Friday, May 30, 2008

How Alone Can You Feel

How alone can you feel? I’m indulging myself to allow myself to think that my experience this week qualifies for any record book. Yet, all experience is relative. I am still a stranger in this land, even though I have neighbors, know business people—some long-standing relationships—have a church, and now I’ve started volunteering. Late yesterday I decided to head out to Urgent On Call medical on St. Michael’s, really after being encouraged by a friend from Texas and by someone on the staff at Kitchen Angels, where I was to have started my volunteer service yesterday afternoon. I had been sick in bed for two days with flu-like symptoms, although my symptoms had begun to develop late last weekend.  “You don’t want this to turn into pneumonia,” the Kitchen Angel staffer offered, putting the fear of something into me. Finally, with encouragement from Nancy, who is traveling West with her husband and stopping over in Santa Fe for a couple of weeks, I made the last-minute rush to get to Urgent On Call before their office closed at 6 p.m.

The diagnosis—very mild pneumonia in the lower right lung. With a super dose of Erythromyacin and Arbuterol inhalant in-hand, by 7 p.m. I had begun my treatment. To say that I felt relief last night at midnight when I awakened, realizing that I had begun to feel human again, is no understatement. Here in this maze of 260 condominiums where, with the exception of my neighbors and new friends Gail and John who visited from upstate New York during the month of May, my relationships remain a nod and a hello, sadly, not enough for anyone to know or care that I might be in distress. Only the birds pecking away at the grain and other treats on my deck lend a cheering voice to the otherwise rumbling and booming of condominium doors slamming around me and cars and large trucks making their way north on U. S. Hwy 84 to Colorado or south to, well, anywhere south, I guess.

This morning, I made it out to Morning Prayer and Bible study at the Episcopal Church where I worship here in Santa Fe. How great it felt to focus on something other than my aching, fevered body, in spite of an annoying cough and dripping nose. How thankful I am that I could make that trip, in the truck owned jointly by Compass Bank and me, driving myself, my head clear enough to notice other drivers and change lanes safely in the early morning rush of workers to New Mexico state offices downtown.

On my way home from St. Bede’s I stopped at the laundry where earlier this week I had left some slacks to be altered. As I waited to get back on to St. Francis/U.S. Hwy 84, hoping that someone would be considerate and let me into the flow, especially since there was an 18-wheeler blocking the entire northbound flow of traffic just ahead, I was denied this courtesy by a woman driving a Lexus SUV, her mid-sized manicured poodle dancing around the front seat. On her rear bumper was pasted a sticker with the slogan, STAY HUMAN. Hmm, you do the GOOGLE search and see what you turn up. Thankful, I am, still to have been out and under the sunny skies of this high desert place, what some call the city different, others the city indifferent and the city difficult. As I headed into the mall near my house to mail a bill at the post office and get a haircut, I thought to call my Kitchen Angel and thank her for planting the seed of caution with me. I don’t know if I made her day, although she seemed delighted to hear from me.

At Bible study we read from Genesis the story of Noah and his ark, and we had much discussion of this incredible tale. We didn’t focus on whether this event occurred, however. As usual, our thoughts took us all over the map of our individual and collective journey. The priest, who along with his wife guides our regular Friday morning exploration, said one thing in particular that sticks with me this afternoon. Salvation is not an individual act. It is not about the “I”. It is, rather, a corporate act, and our role is to bring as many pilgrims as possible to the kingdom, now, in this place. I guess this must apply as well to self-absorbed drivers of Lexus SUVs, miniature poodles dancing in the front seat, sporting STAY HUMAN stickers neatly attached to the rear bumper. Yesterday afternoon, as I headed out to the Urgent On Call office in afternoon rush hour traffic, I consciously welcomed two different drivers waiting to enter the flow of traffic. It felt really good, even though I failed, and grimaced, at the third opportunity. I was trying to beat the 6 p.m. closing of the office.

How Alone Can You Feel—Santa Fe New Mexico (May 30, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis

Monday, May 26, 2008

Practicing My LIfe

I’m practicing. And I’m amazed that I have to exercise who I am, just as I’m trying to walk a few miles each day to build up my endurance, again, and again at 7000 feet elevation. Yesterday, at a gathering for prospective new members of St. Bede’s Episcopal church in Santa Fe, New Mexico, much of the conversation concerned the rift in the Episcopal Church here in the U. S. and in the worldwide Anglican Communion. The conflict has focused on the full inclusion of gay and lesbian members in the communion, most specifically same-sex marriage and the ordination openly gay and lesbian persons.

As I sat listening to the leaders of this discussion give their views on the conflict, and describe the history of "liberal" St. Bede’s in the mostly conservative Diocese of the Rio Grande, my ears caught on the repeated use of conservative and liberal, uncomfortably conscious that I am part of the definition of a liberal church view and that inclusion of me and others of my stripe is a big deal in the struggle of the Christian Church.

I finally had to speak up. Yet, all I could muster seemed lightweight as my thoughts became words, and I felt the spotlight shining on me. I guess I was holding the spotlight. My thinking—as long as people anywhere on this planet believe that homosexuality is a choice, the conversation will amount to nothing more than people passing opinions and beliefs without any real interest in actually understanding one another. And as long as anyone believes that the God who created us all gives any one of us license to stand in judgment of each other on grounds of so-called morality, based in some kind of reading of Holy Scripture, we probably won’t make much progress on this man-made dilemma.

It’s not simple, I know. God knows it’s not simple to me and my brothers and sisters. You certainly don’t have to be gay or lesbian to have decided to leave the church. Scores of thousands of people across the planet who were at least introduced to the church in their upbringing have left the church for scores of reasons. Some of the painfully real reasons include the politics, hypocrisy, divisiveness, even acts of hate that continue to occur, somehow in the name of the God in whose image we are all created.

No, I didn’t choose to be homosexual. I’ve known since I was a young child, and like all those cases depicted in volumes of literature and all those family members and friends who dot the landscape, I lived with my secret—until I was in my mid-twenties. And as we all discover at some point, when we’ve hopefully made the decision to come out, I realized that my secret wasn’t so secret after all. “Well, he’s the only one who didn’t realize he was gay.”

My metaphor yesterday in the church gathering was lightweight. I didn’t choose my sexuality like I would have chosen between coconut meringue and pecan pie. As the song goes, I am what I am. And I am a child of God, just the same as every heterosexual who sat the table with me. Most of the group was silent on the topic, with the exception of one couple, both of whom were enthusiastically vocal in supporting what I had to say. I trust that the other five newbie’s share the viewpoint of our “liberal” parish, which flies the rainbow flag, along with the flag of the Episcopal Church, a decision that led to a siege of vandalism several years ago. Otherwise, they would all have been somewhere else on this afternoon.

I didn’t really want to speak out about myself. I don’t like feeling that I have to justify my existence, but I guess it is my duty to at least cause others who feel that the very essence of who I am as a physical being—my sexuality—is a choice, rather than a matter of what God chose for me, to step back and look at themselves. My homosexuality doesn’t define me. It shouldn’t define me, just as one’s heterosexuality doesn’t define that person. Yes, I am a minority. Yet, I am God’s very own. I can’t walk around the grounds of my estate carrying a gun to practice feeling “manly”, as the psychiatrist character suggested to Maurice in the novel and film of the same name, which is set in Edwardian England. His thinking reflected the understanding of the time. Fortunately, science and the study of human behavior have carried us beyond Maurice’s age. And fortunately for Maurice’s character, he made a choice to be true to himself. Hope steeled him for his choice.

Neither can I, nor do I want to perform any silly act that someone thinks would change my sexual identify, regardless of how well intentioned. My dear mother, my best friend, clung to her belief in me, headed toward 90 at the time of her death. She believed in my essential goodness, but of course she was my mother and my champion. The first question she asked me 30 years ago when I told her and Daddy about my homosexuality, on a Sunday afternoon sitting in the doorway opening of the hallway of the barn that is now my home, was could I see a therapist about changing myself. Although Daddy and I never talked about my sexuality, since his death 27 years ago I have heard both from Mother and my middle sister that he was heart broken. I guess he blamed himself for not doing more to make me “more of a man”. He was born in 1911, brought up the hard-shelled Baptist tradition of the south. I can’t change any of that.

The argument about my fate will continue, long after my death. And as long as I have my wits and the strength to practice, I will continue to grow stronger in God’s grace. That Sunday morning a few years ago when I challenged those gathered for Bible study at the tiny Episcopal mission in conservative East Texas, those who instinctively clucked their tongues over the election of a gay bishop in New Hampshire, an election that was confirmed by the national church, was my first great moment to take a stand. At age 61, led by the Holy Spirit, I am told, I stood up to honor my God, myself and my brothers and sisters. I will try to live in God’s grace, and I will do my part to challenge both those who in their ignorance would love the sinner but hate the sin and those who would hate me or fear me or distrust me, which is indeed a choice.

Practicing My Life—Santa Fe, New Mexico (May 26, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis



Tough Times for Pilgrims

Yesterday my neighbor and I watched, as a middle-aged Hispanic woman in cuffs was loaded into a police car in front of the supermarket near our homes. As I walked by, only a matter of feet away, I couldn’t stop myself from looking, but I was embarrassed, both for her and for all of the people who gawked at her humiliation. Rather than wonder what she had done to be arrested, my heart went immediately to the utter sadness that had brought her to be standing at the back door of a squad car, hands cuffed behind her back, a female officer quietly giving her instructions.

Shortly, while my neighbor and I stood in the checkout line, one of the store managers walked up to close our line. My neighbor asked about the woman who had been arrested. She had shop lifted $411 worth of goods. Did the store calculate the amount before or after calling the police? I commented to the manager that I felt sorry for the woman, even though I understand that stealing is wrong, regardless of the reason.

Of course, I have no clue of what the woman had loaded into her basket. At today’s prices $411 wouldn’t necessarily make a basket full. A couple of skinless chicken breasts, dozen eggs, loaf of bread, some milk, and so on—it doesn’t take much to run up a $50 tab. For a family of five, well, the math is relatively easy. Everywhere we turn the cost of making it keeps climbing. Yes, taking something that doesn’t belong to you is against the laws of our society. And I suppose that regardless of need, taking what doesn’t belong to you cannot be justified.

Yet I cannot get past the needs this woman, and her family, might have. Something drove her to steal. If she has a history—perhaps this is the first time she’s gotten caught, maybe not—she has to understand that shoplifting is against the law, and when we break the law we have to suffer the consequences. Back home, though, I wonder who was there to receive the call—“Your wife (your mother) (your daughter) has been arrested for shop lifting at the Albertson’s in DeVargas Mall.” I have no way of knowing the circumstances in which this life drama must be played out.

I am not judge and jury, although the woman’s crime might put her in court, and I could be one of the people chosen to judge her. Only then would I have any right to have a say in the fate of the accused, and even then, I would not have the luxury of knowing the context of her life. Most likely, all I will ever know is what I saw in front of Albertson’s on a sunny, cold Saturday afternoon, Memorial Day weekend, in paradise. And I guess I have to accept that this would-be paradise here is conflicted with the tough choices pilgrims have to make in a world growing tougher every day.

Tough Times for Pilgrims—Santa Fe New Mexico (May 25, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Life in Sepia Tones

My friend Eugene sent me a digital image of a photo from the mid 50s. We were probably 7th graders, a group of 4-H boys, virtually every male from the class was a member. We lived in rural northwest Harris County. Although I grew up in a rural setting—we had horses, rabbits, chickens, some cows—I don’t recall ever having a 4-H project. I do recall raking leaves, playing cafĂ© with the hard pears from the prolific trees in our yard as the only produce in our offering, riding bareback, running naked with Reggie Grob playing wild Indians in the woods at the back of our three acres. I also remember planting corn at school in the 4th grade, but I don’t remember harvesting it. That makes sense, of course, because the corn would have matured after the school year ended.

