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

A Creative Invitation

Friends,

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.

 

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All That We Don’t Understand

For weeks after my younger brother died, many years ago, he came to me at night, always at the hour of his death.  He would enter the room when I slept, gently, and I would waken, and we would spend time together.  We didn’t talk.   But those hours resolved many things between us.

Some of the unfinished business in his life seemed to filter away, some he bequeathed to me.  These were profound events that I remember even now, like they were yesterday.

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Resurrection

She couldn’t remember how long she had moved through life like an open, well-disguised, wound.  She was articulate and beautiful, and her pride was a rapier intelligence.  She’d have made a good litigator.  I know, because she could reduce a theological proposition to dust in a heartbeat with one of her challenging questions.

A psychologist by profession, she had exhausted every avenue of self-analysis without finding relief for the problems that beset her:  a push-me-pull-you relationship with a partner, alienation from her family, a sense of dislocation.  She came to my door feeling numb.

She told me that she wanted to “try God.”

By this, I soon discovered, she meant, “take God on.”

We spoke together over many months, discussing books, ways of praying, ideas, Scripture.  It was an intellectual dance, and I began to see that it paralleled an exterior life of perpetual advance and retreat.  She stayed in one place for only a year or two, laying plans to leave before she’d settled in.  She took up multiple partners.  She was a master escape artist.  Always, she had an out.  And she’d always taken it, moving away, finding a new job, a new city.

One day as I sat across from her, feeling her vulnerability behind the mask of calm and cool, I asked her, “Why are you here?”

She hadn’t expected this.  Her dance partner had dropped back, to look more closely at the steps we were repeating over and over again.

It was a labyrinthine dance of pain, but also of safety.  Round and round.  An exercise in propping up her problems, or images of God, only to them strike down, to reject or dabble, or explore as intellectual propositions.

We sat with a lot of silence that day.  Words were incapable of reaching into the place where the dance ended.

After some time she asked, in a small, exposed voice, “Where was God when I needed him?”

It was the first expression of genuine feeling I’d heard from her in all those many months.

None of us escape the desolate hours.  How many times have I asked the same question?  Wakened in the middle of the night feeling existentially alone, moved through weeks not knowing in hindsight what got me through?  Her adolescence had been shattered by a mentally-ill parent around whom the family navigated, with many raw edges.   What died in her during those years wasn’t just hope, and it wasn’t just faith.  What died was the idea of God as a source of love, comfort, affirmation.

She’d been wandering ever since, walled off from the worst of her pain by her brilliant mask, never daring for a moment to release her grip on the strategies that had “worked” – at least, had gotten her through.  But at a price.

She left, and I didn’t know if I would see her again.

Time passed.

Recently, she came to visit.

“I’m thinking of staying, getting a new apartment, “she smiled for the first time in months.  “I’m not sure why I felt so compelled to leave.”

This wasn’t all.

“I saw my mother a few weeks ago,” she went on. “She told me that she hopes I’ll stay, and for the first time in years I heard this as a genuine expression of her love.”

Tears started running down her cheeks.

“Something has shifted,” she told me.

Sometimes the dance needs to stop, the masks be removed.  Only in this way can we find our way back to the beating heart that hides, protecting itself, sparring with shadows.  It’s very hard to do this alone.  We need each other to name the dance of our harsh inner tapes, our inability to forgive, or spinning in circles – however elegant or articulate.

What had changed? I asked her.

“I’m not entirely sure,” she said, “but I seem able to appreciate everything I have more fully.  I’m paying attention to things, realizing that I actually like some of the people I work with.  I have a lot to be grateful for.”

“God never left you,” I told her, able to share what I have had to learn over and over again in my own life.  “You asked where God was when you needed him, in your darkest times.  God was there.  It was God who was weeping in you.”

This is the discovery.   When we slip out from under our rocks of hurt and unworthiness and anger and shame, when we allow the light of a love without agenda to crack our stone walls, something amazing happens.  We let in a power that can destroy our self-made tombs, and begin to emerge into something bigger and more real than we’d imagined.

It is scary to do this.  It’s much easier, I suspect, to be a blade of grass than a human being.  But the newly greening grass helps to remind us:  Resurrection is all around us, quiet as a smile and a direct glance where once there was evasion, self-protective wit, a distance of fear.  It takes a friend, a teacher, a gardener, someone who is genuinely interested in the answer to the question, “Who are you really?  Tell me your story.  Why are you here?”

 

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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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Carte Blanche

A Meditative Summer Find

My friend, the sculptor and paper artist Julie Levesque, has given us a summer gift:  her one-woman show at the Rice/Polak Gallery in Provincetown, MA.

Her quiet, white and shadow pieces, composed of the materials we find around us every day — sand, bits of flown paper, salt and dust — give me pause, which is just what we should be doing before those foggy mornings draw us back to desks and monitors and to-do lists.  The subtle tonal shifts and play of light are as thought-provoking and restorative a walk on the beach at dawn.

Take a virtual look, if you can’t make it to P’town.  It’s worth the time.

http://ricepolakgallery.com/artist/julie-levesque/

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Eternal Dog

Finally, a year and three months after her death, I was ready to lay my sweet daschund to rest.  The plan was to set her ashes high up on a hill overlooking the meadows, at the ridge of our farm.  I would plant a magnolia and some ferns, and find a flea market bench, so that every time I went north I could climb the hill and talk to her.

But what did I know?  She had other ideas.

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