Kathleen Hirsch | Hope
Writing and musings by author Kathleen Hirsch.
kathleen hirsch, writer, spiritual director, boston, ma, spiritual writing
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Generating Warmth and Light

“There are two ways of spreading light: To be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”

Edith Wharton, Vesalius in Zante


One of the best ways we have of spreading light is also one of the oldest: by telling stories.

Each time a story of goodness or courage or hope reaches our ears, we grow a little brighter ourselves.

So here is a story that warmed me this dark and very cold Boston week.  It shows how very little it takes to transform our days and seasons so that we can see past the scrim of ordinary time to the deeper dimension that flows along within it.  In this case, all it took was a good idea, willingness, and the time to cut a few pieces of paper.  Really.

The village of Askrigg, in Yorkshire, England, (population 450), has created a beautiful ritual to mark the dark nights of Advent.  Everyone and anyone can participate, whether they are “religious,” “spiritual,” or “none.”

Beginning in late November, children, older singles, and families, begin the annual project.  They create cutout scenes from black paper.  Some choose the numbers of the Advent days.  Others create silhouettes of secular themes like pine trees and stars; still others, conventional religious motifs like angels or wreaths.   The more artistically-minded carve elaborate creatures from well-loved carols.  These shapes are then covered over with layers of colored tissue paper to become “windows.”  When they are finished, the “windows” are taped to shop or a home windowpanes.

When Advent arrives, each night a different window is unveiled, the light from the room behind them illuminating them for the whole village to enjoy.  As the days go by, and more windows join the pageant, families take to walking together through the streets to enjoy the display.

Three women – an artist, a teacher, and a real estate agent in the town —  got the ball rolling in 2009.  In the article in which I discovered this initiative, the artist acknowledged that at first people needed a bit of coaxing.  She offered workshops at the local church.  It didn’t take long for the villagers to fall in.  These days, the “windows” project has become a community wide event, and even beyond, with visitors dropping in to view the creations.  The organizers field new ideas and volunteers each season.  The art work, too, has only gotten more ambitious and well-executed with each passing year, and the village walks are now a time everyone looks forward to, to meet up with friends and neighbors, in might be an isolating time for some.

It is so simple.  It returns the season to its core story, replacing consumer anxiety and excess and frayed nerves with inclusivity, wonder, and light.  All it takes is construction paper, scissors, tissue paper, and a willingness to spread a bit of joy.


Hope is a Many Feathered Thing

For two days the female cardinal has sat on the bough outside the window where I write, with her back turned towards me.  She reminds me of my cat who, when displeased (usually by the absence of food in her bowl) makes an art of shunning.  I see her substantial backside until I relent – which never takes long.

Truth is, I’ve been preoccupied by the larger two-footed creatures in my life and neglected to fill the feeder for more than a week.  Snow has arrived.  The bird baths are frozen, seed from the grasses in short supply.

The cardinals nest in the privet below the feeder each spring.  Her suede and russet flanks, her little tuft of berry red at the tip of her head, are as eloquent a posture of disappointment as any I’ve been subjected to.

Finally in a fit of shame, I put on my coat and carry the large plastic bin of sunflower seeds outside.  I climb onto the upturned flower pot that doubles as a step ladder, unhook the feeder, and pour a cascade of seed into its cylinder.

Within less than half an hour, I am forgiven in spades by two brilliant males who frolic in and out of the hedge, taking turns tucking into the fresh supply.

I suppose that the arrival of food is always emblematic of a hope fulfilled.

The mother of one of my son’s childhood schoolmates once told me that keeping a quart of ice cream in the freezer gives children a sense of security.

I am well aware these days of all the insecurities that present themselves.  Plenty of articles and books analyze the current political landscape far better than I can.  But two things should be noted, I think.

The first is that the insecurities many of us are feeling today — on the national political stage, in our cities — are new only to us.  Many have lived whole lives, and indeed generations, in the daunting shadow of insecurities and bitter disappointment that most of us have not seen with any awareness worthy of the name.

The second thing to be noted is that history maintains a narrative far more at home in chaos and insecurity than in stability and predictable, orderly progress.  That many of us have lived so many years without war, revolt, famine or long-term economic debilitation, is a fluke.

Perspective is everything, which is why birds give us one of nature’s finest lessons.  Viewed from a high bough, our lives remain more secure today than did the lives of first century — or for that matter, present-day — Palestinians.  To say nothing of the slaves, those who survive in refugee camps, and segments of our own population.

But perspective also gives us the opportunity for self-compassion.  We have entered a new time, one that has exposed lots of empty or broken feeders that we’ve neglected to see until now.  The anger and disappointment, the finger pointing and figurative acts of shunning should not be surprising. Ice cream won’t fix this.  But it is incumbent upon us to be gentle with our new state of being, as we move through the new darkness.

Self-compassion is the basis of our hope.  Self-compassion will lead us, sooner or later, out of the trap of reaction and towards constructive new imaginings.

Yesterday, a kind of brokenness was rejected in Alabama’s special election.  This week, my city newspaper is running a series exposing the structural racism that we have all ignored.   New seeds will come from this, I am certain.

Hope, I learn again from my lovely cardinals, comes softly, and in many ways — not least, when in a dark pass, when my benign neglect, or casual indifference, or silence is jolted into action.






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.





Strawberries in Winter

Lately, I have been thinking about hope.

For years, I’ve loved these lines from Hebrews 11, Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

 They ratified, across the generations, my confidence that we are surrounded by a kind of love-intelligence that sustains us, even when we are not fully conscious of it.  Indeed, that the life in time depends upon “things not seen” for its full coming-into-being.

In times of warmth and fat, when strawberries hang on the vine and those we love are blooming and bright as human sunflowers, eager to turn their faces to the sun, this is well and good.  When integrity can be observed in our leaders, and a spirit of service informs the work being done by and around us.

But life has its dark and bitter cold winters, and we or those we love come close to falling through the ice more often than we want to imagine.

Yesterday my newspaper carried an amazing story that pertains.  A hunter in rural Maine last week came upon a scene of agony by the shore of a large lake:  a deer had fallen through the ice and was thrashing, in terror, unable to gain traction to pull himself out.  The situation was critical.

A game warden had also seen the deer.  Together, the two men stood on the shore, debating what they might do.  It occurred to the hunter that his boat, long since covered and stored for the winter, wasn’t far off.  The two men hastened to uncover it, and dragged it down to the lake.  Using two-by-fours and a shovel, they painstakingly broke a way through the ice to the terrified and struggling animal.  One of them lassoed him by the antlers.

Ever so slowly, they drew him behind the boat to shore.  The buck touched solid ground and, exhausted, collapsed.

He lay there all day, just his eyes moving.  People who’d heard the story came to see him, but kept a respectful distance, as he recovered his strength.  As darkness fell, the warden came down to the shore to check on him.  At the sight of his rescuer, the buck rose on his legs and bounded back to his wild home, fully himself again, saved.

Hope is never abstract.  It isn’t raised through an exertion of will, nor as an exercise in a distorted mental construct that we call “faith.”  This is fantasy dressed up as virtue.

It is only possible to “hope in things unseen” when our hearts and minds and bodies are sustained by concrete gestures of affirmation, worth and  relationship.  It is possible because we feel seen and heard and valued.  It is generated when our essential needs are met and our efforts find a measure of effectiveness in the world.

A very gifted writer and artist I know many years ago said something so simple and penetrating that is has never left me.

“For me,” she said, “God is other people.”

In a week when Hanukkah begins, and others are putting the final touches on Christmas decorations and holiday menus, so many of us are in these lovely rituals fortifying the life of hope close at hand.  This is one of the best things we can do in these dark days — putting bright poinsettas on our tables and buying strawberries for breakfast.

But my own hope is that each of us remember too at least one creature who may be wandering on thin ice.  What if each of us sat quietly for a moment today, as we enter the second week of Advent and the verge of the Jewish holiday of light, to conjure some deer on the verge of our own consciousness who could use a rope to be pulled to safety.  How and where might we enable someone we barely know, or hardly ever see, to stand more balanced and sure-footed, buoyed by the passage we offer to a more solid shore.









Advent, 6: Hope in the Dark

It is dark as I write, this morning.  And that is as it should be.

I tie a long white ribbon around three bags full of brand new clothing that I’ve purchased for a boy I will never meet.  Two pairs of slacks, four shirts, two sweaters, a pair of plaid pajamas, underwear and socks.  Enough for his mother to get him through the school year before she needs to worry about where summer’s shorts and tees will come from.

Then I will attend the funeral of a boy nearly the same age, 15 year old, who shattered the lives of all who loved him 10 days ago when he took his life.

There is no darkness deeper than this.  No words, no hope that time will somehow reverse itself and that terrible moment.  It is unimaginable darkness.

One does everything one can think of to console, help to bear ordinary life along around in the aftermath of such horror.  Bring food, send flowers, gather with friends, manage the countless details.

But none of these gestures, good and essential though they are, alter the fact that we have been forced into an altered reality, one that exposes the gossamer nature of security, and the wild power of all that we cannot and do not control.  Our ordinary habits of mind are sheared away, like trees toppled in a hurricane.

At a certain point, you realize that the ordinary consolations are inadequate.  I imagine that it is somewhat the same for people in wartime, or during epochal catastrophes.

Only by continuing to stand in a place of vulnerability does a certain resolving truth emerge.

For me, what began to make sense was to try to offer some small gesture of concrete hope.  I emailed a group that was looking for people to buy clothing for indigent families.

Buying a new wardrobe for a boy I will never meet, in the context of this dark week, became an indescribable luxury.  To sit on a department store website and pick out socks and shirts that I could imagine him gladdened and proud to be wearing, somehow returned me to the land of the living and a place of hope.

I hope that he likes my choices.  I pray that his mother has a few months of respite from the anxiety of needing to scare up the funds to buy his clothes.  I am under no illusion that this one-off act will rebalance income inequity, or solve racism, or cure childhood obesity, or equip his mother with better skills by which to earn what she needs to buy his clothes herself, rather than rely on strangers.  But I am completely convinced that each of our lives hang in the balance, more than ordinary life usually enables us to realize, utterly dependent on those individual acts of kindness, those single moments of grace, that give us a sense of being beloved.  Worthy.

Year ago, I knew a woman whose 19 year old son died, unexpectedly, on the operating table in the middle of heart surgery.  His death changed her life.  A successful realtor, she became a hospice worker.  And at Christmas each year, she went out and bought a carload full of X-boxes and hams, toys and games that were out-of-reach fantasy items for the poor children of a church near her home.  It was the time of year that she lived for, when she could anonymously shower the children of that church with gifts they’d only dreamed of.  She wanted to give them a glimpse of hope, that even for a day life could meet their wildest dreams.

I will never in this lifetime see Luke again, and I will never meet Lewis, for whom the gear in my living room will be Christmas.

But I understand as I never did before the woman who made her peace with God by turning her personal nightmare into another child’s hopes, his fondest dreams.

Peace on this day.


Advent Is Up for Sale

If you haven’t yet purchased your Advent calendar, you may be pleased to know that Advent has gone high market.  You can buy a calendar with daily “treats” ranging from marijuana to whiskey, beef jerky, hand-tied flies for your fishing expeditions, Legos characters, or, for a mere $495, a daily pair of cashmere socks.

Why wait for Christmas for the stampede of commercialization to begin, when you can do it now?

Or, consider this.  On Sunday, I will join thousands of other households around the world when I light the first of four candles on my Advent wreath, to mark the start of a sacred season in the Christian calendar.

Wreath traditions descend from the earliest peasant communities of Europe.  When the light seemed to abandon them after the harvest, they brought boughs indoors, fixed them to wagon wheels, and hung them from the rafters.  These wreaths were a symbol of hope that the sun would return in spring to nurture the crops they needed to survive.

Their form, and the meaning behind them, hasn’t changed much to observant Christians.  Advent is a journey through darkness, in faith that at the end of it, God will “return.”  Goodness will assume the form of a human being, so that we who so easily lose sight of it can see for ourselves what it looks like to live with compassion, routinely practice forgiveness, and do what we can to heal the world’s innumerable wounds.

Advent is about anticipation.  This, of course, makes the immediate gratification offered by the Advent-for-sale market absurd, as crass as so much of what passes for “culture” in our land today.

I came to an appreciation of Advent somewhat late.  In my twenties, I distained the deeper resonances and meanings of the season — already jaded by Christmas catalogs that filled my mail box before Thanksgiving.  I balked at repeating medieval hymns, and wearied of what seemed worn-out re-enactments that I deemed to be fairy tales.  But by the time I arrived at my mid-thirties, I’d discovered that intelligence, and even worldly success, didn’t go the distance.  Life could advance, but then be sent spinning backwards so fast you could stop breathing for months. Trustworthy friends became shameless exploiters.  People who appeared to be getting their lives together actually took their lives.  Virtue and talent were not, inevitably, their own reward.

In other words, life became life — as full of darkness and grief as it is of light.  I needed more than knowledge.  I needed deep sources of wisdom.

There was no boxed set for this.  It turned out that those ancient sources – the psalms and rituals and humble practices of reflection — were the best go-tos for understanding how evil behaves, and what goodness looks like in the face of abuse, violence, cruelty and grinding despair.

This is what Advent is all about.  When we make room for the vivid realities that dwell beyond commerce, politics, and endless news bites (note, well: beyond the realm of empire) — when we light a candle and allow ourselves to sit in the darkness of all that we don’t know and can’t fix or control, we eventually discover a bit of insight and a new metric of value.  Sitting with the still small voice within, we can learn where we need to go.

Advent isn’t for sale, and never was.  We can forgo the gaudy calendars altogether this year.  There is another way to do this.  Here’s my recommendation: release a bit of random kindness into each day.  For the 24 leading up to Christmas, act as if goodness is something free.  Compliment someone you dislike.  Forgive an obnoxious relation.  Feed the birds.  Send a gift to a foster home.  Tape chocolate bits to the cars in a local parking lot.  Christmas carol door to door (remember that)?

In a very dark time, lend the world around you a bit of your own light, and watch it grow.