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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All Souls

Among November leaves,

I find small elegies,

of frosted straw

and furtive creatures’ fur,

amber pods and pennies.

 

I gather what I can carry home,

a basket on the hearth

these hymns of autumn, embers

to warm us through the cold.

 

What I cannot carry in

is the clan of mallards

on the pond, carving a stately poem

in the lines of their glide,

faithful towards their willowed holm.

 

Slow, sure,

they fare glittering forward

and away, trailing grace

that speaks a different

kind of confluence.

 

Fathers, mothers, dates that drift from us

like fallen feathers,

we guard a way obscure to us

with all we have,

the memory of your seasons,

the colors of our grateful days.

 

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All-Out Squash Soup: A Meditation on Trust

So much negativity in the air.

I stand at the sink and cut into a squash, its muscular sunshine flesh like nothing else on earth.   My feet, my whole being, feels more surely grounded by this.

It is soup-making season again, this year a much-needed comfort.

At church on Sunday I attended a talk on the subject of trust.   Trust is the basis of everything, the speaker proposed.  What we trust, we love.  What we love, we serve.  It was as dazzling as my squash, as full of juicy seeds.

So.  Americans’ public trust has been radically, catastrophically shattered – in this election process, in our racial politics, in our economic recklessness.

What, I ask as I peel away, do I trust?

Mammon?  Fame?  Achievement?  The Past?

And how does my personal “trust-list” affect the life that I live in public, with others?

If I am really honest, I’ll admit that I’ve flirted with all of the options above at one time or another, imagining that my little dalliances won’t unsettle the deeper strata of what I think of as my true, higher, ground.

I’ve told myself that worshipping at the feet of Eileen Fischer or putting a good review up on a pedestal, won’t thin my soup or turn it bitter, or distract me from remembering to feed my family altogether.  I’ve flirted with ambition and being in the “right place,” like the best (and worst) of us.  Often have I fallen for woman’s cardinal sin, of saying, “Sure, I can do it, no problem,” just because I can, not because my heart has led me.  I’ve run myself into the ground until the soul’s larder was so jammed with half-finished things that it started to attract little varmints of resentment and self-pity.

So, yes, I’ve been untrustworthy towards what is true and good, and for questionable ends – usually less out of pride than from an unclear sense of duty or calling.  Out of a faltering trust.

What causes such faltering?  Is it possible that the same lack of clarity has befallen us on a public level?

I know that I lose my grounding because I don’t pause regularly enough to do things like make soup, take time to reassess the high-speed buffet I keep adding to.  I lose touch with the significant models of balance and integrity I hold dear.  I start to mistrust my self because the parade is high-kicking it and I am afraid to be left in the dust.

What I need most when I get pulled out of true, is not to jump on the parade.  I need a quiet morning like this one, when I don’t have to perform anything for anyone, when I am free to choose what I will do to feed my family, my own heart and soul.

I rummage in the fridg for inspiration – this being, always, an act of domestic improvisation.  Today, it will be yellow carrots, a jalapeno, a few leaves of thyme.  I will peel squash, answer mail, call a sick friend and read something meaningful.  (I will resist phone texts, and hope I can hold out to dinnertime.)

Sunday’s speaker interjected a potent corrective to what ails us today when he noted that it is gestures, more than words, that express trustworthiness.  It’s so easy to sound good.  But it is the actions we choose to make every day, what we create or uphold or destroy, that stamp us as one kind of person or another.

Already pundits are asking: how can we mend the enormous fissures that divide us, heal the distrust and name calling and discord?  How can we do something about the half-finished conversations, the unmet needs, that our damaging rhetorics have created?

I think we begin by posing the question I heard on Sunday.

What do we trust?  What in us is worthy of trust?  How do we begin to rebuild the promises that have been broken — to ourselves, to one another?

It is essential that we take the time to pull ourselves into true.   Doing “nothing” – such as making soup – helps me remember what I trust most deeply, and to stay real in relation to it.   Making soup is far better, than are many of the things that demands my attention.  Doing so makes it ever easier to toss the catalogs.

Soup is all about the possibilities of a seed.   Humble and close to the ground.  What if every one of us in this country, or in the world, were fortunate enough to be able to make a pot of soup?  To feed their families?  To share a meal with strangers — even, perhaps, ideological opponents — at work, at school, down the street?

Truth is, most of the ingredients for such a dream — too small to merit the attention of pundits, too simple to become a marketing fad — are already in the collective larder.  We just need to decide to trust the process.

What would happen if we started here?

 

 

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Burning Bush

 

Today at dusk red tongues

appear along the dripping boughs

so vivid that

even I, in my distraction

am forced

to stop.  Here you are

in a burning bush

at the edge of a park at rush hour.

Horns, and hankering for a drink,

an end to measured day,

the yen for something more.

 

Precisely, you, where I least expect you,

tethered strength

in a wandering time.

Here on a dying day

at the dawn of a dying season

you offer

a scrap of scripture

such as I found at every turn

in childhood,

a robin, a green frog, the crook of an elm

in which hide with a book.

 

Here you are

beyond the carnival

of cant and apprehensions,

abiding in the old story,

stopping us in our tracks,

that we might wake

to the real life around us,

see past our present doubts

the voice of truth,

a quiet flame, calling.

 

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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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