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

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.

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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.

 

 

 

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Last Days of Summer

Here it is, the last, last day of blowing bubbles, walking barefoot in the grass, idling away a whole afternoon staring at a body of water.

Schedules and emails from old friends, and invitations to fall garden parties, are already arriving like the first winter storm ahead of their time.  Tonight, I receive my first batch of student writings, short poems about where they have come from and where they hope to go in their time with me.

We all need to ask these questions from time to time (and sometimes, every day!) and we all need to keep our eyes open for the lingering waterlilies, on nearby walks or in the marvelous imagination of Mssr. Monet.

I’m excited to anticipate the group of creative folks eager for a day-long adventure in writing, collage, and image making, with my talented friend and book artist, Susan Porter.  It’s just a few weeks away.  Join us if you can!

Here’s the skinny:

Illuminating Our Stories: A Creativity Lab

with Susan Porter and Kathleen Hirsch

 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  khirsch72@comcast.net

 Kathleen Hirsch is an essayist, memoirist and columnist.  She has published four books, and has taught writing at Harvard, Boston College, and in workshop retreats for adults throughout the Boston area.  She writes at KathleenHirsch.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.

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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.

Listen.

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…

 

 

 

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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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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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