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Parker J. Palmer muses about life on the brink

July 30, 2018
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Madison author Parker J. Palmer's latest book is "On the Brink of Everything."

Parker J. Palmer has found himself on the brink of everything, and he’s at peace with the view. The writer and activist paraphrases the words Janis Joplin famously sang with this mantra, “Old is just another word for nothing left to lose.”

In “On the Brink of Everything,” the Madison author’s book released in June from Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Palmer reflects on life and muses about the gifts of growing older. The memoir also includes three songs by singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer that were inspired by themes in the book. Those companion songs can be heard at newcomerpalmer.com. Palmer was reached by phone a few days after his book, with the tagline “Grace, Gravity & Getting Old,” hit multiple national bestseller lists.

Q: Why do you think your book has been so successful?

A: I don’t have any real idea. I’ve been writing for so long, for 40 years and 10 books, so I think I built up an audience prior to this. I have a Facebook author page that I really enjoy that has about 80,000 followers. I post poetry and commentary. It’s a wonderful atypical online community where people are actually kind to each other, and they’re very good to me.

I think there’s a lot of struggle in this society around dismissing elderly folks and marginalizing them, telling them to curl up and go away, with all the emphasis on youth and energetic activities. I wanted to deliver a different message about aging as I approach age 80. One of the taglines of the book is, “Old is just another word for nothing left to lose,” so get out there and take some risks for the common good.

Q: Who do you think your audience is?

A: In a way it’s everybody, because I have yet to meet any alive person who’s not growing older. I do emphasize intergenerational relationships in the book. Indeed, I took the inspiration for the title from Courtney Martin, who’s a journalist and author and friend of mine. She wrote a beautiful On Being piece about watching her 18-month-old infant discover the world. She used the phrase that she’s “on the brink of everything.” I’m right in that same place in a different way than an 18-month-old, and that notion fascinated me. I’m looking at the world with new eyes, the eyes of an aging person who’s getting much closer to the end of the road, rather than the eyes of a child seeing things for the first time.

Q: What are the best parts of growing older?

A: As I say in the book, diminishments come with aging, but with many of those diminishments also come gifts. I’m not as good at multitasking as I once was, but I’ve learned to enjoy doing one thing at a time. With aging comes somewhat slower thinking, but I find that my thinking is deeper and richer because of experience. With aging also, as the day of one’s demise draws closer, the gift is a deepening appreciation of life.

I also think being on the brink means you’re in a place of perspective. One example is that looking back, I can see the threads of my life as woven into a tapestry, and there are some dark threads in there that at the time I wove them in, I wished I could pull them out. Now I see they’re part of what makes that fabric resilient. I no longer regret them, I see them as a necessary part of the whole. One of the big themes of the book, something I think a lot of older people wrestle with, is that wholeness does not mean perfection, it means embracing your imperfections as an integral part of your life. If you can do that, you’re on the road toward wholeness.

Q: What advice do you offer for the young?

A: I’m not a great believer in offering advice to the young. I think the task of the elders is to hear the young into speech. To help them see potentials that they don’t see in themselves. That’s what my great teachers did for me. You do that by listening, by asking good questions, by inviting them to tell their life story. I think there’s a huge wound in our society of people who feel unheard of every age, including older people, people of color, marginalized people. The best thing an older person can do, not only for the young person but for themselves, is to be interested in them.

Q: You talk openly about your bouts with depression. What helped you get through those?

A: People walk around saying, “Why did so-and-so commit suicide?” like it’s a big mystery. And I say, “It’s no mystery to me at all, because I’ve been there often enough. People commit suicide because they need the rest.” Depression is an absolutely exhausting experience and you need the rest. The mystery to me is why some people not only survive but thrive on the other side. I’ve been down there three times in my adult life for months at a time, and I guess some kind of tenacity has kept me going, although it’s hard to feel that at the time.

When I recognize it as depression, I’ve sought a good therapist. The last time around, which was at age 65, the therapist I was working with gave me a very practical piece of advice. He said, “You feel like you’re getting nowhere, but if you keep the simplest journal of daily events, I think you will see that, bit by bit, you’re actually getting stronger.”

It’s a practice of journaling the really simple things that when you’re healthy and well you don’t even think of as accomplishments. When I got out of depression, I realized I needed to find some way to count the little things as just as important as the bigger things.

Q: Where do you find meaning today?

A: I’ve always found a lot of meaning in writing. I don’t do a lot of the traditional forms of contemplation and meditation, but writing and the solitude that comes with it is a very contemplative act for me. I find meaning in friends and family, as many people do, and that includes working through problems with people I love. The more intimate the relationship, the more likely there is to be struggle. I find a lot of meaning in nature, in the sense of feeling part of a much larger world than is circumscribed by my own ego. I find a reminder that this world is a whole lot bigger than my little ego, and that’s very healthy.

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