Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Learning Something Here

Apparently my marks in the school of hard knocks are unacceptable because I keep getting assigned the same lessons over and over. I’d like to believe that I already knew what I read in the meditation the other day in Forward Movement: “I've heard that recovering alcoholics, when they experience a craving for a drink, often suck a sweet or toffee instead. Getting rid of a bad habit demands more than just not doing something—the vacuum carved out by refraining from something harmful cries out to be filled, and unless we fill it with something positive, we may find ourselves back at square one, or worse.” Maybe I’m more of a hard-headed German than I realized. I just keep butting heads with the same old habits. Or maybe the Scots-Irish heritage claimed on my paternal side—according to some sources, rugged, individualistic, freedom-loving frontiersman—requires that I be challenged regularly and routinely. Hardly rugged here, but I gladly claim a love of freedom that seems somehow to have eluded me for 60 some odd years. Likely, I’ve simply, confoundedly been a prisoner of myself, genetically predisposed and conditioned to believe that I couldn’t walk through a doorway in a wall that doesn’t even exist.

“I played with fire, did counsel spurn/Made life my common stake; But never thought that fire would burn/O that a soul could ache.” —Henry Vaughan (British metaphysical poet, 1621-1695)

We’re odd little creatures with proclivities for one thing or another. As children we learn to respect fire. I recall a lifelong fascination with burning trash. Why as a child I loved to gather and set fire to debris I don’t remember. This instinct one time found me in what seemed like peril when a burning piece of paper wrapped itself around my blue jeaned leg, as I tended a fire that I had started. I couldn’t have been more than seven because we still lived near downtown Houston. All these years later, I can visualize only me with a rake in my hand, the paper clinging to my pants leg, and my daddy coming to the rescue. No doubt, I got a “Son, I told you so”, but I don’t remember a spanking. I remember few spankings. Yes, I have a healthy respect for fire and for the instruments of living made hot for some necessary purpose. You don’t burn in the middle of the summer, when the grass like parchment is ripe for disaster. That’s why we have burn bans. You don’t grab a hot skillet without a mitt. How many times have I failed that test in the throes of a kitchen emergency? No big measure of anything other than instinct to remedy a situation. Perhaps habits are instinctual as much. The result is the same, regardless of the catalyst. Some serve us well, others not.

Late in the fifth decade of my life of lessons a professional friend described me as a natural-born problem solver. I smiled, never having claimed that for my own, not really, even though my mind starts figuring out things instinctively as soon as I’m faced with a dilemma. Let someone tell me about his own wall, and I seize the challenge, sometimes to my detriment. “Harold, you don’t have to understand everything,” I was once advised, in a friendly manner, by someone who ended up telling me that I just need to let some things be. The chaplain who called on Mother during her long illness offered some advice one day, as I catalogued my efforts to get through to Mother, trying, almost in desperation, to help her understand that it could be easier than she had chosen for it to be. “What,” I replied, “pray unceasingly?” I asked, a little begrudgingly, as the chaplain waited patiently to make her suggestion. Smiling, she said, “Just try being silent.” I never got there, and my mother didn’t change either. Damn, I hate being an old dog who hasn’t changed much in all these years.

As I watched “The Trip to Bountiful,” last night, Horton Foote’s beautiful screenplay about an elderly woman’s efforts to reclaim some of her past, only to be thwarted repeatedly by a strong-willed, self-absorbed daughter-in-law and an equally weak son, I embraced its tender, yet strong and affirming message. In the end life is about getting on and getting along. It’s okay to give in sometimes, in spite of our instincts, in spite of what we believe is right. In a late-night conversation, as the old woman passes the time in the bus station of a small Texas town, the station attendant comments that he has two grown children, “raised the same”, one drinks and the other one doesn’t. Figure that out. Figure out why a selfish daughter-in-law digs in her heels, hell bent to deny an old woman a sweet, nurturing visit to her heartland. No, she couldn’t go home again, but having made an attempt, she was reconciled to her responsibility in making the best of a difficult situation. Just give me a little room for making peace. I know I can do it if I believe I have a choice.

Certainly, our efforts to figure things out are at the heart of self-preservation, both individually and collectively. How else did we come up with social order and religion? The science of either of those is for someone else to analyze. I know that I’m sharing this planet with lots of people who just keep getting it wrong, including myself, and it is our failure to get it right, in spite of genuine effort, that keeps things moving, sometimes forward. We are victims of our nature and our habits. Christians want to call it sin. Am I too hard headed to just admit, finally, that I am a sinner? “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” I recite each Sunday from the Book of Common Prayer. In the middle of the night, awake and working my list of mistakes, some more clearly definable than others, I pray the same. Help me change. I want to change. Help me not keep doing the things that cause me all kinds of misery, make me want to give up, sometimes.

Surely there’s more to it than sucking it up and going on. Maybe I just have to accept that this old dog learns the hard way. Maybe I just have to keep reminding myself of what Grandma Fuchs said often: “If you can’t listen, you have to feel.” Maybe I need to work harder at learning from my hard-earned habits. Maybe I just have to let some things be. After all, jumping into the fiery bath hasn’t done too much for me, so far. It’s made me wary sometimes, distrusting of myself and others, plagued by regret, apologetic, sad. Even though I already knew it, I welcome being reminded that abandoning old habits, ones which clearly do not make for a better life, insists that I replace them with something, simply good. I don’t want to argue about the relative value of good. I’ll just go with good because I know what it means to me.

Learning Something Here—Santa Fe, New Mexico (October 29, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Monday, October 27, 2008

A Grown Man Cries

Sometimes it’s uncomfortable to watch someone cry. For me, this is especially true when it’s someone I love, like a family member. As a man who has no qualms about showing this vulnerability, this access to what moves me deeply, I don’t recoil at the sight of another man crying. Yesterday I was fascinated as a handsome fortyish man quietly wept while the choir sang Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”. Sure, I could have forced myself to look away, to allow him the privacy we all hold rights to. I did off and on over a period of a few minutes, but I couldn’t stop looking at this guy, nattily dressed in khakis, an open dress shirt and a wool plaid jacket, visiting from out of town and in the company of his dad and his dad’s female companion. I speculated that perhaps he was crying in memory of his mother or that he was going through a painful separation from his own wife and children. It never entered my mind that he might be crying over a man. And now I chuckle as I remember the way he cocked his arm tough-guy style to shake my hand during the exchange of the Peace. “God’s peace,” I usually say. I don’t recall if he uttered any words or not. I do remember his smile, and I wonder if he was aware that I couldn’t really, completely look away while he wept. His own dad had noticed his weeping son, nudged his female companion to call her attention to this touching episode in someone’s life, and finally retrieved his own handkerchief to wipe wetted eyes.

A Grown Man Cries—Santa Fe, New Mexico (October 27, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Jesu, joy of man's desiring,
Holy Wisdom, Love most bright;
Drawn by Thee, our souls, aspiring,
Soar to uncreated light.
Word of God, our flesh that fashion'd,
With the fire of life impassion'd,
Striving still to truth unknown,
Soaring, dying, round Thy throne.

Through the way where hope is guiding,
Hark, what peaceful music rings!
Where the flock, in Thee confiding,
Drink of joy from deathless springs.
Theirs is beauty's fairest pleasure;
Theirs is wisdom's holiest treasure.
Thou dost ever lead Thine own
In the love of joys unknown.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Keeping Herod on His Toes

“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” Matthew 1:12

Funny how on just any old day you end up doing something that you’ve forgotten all the pleasure it has brought you in the past. Like listening to James Taylor’s sweet voice and thoughtful lyrics. The day was shaping up to be a 10. We had just spent a near-perfect afternoon at Bandelier National Monument, a day in the sunshine with temperatures peaking around 50, dry mountain air, cottonwoods bursting out in fall color. Well, it doesn’t get much better. As we drove back toward Santa Fe, the time was ripe for tunes. Old James just needed a listen, although I couldn’t have pulled his name out of the air if I had been asked to make a suggestion. He just happened to be one of the choices in one of the two CD holders I carry around in my truck.

It’s been a long, long time since I wondered what exactly did James Taylor have in mind when he penned “Home By Another Way?” On the surface it’s a tale about the wise men who took precious gifts to the Christ child. Ultimately, however, it is a story about making choices, about discernment, about honor and paying tribute and taking care of those we love, and yes, taking care of ourselves. We all have our Herod who would trip us up—pull the wool over our eyes under the guise of doing good and leave us the worse for having done what we thought was the right thing. “A king who would slaughter the innocents/Will not cut a deal for you…He’ll comb your camel’s fur/Until his boys announce they’ve found trace amounts/Of your frankincense, gold and myrrh.”

Doing the honorable thing doesn’t come easy, it seems. Whether it’s acknowledging the truth about ourselves, telling the truth about others, seeking to have and nurturing relationships that are not about control, and perhaps most importantly in a list that could go on, lifting others up rather than putting a foot on their neck, doing the right thing requires only the best we can give. And so it was for the Magi, come to honor the Messiah, whose birth had been foretold in scripture. A would-be crafty Herod, out to serve himself, fearful that someone, especially an infant destined for a greatness that comes only from God, might unseat him from his position of power, plots and manipulates to save his self-perceived importance. He didn’t get where he was by being the nice guy.

They tell me that life is a miracle
And I figured that they’re right
But Herod’s always out there
He’s got our cards on file
It’s a lead pipe cinch, if we give an inch
Old Herod likes to take a mile

As life would have it, no good deed goes unpunished. The efforts of the wise men to thwart Herod’s plan to destroy the Christ child led to the massacre of the innocents, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, where Herod had all young male children in the village of Bethlehem executed, allegedly to prevent the proclaimed King of the Jews from claiming Herod’s throne. Whether such an event actually occurred—those who write about such things generally conclude “no”—is unimportant. What matters is the measures to which human beings will go to preserve their power. What matters even more is the measures to which human beings will go to honor and to save one another. Medals are awarded to those serving in some official capacity. Others quietly carry out their heroics without history making note, without so much as an epitaph, without an Arlington as their final resting place.

“Home is where they want you now,” Taylor goes on to say, where “You can more or less assume that you’ll be welcome in the end”…”Safe home as they used to say/ Keep a weather eye to the chart on high/And go home another way.” So on a cold, sunny day in northern New Mexico, how nice it feels to be reminded of the choices we have, to take care of one another, sometimes bonded by blood and sometimes by friendship, and sometimes as lovers. Such gifts are indeed safe home.

Keeping Herod on His Toes—Santa Fe, New Mexico (October 24, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Something Like Original Good

Stories, weaving through our lives, remind us, if we are paying attention, of the best and the worst we offer one another. One of my favorite stories is William Sydney Porter’s—we know him as O. Henry—Gift of the Magi. It is a tale of giving and the sacrifices we make for those about whom we care in some way, indeed those we love, perhaps, more than life itself, tinged by great irony and ultimately the possible beauty of human kind. Just what are we capable of? One of the female clergy at the church where I worship here in Santa Fe commented to me a year ago that she doesn’t believe in original sin, but rather, original good, a concept that does have its place in the thinking about our belief systems. “Of course,” quipped someone I met recently. She’s a woman. Or something like that, he said. And surely that makes sense, given the whole Garden of Eden tale that figures large in the creation myth and the so-called fall of man, tempted by woman. That’s for others to wrestle with. Why wouldn’t anyone like to think that at our moral center is the urge to do good—to love immeasurably, to love sacrificially, and of course, to behave ironically in the course of it all?

In O. Henry’s story, the setting is on the Eve of Christmas, some time early in the 20th century. The players are Della and Jim. Their means are modest. The assets of their household are precious few, among them her gorgeous long hair, rippling and shining like “brown waters,” more valuable than the jewels of the queen of Sheba. Jim’s gold pocket watch, handed down from father to son to son, surely the envy of King Solomon, had he been a part of this tale. So on the Eve of Christmas, Della sells her tresses to buy a platinum chain for Jim’s watch, and Jim sells his watch to buy a set of tortoise shell combs for Della’s hair. What a surprise for these two at the unveiling.

I think a lot about choices—good choices, poor choices, some in between, perhaps morally neutral. At times people are quick to dismiss the plight of others as being about choices, namely poor ones. I’ve heard this especially concerning those who live on the margins of society. How cavalier of anyone to suggest that an old man having to choose between medication and food, or an old woman, bereft of inhabitable home after a destructive hurricane, or a single mother seemingly and perpetually down on her luck because she has too many birds waiting to be fed in her nest, how cavalier to suggest that at the heart of these stories is the matter of choice, poor choices indeed. Ketchup labeled as a vegetable in school lunch programs by idiotic bureaucrats, welfare queens so designated by someone who has forgotten his own family’s struggle and pain during the great Depression, families living on the streets because they’re unable to pay for shelter. So many stories, many not nearly so desperate, at least for now. If we were to write it all down, turn it into pictures, learn it “by heart”, we couldn’t stay on our feet under the weight.

A friend is making great sacrifice for one of her grown children, advice and caution from other family members and friends, making their way, succeeding at some level, thanks be to God. There but for the grace of God go I. “I would steal for my children,” maybe, justifiably. Would I steal for those I love? Have I somehow stolen from others without even realizing it? Or maybe I just forgot.

I’ve made some poor choices on this relatively long 65-year journey. I’m making them now, in spite of experience cautioning otherwise, and I suppose that I will continue doing so as long as I have my wits about me. Ever the eager one, stepping out on limbs, damn the consequences, hungry to love and be loved, irony abounding in me and around me, made hesitant by the occasional outrage that life serves up, perhaps foolishly seizing the day, even when I’ve been advised, Harold, take it slow. A friend told me the other day that he doesn’t think he has ever sensed God’s presence in his life. I replied that most likely he has but didn’t realize it. Maybe he hasn’t been paying attention to the messengers. What do I know? I know myself for sometimes assigning meaning, perhaps misunderstanding the meaning, of what comes my way on this journey. I don’t believe in coincidence. We enter and exit one another’s lives for valuable and purposeful reasons. We love or don’t love, give or don’t give, sacrifice or not, and sometimes we mysteriously understand the choices we are making. Sometimes the choices just seem to be made for us. Would I shear my locks for my love? Or if all my worldly efforts have come to nought, would I take on monk's robes? My head is shaved, by some standards. I don't know what else to do, except keep trying.

Something Like Original Good—Santa Fe, New Mexico (October 18, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Aunt Edna

The following about my Aunt Edna Rustenbach Fuchs was written in December of 2005, slightly more than a year before Mother’s death on February 1, 2007. Yesterday we gathered here on the patio of what used to be our parents, then our mother’s, house on the land in Leon County. Our sister Joan now has earned legal ownership of that house, and yesterday was Joan’s 70th birthday. How can it be? That little mopsy-headed girl, the first in this group of siblings, is three score and ten, the same age as our great aunt Minnie when she died in the summer of 1960. I missed Aunt Minnie’s funeral because Jewel Gibson (Joshua Beene and God, Black Gold), my high school journalism teacher, convinced Mother and Daddy, although I doubt that he had much of a vote, that it was important for me to attend journalism camp at Texas A&M. So yesterday I told Aunt Edna that I had written something about her a couple of years ago. “Did I give you that?” “No, I don’t think so,” she beamed, seemingly proud that someone cared enough to put some of her life on paper. And she asked for a copy. Almost three years ago, some of Aunt Edna’s story came to mind, and once again, I am taking a deep breath as I consider the waters that continue flowing through our lives.(rhh…Sunday, October 12, 2008)

My Aunt Edna usually visits for lunch on Sunday. Sometimes she comes out to the land where I live to have lunch up at my mother’s house. Other times, my oldest sister, who is Mother’s primary caregiver, takes Mother into town so that Aunt Edna doesn’t have to drive quite as far. Lately Aunt Edna has been bringing old photo albums. Mostly the photos are from the 70s and 80s, capturing extended family get-togethers, other times that my mother went on jaunts with Aunt Edna and Uncle Bubba, Mother’s only sibling, in the years between my daddy’s death in 1981 and Uncle Bubba’s death in 1989. A lot happened in those years. Daddy died on the first day of spring, then his two brothers died—one in the fall of 1982 and the other in the late spring of 1983. Both my grandmothers died in September 1983, and we buried them one week apart—two Saturdays for any family record book. Of course, many other deaths have occurred in both the Hollis and Fuchs families. This is, after all, life that we are living and giving here.

After Daddy died, and then Grandma Fuchs in 1983, Mother and Uncle Bubba became closer than they had been in all of their adult lives. As far back as I can remember, we did lots of things with Mother’s family, the Fuchses—all the holidays. Aside from Christmas, we were always together at some point for New Years and Easter, and the Hollis/Fuchs barbecues for Memorial Day, July 4th and Labor Day surely were legend. I would have no way of knowing back then because I was only a child who remembers the joy of sticking his hands in the icy tubs of beer (back then Southern Select, Jax, Grand Prize), vying over who got to sit on the burlap sack or turn the crank during the freezing of ice cream, and lots of family and extended family, who technically were friends, but like family, a southern thing I think.

Aunt Edna has photographs of many family occasions during the growing up years of me and my sisters. In 1951 Aunt Edna and Uncle Bubba started their own family, but their two children don’t figure importantly in the photographs. This past Sunday she really dug back—to the early 40s, her school day pictures pasted into a photo album, and some beautiful images set in tin cases that she and Uncle Bubba had made in downtown Houston when they were on movie dates in the very early 40s. Who is that handsome, slender man, cowboy hat cocked to one side? Who is that pretty young girl, with an Andrews Sisters hair-do? As far back as I can remember, Aunt Edna has been on the heavy side, something she has always laughed at, but most likely something that caused her more than a little pain.

Uncle Bubba wasn’t the most sympathetic man—at least not when it came to his wife. Aunt Edna relates more than just a couple of tales where she found herself in distress, and Uncle Bubba was there to show his dismay masked as disgust, blaming her in effect for the distress. Apparently she has always had some problems staying on her feet, sometimes stepping wrong on the edge of the sidewalk and landing in the grass, sometimes her legs just giving away, I guess. She recounts one tale of a family wedding, where as they entered the small lobby of the Lutheran Church, she–baby Mary in arms—took a dive. Uncle Bubba stands there, exclaiming, “Well, goddam, Edna? Did you fall?!”

My Uncle Ray, Daddy’s youngest brother, good-naturedly called Aunt Edna “the Blimp.” He was no small man himself. She laughs, recounting recently a time many years ago when a new diet product called Cambridge had entered the market. Apparently Uncle Ray asked one day, “Has the Blimp heard about this?” Aunt Edna has always jokingly referred to herself as Shamu (the whale), relating incidents here and there, “Shamu got down on her knees and then couldn’t get back up.”

Footing issues established, it was Aunt Edna nonetheless who taught me to waltz, step to the “Put Your Little Foot,” “Little Brown Jug,” “Ten Pretty Girls,” “Cotton-eyed Joe”. She collected vinyl 78 records, stored them carefully in record albums—certain ones in the “Dance” album—and brought them out for the many occasions the Hollis and Fuchs families celebrated when we were much younger. The Harry Owens 1940s tune, “Coconut Grove,” was my favorite.

There's a coconut grove where your happy lover,
Will do his part and soon discover
A rendezvous
In the shelter of a tropical lagoon.

Palm trees will be swaying,
While steel guitars are playing.
Believe what I'm saying dear;
I swear it's true.

There's a coconut grove where I'll be confessing,
The simple truth that you've been guessing
I love but you.

What do you call that dance step we learned from my parents’ generation?

Aunt Edna clearly enjoys remembering old times. Even though she’s approaching her 79th birthday and unfortunately has had a sad, conflicted relationship with her own two children and has more than her share of health issues, she shrugs off misery, accepts physical compromise, and keeps on laughing—at life’s ironies. She loves to recount memories of family gatherings, the humble jaunts where the Hollises and Fuchses went on a holiday—Brackenridge Park in San Antonio, Aquarena Springs at San Marcos, Muecke’s pleasure pier at San Leon near Galveston. She especially loves remembering Daddy chronically getting lost. I never realized that he was a typical guy when it came to looking at a map. I do remember, though, that when we went places, rarely did we arrive without delay of one kind or another.

Back in the late 50s and as late as the early 60s, there were the times at Clark’s Courts in Kemah. For a few days the two families would rent adjoining cabins. The men would go fishing in the wee hours of the morning, but before casting off from shore—I chuckle at the memory that Uncle Bubba didn’t want to be farther out than he could wade back if he had to—the women would fix a full breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast. We kids were all piled into our various sleeping situations, half awake when the 3 a.m. breakfast feast was in progress, as the men prepared to go out and bring in the croakers, sand trout, occasional redfish, which later would be gutted and beheaded, rolled in flour and corn meal diced with salt and pepper and then fried in Crisco. After daybreak the kids and women would head to the pier to find if our crab lines, outfitted with soup bones, would be taut with crustacean resistance, as we tugged the lines to the water’s surface. Crab gumbo—German Texas style—wasn’t far behind. Later in this vacation history, we got really sophisticated and had crab cages.

Somewhere in her bag of photographic memories, Aunt Edna has evidence of just about everything our families celebrated—barbecues, weekend local rodeos, trips to the Alamo and to the bay, and later, the jaunts she, Uncle Bubba, Mother—and sometimes my oldest sister Joan—made to the wild game preserve near Waco, Billy Bob’s in Ft. Worth, the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. She documented it all.

Aunt Edna has many stories tucked away, and of course the small get togethers that happen these days are ripe opportunities for remembering. Some of these stories pre-date my memory, but I have been reminded several times of two especially important milestones in my own history with Aunt Edna and Uncle Bubba. Before they started their own family, I apparently was special to them—special enough to warrant a brown cowboy hat that Aunt Edna spent her last ten dollars on during a trip to downtown Houston. In the late 40s you went downtown for everything, including saddles, cowboy hats and belt buckles. Those were the days of Stelzig’s saddlery and Schudde Bros. Hats. During the days of the urban cowboy craze, Stelzig’s made its way to the chic suburban Galleria of Houston, tossed its hat into the ring of glamour and glitz, but is now defunct. Schudde Bros. continues business in its original near-downtown location.

On one of these trips downtown, Aunt Edna bought me my first cowboy buckle—an engraved sterling Nelson Buckle, adorned with a 10k gold cowboy on a bucking bronc, and a gold ribbon across the bottom bearing testimony to its owner—my name, Harold Hollis, in black lettering. Both the brown cowboy hat and the buckle made the rounds of younger cousins. The hat got lost in the shuffle, but the buckle still figures into my life. In my 62nd year, I recently had an alligator belt reworked so that I could continue wearing that buckle, which I have owned since I was six years old. There probably is a photograph somewhere of me made around the time that I started wearing the buckle. Aunt Edna, who was back then an expert seamstress, made western shirts for all of us. I am told that she made many shirts for me because I didn’t want to wear store-bought shirts.

These days, good memories bring pleasure to Aunt Edna and Mother. Three and one-half years ago, Mother’s doctor gave her the bad prognosis concerning the condition of her heart. Aunt Edna has more than enough physical misery for one person. They’ve outlived husbands, siblings, cousins, and friends. Celebrations these days are not so celebratory, but times to reminisce. Not so many photo ops these days—or at least not so much enthusiasm for capturing these latter day, minor responses to traditional family gatherings that figured so prominently when they were raising their children. It seems that with husbands and fathers gone, things just change. The next generations don’t care as much, or they just don’t care enough to get along, or they’re just trying to make it. Something definitely is missing—the need to celebrate family ties, a failure to recognize the joy in just getting together. Still, Aunt Edna cherishes her memories enough to bring them over on Sundays. She and Mother spend their four or five hours together on these days talking about remembering when, recounting many of the same stories Sunday in and Sunday out. Regardless of physical difficulty and family frailty, Aunt Edna works at finding the bright side of times that sometimes have only the faintest glimmer.

Aunt Edna—Normangee, Texas (December 13, 2005)
R. Harold Hollis

Friday, October 10, 2008

Home is Where You Are

How much greater is the dread than the happening. My efforts paid off—to clean this garden, keeping me bent over (bad), crouched (better), on my knees (best) for a few hours each day over a 10-day period after returning here to Leon County Texas at the end of August. In the course of my labors, I practiced a new mantra—it doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be, it doesn’t. The garden got as good as it was going to get. After several years of turning over soil shovel full by shovel full, faithful pruning, weeding, watering, mulching, I’m trying to learn to just let it be a half-assed effort. After all, to some eyes, it looks just fine. Rustic, yes, that’s a good word. What Samuel Johnson called an “artful wildness” writing in 18th century England, however, would not apply to my patch of earth on the eastern edge of central Texas. My rusticana just looks neglected to my eyes. But that’s getting more and more okay. Six weeks have passed, and the nut and crab grass have had their way again.

Last Saturday, wiling down the hours as the Round Top Antiques Fair was drawing to a close, I told a couple of other dealers on the floor that I would be making another run at my garden before heading back to Santa Fe. “Why?” one of them asked, a guy still in his 20s, probably not a gardener. “You’re just going to have to clean it again come winter.” “Hmph,” I grunted, “you’re right.” I’ll just save myself some sweat and time, and some sore back, a back that’s been on a tear anyway since I arrived here six weeks ago. Bending (bad) and packing, loading, unloading, unpacking, repacking, loading, unloading—all for Round Top—has taken some toll and prompted me to ask my sister Joan to bring me a bottle of acetiminaphen from Wal-Mart yesterday. That trailer load of tired inventory I hauled to auction two days ago didn’t do me any favors, even though it feels mighty good to see more of the concrete floor on the back of barn.

Gardens in some state of neglect, barn sheds still over populated with things all brought here by a self-confessed stuff magnet, trying to accept, to feel it in my gut and bones, that my 60% level of achievement is somehow tolerable, let me learn to like it. As I stow the leftovers, sweep where I can move a broom, get down on my knees (best) with mop bucket and sponge, fire up the Kirby, stack, arrange—hoping, hoping that some three months down the road, when I get back again it will all make some kind of sense to me, I keep sighing ever so often. “You’re going to have your work cut out for you when you have to vacate this place,” more than one person has pointed out to me. “I know, I know,” I say, but I’ll do what I have to do, in that eventuality. In the meantime, I’ll just keep chipping away at it, doing the next right thing, even it’s just moving packing blankets from one stack to another, a better stack. Yeah, that makes more sense.

When I walked in the door of this barn/house at the end of August, I was surprised to discover that my efforts to give some reasonable order to this place before leaving for four months had somehow succeeded. Whether I’m achieving such success as I prepare to head back to the high plateau, to the golden Aspen at 10,000 feet that beckon, to friendships in progress that are calling me “home”—“Where is home,” I questioned myself, as I visited with friend Randy on the eve of my departure for Texas. “It’s where you are,” he offered. Some might say about this barn and these gardens that it looks like no one lives here. Yes, someone does still call this place home. I have been reminded. The wind chimes answering the breezes on this sunny October day, the family of crows lecturing one another outside the room where I sit, the wheelbarrow-shovel-rake, waiting for me to resume my sense making, they tell the story. My work here is not done.

Home is Where You Are—Normangee, Texas (October 10, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Another Minor Miracle

As I milled around my booth at the Round Top Antiques Fair last Saturday morning, thankful, oh so thankful on this last day of the fall market that it had been a good outing for me, and that I could cut myself some slack for just a while, I noticed a woman sitting in my folding chair at the edge of the booth. She commented, “I like your stuff.”

“Thanks,” I replied, smiling.

“Do you mind if I sit in your chair…and enjoy the scenery?”

“Please do,” I insisted, although I became a little puzzled after she had sat there quietly for several minutes.

Her face wore a pleasant expression. And though I wasn’t really watching her, I did notice that she moved in the chair to take in the booths behind and to the left of her. In the mood for another cup of coffee, although I had already over served myself with caffeine, I asked if she would like something to drink, and then I noticed the palsy of what I assumed to be Parkinson’s in her hands, which she tried to keep at rest in her lap. “No, thank you, I’ll just sit here and watch your booth, if you don’t mind” she replied. I extended my hand to introduce myself.

“Harold? Harold Hollis?” she questioned with a big smile. “I’m Bobbie Sanders”. “Harold, you look great,” she exclaimed. I smiled in appreciation, having recently lost 20 pounds—down to about the same I weighed at 17 when I graduated from high school 47 years ago. Bobbie had graduated a year earlier with my middle sister Sue. “Bobbie, you look the same. I knew your face was familiar.” Although her hair was colored, there was not a line in her angelic, 66-year-old face.

After I returned, Bobbie and I caught up at fast forward speed on the last 48 years, mostly about her family and where she lived growing up, her mother, dad and uncle, where she lives now, and who she had married. She was energized to hear that I get to spend part of my year in northern New Mexico. Truly, just say the words Santa Fe, and most people say something like, “lucky you.” “When was the last time you saw Sue?” I asked. It was at their 40th class reunion in 2000. “Sue was a good volleyball player,” she added. “Huh, I don’t remember Sue playing volleyball.” “In a school so small everyone had to play something,” Bobbie commented. How could I not remember that about my own sister? Now, somewhere back in a 50-year-old memory, I see Sue in a maroon and white satin uniform. Yes, she played set up. My heart continued to fill as Bobbie and I talked, and I thought about this chance meeting—no, minor miracle—and another friendship fresh on my mind, one that has been rekindled with a classmate now living in Arizona, another gift, one that came my way following Mother’s death in early 2007.

Oh, the beauty of glimpsing into the past, a past that frankly I had chosen to leave behind decades ago—too many memories of being a boy, out of step as I saw it, with a bunch of kids in a rural high school in northwest Harris County Texas, class of 1961. Back then I felt so different, and inferior somehow, even though I excelled in school, winning honors in band and journalism. I didn’t play sports or excel in agriculture, in a setting where most boys did one or the other or both. As I watched others around me bloom into relationships, I felt alone. Apparently, I didn’t know anything about sustaining a friendship. The few boys from the high school band with whom I felt a friendship slipped into the past as soon as we walked across the stage on that May night. I have consciously ignored every class reunion. God willing, I’ll make the 50th.

After a few minutes, Bobbie’s older sister Joyce made her way back to my booth, accompanied by one of her daughters and another young woman. “Joyce, you look exactly the same as in high school,” I beamed. Yes, I recognized a classic hairstyle surrounding an equally classic chiseled jaw. Most likely, though, I didn’t even know her back then. After all, she was three years ahead of me. But I knew that face. On this reunion day of sorts, although we didn’t visit much more than a dozen minutes, it was ample time for me to realize that I had indeed received yet another gift. After both sisters asked me to say hello to my older sisters, Sue and Joan, Bobbie offered her hand. I didn’t expect a firm handshake. “God bless you,” she said. “God bless you,” I returned, decades old memories rocketing through my body, looking into the face of that slender high school volleyball player, daughter of a dairyman, a solid rural feminine soul, now made fragile by time and the promises of life. I hugged Joyce, as Bobbie was already making her way down the aisle, and asked for confirmation of what I already knew. “Yes,” she replied. “She’s doing fine. She’s a trooper.” How utterly precious, these two sisters, still close, on a Saturday outing that brought them to a little part of my world for a few mountainous minutes.

I’m the first to say that I don’t believe in accidents. And right along with that I know in my gut that we have to pay attention. Angels, from the Greek “angelos”, messenger. They’re out there. Sometimes they emerge from our past, or they are as close as our nose, day in and day out. They are acquaintances newly made—friendships in progress. They stop by unexpectedly, or by invitation, because they’re going to be in the area. They sit next to us on Sunday mornings, or wait in line with us at the grocery store. Some we avoid because they’re homeless or ill and scary looking. Mostly, they don’t wear a sign announcing their purpose or nature. It’s up to us to recognize them for who they are. Maybe it’s to give us an opportunity to view our experience through a different lens. Maybe the messengers need someone to listen or to be welcoming, even if they don’t realize it, allowing us the privilege of serving up some of life’s kindness, as we make our journey home.

Another Minor Miracle—Normangee, Texas (October 6, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis