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

Breaking Cookies: A Story of Necessary Conversation

Over spring break I gave my students an assignment:  Find someone who holds opposing political views and conduct a civil conversation.

Ask questions, I told them.  Listen without judgment.  Try to find common ground.

Predictably, some chose roommates.  But a handful did the difficult thing.  They talked to strangers.

One travelled to Kent Country, MI, to build a Habitat home.  There, on a rooftop, she met an 82 year old who uses his skills to help neighbors in need.

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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.

 

 

 

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And Now, for Hope

Yesterday I sat with my intelligent, sensitive, and big-hearted undergraduate class as we tried to make sense of the election.  These students spend hours every week in service to marginal people — isolated elderly shut-ins, prisoners, behaviorally-challenged children, the poor, immigrants.  It is both part of my course requirement and a significant element of their sense of right livelihood.  Service to those who don’t have a seat at the table is something that you just do.

“Who have we forgotten,” they asked me.  “Who have we not heard?  We are trying so hard to change society’s balance of justice, yet there are those who feel rage — people who feel shamed, excluded, disenfranchised — what do we need to do that we aren’t doing?”

I have a deep sense today of the information vacuum that has divided us as surely as have any economic forces.  One constituency of voters consume one set of information sources; the other group, a very different set.  Until we — calmly, persuasively — dispel disinformation, wrong information, distortions, spin, and outright lies with the truth, we will continue to be blind men with a very large and dangerous elephant.

Newspapers in small rural areas, even in small cities, have fallen to the economic tsunami of the web.  News and information sources accessed online are curated to provide consumers with only what they want to hear.  For all the good that “citizen journalism” has brought to the public conversation, the authority of objective truth too often goes missing.

Enlightenment is freedom.  The free exchange of ideas, stories, points of view, is essential to the functioning of our system.  When ideas get muddy, or inaccessible, when points of view are systematically or habitually unheard, we are left not with honest disagreement but with demagoguery.

This is where we find ourselves.  It is the place to begin rebuilding, to restore mutual respect, healthy listening, and reconciliation.  It won’t be easy.  Radio, theatre, books, podcasts — we have the technologies.  We just need to become more creative in how we use them.

We have all — writers, teachers, citizens — be preaching to our own choirs.  It has been our downfall.  We need, for the first time in a long time, to keep a broader audience in mind.

I want to share a post from an Episcopal priest whose daily blog often enlightens and teaches me.

Dearly Beloved,

Grace and peace to you.

When some were speaking about the temple, he said:
Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.
Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” Do not go after them.
When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified;
for these things must take place first,
but the end will not follow immediately.
Nation will rise against nation;
there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you.
This will give you an opportunity to bear witness.
I will give you words and a wisdom
that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.
By your endurance you will gain your souls.
—from Luke 21.5-19

Not since the morning of September 11, 2001 have I felt more deeply the profound sorrow and dread people must have felt at the destruction of the temple. Only then, if ever, have I felt such deep anguish and wanted to raise such a desperate lament. I have never before ached with such terror that is not eased, sought sleep that would not come, cried out for comfort that will not lend itself, tried to pray and been unable.

The temple will fall. Fear, anger and self-absorption rule; disregard for the suffering of others has ascended to the seat of power,. There is no longer a safe place to retreat to, a sacred center of hope and belonging where the world is all right. Even in the temple in my own heart not one stone remains upon another.

When the temple falls we are awakened from the illusion that the world is just fine. Power structures will not save us. But this is nothing new. We finally know what others have known all along: we are vulnerable. We are exposed to the cynicism, violence, greed and hatred of the world. From the Roman Empire to the Holocaust to today’s unarmed young black men, or the people of Aleppo, or refugees or the trafficked and exploited—they know: there is no guarantee of justice, no illusion that everything will be all right. The whole world is at risk. There is no refuge. There never has been.

When the temple falls what do we do? When we can’t look to our power structures, what do we do? We become the temple ourselves. “Destroy this temple,” Jesus says, “and I will raise it up.” He says, “When you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place (let the reader understand)—the good news of the Empire of God will be proclaimed throughout the world. And the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

For some today is a day of rejoicing, but for me it is Good Friday. This happens. This is how God works. Human power structures fail us, and then God raises up life out of death. So what do we do? When the temple falls we become the resurrection. We let ourselves be raised, let ourselves be changed. Don’t look to the temple or the World Trade Center or the White House. Power structures will not save us, but God will. God pours love directly into our hearts. Live that love.

Now more than ever the world needs our love and justice and mercy. It needs our courage and community. It needs for us to be the crucified and risen Body of Christ. Realize that you are at the foot of the cross. Give voice to your pain, and let it rise as courage. Love this world with all you have. Connect with each other. Connect with strangers. Notice beauty. Celebrate the things God is doing in this world, the miracles that pass before us each day. Work for justice. Get involved. Now is the time to live resurrection. Live what really matters, as if these are your last days, and then maybe they won’t be.

My dread and sorrow are deep; but in that dark tomb hope is already rising. May the peace of Christ that passes understanding fill and guard your heart and mind today.
Deep blessings,
Pastor Steve

____________________
Steve Garnaas-Holmes
Unfolding Light
www.unfoldinglight.net

Yesterday I told my students:  Don’t retreat.  Get involved.  But be smart about it.  Use your gifts of intelligence, education, understanding of how our system works, not to add to the sum of anger and outrage that is too much with us just now, but to enliven hope that together people can successfully advocate for constructive change.

 

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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.

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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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