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

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

 

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.

 

 

The Great Continuum

This week I will make my way to college, my satchel a deadlift of course texts, to teach another year.

Four hundred miles away, my niece has just taken up residence in her freshman dorm at a large state university.  She and her parents have completed the ritual acts of transition: outfitting her new room (bean bag chairs, bright pink and yellow rugs, towels and throws, a fridg and the other usual appurtenances).   She is exuberant.  She loves her new friends and her pre-med classes.  No slouch, she is getting up at 6 each morning  to practice for varsity crew try-outs.

We are traveling in parallel, my niece and I.  I find myself looking at her as from the wrong end of a telescope, one in which she grows smaller and further away, and ask myself:  Was I ever as confident and idealistic, as full of risk-taking zeal, as she is?

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