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

 

 

 

 

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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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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Private Session with Thomas Moore

Friends,

I am grateful to have been granted a breakfast meeting with one of my all-time living wisdom teachers, Thomas Moore, a month ago.  The interview was just published in the journal, Anchor.  Enjoy!

My Personal Session with Thomas Moore

MY PERSONAL SESSION WITH THOMAS MOORE
BY KATHLEEN HIRSCH

Twenty-five years ago, in his best seller, Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore gave mainstream America permission to use the word “soul” and not get laughed out of the party. Offering an avuncular conduit to the inner world, the monk-turned-psychologist became a catalyst for a holistic vision of human potential. His book re-energized the mindfulness movement, the re-discovery of the body as source of sacred wisdom, and an activist stance towards psychological inquiry. Outlier practices like yoga, meditation, and reiki became du rigueur.

My personal copy of Care of the Soul joined my collection of writings by Jung and Jung’s luminous descendants, Marie von Franz, James Hillman, Marion Woodman, and others. What set Moore apart was his kindly approachableness. Drawing on the writings of his Renaissance muse, Marcilio Ficino, Moore encouraged over-committed westerners to attend to our dreams, create daily rituals, and practice conviviality. Moore saw us as essentially good, if uptight, materialists in need of a more holistic vision of the self in order to live lives of true dignity, intent and joy. For a generation, his voice was a warm welcome out of the wilderness.

Even as he moved into the role of columnist (Spirituality Today) and guru (a regular at Kripalu and Omega), with his Van Dyke beard, bright eyes, and compact, natty mien, sharing workshop billing with Deepak Chopra, Joan Borysenko, and the like, he continued to spin out books—some two dozen since 1992, on topics ranging from sex to bathing to golf.

Now, at the age of 75, he has taken up the topic of aging.

I found myself wondering what he makes of his legacy. How do those of us committed to consciousness and restorative justice reckon the results of our work in these troubling times? Where has mindfulness gotten us? And what remains to be done?

We met for breakfast in Cambridge, MA a few weeks before Ageless Soul was scheduled for publication (St. Martin’s Press). Moore arrived in a navy blazer and a plaid shirt, easeful, relaxed, and prepared to be interested. I felt as if we were old friends just picking up a conversation left off a while back. After ordering berry smoothies and a bit of small talk about his recent New Testament translations, we turned to my questions.

Care of the Soul gave us a language for the vitality of the inner life in the culture’s public space. What can we say about its contribution to our advancement in the intervening 25 years? Was our progress an illusion?

“We haven’t improved,” he admits, by way of understatement.

“The forces arrayed against the humanity of the person permeate every aspect of our lives.

“Simply put, it is the quantification of life. Materialism, treating the body as a mechanism, a system of chemical reactions, and the ‘mind’ as an object that is somehow ‘fixable’ by Big Pharma, have taken hold so completely that alternative views go nearly unheard. We have fallen, if anything, even more under the sway of materialism than we were two decades ago.

“We live in this insane society that treats everybody like a thing. Even in psychology, now, we are quantitative. The validation for the inner voice is almost non-existent.”

In the bleak context of these materialistic time, Moore speaks of age as much more than just the last stand against the abyss.

Age in these times—perhaps in every time—becomes, for Moore, the opportunity to counter empty busyness, acquisition, and the domineering ego (the cornerstones of materialist philosophy), and instead embrace a deeper spirituality. If we accept this challenge, and its attending renunciations, age can serve as the threshold into one of the great transformational archetypes, that of elder and sage.

“When you are older, what you do is extremely useful. The young need the refined intelligence of age. They need our mentoring, our modeling, and our life wisdom.”

This journey demands nothing less than the transformation of the ego.

“We have fallen, if anything, even more under the sway of materialism than we were two decades ago”

“Jung moved close to it when he said we need a new kind of center. Not the ego. It’s something that’s more at home in the unconscious. Hillman called it ‘an imaginal ego,’ by which he meant, a poetic ego, one that sees layers in everything. Layers and depths. Whatever you look at, no matter what it is—a thing, an object, an animal, a person, a plant. You see these layers. A poet always sees layers.”

This is the “work” of age.

“It isn’t about productivity, but a different kind of work. When the outer world becomes less pressing, the inner world ‘increases.’”

The way into this work, for Moore, lies in grounded acts of creativity, activities that engender reverie and an opening to the imagination.

“I think Jung would suggest that what we need to do is find a way to be more comfortable with intuition, divination, artistic expression, with image and metaphor. All the things that aren’t taken seriously in this culture. Jung was trying to suggest that we need to develop an ego that can live that way, on a deeper intuitive level, trusting intuition, reading poetry, reading the signs.

“There is a natural spirituality that comes with age, a natural contemplative attitude that doesn’t have to be some system or formal ‘way.’”

In a public sphere overtaken by cell phones and angry speech, it is helpful to remember the special alchemy of simply being with others in a state of receptivity. Travel, knitting, spending time with friends for the pure pleasure of it are all contemplative activities.

“Whatever we can do that allows the inner matter of our souls and imaginations to take form in the outer world in ways they haven’t until now is the process of soul-work. This is the invitation of age. It is an alchemical process, this work on our ‘beings.’ If we could do that, we’d be a different kind of person.”

It is clear that Moore is more concerned with individual consciousness than he is with social critique. Or, to put it more precisely, though he passionately rues the materialism of western medical practice, and the obsession with “fixing” symptoms that rules much modern therapy, his concern is less with repairing broken systems than with continuing to live out his life’s work of lighting the journey of souls.

“In the monastery, I learned that ‘to work is to pray.’ What you do is prayer. That got through to me. I’ve always viewed my individual work as drawing out a person’s inner excellence. This was what the Greeks meant when they used the word, ‘therapy,’ which they did quite a bit. Plotinus added the element of beauty. These are my sources. And my writing is my personal daily spiritual practice. As soon as I wake in the morning, I go to my desk.”

“Be curious; follow your own path to meaning.”

I reflect on the humble, hidden nature of growth and transformation. It is so easy to jump off the rails into a sort of sociological analysis of matters that are essentially sacramental. It is, indeed, one of the temptations of the times. Moore is mindful, gentle, corrective, ever concrete, ever grounded.

The conscious man and woman needs to locate those guides and images that can enable them to do the essential inner work.

“You can do things when you are older that you can’t do when you are younger. If you travel, don’t be just a world traveler. Travel because you really want to have an experience. Paint. Make music. Write. These are all pretty good options. Be curious; follow your own path to meaning.”

I am reminded of Hillman’s observation: “Aging is a mystical struggle between the progress of a civilization forward and ‘the little man at the end of the road.’” If the human task is complete insofar as we have committed ourselves wholly to a cultural good larger than ourselves, then Moore has made a good journey. As we finish our smoothies, I think perhaps we reckon best the gift that has been our years on earth not in the marquis issue of “legacy,” but by remaining in conversation with one another, sharing what we have learned and loved with those we befriend along the way. §


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Kathleen Hirsch is the author of A Sabbath Life: One Woman’s Search for Wholeness (North Point Press, 2001), Songs from the Alley (Anchor, 1990), and several other books. She currently teaches social justice writing at Boston College and serves as a spiritual director at Bethany House of Prayer in Arlington, Massachusetts. She blogs at kathleenhirsch.com.

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Cancer brings it home (Boston Globe Op-Ed)

The Boston Globe Op Ed

By Kathleen Hirsch   July 27, 2017

The china tea cups were laid out beside a vase of roses. I arrived late to this reunion of high school friends and former teachers, and could hear the laughter from the door as I slipped in. Lunch was over, and our hostess was holding forth, confessing the teenaged pranks of which our former principal and a beloved English teacher were heretofore innocent. Tears of laughter rolled down their cheeks.

Our hostess sat back and took a breath, satisfied that her stories were having the desired effect. This was her party. It would not come again, this day. And in a way that ordinary life doesn’t often underscore, we all knew it.

Cancer is wasting her body. She is as far beyond the reach of Western medical treatment as an untethered kite in the wind.

In the pause that followed our laughter, someone asked how she is doing, really.

“Pain has become my constant companion,” she told us.

The medical marijuana, a lifeline to relief.

And then she was off again, regaling us with more funny stories.

With the diagnosis of Senator John McCain, cancer has entered our collective consciousness, if it wasn’t there already. Through the dark days of dear ones, I have received an unexpected, inestimable gift — recalibration. My friend has brought me back, from the chaos of tweets, and adventitious commentary, to bedrock. Each of us — national heroes, scoundrels, and ordinary citizens alike — is given one singular and precious life. And it is never long enough.

We easily lose touch in the blurry brinksmanship of public life. My devices alert me to yet another Facebook post about lobster rolls, photo-shopped satire, recipes for Turmeric tea. My friend, and now our ailing senator, bring me back to sanity. They remind me of the dignity that accompanies real suffering. With nothing as frontal as the current political patois, they expose what is unworthy, even morally grotesque, in these times. Their argument is simply to wake up each morning with the courage and grace to survive another day. We aren’t dying of cancer, my friend tells me. We are living with it.

Recently with my friend, another visitor confessed her sense of awkwardness, and uncertainty about how to behave in the face of deep suffering.

“I just don’t know what to do,” she said, “or what to say. It makes me avoid the whole thing.”

I thought how frequently we all do this, avoid suffering that we can’t single-handedly or simplistically change — racism, poverty, unemployment, cancer.

My friend looked up from the quilt she was stitching.

“There’s only one thing we really want,” she said gently. “We just want for you to be here with us. Just your presence.”

I was reminded of this the day I arrived late for lunch. I took the empty chair and looked around the table at old, beloved friends. I know these women to be passionately verbal, lovers of story and debate. I know them to be activists, do-it-now people. But here, that day, we were all silent. Occasionally one of us would ask a question, but mainly we listened.

And it struck me that something quite other than our usual verve for problem solving was being asked of us. We were being asked to be witnesses.

Our friend had planned this luncheon as a celebration, so that she could bequeath to us the most precious gift of all: herself. She gave us snapshots that the years had dimmed, tales of her spirited and off-the-wall adolescence, her marijuana smoking, romance-filled 20s, her years as a devoted mother and a successful banker, and her recent journey into prayer and acceptance. She is determined to create meaningful moments and memories as long as she can.

While it is never what we want, there are times when suffering offers what we need, the image of our better nature. My friend, with her generous heart, is teaching me invaluable lessons about how to live. We are here to look one another in the eye, to hold hands, to listen, and to laugh, and somehow, from out of this genuine, heart-felt engagement, to create the conditions that honor — with safety, hope, and opportunity — each life that will never be repeated.

Kathleen Hirsch lives in Jamaica Plain and blogs at www.kathleenhirsch.com.

 

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Remembering What Matters

The velocity of events in our public life feels like a low-grade form of violence some days.  I notice this when I am alone, in the early morning, on walks in my neighborhood or writing in my journal.  Then, I become aware of how defended I am, ready for the next blow. Without my wishing or willing it, my better, deeper capacities for empathy and insight have gone into hiding.

How much of our life is lived like this?

Last Sunday was a time to look again.  It had snowed during the night.  The roads were wet, the skies low and very dark, when I set out.  Crows darted out of trees, sharing a secret.

The week had delivered its payload of appalling accusations, rebuffs, and retreats on the part of our so-called leaders, with no sign of any accountability in sight.

As I walked, I began to think about how this works on us.  What seems to happen is that moral repugnance festers.  It takes on a life of its own.  We get caught up in argument, labyrinths of justification.  The urge to have the last word.  And reaction robs the essential self of its freedom.

The price is a blindness to my own heart, a total white-out of what’s Real, what is right before my eyes.

It wasn’t yet 7.  I walked past the local hospital, down a street of few structures, a farm, and a nursing home. I enjoy walking the grounds of the nursing home – the “Independent Living Facility” — because they back into woods, and sometimes I see deer, or rabbits, or hawks and remember the existence of all that doesn’t participate in our sorry human constructs.

This morning, I happened to look up at the five-story high complex, where the residents’ windows were still dark and sleep still held peaceful sway.  Directly in front of me, on the fourth floor, a reading lamp was on. By its light, I saw an old man, alone, bent over a book.

I wanted to believe that he was reading Scripture, or poetry. His intent gaze and bent head had something of reverence to it.  In a grey dawn, in his dwindling days, he sat studying the mystery of his life’s journey.  Its wonder and magnitude.

There is, still, this, I realized. This is still available to us. Reverence, wonder, a kindness of the self to the self.  How could I have forgotten so completely that it is this that we most profoundly need?

Then I noticed the black women who were driving round to the back of the facility. Women who had left their families on a Sunday morning to start their work days, tending to these frail lives. They park at the rear and enter through the service door. They prepare to be the face of kindness and hope for another day.

We need these glimpses of our better selves, every day, not just on Sundays.  Especially now.  Go out and look for crows.  Embrace rainy mornings.  Take solitary walks.  Thank your chances to be with children, and to observe the slow unfolding of the daffodils.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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