Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Dream of God

Honoring the life of my aunt, Edna Rustenbach Fuchs (January 4, 1927 - July 23, 2011)

I keep coming back to the angel with wings outspread who stands at the entrance to the labyrinth on the plaza in front of St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe. "I am not asking to be loved. I want to love," reads one of the inscriptions.

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.
Where there is sadness, joy.

(from the prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, 13th century)

Now, how scary. I'm quoting myself. "The teachable moment is always at hand for each of us. A few years ago I attended a worship service at the Episcopal Cathedral in Houston. The young priest preaching that day talked about the work and writing of Verna Dozier, who at the time was in her 80s. An African American, Ms. Dozier was retired from a long, accomplished career as a public school teacher. For many years she had been an active leader in the Episcopal Church. What the priest spoke about was from Ms. Dozier’s book, “The Dream of God.” The message from Verna Dozier: Do you want to follow Jesus? Or, or you just content to worship him? In her eyes, the church chose centuries ago to worship Jesus, rather than to follow his teachings. We can all do our own homework about that history." (March 28, 2010)

Just now, I read an article by Carl Medearis on the CNN Belief Blog. There he recounts his experiences as a Christian missionary in Lebanon 20 years ago.

Medearis is an international expert in Arab-American and Muslim-Christian relations and is author of the book "Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism". From the article: "What if evangelicals today, instead of focusing on “evangelizing” and “converting” people, were to begin to think of Jesus not as starting a new religion, but as the central figure of a movement that transcends religious distinctions and identities?" Read more by copying and pasting the following link in your browser window:

Friday, July 22, 2011

Aunt Edna, Reprise

My Aunt Edna has come home to die. There’s no point in trying to make this story anything other than it is. She is the last of our aunts, and even though she is not related by blood, she has been in the family longer than I have. I will be 68 on September 16, 2011. I find it hard to believe that Aunt Edna will still be around for my birthday, even though I know that her spirit will be alive and well. This is an introduction to an introduction. I first wrote of Aunt Edna in 2005, but I didn’t post what I had written on this blog until 2008. It’s all here, though, just below—her story as I know it, our story, as a family and how I remember it.

One great and sad truth for my aunt and her family that hasn’t changed since relations began to unravel longer back than I can figure out is the hard feelings her children and grandchildren have for one another. I’m not there for this once-in-a-lifetime event. Unless some miracle of staying alive after an 18-month-old diagnosis of cancer of the liver that Aunt Edna chose not to have treated in any way stays her death until mid September, I won’t be there to stand beside my two sisters as we honor her life and memory.

I am happy, though, to remember that I visited with her in mid April while she was staying briefly with her granddaughter—in the house that Aunt Edna and Uncle Bubba bought in the late 1970s, the house that my aunt deeded to her granddaughter a couple of years ago. “Do you like brisket?” I asked in the phone call that preceded our visit. I remember her saying that she had been hungry for some brisket, but our get together had to be delayed by a day or so because my aunt wasn’t up for a visit. We had a good time remembering old times, but I was frightened, frankly, by her weight loss—down to 146 pounds—from something over 200 before she got sick. Aunt Edna made light of the malignant tumor growing inside of it, calling it her “pet peeve”. A few days later when she had returned to her son’s home in west Texas, she called to tell me how much she enjoyed our time together.

I’ve talked to Aunt Edna a couple of times since then. Once she called to tell me that she and her son had been to the 50th wedding anniversary of a cousin, who they probably hadn’t seen in decades. Following a phone call with my oldest sister, Joan, a few weeks ago in which she told me that our aunt apparently was in serious decline, I sent flowers. A week later Aunt Edna called to tell me how beautiful the flowers were. She told me that it is so much nicer to receive an arrangement of fresh flowers while you are alive and can enjoy them. And she asked if I would come through west Texas on my fall trip from New Mexico so that we could reminisce one more time. That won’t happen either.

I stay in touch with my oldest sister, who lives near where the story of the Fuchs family continues to unfold. What I hear, filtered through Joan’s lens of how things are going, saddens me a little, angers me a little, and steels me a little. The details don’t merit telling. At the heart of this drama is a long-developing mix of jealousy, greed, resentment, anger, and vindictiveness. In the heart of this heart is a walloping dose of fear and an unwillingness to forgive. I hear that these people “go to church”—whatever that means. We don’t have to look any farther than ourselves to know that religion is not of itself a solution to anything. It is what we do with our religion—if we are religious at all—that counts. If the path we follow on this journey doesn’t lead us to compassion, generosity, humility, and forgiveness, we are lost. There is no peace for us. Let me not judge my family. Let me remember the words I heard in one of my own church experiences a couple of years ago—that it is impossible to bless and judge at the same time. And so it is. Namaste.

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…

(from a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, 13th century)

The following about my Aunt Edna Rustenbach Fuchs was written in December of 2005, slightly more than a year before Mother’s death on February 1, 2007. Yesterday we gathered here on the patio of what used to be our parents, then our mother’s, house on the land in Leon County. Our sister Joan now has earned legal ownership of that house, and yesterday was Joan’s 70th birthday. How can it be? That little mopsy-headed girl, the first in this group of siblings, is three score and ten, the same age as our great aunt Minnie when she died in the summer of 1960. I missed Aunt Minnie’s funeral because Jewel Gibson (Joshua Beene and God, Black Gold), my high school journalism teacher, convinced Mother and Daddy, although I doubt that he had much of a vote, that it was important for me to attend journalism camp at Texas A&M. So yesterday I told Aunt Edna that I had written something about her a couple of years ago. “Did I give you that?” “No, I don’t think so,” she beamed, seemingly proud that someone cared enough to put some of her life on paper. And she asked for a copy. Almost three years ago, some of Aunt Edna’s story came to mind, and once again, I am taking a deep breath as I consider the waters that continue flowing through our lives.(rhh…Sunday, October 12, 2008)

My Aunt Edna usually visits for lunch on Sunday. Sometimes she comes out to the land where I live to have lunch up at my mother’s house. Other times, my oldest sister, who is Mother’s primary caregiver, takes Mother into town so that Aunt Edna doesn’t have to drive quite as far.

Lately Aunt Edna has been bringing old photo albums. Mostly the photos are from the 70s and 80s, capturing extended family get-togethers, other times that my mother went on jaunts with Aunt Edna and Uncle Bubba, Mother’s only sibling, in the years between my daddy’s death in 1981 and Uncle Bubba’s death in 1989. A lot happened in those years. Daddy died on the first day of spring, then his two brothers died—one in the fall of 1982 and the other in the late spring of 1983. Both my grandmothers died in September 1983, and we buried them one week apart—two Saturdays for any family record book. Of course, many other deaths have occurred in both the Hollis and Fuchs families. This is, after all, life that we are living and giving here.

After Daddy died, and then Grandma Fuchs in 1983, Mother and Uncle Bubba became closer than they had been in all of their adult lives. As far back as I can remember, we did lots of things with Mother’s family, the Fuchses—all the holidays. Aside from Christmas, we were always together at some point for New Years and Easter, and the Hollis/Fuchs barbecues for Memorial Day, July 4th and Labor Day surely were legend. I would have no way of knowing back then because I was only a child who remembers the joy of sticking his hands in the icy tubs of beer (back then Falstaff, Southern Select, Jax, Grand Prize), vying over who got to sit on the burlap sack or turn the crank during the freezing of ice cream, and lots of family and extended family, who technically were friends, but like family, a southern thing I think.

Aunt Edna has photographs of many family occasions during the growing up years of me and my sisters. In 1951 Aunt Edna and Uncle Bubba started their own family, but their two children don’t figure importantly in the photographs. This past Sunday she really dug back—to the early 40s, her school day pictures pasted into a photo album, and some beautiful images set in tin cases that she and Uncle Bubba had made in downtown Houston when they were on movie dates in the very early 40s. Who is that handsome, slender man, cowboy hat cocked to one side? Who is that pretty young girl, with an Andrews Sisters hair-do? As far back as I can remember, Aunt Edna has been on the heavy side, something she has always laughed at, but most likely something that caused her more than a little pain.

Uncle Bubba wasn’t the most sympathetic man—at least not when it came to his wife. Aunt Edna relates more than just a couple of tales where she found herself in distress, and Uncle Bubba was there to show his dismay masked as disgust, blaming her in effect for the distress. Apparently she has always had some problems staying on her feet, sometimes stepping wrong on the edge of the sidewalk and landing in the grass, sometimes her legs just giving away, I guess. She recounts one tale of a family wedding, where as they entered the small lobby of the Lutheran Church, she, with baby Mary in arms, took a dive. Uncle Bubba stands there, exclaiming, “Well, goddam, Edna? Did you fall?!”

My Uncle Ray, Daddy’s youngest brother, good-naturedly called Aunt Edna “the Blimp.” He was no small man himself. She laughs, recounting recently a time many years ago when a new diet product called Cambridge had entered the market. Apparently Uncle Ray asked one day, “Has the Blimp heard about this?” Aunt Edna has always jokingly referred to herself as Shamu (the whale), relating incidents here and there, “Shamu got down on her knees and then couldn’t get back up.”

Footing issues established, it was Aunt Edna nonetheless who taught me to waltz, step to the “Put Your Little Foot,” “Little Brown Jug,” “Ten Pretty Girls,” “Cotton-eyed Joe”. She collected vinyl 78 records, stored them carefully in record albums—certain ones in the “Dance” album—and brought them out for the many occasions the Hollis and Fuchs families celebrated when we were much younger. The Harry Owens 1940s tune, “Coconut Grove,” was my favorite.

There's a coconut grove where your happy lover,
Will do his part and soon discover
A rendezvous
In the shelter of a tropical lagoon.
Palm trees will be swaying,
While steel guitars are playing.
Believe what I'm saying dear;
I swear it's true.
There's a coconut grove where I'll be confessing,
The simple truth that you've been guessing
I love but you.

What do you call that dance step we learned from my parents’ generation?

Aunt Edna clearly enjoys remembering old times. Even though she’s approaching her 79th birthday and unfortunately has had a sad, conflicted relationship with her own two children and has more than her share of health issues, she shrugs off misery, accepts physical compromise, and keeps on laughing—at life’s ironies. She loves to recount memories of family gatherings, the humble jaunts where the Hollises and Fuchses went on a holiday—Brackenridge Park in San Antonio, Aquarena Springs at San Marcos, Muecke’s pleasure pier at San Leon near Galveston. She especially loves remembering Daddy chronically getting lost. I never realized that he was a typical guy when it came to looking at a map. I do remember, though, that when we went places, rarely did we arrive without delay of one kind or another.

Back in the late 50s and as late as the early 60s, there were the times at Clark’s Courts in Kemah. For a few days the two families would rent adjoining cabins. The men would go fishing in the wee hours of the morning, but before casting off from shore—I chuckle at the memory that Uncle Bubba didn’t want to be farther out than he could wade back if he had to—the women would fix a full breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast. We kids were all piled into our various sleeping situations, half awake when the 3 a.m. breakfast feast was in progress, as the men prepared to go out and bring in the croakers, sand trout, occasional redfish, which later would be gutted and beheaded, rolled in flour and corn meal diced with salt and pepper and then fried in Crisco. After daybreak the kids and women would head to the pier to find if our crab lines, outfitted with soup bones, would be taut with crustacean resistance, as we tugged the lines to the water’s surface. Crab gumbo—German Texas style—wasn’t far behind. Later in this vacation history, we got really sophisticated and had crab cages.

Somewhere in her bag of photographic memories, Aunt Edna has evidence of just about everything our families celebrated—barbecues, weekend local rodeos, trips to the Alamo and to the bay, and later, the jaunts she, Uncle Bubba, Mother—and sometimes my oldest sister Joan—made to the wild game preserve near Waco, Billy Bob’s in Ft. Worth, the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. She documented it all.

Aunt Edna has many stories tucked away, and of course the small get togethers that happen these days are ripe opportunities for remembering. Some of these stories pre-date my memory, but I have been reminded several times of two especially important milestones in my own history with Aunt Edna and Uncle Bubba. Before they started their own family, I apparently was special to them—special enough to warrant a brown cowboy hat that Aunt Edna spent her last ten dollars on during a trip to downtown Houston. In the late 40s you went downtown for everything, including saddles, cowboy hats and belt buckles. Those were the days of Stelzig’s saddlery and Schudde Bros. Hats. During the days of the urban cowboy craze, Stelzig’s made its way to the chic suburban Galleria of Houston, tossed its hat into the ring of glamour and glitz, but is now defunct. Schudde Bros. continues business in its original near-downtown location.

On one of these trips downtown, Aunt Edna bought me my first cowboy buckle—an engraved sterling Nelson Buckle, adorned with a 10k gold cowboy on a bucking bronc, and a gold ribbon across the bottom bearing testimony to its owner—my name, Harold Hollis, in black lettering. Both the brown cowboy hat and the buckle made the rounds of younger cousins. The hat got lost in the shuffle, but the buckle still figures into my life. In my 62nd year, I recently had an alligator belt reworked so that I could continue wearing that buckle, which I have owned since I was six years old. There probably is a photograph somewhere of me made around the time that I started wearing the buckle. Aunt Edna, who was back then an expert seamstress, made western shirts for all of us. I am told that she made many shirts for me because I didn’t want to wear store-bought shirts.

These days, good memories bring pleasure to Aunt Edna and Mother. Three and one-half years ago, Mother’s doctor gave her the bad prognosis concerning the condition of her heart. Aunt Edna has more than enough physical misery for one person. They’ve outlived husbands, siblings, cousins, and friends. Celebrations these days are not so celebratory, but times to reminisce. Not so many photo ops these days—or at least not so much enthusiasm for capturing these latter day, minor responses to traditional family gatherings that figured so prominently when they were raising their children. It seems that with husbands and fathers gone, things just change. The next generations don’t care as much, or they just don’t care enough to get along, or they’re just trying to make it. Something definitely is missing—the need to celebrate family ties, a failure to recognize the joy in just getting together. Still, Aunt Edna cherishes her memories enough to bring them over on Sundays. She and Mother spend their four or five hours together on these days talking about remembering when, recounting many of the same stories Sunday in and Sunday out. Regardless of physical difficulty and family frailty, Aunt Edna works at finding the bright side of times that sometimes have only the faintest glimmer.

Aunt Edna—Normangee, Texas (December 13, 2005)
R. Harold Hollis

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.'” Eleanor Roosevelt (from

Thursday, July 21, 2011

“‘Really?’ Sarah said, her untainted features struggling to imagine what it meant to be a ‘writer’.’ For some reason people thought it was a glamorous profession, but Martin couldn’t find anything glamorous about sitting in a room on your own, day after day, trying not to go mad.” (Kate Atkinson, “One Good Turn”)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Brokeback Living

Most mornings I walk just over a mile around my Albuquerque neighborhood. I see lots of people along the way—walking or running, just like me, sometimes with their dog(s) on a leash, sometimes engaged in conversation, or like this morning, sitting in front of their houses talking on their cell phone. As I passed the woman on her phone who was speaking loud enough that I caught a little of what she was saying, she was telling the person on the other end of this wireless conversation, “no more, never again”—or something like that. My ears perked up because I had said the same words just last night. We say things like that with great emphasis, most times I think trying to convince ourselves that whatever we’re talking about has taken us to our limits, tested us to the max—the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Such conversations are fairly typical, be they neighbors talking from sidewalk to front yard, people on the wireless holding forth from a garden chair on their front lawn, or people multi-tasking to make the most of their morning—walking the dog while catching up with family or a friend. We are a moving picture on the world stage, sharing our stories with any and all within earshot.

So I had to think about what provoked the woman declaring from her lawn chair that she was at her limit. Someone had pissed her off—maybe a trying husband, maybe an ungrateful child, married and living his or her life wherever, maybe someone in church. The possibilities are just about endless. We try one another’s patience every day. We back ourselves into corners—or we back others into corners. Fight or flight becomes our choice, or so it seems.

I’m wondering, am I the bullied, or am I the bully. Bullies are consistently in the news recently, mostly relating to the growing up experience many of us have because we are different, vulnerable. “School Bullying is Epidemic and Turning Dangerous” reads a headline from ABC News (October 16 2010). Anyone who is paying attention knows what such stories are about. Many of the victims are gay youth, but many are not. The victims might be little introverts, or children who struggle with weight, or children who are overly protected by their parents. All that is required to become the subject of someone else’s bullying is some kind of vulnerability. And many adults are bullied in just about any way we can imagine—abusive personal relationships—be they intimate in nature or just friends— “horrible bosses” (such as in the currently popular comic film), neighbors, landlords, church politics, any kind of politics in the local, state, national and world theaters. Bullying is alive and well, and many or most of us experience it.

Not to be a victim or begin to see myself as victim is on my mind. And let me not be on the other side of that equation. Of course, I wonder what was on the mind of the woman whose conversation I walked by earlier this morning because it mirrors something I’m thinking about. Lately I’ve been reading novels by a currently popular female southern writer of what some might call “chick books”. It matters not to me that I am a male. The characters are interesting, portrayed as only a woman can see them, and the stories, which are set in the first half of the 20th century, are peculiarly southern. Broken homes, poverty, “man’s inhumanity to man”, are some of the themes. The characters struggle with their conditions, their choices, and their lives. And in the true spirit of the triumph of the human spirit, the value of life and human dignity is affirmed. And people die. So the story goes. There’s little black and white here—mostly gray.

I was bullied as a child because I was a “mama’s boy”. Clearly, those were the words used by one of the assholes who badgered me when I was in school. I know his name, and I can see his face. I tried to hide—not to call attention to myself. Anyone who has been bullied knows what we do to escape the cruelty of those who seem to have more power than we have. But I grew up. I was bullied by an alcoholic boss for many years. I’m still working on forgiveness for him.

Because I am a pleaser, and sometimes I don’t give myself much credit—in spite of how others might see me from time to time—I have allowed one person or another to play off of my fears and insecurities. We do that. Alpha, alpha male/female, alpha. Alpha Omega. Lately, I’ve been the subject of some bullying—at least as far as I see it. However it comes—in a book, on the news, walking through the neighborhood, I welcome the reminder that I do have some say in this. Sometimes I can walk away, and when I can’t walk away, I can take a stand. I’m a big boy now, Louis, making my way. And so it is. Namaste.

Brokeback Living—Albuquerque, New Mexico (July 18, 2011)
R. Harold Hollis

Saturday, July 16, 2011

It's All Good

19th century slat back chair with cowhide seat. Lee County, Texas

An article on the CNN website for July 16, 2011, tells the story of the county seat of Lee County, Texas. It caught my eye because the story is about my home state, but also because I’ve spent lots of time around this part of Texas. I even stayed overnight there three years ago when I took part in a one-day show nearby devoted to antique Texas stoneware. How could I forget? It had snowed the night before—Friday, March 7, 2008. “What? Snow!” I thought in disbelief when I woke up in the morning to find the deck outside the second-story balcony doors covered in white. Funny how one thing leads to another—carrying us and our thoughts away to a collection of experiences and memories, reminding us of the connections that wait for us if we are paying attention.

“Welcome to ‘Little America’", reads the headline for the story about Giddings, Texas—a place that to me has always been about my passion for treasure hunting in the rural areas of Texas that were settled in the middle of the 19th century. In the case of Lee County, Wendish settlements—immigrants from east Germany who made some of the best furniture produced by early Texas artisans—and my own connection through my mother’s German heritage—a different wave of Germans that arrived in Galveston one year after the Civil War ended and settled closer to Houston.

For many years I have traveled around and through this part of Texas—usually on a treasure hunt or on my way to exhibit my finds at the antiques markets that have happened twice annually for close to 50 years. How can that be? Ah, but my part in this didn’t begin until the 1980s—20 years after those who rode the wave of growing interest in the decorative arts of 19th century Texas had already laid claim to much of the treasure of this part of the world. I was a day late and a dollar short, as the saying goes, but that’s another story. And in all of this traveling, I gave little thought to what really matters these days for folks in this rural part of central Texas.

Giddings, Texas is along the route from Houston to Austin to Houston—Hwy 290, which to some is recalled as the “death trap” for all of the accidents that occurred on the two-lane highway that over the many years people from the greater Houston area traveled to and from Austin, much of that travel relating to the seat of knowledge at the University of Texas, and of course, travel to the state capitol. The stories that highway could tell. Giddings has a history rich in agriculture and later in oil production. For many years it appeared little more than a dirty industrial stretch along the highway—oilfield-related service companies, local cafes, and a downtown that had just simply seen better days with empty storefronts dotting the landscape.

Now I read that Giddings is a microcosm of America. From the CNN feature story, “consider the numbers: The entire United States is 64% white, 12% African-American, 16% Hispanic and 5% Asian, 0.7% American Indian, 0.2% Hawaiian or Pacific Islander…In Lee County, 65% are white, 11% African-American, 22% Hispanic, 0.3% Asian. 0.3% American Indian, 0.1% are Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.” Huh, who would have thought—who would have noticed, frankly. What strikes me most about the story is the way things now look in Giddings, Texas, population 16,612. A place that surely was as closed to “outsiders” as any place in rural America could have been for most of its history. Today, Black and Hispanic sit on the local council, along with folks whose history can be traced back generations. Consider the irony that Black farmers/laborers/sharecroppers have a long and rich history in this county as well.

One story in particular that gives me pause is that of a woman, native of Taiwan, who with her husband followed his work to Giddings several years ago. Feeling like and being treated like an outsider at first, she’s made her place in the local community as the owner of the local Ramada Inn. And according to the story, now, “…watching Liu work the room at a Rotary Club meeting is like watching a Vegas lounge singer—cheery introductions, chatty conversation. Everybody wants her attention.” Well, this certainly gives new meaning to “there goes the neighborhood”. Granted, as the story bears out, not all is love and acceptance for the “outsiders” who have changed the landscape of this 140-year-old German community. Yet, change it has, and grow and thrive it is doing. “Liu began breaking the ice by forcing herself to meet strangers.” What courage, what trust, what affirmation.

For me, Liu’s story is the cherry on the dish of ice cream. We can be set in our ways, resistant to change, distrustful, resentful—you name the worst of our human character. But among us can come a stranger—someone who seems as different as different can be if we cling to our ignorance. And that stranger can find the courage to reach out to those who are standing back. It can be a person. It can be a person who looks just like us—or maybe a little different on the surface—one who through their presence causes, indeed forces, us to open our eyes. It can be an idea. It can be an idea that seems strange and threatening that causes, indeed forces, us to change our thinking, maybe even to open our arms. “It’s all good,” said someone I met recently. He actually said it before we met in person. I’ll probably never see him again, but what he said will stick with me—at least for a while, at least as long as I remember to remind myself that I am connected. I am connected as much as I allow myself to be. And so it is. Namaste.

It’s All Good—Albuquerque, New Mexico (July 16, 2011)
R. Harold Hollis

Sunday, July 10, 2011

For My Own Good

On the advice of my doctor, who just happens to be a naturopath (although I chose him for that very reason three years ago), I’m back on my eating program. I won’t call it a diet because it’s really about forming new habits. It’s not rocket science. I can read about it or hear about it just about anywhere I turn.

Alcohol. That’s the heavy in this story. You don’t read too many stories in the news about people over the limit on chocolate meringue pie causing pain and suffering on the highway. I learned a long time ago about booze and the highway, and even then I still let so-called good times with friends, and just people, put me in harm’s way. My choice, my bad, my past. We mostly stay at home to medicate ourselves these days. My doctor says that I let my friends influence me to drink more than I should, more than I can really—too much, too often. Not so good, I know. But my doctor is wrong. I can’t blame anyone else for my habits—any of them.

Last night, after 10 days of eating consciously and foregoing that gin and tonic or two or glass of Malbec or two at the magic hour sometime around the evening news or with friends, I found myself staring square into the face of two open bottles of wine on the table at dinner. I had traveled an hour up the interstate at the invitation of a friend there to attend the opera, and part of the evening included dinner and speaker on the grounds of the Santa Fe Opera. The food was beautiful, satisfying but light, I chose the strawberries and a slice of Brie for dessert, and I allowed myself a glass of white wine. That’s the story, no big deal. It was a big deal, though. I had gone 10 days without alcohol, motivated to shed a few pounds, eager to look in the mirror and see a difference in my face and my mid section, to pull up a pair of pants and smile because there’s extra room in the waist. Having that glass of wine was a big deal for a lot of reasons.

Everything in moderation, including moderation, they say. I realized long ago that moderation—well, not so easy for me. I know a few people who by any comparison struggle with alcohol. Someone who calls himself a recovering alcoholic with more than 30 years to his credit commented to a mutual friend and me awhile back that he could never have just a couple of glasses of wine or mixed drinks, like our friend and me. For him, that would always lead to several beers and end up with him drunk, he added. I’ve been there and lived to tell about—no small miracle. Trust me, instead an incredible bounty of miracles, I know to my very core.

Cigarettes played a minor role in my adult life off and on for 30-odd years. I grew up with a daddy who smoked all of his life, stopping at 65 only because of the onset of emphysema. He died a few months shy of his 70th birthday. I have put them down twice, and during the time that I was using, I was an on-again off-again smoker—not my daddy’s cigarette smoker.

On a beach in Cozumel in 1983, sipping an ice-cold Modelo with David, my partner at the time, and a friend with whom we were vacationing, I asked David for a Merit, our cigarette of choice at the time. After taking two or three hits, I looked out at the water and said to myself, I want to live. I put out the cigarette and didn’t smoke for 10 years. It was as simple as that. My next round of smoking lasted for five years—introduced to rolling your own by a couple of guys that I spent time with during those five years. They also liked to drink, especially the one who clearly struggled with alcohol. He was an aggressive, angry drunk. He told me in a phone call four years ago that at the time he had a few years of recovery under his belt. I’ve known others. Yes, there’s a story there as well. February 19, 1998, on a trip to visit a friend in Austin, Texas, I put down the smokes for a second, and no doubt, final time.

Food has never been my demon, even though I enjoyed a few too many Fritos and a few too many slices of coconut crème pie over the five years my oldest sister, with some help from me, looked after our mother. I know with certainty, though, that food sometimes is not, and alcohol clearly never has been, a good friend to me. The record shows that we consume to forget—be it food or booze, or whatever other world-based device we choose, or any combination of the above. Let me not beat up on myself, yet again, however. For now, since right now is all I have, I’ll just say that on the advice of my doctor, I’m focused on making better choices for myself, hoping to grab a healthy habit.

This writer always has something going on—keeping himself stirred up a little, sometimes a lot. That’s what those who know him might say—not that they would say anything, not that it really matters so much anymore what anyone has to say about his choices. I remind myself that choice making is my birthright, but it took a long, long time—decades—for me to realize that—about choices, about choosing, and about living with consequences. That journey continues. Best affirmations are welcomed. And so it is.

For My Own Good—Albuquerque, New Mexico (July 10, 2011)
R. Harold Hollis

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Good Day

Like I’ve said, no birder am I. Nonetheless, each Tuesday morning I am at my volunteer post at the Randall Davey Audubon Center in Santa Fe. For two years, I have genuinely liked being here at the top of Upper Canyon Road, where the sights and sounds never cease to please, and the visitors are endlessly interesting. All one needs to bring to this experience is an appreciation of nature and an honest liking of other folks. I meet both of those requirements, in spite of being a bit of a curmudgeon from time to time. More than likely, on any given day at this wildlife sanctuary, you have the opportunity of reaching out to other like-minded people.

I don’t know what it is about today. I realize that virtually every hiking trail in Santa Fe is closed—including the Bear Canyon trail here in our center, the adjoining Nature Conservancy, the trails along the ski basin road, and the list goes on. A much longer list tells the story for Albuquerque. And the story must be the same wherever you go in the land of enchantment, where we have set a record for extreme drought conditions. The gardens here in the center—that typically this time of year would be double or triple fullness and laden with blooms—show evidence of the severe lack of moisture. The blooms are scant, even though a blanket of yellow makes a statement here and there in the garden.

The birds on this day don’t seem to know, however, that we are on hard times. Or maybe that’s what they’re talking about. They are loud, almost unruly. And as I watch the feeders outside of the visitor center, a smile breaks across my face. “Is that a Bullocks’s Oriole,” a visitor asks. “Yes, it is,” I confirm, confident in having learned its identity a couple of weeks ago, thanks to a colorful display in the visitor center and to the white board outside where visitors can list their sightings. Another question about our hummers, and I’m pulling up the Cornell website on my computer so we can confirm the identity of these little guys hungrily going at the feeder attached to one of the windows.

We’re here. Happy, loud voices of young children here for summer camp are carried on the breeze. Locals just looking for an outside respite somewhere—here, as it turns out. Along with the locals today, visitors came from New York, California, Texas. “We’re from Dallas. If you think it’s hot here, it’s 103 in Dallas, 110 with the heat index," related a woman who had surprised her mother with a visit to Santa Fe, especially to visit 10,000 Waves, a Japanese-style spa in the mountains on the way to the ski basin. Not everyone comes through the visitor center, so likely other places outside New Mexico were represented today.

We’re all trying to catch a break. And as the wildfires continue to rage northwest of the city—in spite of the containment that has once again spared Los Alamos—in this place, on this day, we are reminded that joy and delight are still very much alive. A good day it is, yes indeed. And so it is.

A Good Day—Santa Fe, New Mexico (July 5, 2011)
R. Harold Hollis

Denver Botanic Gardens, May 2011

Sunday, July 3, 2011

We Are Responsible for the Clouds, Reprise

(image of Los Conchas Fire, by Sheron Smith-Savage, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2011)

“Nearly 13,000 acres of land in the Santa Clara Canyon was blackened by the Las Conchas fire by Friday evening.

That land accounts for nearly a quarter of the Santa Clara Reservation—land considered sacred.

Pueblo Governor Walter Dasheno said Friday, "Yes, it is our home, but it's also our church and it's also our traditional lands."

Thirteen-year-old Mirdacia Padilla lives on the pueblo. She says they won't be able to do traditional dances without the deer and elk that live in that canyon.

‘I'm happy I got to at least see the canyon before it all burned, but I'm sad because my brother, and all these younger kids won't be able to see the canyon or remember what it looked like,’ Padilla said.

Governor Dasheno says the canyon has been scorched by flames before, and there's always hope.

‘We can re-plant the trees, the plants will grow back up, the water will be cleaned out, the fish will come back and the birds will fly,’ Dasheno said."

(from, NBC Albuquerque, New Mexico, report for July 1, 2011)

As we approach the 235th anniversary of the official beginning of the independence of our homeland, who in America can be unaware of the events that have unfolded in northern New Mexico over the last week. This year alone in the U. S., we have seen more disaster than we want to see. Some of us witness it from afar, while others find themselves—wondering wounded, conflicted, mournful and sad, amazingly hopeful—in the midst of the wildfire, the raging and flooding river, and the breathtaking tornado. In northern New Mexico, fire has once again come to Los Alamos County, and well over 100,000 acres of land has been scorched—so far. Again, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of the largest science and technology institutions in the world, has been spared. And today, the nearby-Santa Clara Pueblo has been changed forever and for a long, long time by this wildfire—the largest in New Mexico history.

Yesterday I carried my friend Judy to the mesa in the Carson National Forest where she and her mother have had a summer home for more than 30 years. Their small, real adobe—built by their own hands with the help of other family members and friends—sits in the middle of a scrubby expanse that allows them unobstructed views of Taos Mountain and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. From their place, you can see across the Rio Grande Gorge to Taos. But sometimes these days, today an illustration, the view is obstructed by smoke from the Los Conchas fire. Right now, Judy is on the mesa finishing up closing down the house for another year. I helped with some of this process. In mid afternoon I headed back to Albuquerque, my car filled with her mother Joy’s clothes, sewing machine, remnants of old Navajo weavings that Joy had intended to start repurposing into totes, books to read, a blank canvas waiting for the brush, and more. Meanwhile, Joy waits at the Best Western near the Albuquerque airport for Judy to return and for the two of them to begin their journey back home—Joy to Tulsa, Judy to Ft. Worth. Their annual respite in northern New Mexico—this year only 8 days—came to a early end.

As I returned to Albuquerque in the afternoon, the haze from the fire was in the air, everywhere, even though the winds had not shifted, as they usually do in the afternoon. I made my way through Ojo Caliente and Espanola, where earlier in the day I had noticed at a convenience store an older fire truck, the man who was riding shotgun standing at the passenger door, his left leg on the running board, and his yellow t-shirt blackened with soot. They’ve just come out of the fire, I commented to Judy. On the return, for me, at the Los Alamos exit off of U.S. 285/84, I thought of a holiday weekend journey my friend Steve and I made to the Santa Clara Pueblo in 2009. It was Memorial Day, a day of remembrance that, according to history, was first celebrated in 1865, by Freedman (freed enslaved Blacks) to remember fallen Union Soldiers (Wikipedia). Most of us likely don’t know that. I didn’t know that. That Memorial Day weekend in 2009, Steve and I spent part of a Saturday afternoon on Puye Cliffs at the Santa Clara Pueblo, north of Santa Fe and near Los Alamos.

After that visit two years ago, I was urged to say: “Steve and I stood on a mesa in the Jemez Mountains overlooking a vast valley, where pinyon pine is repopulating itself. A planned burn grew out of control nine years ago. It made the national news for days. A young man of Santa Clara heritage, mingled with German from his maternal grandfather, was our guide through the remnants of dwellings dating to the 12th -16th century. He spoke eloquently of the history of the pueblo people, occasionally calling on his ancestral native Tewa language. His view of his world, our world, was as expansive and real and solid as the 360 degrees where we stood. ‘We are responsible for the clouds,’ he said. Drought had driven his people to the valley below four centuries past—by their belief because of improper behavior on their part."

Soon, the land will begin to heal. The pinyon pine will begin to repopulate itself. The wildlife lost to this fire will fulfill its nature. Everyone, including the people of Santa Clara, will heal, rebuild, and remember. But life has changed for everyone for today and forever. Ten years down the road someone will stand on Puye Cliffs, just as Steve and I did on that Saturday in 2009, and a guide will talk about the land, recounting the Los Conchas fire of 2011 and the Cerro Grande fire of 2000.

Each day we are offered the chance to be reborn, to be recast, to remember and move on, the better, although for the time, perhaps wearier. No one escapes the wildfire, regardless of how it looks. We are born of fire, like the Phoenix of Greek myth rising from the ashes. “We are each responsible for our life and how we create our reality, what we think, where we put our attention, our feelings,” Gayle reminded me two years ago. God, spare me from failing to remember and from starving in the midst of plenty.
“I release this prayer into the Divine Law knowing it is already so. I let go of all human attachment of what it should look like. I surrender, I allow and I let God. And so it is. Namaste.”

We Are Responsible for the Clouds, Reprise—Albuquerque, New Mexico (July 3, 2011)
R. Harold Hollis

Friday, July 1, 2011

Seemingly Perfect

The last four years have been tough. What irony. I’m living most of each year in the place I claim I’ve always wanted to be. The truth, however, is that except for the innocent impressions I have of a brief and hurried family trip in 1952 to visit my daddy’s older brother and his family in Santa Fe—the only real vacation our family ever took while my sisters and I were growing up—New Mexico had been, for all the years since I was nine, a seed lying dormant in my soul. I returned as a young adult and then missed another 20 years before returning again. All through that time, the west called me. For a while it was Colorado, where I had spent only a few days on a business trip in the 70s. There goes my life. What irony.

What I really knew of New Mexico before the year 2007 was limited to landing at the Albuquerque airport—either renting a car (or taking the shuttle)—and then heading to Santa Fe. For many of those years starting around 1988, I would visit my long-time Texas friends at their isolated summer place on a mesa in Taos County. The place has its romance. Mostly it’s their romance, their project, their sweat equity and money. For some 30 odd years they have journeyed to there, basically to work, but also to soak up the beauty of northern New Mexico. They’ve done so through the glory of their younger years, through divorce and death and loss of one stripe or another. It’s their story, and I participated only marginally. During these years, I would travel to Santa Fe with friends from Houston who came for reasons that—having now lived here for four years—I understand even better were simply about spending money—expensive lodging and food, and buying stuff. I don’t deny that it was great fun, especially the camaraderie.

Living here in New Mexico for most of the year each of the last four years, I am face to face with one profound truth. Wherever we are, we can feel lonely, and we can feel alone even though we are not. I suppose it is the loneliness that resides in my soul—my soul and no one else’s, even though I have no official claim to this loneliness—that brings me to this understanding. The more I live, the more I read and understand, the more I understand that I am face to face with my nature.

For four years—separated from what remains of my birth family and separated from the few friends with whom I’ve kept some form of contact—for family has always been the center of my life, what I was taught from the beginning—for four years in my seventh decade, I have lived the challenge of starting over in a new place. I’m not a social person, although I love the companionship of a friend or two, friends who like all friends love us in spite of our shortcomings—for that is what family and friends do, I’m told, I’ve read, I’ve lived. Being not a social person—a gregarious introvert, I’ve labeled myself—some days I try harder than others. Some days I feel like trying harder than others. Some days, not so much, not at all.

I remember the year 1980. I lived in Houston. I was in one of the three or four brief periods where I’ve seen a therapist. The issues never change. My fundamental nature never changes. At the time, I still ran a few miles a few times a week. What I recall is a summer afternoon, probably late in the day on a Friday, the beginning of evening. Running through one of the nice residential neighborhoods near my mid-town apartment, I saw through the large dining room window of a city ranch-style house a group of people gathering for dinner. I thought, how nice, and then, how alone I feel. Telling this to my therapist the following week, she reminded me—in a way it seems that she scolded me—for presuming that I could know how any one person in that group gathering around the table for dinner was feeling. Maybe there was ample loneliness in this seeming camaraderie. I remember thinking at the time, true, I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter, really. What we feel is valid, simply because we feel it. No question of right or wrong, perfect or imperfect, it is valid.

In this place that many people call the land of enchantment, I understand that it is only as enchanting as we allow it to become—only as enchanting as we are willing to live. Most likely it doesn’t matter where you choose to plant yourself—the so-called city different, or the big city they call the Duke, or the more remote mountain areas that are currently besieged by what is being called the worst wildfire in the history of the state, down south where the desert is more prominent, farther north into the mountains, where the liberals reside, where the conservatives make this place merely an extension of Texas—in the end it is just place. The true enchantment resides only in our hearts, in our souls.

If I allow myself to live and embrace my nature—maybe I can’t presume to deny this loneliness—if I allow myself to understand more, if I allow myself to look at my loneliness as if it doesn’t really belong to who I really am—I’ve read that this is possible—if I simply, profoundly allow myself, my walk here will be a better walk. I’ve chosen to be here. I came here alone. I have made friends here. I’ve chosen every situation, seemingly lovely or seemingly problematic. I said to a friend here the other day, as we talked about life, nothing is perfect. He countered that another way of looking at it is that everything is perfect. Everything is perfect, even the loneliness. I need to think about that.

Seemingly Perfect—Albuquerque, New Mexico (July 1, 2011)
R. Harold Hollis