Tuesday, April 16, 2019

On the Brink of Everything: Book Review

Published 26 June 2018. 
Palmer J. Palmer was goaded into publishing this book--On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, & Getting Old (2018)--after his editor noted the theme of aging showing up in his recent writings. 

From his vantage point on "the brink" or the edge, Palmer observes: 

"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" (p. 16). 
This book shares insights based on his growing awareness of his own mortality. 

Palmer is in his 80s, and has been a community organizer, author, speaker on the the topic of seeking the true self. (His work reminds me a bit of the quest that psychologist Carl Rogers describes.) 

Those who are concrete, literal, practical people will have very little patience for Palmer. Those who are contemplative, idealistic, and focused on exploring inner landscapes will be inspired. 

The book is a collection of essays (some previously published in books or on blogs) and poetry. Some material is new. Other reviews here at Goodreads indicate that the book revisits recurring themes in Parker's work, so it seems as though it's a good overview of his work. 

Palmer is a Quaker who is heavily influenced by the writings of Thomas Merton, who was a Catholic priest influenced not only by Christianity but Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and Sufism. Palmer does quote a bit from the Bible and from Merton as well as a number of other writers of devotional literature; however, Palmer also quotes a number literary figures, particularly poets such as cummings, Dickinson, Rilke, Rumi, Thomas, Wordsworth, Yeats. 

Palmer values the act of writing as a means of discovery, and he quotes a number of writers about the process being as important (if not more important) than the process. He explains, 
"I write because I was born baffled. . . . So my approach to writing is simple: I find something that baffles me, write enought to peel back the first layer of my not-knowing--at which point I find another bafflement, then another, and keep writing until I've gone as far as I can, certain that eventually I'll find another layer of mystery beneath the last one I explored" (p. 94). 
The most salient theme of his work is this: accepting wholeness means embracing both the good side and the dark side of our natures. Palmer shares his struggle with depression by explaining that he has had three major depressive episodes as well as facing dead ends in his career and reckoning with the fall out from some "bad decisions." Some of his greatest insights have emerged after these difficulties. Palmer acknowledges that some are contemplative by intention. However, he is contemplative by catastrophe: 
"My wake-up calls generally come after the wreck has happened and I'm trying to dig my way out of debris....Catastrophe, too, can be a contemplative path, pitched and perilous as it may be" (p. 59). 
I do want to alert readers that Palmer steps aside in chapter 5 from his usual personal, internal journeys to make pointed commentary about the 45th president of the US. Palmer is upset, and he wrestles with his anger on the page. He's trying to work out a way to respond that is productive and life affirming, and he's having a difficult time. After witnessing to the problems he sees, he focuses on what he can do personally: 
"What does in mean to 'return to the most human' as we try to morph our anger into acts of love? For me, it means returning to my own story in order to reconnect with the stories of those who differ from me politically" (p. 121). 
This leads Palmer to confront the racist ideas that he has internalized and explore how he can challenge the white supremacy that saturates a lot of American institutions. These passages are awkward but courageous. He opens himself up to criticism by trying to talk about race where most people would avoid the taboo. Some readers might be put off about his political comments, but I do think it still fits the book's themes about transforming the self. Even though chapter 5 is more tension-filled, I am glad that I read it. 

Palmer concludes with images from nature about the cycle of life and describes his strategies for approaching death. This is where Palmer displays the most vulnerability and lyricism. 
"When my own small life ends in some version of wind and fire, my body will be transformed by the same alchemy that keeps making all things new, witness this wilderness. As the medieval alchemists dreamed, dross will be turned into gold" (p. 180). 
I wish him well as he continue to lives on the brink, and I hope he will send more dispatches from this vantage point.


Books on Aging and Spiritual Growth


  1. I will have to check this out, although I am not religious and do mindful meditation.

    1. Carol: I think that you will like his work. His approach is very in the now and not about trying to earn points for an afterlife reward. He's worked with people in interpath efforts and validates many approaches to wisdom, compassion, and being grounded.

  2. You know I agree. When mom was passing this calmness cane over me because I started realizing how blessed I truly am. A lot was happening with my health and it led to a lot of contemplating.

  3. Sounds wonderfully reflective!