Kathleen Hirsch | Uncategorized
Writing and musings by author Kathleen Hirsch.
kathleen hirsch, writer, spiritual director, boston, ma, spiritual writing
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A New Kind of Pilgrimage

I have been thinking a lot lately about pilgrimage.  And exile.  Most days, it feels as if an invading force has entered the sanctuary of all I hold dear and pitched the icons over the city walls.  For the first time in my life, my government no longer feels benign or representative.  The “business” being conducted in the corridors of power looks a lot like that of the Third World countries whose people I used to pray for as a child at the end of Sunday Mass – mass resignations, egotistical posing, saber rattling at the opposition.

I have a choice.

If I assume the mantle of exile, I am able to feel more acutely the lives of refugees who have lost country, homes, roots, stories, holy shrines.  But I trade the crucial knowledge that I can still vote, write, speak out — and yes, pay taxes.

If instead I choose to see my life and that of many friends, students, local activists – as a new kind of pilgrimage, alienation takes on the coloration hope.  And with hope comes traction.

Each day brings more news that is almost impossible to absorb into our pre-existing democratic constructs, the political discourse and open process I so recently took for granted.  Executive orders that have the affected agencies reeling in confusion, the arrest of journalists, the bullying of trade partners, the gag orders on environmental personnel.

A dear friend leaves next week for her own pilgrimage — a trek up Kilimanjaro.  She will pass through five climate zones, scaling 19,000 feet, to summit the highest peak in Africa.  She is 67 years old.

For months, she has walked every day. Where there is a steeper grade, she will take it.  Stairs, she’s there.  She has watched documentaries and read about the climb.  Now, she is starting to pack her lightweight layers, stock battery packs, choose her journal.  She will travel in a reputable tour group with skilled guides.

She reminds me of all that goes into a good pilgrimage.

A pilgrimage starts with commitment – often to something that we don’t fully understand.  It is a primer in genuine sacrifice – of conveniences, comforts, assumptions, familiar landmarks.  Easy, on an unknown trail, to fall behind; in fatigue, to forget why you started, get sick, lose time and companions, run out of food.

 

Caring for ourselves as we move into new realities will entail the kind of attention my friend is bringing to her trip.   We need a huge daily dollop of mindfulness, remembering what we love and hold dear.  We need guides, not fellow amateurs — adults who have faced similar challenges, know the trails, and the wild things we might encounter along the route.  We need trustworthy map readers, whose quiet expertise and calm under any number of conditions we can trust.

And then — and this is the hardest part — we need to admit our ignorance.  We need to know what we don’t know, and be prepared to learn things we never imagined.

The great pilgrimages were journeys of conversion, undertaken with unlikely fellow travelers.  Survival depended upon staying focused and alert to current conditions, the prevailing winds, the height of the sun, one’s own energy and resources.  The greatest danger, on mountains or on pilgrimage, is to think so exclusively about the destination that you lost track of putting one foot ahead of the other in good faith.

My personal Kilimanjaro includes loaves and fishes: safety, health, good work, educational opportunities, kindness and inclusion, and the special care of children.  But I need the voices of experience to help me figure out where to place my feet, how to listen and observe well, how expend my limited energy, to hew to the good trail.

The sky is large.

At the moment my guide is Thomas Merton, but I’m always in search of others.  If we share our journey bread, our wisdom and good will, we can get there.

Intention is everything.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

Namaste.

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And Now, for Hope

Yesterday I sat with my intelligent, sensitive, and big-hearted undergraduate class as we tried to make sense of the election.  These students spend hours every week in service to marginal people — isolated elderly shut-ins, prisoners, behaviorally-challenged children, the poor, immigrants.  It is both part of my course requirement and a significant element of their sense of right livelihood.  Service to those who don’t have a seat at the table is something that you just do.

“Who have we forgotten,” they asked me.  “Who have we not heard?  We are trying so hard to change society’s balance of justice, yet there are those who feel rage — people who feel shamed, excluded, disenfranchised — what do we need to do that we aren’t doing?”

I have a deep sense today of the information vacuum that has divided us as surely as have any economic forces.  One constituency of voters consume one set of information sources; the other group, a very different set.  Until we — calmly, persuasively — dispel disinformation, wrong information, distortions, spin, and outright lies with the truth, we will continue to be blind men with a very large and dangerous elephant.

Newspapers in small rural areas, even in small cities, have fallen to the economic tsunami of the web.  News and information sources accessed online are curated to provide consumers with only what they want to hear.  For all the good that “citizen journalism” has brought to the public conversation, the authority of objective truth too often goes missing.

Enlightenment is freedom.  The free exchange of ideas, stories, points of view, is essential to the functioning of our system.  When ideas get muddy, or inaccessible, when points of view are systematically or habitually unheard, we are left not with honest disagreement but with demagoguery.

This is where we find ourselves.  It is the place to begin rebuilding, to restore mutual respect, healthy listening, and reconciliation.  It won’t be easy.  Radio, theatre, books, podcasts — we have the technologies.  We just need to become more creative in how we use them.

We have all — writers, teachers, citizens — be preaching to our own choirs.  It has been our downfall.  We need, for the first time in a long time, to keep a broader audience in mind.

I want to share a post from an Episcopal priest whose daily blog often enlightens and teaches me.

Dearly Beloved,

Grace and peace to you.

When some were speaking about the temple, he said:
Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.
Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” Do not go after them.
When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified;
for these things must take place first,
but the end will not follow immediately.
Nation will rise against nation;
there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you.
This will give you an opportunity to bear witness.
I will give you words and a wisdom
that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.
By your endurance you will gain your souls.
—from Luke 21.5-19

Not since the morning of September 11, 2001 have I felt more deeply the profound sorrow and dread people must have felt at the destruction of the temple. Only then, if ever, have I felt such deep anguish and wanted to raise such a desperate lament. I have never before ached with such terror that is not eased, sought sleep that would not come, cried out for comfort that will not lend itself, tried to pray and been unable.

The temple will fall. Fear, anger and self-absorption rule; disregard for the suffering of others has ascended to the seat of power,. There is no longer a safe place to retreat to, a sacred center of hope and belonging where the world is all right. Even in the temple in my own heart not one stone remains upon another.

When the temple falls we are awakened from the illusion that the world is just fine. Power structures will not save us. But this is nothing new. We finally know what others have known all along: we are vulnerable. We are exposed to the cynicism, violence, greed and hatred of the world. From the Roman Empire to the Holocaust to today’s unarmed young black men, or the people of Aleppo, or refugees or the trafficked and exploited—they know: there is no guarantee of justice, no illusion that everything will be all right. The whole world is at risk. There is no refuge. There never has been.

When the temple falls what do we do? When we can’t look to our power structures, what do we do? We become the temple ourselves. “Destroy this temple,” Jesus says, “and I will raise it up.” He says, “When you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place (let the reader understand)—the good news of the Empire of God will be proclaimed throughout the world. And the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

For some today is a day of rejoicing, but for me it is Good Friday. This happens. This is how God works. Human power structures fail us, and then God raises up life out of death. So what do we do? When the temple falls we become the resurrection. We let ourselves be raised, let ourselves be changed. Don’t look to the temple or the World Trade Center or the White House. Power structures will not save us, but God will. God pours love directly into our hearts. Live that love.

Now more than ever the world needs our love and justice and mercy. It needs our courage and community. It needs for us to be the crucified and risen Body of Christ. Realize that you are at the foot of the cross. Give voice to your pain, and let it rise as courage. Love this world with all you have. Connect with each other. Connect with strangers. Notice beauty. Celebrate the things God is doing in this world, the miracles that pass before us each day. Work for justice. Get involved. Now is the time to live resurrection. Live what really matters, as if these are your last days, and then maybe they won’t be.

My dread and sorrow are deep; but in that dark tomb hope is already rising. May the peace of Christ that passes understanding fill and guard your heart and mind today.
Deep blessings,
Pastor Steve

____________________
Steve Garnaas-Holmes
Unfolding Light
www.unfoldinglight.net

Yesterday I told my students:  Don’t retreat.  Get involved.  But be smart about it.  Use your gifts of intelligence, education, understanding of how our system works, not to add to the sum of anger and outrage that is too much with us just now, but to enliven hope that together people can successfully advocate for constructive change.

 

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All-Out Squash Soup: A Meditation on Trust

So much negativity in the air.

I stand at the sink and cut into a squash, its muscular sunshine flesh like nothing else on earth.   My feet, my whole being, feels more surely grounded by this.

It is soup-making season again, this year a much-needed comfort.

At church on Sunday I attended a talk on the subject of trust.   Trust is the basis of everything, the speaker proposed.  What we trust, we love.  What we love, we serve.  It was as dazzling as my squash, as full of juicy seeds.

So.  Americans’ public trust has been radically, catastrophically shattered – in this election process, in our racial politics, in our economic recklessness.

What, I ask as I peel away, do I trust?

Mammon?  Fame?  Achievement?  The Past?

And how does my personal “trust-list” affect the life that I live in public, with others?

If I am really honest, I’ll admit that I’ve flirted with all of the options above at one time or another, imagining that my little dalliances won’t unsettle the deeper strata of what I think of as my true, higher, ground.

I’ve told myself that worshipping at the feet of Eileen Fischer or putting a good review up on a pedestal, won’t thin my soup or turn it bitter, or distract me from remembering to feed my family altogether.  I’ve flirted with ambition and being in the “right place,” like the best (and worst) of us.  Often have I fallen for woman’s cardinal sin, of saying, “Sure, I can do it, no problem,” just because I can, not because my heart has led me.  I’ve run myself into the ground until the soul’s larder was so jammed with half-finished things that it started to attract little varmints of resentment and self-pity.

So, yes, I’ve been untrustworthy towards what is true and good, and for questionable ends – usually less out of pride than from an unclear sense of duty or calling.  Out of a faltering trust.

What causes such faltering?  Is it possible that the same lack of clarity has befallen us on a public level?

I know that I lose my grounding because I don’t pause regularly enough to do things like make soup, take time to reassess the high-speed buffet I keep adding to.  I lose touch with the significant models of balance and integrity I hold dear.  I start to mistrust my self because the parade is high-kicking it and I am afraid to be left in the dust.

What I need most when I get pulled out of true, is not to jump on the parade.  I need a quiet morning like this one, when I don’t have to perform anything for anyone, when I am free to choose what I will do to feed my family, my own heart and soul.

I rummage in the fridg for inspiration – this being, always, an act of domestic improvisation.  Today, it will be yellow carrots, a jalapeno, a few leaves of thyme.  I will peel squash, answer mail, call a sick friend and read something meaningful.  (I will resist phone texts, and hope I can hold out to dinnertime.)

Sunday’s speaker interjected a potent corrective to what ails us today when he noted that it is gestures, more than words, that express trustworthiness.  It’s so easy to sound good.  But it is the actions we choose to make every day, what we create or uphold or destroy, that stamp us as one kind of person or another.

Already pundits are asking: how can we mend the enormous fissures that divide us, heal the distrust and name calling and discord?  How can we do something about the half-finished conversations, the unmet needs, that our damaging rhetorics have created?

I think we begin by posing the question I heard on Sunday.

What do we trust?  What in us is worthy of trust?  How do we begin to rebuild the promises that have been broken — to ourselves, to one another?

It is essential that we take the time to pull ourselves into true.   Doing “nothing” – such as making soup – helps me remember what I trust most deeply, and to stay real in relation to it.   Making soup is far better, than are many of the things that demands my attention.  Doing so makes it ever easier to toss the catalogs.

Soup is all about the possibilities of a seed.   Humble and close to the ground.  What if every one of us in this country, or in the world, were fortunate enough to be able to make a pot of soup?  To feed their families?  To share a meal with strangers — even, perhaps, ideological opponents — at work, at school, down the street?

Truth is, most of the ingredients for such a dream — too small to merit the attention of pundits, too simple to become a marketing fad — are already in the collective larder.  We just need to decide to trust the process.

What would happen if we started here?

 

 

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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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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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Gratitude for Our Ordinary Days

For the first time since June, my farmer’s market CSA did not have a full-to-bursting paper cone filled with wildflowers awaiting me – snapdragons, sweet peas, zinnias, statice, sunflowers.  For a beautiful season, I have been able to watch the color roll call of the summer garden – tender pinks and whispers of lemon, giving way to deeper roses, salmons, blues, and on to the intense flame of the sedums, asters and dahlias.

Then last Wednesday, I was told by the girl behind a folding table, dwarfed by five kinds of peppers, that the flowers were “over.”  Like a child called indoors while the light is still in the sky, I felt betrayed.  Something loved and lovely had been snatched away before I’d drawn sufficient breath in its presence to fully absorb its grace and goodness and pleasure.

I felt as if I had lost something precious before I’d fully possessed it.

I have recently discovered a poet whose writings – and story – about presence and loss teach me invaluable lessons about remaining mindful of what is most precious in our lives.

Claudia Emerson won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for her book, Late Wife.  It is an elegiac, redemptive series of poems about losing a marriage that was “over” and, in time, falling in love and marrying again, this time a widower who had lost his beloved first wife to cancer.

Emerson remarried in 2000.  Fourteen years later, at the age of 57, she herself died of cancer.   In the intervening years of happiness, diagnosis and grueling treatments , she continued to write poems.  Towards the end of her life she composed those that would comprise her very beautiful posthumous book, impossible bottle.

One of these has haunted me.  In it, Emerson describes a chemotherapy clinic and its by-then familiar clientele on a day she goes in for treatment:

What we do not know about

each other can go unspoken; our old ordinary

means nothing here, and we know already

the ordinary that this is-and is-.

 

“Our old ordinary means  nothing here…”

The few times I have passed through a hospital, nursing home, or a testing center, I too have experienced the dissociative and disempowering effects of radical vulnerability and the effacing of personal story.  I have been lucky:  unlike Emerson’s, my visits have been routine.  But even with the great kindness of good doctors and very able nurses, I understand the fragmented consciousness that her lines convey.

Haven’t we all had the relief of stepping back into the “real” world, strolling past a coffee shop and taking in the sounds of cars and the smell of buses with downright gratitude?

Emerson offers me a different sort of gift than do my paper cones full of flowers.  They lead me to take a morning to hold my own “ordinary” up to the light like the bouquet it truly is – the morning toast and paper with my husband, the workspace that I take for granted with its helter-skelter of books, paper, and illustrations, the conversation with a long-distance friend, the texts from my son, and the simple dinner by candlelight when day is done —  these are the blooms of a very ordinary garden, and yet they are infinitely precious to me.  When I remember to give thanks for them all, in all of their mundane abundance.

 

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