Review: On the Brink of Everything

On the Brink of Everything

On the Brink of EverythingParker J. Palmer. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2018.

Summary: A series of reflections on aging, living with grace and vitality as we age, and facing our deaths.

Perhaps one of the greatest unknowns that shape our lives either by denial, or conscious reflection is our own deaths. Like so much else, we have no clue what to expect until we get there. For some of us, our religious beliefs offer the hope of life beyond taking our last breath, or perhaps a return in another incarnation, or a oneness with the universe. We believe, perhaps with good reasons, but none of us knows. We wonder if death is going over the brink of nothingness. For Parker J. Palmer, at the end of his eighth decade, death is the “brink of everything.” This work consists of collected reflections around the question both of “how shall we die?” and how consequently we live, particularly in the autumn years of our lives, a season he believes has its own beauty.

Palmer had me from the “Prelude” where he writes: “Age brings diminishments, but more than a few come with benefits. I’ve lost the capacity for multitasking, but I’ve discovered the joy of doing one thing at a time.” In seven chapters, Palmer organizes his reflections and poetry around several topics. In “The View from the Brink: What I Can See From Here” he proposes that instead of asking “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to hang on to?” that we ask “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to give myself to?” Like Erikson, he sees that living generatively and giving ourselves to rising generations is essential to our vitality. That leads into a chapter on “Young and Old” A highlight in this chapter was a letter to a collaborator in the “On Being” program, Courtney Martin, and his observations about gender relationships. The chapter also includes one of the pithier and substantive commencement addresses I’ve heard or read.

“Getting Real” recounts the influence of Thomas Merton on his life and the journey from illusion to reality in his own life, from false self to true self. He describes an epiphany when a therapist observed about his perception of his struggle with depression (qualifying this as applying only to his own experience):

“You seem to image what’s happening to you as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Would it be possible to image it instead as a hand of a friend pressing you down to ground on which it is safe to stand?”

The chapter concludes with journal reflections from a winter retreat week, which includes more Merton.

His chapter on “Work and Vocation” centers on his life as a writer. He confesses, “I became a writer because I was born baffled.” It was helpful to find someone else who thinks this. I often find myself writing to find words to express an “inchoate something” that is rumbling around inside. “Keep Reaching Out” speaks to the necessity of remaining engaged with our world, which he models in how he wrestles what that means in a country led by a president whose character and values are at utter odds with his. As a Quaker, he wrestles through the question of how to be angry and yet live one’s commitments to non-violence. A short essay in this section on “The Soul of a Patriot” included a succinct statement from William Sloan Coffin that expressed with precision something I’ve been groping for:

“There are three kinds of patriots, two bad and one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers, and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with the world.”

We also need to “Keep Reaching In,” His insights on the connection between pain and violence were thought-provoking to me, reminding me of Henri Nouwen and how wounds can become toxic or sacred to us, depending on the inner work we do:

“What can we do with our pain? How might we hold it and work with it? How do we turn the power of suffering toward new life? The way we answer those questions is critical because violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.” 

This relates to his final chapter “Over the Edge,” in which he calls out the great challenge of wholeness, which is to live with and embrace all the contradictions of our lives–our noble and petty qualities–saying “I am all of the above.” He reminds us that we are never other than beautiful and broken persons and to face the truth about ourselves allows us both to live and die well. As for what is “beyond,” the most he will cautiously advance is that he believes that somehow body and spirit are intertwined and indivisible, whether in simply making new life possible or something more.

In this last, it is clear that this is not a book that presents an orthodox Christian view of death and future hope (although the resurrection is a marvelous expression, I think, of his intuitions of the indivisibility of body and spirit). Rather his reflections, the questions he explores in his writing, as well as the bonus downloadable music by retreat collaborator and musician Carrie Newcomer, explore how we might grow old with grace and generativity, rather than crankiness and frustration and sadness. His insights about anger and pain, and the temptations to violence seem very relevant whether we are old or young in this angry and violent culture.

I live in a place of seasons and I love the approach of each one and think each has its own beauty. Palmer helps me to see this in life, that the approach of autumn, and the winter to follow have their own beauty. Contrary to Dylan Thomas, Palmer suggests that we can go gently into the good night. He proposes that this is a season that has its own richness, that he invites us to join with him in exploring as we all approach the brink of everything.

Review: Culture Care

culture-care

Culture CareMakoto Fujimura. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: A call for a different kind of engagement with culture, one of care, of becoming generative, rather than engaging in war or battle, to foster beauty in our common life.

To read this book was a moving experience for me, one about which I wrote (“Culture Care Instead of Culture War“) while reading the book. I found a voice that resonated deeply with my longing for alternatives to the banal, rancorous and ugly expressions of culture around us. Fujimura invites us to care for our culture rather than engage in war over it, to give our selves to a common pursuit of beauty to sustain and renew our common life.

He invites all who are creative in some way to exercise their creativity generatively.  Often this involves “genesis moments” where failure and tragedy gives way to something new. It is generous in a world that often just thinks of survival. Becoming generative means thinking across generations, observing the work of those who have gone before us, working for a generation at our own creative work, and passing this along to future generations.

The rest of the book elaborates what a generative care of culture looks like. He begins by paralleling culture care with the creation care movement. He invites us to look at similar fragmentation in our communal life and the divide between technological efficiency and the love of beauty and art, or the divides between groups contending for their vision of culture, the culture wars. He proposes instead that, “Culture is not a territory to be won or lost but a resource we are called to steward with care.” Such care may begin with care for our own souls, as we face our own brokenness and understand we are wounded healers. We then begin caring for culture by our efforts to bring forth beauty out of brokenness.

He proposes the idea of artists as mearcstapas or “border stalkers.” Artists are often those at the boundaries of society, the liminal spaces between groups, an often uncomfortable place to be. They are like Aragorn, “Strider,” in The Lord of the Rings, and capable of great leadership in reconciliation across the divides between groups. He shares the example of Mahalia Jackson, an artist sitting behind Dr. King at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 as he gave a somewhat “set” speech until she called out to him, “Tell ’em about the dream!” Artists can call forth the “dreams” toward which we long and live, and which we sometimes suppress. He writes of Emily Dickinson and Vincent van Gogh, both at the margins of the church, who in their art challenged the rigidities that drove them to the margins where they struggled with faith.

This leads to a striking declaration of Fujimura’s own calling that left me both breathless and saying “Yes! Yes!” He writes,

    “I am not a Christian artist. I am a Christian, yes, and an artist. I dare not treat the powerful presence of Christ in my life as an adjective. I want Christ to be my whole being. Vincent van Gogh was not a Christian artist either, but in Christ he painted the heavens declaring the glory of GodEmily Dickinson was not a Christian poet, and yet through her honest wrestling, given wings in words, her works, like Vincent’s, like Harper Lee’s, like Mahalia Jackson’s–speak to all the world as integrated visions of beauty against injustice.

    “It is time for followers of Christ to let Christ be the noun in our lives, to let our whole being ooze out like a painter’s colors with the splendor and the mystery of Christ, the inexhaustible beauty that draws people in. It is time to follow the Spirit into the margins and outside the doors of the church” (pp. 84-85).

The last chapters of the book suggest some helpful images and practical considerations of culture care that seemed to me a generative gift to young artists. Fujimura speaks of soil care, that art is nourished in the rich soil of the whole, expansive gospel of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. He writes of estuaries, transitional habitats for apprentice artists. He commends business practices and gives practical advice for young artists, including his own example of “raising support” even while in art training. He then concludes with a vision that transcends the fear that drives culture war and asks “what if” a paradigm of culture care were to replace this.

At least part of why I resonate so deeply with what Fujimura writes is that I feel I’ve become increasingly uneasy hiding behind the evangelical culture war walls and have been drawn more to the boundaries as a “border-stalker” or mearcstapa. Like Fujimura, I haven’t abandoned evangelical faith, but I find myself increasingly drawn to care for the culture (as well as the creation) rather than war on either. Perhaps it has been the discovery that I live with two artists.

A number of years ago, I woke up to the reality that one of my wife’s deepest longings was to give herself to painting, and began to ask what it means to “husband” such a longing. The greater surprise was to discover that the other artist with whom I was living was myself as I found culture caring joy as a choral singer and a writer. I even joined my wife’s artist friends in picking up sketchpad and paint brushes and entered into their world. Instead of polemical conflict I find myself increasingly exploring the common ground of beauty which seems one of the most conducive atmospheres to conversations about the “beautiful Savior.”

My apologies for the biographical digression. What I hope this conveys is that Fujimura gave language and a clearer vision to my inchoate thoughts and images about a different engagement with culture. If that is where you find yourself, you might find this book as helpful as I did. At very least, you will know what is a mearcstapa!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Third Third of Life: Preparing for Your Future

The Third Third of Life: Preparing for Your Future
The Third Third of Life: Preparing for Your Future by Walter C. Wright
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A while back, we hosted a group discussing Half Time, when it was still realistic to think I had a half a life ahead. Now I’m reviewing a book on the “third third of life” at a time when I am at least on the verge of that fraction of life. Needless to say, I read with interest!

The book is actually fashioned as a workbook that can be used personally, or as couples, or in a small group. Each chapter includes a reflection section with questions, followed by a reflection which is a personal narrative by someone in the “third third”, and concluding with a reading on the section theme.

The book follows a sequence of beginning by looking back upon our experiences and how we mine them for direction in the third third. It helps us think through transition issues and our fears and hopes in approaching the third third. Then the book begins to look forward thinking about our hopes, our renewed sense of calling, family and place questions, the issue of generativity, and our spirituality and closing with asking the question “what now” and a wonderful narrative about Al Erisman, a retired Boeing exec who has launched a publication on business and ethics, presides over a center for business ethics and integrity at Seattle Pacific, and is active with a host of causes around the world.

One objection I have to the book is that most of the profiles are of very successful people in life–top executives or leaders in organizations and it tends to read as a guide for the rich and privileged. Certainly these people may have great impact in the third third and equally face these issues. More material and models for those in the “middle class” would have been helpful. Nevertheless, the questions and readings are helpful and I hope sometime to find a group to work through a book like this.

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