The Finest Gifts Are Intangible

Parker J. Palmer

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. His book On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old will be published in June.

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November 21st, 2017

A poem from Mary Oliver on the ultimate act of gratitude: offering up our own gifts of the mind, heart, and spirit.

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November 14th, 2017

A poem from David Whyte on escaping the noise of the world, and listening instead to “questions that can make or unmake a life.”

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November 7th, 2017

Humor and poetry are therapeutic, and together they can be the ultimate balm. A verse from Ron Koertge — on a happy misunderstanding about the order of Carmelites.

Porterville, California, resident Manuel Dominguez, who has no running water, plays guitar in his living room on April 23, 2015.
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October 31st, 2017

For when the world’s trouble starts to overwhelm, a poem from William Stafford on savoring and safeguarding the refuge of life’s quiet, peaceful moments.

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October 24th, 2017

Parker finds comfort in a poem from Carrie Newcomer — on learning how to occupy our space in the world with the wholeness and grace of trees.

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October 17th, 2017

Our columnist turns a critical eye to his own convictions about race and white privilege. He finds there’s always room to face our hubris — and in that humbling experience, we find hope to do better the next time around.

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October 10th, 2017

A poetic reminder for writers: that the simplest words can be the most powerful.

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October 5th, 2017

As the warmth and lush greenery of summer give way to fall in our part of the world, a poem on the hollowness of the coming season, and the promise that rushes in to fill the void.

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September 26th, 2017

When the spirit feels leaden, there’s respite in the sunrise that breaks through the night. A poem from Mary Oliver on taking comfort in daybreak.

Knoxville residents participate in a service of prayers and hymns for peace in advance of a planned white supremacist rally and counter-protest around a Confederate memorial monument on August 25, 2017 in Knoxville, Tennessee.
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September 19th, 2017

There’s more to hope than optimism. Parker reads Victoria Safford on what it really means to stand in the place where hard, joyful work makes our vision for change come alive.

Woman wrapped in sheet. Photo by Yoann Boyer.
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September 12th, 2017

It’s scary to surrender control, but good can come from letting the chips fall where they may.

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September 5th, 2017

As the air starts to cool and the days shorten, a poetic reflection for this liminal time — on the hidden potential that lies in the season ahead.

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August 8th, 2017

A loving ode to ancestral land — and to the body of the earth from which we all come and to which we all return.

A boy walks through a waterfall on July 25, 2016 while playing in the water at The Yards Park in Washington, DC, as a heat wave rolls across the area.
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August 1st, 2017

We can’t take wilderness retreats every time we feel caught up in the world’s madness, but a poem can be a momentary reprieve.

Photo of waterfalls by Jack Smoter.
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July 25th, 2017

A poem on letting go of our “known way of being” and discovering the wisdom of letting things unfold around us.

John Thompson, a friend and former colleague of Philando Castile, is embraced after speaking on the steps of the Minnesota State Capitol building on June 16, 2017 in St Paul, Minnesota.
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July 18th, 2017

A poem from Gregory Orr on the silver lining of a heart shattered open: the knowledge that our broken places are where beauty comes from.

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July 11th, 2017

An antidote from Margaret Atwood for the hubris that leads us to claim ownership over the living lands that nourish us.

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July 5th, 2017

A monk with a “wicked sense of humor” inspires our columnist to pack his bags when it comes to attaining perfection.

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June 27th, 2017

Mary Oliver’s knack for finding the grace in life’s big questions, and reflecting on them with the calm and clarity of an afternoon on a quiet pond.

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June 16th, 2017

A loving ode to an exemplar of old-school hard work and generosity, and a model for public life in our time.

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June 13th, 2017

A poem to honor the commonalities that run deeper than our cultural divides — from the San Francisco of the Beat Generation to a modest dive on the Jersey Shore.

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June 6th, 2017

The poet’s grounded counsel on living a life of generosity and integrity — and a touch of healthy rebelliousness.

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May 30th, 2017

To live fully and well, we need diversity — in nature and in our lives together.

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May 24th, 2017

Inspired by the quiet eloquence of Hafez and Naomi Shihab Nye, Parker puts forth an appeal for the deliberate, loving care that public life requires of us in these times.

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May 17th, 2017

Parker takes up Jane Kenyon’s gentle challenge: trust in the natural cycles of light and dark, waking and sleep, life and life’s end.

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May 10th, 2017

An unlikely spring poem from Mary Oliver turns the dazzling darkness of nature into a lesson on embodying simple gratitude for the gifts we’re offered each moment.

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May 3rd, 2017

Do trees photosynthesize the soul as well as sunlight? With a poem by W.S. Merwin, an appreciation for trees and the spiritual wisdom they impart.

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April 19th, 2017

It’s a hard time to be human. But that doesn’t mean our good work has no value. Parker and Ellen Bass on the beautiful paradox of our smallness and our consequence in the world.

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April 12th, 2017

The human soul is a thing to name and celebrate, no matter how we understand its fickle, mysterious nature.

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April 5th, 2017

A tribute to Maya Angelou for her birthday — with a reflection on her poem “Still I Rise,” a fiery assertion of self.

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March 29th, 2017

Reflections, recalibrations, and resources to help us temper our anger, and find space for a constructive, healing civic life.

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March 22nd, 2017

A poem from Maya Spector is an encouragement to push open the doors that hold us in when the light of spring breaks.

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March 15th, 2017

Parker stands in awe at the extraordinary patience of nature. What if we centered as much care and attention on its grandeur as we do on our own selves?

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March 8th, 2017

A simple invocation amid the world’s frenzy: that we maintain the quiet discipline of seeking delight hiding in plain sight.

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February 28th, 2017

Parker looks fondly on the moments he spent as a child with his grandfather — whose life-giving hands brought forth craft and nurtured a little boy into the world with a fierce and stoic tenderness.

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February 22nd, 2017

On the approach to his 78th birthday, Parker offers up a gift: six learnings that prove that our personal evolution spans the whole length of life, and continues in the generations we nurture forward.

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February 15th, 2017

Life’s tragedies can make the road ahead seem like a barren vista. But our losses can also clear space for courageous new beginnings.

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February 8th, 2017

Animated by solitude in the winter woods, Parker J. Palmer on seeing the hidden and potential beauty beneath what’s superficial in the world we face.

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February 1st, 2017

Our dreams can be great motivators. But what if what we aspire to is already within our grasp? A poem on letting go of the stress of ambition and embracing our innate potential.

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January 18th, 2017

What would it look like to quarrel with our country in a way the soul would affirm? A contemplation of patriotism turned inward, and the “fierce-love truth-telling” that will help us become the democratic community we aspire to be.

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January 11th, 2017

With the wisdom of Jane Kenyon, a contemplation on gratitude and ordinary grace in our own finite lives.

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January 4th, 2017

After an exchange with an angry man, a poem about a woodland encounter bestows unexpected guidance — about how acknowledging the spaces we share can be what closes the gaps between us.

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December 14th, 2016

A return to the gritty heart of the Christmas season, and a vision for a holiday celebration that does real and practical good for those around us.

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December 7th, 2016

As we turn the seasonal corner to the longest nights of the year, a reflection on the time we spend in the darkness, and what we can learn from it before turning back to the light.

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November 30th, 2016

Even at our most broken and scattered, Mary Oliver seems to say, we can uncover new wholeness by examining each shattered piece.

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November 23rd, 2016

An appeal to move beyond anger and reactiveness, and to concentrate instead on the immediate, crucial work of embodying justice.

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November 16th, 2016

Leonard Cohen’s timeless lyrics are a beacon of hope for even the most broken among us. An expression of gratitude to our latest lost legend.

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November 9th, 2016

Our body politic suffers from deep wounds, seen and unseen, and all real. Wisdom gleaned from a beloved baseball team on resilience in the face of heartbreak, and the spirit of unity that will move us into a new age.

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November 2nd, 2016

November in the upper Midwest often feels like a “fifth season” to me — different from autumn and winter in…

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October 26th, 2016

A life doesn’t have to be extraordinary to have an impact in the world. A reminder that we can build lives that have meaning, no matter what cards we’re dealt.