Parker Palmer turned 70 years old today. I celebrated his birthday by re-reading his book Let Your Life Speak. I took the memoir lens in hand and went searching for how Parker uses his life story in this book. The code on the back jacket cover says “spirituality/work life” not “memoir.” But what if we read it as memoir anyway?
Each of the six chapters in this book reveals important turning points in the life of the author. In Chapter I we learn that in his youth Parker took guidance from external heroes and tried to live up to their moral and ethical genius rather than listening to the voice calling his own soul into being.
In Chapter II the author shares the introduction to letters to his granddaughter with this inscription: “Perhaps these notes will help you do sooner something your grandfather did only later: remember who you were when you first arrived and reclaim the gift of true self.” This chapter also contains some of the most insightful reflections on the author’s own childhood. He wanted to be a pilot and ad man when he grew up. Instead of just scoffing at these early dreams, Parker shows how his calling to be a writer and a teacher actually grew out of them.
Chapter III shares the wisdom Parker learned from a Quaker mentor Ruth. Vocational guidance can come from doors that close behind us even more than from paths that open before us. We learn that Parker was fired as a graduate student on a project at Berkeley in the 1960’s. And, in one of my favorite stories, he discovers in a clearness committee meeting (a Quaker practice for listening to the voice with the help of others) that the main reason he was attracted to a job offer to be president of a small educational institution was to see his picture in the paper with “president” underneath it.
Chapter IV comes at the apex of the book’s structure and tells the story of the dark night of the soul, Parker’s walk with depression–what helped, what didn’t–and the blessings wrestled from the experiences. The image of his friend Bill coming by to visit, taking off Parker’s shoes and socks and massaging his feet–the only part of his body that still had feeling–lends radiance to a period filled with darkness.
Chapter V focuses on leadership in a way that few other treatises on this subject do. Leading from within requires knowledge of both shadow and light in the soul of the leader. The goal of the wise leader is service to the community. Parker uses his experience in Outward Bound when he learned to lean back into the empty space, rappelling down a cliff. The advice the frightened climber got–“if you can’t get out of it, get into it!”–makes a great mantra for leadership.
Parker concludes this small book with a tall subject: the four seasons. Treating each season as a metaphor, he weaves together the gifts received throughout the other chapters in the book. The doors that closed behind him become the Autumn revery on the hidden wholeness in all things. He describes personal losses, and the clarity gained by them, in the winter season. Spring brings with it “humus,” decayed vegetable matter, that he likens to the humiliations earlier shared with the reader. He ends the book with a meditation on the abundance of summer.
I decided, upon this re-reading, that Parker Palmer is to literature what Vivaldi is to music. Each season perfects the last one and prepares for the next. Only a Midwesterner could have probed the pleasures and pains so deeply of autumn, winter, spring, and summer–in that order. Only a citizen of the world could tell the stories in so universal a way.
I fear this capsule summary violates the spirit of the book, which should be read slowly, lectio divina style, biting off small amounts and chewing them. Each page is bathed in silence, and the reader will do well to reflect in silence about her or his own life, not only at the end, but throughout the book.
I selected autobiographical tidbits from the book in part so that I can end this review with questions. In a clearness committee meeting, no one gives advice. No one asks rhetorical questions. Each person asks some question to the wild animal soul of the other person. The person poses the question, often about a vocational choice. Three or four other people hold the spirit of the questioner in the light, to use a Quaker saying.
If Parker were to consider the vocational choice of writing a memoir, here are a few questions I might ask. As it turns out, they are questions any memoir writer could use, and that is why I call this book a memoir writer’s memoir:
- Who were you when you first arrived? What were the signs of the shape of your soul?
- What did you aspire to?
- How did you choose your mentors?
- What contributions did your father, mother, siblings make to your life?
- What did teachers and parents praise you for?
- What did they disapprove?
- Were you a golden child, class clown, outcast, other?
- What gifts from your childhood do you want to give to your granddaughter? To yourself? To others?
These are just the questions for Volume I, Parker. So you just might have to live another 70 years to get to Volume VI!