Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Process

Yesterday I finished Deepak Chopra’s novel about Gautama Buddha. Since I haven’t been going to church while in Texas, I’ve felt a stronger need to do spiritual work on my own, which I do every day anyway. While visiting Dallas a few weeks ago, I participated in a group discussion at the Cathedral of Hope. For Lent they are reading a work titled “The Last Week”, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, both current day Christian scholars, and both very liberal. I suppose the title needs no translation. Chopak’s fictional account of the human being who eventually came to be known as Buddha concludes with an Epilogue and a chapter titled "The Art of Non-Doing." In the novel, Chopra has the character of Gautama say:

“In time I concluded that my struggles could last a lifetime, and to what end? I will still be a slave to karma and a prisoner in this world. What is this karma that visits us with so much suffering? Karma is the body’s endless desires. Karma is the memory of past pleasure we want to repeat and past pain we want to avoid. It’s the delusions of ego and the storm of fear and anger that besieges the mind.” (“Buddha: A Story of Enlightenment,” Deepak Chopra, Harper Collins, 2007)

According to the “Truths” articulated in basic Buddhist principles: life contains suffering; suffering has a cause, and the cause can be known; and suffering can be brought to an end. The path to ending this suffering, of course, is complex and requires serious intent and discipline. The Path includes right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort (and the three more abstract “things”--right view or perspective, right mindfulness, and right concentration). These are the eight things that will open the way to peace instead of pain.

I am reminded of Don Miguel Ruiz’s take on “rightness” in “The Four Agreements”, and of a principle that is basic to life for those who are drawn to the social justice that also has strong roots in the Bible. In Micah of the Old Testament is found the very prescription of how we are to make our way on this journey: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) Anne Lamott, who is one of my favorite contemporary writers and thinkers—and also just happens to be one of the funniest—has this to say in her book about her faith journey: "I took a long, deep breath and wondered as usual, where to start. You start where you are, is the secret of life. You do the next right thing you can see. Then the next.” (“Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith,” Anne Lamott)

Doing the next right thing is not a unique principle. “Do the next right thing," is a guideline for living in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. is quoted as saying "The time is always right to do what is right." Other persons of note espouse the same notion; indeed organizations are built around it. I suppose that for most it is part of our fiber, even when we are lost in the tangles and snarls of just trying to live our lives. Perhaps it is the one great challenge of being human.

I’ve been alone much of the time I’ve been in Texas. Aside from brief but regular exchanges with my oldest sister, who lives in the big house about a football field’s length from my front gate, a couple of short trips to visit family and friends, and the errands that have taken me “to town”, as we say in the country, I’ve been here working in the yard and house, trying to keep yard and house from completely overtaking me, and getting ready for my antiques market—a daunting task for sure, but one which I’m trying to take in stride since there’s not much I can do at this point to change the outcome.

I’ve had plenty of time for reflection...plenty of time to practice my breathing. I wouldn’t know how to measure any ground I’m gaining, except to say that the stacks around here look a little different, and I’m remembering to breathe—a little more naturally each day. I’m remembering to remind myself not to let the baggage and anger of others overtake me, although that is not easy for me. I am more readily stopping to examine my own ego and “the storm of fear and anger” that can so easily have its way with me. My long-time friend Jane, who lives about an hour’s drive to the east, told me earlier this week that I seem much more relaxed, “even though you’re still impatient with other drivers”, she added later in the visit. Well, it is a process, isn’t it?

The Process—Normangee, Texas (March 28, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Monday, March 23, 2009

Fruits of Our Labors

Sometimes it’s not enough simply to stop and look at the fruits of our labors. We need an image caught in time to bring focus. Likely, we’re just too close to the process. As nature would show us, spring is not just about rebirth—it is rebirth in color, and moving, if only we pay attention. But sometimes the canvas is simply too large for us to take it all in. It washes over us without our realizing the detail.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Mary Louise Hollis Todd

We may be small in number, but not at all in spirit. Yesterday, a few of us gathered at Aunt Mary’s place on the west side of Houston. Patsy was just 18 when she came to Houston from her native Santa Fe to marry our cousin Donald. He had grown from young teenager to young man in the Land of Enchantment, and they had come to Texas—a return to his roots—to start their life together. That was 1957. Donald is the oldest of our generation of Hollises, the same generation that led Patsy to comment to me yesterday, “It’s hard to believe that we’re the next generation who will die.” But there it is, clearly distinguishable on our faces. We’re an older bunch, children of the 1930s and 40s.

Aunt Mary, the reason we few had assembled, flowers and food in hand, turned 91 on her last birthday, the only surviving member of her own generation. She doesn’t remember so much any more, but the spring in her feet is still lively, though tottery at times, as she demonstrated yesterday when we were getting ready to leave. In the course of a few hours, she had asked each of us more than once, “Now who are you?” Sitting next to Patsy on the sofa, she beamed at me, “I’m Mary Louise Hollis Todd.”