The photo has taken on sepia tones. It’s been 53 years. The cuffs of my blue jeans—cuffs, why were my jeans long enough that they would have had a 3” cuff—betrayed that the jeans might still hold some of the sizing that makes new fabric stiff to the feel. For years now lots of jeans styles are “stone washed” to make them soft and give them that “lived in” look and feel—chemically-induced comfort trying to take the place of time and life. There we stand, 50 plus stinky little boys, some of them posturing in preview of the time when testosterone kicks in and bodies harden for those who are physically active—sometimes even for those who sit on the sidelines of athletics, and rowdiness. When I was well into adulthood, I heard my mother describe, smiling, a bunch of boys as little ruffians. It made me think of Spanky and his buddies, but not of myself, what I watched but not what I did. I smiled at her smiling.

I don’t know whether I have the photograph of these 4-Hers, but it may be in the Arnold Jr. High yearbook from the academic year of  1955-56, the one my sister Joan found when she cleaned out Mother and Daddy’s reproduction early American desk so that our sister Sue could take it home with her in mid-April. Why didn’t we do a better job of keeping our memories together? Instead, they’re scattered here and there, evidence mostly lost. I have a framed piece of crayon artwork, maybe from 1st grade at Ben Milam Elementary, Houston, the West End, Texas. “To Mother Daddy Joan and Sue Love”, but it isn’t signed. The artist from our family is obvious—the only name missing from the dedication.

I love what age does to objects, including the sepia tones of old photographs. Everything takes on resonance with age—wood, metal, stone, leather, fiber, flesh—a cloak that testifies to time and the elements, and life. Age can even make things old become new, like friendship, rich with meaning and purpose, even for people whose paths have only crossed, maybe intertwined, before, 50 years ago. I am a lover of old objects, historic buildings, cemeteries that speak of that about which I could only have read or imagined, gardens swept and not, cherished recipes, memories of dozing on the floor and catching pieces of the conversation of my elders and their generations. I love having the gift of friendship made new, yet resonating timeless, like the glorious rain falling on this ancient land in the high desert this day in May.

Life in Sepia Tones—Santa Fe New Mexico (May 22, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Opinions and Birds

An expression not well-suited for polite company compares opinions to a certain part of the human anatomy. Everybody has one, it concludes. Over the years people who know me well have said, in jest mostly, “Why don’t you tell us what you really think, Harold?” I’ve been known to have an opinion or two, a couple of prejudices, more than a small share of attitude now and then. And I’ve done my part toward keeping the art of stereotyping healthy, including my own flock. Even birds express preferences. The ravens that fill the skies around here certainly make themselves heard. I wonder what all they have on their minds. Consider the scolding parakeet as you upset him from his roost to perch on your finger—all for your own pleasure. Or is he just screeching with approval of our human neuroses? Recently, a friend here said jokingly that ravens are known for swearing. Yet another thing we have in common. No wonder they amuse me, make me smile broadly every time I hear their KWAAK-KWAAK, make me stop to locate the source. Yesterday I learned something new from my downstairs neighbor. Close your eyes and follow the sound. I tested it a little this morning. It works, although not so definitively with a flock of small birds.

So what about these opinions we all embrace for dear life? Is having opinions the same as being opinionated. Not really, to me, although I do believe that the conclusions we draw about one thing or another and then make part of our vocabulary, especially in settings where we have the opportunity to sound off, can become downright tiring. Sometimes they offend, especially when we fail to realize that we might be stepping on someone’s toes. We are not always so luxuriously warned to be on guard because someone in our presence is part of a group about which we usually have ignorant, offensive things to say. Not everything is black and white.

I continue to be surprised—at least a little—each time someone who proclaims his or her inclusive attitudes buckles when faced with being branded himself. A few years ago I hung out with a guy I know through summer travels out here. He’s married, with two almost-grown sons now. The next summer he confessed that he had been a little concerned that people seeing us together would think he is homosexual. Then he decided that what people thought about his sexuality didn’t matter to him. I don’t consider myself as particularly exhibiting the common stereotypes associated with gay men.—not that it should matter—but since I don’t go around sporting a scarlet “H”, I shake my head, “gee”. And even though I get it, it still pisses me off a little. A friend last night related a story whose power was built on the speaker’s attempts to belittle someone by suggesting she is lesbian. Cocktail talk, some of the most damaging, hiding behind the liberating effects of a couple of drinks. It’s akin to the bravado some people feel in the safety of numbers.

Now the truth can be fairly complicated at times. These days I like to remind myself of some simple, really good advice I read last year. “Don’t take things personally,” advises Don Miguel Ruiz in THE FOUR AGREEMENTS. What others say about you is really about them. What I distrust in others is about me. Years ago, a friend said to me, “Harold, you’re one of the biggest homophobes I know.” And it’s true, although I have tried to become less opinionated about my brethren, especially concerning those stereotypes so many people have of us. If I’m caught up in one-dimensional thinking at times, what right do I have to expect better from those who probably have at least a little trouble understanding who I am.

Often our opinions, attitudes and prejudices—if I may be permitted one enchilada for all of them—are shored up by the herd we run with. Ultimately, we can’t hide behind the next steer, though. We have to own who we are and what we think. Inclusiveness has been on my mind, especially since it has been at least part of the weekly theme I’ve heard preached and discussed in church over the last several months. If we are charged with loving our neighbors as ourselves and doing unto others as we would have them do unto us—ethical reciprocity it is labeled—there’s not much time left over for nurturing attitudes that separate us. There’s little reason to cling to those comfortable old habits that betray our dark side. Do not do unto others what you would not have done unto you.  

Opinions and Birds—Santa Fe New Mexico (May 21, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis

Monday, May 19, 2008

Gifts and Crucibles

"When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us."

-Alexander Graham Bell  

My mother said many times during my struggles with disappointment—she was a good friend—that when a door closes, another door opens.  I came back to this place, knowing deep inside that my life must change. I’ve struggled way too long with this feeling of lacking purpose, even though I realize that my life does make a difference, and it has made a difference. Like so many others, I don’t give myself much credit.

A friend here is in the early part of her journey with a serious illness. During a visit shortly after I returned we talked about her surgery and the treatment that must follow, and we talked about making a small garden outside her front door—something she wants and a gift I can give, and like all gifts, receive equally in return. So far, though, she remains very focused on what is happening to her, and a garden must wait for better days. During our visit I commented that I must start doing something productive here, adding, “if I can just get focused.” “I think you’re very focused,” she replied, suggesting that I might need to relax a little, letting things come to me naturally. Isn’t it odd, thinking that you lack focus, when others don’t see you that way at all, in this case a licensed therapist responding as a friend? Pay attention,

I am doing something about my sense of purpose. Last week I began volunteering at an organization that, among other services, provides daytime respite care, mostly for seniors, although one of the clients at this time is only in his 30s. When I interviewed to become a volunteer, I said that I wanted to work in the kitchen and in the garden. As it turns out, I can only serve food and clear away dishes after the meal, but this feels good. I’ve virtually been given carte blanche in the garden, so I’ve decided to do something with herbs and roses. Imagine the fragrance.  The job shop, which is the only for profit component of this organization, is building raised beds that will allow the clients to dig in the dirt, should they choose.  My need to stir around the kitchen in some fashion will be realized this week when I become a kitchen angel with an organization here that prepares and delivers meals to shut-ins. All I had to do to change my life was pick up the phone.

By design, and many times I wish I were somehow different, believe me, I am continually looking for an open door. I like to solve problems. Tell me your dilemma, and my brain goes into action. Much of this goes nowhere. It is my instinct, nonetheless, just like our Blue Heeler Casey, who lived the first 15 months of her life in the city, instinctively herded the horse and cows on the land in Leon County, even though it wasn’t in her job description. When she was young, she would attempt to herd humans, nipping at your heels as you walked across the yard. I think we all must sense that we are needed, especially when allowing ourselves to be needed is a choice we make. It feels good to give, to nurture, to see others smile in gratitude for something you’ve done or said. We become beneficiaries of our own gifts.

Recently I found myself looking up the definition of crucible. I don’t recall why. The only crucible I’ve been aware of recently is the one I tried unsuccessfully to sell in a garage sale a group of us held in Texas several weeks ago. It went back to my garden. This crucible is an iron pot with a handle, and it’s marked on the bottom Tyler Texas. Its official purpose, according to the dictionary, is as “a vessel of a very refractory material (as porcelain) used for melting and calcining a substance that requires a high degree of heat”. I think melting metal for shaping bullets might serve as an example. Interestingly, the secondary definitions for crucible are a “severe test” and a “place or situation in which concentrated forces interact to cause or influence change or development”. Life, it seems to me, is a crucible. When Arthur Miller penned his play, “The Crucible,” which uses the madness of the Salem witch trials as metaphor for the equally mad hunt for Communists by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the middle of the 20th century, where lives were destroyed, and people died, the world was in a time of severe stress. Things change, and yet nothing changes. Our world remains in severe stress. Miller’s play elevates fear mongering to art. We are stunned to watch man’s inhumanity to man.

Our lives are about crucibles, and so it seems to me that my life, especially now, is about being up for the test. I want it to be, and I want to prove to myself that making a difference is filled with grace. If I get out of my way and let a light shine on the path, I can make it.

Gifts and Crucibles—Santa Fe New Mexico (May 19, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis





Thursday, May 15, 2008

Mother's Last Time Behind the Wheel

The last time my mother drove a car lingers in my mind as a defining moment. I haven’t been able to write about most of the things that remain so fresh after Mother’s health began failing. The images are still painful—driving, cooking a pot of pinto beans, walking down the driveway from her house on the land to my 2-story barn/home, so much more.

When things changed, they changed with dizzying speed. I need to say this, though, because if we live long enough, it will happen to all of us, and we will remember our last time behind the wheel. We’ll long for the 75-yard walk down the driveway. And even though we might groan at the thought of cooking yet another pot of pintos—sorting and washing the dried beans, peeling and mincing the garlic and onion, we’ll yearn to be in the kitchen because being physically able to prepare a meal that nurtures someone becomes emblematic of our worth, at least in our minds.

Some people might ease in to that time of life that limits us, re-defines us, but it was really hard for our mother. How many times I heard her speak out in frustration because she felt worthless. “I just wish I could help.” Even after her heart had failed to the point that it wore her out just to sit on a stool in the shower while our oldest sister, Joan, Mother’s caregiver, gave her a bath, Mother still tried to make her bed some days, maybe when she felt especially that she needed to prove to herself that bed making hadn’t escaped her. And I remember once or twice that she just couldn’t finish the job. No doubt there were many more days.

We’ll all find out, some day, if we live long enough, how incapacitating a failing heart can be. More than once, on days when she felt so bad, “sick, I just feel so sick.” She remembered clearly taking care of Daddy and her mother, both who battled the same congestive heart failure, and both who mourned feeling “so sick”, too sick to eat a bowl of cream of wheat, too sick to answer the call of a fresh peach pie, too sick to sit outside on the patio on a gorgeous cool, sunny day. She remembered and exclaimed that she hadn’t really understood. We will all understand some day, if we live long enough.

Right now, I remember all those times that I felt impatient as Mother made herself miserable because she felt worthless. I couldn’t convince her that it was okay to let others do for her, finally. And though invariably she became frustrated and angry when I would say, “Mother, just count your blessings that you have family who are able to help you,” only toward the end of her struggle did she give in, though still not completely, to that which had reduced her, that which had forced her to let go of her hard-working, German work ethic. To the very end, she wouldn’t hear of a hospital bed. On the Saturday of a family gathering to celebrate our middle sister Sue’s 65th birthday, I heard Mother say to the hospice nurse from the hospital bed that she used for less than two weeks, on the Saturday less than a week before she died, “I want to sleep in my bed.”

There’s so much more to be said about Mother and her life of hard work, a life of being productive—in her early 80s making the 90-mile drive from west of Houston to the place in rural Leon County, at 80 buying rock to line the beds in her yard, and up until that day in September of 2001, when she still continued to cook, for “an army” if family was coming. That day in September things changed forever for her. Then began the long journey of decline and compromise. Only one more time did she sit behind the wheel of her Chevy Blazer. I see her bravely starting out down the road, not long after her first stay in the hospital, and I wondered how important this drive would become in time. We all understand now, at least a little.

Mother’s Last Time Behind the Wheel—Santa Fe New Mexico (May 15, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis

Monday, May 5, 2008

I"ll Have the Combo

Yesterday I shook several hands, mostly at church. I’m a handshake snob, so people who are protective of their delicate paws automatically start my antennae skyward. I understand some people have medical conditions that disallow a grinding hello or goodbye. I encountered that a couple of years ago in church, a different congregation. I think the condition announced by the victim of my bruising enthusiasm was fibromyalgia. I’m also a huge hugger, and in that particular instance I learned quickly to hug reticently. We might as well have exchanged cheek-cheeks or air kisses.

Although I don’t really like to, I cut females slack on handshakes. Guys I cannot offer this generosity. I was raised in Texas, which has a right to hang its hat, at least a little, on southern graces. All that’s changed though. Try identifying enough people with true southern roots to count on two hands in the course of a day’s business. Steel magnolias aren’t exactly in great supply. Someone I had regular business dealings with several years ago had a handshake that almost defies description. While he didn’t break his wrist exactly, his hand and fingers were positioned uniformly rigid, offered with no grip, no closure. I just stood there and pumped a little. It gave me the creeps, although this guy, a polished lawyer, was not noticeably creepy. There must have been something, though, not quite making its way to the surface.

Recently, at church where else, yet another church congregation, I met a couple of guys who may just take the prize for the weakest, saddest, adult male handshake to date—meaty paws offered without life. Each simply raises his forearm but keeps the elbow close to his side. The hand is limp, fingers held close to one another, no grip at all. Both of these guys are big boys, not morbidly obese, just big guys. Their handshakes speak volumes to me about self-perception, self-worth, although they can engage in conversation pretty much like you expect from an adult.

Perhaps one of the most joyful hand-shaking experiences I’ve ever had was with a seventh grade girl, who along with her classmates visited my department at work. These kids were mostly from lower socio-economic homes in an area of Houston that had long ago been claimed by ethnic families and businesses. The visit that day to our firm was part of a program to introduce kids to a business environment. We talked about technology, and they got to poke around on the computers in our training area for a few minutes. When they first arrived in our department, I stood outside my office saying hellos and welcome. Why I had a reason to shake the hands of a couple of these students, I don’t remember. As I recall, the guy had a nice handshake as well, but the girl had a grip that sent a smile spreading all over my face. I complimented her, and told her “a strong handshake says good things about a person. You’re going to be a success in life.” She smiled, not quite knowing what to do with my pronouncement.

Yesterday was a day of notable shakes—male and female—all strong, and if not heartfelt, at least full of vigor. My final shake of the day came at a shop on the Plaza, where I had just made a purchase. Having handed me my receipt, the sales person, a guy, accepted my hand, and we exchanged a firm, manly shake. For some reason, I gave him an extra grind. Well, after all, I had just bought an old turquoise ring that I didn’t need, but that’s another story. As I walked down the sidewalk away from the shop, I thought about the various times I’ve squeezed a little hard, some observed and commented on, others that went unspoken. There was a briskness to my step yesterday afternoon as I continued my journey. Only one thing was missing from the day. From someone, somewhere, I needed a good, old bear hug. Let me shake your hand. Oh hell, why not just let me hug you.

I’ll Have the Combo—Santa Fe, New Mexico (May 5, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Getting Along Well With Others

While home in Texas these last four months I’ve had plenty of reminders of who I am and from where I come. Isn’t life great that way, if we just pay attention? In the wake of our mother’s death a year ago, my sisters and I have been opening and closing closets and drawers, causing each of us to shine a light on our personal history. We’ve shared some of what we’ve rediscovered, but I’m sure we’ve guarded  some of these memories because they’re just too personal. At least, I have.

Among the mementoes that I had long ago forgotten is a slight, soft-covered yearbook of one of my years at Arnold Jr. High and a book for high school bands and choruses, sort of a who’s who, but one in which I’m sure just about any school could have paid a fee to be included.  How long ago had I abandoned them to a desk in my parents' house, to be lost among canceled checks, old holiday cards, and school art of my middle sister’s children, the only grandchildren continuing our family line?

Tucked inside this book was a letter written to my parents in 1961 by my high school journalism teacher, Mrs. Ruth Long. How strange and touching it was to read all of these years later what would be a treasure to anyone. Mrs. Long didn’t have to write that letter, but she wanted my parents to know her prediction of my future success. Harold writes well, gets along well with others, and is a good organizer. He would be an asset to his college newspaper. It could have been something written for the boy in knee pants at Ben Milam Elementary in Houston, Texas—Harold plays well in the sandbox. In either case I would be smiling in appreciation. While it may be true that we have only one chance to make a first impression, we can say a big, old THANK YOU that at least some times we have the opportunity for our merits to be observed and documented by those with whom we share this journey, those who are not family and don’t have to love us just as we are.

I taught public school for several years after graduating from college, and maybe I wrote or said something to a student or a parent that left an impression to be embraced, and to be recalled at those times when life takes a kick at our shins.  We all need those modest reminders of our value. I’ve needed it today, one of those days when I wake up, seemingly having chosen unconsciously in the night to make some poor choices. It’s been a banner day for doubting and judging, and for someone who pales at the thought of confrontation, even speaking out my distrust. As penance then for days such as these I lie awake in the middle of the night recounting the menagerie of missteps that have a hold on my ankles. They’re always worse in the middle of the night.

My maternal grandmother used an expression, “if you can’t listen, you have to feel.”  I should have a t-shirt printed honoring this truth, worn in the same spirit as one I’ve been wearing for a couple of years that gives voice to another of my claims of late, FOR SALE—ALL MY EARTHLY POSSESSIONS. Perhaps if I documented into apparel all the life lessons that would serve me well, at least I would have the opportunity to be reminded each time someone says, “I like your t-shirt.” “Isn’t that great,” I could reply, and maybe they’d want to know the story, although it may need no explanation.

As I walked back home from the movie theatre late this afternoon, choosing a longer route through the neighborhood, one I had explored earlier as a way of mapping new scenery and opportunities to get some exercise now that I’m back in Santa Fe, my old friend, the Raven, perched on a utility line as I made my way. Before I could locate his whereabouts, however, he made his presence known—KWAAK-KWAAK. Surely he sensed that I would be eager to find him and catch him with my digital camera. He’s done that to me before. I don’t know why Raven makes me smile. He is beautiful, but perhaps it’s his insistence to be noticed, really, a little bit smart-alecky. As he announces his intentions to others of his kind, perched high for any who would look to see, I like to think that he wants to remind me that I just need to be paying attention. First impressions are lasting impressions, but one can always hope for redemption.

Getting Along Well With Others—Santa Fe, New Mexico (May 3, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis