fair. You mention Fayetteville to pilgrims from Houston or Austin, and they usually think of Czech polka music and hearty country cooking. Maybe, just maybe, they’ve paid attention to the sweetest little courthouse in Texas that is situated in the middle of the town square. Generally, if you mention Round Top to just about anywhere in the U. S. to a serious collector or person in the trade, they nod, “yes”, I know about Round Top. Maybe they even come to the area to sell or buy. Actually, the Round Top show itself is only part of the three-week long pageant-orgy of selling and buying that includes a huge market at Marburger Farms, the fields at Warrenton, smaller show sites at Carmine, Shelby, and things for sale in the fields and along the roadside for more miles than I can calculate. All this began in 1968 with the original Round Top show in tiny Round Top Texas, whose population was 77 in the 2000 census. During the markets, the “population” surges to many thousands.

On the front side my t-shirts read FOR SALE—ALL MY EARTHLY POSSESSIONS. On the back the design has changed each time, but all of the designs are built around a simple image of some Texas relic, all of which are the property of the artist, handed down from his Brazos County, Texas grandfather—a wired-together, still-holding-up cowhide chair, a pair of Colt pistols, Charlie Dunn cowboy boots, a sweat-stained Stetson hat. I’ve sold a few of the shirts, given away probably as many, and I still own a lot of them. They’ve caught the attention of a few people. Ever so often someone will comment, “I love your shirt”. And a few people have asked for the story, or I’ve volunteered—one of the many rabbit trails I take people down when I get strung out on my life and my hunt for treasure.

Back in the early 1990s I made one of my annual treks to northern New Mexico. And as usual, when it came time to return to Houston, I yearned to stay in New Mexico. Of course, I worked, owned a home filled with lots of treasures, had lots of bills, and after all, I had failed a test of maturity in 1967 when I couldn’t step up to entertain seriously the possibility of a teaching job in Santa Fe. My oldest sister reminded me a couple of years ago during a conversation in our mother’s den, Mother fretting over my safety driving out to New Mexico…“Mother,” I pleaded, “just be happy for me. I’ve worked my butt off getting ready for this trip. And besides, if I had taken that teaching job in Santa Fe in 1967, I might have been living there all this time.” “I remember,” Joan said. “Daddy was all for it, and Mother clipped your wings.” I wish I could just say “whatever,” as I often do, having taken on the habit of the twenty-somethings. This was too serious, however.

At the time of the trip in the early 1990s, a popular billboard seen on Houston freeways advertising the Houston Chronicle classifieds pictured a twenty-something guy, lotus position, and the slogan, FOR SALE—ALL MY EARTHLY POSSESSIONS. As I prepared to leave New Mexico that summer, this billboard was on my mind, and I thought, “One of these days….”

Thanks to my Aunt Mary, who turned 90 last September, I was introduced to Americana as a recent college graduate in the late 60s. She was decorating the rambling colonial home she and her husband, William Woodrow, “Frog” for short, had built on a couple of acres in the country, west of Houston. Those two acres have been part of the city for many years now. I was a poor school teacher, barely able to pay rent and the payment on the Chevrolet Corvair my parents had bought me my senior year in college. Nonetheless, I loved to go antiquing with Aunt Mary on cool fall Saturdays. They used to happen in Houston by early October. It seems that’s changed though. From the beginning of these experiences with Aunt Mary, I knew I loved country furniture and arts, what many refer to as primitives, although the word is misleading for the unschooled. Primitive intends na├»ve, simple, folk-inspired renderings of everything that one might find in an American dwelling of the 18th and 19th centuries, even into the early 20th century…furniture, utilitarian accessories, bed trappings, art for the wall. The list is long, the traditions varied by culture, and the appeal to the initiated is as someone once described, “achingly wonderful”. From the beginning I was drawn to things from New England. I loved especially the little things…boxes, baskets…and I loved old, undisturbed surfaces. PAINT!!!

By the early 1970s I was able to scrounge out buying some of these treasures that spoke to me so keenly, and I built a small collection. My interests changed though in the mid 80s when I realized in mid-life that I have strong Texas roots—fourth generation in fact. My great-grandmother Louisa Benfer Fuchs, celebrated her first birthday and learned to walk during the crossing from Westafalia to Galveston in 1866. Her family settled in the Klein community, northwest Harris County, now part of the great octopus called Houston, and their names are one of seven on the Texas Historic Commission marker for Klein. Benfer Elementary is named for my great-great grandparents. Ranching and cattle form part of my heritage…even rodeo. Although my collecting passion took a new direction at age 40, I wasn’t able to let go of a small group of the treasures from New England that I had indeed sacrificed to own on a teacher’s salary. That all changed yesterday, as I helped most of those treasures into a friend and customer’s truck.