As we sat and stood around the table, letting the hearty lunch made by sister Sue’s capable hands—we all get our cooking ways from our East Texas paternal grandmother—we wandered into reminiscing, laughing and sighing over times shared. Joan, our oldest sister, remembered a trip to the beach with Donald, his brothers Jimmy and Byron, and Sue and me from our branch, part of a herd of Hollises on an outing. She recalled that before we left Houston, Uncle Pat said I’m going to spank you three boys now because I know you’re going to misbehave before we get to Galveston. Donald laughed, although he didn’t remember the incident, and his daddy wasn’t known for administering that kind of justice, especially in advance of any crime, even though he raised his three sons during an era when “spare the rod and spoil the child” was primer to raising kids. “He that spareth the rodde, hateth his sonne," claims a 16th century translation of Proverbs. The origin of the saying has even earlier roots. “Did you ever spank your kids,” I asked Donald and Patsy. We all smiled and nodded. What we remember most from our generation was being loved and lots of laughter, especially at Hollis gatherings.

Hollis outings instigated by our parents remained a popular pastime into my young adulthood. At that time, all of the Hollis siblings owned houses on the Texas coast, even Uncle Pat and Aunt Martha, who had lived in New Mexico for 20 years at this point. Russell, Ray, Mary and Frances (Aunt Sister) were regulars on Caranchua Bay, and visits by the New Mexico family were always a special treat. It was following one of those gatherings at the bay that I flew back to Santa Fe in Uncle Pat’s plane, Aunt Martha and her toy poodle tucked in the back seat. And it was on that trip I recalled our family’s visit to Santa Fe of the 1950s, and I knew again that I wanted to live there some day. In a sense, Donald and I have traded, although his part of the swap is already more than a half-century old, and Santa Fe is a very different place. Just ask those who grew up there when it was a sleepy town, with lots more dirt streets than you can find today.

“We used to go to Santa Fe,” Aunt Mary recalled, although she didn’t add any details. It was a recollection that spurred her imagination as she mostly listened to her nieces and nephews. Our Mamaw Hollis visited Uncle Pat’s family regularly during the 40s and 50s, sometimes riding the train. I’ve forgotten the particulars of any trip Aunt Mary made in her traveling days. Maybe her last visit was for her nephew Jimmy’s funeral in the early 90s. He died too young.

Cousin Becky, the youngest of our generation, grew up an only child. She’s always loved family gatherings. At a funeral several years ago she exclaimed, “I just love funerals!” adding for propriety’s sake that she really meant to say she loves those opportunities to see her kinfolks. Becky is Hollis through and through, hugging and kissing, and laughing her trademark laugh, full of generosity. After lunch yesterday, her hands were in the sink, doing her part for the celebration.

We gathered in the backyard for photographs and instant replay, thanks to digital technology. Aunt Mary wasn’t giving up too many smiles, as she tried to sort through all of the bustle, but laughter pealed from her when I said, “Horseshit!” “Sounds just like Aunt Frances,” Joanie reacted. It was a balmy, sunny, pre-spring day in west Houston, in the backyard of the house on two-plus acres that Aunt Mary and Uncle Frog built in the early 1960s. It’s the home that she won’t agree to leave, on land that used to be country, now surrounded by houses and townhomes. She can’t live alone, and Cousin Donald sees to it that she is safe and comfortable, a luxury assured by the financially conservative ways that dictated how Mary and Frog, children of the depression, lived their lives.

For those cousins gathered yesterday, celebrating around their Aunt Mary, we were reminded that we prosper because of where we come from. It’s not about money, although only a fool wouldn’t acknowledge that money sure does help. What was evident around the table of Mary Louise Hollis Todd, over Sue’s chocolate cake—the cake we’ve long referred to as Anna Mae Sowell’s chocolate cake—was the wonderful connection we continue to have, even though we see each other rarely. As we stood in the backyard taking pictures, I asked Becky to stand for one of just her and Aunt Mary. As Becky took Aunt Mary’s hand, she commented on the dark blue veins so prominent just under the tissue-thin skin. I noticed Aunt Mary’s long, graceful fingers and thought about the precious blood coursing strong still through our aunt, Hollis blood in body and spirit that all those gathered share.

Mary Louise Hollis Todd—Normangee Texas (March 19, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

On Furlough

Rain came to our part of the world last week. I’m so out of touch with the news that I don’t even know how widely the gift was spread. I do know that grass still yellow with winter and the drought lay tight to the ground in the field outside my front gate. Wildflower foliage that normally pokes out its head by mid February was nowhere to be seen. With the rain, rose bushes are bursting with new growth after a severe pruning, and the first blooms from Old Blush and Cramoisi Superieur are official. Although my labors are modest by the standards of previous years, I’ve done the best I intend to give for now. Likely, there will be no early spring wildflowers.

I’m on furlough from gardening. Eighteen days, 94 bags of mulch, $200 in hired labor, and personal hours—well, as the MasterCard commercial goes, “priceless”. Far from well groomed, this landscape, like me, looks a little worse for the wear. If the land and that which grows from it could talk, just what would they say? For me, I just had a few more sunspots frozen off my balding head. They keep coming back, which is their nature, even though I faithfully wear a hat. I’ve visited the local chiropractor a half dozen times. What 10 sessions in physical therapy didn’t do for my chronic back pain, body adjusting seems to help. Engaged in an ongoing battle of attrition, with the hot, dry Texas summers raising their clinched fist in champion posture, my garden continues to slowly lose that which made it lush for a while. Like my body, which can no longer spring from the ground to the tailgate of a truck, my garden is having to accept that less is more. I like to think that all of this is a choice, although I’m not sure that it’s so much a choice as it is a concession. Whenever I sit or recline, I try to calm my mind with palms upturned or forefinger and thumb joined and resting on my knees—“one…come…”, breathe in, breathe out.

Interesting how we can problem solve for others with so much ease, especially compared to our own situations. Last spring a friend asked my opinion on developing the large lot on which she and her husband live in the city. A side garden is lush with color. I remember lots of rich blue Delphiniums from last year, but there was more. The expanse outside this small, intimate garden is dotted with trees and some blooming shrubs, including roses, all suited for prospering at 7000 feet. What should she do to add more interest, she asked. Nothing, I answered definitively. Just leave it natural. That’s no expert opinion, I admit. It’s as much an answer to my own prospects here where central Texas meets East Texas, where there are expectations of grassy lawns, where cattle graze nearby because that’s what happens in a rural county where grass can be plentiful and grazing occurs naturally, except in years of drought.

My visit to my home in Texas is at the halfway mark. The next few weeks will likely pass quickly, as I prepare for the other responsibilities of this stay. I will try to remember to sit in the garden come late afternoon, where I can listen for the water tumbling gently over the sides of a large Mexican jar into the livestock trough below, where I can marvel at the vocal strength of a northern cardinal tucked away somewhere in the branches of a Post Oak—come Sunday mornings, my own efforts at song should be so robust—where I can watch spring do its early work, miraculously fleshing out the canvas in which I live, while here. The Mountain Laurel has begun with a few modest lavender clusters, the Crossvine an orange carpet draped across the fence, the Amaryllis just on the brink of dotting the garden with red, and everywhere green, green.

On Furlough—Normangee, Texas (March 18, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Monday, March 2, 2009

Never, Indeed

While talking to friend Suzi in Santa Fe this morning, I realized that today is Texas Independence Day—March 2. On this date in 1836 the signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence approved the document that would separate Texas from Mexico, creating the Republic of Texas. Four days later, the Alamo fell to Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Any Texan worth his or her salt knows the story.

Yesterday afternoon, a couple I was meeting for the first time at the home of the friend who does my taxes—he a native of Pennsylvania and she a native of Maryland—told me the story of how they had come to Texas—separately. He settled in Houston in 1953, after leaving military service. Retired from a second career, she came to Texas to live with her daughter. “She wasn’t born here, but she got here as soon as she could,” he quipped about this daughter by marriage. Such pride in an adopted place is admirable. “You can go to Hell. I’m going to Texas.” Legend attributes these words to Davy Crockett (August 17, 1786 – March 6, 1836), son of Tennessee, who had served in the legislature of his home state before becoming a hero of the Alamo. A couple of summers ago I noticed a beefy, handsome guy on the Plaza in Santa Fe wearing the t-shirt that bears this affirmation of spirit.

Sarah Dodson (1812-1848), designer of an early Texas flag, is buried in Bethel Cemetery (Grimes County), two counties over to my southeast. According to the Handbook of Texas online, Dodson made the flag for her husband’s Harrisburg (early settlement that later became part of Houston) regiment. The flag traveled with his company to the battle at Gonzales. “Lacking silk or bunting, she made the flag out of three colored squares of cotton cloth. The square nearest the flagstaff was blue with a white star centered upon it. The middle square was white, and the outermost square was red.” They call that making do.

Unlike those who boast “the Alamo…been there, done that,” I reply, “Never!” Unlike a friend in New Mexico who commented last summer, “I am a former Texan,” I reply, “Never!” On this day, when celebrations are happening around the Lone Star State, I am quietly working in the garden. Under sunny skies, I am smiling, and saying thanks to friend Eugene, who I haven’t seen since we graduated from high school in 1961, for being the second and most important reminder today that I’m digging in historic dirt here in Leon County (established in 1846). Local legend has it that there is treasure buried on this property. How appropriate that an historic Old Blush, a China rose also known as ‘Common Monthly' which has been traced as far back as 1752 in Texas, is planted just outside the front gate of my yard. Just down the fence, a Cramoisi Superieur (also a China, 1885 in Texas) flourishes. Ask Texas rosarians about roses for historical gardens, and just about any list will include these two. Wherever I hang my hat, Texas is my home. And in spite of the neglect my garden is asked to suffer while I dream elsewhere, so far it has been waiting and forgiving on my return. Never, indeed.

Never, Indeed—Normangee Texas (March 2, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis