Parker Palmer at home (Day 16 of Learning road trip)

Before leaving Madison for our return east, we spent a couple of hours with Parker Palmer.  As I described to him in an email, during the spring I had started to invoke his theme of “letting your life speak” to the mid-career/mid-life adults who join the Master’s program I direct called Critical & Creative Thinking. In CCT, we support/coach/teach the students to “take themselves seriously”-to pursue aspirations submerged in their previous work (and get clear about what those aspirations are) and to adopt/adapt tools for thinking, connecting, reflecting, evaluating, and writing while they are doing that. I thought that he and I could spend a valuable hour or so sharing notes about the development of non-traditional learning institutions and the personal development that’s gone along with that.

The discussion ranged widely, including Shenk’s account of Lincoln’s struggles with depression as a source of his strength as a leader of a divided nation, to Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, to the Dalai Lama’s dictum, “Be kind.”  Parker Palmer also described the development of his work since Let Your Life Speak was published in 1999.  In the middle ’90s the Fetzer Institute in Michigan had sponsored a pilot project in which Palmer convened a two-year series of eight retreats with a single group of teachers.  Palmer wasn’t interested in any one-shot event or retreat, after which participants, however much they were inspired, were left on their own to put new insights into practice.  The pilot gave rise to the Center for Teacher Formation, which then expanded beyond the field of education to become the Center for Courage and Renewal (as described in A Hidden Wholeness, 2004).  Thousands of people have participated in the two-year series of retreats with the goal not of changing this or that aspect of society, but of each participant coming to make a “soul-deep decision” about the path they will take.  In recent years Palmer has extended the retreats so as to foster the creation of Circles of Change, groups of citizens who have the creativity and courage to revitalize democracy without suppressing difference and conflicts.  This endeavor is described in his latest book, Healing the Heart of Democracy.

After the discussion I played around with what an eight-retreat series for CCT or the New England Workshop on Science and Social Change would look like.  I am also keen to use one of Palmer’s tools. During a retreat, participants are asked to write a letter to themself, then seal it in an envelope and hand it over to the organizers.  At some point in the future, say a month later, the organizers mail the letters to the participants.  They are reminded by their own words about what they wanted to keep mindful of.

(back to Start of road trip; forward to Day 17)


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He studies the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context as well as innovation in teaching, group process, and interdisciplinary collaboration (see He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (

One Response to Parker Palmer at home (Day 16 of Learning road trip)

  1. Pingback: Cultivating Collaborators (Day 19 of Learning road trip) « Probe—Create Change—Reflect

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