Kathleen Hirsch | Contemplation
Writing and musings by author Kathleen Hirsch.
kathleen hirsch, writer, spiritual director, boston, ma, spiritual writing
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Contemplation

winter 2016 fire - 1 (1)

Winter Roses

Roses and rosemary in January!  I am walking along a path in Los Angeles in the company of roses.  Rain has drawn out their perfume.  It wraps me in palpable grace.

A day earlier, I shoveled my front walk half a dozen times during a snow storm.  Now, here I am, bending to a bloom that opens my heart after a long, hard season.

On the morning of November 9, I discovered that I had lost my voice.  That day, I tried a few post-election letters to my world.  But a stone lay on my tongue.  Words seemed wholly inadequate to circumstance.  Or: the words I would have used would have skidded across the surface of a numbingly frozen pond.

My season of Advent, like that of so many friends, was long and dark and uncertain.   It didn’t feel anticipatory in the slightest.  I watched the sky (it seemed as good a thing as any to watch), but the stars didn’t speak.

In unaccustomed silence, slowly, I found that I was able to move away from grief, shock, fear.  All of the sure, strident, clever, glib, able words — all of the polished, official and oft-repeated phrases — fell mute.

At first, it felt a kind of withdrawal.  But gradually the sense of being a news-amputee gave way to a different, far more steadying quality of awareness.  I was no longer flitting from idea to idea, or text to text, from one shallow conversation to the next.  I was no longer focused on logistics and next actions.  I felt my attention shifting.  Or, better, the very act of “attending” was transformed.  What changed wasn’t the focus of my thoughts.  It was the quality of thought itself.

As long as I remained aware in this way, no unfinished wrapping, no late-arriving packages or broken ornament or family members’ “attitude” issues, could disrupt me.

More than this: I began to see the important life that matters beyond the glare of the headlines.

As sanity returned, so did a kind of moral memory: hurry destroys the capacity to be with oneself in any meaningful sense; our “out there” culture of activism with its constant pressures to identify with causes, have a position, be socially and politically useful, can make us brittle and leave no room for inner movement.  In the face of certitude and efficiencies, the “inner witness” falls silent, or just repeats what it is accustomed to saying.  Either way, it ends up failing me.

During these months, only thistles and thorns were visible in my garden, and this was oddly apt.  To renew, and see life with fresh eyes, I needed to stop.  Stop ruminating, producing for the sake of producing, and most importantly, stop consuming a diet of sound bites that was starving me of deeper wisdom and the still, small voice within.  For days.  Weeks.  Going on three months.  Winter, or just about.

Now here I am, walking down a path filled with roses and beauty, on a warm day under soft skies.  Perhaps, the roses seemed to suggest, it is time to emerge from hibernation and get on with the business of blooming again.

What have I learned?

I’ve learned how easy it is to join the wagging tongues, the policy patois, the dangerously false urgencies that always drive bad politics.  Easy to become too depressed or distracted to be present to what is in front of me: my loved ones, neighbors, community, and the needs right next door or under my own roof.

Healing and growth may both require the fallow time of the winter roses, the waiting time, when we unhook from reactive living and simplify long and amply enough to let some new green slip of insight unfurl. Each day is about becoming, isn’t it?  When I lose myself in the high winds of talking heads, and dishonest politicians, I completely forget the value of a more considered vigilance, which along with a certain detachment, prepares the ground for what the Buddhists call “right action.”

So.  Onward.

In honor of the winter roses, I have written a poem to illuminate the collage above, my New Year’s greeting to you, dear readers.

 

Wherever I look

Look!

If I allow myself the sweet prayer

of mere being,

I can see the greeting

of the winter roses,

the dance of the birds,

the beribboned and wholly

sufficient gift

of sunrise.

 

Original nature

rests in its just orders —

How we define or defile

right livelihood

will bring the winter roses

to their knees;

the nests of blue jays,

the red-capped woodpeckers,

the hungry hawk

on a barren bough

the cistern with its cold sweet water

our waiting doves of peace.

 

 

 

All Souls Day Mallards

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.

 

All-Out Squash Soup

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?

 

 

Burning Bush

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.

 

kathleen-hirsch-late-summer-flowers

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.

 

 

Seedling to Harvest

The Great Continuum

This week I will make my way to college, my satchel a deadlift of course texts, to teach another year.

Four hundred miles away, my niece has just taken up residence in her freshman dorm at a large state university.  She and her parents have completed the ritual acts of transition: outfitting her new room (bean bag chairs, bright pink and yellow rugs, towels and throws, a fridg and the other usual appurtenances).   She is exuberant.  She loves her new friends and her pre-med classes.  No slouch, she is getting up at 6 each morning  to practice for varsity crew try-outs.

We are traveling in parallel, my niece and I.  I find myself looking at her as from the wrong end of a telescope, one in which she grows smaller and further away, and ask myself:  Was I ever as confident and idealistic, as full of risk-taking zeal, as she is?

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