A Seedbed for the Growing To Come

Wednesday, August 13, 2014 - 3:58am
Photo by Scott Olson

A Seedbed for the Growing To Come

Millions of people suffer or have suffered from depression, and I'm one of them. In the past 30 years, I've made three deep dives into the darkness. As I've worked to integrate those experiences into my sense of who I am, I've found it important to write and speak on the topic. "Going public" this way is not only therapeutic for me. It also gives me a chance to stand in solidarity with others who suffer, to let them (and those who care for them) know they're not alone. My writing on the subject includes chapter IV in Let Your Life Speak and the poem below. The poem came to me during a time of deep depression when I was out in the country walking past a recently harrowed field. Writing the poem was a healing experience. It helped me understand something I'm glad I know: the hard times we all go thru plow up our inner ground and turn it over, giving us chance after chance to "plant a greening season" in and through our lives.
Harrowingby Parker J. PalmerThe plow has savaged this sweet field Misshapen clods of earth kicked up Rocks and twisted roots exposed to view Last year's growth demolished by the blade. I have plowed my life this way Turned over a whole history Looking for the roots of what went wrong Until my face is ravaged, furrowed, scarred. Enough. The job is done. Whatever's been uprooted, let it be Seedbed for the growing that's to come. I plowed to unearth last year's reasons— The farmer plows to plant a greening season.

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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 Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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The story of us all. Thanks, Shirley for some timely wisdom.

Maybe. This is a time of grieving for our nation,a time of Greiving and Growth. A time to ponder our distanin for one who lost all hope. Let us listen!

Thank you for sharing, Parker. I have come through two major depressions and years of low-grade dysthymia before it was diagnosed and treated. I work hard to keep it at bay and am always on the look-out for the signs of its return. So many of us, like Mr. Williams, are very good at hiding our pain. I hope that if his suicide does anything (besides relieve his own pain), it helps those that suffer depression be more willing to share what they're going through and helps those that do not suffer depression to be strong enough to listen instead of sweeping it under the rug or turning away in fear.

Thank you. A wonderful metaphor that's accessible, useful and very helpful. I'm saving that one.

It does help to write it down -- get it out and on paper -- to release and work through.


When despair thick as lava
flows close behind me,
I ease down in surrender,
feel it cover,
let it have its way...
saturating every cell
until it passes through,
leaving me empty and limp,
the merest sheet of matter
that couldn't possibly hold life again,
couldn't possibly contain the soul,
the stuff that was me
that once surged with joy.


Joan this is so accurate.
Thank you

Joan, I practice mindfulness and your poem nails it perfectly. Thank you for capturing it with simplicity...thick as lava. This allowed me to sob and finally let go of the tears that I have been holding since hearing of Mr. William's death.

Thank you. Bringing darkness to light has always been my path through depression. The poem and words in today's reading helps the loneliness that this work often brings.

Thanks for sharing this. Every story helps breakdown the stigma of talking about our mental and emotional distress and getting the support we need. It dispels the collective illusion reinforced in superficial facebook posts that "we've all got it together". In my own life I've made two deep dives into the darkness. Now I work with faith communities to understand mental illnesses and promote holistic coping that brings both modern scientific diagnosis and treatment, and the comfort of a loving God and a loving faith community to bear on our distress.

Thank you Parker for this powerful reflection and poem. You speak for so many people who have struggled with depression, or have known and loved someone struggling with depression. Our culture still carries so many misconceptions and biases about mental health. Your open and compassionate conversation on the topic is needed and appreciated.

Beautiful words, dear Mr. Parker. Thank you for giving me hope of the greening season to come.

Beautiful words, dear Mr. Palmer. Thank you for giving me hope of the greening season to come.

I love the last line ... "The farmer plows to plant a greening season." I have a good friend and "spiritual doula" who I was talking to during a dark time. We were talking about how it's sometimes necessary to sit in the manure of life. Then she said "stuff grows in sh*t" and so will you she-seed. I always try to remember that when life dumps more "fertilizer" in my path. ❤️

So very helpful to me tonight. I saw and felt so much through the metaphor (s) evoked by what the poet experiences as he walks. The movement of the poem is so clear and immediate and to me, so inwardly recognizable. Thank you, Mr. Palmer.

I am so moved by your poem. As someone who does not suffer from depression, it is hard to fully understand what it must be like - to truly grasp the depth of the despair and what one goes through while in the midst of it. Your poem helped me to see/feel this as I never have before and in so doing added to my ache for those who are under that "blade." I am so struck by the pain in the second stanza which amplifies the great courage of the third stanza - the courage it takes to "let it be", move forward, and have hope for what is to come. Thank you for sharing this - it's a timely and needed gift for those who suffer and for those who seek to understand.

Beautifully said, Megan!

This touches me and reminds me of a poem I wrote that I wish to share:

“Clear Cuts”
by Kathy Baldwin
April 6, 2003

This mountainside,
Slashed and burned,
Held together,
By thin corridors,
Of evergreen,
A patchwork,
Of life and death,
The landscape,
Of my heart.

What I have been hiding,
Stands out on these wounds,
Like a clear cut stands out,
After a night of spring snow.

Caught on the starkness,
Of scar tissue,
Pieces of me,
Raise their arms,
In surrender,
Surrender to what “IS”.

In this harsh setting,
What “WAS”,
What “MIGHT BE”,
Cannot hold ground.

Who I am,
In this moment,
Becomes clear.
The healing,

I was touched by your poem as well. I could feel it from the inside out and it always seems to come to that pivotal place of decision for me: acceptance.

We feel so alone in the darkness/depression ... like an embryo floating out into space while "normal people" go on with their normal lives.

This group's sharing helps us to see the lie: we are never utterly alone. Peace to you and all who walk this way ...

Growing up on a farm and watching my dad plow the fields makes this poem very meaningful for me. I lost my dad when I was 9 in a tornado. Whenever I go through some kind of loss, feel abandoned or have lack of sunlight during the long dark winter days that dark tornado cloud of depression returns and sucked the life out of me. I recently uprooted some old feelings of fear and anger that brought my depression to the surface again. A good Quaker Friend shared your poem with me. What a blessing! I really spoke to me as I live on a farm now. Your poem gives me hope for greener pastures in my future.Thank you for your honesty and openness. I'll post it on my refrigerator.

My own experience in darkness, sadness, and despair have helped me to understand how difficult it is to simply be with our pain, to not run away into busyness, distraction, or attempts to cover and hide from the suffering, but to stay with it as long as necessary. Not easy in a culture that wants us to hurry up and “get better” to “get happy.” But there is meaning and purpose in pain which can only be understood when we are able and willing to feel it and to go into its depths.

We go into and through our suffering alone, yet paradoxically, we need each other. We need to learn to walk with each other through the darkness, listening with our heart and seeing with the eyes of our soul to know what to do and how to be with each other in these times. It seems to me that by fully experiencing our own suffering, we gather the resources, the sensitivities, and the wisdom to know how to be with those we love when they are suffering.

Like so many others have shared, I've also spent some serious time in the belly of the beast. One thing I'm very thankful for is that my battles with my own demons have left me sure of one thing... I'm in no position to judge anyone else's choices of left or right, stay or go, live or die. A number of friends, some very dear, have chosen the same path as Robin. The dearest, a former lover, took her life 16 years ago. In the time since, I've developed an enduring gratitude that her suffering is over. I don't believe she was oblivious to the pain her choice would cause for others. But it seems she could not go on living a moment longer. All that said, I'm also thankful that people like yourself plow through the darkness, chronicle their experience, and offer it as a gift to others. Thank you, Parker.

Parker - I've been a fan of yours for several years. I share a similar history& believe that returning to "the land of the living" after almost leaving it twice was a rebirth for me. Whatever has followed has been part of my rich harvest. Thank you for your courage in sharing openly & with such a big heart.

Thank you, Mr. Palmer. The describes so well what I've been experincing the past few months. "Enough. The job is done." brought tears.

I am amazed, Parker Palmer, and very grateful that you could write the truth in your poem "during a time of deep depression." I have experienced two seasons of debilitating depression, and could hardly express myself at all. But words of kindred spirits, who have been to that place - yours, and Henri Nouwen's to name two - have helped me find a path through that dangerous terrain. Thank you.

I relate to this and feel so much the misshapen clods kicked up, the pieces of my life that seem to be here and there visible and invisible...but nevertheless hard and troubling, refusing to budge...I too have turned over whole pieces of my life and sifted through trying to leave them behind, yet they are still there...blocking the sun and I long to loosen them and grow through them from the rich soil to the light...and blossom again. But can I work my way through the grief that floods..perhaps it will be the source of self loosening.

Thank you for the wonderful article and the poem. It resonated with me. I am in the deepest part of the depression pit right now. I had to take medical leave because I couldn't stop crying at work. I've had anxiety attacks as well. I have lifelong dysthymia which is hard enough to deal with on its own. This is my fourth major depressive d/o crash in 40 years. I'm 62 now and this fight is the worst yet. I've had many losses this year. They stirred up the grief and pain of other losses in my life. I'm tired of crying, tired of my heart hurting. I have a great therapist and supportive friends. No matter the support, I still have to sit with this. I know the only way out of the pain is through it. I know I'll feel better again one day. It would be nice to have that date circled on the calendar.

I love Robin Williams and I have a favorite word from Dead Poet's Society, "Excrement." I also remember a quote from author Madeleine l'Engle, when we have to deal with "the damned dailies." Another word is from scripture, adam, meaning earth or hummus. We are earthworms and we do have to till the soil of life. Thank you for all the thoughts, for remembering that life in the United States is not the advertisement of vainglory plastered all across our field of vision.