Sunday, August 30, 2009


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



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