If all I did for the next three months was read a few books a week from the shelves in this apartment, that would be a worthy education.* Last night I picked up a slim volume called Let Your Life Speak, intrigued by the title, the book’s manageable size, and the author bio — Parker J Palmer is a veteran teacher and a Quaker, and he went to UC Berkeley for his PhD.
It was a good choice. The book spoke very strongly to my experience and to some of the things I’ve been thinking about over the past few months. It also opened with this evocative poem:
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.
It is a small book but one worth spending time with. From the title I was expecting a practical guide — something with little mottoes and reader exercises — but the book jacket calls it a “meditation,” and that describes it much better. When I was done reading I thought I would have preferred exercises, but when I woke this morning I decided the opposite is true. Since Palmer doesn’t give us anything to do, per se, we’re forced to think quietly through his insights, on our own and in our own time. Good teaching.
As I said, much in the book resonated with me specifically. Palmer got a PhD and then left academia because he was disillusioned with it. I did the same (though I didn’t finish my PhD). Now, he says, he realizes that he made the right decision for the wrong reasons: it was appropriate that he left, because he’s not suited for the life of a research academic and wouldn’t have done well at it, but he basically fled only because he was colossally afraid of failure at his chosen path. It wasn’t a carefully considered retreat based on self-knowledge; instead, he blamed the academy and told himself he was leaving because it was broken. I suspect my quitting academia was the same deal — wrong reasons, but right decision — though it’s only fairly recently that I’ve been willing to consider that possibility.
Similarly, Palmer almost accepted a prestigious job offer not because the position truly suited his needs, but because he secretly wanted the reputation it would give him. This desire was so secret, he didn’t acknowledge it himself until trusted friends asked him enough questions that he found himself, embarrassed, admitting it aloud. I know there are things I’ve chased — or thought I should chase — solely because of their glamour or their air of legitimacy. I haven’t always realized that was what I was doing, because everyone tells us we should want the most prestigious position, the most glamorous assignment, the biggest name or the biggest paycheck. This has something to do with my recent post about not being a capital-A Artist; I kept tormenting myself for being a mere dilettante and not working harder. I was right that I needed to work harder (and I’ve been doing that since, and to my surprise, loving it), but not because there’s anything wrong with being “a fancy lady who makes watercolors.” Essentially I thought it was sexier to be a working artist than to be whatever it is that I am, and so it drove me crazy that I seemed to be voluntarily keeping myself in the less-desirable position. But in writing that post, I decided to accept my life as it is, and paradoxically that has freed me to create more (because I’m not so anxious about whether what I do conforms to some ideal of Artistness).
The book is very much about learning our true nature and seeking wholeness in a self-directed fashion. Palmer observes that so many of us are excellent students of what other people tell us we should do, but we completely dismiss the internal directives that say, “Actually, I’m not so sure this is right for me” or “Good god, I love this thing I’m doing right now.” He asks: why don’t we take notes on what our own voices say? It strikes me that Morning Pages, or just honest journaling, is a way of doing that. Before we came to Boston I spent a couple of weeks rereading my travel journals. At first I was just skimming them for ideas I’d forgotten to transfer to the computer, but the more I read the entries, the more convinced I was that they all deserved greater attention. There were so many good thoughts in them, many of which have guided me (though I didn’t realize it) to my motivations today. (This always happens when I reread old journals, actually.)
In the same vein, Palmer says that part of embracing our true nature is to take the “good” with the “bad” — in fact, to stop seeing any of it as good or bad, but just part of who we are. I have been thinking that too, since this last round of travels has revealed to me as many of my “negative” qualities as good ones (something I briefly mentioned at the end of this post). Since I haven’t been able to escape or dismiss these traits, I’ve been experimenting with letting them be, and that has been a curious process. I’ve concluded that if we truly want to love and honor ourselves, we can’t be hiding bits of ourselves, ashamed, thinking “well, I won’t let anybody see that until I’ve ‘fixed’ it.” I didn’t think I would say so, but accepting these “flaws” actually makes me stronger, because I don’t have to be so afraid someone is going to find them out! Not that self-acceptance is easy, but the attempt is powerfully worthwhile.**
*I might do this. In my ideal life I also read a new poem every day, but that’s probably not going to happen.
**And yes, this goes the same for appearance and body love as for our inner selves. Also yesterday, before I read Palmer’s book, I discovered massage therapist Dale Favier’s lovely essays on what bodies really look like and accepting bodies as they are (the rest of his blog is great too). Reading those felt as moving and as spiritual as reading Palmer’s book. After browsing his site I got up and danced for awhile, just improvising, and it felt amazing.
Very interesting. I’ll seek out this book. There are several stages in our lives when we struggle to find purpose and reason or acceptance of a) who we are and b) who /what we would like to be. The “famous” mid-life crisis is a classic example. Restricting outside pressures and the expectations of others is the hardest, I think. I suspect that’s why we envy those who have been able to choose their path early and stick to it regardless. Finding your inner strength is the key. Sounds like you might be getting there. Good for you.
Hi Alan! I think you’d like the book. I realized partway through it that I’ve actually had another of his books recommended to me too, one called The Courage to Teach.
Also about inner strength and accepting ourselves, I used to think that was a one-time event and after that I’d be set for life. Now, not so much. ;b
What a beautiful poem. Wish I could spend more time in introspection. I keep so busy sometimes I wonder if it isn’t avoidance.
“Ask me whether / what I have done is my life” hits me like the edge of a cliff every time I read it. Sometimes I wonder if my introspection isn’t my version of avoidance of activity! But I go to that extreme too, so I suppose it all balances even if it doesn’t feel like it in the moment.
LOVE Parker Palmer! Worked with him and his assistant to get him to be the keynote at one of the conferences I planned. He was a delight to interact with although he was unable to be at the conference in the long run. I love his work! I’m glad you discovered it. Did you see his work with Center for Courage and Renewal? (http://www.couragerenewal.org/parker)
Oh how cool! I hadn’t heard of the center but it seems important and badly needed.