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Following a Rocky Path to the Wisdom of a Whole Life

A SABBATH LIFE: One Woman's Search for Wholeness; By Kathleen Hirsch; North Point Press; $24, 226 pages

July 28, 2001|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

At age 40, Kathleen Hirsch begins to feel disquieted by a life consumed by work. She takes stock. A smashing writing career, yes. But no children. Superficial relations with family and friends. Estrangement from the worlds of art, philosophy and poetry. An inability to name her feelings or the currents of her desires.

She comes to a startling realization: "Suddenly, it isn't power or recognition that I want. It is wisdom. And to know wisdom, I need to know beauty again, and the silence that dwells at its center."

In "A Sabbath Life," Hirsch poetically chronicles her search for a fuller and deeper life. She discovers her core, which thirsts for beauty, hungers for meditative silence and requires work that taps into her deepest sense of calling. She finds she needs a balance between doing and reflecting, work and rest, giving and replenishment. So she cancels a three-year book project, has a baby, plants a garden and searches out women who have moved outside the box and courageously crafted their own lives of balance, beauty and meaning.

Hirsch and her journey are sure to strike deep chords. Everywhere I go these days, it seems, professional women are lamenting about unbalanced lives. At one recent baby shower, a group of powerful and successful career women traded information on how to reduce their working hours and still keep full benefits, how to slow down frenetic lives to catch the fleeting rays of their children's early years.

At my daughter's day-care center just this week, another career woman waxed on about the blessings of a back surgery because it forced her to take two months off from work. In her slower paced life, she has been able to deepen ties with her 4-year-old, draw out her daughter in thoughtful conversations rather than the harried harangues of distracted working parents: Hi sweetie how was your day oh good we've got to run hurry up LET'S GO!

But the powerful yearning for balance--for wholeness, as Hirsch puts it--is always countered by fears and doubts. Will women who dare desire more time with children, more time for stillness, be devalued by bosses in a culture whose bottom line is "fast and brash efficiency"? Probably, Hirsch writes. Which is why she says making the break will require courage--vast doses of it, she adds.

To Hirsch, however, there is no other choice: "How can a woman hope to live authentically unless she is whole?" she writes. She says women need not accept "inadequate models of work, life, family organization that have been imposed on us." She urges women to re-craft their lives around their own values, and offers both a road map and inspiring role models.

There is Femke, an art teacher who eschewed opportunities for high-paying jobs in large school districts. Instead, she started a community center that brings together a multicultural mix of mothers, children and neighbors for arts programs, yoga, quilting, macrobiotic meals and music. Ann Moritz was a Boston Globe newsroom personnel director who started her own consulting firm; the move allowed her to broaden her commitment to racial justice outside the publishing industry and to spend more time with her children and community. Katie Portis was a heroin addict who came clean and started an all-natural detox house for women that allows them to keep their children during the traumatic process of healing.

To make the journey, Hirsch says, finding companions is important. For her, that turned out to be her journal, her like-minded women friends and the spiritual memoirs of great contemplatives like Thomas Merton, Teresa of Avila and Thich Nhat Hanh. A physical practice such as gardening, she adds, is vital to keep the spiritual journey grounded in the sensual world. And the pilgrimage itself often requires a simplified life, as one begins to detach from nonessential errands, consumption and social obligations.

Like the book's Zen-like message, Hirsch's prose is spare but rich, languid and graceful. She fills her book not so much with information--in 226 pages, we barely learn anything about her husband, an editor--as images and impressions: the beauty of her garden, the sensuality of her dreams, the deepening convictions of her interior life.

Hirsch is hardly the first person to seek to make whole a fragmented life, and career women are certainly not the only ones who need encouragement to do so. At a recent Shabbat dinner, the rabbi remarked that all of America could use a weekly respite--a day to disconnect, to spend with family, to pray and contemplate.

But "A Sabbath Life" is a soulful, moving work that unerringly taps the deep, unfulfilled longings that seem especially acute in so many working women. The message to reclaim lives of beauty, stillness and meaning will particularly inspire such women--if they have time to read it, that is.

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