by Tali Zelkowicz, Ph.D. –
Head of School, Columbus Jewish Day School
There is always a little fear involved when meeting a hero for the first time. In person, will he or she be that same individual we have spent years studying? Will it feel like the same person around whom we may even have worked to construct some of our own life’s meaning and value systems? To be sure, it is not anyone’s job to live up to someone else’s hero-fantasy. But in my case, the in-person reality was even more extraordinary than his books.
This past fall at iCON – the biennial conference of The iCenter, I had the tremendous opportunity to interview educator, bestselling author, scholar, and philosopher, and a personal hero of 20 years, Parker Palmer. We sat in a room of hundreds of educators to launch 3 days of interactive, interdisciplinary, and multi-modal workshops and sessions all in some way at the intersection of Israel and education. Joining us months before his 80th birthday, having written hundreds of essays and ten books, with the most recent of which actually about aging (On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old, 2018), he seemed especially conscious of legacy and the current moment in time.
Although he does it in his writing too, I felt it in person even more starkly—Parker performs what feels like a sort of wonderful magic trick. Instead of a rabbit, though, he pulls our humanity out of a hat. Before you know it, there it is, lying out there in all its gore and glory for us to cherish, honor, laugh tenderly about, and above all, to respect. To use one of Parker’s favorite words, it feels chutzpadik to attempt to deconstruct and understand how his enchanting balm works upon our ragged postmodern souls. And I’m not sure I’ll get it just right. But in the analysis, I hope to at least share some of the beauty, grace, and wisdom, of Parker Palmer.
Both as Jews and Americans, we are relentlessly dichotomized and polarized, and too often, also demoralized. So, how does Palmer create his effect on us, exactly? It would be great to know because we need a lot more of that salve.
My best guess is that he does it by stitching us back together using three main tools: poetry, paradox, and permission.
There was a telling clue in his opening metaphor that he is, in fact, consciously aware of striving to integrate and re-integrate people, as individuals and as communities. On the way to answering my question about what makes him laugh, Parker framed his (life?) project, saying, “Today with our very tattered social fabric here and around the world, I’m looking for every opportunity I can to take my little thread, your little thread, and do some reweaving of patches of that fabric whenever and wherever I can. So as a Quaker with Christian roots, it’s a great privilege to be invited into this community…”
And then he immediately went on not just to talk about but enact some of that very cross-cultural weaving which makes us, as Jews especially, feel so whole, safe and less isolated. He shared casually, complete with Yiddish intonation, “I have a friend who sends me Yiddish Zen jokes. And when you spoke about presence it reminded me of one of them: ‘Be here now, be there then. Is that so difficult?”
The audience burst into appreciative laughter. Ah, he gets us, we feel. He comes from such a different history and sociology, but he can cross over and meet us. He gives us permission. Now it’s safe to learn about Quakers; we get curious and open about the other.
Parker’s love of poetry is well-examined. He loves it because it allows him to “tell the truth but tell it slant,” as he put it using a poem by Emily Dickinson. He explained that, “if you try to run straight at the truth and look straight at it, it will blind you, and people don’t want to be blinded. You can’t see beyond that then.”
And the most important thing Parker opens us up to is the promise of embracing paradox. Without ever saying it directly – because it’s so much more digestible and pleasant when it comes at us “on the slant” – Parker shows us that as soon as we allow anything important to become either-or, we have distorted reality and even killed off something human. In every single response, he turned to the power of one paradox or another to honor the complexity of a dilemma. To share just a few examples:
- I do believe that levitas and gravitas go hand in hand as twin lenses on the human condition.
- I think teaching is an act of extreme vulnerability. And I can even name maybe the reason why. Unlike other professions, teaching occurs at the dangerous intersection between the personal and the public.
- I’ve always said you need chutzpah and you need humility, to be an engaged learner and an engaged citizen.
- Good teaching spaces are both hospitable and charged.
Parker offers the promise of and permission to live in both/and paradoxes (and not get trapped by illusionary either/or polarities). He is constantly in relationship with one or more paradoxes. It made me wonder what he would do with one binary concept I heard from a dear mentor many years ago: “You can be right, or you can be in relationship.” Indeed, I don’t know anyone alive who better embodies a life of, or understands more deeply, what it means to choose to be in relationship, rather than to be right.
When I asked Parker about it, he put it like this:
“it’s more important to be in right relationship than to be right. That does not mean that we should abandon what we understand as the difference between true and false, right and wrong. But those are often complicated questions, and they can’t be sorted out if we’re not in dialogue with each other. So being in ‘right relationship’ means creating trustworthy relational containers that can hold these questions over time and allow us to keep making progress on them, with each other.”
Using paradox, poetry, and permission, Parker Palmer’s whispers have been healing the heart of democracy, and the heart of humanity in important ways all over the country. His courage to teach and host dialogue across many lines of difference – and to do so successfully – makes him rare today.
At the end of our hour-long conversation at iCon, he closed with his commentary on the Yehuda Amichai poem, The Place Where We Are Right. He was just speaking narratively, but there was a music to those final sentences. When I went back and listened to them again, I noticed he had spoken in verse, singing about the paradox of differences and doubts/loves, giving all of us permission to imagine a different kind of conversation, and it seemed to come out as a poem, that I might call, “Across a Great Chasm,” that went like this:
and at some point, I’ll say:
Let’s not talk about our differences.
Let’s talk about our doubts
and our loves.
Tell me about what you love
and tell me in some detail.
Tell me about how you doubt that what you love is being served well today
and tell me in some detail.
And after we’ve done that for a while
Let’s see if we aren’t just a little closer together
than we were when we walked into this room
thinking we stood across a great chasm from each other.
And it never fails to build a bridge of some sort.
Kol hakavod to The iCenter for going outside of our Jewish world that we think is so idiosyncratic, to invite a leader on the outside to help us understand ourselves so much better, and who can help us learn that there are these bridges. Parker is at once a fierce and tender counter-cultural voice, committed to a critical discourse that resembles a lover’s quarrel, drenched in both respect and integrity. And that would feel so whole.
Tali Zelkowicz, Ph.D. is Head of School at Columbus Jewish Day School