Kathleen Hirsch | Blog and spiritual writings of Kathleen Hirsch
Blog and spiritual writings of Kathleen Hirsch including an archive of her columns for BostonGlobe.com and Cruxnow.com
Spiritual writing, Kathleen Hirsch, crux, cruxnow
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Advent, 6: Hope in the Dark

It is dark as I write, this morning.  And that is as it should be.

I tie a long white ribbon around three bags full of brand new clothing that I’ve purchased for a boy I will never meet.  Two pairs of slacks, four shirts, two sweaters, a pair of plaid pajamas, underwear and socks.  Enough for his mother to get him through the school year before she needs to worry about where summer’s shorts and tees will come from.

Then I will attend the funeral of a boy nearly the same age, 15 year old, who shattered the lives of all who loved him 10 days ago when he took his life.

There is no darkness deeper than this.  No words, no hope that time will somehow reverse itself and that terrible moment.  It is unimaginable darkness.

One does everything one can think of to console, help to bear ordinary life along around in the aftermath of such horror.  Bring food, send flowers, gather with friends, manage the countless details.

But none of these gestures, good and essential though they are, alter the fact that we have been forced into an altered reality, one that exposes the gossamer nature of security, and the wild power of all that we cannot and do not control.  Our ordinary habits of mind are sheared away, like trees toppled in a hurricane.

At a certain point, you realize that the ordinary consolations are inadequate.  I imagine that it is somewhat the same for people in wartime, or during epochal catastrophes.

Only by continuing to stand in a place of vulnerability does a certain resolving truth emerge.

For me, what began to make sense was to try to offer some small gesture of concrete hope.  I emailed a group that was looking for people to buy clothing for indigent families.

Buying a new wardrobe for a boy I will never meet, in the context of this dark week, became an indescribable luxury.  To sit on a department store website and pick out socks and shirts that I could imagine him gladdened and proud to be wearing, somehow returned me to the land of the living and a place of hope.

I hope that he likes my choices.  I pray that his mother has a few months of respite from the anxiety of needing to scare up the funds to buy his clothes.  I am under no illusion that this one-off act will rebalance income inequity, or solve racism, or cure childhood obesity, or equip his mother with better skills by which to earn what she needs to buy his clothes herself, rather than rely on strangers.  But I am completely convinced that each of our lives hang in the balance, more than ordinary life usually enables us to realize, utterly dependent on those individual acts of kindness, those single moments of grace, that give us a sense of being beloved.  Worthy.

Year ago, I knew a woman whose 19 year old son died, unexpectedly, on the operating table in the middle of heart surgery.  His death changed her life.  A successful realtor, she became a hospice worker.  And at Christmas each year, she went out and bought a carload full of X-boxes and hams, toys and games that were out-of-reach fantasy items for the poor children of a church near her home.  It was the time of year that she lived for, when she could anonymously shower the children of that church with gifts they’d only dreamed of.  She wanted to give them a glimpse of hope, that even for a day life could meet their wildest dreams.

I will never in this lifetime see Luke again, and I will never meet Lewis, for whom the gear in my living room will be Christmas.

But I understand as I never did before the woman who made her peace with God by turning her personal nightmare into another child’s hopes, his fondest dreams.

Peace on this day.


Advent, 5: Mending

I chalk it all up to the beer.

The more organized among you have undoubtedly already done your fall cleaning — swept up the leaves on your paths, passed on used clothing, weeded out unmatched socks and rid yourselves of books you will never crack the covers of again.

I would have gone blithely into January without this valuable exercise had I not had this adventure.

Last week I opened my basement storage area looking for the jars of crab apple chutney I’d made in August as gifts for my neighbors.  For months, I’d been opening that door and tossing things in, then closing it again, confident that the gremlins of organization would not be watching.

On a parallel track, several family members have taken up home brewing.  And so for some time a large plastic container filled with whatever pre-beer is called (it escapes me at the moment) has taken up residence in the middle of the concrete floor in there.

My eye was busy scanning the shelves for the telltale Ball’s jar box.  Suddenly I was aware that my feet were getting wet.  I looked down and found myself standing in a steady stream of beer.   I’d unwittingly released the spigot with a mere brush of my foot!

This is how a three-second errand turns into a morning’s cleaning project.

Humbled, as I scoured, on my knees with vinegar and water, I remembered:  there are no short cuts.

We can stuff only so much away, can gather only so much excess, delay only so long the reckoning with what in our lives we ignore, as we race ahead into another day.  Sooner or later we will be standing in a leaky pool of something smelly.

When life gets to this point, we need more than an hour of re-ordering.  We need to clean the wounds before we can apply antibiotics, stitches.  We need to release pent up pressure.  Give a sick room fresh air.

What are you deferring?

I have now tossed old cookware, re-gifted a pasta maker, recycled fabric swatches, and asked myself whether I will use my downhill skis boots ever again.

The process re-educated me in the nature of mending at its best.  Mending is about self-care.

Mending is a graceful dance, actually, when done well.  We break the surface of our routines in bursts of creative chaos, trying new recipes and art project and relationships.  It is taking risks, and acting in trust that our mindfulness and enthusiasm will carry us forward.

But when that part of the dance has had its hour, we need to slow down enough to reflect, to process, evaluate, and let go.  We need to clean the counter of the crab apple cores, put the paints away, and allow a fallow time in which to re-charge.

My mistake this fall was to take this part of the dance too lightly.  There was always something more compelling on the calendar to call me away from this critical step of self-care.  Now, as the days grow shorter, and I have more time to look at my shelves and into the corners of the house, I see much will fill the snowy evenings with mending.

I am pulling on a pair of warm, dry socks for the journey.

Happy Thursday!


Advent, Day 4: Tools that Help Us Go Slow

Remember the birthday party game of long ago, before those events rivaled weddings?

Someone’s mother, perhaps ours, would bring out a small tray covered with homely and familiar household objects.  We would get 20 seconds to look at the array, then it would be whisked out of sight.  The game — contest, actually — was to see how many of the objects you remembered.

Those party afternoons were invariably warm, and we were keyed up and a little sweaty.  But not at that moment.  I will never forget the atmosphere then.  It was one of the few times that a gaggle of busy, antic girls grew quiet enough to hear the distant traffic.  We were swaddled in a concentration and focus that we’d created by ourselves, and it was delicious.  Who needed cake?  It paled in comparison to this pleasure.

I have no one to offer this diversion today.  Quite the contrary.  I face the menace of distractions at every turn.  “Faster” is the delusion that we can outrun the list of things that need doing.  If this were a 12-step moment, I’d be confessing that yesterday I imagined that I could bake a batch of granola cookies at the same time that I ran out to buy a toy for a Christmas charity, finished a book on Dante, and prepared for my final class of the semester.

I know that I’m not alone.  So today, I’ve taken matters in hand.

In lieu of the birthday party game, I have created a small mindfulness altar that I will look at every time I pass through my office.  It contains the following:

A wooden clothes pin.  A wooden spoon.  A pair of knitting needles.

Only these.  They are laid out on a simple wooden cutting board, along with an acorn given to me by a friend.

These objects tell me the truth about myself.  They require me to quiet down, to remember who I am when I am engaged with each of them.

I am focused, content, and productive.  I am simple and slow.

When I know such moments, I shift into a deeper center.  I can feel something in me unfurl and claim its freedom.

On this day, perhaps you might try a similar altar.  A photo will do.  A table top cleared of newspapers and magazines.  My wish is that all of us reclaim a few moments of freedom from “faster,” so that we can know our inner wisdom and move in something more meaningful than circles.


Making the House Ready for the Lord

Dear Lord, I have swept and I was have washed but
still nothing is as shining as it should be
for you.  Under the sink, for example, is an
uproar of mice.  It is the season of their
many children.  What shall I do?  And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances but it is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do?  And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do?  Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door.  And still I believe you will
come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.

Advent, Day 2: The Journey

Some of us start journeys with all the details in place: we’ve signed up for pre-check, packed our plane slippers a good mystery, and the right maps; we have our museum passes.  And we’ve taken our dreams out of storage since the last big adventure.  These we tuck into what an old friend once called “God’s pocket.”

Without naming this, we hope to be changed.  But the secret of the journey is that change only happens if we hold the first set of travel tools lightly, and lead with the second.

I have known three people who’ve walked El Camino.  One was a young adult.  One, a recent retiree.  One, a middle-aged woman.

The first returned home having heard a call to become an Episcopal priest.  The second checked another hike off his long and impressive list.  The third opened herself to a collection of new friends and conversations, and, full of the unexpected stories and synchronicities along the way, found herself swept into a transcendent spiritual experience as she entered the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Unlike the countless transformations that feel forced on us as we go about “ordinary” life, journeys are intentional.  They require a sense of adventure, open eyes and ears and hearts, and should never be rushed.

How can we bring these pillars of transformation to the lives we are living in the present moment?

A relative of mine, in his prime, loved to map out marvelous trips for his family.  They traveled the world, but they never lingered longer than was fully necessary, in his view.  Which was: never long enough.  The Louvre got half an hour; Machu Picchu, half a day.  He was of the Instagram generation before there were cell phones.

These days, we disseminate every drink and flash-in-the-pan “high” to our friends in what often seems a substitute reality.  “See, I am living now!” the images say.  “Aren’t we having fun?”

But wait.  Maybe fun, and the self-marketing of our cool experiences, isn’t as important as giving ourselves the space in which to take in their full significance, to let them work their transformations in us before we pass them on.

What is we were to “do” this season differently?

What if we committed to watching, listening, taking in, digesting — gathering what stirs and surprises us each day in a spacious time of quiet at day’s end?  When we do this, we find much that we missed the first time around.  And herein lies their power to change us.

This was why, back in the day, people kept travel journals.  It is why so many I know today do the same.  If a journey is an act of intent, the journal is a practice of mindfulness that supports the intent.  It affirms the essential (and so easily lost) dimension of interiority in our lives.  We can succumb to the checklist mentality, to our Google calendars.  Or we can hold our journey in the broad and spacious dimension my friend dubbed, “God’s pocket”.

How will you journey today?


Advent 1: Awake! Die!

This morning my inbox offers me two seemingly conflicting Advent meditations.  The first, taken from the Psalm 57, encourages me to “Awake and sing.”  The second, to prepare for a good death.

How can these two concepts coexist on the first day of Advent?

Once when I was young, my parents hauled the four of us children to a resort in the Adirondacks.  It was a beautiful spot and we exhausted ourselves the first day exploring the lake, canoeing, playing tennis, and stuffing ourselves with blueberries.

We fell into bed in the cabin that night, spent and ready for deep slumber.  I shared a double bed with my younger sister, a night-time dervish.  Near dawn, not nearly rested enough, I was violently jolted from a dream when her arm came sailing full force across her body and onto my face.

Waking is painful, more often than not.  All over the world as I write this, people are being pulled from safety out of cars to be shot, women sexually assaulted, people evicted from their homes into the winter cold.

Power wields its unconscious arrogance like a modern-day Grendel, devouring the best among us.

Hunkered down in heated homes, with candles and wreaths to light, is a rare privilege.  And the truth is, even with these privileges the pain of awakening is as life-changing among us as it is elsewhere, even if we succeed in keeping it out of the news.

The Buddhist teacher famously whacks his pupil with a stick of wood during his meditation.

A poor Jewish girl finds herself pregnant by a man not her betrothed.

This waking is a kind of death.  The death of security, conformity, and ease.

It comes to us all.

We wake, and have a choice.

Will we resist that with which our rude awakenings confront us? Will we wallow in self-pity and narcissism self-absorption?   Or will we take one step after another, bracing ourselves to face into darkness, determined to bring our best to bear against what would defeat us?  To heal and to bring the light of our new strengths back to the world that needs us?

My prayer is that we come to share the journeys through the dark, and as we do, discover the wisdom and power and honesty that is in us, waiting to be revealed.