Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Don't Take It Personally

For close to 15 years I worked for a guy who clearly enjoyed the opportunity to slam people who were absent from staff meetings. Getting a laugh at someone else’s expense seemed to give him a charge. The way I see it, making chicken shit comments about people behind their backs, especially to an audience, ranks high on the list of evil things we can do to one another. Sometimes I laughed at his comments. Shame on me for being amused at the expense of someone else. The joke is on me, however, because I got my share of the bad end of the stick when I was absent from meetings. One of the greatest epiphanies so far in my 64 years came when I made a decision to leave this job, effectively to stop earning an income—thank God that it all sort of worked out—and said to him, “you’ll never talk this way to me (or about me) again.” Even though it’s been seven years, I still re-play this tape when I’m in a frame of mind to beat up on myself. Slowly, I’m letting go of this and all the others that have served me little but ill. Life sure can seem personal at times.

“Don’t take it personally,” he advises. The truth, however, is that we do take things personally when they seem to diminish us in some way. Awhile back I was discussing Don Miguel Ruiz’s THE FOUR AGREEMENTS with a friend in Santa Fe. She related that a friend of hers had commented, “How can I not take personally what feels personal?” When someone gossips about us, lies outright, embellishes or reshapes the truth about us, or just outright seeks to hurt us with their words and actions, even putting into print something that is damaging, how are we not to take it personally? According to the principles of Ruiz’s agreements, however, if we effectively rise above what appears meant to lessen us, we are in a sense home free. Frankly, it is tough for me to wrap my heart around this advice. Yet, I realize that targeting someone else with my stuff says a whole lot more about me than about anyone on whom I might take aim.

Over the years I’ve heard people say, “Well, if you’re talking about me, at least you’re leaving somebody else alone”. How true, and what a great way to put a little levity into an otherwise painful truth about human nature. If we could take a poll, what would the results show? Do you think anyone who is old enough to know better hasn’t jockeyed for points at someone else’s expense, discussed someone else’s personal matters—without justification, let’s face it—and worst of all, passed judgment on someone else? Perhaps the biggest offense is hiding behind the cloak or morality or religion, clucking our tongues, while eagerly casting the first stone.

Animals instinctually seek to protect themselves. We flee from threat or we stand our ground in the face of danger. Sometimes we go in search of prey. Dogs raise their hackles at one another and fight over anything from a bone to another dog; birds fly aggressively into windows—prompted to protect their turf when seeing their own image reflected in glass (what an ironic metaphor); humans disagree, even take up arms over—everything—even their God. Maybe the only way for those given the power of reason not to be overcome by what seems personal and harmful is to step outside ourselves on a regular basis, and as Atticus Finch advised his young daughter in To Kill a Mockingbird, walk in somebody else’s shoes.

As I struggle with truth, so plainly before my face; as I falter with this load of baggage I lug around with me; as I habitually want to blame someone or something else for my fears and the complications of my life; as I seek to impose my will on someone else; as I foolishly hold others accountable; as I ignorantly blame anyone for the misfortunes that have come his or her way; as I seek to make hostages of anyone in any way; let me remember. What we say or do with regard to any other person may indeed be much more about us and not so much about that person. When we stereotype and brand, we are waving the banner of our own shortcomings. Life is real personal. Realizing fully my own burdens as a willful creature who struggles daily to step outside himself is real personal.

Don’t Take It Personally—Normangee, Texas (February 27, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Friendship in the Flesh

Over the last year I spent time with a therapist. I think I have to count that time among the best things I’ve done for myself—and I hope by extension for others—in a long time. It wasn’t my first attempt to heal some emotional wounds by offering myself to the hands of a professional. Of course, what I perceive to be honest has been part of the professional relationship I’ve had with three different therapists over a 30-year period. This time was a gift of sorts. It came through one of those miraculous connections that more than once in my adult years have led me to think there is more meaning in a meeting than life intends. “Do you believe in fate,” a new friend asked a few years back. I asked for clarification, but then I replied, “Yes, I do”. Had the universe led us to a friendship? As it turns out, I think so. However, not all chance meetings that seem filled with possibility, especially ones adorned with romance, turn out that way. Such a chance meeting ultimately led to Dr. W. at a nearby university. Thanks to Dr. W.’s persistent message, I think I finally see some light in the tunnel. Old permissions have been dusted off and put on for new. The road is no less bumpy. I’m just more aware of the potholes, and I realize they have a purpose. You’d think that a sextagenarian would already have such understanding under his belt. Well, we’re not all perfect.

It has been over 20 years since my last sustained partnership—one that began as neighbors, became complicated for reasons we both understood a long time ago, and blessedly led to friendship, thanks to his persistence. We rarely see each other, talk just about annually, but we are connected forever, as far as I am concerned. In the sessions with Dr. W. I talked about the quality of past relationships, as I puzzled once again to understand why I’ve been through such a long, long dry spell. A look at the textbook on relationships will quickly reveal factors like age, time and place in life, motivation, need, willingness to compromise, persistence—not a parallel list of considerations, but valid ones for sure.

My three guys are John, John, and David. All of them were embraced by my family. For me, that was a requirement, and while it ultimately might have led to complications in my personal relationships, it is what it is. A classic, wonderful story involving David deserves telling. He and I had been to visit Aunt Mary, my daddy’s youngest sister, and her husband Frog (William Woodrow). As we sat around the breakfast room table that evening, my aunt and uncle both vying for the floor—she gracious, he insistent bordering on rude—they both persisted in calling David “John”. After all, they had known the two Johns as well. Finally, Uncle Frog, clever man that he was in his insistence, looked at David and asked, “John, do you mind if I call you David?”

When Daddy died on the first day of Spring, 1981, David and I were neighbors in Houston. John 1 lived in Austin and John 2 in New York. As our family mourned the passing of a husband and father, John came from Austin to serve as pallbearer, and John came from New York to be with our family. David is credited by my only niece as befriending her during a difficult time for our family. Fast forward many years to the days leading up to February 1, 2007. Even though Mother would have been 90 on her next birthday, we were sad and exhausted as we faced saying good-bye to her in this life. Our friend John 2 had died in 1986, living many miles away from us in Germany. On the Saturday before Mother died, I made a point to connect with John 1, who still lives in Austin. I think John felt closer to my mother and daddy than to his own parents. That Saturday I discovered that John is battling his own serious health problems these days. One of the manifestations of his illness is the affect it has had on his speech. On that Saturday I talked to John and his care giver. I was already sad about Mother, but I was further saddened to learn of John’s struggles. A few days later, John called in the evening. I had trouble understanding him, and I kept saying, “John, I’m sorry, but I can’t understand what you’re saying.” There was silence on the other end, but I could hear talking in the background. John got back on the phone and asked, “Harold, has Tena died?” “No, John, but it is near.” “Tell Tena that I love her,” John said, “and Harold, I love you too.” In the crush of Mother’s death two days later, I didn’t call John. I haven’t acted on my plans to visit him in Austin.

A voicemail to David, who lives in New York, brought him to our family’s side on the Sunday we held visitation at the mortuary last February. He had been vacationing with his partner on a cruise ship. David flew to Houston and rented a car to make the 45-mile drive west. He had made one other trip to visit Mother in the spring of 2002, or was it 2003, soon after her health had turned downward with almost lightening speed. On that visit, we ate chicken fried steak and cocoanut pie.

Many years and all sorts of miles have put distance between me, our family, and the three men who have played a palpably important role in our lives. Recently I remembered that I hadn’t heard from David for several months, even though I stay in touch with him through this blog, as third person as that might be. I sent him an email a few days ago. He called yesterday. We all know how it goes when we make contact with people who have become part of our fabric. Striking the ground running, we caught up with our lives. David is a man of many talents, bright, funny, and compassionate. Even though it was just yesterday, I don’t remember who brought it up. Neither of us could remember the variety of David’s artwork I have had stored for 25 years. I remembered only one piece, he another. We ended our call with loosely-defined plans for me to visit New York. “David, you know I haven’t flown since 9/11.” “Maybe you can take the train,” he suggested, advising me also that someday I might need to fly. “I’ll know when it’s time,” I said.

Amazingly for me, I knew just where to look for David’s art. To my surprise, there were three pieces—the one I remembered, the one David remembered, and one that he couldn’t imagine that he had painted. “Did I sign it?” he asked, when we reconnected later in the day. With promises to have his three pieces scanned and digitized, we ended a second call, as casually as if we see each other later this week.

There are many ways to measure friendship. For me, one of the defining truths of my life has been the presence of the significant men in my life at the passing of my parents. “That is a tribute to the quality of men I have loved and to their relationship with my family,” I told Dr. W. last spring. “Harold, that also says something important about you,” replied. “Give yourself some credit.”

Friendship in the Flesh—Normangee, Texas (February 21, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Monday, February 18, 2008

Love Spoken

"I love you, and think of you often, but you have no way of knowing that unless I tell you, do you?" She was answering my concern that I had offended her as an explanation for why I hadn’t heard from her in months. I can’t get this out of my mind. I suppose it was all about my insecurity. Yet, if we don’t let one another know that we care, how are we to thrive, or even survive? Toss a pebble in the water and look.

In Texas I live in a rural place, separated by many miles from a town of any size. Someone has suggested that I probably spend way too much time inside myself. Place might not be that big a factor, however. Even when in the middle of the city, I am this same duck. Although I enjoy the company of others, I don’t feel a need to be immersed in the swim of human interaction. In Texas I see my oldest sister just about every day, although we give each other plenty of space. I talk to my middle sister ever so often. We were brought up in a close-knit family. I guess I felt safe and happy there, although even as a child I was puzzled by life, and sometimes afraid, especially of the unknown, and even then, especially of what I have recognized for a long time now as “man’s inhumanity to man”, especially what I understood to be directed toward me because I was a “mama’s boy”.

It’s a little funny and a little sad the things that frighten us as children. There are the obvious things, like the dark. Many adults are afraid of the dark as well. Out here on these 200 acres when at dusk I hear the howling-yipping of Coyote, I sense no threat. Yet I wouldn't wander into the thicketed woods in search of this choral cry, for more reasons than Coyote. Awakened in the night, though, I sometimes wonder if what I heard was part of the dream. Is someone at the bottom of the stairs...did I hear the screendoor on the porch? It could have been the icemaker dropping cubes. I remember one time in particular as a small child waking my parents in the middle of the night. Had I been dreaming, or had I been thinking in the dark about the end of the world. I couldn’t wrap my young mind around the frightening idea that someday, even the small reality I knew would go away forever—Forever. The seeds of hell, fire, and brimstone had already been planted in my brain from an overwrought, hand-wringing preacher in a Southern Baptist Church. My small reality has suffered permanent loss with the death of our parents, and so many more people, kin and not, who have been a part of my life. That night as my parents comforted me—loved me—I remember Daddy commenting that his youngest sister didn’t like talking about the end of the world, didn’t like hearing sermons on the resurrection. While no less afraid, I suppose I was at least reassured.

Recently, over lunch, a friend who lives an hour away was relating a story about someone who grew up with in a family where the love of the parent was indeed about reward and punishment—“which is not love,” she added. I often recall the words of a friend from 30 years ago. Parents do the best they can, according to Rachel. Parents do not look at a child in the crib and say “I’m going to fuck you up.” As we’ve gotten older, my sisters and I are each our own little odd creature. Since our mother’s death a year ago we’ve had plenty need and plenty occasions to talk honestly about matters, and more importantly, about ourselves. All in our 60s, we have more than a little motivation to figure things out and to exercise our sibling love, while we have the chance.

In this rural place I am blessed to have regular contact with a couple of friends. Mostly, though, I am a solitary figure. I can’t imagine life without email and access to the Internet. Even though I have enough real work to keep me busy seven days a week, I piddle through most days, doing a little work here and there, worrying about what I’m not getting done but trying to learn not to worry so much. Even though some might think my ways a bit curmudgeon-like at times, even though I do cherish time alone, and even though I am a card-carrying quasi-introvert, I am also a gregarious animal. I just need to re-fuel myself regularly. I need time to think and reflect on my little reality, tinker and piddle, and actually, I need to let other people know about my love for them.

For those who are involved somehow in constant relationships—whether raising a family, empty-nester spouses, partnered, or those prone to thriving in flocks—the opportunities to express love daily are rich. We solitary creatures might have a little tougher go of it. Practice makes perfect. Many are separated by distance—both real and perceived—from those they love. For love to grow strong, it must be exercised. And we all need to be told ever so often that we are loved. We also need to do the telling, and more importantly, the showing. We need to say, “I love you,” and we need to remember that we are both blessed by love and that our active love is a blessing to others.

From what I understand, we all have those middle-of-the-night sessions where we awake, and before we can get back to sleep we start worrying over our perceived problems and failures, actual dilemmas and conflicts, crises of self-confidence, real challenges and concerns about what’s down the road, both for ourselves and for those we love. Surely that happens to more than just a few of us.

A few months ago, a little prayer of sorts was born in my brain—in the middle of the night. I didn’t have to think about it too much. Mostly, it just happened.

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.

Sometimes when I am awake at 2:09 a.m., worrying, of course, I say to myself, “I am blessed, I am blessing”. Sometimes I am calmed, but other times it is a struggle to find that place in me where peace-love waits patiently. I grapple with my laundry list of perceived problems and failures, actual dilemmas and conflicts, crises of self-confidence, real challenges and concerns about what’s down the road, both for me and for those I love. I say to myself, “I am blessed, I am blessing”. We can’t say enough about love. It is a blessing. For as long any of us might live, try as we might, we won’t finish defining it, either for ourselves or for the world. I know. You’ve worked it out, got it figured out. For you, love has spoken.

Love Spoken—Normangee, Texas (February 17, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Thursday, February 14, 2008

St. Valentine's Day 2008

For the last few days I have carried my digital camera in my pocket, hoping to catch a shot of one of the many noisy birds celebrating the pre-spring weather we’ve had off and on since January. So far, no luck. A bird novice I, only the most familiar by sight and sound are recognized by me. Cardinal, mockingbird, crow vocalize, while woodpeckers are busy in standing or fallen decaying trees out in the field where giant rolls of hay are stored. Starting in pre-dawn and lasting into dusk, sounds and flurry fill the air as the feathered ones populating this oasis sanctuary remain in seemingly-constant motion. They are the symphony that accompanies my solitary efforts to prepare this garden for spring and to make sense of the human evidence that suddenly is so apparent here. If tables and chairs and assorted concrete and clay were capable of flight, couldn’t I just shoo them all away?

Yesterday I jumped the gun on rose pruning, which I have been told on authority should begin on Valentine’s Day in this part of the world. Today is that day, and while it is sunny, the various wind chimes that ornament this garden are telling me that I was right to prune my 30-plus roses on the eve of St. Valentine’s celebration. The weather in January and February has been unusually blustery, and not welcome, for it dries out the ground, robbing us of precious moisture from the stingy rains we are having this winter. How glad I am—and knew I would be—to reflect on my focused efforts yesterday to groom my roses. Still waiting to be reduced in scale are the shrubs that dominate the view from my kitchen.

When I started the work on converting this two-story barn to a residence, one of the first additions was a long, lean-to porch on the northwest side of the building. For awhile this porch offered respite, ceiling fans whirring on warm days, shelter in the rain, and an unobstructed view of the garden-in-progress. Necessity is the mother of invention, however, and because the kitchen that had always existed in the bunkhouse of this barn was barely big enough to turn around in, logic led me to claim the lean-to for a kitchen space. The view into the garden, depending on how you see it, is at least very green. Ah, but what to do on rainy days. Another shelter emerged in the northeastern edge of the garden, and I should have realized the difference between walking out the front door to the rain and walking through the rain. One more outdoor room means one more place for earthly treasure—a self-induced maintenance hell, and for sure a violation of all the principles of feng sui. Still, it is a patch of heaven as well, a sort of yin and yang.

The birds and the chimes have graced my efforts in the outdoors here. Near at hand at all times are leather gloves, wheelbarrow, rake and shovel, pruners, lobbers, and shears, paintbrushes and sawhorses, my camera, and of course, the profound recognition that I have my hands full. I read a book some months ago about learning to be and letting go of the driving need to do. It seems that some people I have known make that transition more successfully than others. And for those of us who keep on doing, it can seem like moving in circles—no, it is moving in circles. A friend who hasn’t made the shift from doing to being told me today that she has kept herself almost burdened with activity since the death of her husband 22 years ago. Her house always appears in order; the same for her garden, even her garage. She loves having house guests. All things being relative, though, some of us are lesson-challenged. As I peel away layers of garden and layers of earthly possessions, I realize that I will most likely spend the remainder of my life peeling away layers. That minimalist dream buried deep in my subconscious is but a dream.

St. Valentine’s Day—Normangee, Texas (February 14, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Celtic Prayer

Deep peace of the
running waves to you.

Deep peace of the
flowing air to you.

Deep peace of the
quiet earth to you.

Deep peace of the
shining stars to you.

Deep peace of the
Son of Peace to you.

a Celtic prayer

This Truth with a Face

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

This Truth with a Face—Normangee, Texas (December 7, 2005)
R. Harold Hollis

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Projects

The first time I really saw the projects was on a Sunday afternoon drive in 1971 with some friends who wanted to see my school. We had the top down on the car, and I’m sure it must have seemed to the people on their steps and in the yards that we were cruising the area. The result was an occasional obscenity—“Honky! Goddamned (muffled)!” After a few blocks of this, we realized we had made a mistake and quickly left. This was the only time I drove through the interior of the projects. Before and after this my route was straight to and from school on the main streets.

Surely there were four seasons in the projects. What I actually recall though is the heat, and the stench that occasionally rose from the nearby Trinity River. The main artery leading to this area is lined with minor service stations and drive-in groceries on one side and a large playground and housing on the other side. Crossing the river is the beginning of a life generally unknown by so-called white mainstream. Frankly, African-Americans who have grown up as part of the socio-economic mainstream probably know little about the proverbial other side of the river.

The streets and yards in the projects are strewn with the waste and castoffs of its residents. The litter problem was the target of a letter writing contest we held at our school. Each contestant was to write to the city councilman for that area to get something done about the overflowing trash containers and what seemed like negligence of the sanitation department. Actually, the problem is the lack of effort from both the residents and the city. While the city maintains that the residents don’t care about solving the problem, the residents claim that they can’t solve the problem because the city has inadequate trash pickup. The result is that nothing really gets done. One of my students asked me in jest once, “Mister Hollin, does you have rats at yo’ house?” In disbelief I replied, “No!” He then quipped that the rats were so bad in the projects that sometimes when he came home “the rats be sittin’ on the kitchen table shootin’ craps.”

The appearance of the projects is only a manifestation of what actually exists in the area. Our elderly Black principal told me sadly one day that he had seen many changes in the projects during his ten years at the school. There had been a time when he felt safe walking among the blocks. But no longer. Many of the young adults resent what the school represents, and just as easily as they can rip off fans from a locked school building, they can verbally abuse a graying “Uncle Tom” who is pretentious enough to think that he can walk their streets.

The police have little success controlling the crime in the projects because the residents won’t cooperate in answering questions. Robbery, rape, and even murder, are accepted as part of life’s transience. Partially out of fear, partially of a grim fatalism, the residents are victimized by their own.

One of my saddest awakenings during a year teaching in the projects came in the winter. I had been out one day with a cold. The next morning I was in a neighboring teacher’s classroom before school started when one of my students came in and said matter of fact, “Mr. Hollin, that girl, she dead.” “What?” I asked. “That girl, someone shot her last night,” he replied. “Who? I don’t understand what you’re talking about,” I asked. Again, he explained, “Betty Anderson, someone killed her last night.” I was horrified, sick to my stomach. It seemed I would cry, but the hurt was not personal enough.

Betty Anderson had not made a vivid impression on me. Unlike many of the others, she was not loud. She was a good student. Probably she had not been challenged by the work in my class because I struggled to keep enough activities planned for the wide range of students we all had in our classes. I’m sure Betty was bright, and the thought that she had been killed by an intruder in her home made me bitter and angry. The local morning paper had a practice of listing rewards for aid in solving several murders on the books. I watched the papers for months, but I never saw Betty Anderson’s name on the list.

The Projects—Dallas, Texas (1971)
R. Harold Hollis

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Granny Lady

A couple of days ago I drove over to East Texas to visit a friend who lives just over an hour away, someone not quite old enough to be my mother, a friend with whom I keep irregular communications, a friend with whom I share great conversations, bread, and wine. Each time we visit, usually in her East Texas home, I remember that here lives treasure…friendship adorned with intelligence, honesty, compassion, and humor. Honesty, yes, for my friend Jane knows much about my family, especially the journey we have traveled for several years, a journey in which our mother’s failing health rode in the seat of honor, a journey that ended officially a year ago. During this time, Jane offered me good counsel. Our friendship goes back much farther than that, though, beginning a couple of years after Jane’s husband, who was 13 years older than she, had died of cancer.

Over these 20 years I’ve met Jane’s four children, but only one of her eight grandchildren, all but one of whom are now grown. This family is made up of interesting people, many interesting stories, and some heartache for sure. I want to remember what Jane told me yesterday about how she and her husband Cliff approached rearing their children. Though I can’t do justice to Cliff’s words, the principles were straightforward. This bunch of four individuals were nurtured and allowed to grow. Jane has been there for them, continues to be there for them, and they have reciprocated. She doesn’t live near any of her children, who are spread from Austin, Texas, practically to Oklahoma, and to the Smokies of North Carolina and northwestern Virginia. Jane tried living near one daughter for five years awhile back, but as it turned out, she missed her adopted East Texas, where she had formed strong friendships after Cliff died.

I know only a little about Jane’s birth family and her roots in southwest Louisiana. There’s some French blood there, and even after spending most of her adult years in Texas, there is a lovely touch of Cajun Louisiana in Jane’s dialect. This heritage comes out in some of her cooking as well. Jane is the youngest of four children—two males and two females—three of whom survive. They are bound by the strong ties typical of southern families. Jane’s sister and her husband must have some serious music genes flowing in their veins because several of the Michot boys/men make music for real and for money, even though most of them have other professional lives as well. When these guys show up to play at a well-regarded venue in Jane’s East Texas town, it’s "Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez" over at Jane’s house. While I haven’t been there for any of these get-togethers, I understand that the food, wine and good times do indeed roll. Times are bittersweet, though, because both Jane’s older brother and sister, the mother of all these mugicians, have significant health problems.

I missed Jane’s 80th birthday celebration last October. Yesterday was the first opportunity we’ve had for her to tell me about this great celebration, the music, food, flowers, even a documentary produced by her oldest granddaughter, Sarah. Granny Lady is what the grandkids call her. While I don’t get the chance to talk to any of Jane’s offspring, I know that they all know Granny Lady is one fine example of this truth—in life, we are surrounded by goodness. Her children and grandchildren know it, her birth family knows it, and the many folks God has gifted with Jane’s friendship know it.

I was reminded of this yesterday as Jane and I sat talking with a friend. They were recounting the unwarranted rudeness someone who knows Jane well had directed to her earlier in the week. They were much closer to the situation than I, but as I nodded my head in a mixture of understanding and puzzlement, Jane did a very Jane thing. She smiled in resolve, letting her heart and her faith speak for her. Grudges have no room in her heart, and as she offered an explanation, I leaned down, looked her in the eye, and reminded her that she is gracious. Generosity of spirit—that is Jane.

Granny Lady—Normangee, Texas (February 9, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Thursday, February 7, 2008

River Experience

This is the way I remember it. The year was 1975. The starting point was Austin, Texas. The destination was a tube ride down the Guadalupe River at Gruene, near New Braunfels. Only one of the four of us had tubed the river before, and I can speak only for myself—I hadn’t had any conversations with someone who had warned of danger. We were blissfully ignorant that sunny, cool early spring day as we set out in oversized inner tubes attached to plywood, none of us wearing life vests.

Pretty quickly we encountered small rapids that bounced us easily past them, buoying our spirits. We laughed and joked. It’s been a long time since that day. I guess we had at least a little retrieve of fairly calm water, maybe even another tease where the water bumped us along. There had been a lot of rain. Soon, the scene changed. It happened so quickly that all I could register was white fright as I saw myself quickly approaching rapids that I knew, even in my non-experience, were dangerous. Quickly I was pulled into the vortex, and before I knew it, my tube had flipped, and I was under it, swallowing water so fast as to take away my breath. I was being hammered, held captive, working against myself. A poor, inexperienced swimmer to begin with—although that might not have made a difference—I struggled to keep my head above water.

Suddenly I was free of the tube, shooting down the river and still taking in water. I had no doubt that I would die. The thought that raced through my mind—“we wonder how our end will come, and this is my end”. I gave into it. Almost as quickly the water calmed, although I continued to be carried rapidly on my back. I tried to catch hold of limbs hanging over the river, but all I accomplished was to strip leaves from the branches. Now I wasn’t ready to give up. Suddenly, the waters became peaceful, and I was able to make my way to the bank. I reached for a limb that held and struggled out of the water. When I tried to stand, my legs simply would have none of it. Somehow, my friends were there, but on both sides of the river. Someone helped me up. There was much laughter as they recounted the experience with the rapids. One of the friends, who was visiting from Ft. Worth, lost his spectacles, on which he counted for everything. All I could think about was how close I had come to death.

I was changed forever that day. I don’t remember my experience being any big deal to anyone. Later I did tell my parents, who lived northwest of Houston. My mother was a born worrier, but I don’t remember anything exceptional about her response. I’ve recounted that experience on the Guadalupe a few times over the years. Shortly after it happened, our group of innocents discovered that the river was particularly treacherous that day, according to experts, and we also learned that drownings on the river were not unheard of. The last time I told about my experience I was participating in team training for Episcopal Cursillo. We had been asked to tell about an experience where we had felt especially close to Christ. My day on the Guadalupe came to mind, but not because I knew that day that Christ was watching over me. What I did know and accept was the reality that I would die, that I might be aware of it as I was dying, and that I would accept it peacefully. I knew God that day on the river, and I felt safe.

River Experience—Normangee, Texas (February 7, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Don't Fence Me Out

As we sat in the darkened room last Thursday evening, out of the corner of my eye I saw the friend sitting to my right remove his glasses and draw his sleeved forearm across his eyes. Earlier I had heard him make that sound we make when we work at trying to hold back our tears. Across the aisle, a young woman quietly dabbed just below where her spectacles struck her face. Earlier in the evening I had noticed her and her companion. They seemed very comfortable in a room filled mostly with undergrad gay men and lesbians. A few of us were older, a few of us even older, old enough even to be the grandparents of these undergrads. We were just about to finish watching the documentary, For the Bible Tells Me So, which strives to capture some of the agony and the ecstasy of gay and lesbian individuals and their families.

Who are we people of the other sexuality that supposedly have been marked for separation, and according to some who claim to understand Holy Scripture, for eternal damnation? For some time now, the politically correct terminology for the group of people who comprise the “other sexuality” has been GLBT—gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender. So I guess that’s what I am. I don’t know that any John or Jane Q. off the street would recognize me as such, although I don’t really go out of my way to blend in. We can’t necessarily be held separate, discriminated against, or punished somehow based on different skin color or tone or shape of eye. Of course, at times all of these factors coincide. I guess that’s what you call a double whammy. I’m just a guy who at 64 has never been married to a woman. I’ve never defined myself based on my sexual orientation. I am a person, I am a male, I am by God’s own hand attracted to men, and I am a person of faith. I have taken my stand in the Church. I am bona fide.

On the lighter side, I don’t want to wear women’s clothes, although my spirit soars when I hear Jerry Herman’s lyrics to “I Am What I Am”, the anthem of La Cage Aux Folles.—“Life's not worth a damn 'til you can say, hey world, I am what I am”. On the serious side, which is the purpose of the documentary, the concern is the life and lives of males and females, adolescent and adult, of every stripe and spot. We are talking about the person who finds himself or herself held separate and marked as unworthy because of sexual orientation. And, we are talking about families sometimes torn apart by ignorance and failed love. And, we are talking sometimes about life and death matters. Worst of all, we are talking about ruin that results from the actions of people, who in the case of Christian folk, claim to be living out the teachings of Christ. Au contraire.

For the Bible Tells Me So takes a close look at several families, including both the birth family and the heterosexual marriage of Gene V. Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the history of the Anglican church; the family of Senator Richard Gephardt (D-MO), whose daughter faced the truth of her sexuality after an attempt at heterosexual marriage; a Black husband and wife, who share a ministry in the church, and their Ivy League-educated daughter; a young man, raised as a devout Lutheran, who chose to out himself as a teen, ultimately with the support of his mother and father. Perhaps most touching of all is the mother who must tell her story alone because the daughter whose sexuality she rejected took her own life in her early 30s. The documentary brings a message of hope, both for and through these families. In spite of the message of damnation preached from the pulpit, the protests of people who hold up Holy Scripture to justify their placards of hate, and horror of all horrors, those who maim and kill out of ignorance, hope remains.

We, a mostly educated audience, comprised largely of GLBT folk, watched our lives move in frames across the screen. We nodded our heads in understanding, and then shook our heads in understanding. We have walked the walk and talked the talk. Each of us has our own story to tell, our struggle with loving ourselves, our own family story, our own story of school and work and community. Frankly, it doesn’t matter so much that the producers of this documentary used scholars and their scholarship to refute the proof-texting that has characterized the efforts of those who would shut out any child of God. I would like to believe that such scholarship could really make a difference. Scholarship doesn't change hearts, however. Only through faith in the God who made us all, through embracing God's love can hearts change. Hate is institutionalized, and it is individualized in the heart—hearts that for some reason need to judge others. I am the woman at the well, the leper, the tax collector. I am a gay man knocking at the door, one who reaches into his pocket and opens his own door for those in need of a helping hand. I am a child of God who in the middle of the night reminds himself that he is both blessed and a blessing. Only love, indeed the need to love, can change the hearts of those who would fence me out of the kingdom. This is what the Holy Bible tells me.

Don’t Fence Me Out—Normangee, Texas (February 4, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Affirming Our Love

In a corner of the plaza outside the Cathedral-Basilica St. Francis in Santa Fe, a bronze depiction of an angel stands near the entrance to the labyrinth. Messages about love are inscribed on the messenger sculpture. One has stayed with me since the first time I walked the labyrinth. “I am not asking to be loved. I want to love.” I must add to this—but I will let you love me, if you want…maybe. Frankly, I find it fairly easy to feel loving toward others in general or someone in particular, and I don’t have a problem with saying, “I love you.” It’s not so easy, though, to let myself be loved. On some level it feels good to be affirmed by someone else’s love for me. There are certainly explanations for my condition. Let’s start with a perceived need to protect myself and a strong resistance to being controlled by others. I suffer issues of distrust and a fear of being disappointed, yet I would say that I have a strong need to please others, or at least not disappoint them. I suffer some fear of real commitment and the expectations that accompany it. To this list I need to add a poorly developed ability to compromise. Maybe my self esteem is at the root of all this. The list could be longer, probably. Maybe all this just adds up to immaturity, and it’s getting a little late for me to change, although I refuse to accept that an old dog can’t learn new tricks. I give thanks for that which reminds me of love, its healing power, knowing that we can all do better in this department.

It is important that love become manifest in our humanity, that it be translated into action—Love alive, inhaling and exhaling. I don’t know who said it, but I remember that somewhere, someone said, “if you can feel, you are healed.” It might have been some dope-smoking rocker from the 70s. If a picture is worth a thousand words—in this instance an image, a sculpture—the artist/creator of the Basilica Angel surely knows something about love. I feel love emanating from this spirit, captured in bronze, now released with great joy. St. Paul, writing in the first century, didn’t do so well by a lot of us, laying the foundation for attitudes fundamentally contrary to love that remain entrenched in the twenty-first century. What better rendering exists, though, concerning the ideal and the reality of love and the weight of its obligation than what he describes in his letter to the church at Corinth?

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

13 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,* but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly,* but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Affirming Our Love—Normangee, Texas (February 2, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis