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