“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
People who really know me would describe me as a bright, talented, caring guy. Although I see myself as somewhat an introvert, people tell me that I’m gregarious. I enjoy social settings that fit me, but I need down time on a regular basis, some time alone with myself and to just get things done. I’m no dreamer (okay, a little dreaming never hurt anyone, right?). Active expression of compassion for others is essential. Sentiments need to be translated into behavior. A Houston native, I have a home on family land northeast of Bryan/College Station Texas, but live most of the year in northern New Mexico. I enjoy the arts, including film and theatre, but I am even more interested in exploring the historic Southwest. I collect American primitive arts. In Texas my garden is populated with native plants, perennials, old garden roses, and a few old-fashioned annuals. I read quite a bit and enjoy a variety of music. Although I love treasure hunting, the greatest treasure is family and friends.