Cover image for A Sabbath life : a woman's search for wholeness
A Sabbath life : a woman's search for wholeness
Hirsch, Kathleen.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
[New York] : North Point Press, 2001.
Physical Description:
226 pages ; 22 cm
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BD435 .H57 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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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.

Author Notes

Kathleen Hirsch is the author of "Songs from the Alley" & "A Home in the Heart of the City". She lives with her family in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Hirsch admits that she drove herself so relentlessly to achieve success with such works as A Home in the Heart of the City (1998) that she was forced to slow down. At 40, she realizes that she's suffering the consequences of suppressing her creative self, of elevating work over life. Fortunate in her secure marriage, which she seems to take for granted in one of many opacities in this otherwise refined and perceptive chronicle of a spiritual awakening, Hirsch becomes a mother and reorients her life to more soul-satisfying endeavors. Adept with archetypes and metaphors, she gracefully celebrates her discovery of such timeless pleasures as gardening and cooking and relishes the lessons she learns from women who have created holistic lives. Hirsch's lyricism is lovely, but her rarefied approach to what is, after all, age-old wisdom, is lacking in emotion and complexity. That said, this how-to-live-right narrative does support her claim that personal transformations such as hers contribute to "a larger story of quiet cultural change," and some readers will find her decorous prose soothing. Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

At age 40, successful journalist and author Hirsch (Home in the Heart of the City) underwent a spiritual meltdown that left her struck by how, in her myopic focus on work, she had let the replenishing power of contemplating beauty slip away from her. Having watched her mother forsake her artistic ambitions to raise her children, the young, feminist Hirsch determined to fully realize her career aspirations But her fear of being subsumed by motherhood created other problems: "Beneath the structure imposed by my work, my life has no shape." Her brother's sudden death heightened her inchoate sense of emptiness, setting Hirsch on a path toward "wholeness," which she defines as a confluence of work, relationships and a quest for "Self." Among other life changes, she decided (with her husband) to have a baby, and unapologetically presents the contradictions in her choices. New motherhood, for instance, complicates her quest for "Self": "I became a divided self.... Work became objectified.... So... have my relationships." Hirsch sometimes ignores the socioeconomic privilege that allowed her to stop working to rediscover herself, and confesses envy of her minimum-wage Honduran child minder for "integrating spirit, heart, and... labors." Still, this often astute and beautiful blend of feminism and postfeminism holds some insights for women schooled in the 1970s counterculture who feel unfulfilled on the proving grounds of the patriarchy, as well as for older first-time mothers. (Apr. 18) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

A classic theme in women's literature is the reexamination of life at the onset of middle age. Through her friendships with a variety of women, journalist and feminist activist Hirsch (Songs from the Alley, A Home in the Heart of the City) shares her insights into learning to live meaningfully after the age of 40. The term Sabbath, in the context of this book, is not connected to the formal religious day of rest; rather, it includes whatever activities are involved in "layering one thread at a time, working the pattern. It is bringing the ordinary to the quiet, insistent desire of the spirit. The work of one's day becomes whole, a source of affirmation." Hirsch's retreat from strident feminism into a world of gardening, art, poetry, and thoughtful child rearing gave her special insights she shares here. Unfortunately, most women do not have the opportunity to contemplate life at the pace or in the depth she describes. For collections specializing in woman's issues. Olga B. Wise, Compaq Computer Corp., Austin, TX (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One THE LOST ELEMENTS Beauty 1 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.     "My father built this for me when I was sixteen, so that I could come here and write," she said.     We went in. It was wonderful: unfinished planks and beams, a window overlooking the water, a wicker chair, a lamp, and a place for a few books.     Of course, we'd both read Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own . It was one of our sacred texts. But Linda was the first person I'd met for whom a space apart for creative solitude had been no mere fantasy.     In the afternoon, we went to the shore. There is nothing tame or parenthetical about the Rhode Island coast, and this is its glory. It is chalk and stone ruins, miles of pampas grass and wild, beautiful tides. It is cove upon cove of uncompromising natural force.     We sat at a place called Galilee with the winds buffeting us, the surf crashing, and I felt Linda filling herself up with its healing salt, the pieces of her extraordinary struggles with the world and its beauty falling once again into place.     A champion swimmer and honors student, she'd gone to England the summer she was sixteen to study poetry at Oxford. Midway through, however, she found herself struggling with a miasma of confusion and exhaustion. Sent back home, she was diagnosed with a rare thyroid disorder, which was only provisionally treatable. She would have to be monitored and medicated for the rest of her life. She would never know when a sudden wave of mental fog might incapacitate her, when a hormonal storm would throw off her medication, or how long a certain treatment would be effective before the cycle of experimentation would have to begin again.     That summer, she spent hours staring at the tides and walking the beach, searching for meaning in the face of her sudden, inescapable limitations and uncertainties. The ocean that had once been a place of free and easy joy acquired a far more complex imagery, the first of many that her landscape offered the spirit that grieved in her.     If the ocean absorbed her fear and rage, the interior farmlands with their vineyards, the small hilltop monastery where she was a communicant, offered her evidence of a mitigating human culture in the face of nature's random destructive force. It gave her back a sense of possibility and hope. If the ocean was untamable, the fields of apples and rye were witnesses of life-giving form. She ferried these images, the stones and feathers, the mythic shapes and the silence of the natural world back to her small cabin. There, with her senses fired, she gathered and wove and arranged them into her own small and perfect shapes of hope.     Again and again in the course of that weekend, I was able to see how the weft of her days passed between cabin, field, shore, and back again had saturated her sensibility and woven in her a faith embedded not just in words, but in the gift of nature. Again and again, I saw how our meeting had been for me one of those gifts, from a not wholly governable source. AT THE SAME TIME that Linda was forging her way through despair to the creative within her, several hundred miles away I was traveling each day to a private girls' convent school. There I was learning that beauty was a house of many stories. I read Yeats and Wallace Stevens for hours on end. With a fairly polished command of French, I read Racine and Montaigne, Hugo and Beckett. I dreamed of living in Paris, free of domestic responsibility, writing and flouting the conventions of my bourgeois childhood.     This was a useful fantasy. At sixteen, I still managed to "pass" in my convivial middle-class world of professional fathers and stay-at-home moms. Come Friday night, I went with my friends to the dances at the nearby boys' schools. Come spring, I took a role in their musicals and plays. On weekends, I modeled clothing for downtown clothing stores.     But I knew that not all forms of beauty were equal. Indeed, it was becoming increasingly clear to me that beauty's multiple forms could be divided. There were those that elicited temporary triumphs and those that touched my deepest reaches, that stirred the silence in me to some rare and precious song. The first order of beauty was profligate, fleeting, diffusive. The other, enduring. As I surveyed the well-meaning conventions that would lead me to a life among the first forms, I felt a powerful instinct to choose--to turn away--if I was to survive as a self.     Between the life of the intellect and the life of the senses, between Chekhov and Cole Porter, between a life of creativity and a life of charity balls, stood the one obvious bargaining chip: my own body.     Starvation for me was not a quest for physical beauty, but rather a way to tunnel through the physical to the spiritual. THE WILL IS so exacting. So unforgiving. I longed to attach myself to something inviolate, something that would never be corrupted by the demands that life seemed to make upon its women. This was not a political act, but a spiritual one.     I stopped going to dances. The romantic interests of my friends ceased to interest me. I preferred reading to just about anything else, because in reading, I was able to escape into the abiding questions--and, I was ever hopeful, their answers. My mind was constantly at work, high on its binge of reason, of judgment, of honing itself like a jeweler's tool to find the perfect edge, the flawless facet in the stone. As my plaid school skirt became more gaping around the waist, as my bracelets slipped from my arms, I became very good at discerning the less-than, the mediocre, the ugly.     But somehow in the process, what was true and good and beautiful seemed daily to be reduced by another fraction as well. I didn't see that in the attempt to protect something of value, I was making it invisible--almost to the point of vanishing. By some inexplicable kind of reciprocal negation--I was by now twenty-five pounds underweight--I had to entertain the possibility that I would find at the end of my quest not truth, but only infinite emptiness.     Paris once had been the secret dream. Now, though I had almost stopped searching for what I had ceased to find, I still maintained a detached, cold curiosity about the capital city of a lost self. In the middle of that nightmarish winter, much against their better judgment, my parents allowed me to accompany a group of classmates there for two weeks.     Paris that February was frigid. In seven days, I ate part of an egg, a bite of a meringue, a half cup of black tea. Because I was still starving myself to death and now knew it, I was always cold.     On a small street just off the rue de Rivoli twenty-six years ago, there stood a public scale. One morning into the second week, very early, I went alone and dropped my centimes in. I weighed eighty-eight pounds and I knew that the blue wool coat that I wore to ward off the chill probably accounted for five of them. It would be easy now, I knew, and not for very long.     I wandered on. The city was just waking up, misty and gray. Bare trees gathered their doves, then dropped them on the morning's wet stones like so many fallen leaves. I passed no one for several surreal blocks. I was aware of my heart, laboring.     The stores were just opening. At the corner, I found myself in front of Rosenthal's. Its broad glass entrance was already open. To escape the bone-numbing cold, I went inside. The warmth and the quiet of the showroom at that early hour were comforting.     Mercifully, the clerks left me alone, for I had gone into a sort of trance. I moved very slowly from case to case, ghosting from object to object. Gold-leafed dinnerware, goblets, and blown-glass figurines were arrayed for a banquet that would never take place. Around them were apples and grapevines, hand-painted cornucopias burgeoning with a harvest of blown glass.     Many of the pieces were transparent, crystal squirrels and acorns, creatures of sky, field, and forest. They were unreal on gray velvet in the glass cases before me, and I was taking them in more at the level of dream than of consciousness. At some point, I stopped, unable to move away. Some ultimate part of me, some sanity, that felt at the moment a bit like love, rose and bent over me where I hovered at the glass.     Perhaps the obvious imminence of my mortality had finally broken through. Perhaps the cumulative force of Paris's manifold beauties had coalesced in that moment of crisis. Perhaps the same event would have occurred had I stumbled on an empty bottle or an open bookstall. I'll never know.     What I do know is that as an anonymous and nearly transparent young woman adrift in a European capital, I suddenly felt a lifesaving kinship with these objects. They touched me more deeply than words. They were transparent, integral, like crystal poems. They were all that I wanted to be.     In them, I saw that matter could be transformed into beauty, but remain matter, not principle. Beauty, the soul's medium, could not simply be intellectualized. It had to be embodied, or it would die. Cut off from this need for a space in the world, it wasn't beauty that died, it was the soul.     Out of the spinning feast of color beneath me, I fixed on a cup that symbolized this insight the way a seashell holds the residue of a wave. Out of all the gifts that Paris had to offer, out of all that I could have chosen as a memento of its somber and storied beauties, I foraged in the pocket of my coat for my carefully hoarded savings and spilled them on the counter. When I left the shop, I was carrying that cup, smaller than my hand, an object meant to contain what for a long and painful season I had been unwilling to consume.     I hadn't realized how hungry I was. I was seventeen. LINDA BECAME the force of reconnection in my life. In her presence, I was able to take in the beauty of the waves, the stones that we gathered and tossed as we talked, the warmth of the sand.     I had tried to separate what, in a thing of beauty, can't be separated, the mortal shape from the eternal truth. In so doing, I'd lost touch with the nature of the beautiful, its concreteness, and embodiment, and particularity. Beauty simply was . It didn't need to be justified. It didn't require a philosophical analog to truth. It contained within it truths that couldn't be pried from their métier and forced to lie, thin and cold, beneath the glass of analytical inquiry without losing their essential life.     We stayed at the beach that weekend eating crab cakes and drinking Cokes every day until dusk. We talked about Virginia Woolf, and about her artist sister, Vanessa.     What had made their work possible, we wondered, so original? Their lives so passionate, vivid, and full?     Space and time, we decided.     But I knew that there was something else as well. All their lives, Virginia and Vanessa complemented one another, protected one another, and in their art inspired one another. Though Linda and I in no way ever explicitly compared ourselves to Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell--would, in fact, have found it arrogant and a bit silly to do so--in many ways our relationship had come to resemble theirs.     Of the two of us, I was the more intense, cerebral, more psychological. I was far more likely to bury myself in the library until I was so exhausted that I had to check myself into the infirmary for several days. Linda was uniquely able to pull me out of my inner world. She would drive me to the beach, leave a cluster of wild daisies at my door, lure me to a seedy backwoods club to drink cheap Chablis and listen to jazz.     Linda was my complement: the colorist, the sensualist, the gardener, bird lover, and an alchemist in the kitchen. What seemed possible for us in our lives was much the same as had seemed possible in Virginia's and Vanessa's. And much of the sense of these possibilities arose from, and abided in, the intensity of our bond. Without our ambles together, without the fertile intermingling of the many ways of being a woman that I experienced when I was with her, I would have become brittle, narrow, driven.     In time, Linda became editor of the campus literary magazine, I, the executive editor of the newspaper. We were at peace with our differences. (Continues...) Copyright © 2001 Kathleen Hirsch. All rights reserved.