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

The Courage of Swans, the Wisdom of Owls

What is the courage of the swan among ducks? 

What is the journey from solitude into trust?

Dare we scratch our harsh stories against the grain of life, and risk that they will become things of beauty?

These are questions poets ask themselves as often as they take in breath.

Jung, a poet in his own right, spent his whole life searching for a language that would do justice to his insight that we are each “a splinter of the infinite deity.”

He was far from alone.  Who doesn’t long for that voice that will not only convey our deepest experiences, but – harder and harder it seems, for so many – know that it is heard.

Swans float among ducks in the silver of autumn where I walk these days.  They remind me of what is possible.  Just as owls called to my friend, Nancy Rappaport.

Sometimes, we are given voices when our story falls apart.

Two weeks ago, I sat in an off-Broadway theatre as Nancy performed a remarkable one-woman play that she has composed about her journey through breast cancer, and her accompanying pilgrimage into a deep, mystical faith in the healing presences that she has found on long walks through Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA.

In giving us this gift, it seemed to me that night and now, days after, she transformed herself into a swan among ducks, a poet of healing.

With unflinching candor, she relates her shock at her diagnosis (she is a doctor), her fear, the dehumanizing process of medical procedures that so often shear away what trust we have in western medicine.

What called her from the terror of the hospital corridors to the silence of the cemetery?  What path, what voices unheard by the ordinary ear, led her to its deep and healing mysteries?

I know Mount Auburn Cemetery as a beautiful patch of tranquility, a mecca for birders and history bounty hunters eager to explore the many tombs of the famous there.

For Nancy, the cemetery became a source of communion, and its beauty a space of healing. There, the call of the owls in the deep, hidden glens evoked the presence of her late mother and the intimations of an overarching love.  As she struggled with the decision to refuse conventional plastic surgery and faced her fears of dying, she returned time and time again to the solace of the quiet stones, the centuries-old trees, the birds.  In its silences, and in the visitation of the owls, she found it in her to trust the process of recovery, and a new hunger to live a life of gratitude, immediacy, beauty and joy.

As I watched her, rapt, move across the stage, changing from street clothes to johnnie to beach flip flops, wrapping herself up in her beloved prayer shawl, or in meditation as the strings of a cello provided gorgeous accompaniment, I was aware once again of how essential and courageous it is for us to scratch the truth of our journeys on the air and into the relationships we cherish, to create story and beauty out of the hurts that tear us from innocence to wisdom.

Such messages are a form of ritual, just like the praying with incense, or the breaking of bread. They become the gifts that break life open and allow us to see the labyrinths we only recognize by walking them, the healing koans we discover only by returning time and again, until their mystery breaks open for us.

“In the end the only events of my life worth telling are those when the imperishable world erupted into this transitory one,” wrote Jung at the start of his memoir, Memories, Dreams and Reflections.

Nancy’s play, Regeneration, gave voice to such an event and we are the richer for it.  Her ordeal revealed allowed us to see the metamorphosis of pain into wise beauty.

Regeneration will be performed again.  Information will be posted October 29, 2017 at 6 p.m. at this link:

http://unitedsolo.org/us/regeneration-2017/

 

 

 

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Last Days of Summer

Here it is, the last, last day of blowing bubbles, walking barefoot in the grass, idling away a whole afternoon staring at a body of water.

Schedules and emails from old friends, and invitations to fall garden parties, are already arriving like the first winter storm ahead of their time.  Tonight, I receive my first batch of student writings, short poems about where they have come from and where they hope to go in their time with me.

We all need to ask these questions from time to time (and sometimes, every day!) and we all need to keep our eyes open for the lingering waterlilies, on nearby walks or in the marvelous imagination of Mssr. Monet.

I’m excited to anticipate the group of creative folks eager for a day-long adventure in writing, collage, and image making, with my talented friend and book artist, Susan Porter.  It’s just a few weeks away.  Join us if you can!

Here’s the skinny:

Illuminating Our Stories: A Creativity Lab

with Susan Porter and Kathleen Hirsch

 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  khirsch72@comcast.net

 Kathleen Hirsch is an essayist, memoirist and columnist.  She has published four books, and has taught writing at Harvard, Boston College, and in workshop retreats for adults throughout the Boston area.  She writes at KathleenHirsch.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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Forks in the Road

Opioid addiction has been shoved off the front page by the newest study.  Risky drinking has increased massively – 30 percent — in our country in the past ten years.

No doubt you have such a story somewhere your life.   If you do, it is a very old story.  This is how it goes.

You nudge, encourage, suggest, retreat, try again.

You watch, and you try to “do something” about it.  This can go on for years.  Dysfunction becomes normalized.  You learn to live with it.  You try not to let it overwhelm the good and healthy and normal life that it threatens.  Every day.

You become a watchdog for loved ones who refuse (or are unable) to hold themselves accountable for their behaviors.

You watch the elephants in the room for so long it’s sometimes hard to see anything else.

And the public health numbers climb.  How does this happen?

Rather than swerve into the usual socio-economic analysis of the “issue,” as I prepare for a summer sojourn to a place of quiet and restoration, I’d like to ponder for a moment the spiritual fallout of this big number on everyone else  – and the possible juncture where we might look to begin, infinitesimally, to change it.

This morning I happened upon a remarkable description of what it feels like to live with the stuff one has no power to change.  It is written by a 20th century French mystic, using the Christian metaphor for ultimate suffering “the cross.”

“But on one particular day,” wrote Madeleine Delbrel, “or maybe for several years, the cross comes to us veiled and we do not recognize it.  It is veiled by something which for us hides its form, its shape, and its size.  Or it seems to be made up of monstrous parts that are totally incoherent.  Or it seems to emerge like a phony shadow from phony lighting.  Or it weighs us down and hems us in.  The mystery that it presents us with from the moment that it approaches us ‘rejects’ one vital element of our human being.”

In the cancer world, where I’m spending more time these days, people talk about everyone effected by the disease as “survivors.”  Too rarely do we extend the same compassion to those who carry the “cross” of loved ones’ “risky behaviors.”

So here’s a bit of light.  A friend recently introduced me to a great little book for cancer survivors.  It’s called, Crazy Sexy Cancer Tips, by Kris Carr.  Carr has lived with liver cancer for a decade, and her book is chock full of self-care tips in which survivors of all manner of disease – addiction as well as cancer — can find loads of replenishment.

It offers up good quotes, like this from John Wayne, “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway,” and from Lao-Tzu, “By letting go it all gets done.”  It tells us to take breaks, be with positive people, get playful, dress up, and to say thank you.  Obvious, but in the vice grip of risky behaviors, easily forgotten.

At some point in their lives, those I consider my healthiest friends reached a fork in their roads and made such mental checklists for themselves.  Instead of turning a blind eye to the diseases that were slowing vaporizing friends with maintenance drinking issues, or emergent drug dependencies, or eating issues — they realized that they had to detach, lovingly, or they would lose themselves.  They needed to look after their themselves too — their own promises and health and fulfillment.

The question we should be asking in the face of the new numbers isn’t, “How could this happen,” but rather, “How, despite all, can I serve life and find joy?”

I’ve reviewed enough 12-Step literature to remember the mantra, “You didn’t cause it; you can’t cure it.”  I’d like to take this one step further, in light of the latest news flash about our sorry state of affairs.  In the words of a dear friend, “Go with the good energy.”  Go where there’s life and health and creativity and play and joy.

A cross laid down becomes a fork in the road.  Not a cop-out, but a change in attitude and direction.  If we want others to take responsibility for their lives, as survivors we must do so too.

Saddle up.

 

 

 

 

 

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Colored Chalk Before It Rains

How wonderful is colored chalk?  And did you ever stop wishing you could squat down with a thick stick of bright pink or yellow or green and bring the world up to the standards of your dreams?

Children’s graffiti is always revelation.   The other day I stumbled upon a small cache of dreams right there on the asphalt of the park, by a bench that undoubtedly held a mother or some suitable female substitute, while two girls made the world a brighter and happier place.

It takes so little.

In response, I offer my own bits of wishful thinking for the start of the last precious month of meandering thoughts and bright blue moons…

Love your friends

and your friends’ children;

Be generous.

Live by grace.

Practice positive regard.

Be unstinting.

Pursue excellence.

Wear your mother’s jewelry.

Loan your favorite books.

Bring gifts back from your travels.

Dance – whenever you can!

Look those who serve you in the eye.

Be Grateful.

Listen.

Practice infinite patience.

Especially when this is hard to do.

Protect innocence.

Honor beauty.

Conduct your life as if goodness and love were the highest names for the holy

and you its nearest willing host.

Just saying…

 

 

 

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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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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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