Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old
Parker Palmer (Author)
Publication date: 06/26/2018
With compassion and chutzpah, gravitas and levity, Palmer writes about cultivating a vital inner and outer life, finding meaning in suffering and joy, and forming friendships across the generations that bring new life to young and old alike.
With compassion and chutzpah, gravitas and levity, Palmer writes about cultivating a vital inner and outer life, finding meaning in suffering and joy, and forming friendships across the generations that bring new life to young and old alike.
—Krista Tippett, founder of On Being Studios, author of Einstein's God and Becoming Wise , and winner of the 2013 National Humanities Medal
“Parker Palmer is the most integral and wholehearted teacher of our age. For nearly eight decades, he has seen much, questioned everything, and returned with a wisdom essential to everyone. His latest book, On the Brink of Everything , is a deep reflection on aging that offers a master's earned view of the large and the small and how we're all vital threads woven together by life. This book will stir your soul and bring you closer to everything.”
—Mark Nepo, author of More Together Than Alone and The Book of Awakening
“Parker J. Palmer's tenth wise book, On the Brink of Everything , is a wondrously rich mix of reality and possibility, comfort and story, helpful counsel and poetry, in the voice of a friend. It's an honest wake-up chime, no matter where you are in your own time line, because somehow, these pages hold all of time—past and present, stirring together—refreshing the spirit. This is a book of immense gratitude, consolation, and praise.”
—Naomi Shihab Nye, author of Transfer and Voices in the Air and National Book Award finalist
“Our entire culture is deeply in need of true elders, and you can't be one until you have arrived there—chronologically, spiritually, and intellectually. Parker J. Palmer is a writer and a man who has clearly earned the title of elder. And he elders with such readability and humor! This book is a generous gift to all of us—and to our attempts at a truly human civilization.”
—Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation and author of Falling Upward and Adam's Return
“Parker J. Palmer's books are long-treasured companions on my personal journey. His newest offering is clear-eyed and good-humored, luminously prophetic and disarmingly honest. It is tender to the core for our shared human condition and fierce with love and unguarded hope for our shared human possibility. It has the feel of a lovely kitchen table conversation between the author and reader, exploring thoughtful aging, finding meaning in hard times, and how we can deepen and balance our inner and outer landscapes at any stage of life. This book is a generous gift to a worried and weary world.”
—Carrie Newcomer, musician, recording artist of The Beautiful Not Yet , author of A Permeable Life , and Grammy Award–winning songwriter
“Parker Palmer has given me so many gifts through the years. His writing has done for me what I can only hope mine does for others. On the Brink of Everything has given me new and special gifts. Parker, now in his late seventies, has helped this guy in his early sixties think of my years ahead as ‘triple wrapped in mystery.' Savoring this book is a kind of mentorship in aging, and it ends in a crescendo of poetry. My first thought when I turned the last page: ‘I want to read this again from the beginning, starting right now.'”
—Brian D. McLaren, author of The Great Spiritual Migration
“Parker Palmer has been a mentor and midwife to countless young people in my generation, including me. When I was in my twenties standing at a crossroads, his book Let Your Life Speak inspired me to pursue an untraditional path as an activist-artist; he released the music within me. Now in my thirties, as the cacophony of vitriol and violence becomes deafening, his friendship teaches me how to remain faithful to my own melodies and keep playing them. In the darkness, Parker has taught me how to wonder at the night sky, keep death in my mind's eye, and listen to the wisdom of my grandfather and ancestors, whose music lives within mine. He has poured these insights into a book that feels more like a treasure chest. On the Brink of Everything is filled with gems of wisdom, each a prism that helps us see our own vast interiority and sing our own truths. My greatest aspiration is to journey through life and arrive at the brink as Parker has, with humility and faithfulness, and pockets full of gems.”
—Valarie Kaur, civil rights activist, lawyer, filmmaker, and founder of the Revolutionary Love Project
“One of the wisest people on the planet has written one of the finest books on growing b/old gracefully. This warm and witty book will delight and inspire readers of all ages.”
—Richard Leider, bestselling author or coauthor of The Power of Purpose , Repacking Your Bags , and Life Reimagined
"Warm, generous, and funny, this impassioned book invites readers to the deep end of life where authentic soul work and human transformation become pressing concerns.”-- Publisher's Weekly
"Through essays, poems, and reflections, he covers subjects such as the importance of staying connected with younger generations; the writing life; engagement of the soul; and where it is we go when we die. He is also an 'angry Quaker' as he might say, unafraid to address issues of diversity and political engagement in a time when we no longer have the luxury of inaction. My favorite part of the book is the chapter titled 'Keep Reaching Out,' where he encourages older humans to keep up their serious engagement with the world. It gives vitality and purpose to life and allows elders to share their unique gifts. Also, he notes, it would be ridiculous not to. This is a bracing book, indeed." —Kathryn Drury Wagner
"In his discussion of spirituality, Palmer covers his quest for the true self, the call to community, and a memorable retreat. In his commentaries on work and staying engaged with the world and your soul, this seasoned writer keeps us attentive with short gems on living from the inside out, the movie Begin Again, and some very right-on-target assessments of today's tense political scene. Palmer even takes responsibility for being hooked on anger and the challenges he faces in bringing love to the fore in all his relationships, both private and public." --Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
Prelude p. 9
I. The View from the Brink: What I Can See from Here p. 17
On the Brink of Everything
Does My Life Have Meaning?
Withering into the Truth Grand Canyon II. Young & Old: The Dance of the Generations p. 34
The Music of Mentoring
Welcome to the Human Race
Living from the Inside Out November 22nd III. Getting Real: From Illusion to Reality p. 54
Contemplative by Catastrophe
A Friendship, a Love, a Rescue
Down Is the Way to Well-being
Notes from a Week in the Winter Woods Welcome Home IV. Work & Vocation: A Life in Writing p. 82
The Accidental Author
The Poem I Would Have Writ
Begin Again The World Once Green Again
V. Keep Reaching Out: Staying Engaged with the World p. 109
What's an Angry Quaker to Do?
The Soul of a Patriot
In Praise of Diversity
Seeking Sanctuary The Winter Woods VI. Keep Reaching In: Staying Engaged with Your Soul p. 134
Embracing the Human Frailty
Confessing My Complicity
Heartbreak and Hope for New Life
A Season of Paradox Appalachian Autumn VII. Over the Edge: Where We Go When We Die p. 156
Fierce with Reality
A Wilderness Pilgrimage Waving Goodbye from Afar Postlude p. 166 Why Should I Ever Be Sad? Two Toasts About the Author p. 168
Endnotes p. 169
What I Can See from Here
Check the Cambridge Dictionary online, and you’ll find the phrase on the brink defined as “the edge of a cliff or other high area, or the point at which something good or bad will happen,” followed by this example: “The company was on the brink of collapse.” 1
I’m not sure why most uses of the phrase are negative—as in on the brink of giving up, or losing my mind, or going to war—even though it can be used positively. Perhaps it’s because, deep in the reptilian brain, we’re afraid of falling from heights or crossing boundaries into the unknown. But isn’t it possible that we’re on the brink of flying free, or discovering something of beauty, or finding peace and joy?
As I said in the Prelude, I like being “on the brink of everything” because it gives me new perspectives on my past, present, and future, and new insights into the inner dynamics that shape and drive my life. The essays in this chapter explore a few inner-life findings that have taken me by surprise in recent years. Some of them have been humbling; all of them have been life-giving.
The first essay, “On the Brink of Everything,” explains how I stole the title of this book from a superb piece by my friend, the writer Courtney Martin, who wrote about the wonder of watching her daughter, Maya, discover the world. Reading that essay early one winter morning, I realized something that started me down the path to writing this book: what Maya was discovering at sixteen months, I was rediscovering in my late seventies.
