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

What is it about grace — free, unexpected, transforming?  It falls into our hands when we do the one thing needed:  pay attention.  Recently, this poem by Laura Shatzer reminded me of the gift of attention.  Like ripe fruit in a cold season, it is a bit of grace.  I share her gift with you.

There on the corner
of Mass Ave and Columbia
She shook her cup,
Coins jingling
As her cancer-fighting body
Hunched over her cane.

Her smile was radiant
and determined.

When she opened her palms to receive
Someone rolled down their window
And gave her a box of

She offered me one,

A fat, juicy berry.

I never knew
Until that day
That a blessing
Could be so sweet.


The Power of Sisters

Some things are almost too good to be true.  In this category I would place, most improbably, the dental practice that I have frequented for more years than I can remember.

Into an adorable russet red triple decker in Cambridge, MA, drifts a constant flow of clients from nearby Porter Square (hence its name: Porter Square Family Dental).  We come to be treated by one of the three sisters, who all happen to be dentists.

If this were fiction, you’d call it a fairy tale.  Instead, it is the very real, creative, and enviable model for three highly able women who, when they were just starting out, wanted to maintain their profession while keeping the life balances that would enable them to raise young families, and in time expand to satellite practices in the western suburbs.

All three graduated Tufts Dental School.  They pooled their resources to purchase a practice from the estate of a recently-deceased, beloved local dentist.

They carved up the four-day work schedule (Fridays are off for everyone, staff included).  Each one of them worked two days in the beginning.  They covered for each other, shared the emergency calls, had their children, and quickly won over the loyalty of happy clients.

In time, schedules have shifted, depending on the needs of each sister, but the fundamental concept has remained.

It isn’t a model that can work for every walk of life, certainly.  But this little gem of a practice suggests the innovative work arrangements that sisterhood can make possible.  It is a family business in the best sense of the word.  And it makes me wonder how others, reading their story, might imagine new possibilities in their own worlds.

I learned the power of collaboration, of women “having my back” and easing the way, during my undergraduate years at a women’s college.  Strong women, all looking forward with the same ideals of effort and excellence, elevated all of us.  Collectively, we were so much more than we ever could have been alone.

Now that I am older, I realize how many of our important “wisdom” stories affirm this experience — the sisters, Mary and Martha, the meeting of Elizabeth and Mary, the loyalty of Naomi to Ruth, or the resourcefulness of the wives of Jacob.

Even when successful women seem to be operating solo, there are many others in the wings, who have taken them seriously, cheered them on, helped them navigate challenges, picked them up when they stumbled, raised a glass of champagne when they pulled it off.

Women know that this support is the building block of all creativity – whether in our businesses, our family lives, or our art.

This is a good week to consider our many sisters – biological and spiritual – who sustain and inspire us.  Thank them, even if you can only do so in your hearts.

I am sure that I am in a fairly group of those who actually look forward to visiting the dentist.  Pictures of beautiful children hang in the examining rooms, good magazines await in the waiting room tables, serene music drifts through the rooms.  There’s nothing frenzied or crowded or hurried about the experience.

What a lovely way to live each day of one’s working life!  It is just what the sisters wanted to achieve, for themselves and for all who walk through their door.

Surely, sisterhood makes the world a more creative place, thanks to women’s organizational skills, our inventiveness, and our talents.






Monday Morning

As seems only right this week as we bear down on Christmas Eve, we will celebrate women, those busiest attempting to create holidays full of wonder, beauty, and joy, in spite of the conditions in which we find ourselves!

It is time, it is necessary.

For a long season, women have struggled in a world where invisible norms still diminish us, our values and our work.  Despite the many advances into professions and careers traditionally the stronghold of men,  female medical students are warned by older women not to consider demanding specialities if they want to have children.  Women continue to accept inadequate maternity leave times and juggle work-home responsibilities unequally.  They hold down the home front while their partners justify endless hours away on the merits of lopsided metrics of value.

Perhaps most importantly, women in the main still tend to the emotional life of relationships.  It is they who observe and bear the childrens’ needs, mostly; they who cultivate the atmosphere of the home; they who tend the feeling life of the marriage and the social life of the family.

These are the unseen forces in the private sphere.   We are now recognizing the extent to which, in the other area of life, women are subjected to reductionist sexualization by sad but powerful men.

Illumination can be a dangerous thing.  It can shed light.   But handled in unskilled ways, it can also burn us up.  The stories of rape and blackmail and threats and denigration have triggered countless more women than those who have stepped up to on #MeToo.  I don’t know a woman who has not been marked by multiple occasions of inappropriate rage, or the silencing that arises from verbal innuendo, inappropriate touching, and intimidation.

Women are at a crossroads of consciousness.  For more than a century prescient social observers, psychologists and theologians have predicted this.  We must not let the shock of the unfolding narrative obscure its inevitability, nor its deep implications.

We need to ask – in strength, not as victims — these questions:

Why is the feminine so despised in this culture?

Why it is so feared?

What shattered inner compass drives so many men to the pathology of objectification and violence?

Is this partly because women remain the bridge to an intuitive and spiritual world that many men have become separated from?  Is it easier to drown out our voices with bullying and assertive posing than to hear what would require self-examination and change?

Our spiritual intelligence is our great strength.  Indeed, the point of greatest friction and anguish for many women I know is the tension that comes from trying to live our lives as spiritual creatures while meeting the demands of work, and even social lives, that have a distant connection to the life of the soul.

As we begin this soul searching — hopefully with good men who are also appalled and hurt by the actions of other men — it is important to consider we can face into the darkness of abuse and rage and violence without burning ourselves up?

Women have navigated and preserved our integrity, and our gifts until now.  We have done so through our creativity.

At this time, it is important that we stay grounded in these wellsprings — our creative visions and imagination and our stories.  We need to share with one another the ways in which we transform our daily struggles, and the place we make for creative expression, that allows us to renew, heal, and bring our best selves forward with each new day.

This Advent, my Christmas gift to myself is this painting which I’ve recently acquired from my dear friend, Anne Darby Parker.

The figure speaks to me of woman’s strength, her ease, and her comfort in her own natural sensuality.  What I love about this painting is that she seems caught in a private moment, a woman alone — just being — poised, relaxed, unhurried, contemplative.  She is just beginning her day, I imagine, and she has paused, with no sense of urgency or hurry, to ponder before she steps into action.

Perhaps she is scanning the day ahead; perhaps reflecting on a comment her husband has made, or the flowers that need deadheading in the garden.  Perhaps she is just looking out at the sea.

This isn’t a figure bowed down from being violated or shamed or completely disregarded by a gathering of men.

She is waiting, confident and competent, with a kind of receptive openness that is perhaps the posture of natural prayer.

Anne has given me a true and valid image of women, and I want to start the week by sharing it.  While she tells me that she doesn’t title her paintings because she wants the viewer to bring her or his own experience to the work, for me, this figure is a muse for our every Monday.  She is what I want to be each day:  grounded, contemplative, and fully myself.

Do you have an image that you hold dear of the feminine in such a posture of natural prayer?

In times that suffer the terrible distortions of power, women need to honor and share the stories of our forebear’s courage and creativity and risk.  And we need to honor and share those we discover within.

It is necessary.  It is time.


[If you are interested in seeing more of Anne’s work:  @annespaintings  www.annedarbyparker.com]


Into the Wilderness

I cancelled my appointments today, a Saturday, so that the house would be perfectly silent.  I have left my phone on silent, in a drawer in the bedroom.  I’ve chosen to sit quietly and knit, take a walk in the park, watch the birds at my feeder, and listen for the heartbeat of life.

It requires enormous will power to make this turn – into silence and vulnerability.

All the twinkling lights of my familiar world – my campus classroom, decorated church, the UPS stops to mail last minute packages, and the mall for stocking stuffers, all fade into the distance.  And I face into what waits in the silence, all the phantoms and imaginings and, I hope, insights, that typically come only in the middle of sleepless nights.

The world does everything imaginable to buffer us from this turn.  I hear the voices of good people pooling the collective wisdom that says the good life is filled with “activity,” “purpose” “duty” – giving gifts, responding to emails, attending to every need, never missing a meeting or a chance to volunteer for a cause, or to put my oar (or tweet) into whatever conversation is close at hand.

(As I write this, I’ve gotten three text messages from siblings and it isn’t even 7:30 in the morning!)

I don’t want to see my over-burdened schedule as anything other than virtue.  Almost everyone I know is giving nearly every waking hour to good work of some kind or another.  I am blessed to know, and draw hope from, such people.

But I know myself.  If I don’t step off at regular intervals and turn inward,recharge and reclaim my spiritual energies, I am unable to meet the very real darkness that shows itself with such painful regularity in private and public ways.

No one will applaud my turning down the next invitation to cocktails, or my decision to pass on making peanut butter fudge this year.

But all self-doubts scatter when I open up the marvelous wisdom of Thomas R. Kelly’s A Testament to Devotion once again.  Written in 1941, it is as relevant today as it ever was.

Here is Kelly, in this slim, essential reading:

“There is a way of ordering our mental life on more than one level at once.  On one level we may be thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating, meeting all the demands of external affairs.  But deep within, behind the scenes, at a profounder level, we may also be in prayer…and a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings.

 “The secular world of today values and cultivate only the first level, assured that there is where the real business of humankind is done, and scorns or smiles in tolerant amusement at the cultivation of the second level – a luxury enterprise, a vestige of superstition, an occupation for special temperaments.  But in a deeply religious culture people know that the level of prayer and of divine attendance is the most important thing in the world.  It is at this deep level that the realm business of life is determined.”

 For the few remaining days of Advent, I’d like to think that we all need to step out into a place where it becomes lucidly clear that the day’s media blizzards, the purchase of a last roll of wrapping paper, a spritz of 409, or a dusted coffee table won’t transform anything.

Our hearts know better.

This is a time to remember these words of Rumi:

                              Yesterday I was clever and I wanted to change the world,

                                        today I am wise, so I am changing myself.








Yesterday, this beautiful poem landed in my inbox from Steve Garnaas-Holmes, who writes a daily poetry blog, Unfolding Light.  

Advent blessings!

The brook is not the light
but it reflects the coming dawn.
The geese are not the winter,

but it falls from their wings.

The wave is not the sea;
the note is not the song;
I am not the light
but I am made of nothing else.

Bear witness.
If not to the light within,
bear witness to the dawn.
To the song.

The candle isn’t the sun,
but sings its song.
I don’t have to believe this,
just sing the song.



Generating Warmth and Light

“There are two ways of spreading light: To be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”

Edith Wharton, Vesalius in Zante


One of the best ways we have of spreading light is also one of the oldest: by telling stories.

Each time a story of goodness or courage or hope reaches our ears, we grow a little brighter ourselves.

So here is a story that warmed me this dark and very cold Boston week.  It shows how very little it takes to transform our days and seasons so that we can see past the scrim of ordinary time to the deeper dimension that flows along within it.  In this case, all it took was a good idea, willingness, and the time to cut a few pieces of paper.  Really.

The village of Askrigg, in Yorkshire, England, (population 450), has created a beautiful ritual to mark the dark nights of Advent.  Everyone and anyone can participate, whether they are “religious,” “spiritual,” or “none.”

Beginning in late November, children, older singles, and families, begin the annual project.  They create cutout scenes from black paper.  Some choose the numbers of the Advent days.  Others create silhouettes of secular themes like pine trees and stars; still others, conventional religious motifs like angels or wreaths.   The more artistically-minded carve elaborate creatures from well-loved carols.  These shapes are then covered over with layers of colored tissue paper to become “windows.”  When they are finished, the “windows” are taped to shop or a home windowpanes.

When Advent arrives, each night a different window is unveiled, the light from the room behind them illuminating them for the whole village to enjoy.  As the days go by, and more windows join the pageant, families take to walking together through the streets to enjoy the display.

Three women – an artist, a teacher, and a real estate agent in the town —  got the ball rolling in 2009.  In the article in which I discovered this initiative, the artist acknowledged that at first people needed a bit of coaxing.  She offered workshops at the local church.  It didn’t take long for the villagers to fall in.  These days, the “windows” project has become a community wide event, and even beyond, with visitors dropping in to view the creations.  The organizers field new ideas and volunteers each season.  The art work, too, has only gotten more ambitious and well-executed with each passing year, and the village walks are now a time everyone looks forward to, to meet up with friends and neighbors, in might be an isolating time for some.

It is so simple.  It returns the season to its core story, replacing consumer anxiety and excess and frayed nerves with inclusivity, wonder, and light.  All it takes is construction paper, scissors, tissue paper, and a willingness to spread a bit of joy.