The year 2007 was one of great change for our family. Although our Daddy died many years ago, on the first day of spring in 1981, our mother was with us until February 1, 2007. In a way, my two sisters and I are faced with re-inventing ourselves. Perhaps re-purposing is a better term, although for our middle sister, Sue, who married young and now has even a great grandson, the day-to-day realities have been a little less pronounced. I went to northern New Mexico in June 2007, and without knowing ahead of time, I leased an apartment. Circumstances changed quickly, and I bought a condominium. And now, most of the family place here in Leon County Texas, including the two-story barn I made into a home, is for sale.

It’s a long journey for some to sit in the lotus position. I haven’t perfected my technique yet. But I’ve said for most of this year, “I’m going to start selling my collection. I don’t need to own all these things. And I don’t want to leave the job of dispersing them to someone else.” The advice I heard a few years ago, “Harold, just because you love something doesn’t mean you have to own it,” must be true and right. Or did she say, “…you don’t have to buy it”? As I heard my mother say sometimes to a friend who could also speak a little German, “macht nichts”…translates “whatever”. How forward thinking they were. I am a pilgrim, and my journey continues.

For Sale—All My Earthly Possessions, from Normangee Texas (January 6, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Gifts and Blessings


As I watch all the turmoil of the presidential clamor that has been underway for some time, the caucusing in Iowa now behind them and New Hampshire the next challenge, I wonder, “can it be better…how did things get so difficult for so many people”? Turn on CNN (when I’m bored!), pick up a news magazine (I don’t!), poke around the internet (usually not current events for me!)—even a little—and the story is everywhere. Frankly, to me it doesn’t matter who the players are because the characters haven’t changed, only some of the names. I don’t claim to be anything more than embarrassingly ill-informed, although I know painfully well the issues that matter to me.

Politics for the presidency, politics for control in the church, politics around the globe, everywhere so many are clamoring to be heard, to be chosen, anointed, to lead, to control, and sadly, to be right. Maybe this matters to us more than anything else. Yes, I got it right, I’ve got it right, I’ve figured it out, I am saved, and what I have to offer will save you too! I shake my head…I don’t know about that. I can’t stump about what’s right or who’s right, getting it right—being saved, salvation for sure, if you will—and I sure wouldn’t want to be the chief of anything. I never wanted to be a fireman, policeman, astronaut, or whatever else little boys say they want to be when they grow up.

Poor me, I’ve lived in poverty of ambition, lacking the drive to make lots of money, although I sure do appreciate the things money can buy. Sadly, though, even that’s gotten a lot tougher. Millions are being spent by those who are vying to be the next commander-in-chief of the United States, the so-called savior of democracy. The numbers leave my head spinning. I’m not stupid. I recognize the realities of modern-day campaigns. That doesn’t change how sickened my heart becomes when I think about the plight of the masses. I can’t even begin to wrap my brain around the utter day-to-day struggles of third-world peoples without first paying attention to New Orleans, or the troubled reality of millions of middle class Americans who are sacrificing one necessity to provide for another. My own private health insurance now exceeds $500 a month, and for that I get a few pathetic discounts here and there. It’s catastrophic insurance. I backed into a car in a parking lot last October—unfortunately the bumper of a BMW (what irony!)—and now my car insurance has escalated by 40%. Don’t believe the Allstate commercials on TV.

I am blessed, and blessed certainly by comparison to millions of others who own citizenship in these United States of America. Emma Lazarus wrote in 1883…

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

And when I think about Africans dying from HIV/Aids, malaria, starvation, genocide--all the above--victims in Asia-Pacific of tsunami, child prostitution, Americans who simply can’t afford health insurance, or American families who choose between food and medicine, or who have to choose gasoline—over what?—or who are homeless, and then I think about the millions that will be spent on the 2008 presidential campaign, I am what? Am I disgusted, appalled, saddened, shocked into some kind of new reality, given a wake-up call, thankful for my own modest privilege, driven to words, actions? What am I? If nothing else, I am reminded. Thank God I have a working brain. Thank God for my home, its warmth, healthy food, medicine, for my family and friends. Thank God I have a conscience, and sometimes, sometimes, I answer the call of that conscience. Thank God I have extra money to drop in the Salvation Army red kettle during the Christmas Season, and thank God that I choose to do so. Thank God for all the millions of people who populate this earth who see need and answer its call, day in and day out. Thank the God of us all—the God of Abraham that unites us rather than separates us. Thank God for the words of St. Paul that remind us of the gift of charity.

“1Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

4 Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, 5 Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; 6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; 7 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

8 Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. 9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. 11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” (Paul’s letter to the Corinthians—1 Corinthians 13)

Presidential elections, wars based on trumped-up motives, confused priorities—personal and otherwise—and missed opportunities. I need to do better, and I want to do better. I want to do better not only for myself but for others as well. I want to think some more about that filter a priest told me about recently, the one that helps me decide how, who, and when to help. Most of all, I just want to take my hand out of my pocket, and I’d like to see others doing the same thing, based on clarified priorities, recognized opportunities, and hope for a better world. Thy kingdom come, indeed.

Gifts and Blessings—Normangee, Texas (January 5, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis