Friday, December 25, 2009

Light is What We Need


As I lay under the covers in bed last night, book in hand, flashlight resting on my pillow and shoulder, I was caught between frustration that the electricity had been out for most of the last four hours and gratitude that I had shelter and a bed and a down comforter. It was Christmas Eve—not that I was a part of any big celebration, alone in my barn house in rural Leon County, Texas—and it was 30 degrees outside. Storms passing through emptied rain well into the evening as the wind howled, playing havoc with the wind turbine on the roof. No lights, no heat. Sure, I had candlesticks and a kerosene lamp, but instead I set a small candle by the head of my bed, and though I had a couple of flashlights, I fretted that I had no extra batteries. Alas, I am a creature of comfort.

As I grew cozy under the comforter, I stretched my body, scrunching up my back and butt and wiggling my toes, and I smiled because I was able to shine a light on the words of the novel I had started. It was only 7 in the evening, and I wasn’t sleepy. I was reminded of the first time I visited my friends Joy and Judy on the Carson mesa in northern New Mexico in 1988. Their summer retreat is an authentic adobe that they built with the help of family and friends—a work in progress—planted with a panoramic view, windows facing the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Because they had no electricity, we took flashlights to bed so that we could read ourselves to sleep. Readers, we are. Shelves and stacks of books are part of the landscape wherever we dwell, permanent and not. I called them at Joy’s home in Tulsa, where Judy and her nephew Stephen are visiting for Christmas. They were watching a “Minnesota blizzard,” as Judy called it, making its way across Oklahoma. “I’m reminded of Carson,” I announced as Judy answered her wireless, greeting my call with friendly recognition, and then I explained about the loss of power here, my flashlight memories of Carson, going on to talk about the holiday and the collection of books Judy had lent me when I spent the night at her place in Ft. Worth on the way to my Texas home from New Mexico almost two weeks ago. “Has it been that long already?” she asked.

In the back of my mind, while Judy chatted amiably, I worried because my cell phone battery had already shown that it was working its way down toward a charge, another reminder that I had no electricity. I couldn’t charge the battery, and without the phone, my ability to communicate was clearly compromised. No flashlight, no book, no cell phone—only me and the dark and the wind and the night. Christmas Eve. But I had shelter, a now-warm bed, a lighted candle, a commode near by and a glass of water. Christmas Eve. I was safe and well fed. That I was immeasurably blessed was not lost on me. Conscious of my limitations, however, I called my oldest sister, Joan, who had returned to her home on these same 200 acres from Christmas Eve celebration at the local Methodist church. She too was “without lights”. Only one other chicken remains in our immediate family, our sister, Sue, who with her husband lives west of Houston, most of her offspring nearby. We were all safe and tucked in our respective homes.

By any entertainment standard, my expectations were low for this night. They had started low because I really preferred to be in the comfort of my own home, quietly engaged in a book, to shut out my lamp by 9 or so, and to lie with my hands folded on my diaphragm, counting to 10, 20 times counting to 10, and repeating to myself whatever mantra wanted to settle in my brain as I breathed in deeply and exhaled completely—Thank you, I am blessed, God is love, Love heals, God.

Tonight the sky is clear, filled with stars. An owl hoots in the nearby grove of Post Oak trees, and the night birds call plaintively. Truly, that is the sound. All is well on this Christmas night. Our small family, each of us, is safe at home. I imagine that Joan has a fire going while she watches TV. Sue, recovering from a winter cold, is with her family, a fire burning in the large woodstove in the house where we grew up. A fire dances in my own little wood stove tucked away in an add-on room, where I keep my books and lots of other treasures, and where I use my laptop while here in Texas. There is plenty of light. Light—light is what we need.

Light is What We Need—Normangee, Texas (December 25, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


"What a concept! Tell the truth, and let go of the results." (Anne Lamott, "Blue Shoe")

Saturday, December 19, 2009

And the Angel of the Lord




I keep coming back to the angel sculpture whose wings are joyously spread at the entrance to the labyrinth on the plaza in front of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I have walked this labyrinth many times. The inscription on the sculpture that draws my eyes reads, "I am not asking to be loved. I want to love." It is, after all, in loving that we are loved. I wish that I had said that, but as many of us know, these words are attributed to St. Francis.

"An organization called Charter for Compassion is taking this approach (i.e., [to]refrain from weaponizing...[our] words and...{to] seek peaceful solutions whenever possible. Gathering together supporters such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, singer Paul Simon and Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt, it has sought to restore compassion as the center for morality and religion. It calls for a 'return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate.'" (from an article for CNN by Paul Moses titled "Is religion about war--or peace?". Moses is professor of journalism at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.)

Friday, December 18, 2009

SOS


I have always been easily overwhelmed. A personality flaw, no doubt, led me to carve SOS with the push mower into our front yard when I was 12. The grass had grown high, and the task before me was more than I believed I could face. Clearly, it was one of those times where you think that you can’t make it through the job. So at that time, 54 years ago now, I clearly felt it more meaningful to carefully maneuver the power mower, pushing down the handle to raise the housing that contained the blade so as not to mar my handiwork, and brand SOS into the grass. I told Mother and Daddy and the woman working in their market with them that day that I had hoped a pilot flying over would see my distress signal and come to my aid.

I came home to Texas this Christmas holiday for the first time in three years, the first Christmas since our mother’s death. I had sufficient cause for wanting to escape the high desert, even though Santa Fe is remarkably beautiful this time of year. “I’ll get to see my sisters for Christmas, and I can get a jump on my winter gardening,” I told friends who asked. And I fully planned to engage the help of a local Mexican worker who—yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus—weeds flower beds. He weeds them meticulously. My oldest sister had made arrangements for Carlos to work for both of us the entire week.

Arriving here Tuesday afternoon, with the first signs of my first cold of the season, I felt compromised physically. That afternoon was about getting my internet and cable television service reconnected and sweeping up the bugs that I knew would litter every room downstairs after a two-month absence. As it turned out, Carlos was finishing up a job for someone in town but would be here Wednesday. Early that morning I gathered the electric pruners and outdoor extension cords and began. Three Viburnum bushes quickly gave up their excess from a flourish that began once this part of the world started getting rain at the end of the summer. As it turned out, no Carlos. I continued half-heartedly, hoping that he would show up. We learned late in the day that he had to take one of his two babies to the doctor.

Thursday brought a cold front and rain, and so I nursed my cold, read, and made a pot of chili. Early today, I knew that the promised sun would shine, and it would be perfect gardening weather. Yet something told me that Carlos would not make it. As the morning wore on, there was really nothing else to do but hunker down and continue working. Wheelbarrow in tow and rake in hand, I began picking up the debris—wet from yesterday’s rain. I thought of making my SOS, but I knew I had to just push ahead. There were no Mother and Daddy to hear my story. Those days are done.

My sister Joan, who lives in the house on this land that our parents bought in 1973 as a retirement place, told me yesterday that she wasn’t going to worry about the thick carpet of Post Oak leaves around her house, leaves that our mother could not have tolerated. The yard had to be raked for the holiday. And the yard, through four houses since we were children, was always big. Now we don’t have to rake the yard to please Mother. It’s true. My garden, the entrance marked by a stone I had made after Mother died—RUSSELL AND TENA HOLLIS GARDEN—well, it doesn’t have to be maintained for anyone, really. I live away most of the year. It has become part of my trips home to this land in Texas, however, that while here I make the garden pretty—not neurotic pretty—it was never that—just pleasant.

And so today, in the absence of Carlos, who I am told will be here at 7:30 in the morning, I made pretty in the garden. I abandoned the childish urge to carve an SOS, acquiescing to the truth that this place is mine and I’ll make the best of it in the manner that I make best. And though I grumbled about how I don’t want this responsibility anymore, like the two-story barn house-turned-warehouse that gets a lick and a promise each time I’m here, maybe if I keep practicing, I can learn to really like it this way—no rescue needed.

SOS—Normangee, Texas (December 18, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Tuesday, December 8, 2009




“But oh! the blessing it is to have a friend to whom one can speak fearlessly on any subject; with whom one's deepest as well as one's most foolish thoughts come out simply and safely. Oh, the comfort -- the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person -- having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together; certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.” (from “A Life for a Life,” Dinah Maria Mulock Craik [1826-1887])

First, do no harm. (attributed to the medical Hippocratic oath)

"...if you can, serve other people, other sentient beings. If not, at least refrain from harming them." (attributed to His Holiness the Dalai Lama in "The Art of Happiness," His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D., Riverhead Books, 1998)

Sunday, December 6, 2009


"...only that which leads me to the God within myself can reveal God."

(from Ernest Holmes, "Sermon by the Sea," at Asilomar, 1959)

Friday, December 4, 2009



"Courage is a virtue of the wise and the brave but more ultimately of the holy, the transformed, the enlightened." ("[The Mystic Hours]", Wayne Teasdale, New World Library, p. 60)

Thursday, December 3, 2009


"All day it continues, each kindness
reaching toward another..."
(from "For the Sake of Strangers" by Dorianne Laux)

Monday, November 30, 2009

A Closer Walk


I have been away from church most Sundays this year. Early in the year I hit yet another stumbling block on this walk that for all of us knows challenge on top of challenge. The good news for me is that I haven’t been away from my trust in God. The furrow on my brow that people often ask about is more present. My walk toward the light—sometimes a search—continues.

Early this year, Lent came as usual, and my forehead went unmarked by palm ash. And though I wasn’t in church on Sundays, I read Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s discussion of the last seven days of the life of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospel of Mark (“The Last Week”). I’ve dabbled in Buddhist writings and have been especially drawn to a couple of books by Zen Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hanh. He treats two important aspects of human behavior—love and anger—that for me are at the heart of what marks us as human. Joseph Campbell’s “The Power of Myth”, both a PBS documentary and a transcript of a conversation with Bill Moyers from the 1980s, reminded me that history is filled with Christ figures, stories of the creation, virgin births, persecution, death, resurrection and redemption. And now, as Advent begins, I have without a plan visited a Christian worship, and at the same time I am paused to consider Elaine Pagels’ work on Gnosticism.

Argument aside, every faith tradition teaches the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Do not do unto others what you would not have done unto you. The fringe of any tradition that teaches mistrust and hate has by choice lost sight—has chosen to walk away from the light, to walk away from that which is divine in each of us.

Life takes us where we need to go, even though at times we are kicking and screaming. Yesterday as I sat waiting for Christian worship to begin, I had not remembered that it was the first Sunday in Advent—that season in the Christian tradition celebrating the birth of Jesus. I was prepared to grow because I’ve heard the reputation of the Yale-educated female minister who has pastored this congregation for over 20 years. Innocently, I didn’t know that her message would be directed at the very things that have been most on my mind of late. But then, why wouldn’t it? Change (end days), compassion, love, charity, faith. I have long realized that the kingdom many of us pray for in the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) is not some distant hope, a reward that we might ultimately somehow reap even when things seem hopeless as we trod on. When a friend told me a couple of months ago that she consoles herself in the midst of family turmoil by reminding herself that life in the everlasting will be trouble free, I was speechless. I have grown to believe that the work we are asked to do now on our faith walk creates the kingdom in our hearts and also in our lives. Those eager to quote scripture and the teachings of the man we call Jesus are well served to remember that. My experience lately reminds me that life is abundant, the love of the Divine is abundant, and it is only through human kind’s manipulation that this abundance is denied to many. Each of us has an incredible power to make a difference. We see this happening everywhere, regardless of how bleak the landscape may seem at times. I give thanks for this reminder.

A Closer Walk—Santa Fe, New Mexico (November 30, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Sunday, November 29, 2009


"Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty we are free at last!" Martin Luther King

Monday, November 23, 2009

We Give Thanks



Gratitude. It’s everywhere—or not. Often it’s hidden deep inside. I would have said “too often” but that’s a value judgment, and I’m trying to outgrow my judging phase, which has taken decades to hone its current fineness. Gratitude. Thanksgiving. Recently while volunteering in the visitor center of the Audubon here in Santa Fe, I exchanged pleasantries with a visitor from Vancouver, and I wished her “Happy Thanksgiving” as she left the gift shop, camera in hand, for one of her many repeat visits to Santa Fe and to our 135-acre sanctuary at the top of Upper Canyon Road. “Thank you,” she smiled. “We celebrated ours in October.” I smiled in acknowledgement of a different tradition. And I smile again, acknowledging the truth of all the rich traditions that color our world. “Thanksgiving in October, hmmm, I hadn’t even thought about it.”

Last week, I wished “Happy Thanksgiving” to my massage therapist, a native of the Czech Republic who came to the United States four years ago, as I recall from an earlier conversation. A bright, articulate young guy who came here speaking little English, I had assumed early on that he had studied English in school, growing up in an Eastern Europe that has seen much turmoil and change in my lifetime and certainly in his. Not the case, which causes me to marvel even more. “What are you doing for Thanksgiving,” I asked him. “I guess what I do on any other day,” he replied, smiling. He isn’t fretting that he will be alone on this American holiday. He’s a vegetarian. No visions of roasted, aromatic turkey dance through his head. I smile at my own innocence when I think of the Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers in black garb, punctuated by white collars.

What I really love about Thanksgiving, and what I have always cherished, is family time. Lots of good food, east Texas style, familiar faces, and maybe best of all, the only gift expected is the familiarity of our company. I took that comfort for granted. I’m older, and wiser, now. Now I know the lack and loss of Thanksgiving changed. Mother and Daddy are no longer physically present at the table, and for three years, on this favorite holiday I have chosen to be away from my family of birth. But I take great comfort knowing that my older sisters and the family will be together at table. They’ll be taking this for granted—at least a little—because they’ve never known anything different.

I have heard some people explain that their families are ones they have chosen, and they say that they like having this choice. In a way, that’s a tough concept for me. I grew into old age taking for granted that familiar faces, no matter how few, would always smile at me across our Thanksgiving table. I welcome the love of friends, and I give thanks for the friends who open their arms to me, especially at this most tender time of the year. Each year is yet another Thanksgiving first, regardless of the familiarity. I smile at the reassurance from friends over the last few days. I am loved, I am welcomed, and yes, I am home. Why am I amazed? How could I ever doubt? Someone said to me over coffee several months ago, “home is where you are”. And so it is.

We Give Thanks—Santa Fe, New Mexico (November 23, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


"If we are facing in the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking."
--Buddhist proverb

Friday, November 13, 2009


"This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”
--His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Carefully Taught


You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!
(Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, “South Pacific,” 1949)

Don’t think that you must teach me to mistrust. I know enough about mistrust already. What didn’t come naturally to me—the human creature predisposed by my ancestral fear—life has taught me well. Even as a child, coming to understanding in the aftermath of the second world war and the cold war that followed on its heels, I knew to fear that which seemingly posed a threat—or so I was told. As I grew older, I learned to fear many things. I was putty in the hands of my nature and my Elders. I don’t think there was any particular malice in the lessons modeled and spoken outright, sometimes in hushed tones—tones reflecting shame in the lessons taught generation after generation. Before I knew better, at times I thought it was just part of growing up in the south. But I learned long ago that the south owned no special rights on intolerance, hate, and fear mongering. I come from German stock on my mother’s side, and though my ancestors left Europe just as the American War Between the States was ending, in my years of accountability, I have known the sadness that comes from realizing that the country of my heritage embraced man’s inhumanity to man so willingly. Fear begets hate begets loss.

Many would tell us that we live in troubling times. I respond, when has life not been troubling? And where does the trouble live and thrive, growing to unmanageable size—if we don’t choose to face our fear, if we don’t search our hearts. Some would argue that the god of their so-called faith is not the god of those whom they fear. They would make this claim failing to understand that god isn’t property. From where I stand, there is only one god, one spirit, one creator, and that power wants to live and thrive in each of us, regardless of the lowness and meanness any one of us embraces out of fear and anger and hate.

“We have met the enemy and he is us,” Walt Kelly had his cartoon figure Pogo say in 1970. In the late 40s through the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy sponsored the madness that destroyed lives with the scare of communism. How many of us have heard, “they’ll take us over without firing a shot.” Sadly, I remember that my own father and mother—a mother that I realized as I grew older was one of the most tolerant people I’ve known—believed soundly that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a “tool of the Communists”. Today, we don’t have to look far to read and hear from the fear mongers who have staked a claim for their destructive version of the truth. Any of us who spends time on the Internet has received the messages that travel, growing like cancer—messages based on misinformation, half-truths and lies. Any one of us is capable of changing the context and re-shaping what otherwise contains some kernel of the truth to serve our own sad, misguided fear. Any one of us is capable of hate. Hate is the greatest threat to our well-being—hate, the child of our egos. None of us has to look far to realize that—regardless of our faith tradition— dying to oneself means only one thing. We must let go of that which separates us. “Let there be peace on earth/And let it begin with me.” (Jill Jackson Miller and Sy Miller, 1955)

The prayer attributed to St Francis of Assisi (12th century) continues to say it so clearly.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Carefully Taught—Santa Fe New Mexico (November 11, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Thursday, November 5, 2009



"That which God said to the rose, and caused it to laugh in full-blown beauty/He said to my heart, and made it a hundred times more beautiful." Rumi

"In thee, my friend, I see God, and through you I feel His presence." The Science of the Mind, page 546

"For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospels, the same shall save it." Mark 8:35

Monday, November 2, 2009

Paying Attention


Asked to keep a record of acts of kindness for 29 days—why 29 I don’t recall because I missed that part of the instructions—I was energized by the possibilities. “Can I count my volunteer work at the Audubon Center?” I asked. “You can, but I would prefer that you don’t.” The point of the discipline is to notice and record the things you do for people without expecting anything in return. A former friend from years ago said to me once in a cynical and accusing voice, “the only reason you are nice to people is so they won’t be mean to you”, or something like that. I recall how I felt when he said it. I was saddened at the time and I shake my head now at the angriness that colored so much of this man’s life. “It can be something as simple as a smile,” she explained. Well, I smile at people I don’t know, day in and day out, and I guess I don’t expect anything in return. It’s sort of like walking down any street in small town Texas. You just say “Howdy!” as you pass people. I find myself doing this here in Santa Fe New Mexico as well, in spite of the occasional stare. Okay, so every one did not have the privilege of growing up in the state whose name in Caddoan Indian translates "friendly". Friendliness is in my fiber. Smiling and saying hello are not much of a challenge and definitely not a sacrifice.

So I started my record a few days ago. The first day was easy. I had already decided to contact customer relations for the local Toyota dealer to thank them for the helpful man in service who knew immediately why my rear windshield wiper and defroster weren’t working. Within minutes of driving into the service bay, I was driving out, smiling as if someone had just handed me a hundred dollar bill. That same afternoon I had the opportunity to help my downstairs 80-something neighbor carry things in from her car.

Over the five days since we started our record keeping, some days have been a slam dunk. A couple of days on my calendar are blank. I can’t count going to the store for 10 beautiful oranges and organic celery to carry to a friend who has been shut in with the flu. Those are the kind of things you do for a friend, along with cooking and sharing meals with your partner because you are retired—every day of your life, he says smiling—and your partner isn’t. We get lots of opportunities to share the bounty with those we love. It’s remembering to do so with those of the chance encounter and especially with those that on any given day we don’t feel so bountiful. The other day I wondered aloud about mothers who prepare meals, clean house and do laundry, along with all the other things they do for their families. “But that’s expected,” our leader clarified. Wow, mother's labor doesn’t qualify for our 29-day exercise.

“Give until helps,” goes one slogan. How comforting to know that joy does not reside deep in our pockets, even though we know that sharing our treasure measures mightily in the quality of our lives. What I’m finding most interesting about our little game is reflecting on the days that are empty on my calendar. I know I did something generous on each of those days, but by the rules, I can’t count it. So I have to make a special effort, like letting three cars coming towards me turn left in front of me on a heavy-traffic Friday afternoon when I’m late for an appointment. Smiling at someone, holding the door open for someone, those are the no brainers. As I head out to run errands today, I’ll be paying attention to opportunity. My calendar is already blank for two out of five days, and according to the rules, a blank day resets the count to zero. I have to pay attention.

Paying Attention—Santa Fe, New Mexico (November 2, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Turn Around


From the Kabbalah..."First we receive the light, then we impart it. Thus we repair the world."

Robert Rabbin..."If not me, who? If not now, when?"

Mother Teresa..."If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other."

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Deep in the Heart

Maybe the best thing to say is that you had to have been there. There’s no better proof to a small businessman plying a trade built around selling goods that no one has to have—that’s the art and antiques market. I keep reminding myself that I do this not so much for financial reward as for the love of treasure. Of course, investing in treasure necessarily reaches its limits, and then it’s time to pay the piper. And that’s what I did last week. As tough as it was, I give thanks—and after catching the Oprah show today (maybe more on this later), I especially give thanks that I am whole, able to walk without assistance (even though an injury to my left foot continues to aggravate me), in my right mind (mostly), and that the rains have come to Texas after a long, long, hot and dry summer. I reminded myself of this as my friend Jim and I waded through a driving rain—along with all of the other dealers loading out of the Round Top Antiques Fair—to load our trailer for the trip back to Leon County Texas. Earlier in the afternoon I had recounted for my dealer neighbor the last hard rain on a load out day I had been through at Round Top. That was another life, 20 plus years ago, and an experience that caused me to take stock seriously as I bit off and spit out the tiny piece of flesh hanging from my right index finger after I had slammed it in the trailer gate. I was soaked to the skin. I remember what I was wearing—a drab green long sleeve shirt that had been one of my favorites for a long time, Levis (of course), and a pair of boots. Things changed that afternoon, but they really didn’t. Ebb and flow, come and go, up and down, breathe, breathe, breathe. Yes, I give thanks.

Deep in the Heart—Normangee, Texas (October 7, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

For My Birthday





September 16, 1943: An Update

In another year on my birthday, I might have thought about some object that I have been craving. On a trip to Denver at the end of July, I bought the Native American burl bowl with which I’ve been mildly obsessed for the last year or so. It was expensive, and I do love it. This too will pass. As I search my mind, I can’t think of anything that I feel I must have.

So, for my 66th birthday, I am happy just to have a few things that maybe we take for granted. Today, I’m celebrating by burning the brush pile in the cow trap to the east of my barn house—a pile that has been accumulating for the last year because of constant burn bans in these days of constant drought. The lovely, lovely rains that have visited us over the last several days have brought an end to the burn ban temporarily, at least.

And for my birthday, I am happy to have finally caught with my digital camera a butterfly, this one a Tiger Swallowtail, in my garden. Feeding on a bluish-purple Duranta, one of several happy bloomers in this erstwhile water-starved garden, following life-restoring rains, along with Maggie among the roses, Turk’s Cap, Hamelia, Salvias Greggii and Coccinea, Society Garlic, Althea, Rose Mallow, and Peruvian Pavonia—all celebrating, their faces surely smiling just for my special day.

I would wish for one more thing on my birthday, that my left foot, plagued with tendonitis since a May hiking incident at Big Tesuque in the mountains near my high desert home, would go ahead and get over itself. After several sessions of physical therapy, and now x-rays that showed nothing except a little arthritis resulting from age—okay, I’m 66 today—it’s still ouching day in and day out. Its complaints go naturally with a cranky back that wants a visit to the chiropractor. And I won’t go into the daily regimen of pills—although relatively light compared to some and yet my envy by comparison of a few others I know. I’m doing okay.

And today, my oldest sister, Joan, is taking our neighbors and me to the buffet at the Chinese restaurant in nearby Madisonville. How fortunate we are to have Asian on the table in a town of less than 5000 residents, a community that otherwise boasts at least five Tex-Mex eateries, yet to my knowledge, nothing that’s just plain old American. I guess the friend in Santa Fe who told me earlier in the summer that I have a sweet life was right on the money. Sisters who care about me and miss me when I’m away for most of the year, friends who call to say “Happy Birthday”, one from as far away as a South Carolina vacation, early autumn blooms and butterflies, a paid-for home that will always be here—“unless I burn it down today,” he considers, grinning. Life is good.

For My Birthday—Normangee, Texas (September 16, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Monday, September 14, 2009

We Keep Coming Back


So we keeping come back to the stuff we love, which isn’t always a good thing. In this instance, yes, it is a mighty good thing—at least, from where I sit. Yesterday afternoon the Hollis cousins of my generation gathered at Aunt Mary’s house in Houston on the two-month anniversary of her death. It was an afternoon where we were invited to preview the upcoming estate sale. Cousin Becky had already told me that Jean, who is not actually our blood relative, but who nonetheless has a close connection to Aunt Mary and to our family, had encountered Aunt Mary’s aura on recent visits to her home. “That doesn’t surprise me,” I said, sitting in my car outside the grocery store in the tiny Texas community I call home part of the year. I want to feel Aunt Mary’s presence, along with that of my mother and daddy and all the other family that I have loved, those who have defined and shaped my life. Jean smelled Aunt Mary. Not the Boucheron fragrance she loved, something I found out only after her death, but her very essence, something one could know only by hugging another often. Embedded in my memory are the many beautiful smells I associate with Aunt Mary and her home—room fragances from Neiman-Marcus, and what I always thought was her facial soap and cream. Maybe it was her Boucheron.

It’s interesting—what any of us have chosen to take as keepsakes from the William Woodrow “Frog” and Mary Louise Hollis Todd home. We all had an opportunity earlier to pick a few things before the estate sale began to take shape. Yesterday was our opportunity to buy early and to take our time doing so while we visited and ate the Hollis family chocolate cake, baked by my middle sister Sue. We’ve had that cake a lot lately—already three times this year when gathering on Sherwood Forest Street at the Todd’s rambling colonial built on over two acres on the outskirts of Houston some time in the 1950s. Unlike earlier times in the life of our family, that cake has taken a life of its on. It is the Hollis chocolate cake—attributed to our distant relative by marriage, Anna Mae Sowell—a recipe most likely from a Hershey’s chocolate box some time in the early part of the 20th century. Cousin Marilyn said yesterday that Aunt Mary used to put the butter and sugar icing called for in that recipe on brownies. Sue and I don’t remember Aunt Mary being all that interested in cooking, but for some reason, I do recall her making pecan pie for the holidays.

Yesterday, Revere Ware pots, along with a large assortment of utensils and pans, had spilled out of the kitchen cabinets and drawers. The pantry stood open, emptied of the Arabia of Finland dishes—blue laurel bands with flowers—and the pressed glass tumblers, only four remaining after all these years. Her German stainless from Houston’s famed Sakowitz is already a gift to me from the estate. I bought service for eight “on time” from Scarborough’s Department Store in Austin in the early 70s because it reminded me of my elegant Aunt Mary. It made me feel special too. How odd, stainless flatware making someone feel special. Of the gifts from the estate that I picked, that stainless is beyond value. “Sterling?” someone asked when I told of what I had selected as one of my gifts. “No, just stainless,” I say. The classic English rattail pattern, called Murray Hill, although still produced in China for the German company, isn’t the same. But then, what is?

While I was aware of what others were selecting to buy yesterday, on this family day—my two sisters focused on old Christmas tree ornaments—I roamed through the house, unable to make sense of the chaos. This was no longer a home. Every table surface was burdened with china, glass and metal. The only remaining bed was piled high with stacks of stuff. Aunt Mary’s washbowl set that had adorned the hallway bathroom for all the years I could remember had been removed to the dining room. I was seeing things that I didn’t remember and lots of evidence that all Aunt Mary’s treasure did not glitter. Closets and drawers had been turned inside out to reveal all the life that had simply been stowed away. And there was no Boucheron, no lovely soap or face cream to soften the harshness of this home-no-longer-Aunt Mary’s-home on this hot, sticky September afternoon in Houston, Texas. I wasn’t sad really. I just knew that, once again, everything had changed. Something mighty important had left Sherwood Forest Street, in spite of the affection we shared on this afternoon.

As I dug through a display case of jewelry, I wondered aloud if Uncle Frog hadn’t had a ranger-style western belt buckle set. Then I saw a silver set with tiny garnets set in the gold floral decoration. It was marked “Sterling Mexico”. Later, half buried among the odds and ends on top of the oak chest of drawers in their bedroom, there lay his tooled belt, silver and gold ranger belt buckle and tip, tarnished and worn. Yes, I wanted this. And I wanted his game warden badge—this one from 40 years ago a copper shield overlaid with pot metal and adorned with the shape of Texas and a typical star, the engraving fading into the background. I remembered Mother and Daddy commenting that Uncle Frog was “a dollar a year man”, a term it turns out for men who in times of war perform government work not quite for free. And I remember gatherings where one of Uncle Frog’s best friends who actually was a game warden was present with his wife. He wasn’t my blood uncle, and I wouldn’t have guessed that I would care, but then life is full of surprises.

We were there to buy, if we found something we wanted, and though a comment or two suggested an attitude different from mine, I was happy to pay for these treasures. After all, it was a choice. I was happy to pay, especially knowing that I had already been gifted beyond any expectation from the life and hard work of my aunt and uncle. I had no expectations. I would have taken home lots more, like the two packs of soft cotton bandanas, red, marked $3 and $2.50. But where do you stop, and where do you start? Beyond the very personal things that had belonged to this uncle of no blood kin, I had also bought from Aunt Mary’s antique treasures three things that I can with good conscience offer for sale in a business that likely never would have been born had it not been for the love of treasure mining that I inherited from Daddy and Aunt Mary. Theirs knew boundaries, however.

How suiting that I live in a barn here in Texas. Barns are for storing, and one day all barns are emptied. So too for this barn. But for now, I stow and I sort and I offer for sale a couple of times a year significant pieces of treasure. Much of what remains after each offering has a little less value. People who are genuinely interested in buying these days want most to buy the very best. A worn belt buckle on a tooled belt too small for most men and so used up as to have little practical use left in it—well, not so much something to sell. But then, it’s not for sale anyway. In my mind, I keep coming back to things I left behind yesterday—the Arabia of Finland dishes and the four remaining pressed glass tumblers. The silver flatware was stolen long ago, along with other keepsakes, while my aunt and uncle were away at their house on the bay. Most of the best glass and china were chosen as gifts by cousins shortly after Aunt Mary’s death two months ago. But it wouldn’t have mattered to me anyway. I value most the everyday dishes, and the old tumblers Aunt Mary would have bought on one of her treasure hunting outings. Maybe I was even with her. I don’t remember. It’s all stuff, and it’s all in motion, just like we are. Lucky we are to hold treasure in our hands when the treasure that matters most now must be counted in our hearts.

We Keep Coming Back—Normangee, Texas (September 14, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Monday, September 7, 2009

As Far As I Can See


I know the difference between the sound of a shotgun and that of a rifle, although my experience with guns doesn’t even count. As I pulled weeds in the garden yesterday morning, a shotgun thundered in the trees to my southwest—probably on someone else’s property—reminding me of why I stopped walking the pastures and woods of these 200 acres a few years ago. Shortly, a rifle confirmed my thinking. At daybreak this Sunday morning, I’ve heard the first rifle volley. So I ask, what is in season? Silly question, though, because hunting is born and bred in many who live and visit this rural county, where the population of the largest of several small towns is something under 1500. Wild hogs, squirrel, deer, rabbit, the woods of Leon county are ripe for the picking.

The Texas Department of Wildlife website lists the hunting seasons for 24 animals, from alligator to woodcock, although I also see from their listing that nothing is in season right now for our county. Nonetheless, the guns sound daily. Though I’m not opposed to hunting or hunters, still I think about Mother and Daddy reporting that their youngish lawyer had been killed over the weekend by a stray bullet while deer hunting—probably at least 40 years ago.

At 4 in the afternoon, pow pow pow—pow 10 times—comes from the woods to the northwest. No way that squirrel got away, unlike the lucky one that barely made it across Farm to Market 2446—bushy tail whisking the hot early afternoon air—as I made my way back home from a mid day outing today. Instinctively, I stomped my breaks, the same as if it had been a dog, or a bird. I really don’t want anything to do with killing, unless it’s a pesky fly or mosquito or a menacing wasp, or one of the vile rodents that has the misfortune of showing up in my barn house every once in a while.

Who hunts when the temperature registers 95 degrees—101 degrees with the heat index? There is clearly no romance to it, as far as I can see. But then, I suppose only the real men get it. For me, summer time is for lazy hours in the garden, under the trees, early in the morning and late in the day, when the chance of catching a breeze is believable. Hot weather is for stretching out on the sofa upstairs, barely mindful of the whirring of the bank of fans suspended from the loft ceiling, book in hand or on the chest as you nod off for a nap. We’re headed toward 95 again today. I will work early this morning in the garden, already anticipating the lazy hours indoors come afternoon. That’s for me. And early in the morning the shotguns have begun their work in the woods nearby.

As Far As I Can See—Normangee, Texas (September 7, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Gone to Texas


Okay, so I’m not excited about being back in Texas. I left a northern New Mexico ripe for fall—highs hovering around 80, lows dipping well into the 50s, humidity just above 20%. I imagine taking a breath that feels, well, unbearably light. Give thanks for refrigerated air on this hot and muggy—at least by comparison—September 1st, where by noon we’re breathing hard down the neck of another 90-degree day, in cow town—Ft. Worth, where the west begins.

I awoke this morning in Muleshoe, just about 30 miles across the New Mexico – Texas border. As I headed toward Lubbock, I scanned the radio for a National Public Radio station. And so the day began in the Bible belt. “Jesus radio” a voice announced, as I hit the Seek button again.

As I made my way down U.S. 84 South, I was pummeled one way and another by all of the conflicting messages—“Does the road you’re on lead to me? God”, “If you have to curse, use your own name. God”, “Don’t worry about the future. I’m already there. God” read billboards below Lubbock. The messages continued to and beyond Abilene—home to Abilene Christian University (Church of Christ), McMurry University (steeped in United Methodist tradition), and Hardin-Simmons University (Baptist General Convention of Texas).

Yes, I was in the Texas Bible belt—but wait, what part of the state does the belt not include? More than a few cars carrying women with uncut tresses piled high atop faces unadorned by makeup passed me. Because I’m pulling a 6 x 12’ trailer loaded with treasure, I’m sticking to the right lane and 60 m.p.h., which is over the recommend 55 m.p.h. posted on the trailer fender. In contrast were billboards advertising “Rock ‘n Roll Cowgirls”, bosoms oozing to burst out of spaghetti strap—western?—blouses. What’s happened to the Misses Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells? I think I know the origin of the old saying, “rode hard and put up wet”.

I had to be on my toes for the likes of the late model black Cadillac sedan that cut in front of me, only to take the next, and very immediate, exit to Snyder. Could he have been headed for a Tuesday morning gathering at one of several churches that can be found on the Internet for Snyder—Primitive Baptist Church, Apostolic Faith Church, Church of God, Faith Baptist Church, Bautista Primera Iglesia Church, First Baptist Church, Colonial Hill Baptist Church. These are the first seven churches listed for Snyder at www.city-data.com/city/Snyder-Texas.html.

Along with the church ladies, big trucks and Bubbas owned the road as I made my way south toward the greater Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex. I noticed a pink version of cojones suspended from the rear bumper of a Dodge 4 x 4—just like the metallic silver ones I saw on a truck with New Mexico plates as I was about to cross the New Mexico – Texas border late yesterday. That’s a new one for me—large fabric-filled testicle whimseys for, no doubt, the guys who have to walk with legs spread so as not to crush their manhood. The two guys, apparently hungry to be back in Texas and burning up the road, riding in a big Chevy V-8 carrying a pair of ATVs in the bed, and mindless of the posted 45 m.p.h through a construction zone just west of Clovis—well, I guess they didn’t count on the New Mexico State Police actually being out and about. I didn’t notice any cojones suspended from the bumper, however. Nor did I see them on the truck of the Bubba west of Abilene on I-20—ball cap pulled down, sporting a well-fed tummy that was tucked under the wheel of his “big ‘un” and pulling a fifth wheel with the name Shady Brook Lite stamped across the rear of the trailer. He passed me as well.

At the Muleshoe McDonald’s this morning, as I waited for a breakfast sandwich and small cup of coffee, Waylon Jennings and Jessie Coulter huffed out their version of “The Yellow Rose of Texas”. Hearing the words, I appreciate more and more why Uncle Ray, toasted on a few too many long necks (more likely, it was cocktails) at a summer barbecue gathering of family and friends some time in the '50s, called out to the band hired for the day, “I’ll give you $10 if you don’t play ‘Davy Crockett’.” Yes, I’m gone to Texas, as they said in the early 19th century—G.T.T.—gone to Texas, to fight for freedom—and according to documented history, to escape debt—and the culture shock becomes greater each time I return here to my home. Hanging out in the likes of liberal Santa Fe, I forget that my great home state is not all that different from most of New Mexico. They’d likely elect the “W” again, as hard as that is to believe. In the words of the late Molly Ivins, Texas is a “…damned peculiar place.” I’ll always be a Texan, however, and I claim the right to make fun of my own. Pardon me, but we’re not all like that.

Gone to Texas—Ft. Worth, Texas (September 1, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Choices



Weeding my own garden beds doesn’t beckon me. I suppose my habit of allowing myself to be overwhelmed by the prospect of what seems an insurmountable task lies at the heart of what sometimes feels like dread. There really is no beginning and no end to weeding. Yet, what have I volunteered for in the gardens of a historic landmark an hour’s drive north of Santa Fe? I’ve been crouched, on my knees, and seated Indian style for the last couple of weeks, for three or so hours each Wednesday, removing deep-rooted grass from among the irises and peonies. It’s been quiet, solitary work, carried out under clear skies in temperatures hanging below 70 degrees early in the day. I picked a good time of the year to start this project.

Digging in the dirt—feeling the shovel sink into the ground, turning over the soil and releasing the smell of earth—this satisfies me. Foot by foot, yard by yard, things take shape, the aim clearer. Earlier this week I marked my starting place with one of the tools that had been set out for me by the gardener. It was a tool I wouldn’t need for removing grass, and I wondered why he didn’t know this. As I made my way, I stopped periodically to measure mentally how far I had come. Nearing completion of the task, I skipped to the end of the bed, cleaning just enough to clearly mark what remained of my work—only about 5 feet. My body smiled.

It’s amazing how the context—the ownership, the weather, the perceived size—of responsibility owned or volunteered for changes everything. I carve out three or four early morning hours each Wednesday—add another two for the drive both ways to Abiquiu—where I dig in solitude. I stop periodically to admire the change and take in the surroundings of this historic home and landscape. As I work at a task I begrudge in my own garden, I realize that it’s not so much the work as it is the choice. Given the absence of beginning and end, here I have chosen to paint this landscape one morning each week, allowing myself to luxuriate in small accomplishments. This satisfies me, especially when I consider that I am giving of my time, talents, and resources. I am enhancing the beauty of parts of a garden that otherwise go untended.

And so it should be with my own garden in Texas. Here in northern New Mexico we have started to feel like autumn. The colors, the sky, the air have all taken to late summer. In July I made a hurried trip to Texas to be with my family during a time of loss. This summer in particular has been brutal in the Lone Star State—consistent triple-digit temperatures starting early in June, and no rain to speak of. While there in mid July I did my best to give frequent badly needed drinks of water to trees and shrubs. In that landscape laid evidence of things that had lost the battle with drought. Amazingly, however, along with making the 135-mile trip each way to Houston for family gatherings on three different occasions over a two-week period, I remained diligent early most mornings with the water hoses and a three-gallon bucket. Weeds, and grass in unwanted places—I saw them. They didn’t even matter. Yes, they had prospered when nothing else could. Trees and shrubs that were in decline or clearly struggling from neglect responded to my efforts by producing tiny new leaves.

Tomorrow I head back to Texas for responsibilities there that still own me—at least, as much as I allow such ownership. I will exchange high plateau air for the palpable heaviness of life at lower elevations—7000 feet for 375 feet. I am making preparations. Yesterday I went to the mountains, where in the middle of the day the temperature delighted at 54 degrees. I sat beside the noisy stream that tumbles down through Big Tesuque, allowing myself to be transported by sound, sight and smell. It was no storybook smell, but rather one of life moving on water. I am grateful for choices.

Choices—Santa Fe, New Mexico (August 30, 2009)

R. Harold Hollis

Monday, August 24, 2009

Monday, August 17, 2009

I AM NOT ASKING TO BE LOVED...


...I WANT TO LOVE

The Exorbitant Cost of Withholding


“When we feel inadequate and unworthy, we hoard things. We are so afraid—afraid of losing, afraid of feeling even more poverty-stricken than we do already.” Pema Chodron, “When Things Fall Apart”

I can’t remember the circumstances, but the line comes from a comic routine that I would have seen years ago. The dialog goes like this: “Are you happy?” The reply: “I’m happy, but I’m not H-a-p-p-y.” Or maybe it was a sitcom. I do remember clearly from the show “Rhoda” when she and her husband Joe were breaking up. The scene was classic. They were in group therapy for couples, and the assignment during the session was for the participants to pair up and form a circle inside a circle. Each person was to stand with his or her back to the partner and to simply fall back, of course, trusting that the partner would be there for the catch. Simple, isn’t it? Of course, but Rhoda couldn’t do it. She didn’t trust Joe. In a humorous comment in a separate individual couple session, she quipped to the therapist, “Between the two of us, we’ve had a headache for the last six months”. All of this for play—capturing the reality of people in relationships—capturing the reality that relationships fail all the time for all kinds of reasons. Mostly they fail because we cannot stop hoarding. We can’t embrace gratitude and tenderness—notions essential to Buddhist principles, but more generally, essential to whatever life-giving spirituality one embraces.

Most of us need the affection and companionship of another special human being—a particular someone who adds dimension and quality to our lives. Put in more palpable terms, we want someone who rings our chime, floats our boat. Why, then is it so hard? Why are the statistics on successful relationships—both those with benefit of vows taken before witness and those where vows are exchanged privately, perhaps not even articulated as such—so sadly disappointing? The divorce rate in America is around 41% for first marriages, escalating to 73% by the third trip to the altar. Childless marriages are much more prone to fail. Other relationships? Talk to your friends, look around your own family. The reality is kind of scary. I wonder what the statistics are for people whose relationships are not complicated by legalities, or by dependents.

Any man who wants to be in a relationship is in one. At least, that’s what a friend’s therapist told her. I have no idea what this means, really. What too many of us see too often is the backside of someone running the other direction—even though he, or she, might not being going anywhere, not right now, not just yet. Maybe a more accurate observation is that any man who wants to be in a relationship and who is capable of living healthily for himself, as well as with and for another person, is in a relationship.

The literature is full of analyses and explanations concerning how we are drawn to one another physically and romantically. The dollars mount up in the billions that are being made by writers, therapists, and the so-called gurus of the circuit. Self help books on familial and romantic love and on the love of friend abound. Honestly, though, we don’t need another book, talk show or circuit guru to explain our dilemma. It hasn’t changed. We are crippled by our inability to love selflessly, our faltering compassion, our anger, and our unforgiving pride. Poverty of heart too often defines the way we relate to one another. We long to be in control, but of what?

Give until it helps, some would advise. Others just as quickly would add, but save some for yourself. It is at those times that we feel impoverished that we cling to ourselves. We sense that we have nothing to give, even though we live in abundance. We respond to our fears with complaints, blame, and selfishness. We are unable to thrive in the present because habit draws us to a past that wasn’t really like we recall it anyway and to a future that we can’t possibly imagine. Our pride exacts a mighty cost.

In the words of the prayer attributed to the 13th century saint, Francis of Assisi:
“O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned…”

For some of us there is never enough to make us feel safe. No amount of love, money, earthly possessions, time or space brings us the peace that we long for. Unaware, we already have it—if only we can open ourselves to it. Yet, we want something or someone different that will make things better and make us more complete. Make me an instrument of change.

The Exorbitant Cost of Withholding—Santa Fe, New Mexico (August 14, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Make Me an Instrument of Change


Pain -- has an Element of Blank --
It cannot recollect
When it begun -- or if there were
A time when it was not --

It has no Future -- but itself --
Its Infinite contain
Its Past -- enlightened to perceive
New Periods -- of Pain.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

The scene: an unhappy infant cries for no discernible reason—as far as the frustrated and anxious mother or father can tell. Hunger, colic, wet diaper, safety pin poking at its tender flesh, some sense of danger? Perhaps unexplainable anger—in someone so young and with so few life experiences—especially experience that teaches us to use anger as a weapon, hoping somehow to gain advantage. What does Mother, or Father, do? The answer should be obvious—try to find the source while soothing the unhappy one. Before reading “Anger” by Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Buddhist master and spiritual leader, I wouldn’t have thought that as adults we can and should approach our own anger similarly. Caress my anger? Cradle my spleen? What does this mean?

In Thich Nhat Hanh’s words, anger is one of the seeds that we carry deep within us, along with love, hope, despair, joy, fear. He counsels us to water the seeds of love, hope and joy. We are counseled further not to deny our anger, but instead, to attend to it, just as a mother and father seek to find the source of their infant’s unhappiness, while lovingly reassuring the child of her safety and wellbeing. How often are we advised to take a deep breath? We know about counting to 10. How often do we remember to do just that when our instinct is to fight or flee? Cultivating the seeds of anger, despair and fear comes so naturally to us, but why?

I think of all of the ordinary seeming situations that we find ourselves in on any given day—family conflict, work stress, juggling the balls of a social life that we not only choose but that we have sought out. Sometimes we give away our time and talents and find even there that we end up struggling with expectations—both perceived and real. Even our religious practices, inherited and chosen, can add to the challenge of our lives. We fear our bosses, and sadly, we sometimes fear our family and friends. And out of this fear grow anger and despair. We are afraid of failing, even when there is no race. We are afraid of our limitations, perceived and real. We are afraid of intimacy, honesty, and our vulnerability. And all of this fear easily translates into sadness and anger.

For many years, I have known that one way of understanding depression is by its roots in anger—anger turned inward. While we don’t want to be the victims of our own anger, most of us don’t want to go around making others our victims either. It happens, though. We’re angry at family—Mother and daughter, brother and sister, spouses and partners—and at friends, colleagues and bosses, faces known and unknown, the guy in the car ahead and in the next lane over, and in line at the market. We carry the seeds of unrealized hopes and we trade joy for despair and inner peace for turmoil. Our anger erupts—blame and hostility lead to damaged souls and relationships and to much sadness. Or equally as destructive, we stuff our anger and use it as a weapon on ourselves. Why would anyone choose to be angry? It is habit, learned behavior so well rehearsed that the script is imprinted on our very fabric.

Change requires a new perception and hard work. It requires mindfulness. Everything we can lay our hands on to read or to experience first hand tells us that if we are to find peace—indeed to live in peace—we must learn to be in the moment. It is there that we can acknowledge our anger and give comfort to our ravaged sense of worth. It is there that we can put aside blame. It is there that we breathe—seeking awareness—inhale, release. “We must be the change we want to see in the world,” Ghandi is so often quoted. First, however, we must be the change we want to see in ourselves. If we cannot let go of blame, recognize our righteous indignation for what it is, we cannot neutralize the poisonous effects of our anger. Without first loving ourselves, we cannot love others, and certainly, without first forgiving ourselves, we cannot forgive others. Make me an instrument of change.

Make Me an Instrument of Change—Santa Fe, New Mexico (July 29, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Friday, July 24, 2009

Texas July 2009

Apparently it is about choices—at least, sometimes. I made up my mind when I leased a casita in Santa Fe two years ago, and then decided to make New Mexico my home for most of the year after buying my tiny, wanna-be home/condominium, that the garden I had doted over for the better part of seven years would have to do or die during the summer months that take their toll in Texas, regardless.

To those in Santa Fe who ask, "Don't you have someone who looks after your place in Texas...don't you have an irrigation system," the answer is simple, yet not. No rich Texan with a second home in Santa Fe here, I rely upon the kindness of family. I would rely on strangers as well, were they available. My sister, Joan, has labored in the inland heat to keep alive a few of the trees that I've designated as most vulnerable, along with the Old Blush climber rose that is slowly marking the wire fence adjoining our properties. A modest, fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants watering system I had installed early in the the history of this garden could only do what it was designed to do: water the oldest part of the garden. As absence would have it, yes, fallen into disrepair, a challenge to be solved on another day, or not. Replacing the computer board of my gas oven, apparently the fallout of a lightning strike during one of the April storms, is more straightforward. I will bake again when I return to Texas for the end of summer. How true, I will bake again, and also in the oven.

This is the year that I’ve found out how tough tough can be. Already in drought in 2008, through a lackluster winter that didn’t produce the moisture that we rely upon—la Nina, el Nino, jetstream, whatever—and in spite of a wet April, the summer has beat the crap out of Texas. Yes, summer has its foot firmly on our neck. The worst drought on record, or in 90 years, wherever the truth lies, has reminded us that Mother somehow knows best, or at least she, in her personification as Nature, has had us shaking our heads and exaggerating the truth (or maybe not). Ninety years?

My loss of a few rose shrubs doesn’t matter a tinker’s dam in the big picture. Nor does the bexia grass “lawn” where in the spring—not this year—I usually get a nice stand of wildflowers outside the fenced in area of my garden. Brown, simply brown, this lawn is, except for the sprinkling of green resulting from a couple of shower blessings during my two-week visit to Texas to help bury our Aunt Mary. Losses in crops and a saturated cattle market leading to virtually fire-sale prices in the auction ring. It is what it is. As Union Army General Philip Sheridan said of Texas during a tour here after the Mexican-American war, "If I owned Texas and hell, I would rent Texas and live in hell." While I don't know how much of his sentiment had something to do with the summer heat, it is a palpable metaphor. My physician asked yesterday as I sat in his office, "why do we live here?". For close to two weeks I have dragged the water hoses from place to place, filling a 3-gallon galvanized bucket to tote to a parched-throat thirsty tree or shrub while the water hose lies delivering a drink where I drop it.

I will head back to northern New Mexico this weekend, and as I write these words, the hose does its work, draped across the limb of a vitex tree. I will venture from the air conditioned dark space that I call my office, while a machine on which we Texans rely so heavily, delivers lovely, lovely cool to this room, out to the garden shed, where I will sip on a glass of wine, as I make a final push for this time around, hoping and praying that showers—make them lavishing rains—will sooth this landscape, even though I won’t be here to see and hear this miracle of Mother Nature. And while you're at it, Mother, the stock tanks need a little attention as well. Does this qualify as a prayer?

Texas July 2009—Normangee, Texas (July 24, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Monday, July 20, 2009

Is A Puzzlement


Okay, enough about me, let’s talk about you. What do you think of me? So goes an old—what do you call it—a joke? Me, me, me. It’s been called a narcissism epidemic by some. “The farther east you go, the farther away from ‘I’ you get,” a friend commented to me earlier this year when I tried to explain my spiritual rumbling and rambling of late. Go east, young man. Retreat. Expand your horizons. Let’s talk about us.

Of course I thought about myself a few years ago when someone described a mother and son, new and eager to join in at his good-sized conservative, up tight church in a small east Texas town, as “church hoppers”. The term was new to me. I winced. Me, me, me? I cared then—about how others might perceive me, judge me, assess my worth. In truth, the mind picture I paint of myself probably has little to do with how others see me. I’ve been to a few different churches over the last few years, and each time I’ve felt something missing, and I’ve reminded myself each time that the something missing is in me, about me, and not something that I really want to advertise. That’s what I’ve judged about myself. I’ve measured myself and come up short.

Several years ago, I was asked to serve for a second time on a Cursillo team. My first experience—occurring around the time of the ordination of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church—had left a bitter taste from all of the ugliness that can be mustered when people take up the judgment throne. At the first team meeting, I guess I was loaded for bear—ready and looking to be offended. Not to be disappointed by my expectations—what I had intentioned, I guess—after the first meeting I told the spiritual advisor that my heart just wasn’t in the right place. As it turned out, it was easy enough to be put off by the behavior of some of the others who had been asked to be a part of this long weekend devoted to building Christian discipleship. She observed, “Harold, the problem with the people in church are the people in church”. I get it.

At lunch yesterday, a minister friend assessed, smiling, that the Church is filled with sinners, or something like that. My translation—we’re all in the same boat, and that’s why we are in church, seeking answers. It’s a conundrum—going to church to “change our ways” and yet acting out in the church community the very same behaviors that supposedly drive us into church to begin with. No doubt, we’re all in trouble at times, most times—dishonest (about ourselves to ourselves, at least), willful, selfish, jealous, angry, vindictive.

In the Christian tradition, the list of human behaviors—the Seven Deadly Sins they have been called—includes: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride. Ah, there’s Me again. What to do about atonement, redemption, salvation, indeed, about sin, we wonder. As the conflicted king opined lyrically about all the changes happening around him in “The King and I”—“Is a puzzlement.” One thing I know, I think, spare me the sin and guilt. During meditation a couple of weeks ago, our leader told the story of a minister’s reply to someone bemoaning how guilty she felt. It went something like this—we don’t do guilt here, but there’s a church down the street where you’ll feel right at home. A little cold, perhaps, but the message is clear. An icon of the crucified Christ that used to hang outside my front door now lies on a bench in my garden shed. I haven’t decided what to do with it. It’s not like I can deconsecrate this place.

I hadn’t thought too much about it until a friend in New Mexico reminded me in a phone conversation while I was on my winter retreat to Texas last February—we’re all on a path. It is our path. We have a right to it. We can own it, and we have to walk it. It’s really not about right or wrong. It’s about the journey. And even though any one of us might look at another’s journey, judging its course—let’s face it, we’re all under one another’s microscope—it’s not up to any one of us to tell someone how to live his life. Do we offer counsel? Has it been asked? Benevolence, compassion, joy and freedom—love, as defined by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. We can offer love. Or we can walk away. And there’s lots of room and choices in between.

“It’s a car wreck, and we’re in it!” I wonder how many times that has been said. People in glass houses—“let him who is without sin”—I am advised to remove the timber from my own eye before addressing the splinter in yours. Are you looking for a handout? Ah, there’s my inroad. Wait a minute, isn’t that me with my hand out? Love the sinner—hate the sin. Apparently that’s not found in the scriptures that those of the inerrant Word like to quote as Authority on how we are to live our lives—from the judgment seat of exclusion and elitism and self-satisfaction, while sporting a timber in the eye. “I’m not perfect, just saved,” say some. Saved from and for what? Oh Lord, save me from your worshippers, especially those who have forgotten to follow you. We’re in this boat together.

I don’t have any answers—just questions. I am a child struggling to be mindful, sometimes remembering to breathe to overcome my doubts—inhale, release—challenged to be in the moment. I’m schooled daily on forgiveness and compassion. I’m advised to forgive myself. That must happen first. I’m learning to ask myself to be fair and that I have a right to ask the same of others. But then, what’s fair? An eye for an eye (in the Hebrew scriptures, Exodus 21:23-27) actually means that if I take someone else’s eye, then I am obliged to give up my own eye—not that if someone challenges me, I have the right to beat the crap out of him—not that when you’re down, my foot should be on your neck. As the joyful little song proclaims—I am blessed, I am loved, I am free free free free free! I may stumble. Nonetheless, the journey continues. That’s our journey.

Is A Puzzlement—Normangee, Texas (July 19, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Because We Had to Stop for Death


Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school, where children strove
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then 'tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Oh, the reminders of the fragility of our lives, and of the quick pace of our journey here. For the past couple of days, I had the privilege of visiting with a cousin I hadn’t seen in 26 years. Those many years ago—enough for a child to be born, graduate from college, marry and have his or her first child—it was the occasion of our Mamaw Hollis’s funeral. She was 93 and hoping to make 100. This time, it was in tribute to our aunt, Mary Louise Hollis Todd, who was looking toward her 92nd birthday, even though she had told me many times since the death of her beloved husband William Woodrow “Frog” Todd in 2000, that she just wanted to be with “Frog”.

Something related to us by one of her caregivers—a devoted friend to her—at the visitation two days ago reminded me of what Aunt Mary had told me. In the several days before the fall that compromised her to the hospital and too quickly to the capable hands of hospice, Aunt Mary had cried as she remembered the love and hard work that she and Frog had lavished on the two-plus acres and the rambling colonial style home they had built a half century ago on the outskirts of Houston. Now a largely commercial area within the city limits, populated by businesses and larger-than-life condominiums, Aunt Mary remembered the home across the street, no longer there. Change that insists we take our hats off to it has caused us to stop and take account.

No, Aunt Mary was never maudlin. Yes, Aunt Mary was sentimental about her Hollis family. She loved us all, and she was beloved by us, and by the many friends she made along the way. We were mostly family and a few friends who gathered to pay tribute to Mary Louise Hollis Todd. Loving, kind, faithful, elegant, fun loving, and sometimes ready to be entertained by a little off color humor—these were some of the terms offered by her nephews and nieces, as we sat in the common area of the mortuary on the afternoon of the viewing. What we said was translated by the young minister, a distantly related cousin to Mary, into the words of comfort and joy he offered at her funeral. We laughed, we nodded and sighed, catching one another’s glance, and then finally we wept, as each of us walked forward and lingered at her casket. It was open, and she was beautiful. Of course, we realized it was only her earthly shell that we gazed at, and likely, most of us failed to remember that she was right there with us in the room. And she is here with me as I write these words—guiding me, loving me.

“No man is an island,” wrote John Donne in 1623; “Perchance he for whom this bell tolls, may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him.” We are all part of one another—in our love here, in our individual and collective memories, in our God consciousness. Aunt Mary is not away.

The challenge is never to forget from whence we come and always to be mindful of and sensitive to what is expected of us by the creator. The Holy Scriptures in the Christian tradition command and implore us to love one another, to care for one another. Some of us do it for our parents, for our siblings, for our aunts and uncles, for our children who precede us in death, and some of us for our friends. Aunt Mary knows, and we all know. She cared for her mother and aunt and husband. Her nieces, nephews and friends cared for her. We really don’t know what will be asked of us, but hopefully, before waiting too long, we realize our rights and responsibilities.

Loving is what I have always known. I was taught this by my Mother and Daddy, who were raised in the Christian tradition. Long ago, though, I realized that my faith walk is only one person’s walk with God and that God, God the Father and Mother, God of no gender, Spirit, is way too big to be constrained by our human understanding and our limiting and sometimes even destructive choices of worshipping and following. There are many, many ways to make this walk—all of them valid and wonderful and wondrous. Something I read recently from a Zen Buddhist spiritual leader described love as benevolence, compassion, joy and freedom. I think about this, and it brings me comfort, as it challenges me.

“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:34; Matthew 6:21) As our daddy, Russell Hollis, would say, “that’s what the Good Book says”. Our mother echoed this belief with kind conviction. It is what they both lived. The same is true for all those Hollises we have loved— Stephen Edgar, Russell, Pat, Ray, Sallie, Frances, and now, Mary. Many, many, almost countless, when I consider all of the Hollises I have known and loved, and on Mother’s side, the Fuchs family, but most especially our mother, Tena Elizabeth.

On this day, in tender, palpable remembrance, I give thanks for family and love. And I accept the challenge to those of us who continue this journey to live out the love, compassion, joy and freedom described by our Zen Buddhist brother. “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love…” (prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, 13th century)

Because We Had to Stop for Death—Normangee, Texas (July 18, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Friday, July 10, 2009

How Few We've Become






“Mother, mother
There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother

There's far too many of you dying
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today…”
“What Going On”—Marvin Gaye

All during my growing up years, we gathered for any reason. Yesterday afternoon I sat alone, watching those gatherings. Who is that young, dark-headed guy waving from the second floor landing of his college dormitory? Was that a dismissing wave, probably in response to Mother fretting about something? More likely, knowing the guy the way I do, he was a little sad that Mother and Daddy were going back home, only 90 miles away. He’s the same guy holding his toddler niece, and at the coast on one end of a string of fish suspended horizontally, a college mate on the other end, at family celebrations of Christmas and summer barbecues, and leading the college band down the field at half time. We’re only a few years shy of the 50th anniversary of some of that film.

This spring, Aunt Edna finally got me off my butt to do the homework for converting Daddy’s home movies of the 1960s to DVD. I had thought it would be a big deal, and I questioned that the condition of the film would be good enough after close to five decades. Annoyed and embarrassed by her repeated reminders, I dug the box of film out of a cupboard and carried it around in the floorboard of my Toyota for a week or so. I had had to search my memory for where I had stowed it after asking Aunt Edna to return the film following Mother’s death over two years ago.

After calling a few places in our university community that I thought would have the technical know-how for such an imagined high tech project, laughably it turned out that Walgreen’s photo center was the solution. On the fourth call, someone in the background of that phone conversation said simply—“go to Walgreen’s”. That was four months ago, just before I returned to New Mexico.

The conversion process took about a month, so my sister Joan picked up the DVDs. My copy arrived in the mail this week after languishing in my Texas home since April. Yesterday I spent a couple of hours being amazed—amazed at how young we were, how much we laughed, how graceful Mother and Daddy danced around the floor of their market—cleared for a New Year’s Eve celebration—amazed that my niece, who will turn 48 in September, was still in diapers, learning to crawl in the earliest of these films, and amazed that at the time Karen was making her way on all four across the den floor my maternal grandmother, Lizzie Fuchs, was a year younger than I am now.

Before starting the DVD, I suffered the fear that it would be too painful to see my mother—in her early 40s and in the very prime of her life in this collection of images spanning most of the ‘60s. There she is, though, along with Daddy, both looking handsome and vital. We’re all there—well, just about everyone is there.

One face seems to be missing on this DVD—that of Aunt Mary—who has had her eye on her 92nd birthday, come September 2nd, and now lies in a hospice bed at a Houston hospital, after losing her balance and falling backwards on the brick floor of her kitchen a few days ago. Cousin Donald, the oldest of our generation, called me with the news that the doctor says, “Aunt Mary won’t leave the hospital.” It’s been downhill for her for a few years now, as dementia has taken its toll, even though physically she’s been healthy as a horse. “I’m ready to be with Frog [her late husband],” she’s told me several times since his death nine years ago. No down-in-the-mouth person, however, Aunt Mary is always ready with a smile—and some good advice sprinkled into every lively conversation. She’s just been lonely for her mate. How did she not make it into at least one scene of Daddy's films? Even Uncle Pat and Aunt Martha from Santa Fe are there, along with all the other Hollis siblings at their houses—the Hollis compound—on Caranchua Bay. They're all gathered, doing what our family has always done so well—breaking bread and just being together.

We are waiting and watching—I from 900 miles away—as Aunt Mary makes her mind to let go. She is the last of her generation. Her mother, our Mamaw, made it to 93. She wanted to make 100. Donald asked that I call my sisters, Joan and Sue, adding that he would stay in touch with me. When I talked to Donald, I was on the road to Abiquiu, to interview as a volunteer to work in the gardens of Georgia O’Keefe’s legendary northern New Mexico home. As Donald and I talked, I started to cry. And I was crying when I called my oldest sister, Joan—“Aunt Mary’s dying….” “Aunt Mary died?” she asked. “No…” and then I explained. By the time I talked to Sue, our middle sister, I had composed myself. Something in me needed to call someone else—to answer the tolling bell, for no man is an island—but I realized there was no one else to call. We are it—Joanie, Susan Berry, and Hi-Do—Russell and Tena’s kids.

I called Aunt Mary the night that Mother died two and one-half years ago. At that point, I had to remind Aunt Mary each time we talked that Mother had been sick with a heart ailment and on hospice for several years. “Oh, Tena’s sick?” she would ask. “I didn’t know that.” “Aunt Mary, will you call Donald and Becky? I’ll call you when we’ve made the funeral arrangements.” “Yes, sugar,” she comforted me. The day of the funeral, Donald told Aunt Mary that he was going to a burial in Normangee, Texas. She replied, “I used to know someone in Normangee.”

So much to learn, and yet we squander our precious time. I need to talk about this. We need to talk about this—acknowledging how few we’ve become. When the time comes to pay our final respects, likely I won’t be there, in Houston. I’m watching and waiting from afar—only a phone call away from family. I am feeling close but removed. We need to talk and remember and learn.

How Few We’ve Become—Santa Fe, New Mexico (July 10, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis