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A Sabbath Life: One Woman's Search for Wholeness

A Sabbath Life: One Woman's Search for Wholeness

by Kathleen Hirsch

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Poetic and provocative, a challenge to women to create more spiritually rich and balanced lives.A successful writer and a committed feminist, Kathleen Hirsch, at age forty, finds herself searching for something more. How, she asks, can women's lives be more spiritually alive and whole? Can we reclaim in our most productive years what we sacrificed to earlier ideas of success? What is the place of silence and creativity in our busy lives?

Unable to trek to Tibet or retreat to a cabin in the woods, she enters a season of reflection in the midst of her everyday life. A career crisis, the sudden death of a brother, and the birth of her son, all in a year's time, deepen her probing. Hirsch examines the role of women's friendships and the definition of worthwhile work. Her inner pilgrimage gradually moves her to seek out a range of remarkable women who are consciously trying to live in balance. They lead her to bold conclusions that will inspire many women who are seeking realistic ways to live more multidimensional lives.Beautifully written, A Sabbath Life will serve as A Gift from the Sea for the twenty-first century.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374528713
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 05/17/2002
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Kathleen Hirsch is the author of Songs from the Alley (NPP, 1998) and A Home in the Heart of the City (NPP, 1998). She lives with her family in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.

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A Sabbath life

A Woman's Search for Wholeness

By Kathleen Hirsch

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2001 Kathleen Hirsch
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-9489-1


Turning Forty


I am sitting in a room high above a city of hills. The light is turquoise and white, brilliant turquoise from the sea, brilliant white from the sun glancing off stucco compounds that form a continuous epic of habitation as they descend to the place where they began centuries ago, by the boats where boys still dive for the day's food.

I am waiting. I am waiting without impatience or urgency. I look out on the hills in the distance and at the azure sea below through the open arches that form three walls of my room. Above my head is the same unimpeded openness, the endless turquoise sky.

This room is my private chamber, and I dwell in it by virtue of a lifetime's devotion to the sacred mysteries. My collection of seashells sits alongside my pens and paper and my wisdom texts. A carved chest at the foot of my bed holds my needlework. My needs are thus more or less completely satisfied.

The simplicity and sensuality of the room mark it as a distinctly womanly place. Indeed, the atmosphere of the dream, with its scent of incense and salt water, my white and azure robe, the lapis and opals that I wear in my ears, all seem to suggest that in this room I sustain the deep truths of the feminine.

One detail in particular seems to affirm this. It is the bed. The bed is the most beautiful object in the room. It is draped with a coverlet into which has been stitched a kind of compendium. In vivid threads and entwining vines, creatures of the sea and air and land depict the tale of Eden.

It is more than an ornament, this spread. It suggests itself as a text, a statement about the relation of the woman to the rest of creation, which one might learn to read, if given the time and the proper keys. As indeed I, the dreamer, must learn if I am ever to become the dreamed.

The "I" of the dream is a different matter altogether. Not only is she at ease among her books and the objects and creatures that are her companions. It was she who created them, she who stitched them. She is at once familiar and Delphic, at home with the earthbound lessons of Eden, with the timeless mysteries of Greece, Byzantium, and Jerusalem. She might be in Turkey or in India, in the East or the West. In my dream, they are one and the same. She transcends time and geography.

As I said, she is waiting. She is waiting for the arrival of a lover, or to stitch, or to read a page from the book of wisdom. All of these, the detachment and engagement, the passion and the poem, the flesh and the page, are one and the same.

* * *

AT THE START of this story I am standing in a field of something that I can't name, taking in the heady scent of it. I do not have the names for any of the multitude of things that grow or fly or flower in front of me. Not the fruit trees, not the flowers, not the birds.

For twenty years I have occupied the same room of life that I have called my career. I have worked twelve to fifteen hours a day, on weekends as well. What I have achieved — my relevance, my currency, my visibility — has constituted my sense of who I am.

I am childless. My relations with my family and friends are minimal, defended, graciously superficial. My marriage is settled. My home with its collection of handmade pots and art books, spare. I attend symphony, see the season's major art exhibits, and spend long country weekends with friends who do the same.

I do not know the names of the wisdom books that I would gather around me because, though once a student of poetry, philosophy, and art, I have become a purveyor of facts. I would need a lover of the stature of my dream to stir in me the deep ecstasy that flitted briefly through midnight. I am no longer sure of the names of my feelings, or the currents of my desires.

As I stand and gaze at all of which I am so appallingly ignorant in the natural world, in the geography of my dream life, in the indistinct reach of my desires, tears come to my eyes and I hear the words of my beloved Proust:

"We must rediscover that reality from which we become separated as the formal knowledge we substitute for it grows in thickness and imperviousness — that reality which there is grave danger we may die without having known, and which is simply our life."

It has not yet occurred to me that there might be another woman, or several, inside of me. I wouldn't know what to do with such information. I have been trained to believe in the "achieving self" as the ultimate goal and justification of life.

A graduate of a Seven Sisters college, with an advanced degree from an Ivy League university, I believe that women ought to assert themselves in a manner similar to that which for generations had been sanctioned by and for men.

Specifically, I accept that this self-expression is to be accomplished according to the same norms of success, the same terms of performance, the same operative structures, as men's.

* * *

AT TIMES, it has been exhilarating.

It has greatly simplified the substrate of warring motives and unwanted ambivalences that has occasionally appeared.

Over the years it has grown easier and easier to accept the lost parts of the Self as the inevitable cost of maturation and success ...

* * *

THE WOMAN of my dream caught up with me. In a rare moment of vulnerability she of the lost wisdom, buried for years in the detritus of ambition and distraction, confronted me with my own inner fragmentation. She demanded to know why it was necessary to surrender parts of myself in order to be successful.

I began to wonder if achievement could take a form uniquely my own as a woman, and whether my mature vision of what matters in life, and the means of best going about what matters, might quite naturally and inevitably part company with men's; indeed whether it might not contribute something of unique and irreplaceable value to the culture in which I live.

This is the story of a journey of awakening. My intention is to share my efforts to achieve in my middle years a wholeness that I did not know (and didn't care to find) as a younger woman. Simply by listening to my inner soundings, and to the many inspiring women whom I have met over the past few years, I have learned what it means to genuinely honor the Self. Today I live a life not as the culture would have me live it, but as I understand its underlying purposes from within.

Success is a manifold and changing thing. When women embrace their own ways of seeing and attempting to influence the realities around them, their norms of what is sacred, and their seasons, they create lives that are varied, abundant, fruitful, and, at day's end, rich in wisdom and peace. Sabbath lives. In honoring what makes us women, we transform the world around us.

Whether absorbed in a career as I have been, or at home with children, or attempting some more individual balance between achievement, relationship, and service, every woman has the deep reserves within her to create such a life. To begin, she needs only to listen.




MY FRIEND LINDA and her husband have loaned us their country house for two weeks in August while they hike in Montana.

The drive from Boston takes about two and a half hours. We wend our way through beautiful rolling hills thick with summer's green into a valley speckled with steepled towns, horse farms, and swaying sunflowers. All summer long, I have been adrift. A book project three long and hard years in progress is mired in a tangle of insurmountable obstructions: uncooperative sources, key players hostile to my presence as a researcher.

But something else is at work too. I can't deny the inertia that has begun to sap my energy. I am constantly tired. Undermotivated. I've begun to prefer the solitude of my deck to the company of friends. And I can't put my finger on the cause of these changes in me.

We arrive midmorning. I no sooner unpack than I fall into bed and sleep for two hours.

I am awakened by the toot of an antique pickup that has pulled up to the front door. It is the groundskeeper, with a gift of early apples picked somewhere else on the property. Tart-smelling and sharp, small and still partially green, they are what a good apple ought to be, so much so that I want to arrange them for display in one of the wooden bowls.

"No," he says, following me into the kitchen. "You need to eat them now. Their skins are soft. If you don't, they'll rot."

Obligingly, I take one outdoors and watch the plume of dust that rises from his rattling departure down the hill. The chickadees are fighting at the feeders. Banks of phlox are shaking morning dew off the bachelor buttons.

I look at the apple. Under normal circumstances, I would save it for later and make it lunch. In the past I've considered a retreat like the one I am just beginning "stolen" time. Cheater's time. But as I stand in the dappled shade of an old tree, for the first time in many months I begin to remember what peace feels like. It almost seems that life is offering me something that I haven't even known I've needed. I bite into the apple.

* * *

IT IS GOOD to be in Linda's space. I spend the mornings on a bench overlooking a paddock where a pair of horses graze, glossy under cloud-scudding skies. In the upper meadow beyond them, I can occasionally make out hawks and wild turkey, chipmunks and a goose cavorting between the brush and the tall oaks.

In the afternoons, I go back indoors, curl up on the sofa, and read. Or I try to. As the days go by, I find myself increasingly diverted by the objects Linda has chosen to display on sills and tabletops, on the mantel and along the margins of crowded bookshelves. Birds' eggs retrieved from the forest floor, feathers as broad as my palm. Abandoned nests and small fish fossils and bones blanched white from the sun that captures their blazes like pieces of polished marble.

Quietly, I observe them. Do they seem more wonderful because they are cameos, plucked from the untidy wilds? Or is it just that their perfectly realized natures stand in such sharp contrast to the paltriness of my own harried and fragmentary efforts at a similar sort of completeness? I begin to feel them working on me in subtle ways. In the absolute stillness of these August afternoons, they seem to proffer an invitation. Dispense with your preoccupations, they say, and join us in a shared "hereness," in this never to be repeated Now.

I realize all of a sudden that I have always felt this way in Linda's habitats, whether in one of her several Manhattan addresses or in the many rooms she lived in throughout college and graduate school. And as the days pass, I find my thoughts more and more inclining toward the artifacts' silent urgings, away from my own malaise and toward Linda, to the points of fierce connection and contrast that have marked our twenty-year friendship as women, as writers, as feminists. Oddly, this doesn't feel like an evasion of the near-paralysis from which I am in flight, but a way of moving into it from what is perhaps a deeper, more reliable vantage.

* * *

I MET LINDA the autumn of my junior year in college when I chanced into the room she shared with the cartoonist for the college newspaper, who was a friend of mine. Mount Holyoke in the mid-'70s was a hothouse of feminist sympathies. The student paper, classes, dinner conversations, all were seedbeds for a discussion that took many forms and expressed itself in many ways but that, even when the last lights went out in libraries and dorms, seemed to linger in the unfinished tendrils of passionate talk that filled the night air.

When Gloria Steinem spoke about women and power, we listened. When Susan Brownmiller chronicled women's historic abuse, we cheered her on. By the light of these new and forceful voices, we were rewriting our lives.

No one was immune to the energies that feminism released in us. We were not doctrinaire: There were as many ways to be a feminist in those days as there were women to interpret its message for themselves. But interpret we expected one another to do. Some of us were reordering the curricula. Others were setting up independent feminist houses, trying out ways of organizing life that they hoped to carry into the world beyond the campus gates. We were trying out identities — as artists, doctors, physicists, liberated from the barriers that had stymied so many of our mothers.

I found Linda sitting on the floor of her room smoking a cigarette and doing something intricate with a stylus and a piece of coated metal. The air held a musk of incense, as if just that morning her lover had come and gone. She had exquisite hands, and as we exchanged introductions, I watched them, fascinated.

She was preparing a plate for etching. Around her lay several beautiful, hand-stitched chapbooks. On her desk were several more, lying open beneath the eye of a magnificent horn that had been carved into the head of a crane. Scattered throughout the room were bunches of dried grasses and pods that she had gathered from the fields that extended out from the campus before climbing into the foothills of the Holyoke range.

She was elegant and large of presence, with dazzling sea-blue eyes and a quick, deep laugh.

We began talking about our lives. Linda was a poet. She had the sharp, omnivorous mind of a classicist. I was writing political commentary for the campus newspaper and privately, in the dead of night, my own poems and short fiction. We were both fiercely unorthodox in our academic habits, routinely flouting assignments to pursue our own intellectual interests. She was reading Blake at the time. I, the French existentialists and the poetics of despair. She had a weakness for sensual beauty. I, for elegant systems. It was immediately obvious that there would be no end to what we had to say to one another.

We became inseparable. During the long afternoons of that fall, we often worked together in silence. When we weren't writing or reading, breaking to share a sentence or the phrase of some poem with the other, we were in the art studio. Linda worked in mass, casting bronze sculptures and printing large works on paper. I experimented with drawing and with various calligraphic traditions.

Many evenings of that magical fall, just before dinner, we would close our books, don jackets, and climb into her car. Without maps, and with little more than a vague destination in mind, we'd drive out into the farmland that ran along the Connecticut River between South Hadley and Northampton. Often, we were the only vehicle in sight at that hour, motoring along the dirt roads in search of a path to hike, a summit to climb, a stretch of natural beauty to cleanse and correct us after days spent lodged in the mind — preferably one that would reward us with a water view as we sat and watched the sun set together.

I have kept the slides that I made of our favorite spot. It was a hill overlooking the buried towns of the vast Quabbin Reservoir in western Massachusetts. In one photograph, the sun spins bronze over the blue clay of the hills. A heron floats below us, coursing close to the islands of a dark archipelago. It is serene, hungry, and wild — a creature so stately and intent it seems a being out of time. Linda and I went there many times after this, to watch the same scene and to search for the same heron. It came to be ours, as we came to be safe havens for each other, wild and serene in our own ways, silently grateful to be able to be all of this with another.

And so the months went by. I felt Linda's presence making me a more willing participant in the life of beauty than I — so preoccupied by my desire to change the world — had been for a long time.

* * *

MY HUSBAND RETURNS from his hike and runs the tap in the kitchen, and I am rousted back to the present. After many years of marriage, he, a newspaper editor, has cultivated a good barometer of my need for large chunks of silence. Since we've arrived he has given me just what I need. I hear the screen door slam and his tread across the pine bed to the hammock.

In a moment, I will follow him. But just now I am struck by how utterly I've let beauty slip away. The herons are gone from my life. What happened to the coherence and integrity that as a younger woman I managed to achieve by allowing my nature to express its needs and desires freely? I no longer give myself the time to drink deeply of contemplated beauty, no longer allow it to work on me, to replenish my soul. And I haven't, I realize, for many years.

* * *

WHEN THE SNOW BEGAN to thaw the following spring, Linda took me to visit her family home and the places that had yielded their images to her first poems.

As we traveled across Massachusetts on a soft spring evening, dipped into Rhode Island, and continued to its southern regions, I encountered an unknown geography. Around us to the east and west lay the ocean. I couldn't see it, but it seemed to saturate everything, the smell of the air, the quality of the dying light. Within its powerful arms stretched a landscape salt-chewed and wind-burned, of rusted shacks and middens in the middle of nowhere, of bent orchards and oaks, of sun-scalded lighthouses and ribbons of crushed shells digging their hieroglyphs into sand. Even the hills in proportion to the low trees, the ancient stone walls, seemed to couch themselves in a deft parenthesis. The accommodation of form to ocean furl, of fresh to salt, of wound to renewal, was everywhere in a breathtaking, gentle grace. It struck my eye as perfect in scale, as classical as Linda's mind.

In the morning, we stepped out through the sliding glass doors of her living room to the grassy slope that dipped down to a large pond. Geese and gulls came to its surface and left, familiar as the heron we'd left behind. Without a word, Linda turned and indicated that I should follow her. She pursued an imperceptible path along the banks of the pond for several minutes, then cut into the woods that stood not far from the house. We walked another two hundred yards in, then came to a stop, and I found myself standing before a small shingled cabin.


Excerpted from A Sabbath life by Kathleen Hirsch. Copyright © 2001 Kathleen Hirsch. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
About the Author,
Also by Kathleen Hirsch,

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