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
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Advent Is Up for Sale

If you haven’t yet purchased your Advent calendar, you may be pleased to know that Advent has gone high market.  You can buy a calendar with daily “treats” ranging from marijuana to whiskey, beef jerky, hand-tied flies for your fishing expeditions, Legos characters, or, for a mere $495, a daily pair of cashmere socks.

Why wait for Christmas for the stampede of commercialization to begin, when you can do it now?

Or, consider this.  On Sunday, I will join thousands of other households around the world when I light the first of four candles on my Advent wreath, to mark the start of a sacred season in the Christian calendar.

Wreath traditions descend from the earliest peasant communities of Europe.  When the light seemed to abandon them after the harvest, they brought boughs indoors, fixed them to wagon wheels, and hung them from the rafters.  These wreaths were a symbol of hope that the sun would return in spring to nurture the crops they needed to survive.

Their form, and the meaning behind them, hasn’t changed much to observant Christians.  Advent is a journey through darkness, in faith that at the end of it, God will “return.”  Goodness will assume the form of a human being, so that we who so easily lose sight of it can see for ourselves what it looks like to live with compassion, routinely practice forgiveness, and do what we can to heal the world’s innumerable wounds.

Advent is about anticipation.  This, of course, makes the immediate gratification offered by the Advent-for-sale market absurd, as crass as so much of what passes for “culture” in our land today.

I came to an appreciation of Advent somewhat late.  In my twenties, I distained the deeper resonances and meanings of the season — already jaded by Christmas catalogs that filled my mail box before Thanksgiving.  I balked at repeating medieval hymns, and wearied of what seemed worn-out re-enactments that I deemed to be fairy tales.  But by the time I arrived at my mid-thirties, I’d discovered that intelligence, and even worldly success, didn’t go the distance.  Life could advance, but then be sent spinning backwards so fast you could stop breathing for months. Trustworthy friends became shameless exploiters.  People who appeared to be getting their lives together actually took their lives.  Virtue and talent were not, inevitably, their own reward.

In other words, life became life — as full of darkness and grief as it is of light.  I needed more than knowledge.  I needed deep sources of wisdom.

There was no boxed set for this.  It turned out that those ancient sources – the psalms and rituals and humble practices of reflection — were the best go-tos for understanding how evil behaves, and what goodness looks like in the face of abuse, violence, cruelty and grinding despair.

This is what Advent is all about.  When we make room for the vivid realities that dwell beyond commerce, politics, and endless news bites (note, well: beyond the realm of empire) — when we light a candle and allow ourselves to sit in the darkness of all that we don’t know and can’t fix or control, we eventually discover a bit of insight and a new metric of value.  Sitting with the still small voice within, we can learn where we need to go.

Advent isn’t for sale, and never was.  We can forgo the gaudy calendars altogether this year.  There is another way to do this.  Here’s my recommendation: release a bit of random kindness into each day.  For the 24 leading up to Christmas, act as if goodness is something free.  Compliment someone you dislike.  Forgive an obnoxious relation.  Feed the birds.  Send a gift to a foster home.  Tape chocolate bits to the cars in a local parking lot.  Christmas carol door to door (remember that)?

In a very dark time, lend the world around you a bit of your own light, and watch it grow.

 

 

 

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My Private Session with Thomas Moore

Friends,

I am grateful to have been granted a breakfast meeting with one of my all-time living wisdom teachers, Thomas Moore, a month ago.  The interview was just published in the journal, Anchor.  Enjoy!

My Personal Session with Thomas Moore

MY PERSONAL SESSION WITH THOMAS MOORE
BY KATHLEEN HIRSCH

Twenty-five years ago, in his best seller, Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore gave mainstream America permission to use the word “soul” and not get laughed out of the party. Offering an avuncular conduit to the inner world, the monk-turned-psychologist became a catalyst for a holistic vision of human potential. His book re-energized the mindfulness movement, the re-discovery of the body as source of sacred wisdom, and an activist stance towards psychological inquiry. Outlier practices like yoga, meditation, and reiki became du rigueur.

My personal copy of Care of the Soul joined my collection of writings by Jung and Jung’s luminous descendants, Marie von Franz, James Hillman, Marion Woodman, and others. What set Moore apart was his kindly approachableness. Drawing on the writings of his Renaissance muse, Marcilio Ficino, Moore encouraged over-committed westerners to attend to our dreams, create daily rituals, and practice conviviality. Moore saw us as essentially good, if uptight, materialists in need of a more holistic vision of the self in order to live lives of true dignity, intent and joy. For a generation, his voice was a warm welcome out of the wilderness.

Even as he moved into the role of columnist (Spirituality Today) and guru (a regular at Kripalu and Omega), with his Van Dyke beard, bright eyes, and compact, natty mien, sharing workshop billing with Deepak Chopra, Joan Borysenko, and the like, he continued to spin out books—some two dozen since 1992, on topics ranging from sex to bathing to golf.

Now, at the age of 75, he has taken up the topic of aging.

I found myself wondering what he makes of his legacy. How do those of us committed to consciousness and restorative justice reckon the results of our work in these troubling times? Where has mindfulness gotten us? And what remains to be done?

We met for breakfast in Cambridge, MA a few weeks before Ageless Soul was scheduled for publication (St. Martin’s Press). Moore arrived in a navy blazer and a plaid shirt, easeful, relaxed, and prepared to be interested. I felt as if we were old friends just picking up a conversation left off a while back. After ordering berry smoothies and a bit of small talk about his recent New Testament translations, we turned to my questions.

Care of the Soul gave us a language for the vitality of the inner life in the culture’s public space. What can we say about its contribution to our advancement in the intervening 25 years? Was our progress an illusion?

“We haven’t improved,” he admits, by way of understatement.

“The forces arrayed against the humanity of the person permeate every aspect of our lives.

“Simply put, it is the quantification of life. Materialism, treating the body as a mechanism, a system of chemical reactions, and the ‘mind’ as an object that is somehow ‘fixable’ by Big Pharma, have taken hold so completely that alternative views go nearly unheard. We have fallen, if anything, even more under the sway of materialism than we were two decades ago.

“We live in this insane society that treats everybody like a thing. Even in psychology, now, we are quantitative. The validation for the inner voice is almost non-existent.”

In the bleak context of these materialistic time, Moore speaks of age as much more than just the last stand against the abyss.

Age in these times—perhaps in every time—becomes, for Moore, the opportunity to counter empty busyness, acquisition, and the domineering ego (the cornerstones of materialist philosophy), and instead embrace a deeper spirituality. If we accept this challenge, and its attending renunciations, age can serve as the threshold into one of the great transformational archetypes, that of elder and sage.

“When you are older, what you do is extremely useful. The young need the refined intelligence of age. They need our mentoring, our modeling, and our life wisdom.”

This journey demands nothing less than the transformation of the ego.

“We have fallen, if anything, even more under the sway of materialism than we were two decades ago”

“Jung moved close to it when he said we need a new kind of center. Not the ego. It’s something that’s more at home in the unconscious. Hillman called it ‘an imaginal ego,’ by which he meant, a poetic ego, one that sees layers in everything. Layers and depths. Whatever you look at, no matter what it is—a thing, an object, an animal, a person, a plant. You see these layers. A poet always sees layers.”

This is the “work” of age.

“It isn’t about productivity, but a different kind of work. When the outer world becomes less pressing, the inner world ‘increases.’”

The way into this work, for Moore, lies in grounded acts of creativity, activities that engender reverie and an opening to the imagination.

“I think Jung would suggest that what we need to do is find a way to be more comfortable with intuition, divination, artistic expression, with image and metaphor. All the things that aren’t taken seriously in this culture. Jung was trying to suggest that we need to develop an ego that can live that way, on a deeper intuitive level, trusting intuition, reading poetry, reading the signs.

“There is a natural spirituality that comes with age, a natural contemplative attitude that doesn’t have to be some system or formal ‘way.’”

In a public sphere overtaken by cell phones and angry speech, it is helpful to remember the special alchemy of simply being with others in a state of receptivity. Travel, knitting, spending time with friends for the pure pleasure of it are all contemplative activities.

“Whatever we can do that allows the inner matter of our souls and imaginations to take form in the outer world in ways they haven’t until now is the process of soul-work. This is the invitation of age. It is an alchemical process, this work on our ‘beings.’ If we could do that, we’d be a different kind of person.”

It is clear that Moore is more concerned with individual consciousness than he is with social critique. Or, to put it more precisely, though he passionately rues the materialism of western medical practice, and the obsession with “fixing” symptoms that rules much modern therapy, his concern is less with repairing broken systems than with continuing to live out his life’s work of lighting the journey of souls.

“In the monastery, I learned that ‘to work is to pray.’ What you do is prayer. That got through to me. I’ve always viewed my individual work as drawing out a person’s inner excellence. This was what the Greeks meant when they used the word, ‘therapy,’ which they did quite a bit. Plotinus added the element of beauty. These are my sources. And my writing is my personal daily spiritual practice. As soon as I wake in the morning, I go to my desk.”

“Be curious; follow your own path to meaning.”

I reflect on the humble, hidden nature of growth and transformation. It is so easy to jump off the rails into a sort of sociological analysis of matters that are essentially sacramental. It is, indeed, one of the temptations of the times. Moore is mindful, gentle, corrective, ever concrete, ever grounded.

The conscious man and woman needs to locate those guides and images that can enable them to do the essential inner work.

“You can do things when you are older that you can’t do when you are younger. If you travel, don’t be just a world traveler. Travel because you really want to have an experience. Paint. Make music. Write. These are all pretty good options. Be curious; follow your own path to meaning.”

I am reminded of Hillman’s observation: “Aging is a mystical struggle between the progress of a civilization forward and ‘the little man at the end of the road.’” If the human task is complete insofar as we have committed ourselves wholly to a cultural good larger than ourselves, then Moore has made a good journey. As we finish our smoothies, I think perhaps we reckon best the gift that has been our years on earth not in the marquis issue of “legacy,” but by remaining in conversation with one another, sharing what we have learned and loved with those we befriend along the way. §


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Kathleen Hirsch is the author of A Sabbath Life: One Woman’s Search for Wholeness (North Point Press, 2001), Songs from the Alley (Anchor, 1990), and several other books. She currently teaches social justice writing at Boston College and serves as a spiritual director at Bethany House of Prayer in Arlington, Massachusetts. She blogs at kathleenhirsch.com.

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The Courage of Swans, the Wisdom of Owls

What is the courage of the swan among ducks? 

What is the journey from solitude into trust?

Dare we scratch our harsh stories against the grain of life, and risk that they will become things of beauty?

These are questions poets ask themselves as often as they take in breath.

Jung, a poet in his own right, spent his whole life searching for a language that would do justice to his insight that we are each “a splinter of the infinite deity.”

He was far from alone.  Who doesn’t long for that voice that will not only convey our deepest experiences, but – harder and harder it seems, for so many – know that it is heard.

Swans float among ducks in the silver of autumn where I walk these days.  They remind me of what is possible.  Just as owls called to my friend, Nancy Rappaport.

Sometimes, we are given voices when our story falls apart.

Two weeks ago, I sat in an off-Broadway theatre as Nancy performed a remarkable one-woman play that she has composed about her journey through breast cancer, and her accompanying pilgrimage into a deep, mystical faith in the healing presences that she has found on long walks through Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA.

In giving us this gift, it seemed to me that night and now, days after, she transformed herself into a swan among ducks, a poet of healing.

With unflinching candor, she relates her shock at her diagnosis (she is a doctor), her fear, the dehumanizing process of medical procedures that so often shear away what trust we have in western medicine.

What called her from the terror of the hospital corridors to the silence of the cemetery?  What path, what voices unheard by the ordinary ear, led her to its deep and healing mysteries?

I know Mount Auburn Cemetery as a beautiful patch of tranquility, a mecca for birders and history bounty hunters eager to explore the many tombs of the famous there.

For Nancy, the cemetery became a source of communion, and its beauty a space of healing. There, the call of the owls in the deep, hidden glens evoked the presence of her late mother and the intimations of an overarching love.  As she struggled with the decision to refuse conventional plastic surgery and faced her fears of dying, she returned time and time again to the solace of the quiet stones, the centuries-old trees, the birds.  In its silences, and in the visitation of the owls, she found it in her to trust the process of recovery, and a new hunger to live a life of gratitude, immediacy, beauty and joy.

As I watched her, rapt, move across the stage, changing from street clothes to johnnie to beach flip flops, wrapping herself up in her beloved prayer shawl, or in meditation as the strings of a cello provided gorgeous accompaniment, I was aware once again of how essential and courageous it is for us to scratch the truth of our journeys on the air and into the relationships we cherish, to create story and beauty out of the hurts that tear us from innocence to wisdom.

Such messages are a form of ritual, just like the praying with incense, or the breaking of bread. They become the gifts that break life open and allow us to see the labyrinths we only recognize by walking them, the healing koans we discover only by returning time and again, until their mystery breaks open for us.

“In the end the only events of my life worth telling are those when the imperishable world erupted into this transitory one,” wrote Jung at the start of his memoir, Memories, Dreams and Reflections.

Nancy’s play, Regeneration, gave voice to such an event and we are the richer for it.  Her ordeal revealed allowed us to see the metamorphosis of pain into wise beauty.

Regeneration will be performed again.  Information will be posted October 29, 2017 at 6 p.m. at this link:

http://unitedsolo.org/us/regeneration-2017/

 

 

 

4

Last Days of Summer

Here it is, the last, last day of blowing bubbles, walking barefoot in the grass, idling away a whole afternoon staring at a body of water.

Schedules and emails from old friends, and invitations to fall garden parties, are already arriving like the first winter storm ahead of their time.  Tonight, I receive my first batch of student writings, short poems about where they have come from and where they hope to go in their time with me.

We all need to ask these questions from time to time (and sometimes, every day!) and we all need to keep our eyes open for the lingering waterlilies, on nearby walks or in the marvelous imagination of Mssr. Monet.

I’m excited to anticipate the group of creative folks eager for a day-long adventure in writing, collage, and image making, with my talented friend and book artist, Susan Porter.  It’s just a few weeks away.  Join us if you can!

Here’s the skinny:

Illuminating Our Stories: A Creativity Lab

with Susan Porter and Kathleen Hirsch

 In this day-long workshop, we will celebrate the un-mined stories that live in us, using writing prompts and a rich array of visual materials to explore emerging themes and narratives.  Our process will combine writing, mark-making, collage, and mixed media.  Students will explore story — fiction, poetry and memoir — through prompts, individual creative time, and sharing. By day’s end, participants will have completed a series of illuminations, one written piece, and several working drafts that they can complete at home.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

9:00 AM to 4:00 PM

311 Forest Hills St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130

$115 per person (includes materials, pre-payment required)

Space is limited. Contact us to register at

  susaneporter33@yahoo.com  or  khirsch72@comcast.net

 Kathleen Hirsch is an essayist, memoirist and columnist.  She has published four books, and has taught writing at Harvard, Boston College, and in workshop retreats for adults throughout the Boston area.  She writes at KathleenHirsch.com.

Susan Porter’s multi-dimensional art journals blur boundaries between collage, printmaking and book arts. She teaches others how to use color, imagery, and text to create their own one-of-a-kind journals. Her work can be viewed at coloringbooksandjournals.com.

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Forks in the Road

Opioid addiction has been shoved off the front page by the newest study.  Risky drinking has increased massively – 30 percent — in our country in the past ten years.

No doubt you have such a story somewhere your life.   If you do, it is a very old story.  This is how it goes.

You nudge, encourage, suggest, retreat, try again.

You watch, and you try to “do something” about it.  This can go on for years.  Dysfunction becomes normalized.  You learn to live with it.  You try not to let it overwhelm the good and healthy and normal life that it threatens.  Every day.

You become a watchdog for loved ones who refuse (or are unable) to hold themselves accountable for their behaviors.

You watch the elephants in the room for so long it’s sometimes hard to see anything else.

And the public health numbers climb.  How does this happen?

Rather than swerve into the usual socio-economic analysis of the “issue,” as I prepare for a summer sojourn to a place of quiet and restoration, I’d like to ponder for a moment the spiritual fallout of this big number on everyone else  – and the possible juncture where we might look to begin, infinitesimally, to change it.

This morning I happened upon a remarkable description of what it feels like to live with the stuff one has no power to change.  It is written by a 20th century French mystic, using the Christian metaphor for ultimate suffering “the cross.”

“But on one particular day,” wrote Madeleine Delbrel, “or maybe for several years, the cross comes to us veiled and we do not recognize it.  It is veiled by something which for us hides its form, its shape, and its size.  Or it seems to be made up of monstrous parts that are totally incoherent.  Or it seems to emerge like a phony shadow from phony lighting.  Or it weighs us down and hems us in.  The mystery that it presents us with from the moment that it approaches us ‘rejects’ one vital element of our human being.”

In the cancer world, where I’m spending more time these days, people talk about everyone effected by the disease as “survivors.”  Too rarely do we extend the same compassion to those who carry the “cross” of loved ones’ “risky behaviors.”

So here’s a bit of light.  A friend recently introduced me to a great little book for cancer survivors.  It’s called, Crazy Sexy Cancer Tips, by Kris Carr.  Carr has lived with liver cancer for a decade, and her book is chock full of self-care tips in which survivors of all manner of disease – addiction as well as cancer — can find loads of replenishment.

It offers up good quotes, like this from John Wayne, “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway,” and from Lao-Tzu, “By letting go it all gets done.”  It tells us to take breaks, be with positive people, get playful, dress up, and to say thank you.  Obvious, but in the vice grip of risky behaviors, easily forgotten.

At some point in their lives, those I consider my healthiest friends reached a fork in their roads and made such mental checklists for themselves.  Instead of turning a blind eye to the diseases that were slowing vaporizing friends with maintenance drinking issues, or emergent drug dependencies, or eating issues — they realized that they had to detach, lovingly, or they would lose themselves.  They needed to look after their themselves too — their own promises and health and fulfillment.

The question we should be asking in the face of the new numbers isn’t, “How could this happen,” but rather, “How, despite all, can I serve life and find joy?”

I’ve reviewed enough 12-Step literature to remember the mantra, “You didn’t cause it; you can’t cure it.”  I’d like to take this one step further, in light of the latest news flash about our sorry state of affairs.  In the words of a dear friend, “Go with the good energy.”  Go where there’s life and health and creativity and play and joy.

A cross laid down becomes a fork in the road.  Not a cop-out, but a change in attitude and direction.  If we want others to take responsibility for their lives, as survivors we must do so too.

Saddle up.

 

 

 

 

 

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