Sunday, December 9, 2012

“I cried because I had no shoes, then I met a man who had no feet.” Mahatma Gandhi

Yesterday I gave away a jacket that I bought at the Gap more than 20 years ago. Many times over the last 10 years when I’ve gone through my clothes to see what I am willing to give up, I’ve considered that jacket, deciding to hold onto it. Along with the jacket that was destined for the Rescue Mission here in Albuquerque, I filled up three 13-gallon bags with trousers and shirts. Some of the trousers were left over from my professional life—a time when I didn’t hesitate at dropping $100 on a silk tie or a commensurate amount on a pair of slacks or a blazer or suit. As if these leftovers are gold, I’ve hoarded them, for the last 12 years. But, as life would have it, the moths had a field day one year early in these 12 years. No surprise about the love of moths for wool—or rust that corrodes and ruins and “thieves that break in and steal” (Matthew 6: 19). In fairness to the truth, some of the clothing had already found its way to some thrift store or donation box.

Over the years, along with the periodic need to just clean things out a little, disasters of one kind or another have beckoned to my closet. I remember well Hurricane Rita from the season of 2005 that particularly affected the Gulf Coast. I boxed clothes, boots and shoes and took them to the center in a small town some 45 miles north of my home in rural east Texas. Any time, any season is a worthy time to edit one’s closet, in spite of what my frugal Texas German mother used to caution me when I was in one of my moods to thin out my closet. I wouldn’t be getting rid of everything—an exaggeration, of course—you might wish you had that stuff one of these days. She advised regarding her own clothes that she no longer wore—”you can give it away when I die.” That’s what we did, and we did it with gentleness and mindfulness.

A sense of mindfulness has been a part of every effort I’ve made to thin out my closets—which I now have both in Texas and New Mexico. In spite of these efforts, the closets remain too full—the clothes, the boots and shoes, still too many. Excess upon excess, even though by comparison I’m probably not as serious a culprit as I imagine. Regardless, excess is still excess.

At this time of the year we are reminded of the role consuming plays in our lives. I’ve walked the aisles of Walmart. With only modest exceptions, my humble efforts at gift giving are not defined by the perceived needs or wants of my family, however. Even though we have many individual needs, all of us have shelter and food, and most importantly we have each other. I’ve shared my own gifts in buying coats for kids as part of the campaign of one of the television stations here in Albuquerque. Toys for Toys, a cash donation for one of the food pantries, lap robes, socks and body lotion for residents of a nearby nursing home, shirts and socks for a senior whose name was placed on the Christmas tree at Walmart, excess from my closet for a homeless shelter—that’s my list. It’s not enough. It can never be enough. I’ll do my best to accept that.

Recently in the news, much has been made over the New York policeman who spent $75 on a pair of boots and socks for a barefoot homeless man. As it turns out, all is not what it seems. The man is not homeless, and even though he received a pair of boots and socks, he is shoeless once again. His circumstances are way more complicated. Apparently he hid the shoes because they are “valuable”. And, of course, the turn of events of the story have once again given anyone who wants or needs to justify his or her reasons for not reaching out to the poor, the homeless, those in need. In an opinion piece by Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, Senior Religion Editor for the Huffington Post: “Yes, we have a responsibility to ask the questions of why people are poor, to lobby for better treatment of the poor, to support agencies that who [sic] have expertise with the poor, but we also should be inspired to give directly to the poor. Not because it is the most effective, but because the direct encounter with those who are suffering, and the courage to give without controlling how it is received is important for our own spiritual well being.

The homeless man in New York responded to the policeman’s “offer to buy shoes by saying ‘God bless you’. When we overcome our city honed instinct of isolation and suspicion to do an act of kindness and show compassion to the stranger it is, in that moment, a blessing experienced by both the giver and receiver.” (I need to add that this instinct for isolation and suspicion is in no way limited to something that is “city honed”. Cynicism thrives way beyond the boundaries of the city.)

Mr. Raushenbush goes on to conclude, “In this messy world, that is more than enough.”

Read the entire story:

Monday, October 8, 2012

"When the student is ready, the teacher will appear."

No, it’s not rural New England. And no, it’s not Santa Fe, or Taos. This beautiful stand of Big Tooth Maples greets you at Fourth of July Campground and throughout the 4.8 mile, 1100 foot climb in the Manzano Mountains, east and just a little south of Albuquerque. On this particular hike, which includes Cerro Blanco Loop, autumn produces a sea of red, orange, and yellow.

In The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and the Beautiful, Sonny, the young Indian who owns and manages the hotel, advises one of his guests who is appalled by what she has discovered once she gets to Jaipur: “In India, we have a saying—everything will be all right in the end,” he explains. “So if it is not all right, it is not yet the end.”

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Though morning speaks of fall, the rose is still in town...

The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry’s cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town.
The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I’ll put a trinket on.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Friday, September 28, 2012

At 10,678' the first signs of Fall

"When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." Buddhist Proverb

Sunday, September 23, 2012

"A rose by any other name...

..would smell as sweet." (from Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Pilgrim's Progress

In the early 1990s, a popular billboard seen on Houston freeways advertising the Houston Chronicle classifieds pictured a twenty-something guy, lotus position, and the slogan, FOR SALE—ALL MY EARTHLY POSSESSIONS. As I prepared to leave for a trip to northern New Mexico that summer, this billboard was on my mind, and I thought, “One of these days….” Actually I longed—longed for something I couldn’t define, but the longing felt like the lifting of a heavy, heavy weight from my shoulders. That must have been 20 years ago--long enough for a child to have been born and enter early adulthood; two decades, five presidential elections; lots and lots of changes.

In the barn I call home in Texas is stored a large Rubbermaid tub full of the leftovers of a series of t-shirts I had designed over the few seasons that I gathered with a small group of other like-minded people for a little antiques market in Fayetteville, Texas. This market happened twice annually during the season that is generally known as Round Top, one of the largest and best known antiques markets in the U.S.

FOR SALE—ALL MY EARTHLY POSSESSIONS read those t-shirts. What had begun as a heartfelt and gut-felt response to a billboard some 10 years earlier made its way onto clothing for anyone to take notice of. Frankly, I don’t think many people did notice it. Maybe that’s a merely complicated reflection of the mentality that grips our consumer-oriented world. Some did get it, though, and commented, smiling, “I love your t-shirt”. Some even wanted to buy one—ode to buying something.

At the heart of the billboard advertisement, the t-shirts, the stories reported in the media about the people who sell off everything, by choice, to lighten their load and put things in to some supposedly better perspective—better, at least, it seems for those who make such choices—is a longing to get to our center. We all have at least an inkling of what our center is. It’s where our heart lies, it’s one of the chakras, it is God, the Divine, the Source. During times of natural disaster, people who lose their homes and what many would consider everything important poignantly offer thanks that the lives of family and neighbor have been spared. That’s what matters.

For the better part of six years—since shortly after our mother died in 2007—I have been back and forth with myself over letting go of an accumulation of stuff—hoarding may be the definition of some, but it’s not Post cereal boxes. How do you let go of stuff, regardless of its value? In the meantime, I have actually increased my holdings while letting go of some of the material goods I have that are worth something to someone else of my ilk. One way of changing our landscape is to put our stuff before the public en masse and hope for the very best. And finally, that is what I have done. The auction was September 15, 2012, on the eve of my 69th birthday. As I write, I know only the preliminary results of this auction. Some of the prices fetched were way more than I had anticipated. Other prices were painfully low. But it’s done. Yesterday I felt on edge during the day. I received text messages from friends at the auction, some 900 miles away, saying “things are going great,” asking if I wanted to know what a particular piece brought. I was lulled into a false sense of jingle in my pocket from where I sat in picture book weather at a local park, listening to the New Mexico Philharmonic, smiling at young families and old people—even older than I—and frisky pooches on leashes out for a morning romp.

Last night I went to a play with a friend, a little blue even though I was relieved for the auction to be over. That doesn’t sound like letting go, does it. Of course, my mobile phone was turned off for the 2-1/2 hour performance. When I powered it up later, there was a text message with a photograph from two friends who had been at the auction. Earlier in the day they had sent a picture of the “packed house”. Now, late in the evening, they were telling me, “We found our shirts.” “What a prophet…” FOR SALE—ALL MY EARTHLY POSSESSIONS, indeed. “Thank you for reminding me of that twinkle of hope that planted itself in my dreams seven years ago. Your message and picture of our t-shirt brought a smile to my face.”

So as not to misrepresent my chosen circumstances, yes, most of what I have accumulated and treasured for three or more decades has gone on to others who seek material treasure and choose to own it for awhile and make money from it. By no means, though, am I done with stuff. We all start somewhere, and we are starting and starting and starting. And hopefully, along the way, we are saying, “thank you”. Oh, yes, yes, thank you.

It’s a long journey for some to sit in the lotus position. I haven’t perfected my technique yet. But I’ve said for several years now, “I’m going to start selling my collection. I don’t need to own all these things. And I don’t want to leave the job of dispersing them to someone else.” The advice I heard a few years ago, “Harold, just because you love something doesn’t mean you have to own it,” must be true and right. Or did she say, “…you don’t have to buy it”? As I heard my mother say sometimes to a friend who could also speak a little German, “macht nichts”…translates “makes no difference”. At some point, it doesn’t matter. Instead of a special meal with a healthy price tag, you’d rather just have some cheese and crackers—maybe even a store-bought 4 oz. container of strawberry jello. How forward thinking my mother and her friend were. I am a pilgrim, and my journey continues.

A Pilgrim’s Progress—Albuquerque, NM (September 16, 2012)
R. Harold Hollis

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Father Mother God

Dwell in my heart.

"She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow'd to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies."

(George Gordon Noel Byron, Lord Byron, 1814)

Monday, September 10, 2012

For awhile after moving to New Mexico I took part in a weekly gathering of similar-minded pilgrims for what is called morning prayer in that mainstream Christian tradition. The ritual followed prescribed prayers and readings from the scriptures. It was a quiet, formal experience in a beautiful setting behind the altar rail of the church sanctuary that afforded a view through a large glass expanse east to the mountains. At times it felt what I then understood to be holy.

In time I found myself in a very different setting with a group of similar-minded pilgrims. We met in an essentially functional room off the small kitchen of that place devoted to one’s spiritual journey. For someone who had for many years become accustomed to kneeling and bowing and processing and recessing, it was a distinct change—at least on the surface.

What comes to mind at this very moment is something from the scriptures—“heal thyself”. I had to look it up. “Then he said, ‘You will undoubtedly quote me this proverb: ‘Physician, heal yourself’—meaning, ‘Do miracles here in your hometown like those you did in Capernaum.’” (from the Gospel of Luke, 4:23). The source goes on to explain that the “moral of the proverb is counsel to attend to one's own defects rather than criticizing defects in others”. (from Wikipedia)

Now what this has to do with contemplation and prayer, I am not sure. It’s just where Richard Rohr’s meditation has taken me today. He says, “Unfortunately, in the West prayer became something functional; something you did to achieve a desired effect—which puts you back in charge. As soon as you make prayer a way to get something, you’re not moving into a new state of consciousness. It's the same old consciousness. “How can I get God to do what I want God to do?” It's the egocentric self still deciding what it needs, but now often trying to manipulate God too.”

As part of the weekly gathering in the functional room off the kitchen that became my habit for the better part of a year, we had an opportunity to say intentions for ourselves—68 seconds, a mighty long time. Some people, any one of us on any given day, were effectively lost for words. The advice of our spiritual guide—simply say “God is my source”. Say it over and over and over until something else comes to mind. If nothing else comes to mind, what more is there to say. God is my source.

Years ago I said to the minister (lay vicar by definition) of the mission church I attended in rural east Texas that my praying was kind of atypical. I don’t recall my exact words, but maybe the word “weird” was even part of what I said to him. I do recall his comment—”that doesn’t surprise me”. I didn’t ask him what he meant, but I did go on to think about my prayer habits. What I thought at the time now seems silly and naive. Some say that every thought is a prayer. Some prayers are elaborate, some simple—at least in terms of the words that make up the prayer. What seems especially real and true on this day is what Richard Rohr points out in his meditation: it’s not about getting God to do what I want God to do.

God is my source.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

On this day in 1917

Tena Elizabeth Fuchs Hollis (L) and Mary Hollis Todd (R), celebrating their September birthdays in 2004.

“I can wade grief,
Whole pools of it, --
I'm used to that.
But the least push of joy
Breaks up my feet,
And I tip -- drunken.
Let no pebble smile,
'Twas the new liquor, --
That was all!”

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Today is the anniversary of our mother’s birth, September 9, 1917. Ninety-five years—how long ago and how very different a time, 1917. From a glance at Wikipedia, that wealth of information on the internet, nothing of great importance happened on September 9th. No one of celebrity status was either born or died on that date. Something of consequence did happen on that date, however—in our great grandmother Louisa Benfer Fuchs’s homestead in rural Harris County, Texas, her daughter Lizzie gave birth to Tena Elizabeth, our mother. Louisa is buried in the historic Perry Cemetery just across the road from where that house stood—a Fuchs family homestead and vast acres of land lost to progress many years ago. Mother loved family, and she gave me a sense of family and of our family’s history in Texas, which makes its way deeper into my heart as I grow older. I am old, hah—only a year from passing my seventh decade. Mother also taught me compassion and a sense of fairness. She taught me this by living her own life with compassion and fairness. For this too, I give thanks. Happy Birthday, Tena Elizabeth Fuchs Hollis (September 9, 1917 - February 1, 2007).

Friday, September 7, 2012

Wish I'd said that

When we least expect it, something wonderful is waiting to delight us. On a trip to the bank in downtown Albuquerque this afternoon, I noticed this bumper sticker. If the shoe fits, and all the rest.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

“He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.

For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.

Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.”

(from The Lark Ascending, George Meredith, 1828-1909)

Chama River, near Monastery of Christ in the Desert

On Sunday mornings folks in these parts have a special and perhaps even somewhat uncommon opportunity to hear very special music in live performance. The venue is known as Chatter, and it happens in a warehouse-type space on the north side of downtown Albuquerque. Although I’ve been only a few times, I’m always happy to be there, regardless of how much I am drawn to the music on a given Sunday. The performance today of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ composition for piano and violin left me—and I think perhaps everyone—joy filled.

These days I’m more than a little sad and disturbed by the ugliness of this political year. Fear, and sadly hate, are virtually palpable. All one has to do is turn on the television, pick up a newspaper or news magazine, go out onto the internet, sometimes just head down the block to a neighborhood fast food restaurant, and now to the local theater. How have we come to this?

Today, I say thank you for Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Meredith, the glorious playing of violin and piano, and for a place like Chatter, where on any Sunday morning I can be reminded that something good and beautiful connects us all.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus), state bird of New Mexico
I don’t know why I get excited every time I see a roadrunner. Maybe it’s because the roadrunner is a member of the cuckoo family, and I’m cuckoo. Meep meep.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Garden of New Mexico Audubon, Santa Fe

Yesterday I saw a man walking his dog. In his right hand, he held a battered umbrella to shield himself from the hot New Mexico afternoon. “Why is a man carrying an umbrella?” Half-formed thoughts tumbled through my head. “Men wear hats," to protect themselves from the sun. That man wore a hat as well. I pray to be that man.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Quilt by Laverne Brackens

Ms. Brackens, an African-American textile artist from Fairfield, Texas,
was named a 2011 NEA National Heritage Fellow. I bought this fanciful quilt,
rendered in red and blue on white, in Ms. Brackens' home several years ago.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Camera Shy, Not

Orange Dragonfly, Albuquerque, August 10, 2012
Among Native American cultures, dragonflies are considered a symbol of purity, said to eat "from the wind itself".

Friday, August 3, 2012

Happy travelers "makin' good time"

Friend Judy and I headed to New Mexico in June 2007

One of my favorite reads is the writing of Jim Moore, who lives in Austin, TX. He is a very accomplished man, but what I know about his accomplishments are his insightful commentaries on matters important, including politics and other life events that we likely should be paying attention to. Sometimes what he has to say strikes a deep chord relating to my own journey, even growing up in Texas, in the south.

Today, Jim writes about 'makin' good time', which most of us probably know is all about getting from one place to another. When I read his tale for today, it brought to mind the only real vacation trip our family ever took. I think the year was 1953, the month July, I was just shy of my 10th birthday, and we were driving in a car with no air conditioning (of course, it was 1953) across west Texas and eastern New Mexico.

Here's a link to Jim's website:

Here's what I had to say, from New Meixco:
As a native Texan, a southerner, and from a family of modest means that didn't go on vacations, your tale makes me want to "sit down and cry", another expression that can convey either delight or the opposite of delight over some set of circumstances, news, experience, etc.  Our one long trip was from northwest Harris County to Santa Fe,NM, in 1953, in a 1952 2-door Chevy. My daddy's mother, was one of 7 passengers, which also included 4 kids, aged 9 to 16, Daddy and Mother.
We drove all the way. The only stops I remember were Muleshoe, to look at the mule of course, and Sweetwater, where it was early morning, the air was way nicer than what we had closer to the Gulf, and we had fresh baked bread, still warm, and butter (or something butter like from 1953) from a local bakery. I guess the bakery was directly on or near our route. We made good time, I guess, although I don't remember any conversation about 'makin' good time'. I just know that our daddy, then a month or so away from his 42nd birthday, did all the driving. This trip to northern New Mexico was huge for me in ways that began to reveal themselves when I reached young adulthood. So any way I look at it, we made good time.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A light in the forest

Sandia Crest Woodlands

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Sandia Crest Woodlands

Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) butterfly

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Sandia Crest, July 29, 2012

Pink English Wallflower and Red Columbine
nestled under Pinyon Pine

Aster full face in the afternoon sun

Monday, July 30, 2012

The view from 10,686'

Albuquerque seen from Sandia Crest
In the afternoon of Sunday, July 29th, we made our way up the winding road that leads into the Cibola National Forest, the ski basin, and ultimately to the crest of the Sandias. I watched the reading for the outside thermometer on my 4Runner begin to drop. When we left the heart of Albuquerque (just shy of 5000'), it was 88 degrees. By the time we reached the road that leads to the top, the temperature had dropped to 82. Hungry for a taste of mountain air, I still waited until the thermometer read 73 degrees before lowering the windows. 77, 75, was time. When we reached Sandia Crest, the reading was 66 degrees. So it was no surprise to see the facts on the information board on the trail, that reads, "Five thousand feet below and about 20 degrees warmer is the city of Albuquerque...situated in the Rio Grande Basin." In spite of the crowd of other visitors, it was a delight. I drew in the view and the air, which my words can't capture, and remembered why I want to be here.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

First came the chair.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Giant Swallowtail Butterfly

In my Texas garden

Life flourishes
Even in my absence.

Monday, June 18, 2012

“We are the ones we have been waiting for,” from Poem for South African Women, June Jordan (1936-2002)

Driving back to my house from running errands last Friday morning, I noticed a sign for a garage sale, pointing south. Heading that direction anyway, I continued and became distracted by signs for additional sales. None of it was particularly interesting, but finally, I made my way to the sale whose sign had started me on this potential treasure hunt. Again, a lifeless-looking lot of stuff. There was a convenient curbside space partially in the shade, and so I stopped. Nothing going on here except for a transaction that involved a couple of hundred dollars for a pair of nondescript but apparently solid oak new bookshelves.

The storied pony among the castoffs lay as part of a stack of two or three books on a table. I couldn’t get to them, however, because the young man hosting the garage sale continued a conversation with the woman putting down a $100 deposit on the shelves. Seeing no break to their conversation, I pardoned myself, interrupting, “Is that Alice Walker book for sale?” “Yes, it’s $3.” I was intrigued by the title, “We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For”. It resonated for me. Ms. Walker’s essays, most of which are talks/addresses, are suggested in this collected form to be used as meditations. I say yes to that, and as I make my way through the collection, I’m saying thank you— thank you to Alice Walker, to June Jordan from whose poem Ms. Walker has taken her title, and to the young man who was holding the yard sale, thereby passing along the gift of thought put onto paper.

In the world of plants and gardens, there is a term, passalong plants. It’s a custom rooted in southern culture, I think. Gardeners share cuttings and newly-potted specimens, a friendly, even loving gesture. What greater gift than one that is living and growing, one which hopefully flourishes, blooms and bears fruit. So then it is equally affirming to share, to borrow, to propagate, words that sustain us, and that indeed cause us to grow. My mind and heart give their own meaning to the notion that we are the ones we have been waiting for. In the best sense of things, that meaning cannot be so different than it is for someone else. John Donne (1572-1631) had another way of saying something similar: “...and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” (from Meditation XVII). We are the ones we have been waiting for.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise. Psalm 51:15

If you have been there, you know. Following the road to Christ in the Desert Monastery, Abiquiu New Mexico

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Stretch until you feel the difference. With both hands, grab hold of a chair arm and guide yourself to the left. Remember to breathe, drawing in and letting go. Now to the right. Don’t stop. Do it again, and again, and again, until you feel the release. Listen to this early morning— the eastern breeze is playing the chimes on your front porch, a pair of doves (for they tend to be in pairs) from the neighbor’s yard coo-coo-coos their sense of being alive, a car in the distance signals the start of another day of commerce. Give advantage to this time when once again you are beginning. Stretch. Breathe. Release.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

“We don’t teach meditation to the young monks. They are not ready for it until they stop slamming doors.”–Thich Nhat Hanh to Thomas Merton in 1966

It is not what Richard Rohr has taught me, so far. It is, instead, a reflection on the slight glimmer of a changing consciousness that is struggling to emerge— perhaps as a result of reading Richard. As I look around at the stacks of books dotting the landscape of my two-bedroom rental in Albuquerque, I see other writings— not about religion or spirituality or philosophy per se— that are touching me and reminding me, and yes, sometimes scolding me by association for my sometimes ego-motivated ways. Think about the last time you grand standed, or the instinct that told you that you were entitled to cut in line or cut off another car vying for a better spot in the parking lot, or the chicken shit way you treated someone who works with you or for you, or the dishonesty or the meanness you gave leeway to concerning a family member. The list goes on and on and one. Right triumphs, or so we often think and act on.

I read a lot. By comparison to others, I don’t know the merit of what I read. Sometimes my ego cares about things like that, but not all that often. On any given day, I have a novel going for the times I just want to languish, like the hot Rio Grande Valley afternoons, with the swamp cooler rumbling in the background. I also have something concerned with what’s it all about that occupies my time early in the morning, before I’ve had too much time to get all muddled with going through the day— mowing with the electric mower and battling a 100-foot extension cord, waiting in a long line at the traffic light and then dashing through the yellow light turning red, wanting to pommel the customer service (sometimes a questionable title) representative on the other end of a wireless call about your internet service or to the bank holding your mortgage.

For the last several months, some of those books intended to help me find my center have been written by Richard Rohr, and most recently, Thomas Merton. I wouldn’t compare the two, beyond saying that they’re both Roman Catholic— Richard, a Franciscan friar ordained to the priesthood, and Thomas, who was a Trappist monk, also ordained to the priesthood. Because I am a lover of old things and the arts, I usually have a book nearby that concerns a current interest. Lately it’s been writings on old Native American jewelry, Navajo saddle blankets, New Mexican furniture of the New Deal, and old western saddles.

Two days ago I read in its entirety Calico Joe, John Grisham’s latest piece. On the surface, it is a story about baseball. But really, it’s a story about relationships, love, success and failure, and not surprisingly, the ego— the very same ego that leads us to hate and revenge. And yes, the very same ego that would have us doing seemingly harmless things like slamming doors any time of the day, any day of the week. Anyone with a clue about the aim of meditation wouldn’t have to think long to understand Thich Nhat Hanh’s conversation with Thomas Merton: “We don’t teach meditation to the young monks. They are not ready for it until they stop slamming doors.” I was reminded of that once again this morning when the hinged lid on my percolator coffee pot didn’t close right. That happens a lot. I shook it and slammed it just a little as I headed to the stove  to brew my morning pot, and I thought about those Buddhist monks. Nope, not qualified to be meditating there yet.

In the last five years I’ve read some of Thich Nhat Hanh’s writing— Anger, True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart, Living Buddha, Living Christ, probably more titles that I’m not remembering. All of my books, except for the ones I’ve read in the last 18 months are packed. About the time I started reading Thich Nhat Hanh, I was dabbling in meditation, which hasn’t become a practice, yet, but does manage to somehow rescue me on those days that the muddle gets a little too close to robbing me of my sense of well being. An utterly aggravated back and neck led me to the massage table yesterday, where the student therapist talked about balancing the body before she ever laid a hand on me. Later, as she worked the knots in the tendons of my neck, she talked to me about what it means to have a strong fire element and the importance of balancing that element with water. I get it. I get it.

In his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr explores our challenging journey—one that wants to lead us to discover and embrace our spiritual essence, a journey that actually begins with the many years we spend developing and defining our ego, individually and as part of the family, culture and institutions we are born into. [NOTE: My take in a few words and in no way intended to represent what Richard would say about his own book] I came to this book after a friend e-mailed me a review of it in the summer of 2011. Richard’s name was not new to me, but I had not read anything by him— only pieces about him.

Four years ago, the woman in Texas who had been my mother’s hospice chaplain told me that I might want to look up Richard and get to know something about the Center for Action and Contemplation that he started here in Albuquerque almost three decades ago. I was living in Santa Fe, but I went to the internet to read about Richard. It wasn’t until January of 2011 that Richard’s name came up again. A friend and I were in an antiques gallery in Old Town Albuquerque, where an older Hispanic woman was standing in for the owner. When we walked in the door, she addressed me as if she knew me. I just thought she was being friendly. I am a Texan, after all, and we expect that from one another. Quickly, though, I realized that she thought I was Father Richard Rohr, her parish priest, and she went on to talk about her admiration for her priest, a most likeable man. As it turns out, we do look a little alike, although when one is a doppelganger, he doesn’t necessarily see the close resemblance to another. We all smiled at the coincidence. Fast forward to summer of 2011 and to reading Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. I was connecting the dots and had been connecting them for a long time. It’s sort of like the bumper sticker, “God bless the whole world. No exceptions”, or “We Are All One”.

Last winter I heard Richard speak in person at a local bookstore. Arriving early, which is my norm, I was greeted by a couple already seated on the back row. “Has anyone ever told you that you look like Richard Rohr?”, they asked. I smiled, and told them that I had never seen Richard in person. His talk that day centered around his newest book, Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the 12 Steps. I’ve met Richard one other time since and passed along the comments about how we look alike. He smiled as he shook my hand, adding that he was flattered. My smile comes from reading his words and hearing him talk. He’s on the journey, and his sharing of his discoveries is palpable. His work continues— “Our Mission: We are a center for experiential education, rooted in the Gospels, encouraging the transformation of human consciousness through contemplation, and equipping people to be instruments of peaceful change in the world.” (from the Center for Action and Contemplation website)

In an article from the Summer 2012 issue of El Palacio, the official magazine of the Museum of New Mexico Foundation, Bruce Bernstein, the director of the Southwest Association for Indian Arts, writes about Native artists that they “...understand their work as creating and continuing life rather than as making inanimate objects”. (p. 21) He goes on to say that “art is life”. For me, it is a simple step to Thich Nhat Hanh, Richard Rohr, John Grisham’s Calico Joe, and so on and so on. I’m getting it, even though I will no doubt slam down that cantankerous coffee pot lid on another day, just like I jerked around that misbehaving lawn mower extension cord this morning and the water hose that refused to leap all the way off the grass after I gave a drink to the still-young tree planted by the owner of this house last summer. At Thich Naht Hanh’s monastery, I might not be ready for meditation, but that is not going to stop me from being reminded and reminding myself that I must keep learning, changing, and growing as I continue my journey home.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

In a 2010 profile of Ray Bradbury written by John Blake and published by CNN, Bradbury, the renowned writer of science fiction, spoke of his writing as a “God-given thing”. Blake writes, “Bradbury, who turns 90 this month, says he will sometimes open one of his books late at night and cry out thanks to God.” In this relatively long article, Bradbury describes his trust in God this way: “I jump off the cliff and build my wings on the way down." To my way of thinking, that’s about as close as one can get to living in the present. Perhaps most important, Bradbury sums up the “center of his faith” in a word— love. Everything he has done in his life— his writing, his 56-year marriage, his relationship with others— all center around love.

I’m not a fan of so-called science fiction writing, at least not as defined in imagining the future. Rather than the future, my eyes tend to look more to the past— if they are not fixed on the present. One story from Ray Bradbury sticks in my mind, though, a section from Dandelion Wine about a character named Helen Loomis. It’s been close to 50 years since Dandelion Wine was part of the curriculum I taught to high school literature students. It’s easy enough now for me to understand why as a young, relatively inexperienced adult, that Bradbury’s tale touched me so deeply, touched me without me articulating the meaning of living in the now. Several years ago— a few years before our mother’s death— I recounted to my mother and sister the story of Helen Loomis that I was remembering from my first years of teaching.

Set in a small Midwestern town in the first half of the 20th century, it is the story of an old woman living in an old home on a tree-lined street. She entertains daily a couple of small children from the neighborhood. They come to play on her big Victorian front porch, dressing up in the old lady’s dresses and shoes from her younger years. She serves them lemonade and cookies as they all wile away the hot summer days. One evening, she decides to rummage through the attic of treasures that have accumulated from her childhood, through marriage, and into her old age, which she is living out alone. I don’t recall whether she had grown children living somewhere else, or perhaps no children at all. She comes across a photograph of herself as a little girl. Proudly the next day she shows the little girls this photo, exclaiming this is me at your age. Oh no, says the one little girl. That can’t be you. You were never young. You’ve always been an old lady. And worst of all, you’re lying! as they turn to leave, unwilling to stay around an old lady who lies. Later that day, alone, the old lady sadly remembers something her deceased husband told her long ago about her attic of treasures. As I recall, her husband told her something like this: someday, Helen, all these things will only break your heart.

‘After all once the past was over, it was done. You were always in the present.’ writes Bradbury in Dandelion Wine. In this conversation that took place in 2005 with my mother and oldest sister, I was brought to recount Helen Loomis’s story because I saw my mother’s and my own life moving through my mind’s eye. She was just a few months shy of being an official client of hospice. Mother had two homes full of stuff, and my own trove of stuff far surpassed hers. When we thought that Mother’s lawyer had convinced her to sell one of her homes, she changed her mind before he was hardly out the driveway. “What would I do with all my things,” I think she said, leaning against the wall near the backdoor of her home in the country. At the heart of this decision was a fear of letting go. To some of us, once we start letting go of our things, we are accepting that we will at some point have to say good-bye to everything we have known. Also at the heart of this is our failure to trust that now is all we have and now is enough, regardless of how much we have.

I saw an interview on cable with a well-known actress, now in her mid 70s, speaking about her long career, her well-known actor father, and her life that has been full of challenges and rewards— a life that continues to be full of challenges and rewards. She described herself as happy, at peace, and present. Granted, this is a wealthy woman in terms of worldly goods and worldly success. No doubt, Ray Bradbury knew much comfort from the success he achieved as a writer. I doubt, however, that in the night when he opened one of his books and cried out thanks to God, he was reconciling his bank and investment accounts, or passing his eyes over his home and his art. I choose instead to think that he was just so incredibly thankful for the gift that he had been given— a gift that he shared, not just with close family and friends, but also with the world.

R. Harold Hollis, Albuquerque NM (June 13, 2012)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Bowled over

 A year or so ago, I offered for sale an oblong, tiger maple bowl (not the large early maple treenware piece shown here--one of the best bowls ever!) at the twice-annual nationally known antiques fair where I exhibit the finds of my year-long treasure hunt. In the course of marking all my wares before the show opened, I labeled the tiger maple bowl simply, "Early Bowl". Some time on the first day of the show, three women walked into my booth, and I noticed them looking at the tiger-maple bowl. One of them asked in all innocence, "what does early mean?" Oh for a photo of the surprise on my face as I looked at her and answered the question, "it means old". She continuing looking at me, her puzzled expression causing me to say, "this is an antiques show". I smiled then, and shook my head (but only in my mind) and I just smiled again as I typed this memory of a world changed--that is, the world of collecting and offering for sale early American utilitarian and decorative arts.

Friday, June 8, 2012

This triptych speaks for itself--oh my, how clearly does it speak for itself. I found it in deep east Texas more than a dozen years ago. Not long after this stroke of good fortune, I had a conversation with another collector who had seen it in that shop but had passed on it because she didn't think it was old enough to be important or valuable. I shook my head in dismay, thanking whatever force kept it waiting there for me. So here it is, a fine example of primitive Americana, wonderfully rendered in the style of the social realists of the 1940s. The artist remains unknown to me, in spite of a set of initials planted boldly in the bottom right-hand corner of the third panel. Maybe in time this mystery will be revealed.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Art for Art's Sake

At the sale where I bought this painting, the woman holding the backyard sale talked to me about some of the art she was selling. Keep in mind, this was a yard sale. By any standard— perhaps except the standard that most people expect at garage sales— the prices were low and most things were ordinary. As they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. I was drawn to this little piece of New Mexico history, even if it was the modest work of someone unknown. Most of the other paintings that were being offered for sale by this same aspiring artist didn’t appeal to me— at all. But there was something about this northern New Mexico scene that worked and spoke to me— the composition, the use of color, the very rural-ness of it. Since the painting is unsigned, I made a note of the woman to whom it was attributed courtesy of the person holding the sale. I’ve searched the internet for Athelene Blackburn in Albuquerque, and found it only in association with her husband’s 2005 obituary. Her own death is recorded only in a list of obits on a genealogy-related website a year later. Athelene Blackburn— an unusual name, and as far as I am concerned, the person who painted the modest landscape I have just hung on my wall. I offered the painting for sale at the same price I paid for it, $25, at a yard sale I held with friends a couple of weeks ago. No takers, no comments, no surprise. My good fortune.

I’ve only begun to see yard sales through the eyes of the seller since participating in a few sales in Santa Fe and Albuquerque over the last three years. In this time I’ve begun to recognize the faces of local dealers, especially in Santa Fe. It seems that everyone is looking for “the find”, “a find”, although some people will actually put out a little money for something they think is interesting and worthy— however one measures worthiness. On the other side of this equation, there are dealers who when you visit their high-end shop or see their exhibit at a vetted show, bring a garage sale mentality to a yard sale. To wit, a piece of New Mexico history I offered at a sale in Santa Fe for $50. The dealer picked it up (lots of people did over a two-day period), asking the price— “50” I replied, and after my answer, she asked “fifty cents?”. “No, 50 dollars”. Then she commented that she was spoiled by the sales she had been to that morning. “My, my,” not necessarily the words forming in my brain, but an expression of my dismay nonetheless. Wouldn’t you love to see some of her finds in her shop just off Canyon Road.

Ah, but isn’t it all relative. “It looks better from a distance,” we sometimes say about amateur art. The same can be said for works that bring serious money. Art for arts sake. Beauty in the eye of the beholder. A picture worth a thousand words. And more cliches, if you like. One of my favorite paintings is a still life I bought off the wall of a workshop of sorts near Delores Hidalgo (Guanajuato, Mexico) while visiting friends in San Miguel de Allende in 1998. I think it was one of those places where they make new furniture out of old wood. The painting was literally nailed to the wall. We spoke little Spanish, meaning I spoke no Spanish, and the guy who seemed to be in charge spoke little English. But he knew he would not sell the painting for less than $20 American. He took a claw hammer to the nails holding the painting to the wall, it came back to the U. S. in my duffel bag, and it’s one of the few pieces currently hanging on my own walls. Mounted on fabric and set into a frame, with no attempt at covering up the damage it has suffered, including being nailed to that wall in Mexico, it hangs on its own merit.

Periodically I recall the assessment of a guy who used to buy from me occasionally when I set up in the fields of one of the big markets in Texas—“Harold’s famous anonymous art,” he called it. Actually, I think it was a bit of a compliment. At least, that's how I chose, and continue to choose, to take his description of my generic--most of them unsigned--vintage landscapes and still lifes. “Sunday painters” is the name given all those talented folks whose art has adorned the walls of America for many generations. Maybe these people have had some lessons, maybe not. The fancy term for a self-taught person is “autodidact”. Call it what you will, I just call it a gift.

Ms. Blackburn’s painting has set on the floor in the corner of my bedroom for the better part of a year, along with most of the other framed art I brought to the little adobe-style house I lease in Albuquerque. I didn’t want to deal with repairing nail holes in the plaster walls when I decided to leave this place, so I chose instead just to stack my art in the corners of two or three rooms and to hang only five or six most favorite pieces. Why I’ve decided that Ms. Blackburn’s piece now deserves better than a place on the floor, in the corner, I can’t really say. Maybe it is because I’ve been assigned its guardian for a little while longer. From my bed, where most nights I read before turning out the light, I have a view of someone’s impression of a northern New Mexico fall in one of the rural settings that are not uncommon here. There doesn’t seem to be a better image to hold in my mind before drifting off to sleep.

Art for Art’s Sake— Albuquerque NM (June 6, 2012)
R. Harold Hollis

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Interesting, that this bench, this place of rest, sits unprotected in the sun, when what I want so desperately on a hot, hot summer day, a day that is not even officially summer by calendar definition, is relief in the shade nearby. It seems that the start of June, and not some appointed number three weeks later, is the beginning of summer here in the desert southwest. Nights turning cool in the wee hours of the morning, that had us reaching for a quilt, suddenly reveal us kicking off even the top sheet of our bed. The swamp coolers struggle away later and later into the night.

The news reported that it rained in parts of this city yesterday. In those places, the streets filled with water. For the rest of us, the reward was cloudy skies. The weatherman talked about the smell of rain. And later, he talked about it again. Something deep in his memory sense left him longing. I know that fragrance, laid over the juniper that populates this place where rain is an infrequent visitor. In the morning aftermath of that unexpected break in the heat yesterday, a new day where blue skies reign and temperatures reach again into the 90s, I know that fragrance of cool, stingy moisture lightly brushing the land.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Angel, St. Francis Basilica, Santa Fe

Look closer...

Who never wanted—maddest Joy

Remains to him unknown—

The Banquet of Abstemiousness

Defaces that of Wine—

Within its reach, though yet ungrasped

Desire’s perfect Goal—

No nearer—lest the Actual—

Should disentrall thy soul—

Emily Dickinson, #1430

Thursday, May 31, 2012

One good thing leads to another...

Soy marinated mahi mahi on lettuce wraps at The Range, Bernalillo NM
The Great Kiva of Chetro Ketl at Chaco Canyon New Mexico (photo courtesy of Wikipedia) was our destination Sunday morning of the Memorial Day weekend. If I had known what lay ahead, a wearying, yet ultimately energizing, climb up the canyon wall and back down, I might have passed on the experience. Exploring the ruins of Chaco might as well have been a totally new experience for me because I had little memory of the overnight trip I made there with friends 25 years ago. On that trip, it was July, and well that pretty much says it. It was July in the New Mexico desert.

I forgot my camera for this 25th anniversary visit to one of the most historic historical sites in the nation, so I've borrowed a free photo from Wikipedia. And while I appreciate having the opportunity to borrow this image, since virtually every photo one finds on the Internet is copyrighted (learned that the hard way), no photo that I could take would convey the majesty of such a haunting, austere, picturesque place. Our group of four joined scores of other visitors on a day with sunny skies and temperatures at late morning hovering under 70 degrees. When we arrived at the national park visitor center at mid morning, it was still only 54 degrees.

Attentive to the signage that explained in brief what we were seeing, most was left to speculation and questioning, even though we are told the approximate dates that Chaco was a "major center of culture" for the "Ancient Pueblo Peoples" (AD 900 - 1150). One significant footnote of an Anglo presence in the canyon is a small fenced-in cemetery, with the grave sites of husband and wife, Richard and Marietta Wetherill, who came to Chaco in 1897. According to information available on the Internet, Richard dug for Anasazi relics and established a thriving trading post with the Navajos. He was also killed by a Navajo man in 1910. As our small group made its way around Pueblo Bonito, a young family of father, mother and two children--presumably Hispanic or Native American--the father commenting to us that there was a cemetery about one-quarter mile away, if we wanted to go see it--"White man, not Indian," he added. Yet another story for the curious to investigate.

Several of the ruins are at automobile level. More sit atop the canyon wall, requiring a climb, which in some places is a crawl. It is more than a little challenging, especially to me, the oldest guy in the group. In a way I was celebrating my first official climb since getting a heart stent last November 15th. No slacker am I, however, because I walk often and briskly. Climb/crawling a canyon wall is a different matter, but I'm here to tell about.

It would have been enough just to make the drive to Chaco Canyon from Albuquerque. The scenery heading west from the Rio Grande Valley, up the plateau from 5000 to 7000 feet, was stunning. If you could see inside my mind, you would know. I urge you to go see for yourself.

The lovely plate pictured here? My very late lunch, or early dinner if you choose, a delight of grilled mahi mahi nested with condiments on butter lettuce leaves, accompanied by black beans and rice worth eating. No doubt, it was fare that any ancient puebloan would have loved. Ah, yes, the cold one-half pint of brew, made it all the more satisfying.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Labyrinth

Yesterday, while talking to a friend who lives in East Texas, our conversation had moved around the map. It usually does with us. We're both avid readers, above average intelligence, and we like to think and talk about a variety of things. While talking about spirituality, and along with that the work of a well-known Franciscan Friar centered here in Albuquerque, I asked Mildred if she had walked the labyrinth. Her answer reduced to its simplest element, "No".

As we continued to dart from one subject to another: collecting versus hoarding, modern furniture design, gardening, matters of health, and the list goes on, I was doing one-handed searches on Google, forwarding links on the Internet to her. One was an article from the religion blog on the CNN website where the writer, well known in journalistic circles, talked about her own experience with the labyrinth.  A woman of no small means, after a deep experience on the labyrinth at a spa retreat, she had had constructed on her property a large labyrinth based on the 13th century one at Chartres Cathedral in France. In the article, which is accompanied by a video clip where she talks about what the labyrinth means to her, the writer offers that walking the labyrinth is a good way to focus and problem solve. Having read the article and watched the video clip several months ago, I had forgotten the substance of what she had said, and seeing it once again, I reflected on the feelings I get while walking the labyrinth. I don't think of it as a conscious problem-solving tool. Instead, I draw from it an almost-perfect sense of calm that comes from simply moving slowly into the labyrinth center, pausing for a while, and then moving slowly back out, all along allowing my mind to rest as much as it will.

My first experience walking the labyrinth was in rural central Texas several years ago. At the time, our mother was in failing health, and a friend, knowing that I was struggling with everything relating to Mother's decline, offered to take me to this private retreat site, where a labyrinth nested in large Live Oak trees is open to the public. On that first experience, I found the calm I have talked about here. And that same experience has been true the many times I have walked the labyrinth over the last nine years. As a contemplative tool, I don't think that you can prescribe how walking the labyrinth is supposed to affect someone. I know two Episcopal priests who do not like how they feel when walking the labyrinth path. The experience is unsettling to them. Is it a control issue? I don't know. I do know this: go without expectation, allow yourself to proceed slowly, and give yourself up to the moment. That's what I did this morning at the Sisters of Canossian in the south valley of Albuquerque. My conversation with Mildred yesterday reminded me that I had been missing this experience. I just had to take time to have it.

The Internet has much information on the labyrinth, including its historical roots, books by so-called experts, and even a labyrinth locator. While on the phone with Mildred, I found links to labyrinths in the big city of Dallas and even in a tiny town only 10 miles from her home in Tyler. "Go," I said.