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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Guides for a Dark Time

Guides are good.  I learned this when I was nine, lost in a downpour in the southern hills of New York State.  Were it not for one counselor, and her confidence in the few   green blazes barely visible through the drenched woods, I would be tramping still.

I am rereading May Sarton’s journal, At Seventy.  Her almost religious devotion to her annuals garden and the daily reinforcements that arrived in spring for her to plant, would make a green thumb out of an armadillo.  Her labors, punctuated by asides from Emerson, Virginia Woolf, or Camus, is seductive.  Reading it, I want her life, with its stream of visitors, its letters, its amplitudes.

One entry has lingered with me.  Sarton describes a friend just turned fifty as “imaginatively kind.”

The phrase throws a gauntlet to the reader.   Imaginative kindness.  It has an entirely different quality than the ordinary, dutiful, run-of-the-mill.  It is kindness that anticipates.  It strives to go deep towards the well-being of another – looking for occasions for surprise, delight, for hitting the mark, instead of just glancing the periphery.

We know it when we see it.  The considered gift, the innovative reading program, the art class where last year there wasn’t one, using recycled materials.

In these days of disastrously crude public discourse, and the waves of almost equally bad reactions with their rhetoric of accusation, victimhood, and anger, kindness can easily seem too frail and meager a thing to matter.  Care lives in the small details of attention – and who has time for that when the country is imploding?

We do.  And we must.

I cherish the memory of a neighbor’s “imaginative kindness” on a day long ago when, like a scorched-earth patch of earth, I was sorely in need of tending to.   Recently retired, she spent many hours of every day in her extensive gardens, replanting, raking, weeding.  They were so lovely that cars would slow to admire her handiwork.

It was a time in life when I was overwhelmed with child-rearing, more work than I could reasonably manage, and a busy husband.  I had neither the time nor money to do anything about my weed-ridden, depleted yard.  One summer day, without a word, she disappeared into the jungle behind my house with her tools — a rake, an edger, and a hoe — and set to work.  She edged the beds, raked away moss and leaves, pulled out weeds.

I hadn’t realized how low I’d been until I felt the lift of her amazing transformations.  It was as if someone had changed my sheets, opened the windows, and let in a whole new season.  It was a gift, imaginative and incredibly kind.  Easy to say that it didn’t change history, but I disagree.  It changed my day, my month, and probably my year, with its ripples.  It is changing things, even now; like all acts of kindness, it is a gift that keeps on giving.

For her 50-year-old friend, Sarton composed a poem, because her friend’s journey was, she writes, “partly about coming to a place where life has grown more important than ambition…”

I suspect that this is precisely the change required of us if we are to be “imaginatively kind.”  And it is perhaps why such kindness is in such short supply.   Ambition blinds.  It is a distraction that, for years, we mistake for the main event.  Kindness sees.

And seers are the guides we need now.  They aren’t household names, most of them, or people we recognize from the news.  Most of them are poets and gardeners of one ilk or another, pottering away in classrooms or clinics or in forlorn places somewhere very near us, shaping life in a vision of hope for those too burned out or too far underwater to be able to do so for themselves.

It is a good exercise in awareness to think about who these guides have been, or who they may be, in our lives today.  Then to learn from them to slow down and pick up our own rakes or paint brushes, write our own poems, paint our own canvasses, practice a kindness that stretches the frame of us.

 

 

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Gratitude for Our Ordinary Days

For the first time since June, my farmer’s market CSA did not have a full-to-bursting paper cone filled with wildflowers awaiting me – snapdragons, sweet peas, zinnias, statice, sunflowers.  For a beautiful season, I have been able to watch the color roll call of the summer garden – tender pinks and whispers of lemon, giving way to deeper roses, salmons, blues, and on to the intense flame of the sedums, asters and dahlias.

Then last Wednesday, I was told by the girl behind a folding table, dwarfed by five kinds of peppers, that the flowers were “over.”  Like a child called indoors while the light is still in the sky, I felt betrayed.  Something loved and lovely had been snatched away before I’d drawn sufficient breath in its presence to fully absorb its grace and goodness and pleasure.

I felt as if I had lost something precious before I’d fully possessed it.

I have recently discovered a poet whose writings – and story – about presence and loss teach me invaluable lessons about remaining mindful of what is most precious in our lives.

Claudia Emerson won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for her book, Late Wife.  It is an elegiac, redemptive series of poems about losing a marriage that was “over” and, in time, falling in love and marrying again, this time a widower who had lost his beloved first wife to cancer.

Emerson remarried in 2000.  Fourteen years later, at the age of 57, she herself died of cancer.   In the intervening years of happiness, diagnosis and grueling treatments , she continued to write poems.  Towards the end of her life she composed those that would comprise her very beautiful posthumous book, impossible bottle.

One of these has haunted me.  In it, Emerson describes a chemotherapy clinic and its by-then familiar clientele on a day she goes in for treatment:

What we do not know about

each other can go unspoken; our old ordinary

means nothing here, and we know already

the ordinary that this is-and is-.

 

“Our old ordinary means  nothing here…”

The few times I have passed through a hospital, nursing home, or a testing center, I too have experienced the dissociative and disempowering effects of radical vulnerability and the effacing of personal story.  I have been lucky:  unlike Emerson’s, my visits have been routine.  But even with the great kindness of good doctors and very able nurses, I understand the fragmented consciousness that her lines convey.

Haven’t we all had the relief of stepping back into the “real” world, strolling past a coffee shop and taking in the sounds of cars and the smell of buses with downright gratitude?

Emerson offers me a different sort of gift than do my paper cones full of flowers.  They lead me to take a morning to hold my own “ordinary” up to the light like the bouquet it truly is – the morning toast and paper with my husband, the workspace that I take for granted with its helter-skelter of books, paper, and illustrations, the conversation with a long-distance friend, the texts from my son, and the simple dinner by candlelight when day is done —  these are the blooms of a very ordinary garden, and yet they are infinitely precious to me.  When I remember to give thanks for them all, in all of their mundane abundance.

 

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The Gift of Vulnerability

Recently at a contemplative gathering, S. stood rocking her beautiful baby. When it was her turn to share what was on her heart, tears filled her eyes.

“I am trying to keep hold of where I end and my daughter begins,” she said. “Some days it is very hard to do.”

Her words pierced us as we remembered: there IS a grief to motherhood at times, the breaking open of selves and boundaries that goes with the territory of being female in ways that men, for better or worse, will never experience. Motherhood demands all of us at every turn, and it never stops doing so, even after we are no longer rocking our children to sleep or holding their hands at the corner waiting for the bus.

S. is not a novice by any stretch. She is the loving mother of several children. She is also one of the most intentional women I know, a role model of extraordinary courage and experience, having worked in African missions before returning to the States to raise a family and teach contemplative practices.

I, too, know from experience that to be the one with a baby on your hip in a roomful of women who have had the time to shower, select a matching blouse and scarf for the day, read the paper, and meditate is to feel like you’ve crossed into a twilight zone. “Will my life ever resemble theirs again? How many years will it take to be “normal?”

It wouldn’t have helped at that moment to tell her about the women I know in their 40s and 50s who grieve their decision to be childless. They traded the exhaustion of sleepless nights, and days defined by constant interruption, to offer the world their own significant forms of nurture – professional achievements, board memberships and honorifics.  But some of them still weep themselves to sleep knowing that they will never feel the physicality of maternal joy, the breathless can’t-wait-to-see-how-the-first-day-of-school (or college, or marriage, or the job) went.

The insight of value in this comparison is this: no matter how disciplined and faithful we are to a practice of mindfulness, and no matter how intentional we have been about our choices, life has a way of ripping up our scripts. Our identities can be tossed out the window every bit as vehemently by miracles – babies and recovery and good fortune — as by accident and loss.

A job ends unexpectedly and a friend is forced to ramp up retirement plans. Another’s sudden health issues demand a geographic change. A dear friend in her early fifties who house sits my pets every time I go away has been struck with ALS.

“Keep your lamps trimmed,” Jesus told his followers.

The concept of “spiritual fitness” and “being prepared” are excellent as far as they go. But we need to be honest – they are not enough. We can’t hold off the weather systems that effect our own.   When life breaks our neat boxes and categories and expectations, twenty minutes of silence each day won’t, alone, keep the inner flame alive.

No mother, alone for hours with her children day after day, with insufficient intellectual stimulation and only exhaustion at the end of it, can believe that this is God’s will for her. I don’t believe it either.

My friend was asking for help. She was asking the rest of us women in the room to remind her of all she is in addition to being a mother. She is asking us to do the sacred work of recognizing those dimensions of her being that aren’t in evidence when she is food shopping with a Snugli between her and the lettuce with teething rings hanging from her blouse.

It is easy to forget that people are often unable to speak of their suffering until it is in the rearview mirror. This is especially true when it arises from circumstances everyone else considers “normal.” So when we are asked for help, we must acknowledge it as a gift, and recognize it for what it is: not a sign of weakness but an act of courage and integrity.

I wish that I had offered these words of David Whyte’s to my friend the other day, but I offer them to you, because we all need help now and then. And we need to know that it’s okay to ask.

“It may be that the ability to know the necessity for help; to know how to look for that help and then most importantly, how to ask for it, is one of the primary transformative dynamics that allows us to emancipate ourselves into each new epoch of our lives…To ask for help and to ask for the right kind of help and to feel that it is no less than our due as a live human being; to feel, in effect, that we deserve it, may be the engine of transformation itself.”

 

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An Adventure

On Thursday, I enjoyed a good hour of talk about the things that matter most to me….Silence, good work and what it looks like, and grounded relationship.

Janet Connor is a real “flow” presence — she opens up the channel of her radio program to keep important conversations going.

Thanks, Janet!

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Prayer for Fall, 2016

Friends,

I was asked to write a prayer to introduce an hour-long radio conversation on the subject of “Sabbath,” yesterday.  I reprint it here, in hopes that it offers a moment of mindfulness in your Friday.

The way I see it, we can use all the help we can get!

Spirit of goodness in all that is….

In this month of changes, in this magical time between summer to fall…

       Teach us daily that too much hurry annuls our sense of presence – to our own lives, to the hearts of others, and especially to the deep wisdom of the universe.

In a time of transitions, aging friendships and adjustments to gently loosening joints….

     Teach us daily to have the courage of Sabbath hearts, to know when to be silent, to listen to the music beneath the noise, to see through the masquerades we are too prone to joining.

In a time of confusion, conflict and worry…

     Teach us to remember that an attitude of receptivity is far more healing than one of reaction, that preserving our times of quiet reflection, the experience of beauty and the integrity of our hearts is the most important gift we can bring to our hurting world.

We know that there is a time for everything. Help us to not forget the beautiful truth of our personal seasons.

As we honor the Nativity of Mary, mother of God, our Sophia figure, and icon of healing wisdom, let us remember that the health of our bodies resides in our capacity for love, of our intellects in our steady calm and focus, and of our souls in our faithfulness to living a Sabbath life.

 

 

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Making New Friends — A September Letter

Dear Friends,

As a Girl Scout many years ago, we sang a song many of you no doubt know:  “Make New Friends, but Keep the Old.”

A year ago, I reached out to a woman whose work I had long admired, the career coach and author, Gail McMeekin.  Her books, “The 12 Secrets of Highly Creative Women,” and “The 12 Secrets of Highly Successful Women,” had both been real inspirations to me at various times in my life, and I have given them as gifts to others.

You know that there are hidden webs of belonging all around you when the following happens.

Gail, it turns out, had read my book, “A Sabbath Life: One Woman’s Search for Wholeness,” and had done the same thing with it that I’d done with hers — passed it along, shared it around.

In the course of things, I discovered that one of those friends to whom she’d passed it is Janet Connor, whose extraordinary book, “Writing Down the Soul” has had a place of honor on my bookshelf for years!

I felt that, in the middle of the road, so to speak, I’d discovered long-lost sisters.  A conversation was begun.

And it hasn’t ended.

Janet is a go-getter, who writes books faster than I can fold my laundry, and who keeps a dozen other projects in the air, including her own on-line radio program, “The Soul-Directed Life,” an interview show that has a theme a month and features thinkers and writers and ordinary folks who’ve walked a journey she feels it worth sharing with her audience.

Today at 2 p.m. I will patch into her show as the “guest speaker” of the week, on the theme of — you guessed it — Sabbath life.

I will attach the url here, should you be interested in joining.  (The program plays again in the coming days, on a schedule available on the site.)

http://www.unity.fm/program/TheSoulDirectedLife

I am grateful to Gail and to Janet for this chance to refocus my own scattered September energies on the theme that means most to me — contemplation in a world of action, mindfulness in the midst of our hectic days.

Peace to all of you,

Kathleen

 

 

 

 

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