Drawing on eight decades of life -- and his career as a writer, teacher, and activist -- Palmer explores the questions age raises and the promises it holds. "Old," he writes, "is just another word for nothing left to lose, a time to dive deep into life, not withdraw to the shallows."
But this book is not for elders only. It was written to encourage adults of all ages to explore the way their lives are unfolding. It's not a how-to-do-it book on aging, but a set of meditations in prose and poetry that turn the prism on the meaning(s) of one's life, refracting new light at every turn.
From beginning to end, the book is laced with humor as well as gravitas -- beautifully enhanced by three free downloadable songs from the gifted singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer, written in response to themes in the book.
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The View from the Brink
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."
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." 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." 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 awestruck 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."
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.
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 Czeslaw Milosz:
Love means to learn to look at yourself The way one looks at distant things For you are only one thing among many.
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.
Withering into the Truth
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
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.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "On the Brink of Everything"
Copyright © 2018 Parker J. Palmer.
Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
With Gratitude ix
I The View from the Brink: What I Can See from Here 11
II Young and Old: The Dance of the Generations 31
III Getting Real: From Illusion to Reality 53
IV Work and Vocation: Writing a Life 85
V Keep Reaching Out: Staying Engaged with the World 115
VI Keep Reaching In: Staying Engaged with Your Soul 145
VII Over the Edge: Where We Go When We Die 171
About the Author 197
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Parker Palmer writes so well that I purchased two copies off Listen to Your Life for grandchildren for Christmas presents. This is a book I will reread.