Monday, June 30, 2008

Whoever Welcomes You Welcomes Me

Saturday, June 28, 2008—a banner day for me and for the three friends who walked with me as part of the PFLAG entry in the 2008 Santa Fe gay pride parade. I wasn’t even aware that a parade was on the horizon when I picked up the flyer at St. Bede’s last Sunday. It was an invitation to join in support of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) by walking with that group in the parade.

I told my friend Judy from north Texas, who had stopped at my place for the night before heading to her family summer place on the mesa at Carson, about the parade. She immediately jumped on the opportunity to volunteer herself, her mother Joy, and our friend Gregg to join our small contingency. Frankly, I felt a mix of enthusiasm and potential nakedness.

As Judy and I talked about the parade Wednesday evening here in Santa Fe—before Joy and Gregg knew they had been enlisted—I commented that I would love a tie-dyed t-shirt. In response that was almost your wish is my command, Judy revealed from her travel gear a couple of shirts she made when she recently taught her high school artists about tie-dyeing. The next evening I showed up in Carson with white t-shirts, RIT dye, and boxes of salt. The process of designing and dyeing the shirts, which began that evening and continued into the next afternoon, was miraculous. As we pulled our work from the dye vat, we marveled at the results of our pinning, folding, and banding. The final results were nothing short of smashing—yellow, green, blue, pink, even tiny specks of red from the dyes reacting with one another. The shirts are a brilliant illustration of color combining with cotton, but more important, they are forever an emblem of human energy in harmony.

As we searched for a space in the already-overflowing state capitol parking lot on Saturday morning, none of us suspected the magic about to happen. And when Joy thanked me later that day for the opportunity to be part of something so moving, even though my role was accidental, I could only nod and admit my own thanks for the privilege of being a part—for the first time ever in a period of 38 years—of such a show of pride.

A small band of drummers already assembling in the parking lot had begun their pulsating, soul plumbing work. The sounds electrified the air and played with my body. “Damn, I wish I had my drum” (the tenor drum I bought this past winter at a music store in Texas—the one I saw myself taking to the mountains and “beating the crap out of”—primal therapy). On this day, though, I had to let someone else make that part of the music.

I will cry for awhile as I remember this day, the energy as we milled about waiting for the parade to begin, the walk from the state capitol parking lot to the Plaza, people scattered along the street, applauding as we passed by, the drumming far ahead of us in this march of unity, our brothers and sisters—ALL—waving as we waved back. Little could I imagine that I would be overwhelmed as we made the jog at San Francisco Street, entering the Plaza, people three deep on both sides of the street, cheering, tears streaming down my face, as I bit my upper lip to keep from sobbing. Oh, my God yes, “whoever welcomes you welcomes me…” (Matthew 10:40).

Monday, June 23, 2008

I Notice Too Much

I notice too much. In the last seven minutes I’ve attempted to clarify for the person behind the coffee shop counter that I wanted a small to-go cup, only to have her point out that what I thought was small in the display of cups—which seems to have changed overnight—is the cup for espresso. The girl-woman barista preparing the specialty drinks at a high counter to my right glared at me with what seemed disapproval of some sort. I wonder if she even realizes she was glaring. Or did she intend to register disapproval of my attempt to be helpful. Regardless, the girl-woman at the register gave me incorrect change—too little—but why should I care. The change always goes into the tip jar anyway.

Sitting outside at a table with a view of the entire north side of the mall parking lot, on a Sunday morning where there is still little activity, I just noticed a 20-something clad in shorts, t-shirt and flip flops, get into his Lexus SUV, and of course, I wonder what kind of job he has at such a young-seeming age that permits him the luxury of sitting behind the wheel of an impressive part of his bank account. He could be a lawyer or doctor or whoever makes big bucks these days. I’m not aware that Santa Fe is the Silicon Valley of the high desert. He could be leasing. What do I know?

Another couple of 20-somethings, also clad in day-off summer apparel—de rigeur for many on most days in this place—has just boarded her older, sun-baked black Honda, whose paint seems to have turned to chalk. His passenger door didn’t engage completely, it seems. Sounds really carry here. Be careful what you say in earshot of others. Sometimes you don’t even realize that someone 20 feet away, or someone you don’t even see, might hear your most private, or scandalous, or judgmental thoughts. Ah, in spite of our subterfuge, we are, in the end, an open book.

Since refrigerated air is not common in older residential construction here, many of us sleep with our windows open to catch the cool night air. I live in a densely situated compound of 260 condominiums. Really, they are apartments, stacked two story except for a small group at the back, which are three stories. We buy, and many people have bought for so-called investment, renting out their condo for as short a time as one-month increments.

As I lay in bed at night with a book, usually as early as nine or so, I can easily hear any conversation conducted on the common grounds nearby, or a phone conversation from below where my neighbor has her patio door open to the night air. This morning I heard her around 6:30, first talking to her cat, then apparently on the phone. Daily, at all hours that people are normally awake, you hear doors close-slam as your neighbors come and go. It reminds me of a high school play I saw as a child where a ghost played by my now 82-year-old aunt’s sister went through door after door after door—BLAM, BLAM, BLAM. Even as I write, I can hear the stentorian yankee pipes of my down stair’s neighbor from the sidewalk outside her front door, separated from my open upstairs balcony door by a good 50 feet. Surely she could speak at rallies without benefit of amplification. She speaks for the world to hear—our own Ethel Merman.

If you have the misfortune of living near someone here who sleeps most of the day and roams most of the night, talking on his cell phone from his balcony at midnight, you hear that as well. My across-the-landing neighbor went away for the summer, and I am keeping my fingers crossed that I won’t have to struggle with or tend to his sleep-robbing habits for a while. God spare me from having to exercise the curmudgeonry of my Virgo sensitivities.

I laughed with relief when a friend in Texas announced at a barbecue she and her husband held the Sunday evening before I returned to Santa Fe that she must have white noise to sleep at night. Wonderful, another soul who needs to be spared the noise—even of silence—when she attempts to rest. Because our homes here are situated not far from a major highway, between two arroyos about 50 feet lower than the highway, we can hear the traffic any time, day or night. Its constant thrum of the indistinguishable doesn’t bother me. Conversations outside my second-story bedroom window rob me of the reprieve from human commerce I need for sleep.

As I sat at a small table outside the coffee shop this morning, there was much to notice, including a massive 18-wheeler parked parallel to the lot directly in front of the coffee shop and the three other businesses sharing a common roof. When I drove up I assumed that the truck was making a delivery. A little later, as the one of the shop employees sat at the next table, talking to an older friend, she first talked about her recent boyfriend and their conflicted separation and split. Their last phone conversation ended with his saying, “I love you. See you around.” I really didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but it seems that I couldn’t avoid it. We are only feet apart. Shortly, she decided that the 18-wheeler, which she had discovered on arriving at 5 this morning, needed to go because it was blocking traffic flow and one of the two entrances into their particular parking area. “Rap, rap, rap” on the sleeping part of his truck cab. No response. “Rap, rap, rap” again, and he roused. After a couple of minutes he crawled forward to the driver’s seat and rolled down his window. “How do you get to Taos from here?” he asked. Those of us sitting at the small cluster of tables all answered, clarified. He looks stunned from too little sleep.

“Do you want some coffee,” the shop employee asks. “Sure,” he replies. “Large? Cream? Sugar?” she heads into the shop.

That about does it for me, I thought. I wasn’t getting much done, so I headed out to begin my regular two-mile morning walk around the perimeter of the mall complex. “You’ve done one of your good deeds for today,” I commented, pleased that I had witnessed this generosity toward a fellow pilgrim. “Maybe that’ll bring you ten new customers.” “Ten new painting students,” she replied, smiling. “That too,” I ended. How can you not notice when so much is going on right around you?

I Notice Too Much—Santa Fe, New Mexico (June 23, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis

Friday, June 20, 2008

To the Mountains I am Drawn

I went to the mountains yesterday. A neighbor, who is more in tune with the land than I—although I don’t mean to sell myself short—joined me for a hike up Chamisa Trail, which climbs to 9000’. An entymologist by degree, she knows plant (no slouch am I), loves animals, and by her own words, she is “not afraid of work”. Climbing is indeed work. The hike was scenic enough, once you got about five minutes from the trailhead into the towering pines, and it was challenging.

At times I wanted to just sit on a rock, a little winded, my quadriceps aching.  I struggled on, even when I wanted to pause. It was a good reminder of the role the individual units play in a combined effort. If the ascent was tough in places, loose gravel contributing to the difficulty on one near-45-degree spot, coming down later was equally precarious. Yet at each plateau we were rewarded with reviving breezes and small stands of lupins—in the same family as out Texas bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis), maybe the same species found in far west Texas, tall and a little more purple than the one that lines the highways and fills the pastures of much of central Texas.

A couple of times on the ascent I admitted that I needed some time to recover. Stopping gave us both the chance to look around, take a deep breath, register the aromas, and marvel at our experience. Finally, at the top of the trail, 30 minutes or so from the start, we were rewarded with humbling vistas in every direction and Raven soaring up high, announcing his presence, ‘KWAAK-KWAAK!” Oh, how nice accomplishment feels, and hears, and smells.

How blessed I am that on any day my body continues to allow me I can go to the mountains—on my own or in the company of another pilgrim fan of the outdoors. Hiking alone gives plenty of time for reflection and opportunity for pausing for as long as I choose. The challenge is up to me. Body and mind share the experience. Only the occasional greeting of another soul, and sometimes a brief conversation, change the nature of this solitary time. The sense of achievement is left to me alone. I like that.

I also like the sharing, especially with someone who turns out to be a bit of a soul mate. I love being a 65-year-old guy who is not intimidated by a more fit woman 10 years his junior. “I can’t believe you’re going to be 65,” she asserted after asking my age. Then we discovered we share the same birthday month. We are Virgos, September. Only four days keep us from being exactly 10 years apart. I know little about astrological signs and the human behaviors and preferences associated with these signs. While I know that we children of Virgo sometimes get a bad wrap from people who bother about such things as the characteristic behaviors associated with astrological signs, I nonetheless appreciate that almost always I am drawn to other Virgos. We of industry, reliability, drawn by perfection and introverted though we might be, we make pretty good company, at least for one another, on a climb in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on a perfect June morning.

To the Mountains I am Drawn—Sante Fe, New Mexico (June 19, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Hurting Baggage

From where I sit I don’t see all that much, even though I’m busy watching.  The problem, as Atticus Finch would say, is that you can’t really know someone until you’ve walked in his shoes. I’ve heard the same thing said in more than one western movie, talking about moccasins instead.

Over the last week, a neighbor—someone I met almost a year ago when she was living in a home she still owns to the south near Cloud Croft—told me about the eye-opening experience she’s having as a worker bee for Trader Joe’s. From where I stand, TJ’s is a huge draw for the neurotics of this place. I’ve seen more than one instance of the world coming unhinged at the checkout counter, and many of the people move through the place, so focused on their own mission, that they just look at you or through you or past you, rather than give an inch in the crowded aisles of this California-based market that draws droves of Santa Fe shoppers.

Aside from the staff of Trader Joe’s, which is trained to expertise in customer service, I’ve seen very little warmth in this popular market. Exception—last December, a friend from Dallas, stopping to visit as she was passing through to the Albuquerque airport, stood with me in line on a crowded mid-week afternoon. As we visited, I noticed an older woman—probably someone just a bit older than I—wrangling with the checker over the price of a group of like items she was buying. As I recall, she thought the price was lower than what the computer system was programmed to charge. Maybe she was right. I don’t know. She was just one more example of what I’ve noticed. I logged her in my brain and continued to talk with my friend Reid. As we waited, the woman in front of us asked if we were local. I love it when this happens. We explained that we are Texan, adding that I have a place in Santa Fe. “I thought you were Texans. You are so friendly,” she revealed, adding that she and her husband were moving to Austin where he would teach at the University of Texas.

The staff at Trader Joe’s excels in friendliness, open willingness to guide and to answer questions, from the aisles to the checkout counter. Twice recently, the same woman, while scanning my purchases, has asked with a big grin if I’m old enough to drink the wine I’m purchasing.

My neighbor, who has been working at TJ’s for awhile now, since renting a condo here in Santa Fe, described a couple of incidents where the customer has been unusually rude. Not that it matters that this neighbor holds a couple of college degrees, a real estate license, and like so many in this place works hard at more than one job, we should all be equal when it comes to the respect we offer one another. Nonetheless, she has been bruised by the arrogant and the angry, and she’s had to have talks with management, once as she attempted to head off the boss at the pass in her defense.

So she asked her boss the other day, “What are you supposed to do when someone treats you shabbily?” Just let it go, he advised, adding that most times people who mistreat someone in a rather anonymous circumstance are in a whole lot of hurt themselves. As a manager, he’s learned to defuse situations by just letting the customer have her say, or his, and not taking anyone’s frustration or anger personally. Turn the other cheek, my mother used to like quoting from the Gospels, although she too often let things eat at her heart after turning that cheek. There must be a second part to letting others be who they need to be at any given moment, and it must have something important to do with how much we genuinely love ourselves.

As my neighbor and I were returning from a hike in the mountains this afternoon, we had ranged across a vast number of topics, including the too-often rude behavior of people in this high desert place. As we made our way toward the village of Tesuque, driving slowly down a narrow, twisting, mountain blacktop, we noticed a FOR SALE by owner sign, and stopped to see the price. “BLAAT,” the horn of a Mercedes SUV assaulted us from the rear. My instinct was to hit the gas, and then I just stopped, daring the driver to hit the horn again. We drove on to Santa Fe, trying to decide on a place where we could eat healthfully for a modest tab. On Guadalupe I found myself caught in the left lane behind cars waiting to make a left turn. As I attempted to move to the right lane, the driver of a small call laid down on the horn, and as he passed shot me the finger.

Twice today I wanted to get out of my car and whip the crap out of someone--that from a guy who will totally change directions to avoid a confrontation. Once today I let someone know that his, or her, behavior was unacceptable to me. I didn’t get a second chance. I know profoundly that I have laid my baggage on more than a few innocent, or not so innocent, people on my journey. And as I try to remember that I shouldn’t take things personally, that I shouldn’t take out my frustration and anger on others, that I should sometimes turn the other cheek, I shake my head in puzzlement and disappointment to witness, experience, and consider the hurt we all carry around, a hurt that is just waiting to be uncapped. Turn the cheek, take the high road, take a deep, restorative breath. Maybe, just take Trader Joe’s employee training to equip me for continuing on this journey.

Hurting Baggage—Santa Fe, New Mexico (June 18, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis

Monday, June 16, 2008

Human Balm

Yesterday could have been like any other Sunday. I show up for church, adult forum when it happens between the first and second worship, and I try with felt discomfort to step outside myself. In spite of accusations of being such a friendly guy, I am guarded, self-conscious. But yesterday was a little different. We had lots of visitors at St Bede’s, more than the half dozen or so. As I paused at the table outside the church where visitors are greeted and pinned with a light blue ribbon, if they agree to being so designated, and where members with tenure long enough to have a blue name tag are asked to collect and wear their badges of commitment, a visitor shoved her hand forward, “Kathy_____.” I didn’t get her last name.

We talked briefly about the usual, where are you from, what brought you here, here to this melting pot in the high desert. She is a cradle Episcopalian, I with only 38 years in this denomination. She’s been away from church for a good while, and she’s going through a rough patch professionally right now.

I’m a slow learner at times, but I think I’m learning that St. Bede’s will love you, if you really want to be loved. Like most places of worship, it most likely won’t be love at first sight. One of the unfortunate things about church people and people in general is that most of us like to stay inside our comfort zone. And it seems that I’ve heard it enough that I’ve begun to believe that by tradition Episcopalians are a little conflicted when it comes to downright, generous, open-hearted welcoming. To exchange the peace during worship is one thing—to engage genuinely beyond something superficial is another matter. The onus to move from surface is on the shoulders of the person who wants to make such a move.

I should have known that the day would be different somehow when Father Richard, St. Bede’s rector for over10 years now, greeted me with a huge Irish smile and handshake outside the front door, “I’ll be your priest today”. I haven’t a clue as to what brought him outside to the sidewalk on this day. It was enough of a reminder that when I excused myself after talking with Kathy for a few minutes, I did the next right thing, so simple, I asked her to join me in the pews. Later, during the exchange of the peace—“May the peace of the Lord be always with you,” exhorts the celebrant, and we reply “And also with you.”—Kathy thanked me for inviting her to join me during worship.

How miraculous that the simple but genuine gesture of welcome can open hearts and heads. On this day I needed to step outside myself. I needed to let another human being know that her presence was heartfelt by at least one person, one who still considers himself a bit of a stranger in this new land. And I needed to have the conversation that occurred shortly after worship, as many gathered in the common room to celebrate the 13 years of gorgeous music the departing organist had shared with this congregation. I don’t remember how the conversation began with a woman who participates actively in St. Bede’s prayer shawl ministry. Maybe I asked a question after having observed her walk to the front near the close of worship for the shawl she had just completed to be blessed by the priest, the right hands of congregants extended in the gesture of peace as the priest prays.

As we talked about the nature of these shawls, how they are given away (they cannot be bought), who makes them, she related one story of a man whose mother had received a shawl while being treated for a malignant tumor. Don’t worry about cause and effect. The tumor responded to treatment. I asked about learning to crochet so that I might make a shawl, and suddenly I found myself crying, unable to talk, the news so fresh on my heart of my own niece, the first of the grandchildren, who is facing breast cancer, the illness that took her paternal grandmother’s life, during a short span of months that claimed so many people I have loved, including my own Daddy, his two brothers, and both of our grandmothers, who were buried only one week apart.

Yesterday, especially, I needed to step outside myself. I needed to practice the friendliness of which I have been accused. The best way to make a friend is to be a friend, we are advised. And while I don’t use the friend word lightly, I know in my heart that the genuine expression of what we call friendliness carries with it great healing. It is a balm that lives only in the exchange of human kind with humankind. Dogs, cats, horses, name your animal, for all their healing gifts, our reach for one another cannot be equaled.

Human Balm—Santa Fe, New Mexico (June 16, 2009)

R. Harold Hollis

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Peeling Back the Veneer

The high season apparently has begun here at the mountains. Java Joe’s was teeming yesterday, and Hasting’s a mob scene. Lots of adults with kids in tow suggest summer, vacations, and a great need for everyone to be entertained. More and more bicyclists in bright nylons are gathering at the coffee shop, the neurotics who shop at Trader Joe’s must be wringing their hands in greater numbers, and the parade around the plaza most likely catching the eye and tongue of some so-called locals who love having conversations about how Santa Fe has changed. I agree, and I’m part of that change. Clearly, my profile fits a number of the ill-spirited bumper sticks slathered all over vehicles around here. But you know, as the old saying goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover.

Maybe I shouldn’t have bought the blue sandals. My first instinct was brown, but a woman also looking at sandals at a store appropriately named On Your Feet said, “get the blue; they’re more interesting.” Well, now I’ve seen at least three other guys wearing the same shoe in that steely blue color. Maybe I get a pass on the color, but I wonder how obvious I am. And you might wonder, why do I care.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve taken pains not to call attention to myself. I was a little pudgy in the late grade school years, always softer than most of the boys, my peers, raging with testosterone by seventh grade. My mother always made certain that my shirts were starched and shoes polished. Neither athletic nor rowdy, I knew I was different, and so I tried to fade into the background, in spite of my modest achievements. As I grew older in that rural setting, I wasn’t inclined to be a farmer either. I was destined for minor success as a mugician, as my late cousin Jimmy named it, and for teaching the liberal arts.

I was and still am embarrassed by anything that calls attention to me. How strange it seems, now that I am but a couple of months away from being on Medicare, that I still puzzle and struggle with some of the same insecurities I felt as a fifth grader. I still remember Louis Hegar mocking me “Mama Hollis” in seventh grade, as I quietly walked down the canopied sidewalk, no one else around, no reason for him even to acknowledge me. He wasn't a friend, and I wasn't someone he would be friendly towards anyway. How telling, how absolutely revealing—he wasn’t the only one who saw me as “Mama Hollis”, the boy in starched shirts and polished shoes, a little shy, a little soft. Only a couple of years ago I was reminded by my oldest sister, in the presence of our mother who was in rapidly failing health, that Mother “clipped your wings”. Was I a sissy, or what Louis and his kind considered a sissy? Had my starched shirts and polished shoes branded me? Or instead, even then, was my tender heart my greatest enemy? Did I already care too much about how others saw me?

I’m on my own here in the high desert, given license to make or break whatever time I have in this melting pot. Starched shirts were long ago relegated to coat and tie affairs. Shoes are made of synthetic fibers—dress shoes for city lawyers, politicians, and morticians. Looking a little ragged is stylish, and as always, the rugged look is in. Guy’s guys still catch they eye of, well, just about everyone.

I learned flying under the radar long ago. And even though I have been unable to avoid distinguishing myself at times, I mostly like just being left to do my thing—to use my gifts and hope for the best.

It’s the nature of the beast for us to notice one another and to form impressions and opinions, often without bothering to look under the veneer that each of us wears. I believe that I have a good sense of what other people have going on, and though I remain cautious by definition, I get caught at times in the messy webs of other people. That comes from being a born problem solver and from needing approval.

Walking away from or not even getting involved in much of the parade that passes by requires little effort. The parade, though, catches my eye, and what I’m reminded of frequently is that some in the parade call me to opportunity to affirm the value we all long to feel. The trappings in which we adorn ourselves—starched shirts and polished shoes, blue web sandals, retro 1960 Haight-Asbury garb, bicycle nylons even though we are really only bicyclist wannabes, Indiana Jones monochrome even though we are no more adventuresome than the definitive Walter Mitty, don’t even begin to tell our story. We are more than that, and we deserve to be recognized and acknowledged for our depths.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to engage in conversation a young woman sitting outside Java Joe’s. She was binding in heavy, colored twine sage she had gathered near Taos—at least that’s what her little sign claimed, two varieties of sage to be used as smudge sticks. I had noticed her earlier as she set up at a table on the sidewalk. Dressed in what I would have called on any other day hip, hippie attire, she triggered my “what’s she all about” button, a pointless judgmental response. And how silly, inappropriate, and yes, negative, even to have an opinion about someone who is just easing along the trail.

As I left the coffee shop, I noticed her panoply of sorts, including the little sign and smudge sticks ready for purchase, out of the corner of my eye as I made my way into the parking lot. Something good and decent told me to turn around and go back, to support her little venture. I ended up sharing a little of myself and receiving a little of someone else, and I bought a smudge stick. I’ve been reminded by Christine that smudging is a common practice in many religious and spiritual traditions, including the American Indian.  Lighting the sage and moving around my personal space, issuing blessings, sending out good energy, cleansing myself of bad bull shit—not a bad idea at all. And I realized in the 10 minutes that Christine and I exchanged ideas and talked about books that we’ve read, books whose authors have peeled away the veneer, how good it feels to reach out to someone who has just crossed our path, but not by chance. I don’t believe in chance. I do believe, however, that we could all do a whole lot better with one another, regardless of their shirt or the color of their sandals.

Peeling Back the Veneer—Santa Fe, New Mexico (June 12, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Wishes and Horses

No sports fan am I. I do, however, like some sporting events that have to do with horses, such as the annual running of the Thoroughbreds in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes. The pageantry, hooplah and analysis don’t call me. I just like the horse. And I am a little fascinated by the jockeys, their tiny saddles, and the gift that enables them to travel at dizzying speeds, poised and vulnerable . Is it art, is it athleticism? A combination, no doubt.

That 30 years have now officially passed without another Triple Crown winner makes the prize all the sweeter—after all, humans are involved—and I do wonder what it really takes for a single animal to reach that greatest achievement in horse racing. With the 140th running at Belmont now history, one thing in particular has caught my ear. “I had no horse today,” explained Kent Desormeaux, in the aftermath of an unexpected outcome of the final leg of the Triple Crown. Following his established pattern of holding this horse back until the final leg of the race, jockey and Big Brown held their place in the herd of pounding flesh, but when the time came where jockey asks the big stallion colt to move ahead, Big Brown couldn’t take the challenge. Realizing that the horse needed some protection, jockey held him back, and finished a loping last, this too a record. So far, no real explanations have been offered, including a one-quarter crack in the right front hoof, going back to April. As the saying goes, the jury is still out on this one.

We are not machines, we of flesh, we of heart, and soul, and sometimes we just can’t deliver, in spite of expectations, and in the matter of those who have achieved renown, in spite of hype. Big Brown can’t possibly know the disappointment of owner, trainer, jockey, devoted racing fans who had chosen him this year, those with the betting urge—indeed, the distant disappointment of those like me who had simply wanted someone to excel, to be miraculous, to achieve what hadn’t been achieved in 30 years.

A couple of books on Thoroughbreds and racing have captured the hearts of readers, Laura Hillenbrand’s SEABISCUIT and Jane Smiley’s HORSE HEAVEN. In these two wondrous tales, one based on the historical mare who beat all the odds and embarrassed the powerful, the triumph of the spirit rewards both writer and reader. The hearts of champions win the day. Both books are filled with the pageantry and desolation of living. Horse, human, athlete, musician, we all love the story of triumph, especially over odds.

As we await the conclusions offered by those who have something to say that we can hang our hat on, we are left with one profoundly telling explanation—“I had no horse today”. For most, the disappointment of those involved in the real life of Big Brown, including a jockey whose son has been profoundly deaf since birth and suffers from an untreatable condition that eventually will lead to blindness, perhaps by the time he is in his 20s, will process their disappointments and move on, some more easily than others. For some, there is always another horse, another hope, another challenge. For others, there is challenge and hope. In an interview broadcast the day of the Belmont, the young boy’s mother expressed her sadness that her son most likely will go through adulthood without his sight. If wishes were horses, he wouldn’t have to face this challenge and loss. She added that she knows the family should just count their blessings.

How little we know about our champions and the stories that otherwise define their lives. Indeed, how little we know about one another, even those with whom we share blood. We know how we sometimes soar and sometimes falter in the upheavals mapped for our journey. We witness one another’s triumph over disadvantage—perhaps we even share.  As they say, some days are diamonds, some days are rust. No amount of hoorah, no amount of money, can change all outcomes. Perhaps what matters most is the showing up, the joining of hands, the sharing of the best and the worst of our days.

As I stood in my living room the afternoon of the Belmont, so far removed from the action, I actually cheered, fist and forearm punching the air, go Big Brown, come on Big Brown. Caught up in the moment, oh, how I was disappointed that horse and jockey couldn’t pull off the big win, the one that goes in the record books. And as always I was a little afraid—afraid of injury and possible loss, as in the case of the filly, Eight Belles, who was irreparably injured in the Kentucky Derby and had to be euthanized on the track. As with everything we do, someone is waiting in the wings to analyze and criticize, and the so-called experts jumped on the injury and death of this filly as an opportunity to explain to all of us why, just why. We have all these truths hanging out there, intended to make things clearer, to help us understand and accept that sometimes things just don’t turn out as we had planned or hoped. Living demands risk. When the dust settles, we are left with Desormeaux’s explanation, full of truth, “I didn’t have a horse today.”  Life requires many of those days.

Wishes and Horses—Santa Fe New Mexico (June 10, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Turning Around

This morning as I changed lanes to turn into a driveway farther east in the parking lot of the complex of buildings that includes my coffee shop so that I could return a DVD to the local Hastings, a small hybrid-looking car passed me on the left, pulled in front of me and turned into the same driveway. I have no idea how fast she was driving. To me, all small vehicles, especially when they are zipping and zapping, look like they’re moving at high speeds. Probably not.

She appeared to be heading toward Wells Fargo. I speculated that she might be late for work or an appointment and needing some cash for the day. I continued toward the outside bin for rental returns, noticing that she had continued over to the parking area in front of Albertson’s Supermarket. I shook my head in some kind of disappointment that she had made a conscious choice to blow me off on the road and risk an accident, first thing in the morning.

I’m not a confrontational sort. Usually I just stew over would-be conflict or some kind of bruising, intentional and otherwise. Today I decided to leave myself the option of either saying or not saying something. As I headed slowly down the row toward her, she made her way toward the store. My window down and my arm folded over the outside of the door, “Good morning,” I said. Her distracted face changed to a slight smile. She wore a dark charcoal-grey linen top and pants. It was casual dress, but we live in a casual world, especially here on the high desert.

“Good morning,” she replied.”

“Did you realize that I had my right turn signal on and you cut right in front of me to make a right turn”, I asked.

“I’m not surprised given the state of mind I’m in,” she answered. “I didn’t even see you.”

“It’s kind of hard to miss this rig,” I replied (a Ford crew cab truck).

“I’m out of it,” she continued.

“Have a good day,” I closed and drove on to Java Joe’s, my destination. I don’t know if she said anything further, like “I’m sorry.” Maybe she had already apologized, but if she did, I didn’t register the apology.

While volunteering in the afternoon for some gardening at The Reserve, my condo home here in Santa Fe, I related the incident to our condo manager, as we placed into its new hole the last rose we had pruned and dug up. “You were a lot nicer than I would have been,” he observed. I knew already that my response had been intentional. Although my initial reaction to being cut off at the pass was a little indignant, I really do avoid confrontation. No, I’m not afraid to stand my ground or take a stand, as anyone who knows me will testify. I have an incredibly strong visceral response to my sense of right and wrong. People who tailgate, lay to their horns, choose not to let you in to the traffic flow, name your own rude driver behavior, sometimes hit my hair trigger. But the reminder of what road rage does and what it doesn’t accomplish sits always at the back of my mind. No amount of getting pissed off leaves anyone feeling much better, and I doubt that it leads to much healing.

So I wonder what the female driver of the small car really had going on. Does she have a family member in the hospital or at home sick, has she been diagnosed with cancer, is she trying to decide whether to list her home for sale, has her husband just announced that he has a younger lover and wants a divorce, is her business in trouble? Or did she just not care that she whipped in front of me to turn right into the same parking lot for which I was aiming? I can’t possibly know, barring that she sees me some place, recognizes me, and fesses up, maybe even offers the apology that I either didn’t hear or that she didn’t offer.

What I can know is that whatever was going on with her is indeed going on with her. I had a choice, to be calm, take the opportunity to remind her that she had done something rude and potentially dangerous, and then move on. I triumphed over my indignation, and frankly, I’m grateful for whatever enabled me to do so. Recently I was introduced to a young singer—a prodigy for sure—named Johnny Lang. His career began when he was 13. Now he’s a ripe old 27. Lang’s latest recording, titled Turn Around, includes the track, Thankful.

"…Someones sitting in a prison cell/Wasting away in their own personal hell/Everybodys got their own story to tell/Ive gotta be thankful, thankful…

…Any one of these so easily could have been me/But if it had not been for grace and mercy who knows where Id be/Ive gotta be thankful, thankful…

And Im here to tell you that the secret of life is being…"

 Johnny Lang

Turning Around—Santa Fe New Mexico (May 5, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Walking into the Light

The one thing for sure that will kill any discussion or conversation is the old death blow, lack of curiosity. I’ve known many of those, the ones where you supply the questions or comments to keep a conversation going, the ones where you bite your tongue or sit on your hands eager to ask a question or make a comment while the discussion leader goes on and on, and on. Yet, no one else seems to have anything to say, or ask. Maybe the topic is a little intimidating sometimes, and most of those gathered are hesitant to throw in their hat.

Needing to understand more, better, deeper, and to grow from this understanding, seems to in part define our Friday morning Bible study group. Aside from being Episcopalians, although that is not entirely true since one pilgrim kneels elsewhere on Sunday mornings, I don’t know how much we have in common. Most of us would be characterized as moderate to liberal thinkers. We have chosen to worship in a parish congregation where inclusion is valued. We’re educated, well read and articulate. We’re seekers and doers of good. I’m sure we all think that we at least try to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

I don’t even know the professions of this mostly retired group. At least two of the women are from unhappy divorces. Are there happy ones? Just about everyone is a parent. One of us is gay. Like most Santa Feans these days, we hail from other parts of the U.S.—California, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Iowa, Texas, careers in the military. The priest, who along with his wife leads our study, shepherds a parish just east of Albuquerque. His wife is the organist and choirmaster at the Presbyterian Church downtown and director of several choral groups around town. We all have spots or stripes, but we’re easily distinguishable, especially when we open our mouths.

Last Friday, one of our pilgrims put forth that the closer we get to God, the more we are challenged by the dark forces of this world. I guess our more evangelical brothers and sisters have had it right all along. Old Satan is just waiting for us, and when he senses that his hold on us might be slipping as we move and stumble toward God, he goes to work that much harder to keep us in darkness. This struggle between the light and the dark, good and evil, positive and negative energy, peace and the opposite of peace, love and hate, charity and greed, the supreme “I” and the corporate “we” has been with us throughout human kind’s recorded journey.

Yesterday I visited with an antiques dealer friend who was set up at a small venue for the day. The buying crowd trickled in, draped in its lack of enthusiasm. A little money was exchanging hands—mostly dealers buying for resale. That’s what most of us do—trade merchandise. The shoppers seemed to be looking for a bargain, or perhaps they had stopped in because they had seen a sign advertising this one-day antiques market, and they really didn’t have anything better to do. As we visited casually at this dealer friend's display table, she commented that she admires my interest in helping others, adding the same for my religious practices, but she punctuated her comments with “I’m a non believer.” And of course she had to explain herself, for herself, I guess. It didn’t benefit me. No one has given me a judge’s robe.

Concerning my fledgling efforts to volunteer in this town of much volunteering, an interesting contrast to all of the flagrant self-absorbed behavior that permeates the very fabric of this high desert place, she added, “I don’t like old people”. She will turn 70 on her next birthday. “I believe that when we die we are food for worms”. I suppose that’s not arguable. There was more, including our agreeing that the sense of good and bad, right and wrong—indeed, the instinct of humans to do good, right toward one another—is part of our fiber, and certainly not limited to the practices of any particular faith.

This pilgrim has no evangelical streak, but I am perfectly comfortable talking about my religious/spiritual practices. My journey is just that, a journey, a struggle sometimes often, a challenge every day, often lonely, which I am trying to understand is a choice. That’s a different story. I do believe that I can make a difference, and my need to do this serves as a source of frustration when I sense that I am failing or not really trying hard enough, or I spend way too much time thinking or talking about it, rather than doing something about it.

I remain anxious about my decision to volunteer at a senior daycare center where most of the clients suffer from dementia—not because I question my motives but because I’m a little fearful, frankly. There I sit, how far away? I understand deeply now that what most old, lonely people want desperately is simply a little attention. As frightful as they seem sometimes, some wheelchair bound, some hooked up to oxygen, head dropped forward, or others very ambulatory yet babbling and sometimes babbling cruel remarks, they want a little attention, a kind hand, word. “What’s your name”, a woman asked me for at least the third time on the first day I volunteered. “Harold,” I replied. “Harold,” she repeated, “I’ve never really cared for the name Harold.”  “I’m sorry,” I replied and continued with the game we were all playing, naming 10 of this or 10 of that. And she, too, in her mind being claimed by Alzheimer’s, felt that she had to explain, but I wonder for whose benefit.

While finishing Anne Lamott’s Grace Eventually today, she reminded me of Woody Allen’s philosophy that 80 percent of life is just showing up. As far as I know, there are no meters registering how much time we spend showing up for any given reason, but we know quality when we do it. A friend back in Texas told a story of a guy who agonized over spending time with his aging mother. On one visit, when he made a move to leave after a relatively short time, his mother protested, “it seems like you just got here 15 minutes ago.” He replied, “Well, it seems to me like I’ve been here all day.” Why does this make me both smile and sigh at once? What mortification awaits me with not even a child to feel compassion for me when my time comes? How blessed was our mother who somehow wanted more in her loneliest moments.

Whether or not the stress of the human struggle has grown greater in the post-atomic age, a time where we have mastered the ability to obliterate one another completely, has generated years and miles of discussion. One thing that has always been true remains at the heart of the struggle—our will to be right, our unwillingness to bend, our shortfall in living out the ethical reciprocity of the golden rule, just might be our undoing. Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Don’t do to others what you would not have done to you. Do the next right thing, both for yourself and for those who share your journey, even those who just happen by, intentional and otherwise. Thank God that I still have the wits about me to remind myself that there but for the grace of God go I.

Walking into the Light—Santa Fe, New Mexico (June 1, 2008)

R. Harold Hollis