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

Sharing cookies

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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The All New “Attention Collection”

I spent some time this week with a smart, provocative book by David Dark.  It’s called life’s too short to pretend you’re not religious.

Dark is an unlikely prophet for yours truly – an evangelical former English teacher turned theology professor in Nashville.  But since he teaches college-aged seekers as I do, I was interested in his take on things.

If you like being challenged to consider the autopilot mode that keeps sending you back to your church, or the Starbuck’s on the way to work, or the Internet – that self-satisfied voice that keeps telling you you have it all together – this is a book for you.

His best wake-up call is one I want to give a shout-out to here.

Dark tells us that we all need an Attention Collection.

I love this.  It makes me think of the little figurines my grandmother gathered when she had a few extra pennies.  The quarters from every state my son once painstakingly collected (he never quite got to all 50).

Dark says that we need to see what we see.

Easier said than done.

We need to pay better attention than we do just hurrying through our daily lists and hop to the addictive techno-twitches that offer instant gratification and long-term emptiness.

We need to notice the hawk on the bough, remember the inspiring poem we heard on the radio, the look in the eyes of the 10 year olds along for a college tour with the sibling they would too soon have to say goodbye to.  What we truly attend to seeps into our beings and forms the mind and soul that we are.

As a lifelong keeper of writer’s notebooks, a hoarder of overheard conversations, lines written on the back of receipts, I can’t say enough about this concept.

Dark writes,  We have an obligation “to make sure you’re still taking on this business of being awake to yourself – to be a witness to your own experience, to listen to your own life, to see what you’ve seen…What could be more socially essential, more sacred?”

Once we begin to see the sacredness of the smallest particular (Blake’s great cri du coeur), we start to have a better sense of how good work gets done.  (As opposed to a lot of the work we actually do, by the way.)

Attention is a miracle.  It is the gift we are given, first, to see what we see, and then to share it.  We get to sift through our grab bag of impressions and insights each and every day, and decide which items are worth passing along.  In the process, we get smarter and better about what we don’t need to erode our precious, miraculous attention on.  A major fringe benefit.

Sharing our “attention collection” is the ultimate act of collaboration with the great project of consciousness.  We give little gifts of goodness, value, hope by sharing what we have been fed by.  Daily bread.

I’m seeing what I see much more vividly, thank to Dark.

“The surest evidence of what we believe is what we do,” Dark writes.

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.

 

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Guides for a Dark Time

Guides are good.  I learned this when I was nine, lost in a downpour in the southern hills of New York State.  Were it not for one counselor, and her confidence in the few   green blazes barely visible through the drenched woods, I would be tramping still.

I am rereading May Sarton’s journal, At Seventy.  Her almost religious devotion to her annuals garden and the daily reinforcements that arrived in spring for her to plant, would make a green thumb out of an armadillo.  Her labors, punctuated by asides from Emerson, Virginia Woolf, or Camus, is seductive.  Reading it, I want her life, with its stream of visitors, its letters, its amplitudes.

One entry has lingered with me.  Sarton describes a friend just turned fifty as “imaginatively kind.”

The phrase throws a gauntlet to the reader.   Imaginative kindness.  It has an entirely different quality than the ordinary, dutiful, run-of-the-mill.  It is kindness that anticipates.  It strives to go deep towards the well-being of another – looking for occasions for surprise, delight, for hitting the mark, instead of just glancing the periphery.

We know it when we see it.  The considered gift, the innovative reading program, the art class where last year there wasn’t one, using recycled materials.

In these days of disastrously crude public discourse, and the waves of almost equally bad reactions with their rhetoric of accusation, victimhood, and anger, kindness can easily seem too frail and meager a thing to matter.  Care lives in the small details of attention – and who has time for that when the country is imploding?

We do.  And we must.

I cherish the memory of a neighbor’s “imaginative kindness” on a day long ago when, like a scorched-earth patch of earth, I was sorely in need of tending to.   Recently retired, she spent many hours of every day in her extensive gardens, replanting, raking, weeding.  They were so lovely that cars would slow to admire her handiwork.

It was a time in life when I was overwhelmed with child-rearing, more work than I could reasonably manage, and a busy husband.  I had neither the time nor money to do anything about my weed-ridden, depleted yard.  One summer day, without a word, she disappeared into the jungle behind my house with her tools — a rake, an edger, and a hoe — and set to work.  She edged the beds, raked away moss and leaves, pulled out weeds.

I hadn’t realized how low I’d been until I felt the lift of her amazing transformations.  It was as if someone had changed my sheets, opened the windows, and let in a whole new season.  It was a gift, imaginative and incredibly kind.  Easy to say that it didn’t change history, but I disagree.  It changed my day, my month, and probably my year, with its ripples.  It is changing things, even now; like all acts of kindness, it is a gift that keeps on giving.

For her 50-year-old friend, Sarton composed a poem, because her friend’s journey was, she writes, “partly about coming to a place where life has grown more important than ambition…”

I suspect that this is precisely the change required of us if we are to be “imaginatively kind.”  And it is perhaps why such kindness is in such short supply.   Ambition blinds.  It is a distraction that, for years, we mistake for the main event.  Kindness sees.

And seers are the guides we need now.  They aren’t household names, most of them, or people we recognize from the news.  Most of them are poets and gardeners of one ilk or another, pottering away in classrooms or clinics or in forlorn places somewhere very near us, shaping life in a vision of hope for those too burned out or too far underwater to be able to do so for themselves.

It is a good exercise in awareness to think about who these guides have been, or who they may be, in our lives today.  Then to learn from them to slow down and pick up our own rakes or paint brushes, write our own poems, paint our own canvasses, practice a kindness that stretches the frame of us.

 

 

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Stringing Up Lights in August

Fog greets me these mid-August mornings, the first birch leaves shiver into weary lavender.  Long after the torrid nights of summer’s barbecues, I am stringing strands of lights from the garage to my deck.

Anyone looking in would conclude that I’ve lost the almanac, so terribly out of sync as the good times are about to end.  But I have my reasons.

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