In the second essay, “Does My Life Have Meaning?,” I recount how I learned what’s wrong with that ancient and oft-asked question: when you ask the wrong question, you end up with the wrong answer. So I set out to find the right question—or at least one of them—and found one that works for me. If my question doesn’t work for you, maybe my musings will encourage you to find one that does.
“Withering into the Truth” puts a positive spin on the wrinkles that come with getting old. Age gives us a chance to outgrow what William Butler Yeats called “the lying days of [our] youth” and wither into what Oliver Wendell Holmes called “the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity.” 2 I’ve long thought of old age as a time when all that’s left is to tell the truth—trying to remember to tell it in love. It’s liberating to be at a point where I no longer need to posture or pretend because I no longer feel a need to prove anything to anyone.
This chapter ends with my poem “Grand Canyon,” a reflection on the many-layered lives we lead, and how every layer contributes to the majesty of the whole. I wrote the poem during a rafting trip down the Colorado River where, for nine days in a row, I experienced what the boatmen often call “another day in the ditch.”
Occasionally, I find myself using that phrase at the end of a difficult day, when life has been as rough as a class 10 rapid—while all around me is the grandeur of this astonishing thing called life.
On the Brink of Everything
In March 2015, I read an essay by my friend and colleague Courtney Martin called “Reuniting with Awe.” 3 It painted an exquisite picture of how her sixteen-month-old daughter, Maya, helps her see life’s wonders through a toddler’s eyes.
I was mesmerized by Courtney’s opening line: “My daughter is on the brink of everything.” That’s exactly where I am today at age seventy-nine. I’m frequently awe-struck as I stand on the brink of the rest of my life, including the part called death, which I sometimes think I can almost see from here.
I’d be lying if I claimed to be awed by all that comes with old age. Courtney wrote about Maya scooping “haphazard little bits of cottage cheese into her mouth,” then applauding herself between bites. My mealtime misdemeanors do not merit applause. At dinner last night, my wife grinned, pointed to her chin and said, “You’ve got food on your face again.” Reaching for a napkin, I grumped, “I was saving it for a snack.”
Courtney reported that when she takes Maya out for a walk, Maya bounces “with the delight of freedom” and “quickly swivels around” to make sure her mom is following. If I bounced and swiveled, I’d need to see my doc about repairing some mission-critical body part.
Speaking of my doc, like many people my age, I live with a couple of ongoing challenges to my health. They pose no immediate threat to my life, but it gives you pause when you start meeting more frequently with specialists, especially as you watch family members and friends and colleagues fall ill and die. And yet it’s because of the diminishments of age, not in spite of them, that I often find myself in awe as I stand on the brink of everything.
The morning Courtney’s essay was published online, I began my day by waking up, an event worthy of celebration in itself. I paused on the edge of the bed to check my balance and gather my wits, then followed a well-worn path to a small room I visit a couple of times a night.
It was a hard-frozen winter day in my part of the world, and the east-facing window was filigreed with ice. Beyond the bare trees, the horizon glowed with a crimson sunrise that, viewed through the tracery of ice, turned the window pane into stained glass. I stood there for a couple of minutes taking in that scene as if I were contemplating one of the great rose windows of Chartres Cathedral.
I went downstairs, turned up the thermostat, and began heating water for coffee. Twice-warmed by the whispering furnace and the hissing burner on the gas stove, I was thrice-warmed as I reread a handwritten letter that had arrived the day before, thanking me for a book I published when I was in my early sixties. “What you wrote about your experience of depression,” said my correspondent, “helped save my life.”
As I laid the letter down, I thought back on all the early mornings when, in my haste to get back to my writing, I’d failed to pause for even a few minutes to take in the loveliness of an awakening world. I’ve long been an obsessive writer, and before age slowed me down, my impatience about hitting the keyboard kept me from seeing the beauty around me.
Part of me regrets that. And yet, back in the day— focused laser-like on surveying and mapping what’s “in here” while ignoring what’s “out the window”—I wrote something that helped a stranger find new life.
Looking back, I’m awed by the way that embracing everything—from what I got right to what I got wrong— invites the grace of wholeness. When psychologist Florida Scott-Maxwell was eighty-five, she wrote, “You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done . . . you are fierce with reality.” 4
Fierce with reality is how I feel when I’m able to say, “I am that to which I gave short shrift and that to which I attended. I am my descents into darkness and my rising again into the light, my betrayals and my fidelities, my failures and my successes. I am my ignorance and my insight, my doubts and my convictions, my fears and my hopes.”
Wholeness does not mean perfection—it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. I’m grateful for this truth as age leads me to look back on the zigzagging, up-and-down path I’ve hacked out during my far-from-perfect life.
The teakettle whistled, and I filled the French press with boiling water. As I waited for the coffee to brew, I booted up my smartphone, got online, and read Courtney’s essay, “Reuniting with Awe.” By the time I finished, I’d begun to brew this piece, aware of how much had already awed me here on the brink of a new day.
Every hour, I’m closer to death than I was the hour before. All of us draw closer all the time, but rarely with the acute awareness that comes when old age or calamity reminds us of where we stand. I have no wise words about dying and death. I’ve watched one loved one die in anguish, another at peace. How I will travel that last mile is anyone’s guess.
As for death’s aftermath, I’m not privy to reports from the other side. But I’ll know I’ve made it to heaven if I can get early-morning coffee there—and I have reason to believe that’s a possibility. I’m told they can dark-roast beans in the Other Place.
What I know for sure is this: we come from mystery and we return to mystery. I know this, too: standing closer to the reality of death awakens my wonder at the many gifts of life.
On the morning I read Courtney’s essay, those gifts were numerous. I saw the world at sunrise through my own rose window. I read a stranger’s generous letter alongside a friend’s evocative essay. I had the physical and mental capacity to make it down the stairs, brew coffee, go back up to my office, and begin this piece. I found a line that eventually became the title of this book. And I had a laugh with myself about coffee roasted in hell and served in heaven. The spiritual bread of life gives me a bellyache if it isn’t leavened with humor.
Courtney says that her daughter “approaches the world with only one giant, indiscriminate expectation: delight me.” Like sixteen-month-old Maya, I want to approach the world with only one expectation as I close in on eighty. Because I’m old enough to know that the world can delight me, my expectation is not of the world but of myself: delight in the gift of life and be grateful.
Does My Life Have Meaning?
. . . all that I have written seems like straw to me.
Those are the words of Thomas Aquinas—Saint Thomas Aquinas to Catholics—one of the Western world’s most influential theologians and philosophers. He spoke them three months before he died in 1274. 5
Aquinas was wrestling with a question that dogs people of all sorts, from parents to plumbers to professors, people like you and me who will never achieve anything like Aquinas’s fame or historical impact. It’s a question asked by adults of all ages, but perhaps most urgently by elders who wonder if all those years add up to anything worthwhile: Does my life have meaning?
As I go deeper into elderhood, that question rises in me more often than it did when I was young. Sometimes, I’m able to affirm that I’ve made meaningful contributions in at least parts of my private and public lives. At other times, everything I’ve done seems as flimsy and flammable as straw.
If you’ve ever been downcast about the meaning of your life, you know that reassurance from others, no matter how generous, doesn’t do the trick. The question of meaning is one all of us must answer for ourselves—or so I thought until 5:15 a.m. on Thursday, May 12, 2016.
I was starting my day as I often do, with coffee and poetry, when I ran across a poem on the nature of love. As I read and reread it, I began to see that brooding on the question “Does my life have meaning?” is a road to nowhere. Whether I give myself a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, there’s a flaw at the heart of the question, a flaw created by my old nemesis, the overweening ego.
Here’s the poem that opened my eyes, by the Nobel Prize–winning Polish poet Czesław Milosz:
Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills.
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand. 6
There’s truth and liberation in those last two lines. No matter how clear my goals may be, the truth is that I often don’t know whom or what I will end up serving.
I remember a talk I gave a long time ago. My intent was to blow the audience away, but they were not impressed, as indicated by a brief and tepid round of obligatory applause. I was young, and it took weeks to get the bitter taste of failure out of my mouth. Years later, by rare chance, I met a person who’d been in that audience. “I’m glad to meet you,” he said. “I’ve wanted to tell you how your talk changed the way I approach teaching, and how good that change has been for me and my students.”
His words were a powerful reminder that I don’t and can’t know the meaning of my life, let alone dictate or control it. As Milosz says, “It doesn’t matter whether he [she] knows what he [she] serves.” All I can control are my own intentions, and my willingness to give myself to them: may they always be to serve rather than show off.
The poet goes on to say, “Who serves best doesn’t always understand.” Those words are liberating because there’s so much about life that’s triple-wrapped in mystery. When I’m sure I know exactly what I’m doing and why—so sure that I miss vital clues about what’s actually needed and what I have to offer—it’s a sign that my ego’s in charge, and that’s dangerous. My best offerings come from a deeper, more intuitive place that I can only call my soul. Embracing the fact that there’s no way to know with precision whom or what I’m serving helps free my words and actions from the ego’s dominion.
Speaking of the ego, the first few lines of Milosz’s poem are a direct challenge to its lust for center stage: “Love means to learn to look at yourself / The way one looks at distant things / For you are only one thing among many.” Ah, yes, now I remember: I’m not the sun at the center of anyone’s solar system. If I keep trying to put myself there, insisting that I am special and my life must have some sort of special meaning, I’ll die in despair or in delusion.
Peace comes when I understand that I am “only one thing among many,” no more and no less important than the bird and the tree Milosz writes about. There’s much I don’t know about birds and trees, but this I know for sure: they don’t wonder or worry about whether their lives have meaning. They simply be what they be. In the process, they befriend people like me who are elevated simply by taking time to appreciate the gifts so freely given by the natural world.
Milosz says, “whoever sees that way heals his heart, / Without knowing it, from various ills.” Time and again, that’s been my experience. There’s nothing like a walk in the woods, into the mountains, alongside the ocean, or out in the desert to put my life in perspective and help me take heart again. In places like that, the things of nature befriend me—just as Milosz says they will—as I settle into the comforting knowledge that I am “only one thing among many.”
Then there are Milosz’s beautiful words about allowing one’s self and the things of the world to “stand in the glow of ripeness.” Please don’t ask me exactly what that means, because I don’t know. But I do know this: once I understand that I’m not the sun, I can get out of the sun’s way and stop casting shadows. I can step aside to let the true sun shine on everyone and everything, making all things ripe with the glow of life. This, it seems, is Milosz’s ultimate definition of love, and it works for me.
At the moment, I rest easy with the notion that I don’t need to ask or answer the question “Does my life have meaning?” All I need do is to keep living as one among many as well as I can, hoping to help myself and others grow ripe with life and love as we stand under the sun.
If the Big Question returns to me over the next few days or weeks, and I find myself struggling to come up with a “Yes” or dodge a “No,” I won’t be surprised. When it comes to jailbreaks like the one Milosz’s poem gave me, I’m a lifelong recidivist.
It’s not easy to subdue the overweening ego in order to free the adventuresome soul. But whenever we manage to do so, it saves us grief and serves the world well. So if you see me on the street one day, quietly muttering “only one thing among many, only one thing among many,” you’ll know I’m still working on it. Or it’s still working on me.
The Coming of Wisdom with Time
Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun,
Now may I wither into the truth.
—WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS 7
Every year, when friends say they don’t know what to give me for my birthday, I respond with the same old bad joke they’ve heard from me before. They sigh, roll their eyes, and change the subject. (This is a perk that comes with age: repeat yourself so often that folks think you’re getting dotty, when in fact you’re fending off unwanted conversations.)
Q: What do you give a person who has everything?
I don’t need gifts of a material nature. But I do need to remember a few things I’ve learned during nearly eight decades of life. So here’s a collection of six lessons as birthday gifts to myself. If one or two of them turn out to be gifts for you, that will make my next birthday even happier.
1. The Yeats poem at the head of this essay names something I don’t want to forget. Actively embracing aging gives me a chance to move beyond “the lying days of my youth” and to “wither into the truth”—if I resist the temptation to Botox my withering.
My youthful “lies” weren’t intentional. I just didn’t know enough about myself, the world, and the right relationship of the two to tell the truth. So what I said on those subjects often came from my ego, a notorious liar. Coming to terms with the soul-truth of who I am—with my complex and confusing mix of darkness and light—has required my ego to shrivel up. Nothing shrivels a person better than age. That’s what all those wrinkles are about.
Whatever truthfulness I’ve achieved on this score comes not from some spiritual practice that helps me summon the courage to face myself honestly. It comes from having my ego so broken down and composted by life that I found myself compelled to cry uncle and say, “OK, I get it. I’m way less than perfect.”
2. Poetry has redemptive power for me, as it does for millions of people. Poets like Rainer Maria Rilke, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Naomi Shihab Nye, William Stafford, and Gerard Manley Hopkins have provided life jackets to keep me from drowning, ballast to keep me from ascending to altitudes where there’s not enough oxygen to support life, and maps to keep me from getting lost in the wilderness. By following Emily Dickinson’s advice to “tell the truth but tell it slant,” good poets have a way of sneaking up on me to deliver messages I might have tried to dodge if I’d seen them coming. 8
I write poetry as well as read it because it’s one of the best forms of self-therapy I know. Here’s a poem that came to me years ago while I was trudging down a country road past a plowed field, deeply depressed and wondering if this was the day. It’s a poem that, over time, helped me find my way back to life.
The plow has savaged this sweet field
Misshapen clods of earth kicked up
Rocks and twisted roots exposed to view
Last year’s growth demolished by the blade.
I have plowed my life this way
Turned over a whole history
Looking for the roots of what went wrong
Until my face is ravaged, furrowed, scarred.
Enough. The job is done.
Whatever’s been uprooted, let it be
Seedbed for the growing that’s to come.
I plowed to unearth last year’s reasons—
The farmer plows to plant a greening season.
“Harrowing” doesn’t merit a place in the Western literary canon. But because it helped me emerge from a deadly darkness into a “greening season,” it’s canonical to me.
3. Through ten books and hundreds of essays, I’ve written hundreds of thousands of sentences, some of them long enough to wrap around a giant redwood. But perhaps the most important sentence I’ve ever written is that one word, “Enough.”
Said on the right occasion, that word can safeguard the soul, and saying it comes more easily with age. These days I say “enough” without hesitation to anything that’s not life-giving—whether it’s frenzy and overwork, a personal prejudice, an unhealthy relationship, a societal cruelty or injustice, the feckless exercise of power in fields from religion to politics, or the racism, sexism, xenophobia, and crypto-fascism sickening the US body politic.
When I was young, saying “enough” often seemed risky. I’ve known people who lost favor, friends, reputations, money, and livelihoods for saying, “This far and no more.” But risk looks different from the vantage of old age. More than fearing the cost of taking risks for the things I care about, I fear aging into subservience to the worst impulses in and around me.
I’m among the very fortunate ones whose material needs are largely met, so I don’t have to worry about losing things that some folks require for survival. For people like me, the notion that old age is a time to dial it down and play it safe is a cop-out. Those of us who are able should be raising hell on behalf of whatever we care about: freedom’s just another word for not needing to count the cost.
4. One thing I care about is the younger generation and the world they’re coming into, a world they’re helping remake. To care about them, I find, is also to care for my own well-being.
Psychologist Erik Erikson said that en route to old age, we face a critical choice between “generativity” and “stagnation.” 9 Generativity means something more than creativity. It means turning toward the rising generation, offering whatever we know that they might find useful— and, even more important, learning from them. I talk and work with young people as often as I can, and always come away the better for it.
Several years ago, I held a two-day meeting in our home with a small group of young adults less than half my age. I listened as they talked about how the emerging world looks from where they stand. At some point, I said something like this:
I feel like I’m standing partway down the curvature of the earth, while you’re close to the top of that curve looking at a horizon that I can’t see. I need to know what you’re seeing, because whatever’s on that horizon is coming at me as well. Please let me know what it is—and when you do, speak loudly and clearly so I can hear what you’re saying!
Hint to my age-mates: next time you think, “I’m over the hill,” say to yourself, “Nah, I’m just standing farther down the curvature of the earth.”
5. Most older folks I know fret about unloading material goods they’ve collected over the years, stuff that was once useful to them but now prevents them from moving freely about their homes. There are precincts in our basement where a small child could get lost for hours.
But the junk I really need to jettison in my old age is psychological junk—such as longtime convictions about what gives my life meaning that no longer serve me well. For example, who will I be when I can no longer do the work that has been a primary source of identity for me for the past half century?
I won’t know the answer until I get there. But on my way to that day, I’ve found a question that’s already brought me a new sense of meaning. I no longer ask, “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to hang on to?” Instead I ask, “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to give myself to?”
The desire to “hang on” comes from a sense of scarcity and fear. The desire to “give myself” comes from a sense of abundance and generosity. That’s the kind of truth I want to wither into.
6. Sooner or later, “withering into truth” culminates in death, the ultimate form of withering and perhaps the ultimate source of truth. Who knows? Maybe death will be as the poet Lucille Clifton has it in her remarkable poem about her husband’s death:
the death of fred clifton
i seemed to be drawn
to the center of myself
leaving the edges of me
in the hands of my wife
and I saw with the most amazing
so that I had not eyes but
through my skin,
there was all around not the
shapes of things
but oh, at last, the things
I have no idea what, if anything, I will learn from dying. This is all I know for sure: I have no bad memories of wherever I came from when I arrived on this planet, so I have no good reason to fear where I’m going when I take my leave.
Besides, I know exactly where I’m going: to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area up along the Minnesota-Ontario border (48°N, 91°W), a wild and holy place where I’ve spent summer’s end every year for the past two decades. Whenever I’m there, I think, “This is heaven.” All that’s left is to figure out how to bring a canoe along.
I may not have heaven’s latitude and longitude exactly right. But one way or another, we’re all going to end up in Mother Nature’s arms as our atoms recombine with the stuff from which they came. When I’m in need of the comfort that comes from that undeniable fact, all I need to do is to take another walk in the woods, or a hike into the mountains, or a stroll alongside the ocean, or a trek in the desert. Such ineffable beauty, such surpassing grace!
They say the layered earth rose up
ancient rock leviathan
trailing ages in its wake
lifting earth-mass toward the sun
and coursing water cut the rock away
to leave these many-storied walls
exposé of ages gone
around this breathless emptiness
more wondrous far
than earth had ever known
My life has risen layered too
each day each year in turn has left
its fossil life and sediments
evidence of lived and unlived hours
the tedium the anguish yes the joy
that some heart-deep vitality
keeps pressing upward
toward the day I die
And Spirit cuts like water through it all
carving out this emptiness
so inner eye can see
the soaring height of canyon walls within
walls whose very color, texture, form
the darkness and the light, the false, the true
while deep below the living waters run
cutting deeper through my parts
to resurrect my grave-bound heart
making, always making, all things new.
—PARKER J. PALMER
My friend Carrie Newcomer, singer-songwriter, was a conversation partner in the development of this book. As I drew close to finishing it, Carrie wrote a song titled “The Brink of Everything” as a musical blessing on these pages. For a free download, visit NewcomerPalmer.com/home.
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