Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Modernist Sensibility

I returned recently from a weekend trip to Palm Springs, where my friend Steve and I visited one of my long-time friends from the years in Houston that now seem distant. One of our hosts, a lover of things mid 20th century, entertained us in the comfortable, spare surroundings of a 1970s-vintage home built in the modernist style and designed by renowned architect Stan Sackley, who was a Frank Lloyd Wright Taliesen student. Houses built from the mid 1940s through the mid 60s essentially doubled the size of this desert resort, and stamped the place as a Mecca for modernist architecture. A significant number of these homes were built by the father/son team of George and Robert Alexander.

As you enter the landing just inside the double front doors of my friends’ home, your eyes are immediately pulled into a large living space, a step down from the landing. Divided into two parts sharing an open fireplace, the living space looks out through an expanse of glass, inviting in the outdoors, including a swimming pool and amazing citrus trees. In the distance are the mountains. It was my first trip to the California desert, and I didn’t even expect mountains. But there they are, no small part of the landscape.

I don’t really understand spare spaces. At least, I don’t understand them in a way that has allowed me to create one for myself. A lover of the primitive arts—furniture, pottery, textiles, paintings, Folk art—my dwellings have always been over the top. In my parlance, one good basket deserves another, and another. And on goes the story. As we sat having drinks in the smaller of the two living spaces on Friday evening, Mr. Sinatra at his best from a collection of CDs that match the spirit of the home, one of our hosts commented, “this has become my favorite room in the house.”

I looked around and smiled, “yes, this is sweet,” my favorite new way to describe that which pleases me and touches my sensibilities in the nicest way. A classic Eames Lounge and Ottoman sat across the space from me. I have this set, produced by Herman Miller, based on a 1956 design by Charles and Ray Eames. It actually looks good placed among primitive art. An example of the Eames chair lives in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In our hosts’ home, other significant examples of modern furniture, whose designers remain largely a foreign language to me—Bertoia, Breuer, Knoll—were cleanly arranged in rooms that can appropriately be described as lean. A large piece of abstract art is the focal point of any wall in this Palm Springs get-away. Few objects adorn tables, credenzas and built-in shelves—unlike my own homes where objects are layered and stacked, a visual feast for those of my natural bent.

More than a time or two over the years I have commented that a minimalist lives somewhere deep inside me. But I have to add with a chuckle, he’s going to have a real struggle surfacing through my 35 year collecting habit. In a way, I think I’m ready for his appearance. Here in Santa Fe, I love visiting the Georgia O’Keefe Museum, where for now the exhibit includes photographs of her Abiquiu home, in which rooms speak clearly and appropriately to the modernist spirit in this desert land. As I look around my micro space, what I call home for most of the year, I imagine the place swept clean, and I remember it 15 months ago as the one-bedroom model in The Reserve at Santa Fe—lean and sleek. It didn’t take long for me to achieve my layered and stack signature look. I’m thinking, though, that I just might be ready to learn another language—Bertoia, Breuer, Knoll. I think I’m ready for the middle of the 20th century.

A Modernist Sensibility—Santa Fe, New Mexico (January 28, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Pray, walk with me. I must walk toward the light. Take my hand. The way is uncertain, but I must go. Doubt would claim me. Mistrust would wound me. Fear would own me. I must abandon the darkness. Raven has blessed me. I must walk toward the light. Open your arm—use my shoulder. Pray, walk with me.

Walk Toward the Light—Santa Fe, New Mexico (January 27, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Friday, January 23, 2009

Answering a Persistent God

I've been praying a lot lately, in the middle of the night when I’m awake, unable to get back to sleep. If I succeed in reeling in my mind, breathing deeply and steadily, allowing “the peace of God that passes all understanding” to have its way with me, the fear that leads the adrenalin charge abates. “Listen” is the title of the reading for January 21, 2009 from “Science of the Mind Magazine”. I don’t have a subscription. The monthly magazine sits handy in friend Steve’s upstairs bathroom. Early Wednesday morning, as I rose, challenged by uncertainty, the magazine sat open to words that I needed in the worst way. “There are no mistakes, no coincidences; all events are blessings, given to us to learn” (Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross) begins the reading. The writer of the meditation goes on to advise that we “Listen for the whisper or wait for the brick”. A search of the Internet suggests that lots of people have reflected on this call to listen up to a “persistent God.”

Clearly, I am in the majority of pilgrims who by our nature have concluded that we are the source of strength our lives demand all day long every day. When will we ever learn? “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) Long ago I realized that the best way to calm my mind in the middle of the night—I rarely have trouble going to sleep—is to start blessing everyone in my life, name by soul, one by one. I start near, and the list grows amazingly long. I didn’t realize I cared about so many people.

As I sat with a small group watching inaugural activities the night of January 20, our new president acknowledged the many faiths of Americans—Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu—AND non believers. One of the guests said, “Thank you.” I took his response to mean that he included himself among non believers, but maybe I misunderstood. What I don’t misunderstand is my own need to surrender to my God. As hard headed as I can be, I heed the call to surrender “without any conditions or reservations. I shall not bargain.” (from the meditation, attributed to theologian Howard Thurman). Deprive me of my arrogance. Take this burden from me.

Many suggest that they can make it on their own. How odd, to me, that anyone would even want to make it on his own. Although at times a solitary creature, I embrace my need for others, and though I encounter plenty of people whose company I wouldn’t choose—at least not readily—I trust that our meetings are by some design. What I do with this challenge leaves me with choices—to understand and to act upon as we make our pilgrim way.

As I lay on the table for physical therapy early this morning—my back, neck and shoulders complaining, even after a month of twice weekly sessions—the therapist asked if there is anything going on in my life that might be contributing to the tightness she continues to feel in my peripheral spinal muscles. I answer myself with a sigh—life, I guess, my nature. Were I to engage my days with the prayerful pleadings of my middle of the night entreaties, maybe I would figure out what takes such a toll on this body/mind that struggles against the forces carrying me along. If I could somehow pray myself to the peace that passes all understanding, oh…. How I would pray, how I would pray.

Answering a Persistent God—Santa Fe, New Mexico
R. Harold Hollis

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Getting Over Myself

My old habits are getting in the way of getting over myself. And I guess it’s fair to say that my suffering of this predicament is not a solitary one. Everywhere I look I see folks displaying their baggage. Each time I catch myself, I say, “help me.” I’m back at the shelter this week, helping out on a couple of evenings. After a month’s absence, I still recognize lots of faces, although the names didn’t come to me last night. The volunteers wear nametags, so many of our guests called me by name. “Hi, Harold.” How nice that feels, to be acknowledged, to be named. The name Harold derives from the Old English and means “army”, “ruler”, “power”. I doubt that my parents gave that even a thought when they chose my middle name in honor of the doctor friend who delivered me. “Harold be thy name,” a friend in Houston used to greet me 25 years ago. It’s not a common name. I’ve known only a few Harolds all of these years. We all like being called, being honored. It’s akin to a firm handshake. Let me know that you are glad to see me, and that you just might remember me the next time we meet. Call me by name.

Our dear mother was not a regular churchgoer for most of her adult life. She was raised in the German Missouri Synod Lutheran tradition, which she honored all of her 90 years. In her last few years she became enamored of a well-known, young Texas evangelical minister, who, along with my oldest sister Joan, she watched regularly on Sunday mornings. One of the metaphors he used that caught my ear concerned the baggage we carry around, and that we like to unpack on a regular basis. Not particularly attractive things get lovingly unfolded, held up for display, drawn to our sad, angry, hurting chest, and then put away again, until the next time we need them.

I know many consider homelessness some kind of choice, perhaps the result of many poor choices. The other day, during a noontime meeting of a group that gathers at church twice a month to discuss their current book selection, our church’s volunteer responsibility at the shelter this week was brought up. As people talked about who had signed on to prepare food each night over the seven-day run, I guess it was inevitable that the guests who come to the shelter needed comment. Alcohol abuse and the subsequent evolving rules relating to drunken or disruptive behavior made their way to the table. With minimal clucking and nods of dis-something or another, we made our way past the judgment throne to more important considerations, namely the food ministry, which is only part of our volunteer responsibility for three hours each night of the week. In truth, most of the guests at the shelter don’t want to deal with disruptive behavior any more than the volunteers who are giving of their gifts, in whatever fashion. Most guests at the shelter are mightily aware of what has brought them to this place, although most of the volunteers are not privileged to share toward understanding what surely must beg each of us to say, there but for the grace of God go I.

I heard last night that one of the women is a substitute teacher, who works most days of any week, in the Santa Fe Public Schools. Another guy—the one who by the smile of Providence received one of the articles of clothing I took to the local organization that redirects goods to those in the community who are need—is writing a book. That’s what I heard. This same guy sold Christmas trees during the holiday. That’s what I know.

Yes, we all have our baggage, but everyone I know as friend and close acquaintance has shelter, food and ample warm clothing. The needs on the shelter wish list include coats, gloves, warm caps, and socks. The stories of the shelter guests are many. Some have cars—some of which aren’t reliable. If we saw many of these folks walking down the street any day of the week, we wouldn’t mark them as any less together than you and I. If we engage them in conversation, we quickly discern intelligence, polish and a healthy dose of decency which most of us take for granted. Yes, some of these folks clearly have baggage that you and I are blessed not to have, or at least we have it under control. It hasn’t put us on the street.

My habits are getting in the way of getting over myself. I am blessed to have my wits about me, most hours of the day, although at times I take myself way too seriously. I let the behavior of others cloud my vision. I submit to my vulnerability, my insecurity. I open my baggage, filled with a life-long collection, and the rest just falls into place. This stuff has become so familiar, that I really don’t see it anymore, if I ever really did. It’s way too comfortable, even if it doesn’t fit. Thank God for the messengers who encourage us. Friend Steve advised the other day, when I voiced my uncertainty about a perceived conflict with another friend—an important friend here in Santa Fe—“Harold, don’t give in to your fear.” He further cautioned me that shutting one door out of fear inevitably leads to other doors closed without peaceful resolve. He was right. Face your doubt. Reach out. Trust the journey. Empty your bags. With palms open to the heavens, close your eyes, breathe deeply, regularly. Let go.

Getting Over Myself—Santa Fe, New Mexico (January 13, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Respond Favorably

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

--Emily Dickinson

The question posed on the CNN website—Do you expect to have a better year in 2009 than you did in 2008? The results at the time I took the poll, answering yes—75% responded favorably. That’s about hope, plain and simple. The world wants to wear down our resilience, indeed our spirit—troubled relationships, financial woes, health challenges, discouraging news of one sort or another, discontented people. Although I’ve received no directive informing me that it’s my job to make things better for those walking closely with me on this journey, or for those who cross my radar—even if only for a while—I suffer from the crush of this presumed responsibility. In truth, we all share this responsibility, regardless of how poor our vision.

Too often I allow hope to be trumped by the choices of others. Scary, the thought of how random some of these choices must be. Although it’s not routine for me to express myself in this way, I’ve begun to think about the energy we carry around—saying the words as if practicing a foreign language—and I’ve begun reminding myself of the useless stuff I allow to gain a foothold in my head and gut. Expectation wears many faces, and it can so easily become a weapon we use on ourselves. A late bloomer here, I discovered the Buddhist term “monkey mind” only recently, but having made this discovery, how well it describes the restlessness, the anxiety, and the defeat I feel when I forfeit my rights to forces around me—human and otherwise. I know I’m in trouble when hope doesn’t welcome me as I open my eyes and stretch out my arms first thing in the morning. I know it when in the middle of the night I extend my arms toward the heavens, asking for help. And I pray for relief from the despair that would claim me were it not for hope.

I have an old habit of wanting to make things right for others. It’s neurosis, of course, and I guess it comes from wanting to be needed. Someone has suggested that I want to be liked by everyone. Wherever it comes from, I instinctively serve up onto my plate generous helpings of other people’s stuff. I want to fix things, and this often leaves me frustrated, disappointed, and robbed. So as I think about my vote for hope, which comes to me just as naturally as breathing, I also have to think about how I save myself from the poverty that comes with my very own dose of a make things better mentality, buying into the belief that my own needs aren’t worthy of being served, or that they aren’t as important as the needs of others. That I would make such an investment out of fear of not being liked or not pleasing others is a crime against myself, and it leads directly to angst and resentment. No amount of conversation about changing habits matters a tinker’s damn. Only commitment and tough choices count.

The prayer attributed to St. Francis—the 12th century Italian friar for whom the Franciscan Order is named—reminds us, it is in giving that we receive. We are well served to remember to save a little something for ourselves. And at the risk of appearing blatantly blatant, we are wise to figure out what we want, ask for it, and then say “thanks”. Maybe another human is the appropriate recipient of our request. Or, maybe we have to take it higher. Pick your own power—I know where I direct mine—and then, if we are somehow blessed to realize that the power we reach out to in the middle of the night has heard our request, I guess an even bigger “Thank You”. In TRAVELING MERCIES, wise and funny Anne Lamott names her best two prayers—“Help me, help me, help me; thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Although I gave up on New Year’s resolutions a long time ago, I’m thinking that 2009 is resolution worthy. I am remembering the sermon advice of my priest from 20 years ago as we prepared for our Lenten journey. Instead of giving up something for Lent—alcohol, chocolate, swearing—he suggested that we embrace something that would lead us to grow spiritually. I came on my own to this high desert plateau 18 months ago, and for a long time loneliness was my companion. Over time, I started doing the things that can lead to friendship, or at least, worthy acquaintances. While at times it seems that I am taking a couple of steps forward and maybe two and one-half back, I keep believing that I’m somehow getting somewhere. What I’m being reminded of, however, is that much of life is about riding the pendulum, which sometimes requires a death grip. A friend here, a few months younger than I—she says we were separated at birth—tells me that we must honor ourselves. Plenty of people with an Internet presence have described such honor. Faith practices make much of it. I’m trying to figure out what this really means for me. I know about wanting—things that sometimes turn out to be either not in the cards, not right for the time, or maybe not good for me, as I had hoped.

I don’t confuse honoring myself with selfishness. I understand that we are nurtured by selflessness and kindness. It feels good to take care of others. We grow by loving and being loved, and that includes loving myself, genuinely and actively. My fear—and it complicates breathing life into a 2009 resolution—is that I’ve taught myself to believe that it’s more important to deliver for others than to say, “hey, this is what I want…this is what I think I want…this is what I need.” Sometimes, the most I can muster is a notion of what I don’t want, and even then I’m just as likely to keep quiet, letting regret have its way with me—at least for a while. For someone who has journeyed a good part of his life thinking that he has to shoulder his own burdens, preferring to take on the weight of others, it’s hard to imagine what it feels like to truly honor myself. Yet, I remain hopeful.

Respond Favorably—Santa Fe, New Mexico (January 8, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis