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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