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

The Nature of Kindness

A second installment on hope:

There are times when stamina runs out.  It’s just flat out not there anymore.

One day many years ago, I was in the trough of one of those times, too exhausted to even know it.  My son was very young.  My husband was much-occupied with a new and demanding job.  And for reasons that only the stars may someday tell me, my closest women friends had all moved away in the space of a few months.

I felt more deeply alone and unsupported than ever in my life.

Money was tight enough that extra child care, or even a massage, or a few days away was a distant dream.  But by that time I’d lost the energy to dream.

The hours spanned without end, the house grew tight, the garden was a disaster.  Despite my intense love for my son, I experienced a kind of spiritual and emotional claustrophobia that I suspect only another mother can understand.  The ongoingness of care, the myriad daily details of tending to a young one, and the sudden sense of invisibility — even if one has stepped onto this path most willingly — that come from the lack of positive feedback, can batter one’s faith.

Parents — not only of children, but of troubled adolescents — and those who care for chronically depressed or ill relations — all know the isolation and chronic overload that shadows our caregiving.

This level of sacrificial service deeply challenges the message of self-giving that lies at the heart of every major religious tradition.   When women (mainly) hear the message that the way to illumination and God is to forego their egos, to “pour themselves out” for others, it’s all too easy to go numb.

Egos? we ask.  What egos?

They’ve gotten lost in the relentless demands of the days.

I hope to delve into this knotty churchy/Buddhist message in future blogs.  For today, though, my own story of grace and hope, a mirror image of yesterday’s reflections.

In the midst of this time, one afternoon as I stood at the kitchen window, I saw my neighbor Phyllis in my backyard.  Phyllis had moved into the house across the street several years earlier, marrying the bachelor doctor who lived there.  Childless and in her fifties, she’d transformed the uncultivated shady lot that ran from their stone house to the edge of a small footpath, into a glen of extraordinary plantings and pathways, created a marvelous urban sanctuary.  Word of her gifts spread.  Cars paused as they drove past Phyllis’s garden.  Others came down our lane just for a look-see.

That afternoon, I assumed that Phyllis was just venturing off her property for a break.  But when I looked again, I saw that she’d brought over her rake and edger.  Slowly and with a master’s touch, she started to take my depressingly unattended yard in hand.  In little over an hour, it looked more like its old self than it had in years.

On her way home, she stopped by the back door.  Words couldn’t convey my gratitude, relief, and sense of being cared for.

“It’s nothing,” she said.  “I need something to do, and this gives me pleasure.”

The next day, she returned with graph paper and a measuring tape.  She mapped out the entire yard, and left.  Several days later, she appeared again, this time with a design plan.  We would do this together, she suggested.  We’d drive out to the nursery, select the plants, and I could supervise her plantings.  With her landscaper’s discounts, a modest but vastly improved overhaul would be affordable.

I felt as if I’d just been handed back my life.  That spring and summer, the garden gradually morphed into a place where I could take my son and feel a new contentment.  More than that, I felt a new connection to life, to beauty, and —  most importantly — to my own sense of agency.

In our garden project, Phyllis taught me something invaluable about the freeing heart of kindness that I have carried with me ever since.  She gave me what gave her joy.

This isn’t always possible in life, but it may be so more often than we realize.

More than offering to help me juggle laundry and nursery books and put away the magnetic letters for the millionth time, she offered me her own deep gladness, something so out of the box that it shifted me out of my own rut.

The horizon grew much, much wider again.  And in the space created by her good taste and skills and gift for beauty, gave me an opening to recognize these in myself again too.

Kindness, if it is real, is always about the life of the soul, and sometimes this means it’s about the unexpected, and sometimes what we’ve mistaken for the icing on the cake.





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:






Colored Chalk Before It Rains

How wonderful is colored chalk?  And did you ever stop wishing you could squat down with a thick stick of bright pink or yellow or green and bring the world up to the standards of your dreams?

Children’s graffiti is always revelation.   The other day I stumbled upon a small cache of dreams right there on the asphalt of the park, by a bench that undoubtedly held a mother or some suitable female substitute, while two girls made the world a brighter and happier place.

It takes so little.

In response, I offer my own bits of wishful thinking for the start of the last precious month of meandering thoughts and bright blue moons…

Love your friends

and your friends’ children;

Be generous.

Live by grace.

Practice positive regard.

Be unstinting.

Pursue excellence.

Wear your mother’s jewelry.

Loan your favorite books.

Bring gifts back from your travels.

Dance – whenever you can!

Look those who serve you in the eye.

Be Grateful.


Practice infinite patience.

Especially when this is hard to do.

Protect innocence.

Honor beauty.

Conduct your life as if goodness and love were the highest names for the holy

and you its nearest willing host.

Just saying…





A Creative Invitation


Some of you are “distance,” and so will only be able to join us in spirit, but if you are close by and wishing for a chance to dive deep for a day of creative exploration and meaning-making, consider joining me with my talented book artist friend, Susan, for a day of play, discovery, fun and memorable moments.

Here’s the announcement:

Illuminating Our Stories: A Creativity Lab

with Kathleen Hirsch and Susan Porter 

 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  kathleenhirsch2016@gmail.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.



Spring Into Your Creativity

To My Fellow Writers, Seekers, and Artists

With the thaws this winter have come a few exciting creative ventures.  Upcoming is one that, if you are local, you may want to check out:

On Saturday, May 13, I am collaborating with a highly gifted book artist, Susan Porter, to offer a new workshop called Illuminating Our Stories: A Creativity Lab.  It weaves together my creative and contemplative writing techniques with Susan’s astonishing color, collage, and folding repertoire.

For more details, go to “Spirit Works” via the home page at http://kathleenhirsch.com/.



On Election Eve: The Tree of This Moment

Tonight I will bake apples, light candles, break bread, knowing that this tree, this day, will never be repeated.  Alongside our anxious hearts, our canvassing and postings, our prayers, miracles not to be believed flare into the cracks of our man-made world.

Things not to be believed stop for just an instant the sound tracks of our heavy hearts.

Believe.  Imagine.  Tomorrow we will need both.