Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Wednesday, April 25, 2018: Maximum Shelf: On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity & Getting Old


Berrett-Koehler Publishers: On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old by Parker J. Palmer

Berrett-Koehler Publishers: On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old by Parker J. Palmer

Berrett-Koehler Publishers: On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old by Parker J. Palmer

Berrett-Koehler Publishers: On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old by Parker J. Palmer

On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity & Getting Old

by Parker J. Palmer

Accomplished writer, teacher, activist and former community organizer Parker J. Palmer has lived an examined life. He's been writing for the past 40 years, through nine previous books. During that time, he has shared a wide range of his experiences and the wisdom he's gained from having journeyed through many chapters and changes in his life. Palmer views his existence contemplatively at every turn, through a highly evolved, enlightened prism that blends self-examination, philosophy and wisdom gathered from a variety of literary, religious and spiritual contexts. Now in his eighth decade, he admits that he is "surprised by the fact that I like being old. Age brings diminishments, but more than a few come with benefits."

Experience and aging have certainly made Palmer a deeper, richer and more reflective human being. In On the Brink of Everything, he stands on a figurative precipice and gazes back at the full panorama of his existence--his own past, present and future--and shares what he's learned and how he perceives the beauty and dilemmas of our contemporary world. For Palmer, writing has always been his way of "collaborating with life." It is fitting then, as an essayist, poet and inspirational speaker, that he has chosen to compile his latest via a patchwork-style, multifaceted presentation that brings together, in 24 essays, a range of letters and speeches, notable quotes that have resonated with him, journal entries and poetry, including some of his own. All of these combine to enhance Palmer's reflections on the gift of aging and the importance of staying engaged, at any age, in a world that is constantly changing and often, fractured.  

"We need to reframe aging as a passage of discovery and engagement, not decline and inaction," Palmer asserts, noting that his book is not a "guide to" or "handbook for" getting old. Rather, he hopes that sharing his thoughts and feelings about life and contemporary issues will offer consolation and serve as encouragement to others so that they, too, can live a more consciously evolved life.

Palmer details how On the Brink of Everything came into being. In his 70s, he felt he no longer had the energy required to devote himself to long-form writing. But when his nurturing, long-time editor--an encouraging and supportive friend--examined his work, she noticed a unifying theme: aging. Thus, this book was born.

Over seven sections, Palmer describes the formation of his professional life, activism and his interest in social causes, and how and why he became a writer. He shares his explorations of various religious disciplines and traditions, and his faith and spirituality. Using these personal foundations as a springboard, he weaves in poetic ideas about growing old with grace and wisdom. These include the importance of embracing new experiences and how multiple generations can join forces and inspire each other. He also stresses the ongoing need for enrichment--the pursuit of a life filled with purpose and work, while cultivating engagement with one's soul.

An optimist, Palmer believes that the joyful light of life cannot exist without the gloomy darkness of shadow. Therefore, he doesn't believe aging is something to be dreaded and feared, but rather welcomed. "Calamities I once lamented now appear as strong threads of a larger weave, without which the fabric of my life would be less resilient." Everything is cumulative in Palmer's world, and growth occurs through both positive and challenging experiences. Palmer shows how he continually strives to embrace human frailty, trying to remember that every instance in life can be a teachable moment. This certainly applies to Palmer's experiences battling, yet learning how to welcome, lifelong bouts of depression.

One section of the book addresses our world today and the tumult and brokenness found therein. Palmer touches upon aspects of white privilege, rampant violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, contempt for the poor and the need for all to embrace diversity. This all leads Palmer into the "rough-and-tumble world of politics" and sharing his own ideals of patriotism. Parker unabashedly voices his opinions about our 45th president, Donald Trump, whom he calls "woefully unfit for the job," and those who work in his circle. Palmer asks, "How do I stay engaged and whole when my country is under attack by an enemy that we invited in?" These passages unspool into a discourse on how politics can breed anger and wear down the physical and mental well-being of the human psyche. Palmer launches a rallying cry for multigenerations--the young and the old--to join together to resist injustice and enact change. This serves as a segue for Palmer to consider ways of finding sanctuary amid turmoil, and how grace, love and reaching deeper in faith ultimately leads to peace.

By correlating current societal disillusionment and darkness with the mystery and beauty of nature that is often "hidden in plain sight," he meditatively circles back to the idea of growing older and the promising realization that "...new life is hidden in dying.... Yet deep down... seeds of new life" are "always being silently and lavishly sown."

Palmer's prose is eloquent and philosophical. His essays are paired with themed, reflective, inspirational music that corresponds with the book--three downloadable songs written and performed by singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer. At one point in the narrative, Palmer says that he became a writer because he was "born baffled." His inquisitive, questioning, introspective nature has been a direct result of this bafflement, leading to the carefully considered ideas he sets forth in this passionately crafted book. Palmer surely gives readers and seekers--of any age--pause and plenty of food for thought as they, too, continue to journey through their own lives. --Kathleen Gerard

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, $19.95, hardcover, 240p., 9781523095438

Berrett-Koehler Publishers: On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old by Parker J. Palmer


Parker J. Palmer: Life as a Tapestry with Many Threads

photo: Sharon L. Palmer

Parker J. Palmer is an accomplished writer, speaker and activist who has focused his career on issues of education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change. He is founder and senior partner emeritus of the Center for Courage & Renewal, a worldwide outreach that works with professionals--teachers, physicians, community organizers, clergy, etc.--to help them "rejoin soul and role." He's published a dozen poems, more than a hundred essays and nine previous books that have drawn a diverse range of interested readers. His new book is On the Brink of Everything, which probes the discovery and engagement of growing older.

Why did you decide to compile this book of various essays, letters, speeches, poems and notable quotes?

The older I get, the less it seems to me that a linear prose narrative is the best way to approach topics that involve a lot of complexity and mystery. So the nature of the book--which I liken to "turning the prism" on my experience of aging to illumine it from various angles in various ways--seemed the right way to go from the beginning.

You've included several of your own poems in the book--they're moving and inspirational.

Thank you. I've loved reading poetry for a long time, and when something I want to say in prose eludes me, I turn to writing my own poetry. Regarding such things as love, loss and death--to name a few--Emily Dickinson urged us to "Tell all the truth but tell it slant." That's what poetry allows me to do--and since aging is full of questions that can't be boxed and tied, I've written a lot of poems in recent years to help me negotiate these complexities and mysteries.

The book shares wisdom about growing older. Would younger people also benefit from reading it?

This book is definitely not for elders alone. It's also for younger people who want to reflect on the path ahead, and especially for those young folks we call "old souls," whose number is legion. I devote an entire section of the book to the importance of intergenerational friendships and working relationships, and liken them to "connecting the poles of a battery" so that the creative energy can flow. In a culture that frames aging as a time of decline and inaction, I chose to reframe it as a passage of discovery and engagement. Or, as I say in the book, "Old is no time to wade in the shallows, but to dive deep into life and take creative risks for the common good."

Could you have written On the Brink of Everything when you were younger?

I couldn't have written this book when I was younger for at least two reasons: back then, I didn't have the full range of experience I now have, and I wasn't looking at my own mortality as squarely as I do now.

How has your view of mortality changed over time?

As age brings me closer to death, my thoughts become more grounded and real. For me, the good news is that having a more grounded grip on mortality has made me even more grateful for the gift of life, and the many gifts life brings my way. Awareness of mortality has been a wake-up call for me, and I now notice small but beautiful things that regularly give me reason for gratitude.

In one section of the book, you voice strong opinions about the state of politics and our country.

I'm not writing to persuade anyone of anything, but to encourage elders to stay in the game by using their voices to contribute to our political discourse. As long as you have your mind and your voice, you can continue to be part of "We the People," and I think that's important for elders and for democracy. Recently, 800,000 young people and their supporters went to Washington, D.C. to protest our political inaction around reasonable gun control. I'm part of a generation that once had high hopes about fomenting social change--but many threw in the towel when they didn't succeed by the end of the 1960s. This generation is different, I think--many of them know that quick results are impossible, and they are in this struggle for the long haul. Their poise, intelligence, diligence and ability to articulate blow me away, and I think that's going to translate into political persistence on social media, in the streets and at the ballot box.

Clinical depression has affected your life, and you've written about it in this book and others.

Depression is so endemic. I've had more personal responses to my writing on that subject than anything else, and that's important to me. We need to stop treating mental illness as a taboo subject and shaming people who suffer from it.

Has your view of depression changed as you've gotten older?

Aging has been a mixed blessing in relation to depression. On the one hand, I now know that I can survive it, knowledge that helps at least a little when one is on "the dark side of the moon." On the other hand, aging also brings a depletion of psychic energy that can make it harder to keep slogging through. I've learned a lot from surviving three serious bouts of depression, more than I can list here. But alongside a new appreciation for an ordinary day of ordinary life, my biggest takeaway is that things that used to seem daunting to me--like speaking to 5,000 physicians about healing and spirituality--seem like a piece of cake compared to surviving a depression where, for months, one has to decide if life is worth living. Nothing is scarier than that.

You've lived a storied existence. Any regrets?

For me, one of the gifts of age is the ability to look back and see how "everything belongs." I now look back, around and ahead, and see how what I got right and what I got wrong are all parts of the tapestry of my life. There are threads in that tapestry that I regretted at the time I put them in and wished I could've pulled them out. But now I can see how they contribute to the overall beauty of the tapestry, and to its resilience, which has sustained me for eight decades.

What's left for you to accomplish?

To live whatever time remains to me in the most life-giving way I know how--life-giving for me and for others, as well. --Kathleen Gerard


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