Notes from a Week in the Winter Woods

Wednesday, January 20, 2016 - 2:32am
Photo by Kent Miller

Notes from a Week in the Winter Woods

I've been on retreat at a cabin in the woods since last Monday — a silent, solitary retreat. As my time here got underway, I took a few notes each day — a sort of mini-journal — and got the idea of stringing them together.

Monday, Jan. 11, 2016
Arrived in mid-afternoon at my rented cabin in the snow-covered Wisconsin countryside. Went inside, lit a fire, and unpacked the car, quickly, motivated by the sub-zero wind chill. Outside, acres of bright fields and dark woods. Inside, just me. Plus enough clothing, food, and books for a week of silence and solitude.

Last night, someone asked if I liked being alone. “It depends,” I said. “Sometimes I’m my best friend. Sometimes I’m my worst enemy. We’ll see who shows up.”

It’s 9:00 p.m., an hour before Quaker midnight, but I’m going to turn in anyway. I’m drowsy and at peace. The fire I’ve been staring into seems to have burned away the worries that tagged along with me.

Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016

Woke up about 5:00 a.m. and lay awake for another hour in the dark, watching my worries rise phoenix-like from the ashes and flap around to get my attention.

“Welcome and entertain them all!” says Rumi in The Guest House.

“Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”

Guess I need to have a chat with the "beyond.” Looks like he/she/it didn’t get the memo that I came here for some peace.

Now, a few hours later, I’m feeling that peace again. It came from a breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast, all ready simultaneously despite the fact that I’m a certified kitchen klutz. It came as well from looking out on the snowfields, brilliant under the rising sun — but beautifully etched with the shadows of trees and stubble poking up through the snow.

The “beyond” was right: peace comes from embracing the interplay of shadow and light (and a good breakfast doesn’t hurt). After breakfast, I read the January 12 entry in A Year With Thomas Merton, a collection of daily meditations:

"It seems to me that I have greater peace… when I am not 'trying to be contemplative,' or trying to be anything special, but simply orienting my life fully and completely towards what seems to be required of a man like me at a time like this."

Simple and true, but so easily lost in Type-A spiritual striving! What was required of me this morning was simply to make breakfast despite my well-documented ineptitude. The deal is to do whatever is needful and within reach, no matter how ordinary it is or whether I’m likely to do it well.

This afternoon, what I needed was a hike, though the wind chill was six below. I’m no Ernest Shackleton, but I learned long ago that winter will drive you crazy until you get out into it — and I mean “winter” both literally and metaphorically. “In the middle of winter,” said Camus, “I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.”

I didn’t discover summer on my hike. But the sun blazed bright on the frozen prairie, warming my face. And high in the cobalt blue sky, a hawk made lazy circles as I’ve seem them do in July. For January, that’s close enough to summer for me!

Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016

I slept poorly last night, and I know why. An hour before bedtime, I binge-ate a box of Jujyfruits while reading a book about spiritual discipline. The book made a few good points but was not well written, and I scarfed down the Jujyfruits as a stimulus to stick with it. My bad. But clear evidence that I could use some discipline!

I feel better now because the oatmeal I made for breakfast — on my second try — was healing. Pure comfort food. On the first try, I got the ratio of oatmeal to water wrong and left it on the burner too long. The pan looks like a grotesque avant garde sculpture of metal and grain: “Agrarian Culture Defeated by Machine.” Again, my bad. But my kitchen klutz credentials have been reinstated.

I guess my theme today is “Screw-ups in Solitude.” In solitude, my bads make me grin. If I committed them in front of others, I’d be embarrassed or angry with myself. Self-acceptance is easier when no one is around.

The Taoist master Chuang Tzu tells about a man crossing a river when an empty skiff slams into his. The man does not become angry, as he would if there was a boatman in the other skiff. So, says Chuang Tzu:

“Empty your own boat as you cross the river of the world.”

In solitude, I can empty my boat. Can I do it when I’m not alone? Maybe.

“Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people — it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.”

That quote comes from a book I wrote, so I should probably give it a try!

Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016

Woke up at 2:00 a.m. and found myself regretting some things I got wrong over the past 77 years. Wished I had been kinder, or braver, or less self-centered than I was, and had a hard time remembering the things I got right.

Knowing that the 2:00 a.m. mind is almost always deranged, I got up at 4:00 a.m., dressed, made some coffee, stood out in the dark and cold for a bit, and saw Venus gleaming low in the southeast. The goddess of love: that helped!

Then I read the January 14th entry in A Year With Thomas Merton. Once again, my old friend had a word I need to hear, as he reflected on the complex mix of rights and wrongs in his own life:

I am thrown into contradiction: to realize it is mercy, to accept it is love, and to help others do the same is compassion.

Merton goes on to say that the contradictions in our lives are engines of creativity. It’s true. If we got everything right or everything wrong, there’d be none of the divine discontent or the sense of possibility that drives us to grow. What we get wrong makes us reach for something better. What we get right gives us hope that the “better” might be within reach.

Now I feel ready to step into the day animated by the counsel of Florida Scott-Maxwell:

“You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done... you are fierce with reality.”

I fully intend to get fierce and real today. But before I do that, I’m going to take a nap!

Friday, Jan. 15, 2016

This morning, for no apparent reason, I woke up with a grin, another one of those “guests” Rumi spoke about, “sent as a guide from beyond.” But this time the guest is a welcome lightness, a sense of impending laughter.

Most of my heroes are folks who are no strangers to laughter. Grandpa Palmer comes to mind. The man was proof-positive of William James’s claim that “common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds.” Grandpa taught me to drive when I was 14. First time out, I made a dumb, dangerous move on a back-country Iowa road. When we came to a safe stop, Grandpa was ominously silent for a moment. Then he said, laconically, “If I’d of knowed you was gonna do that, I don’t believe I’d of asked you to drive.” He never said another word about my near-disaster, and for the past 60 years I’ve driven accident-free!

Merton was well known for his sense of humor, a quality not uncommon among monks. In The Sign of Jonas, a deeply moving journal of his early years in the monastery, there’s a line on page 37 that always makes me smile:

“I had a pious thought, but I am not going to write it down.”

And I love this claim, found in a Hindu epic called The Ramayana, as told by Aubrey Menen:

There are three things which are real: God, human folly, and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third.

I’m sure I’ll experience all three today. The first is ever-available, if my heart is open. The second is guaranteed, since wherever I go, there I am. As for the third, I’ll do what I can with it. As Chesterton quipped:

“Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016

(Parker Palmer)

Today’s opening line in A Year With Thomas Merton, “You can make your life what you want” if you don’t “drive [yourself] on with illusory demands.” I don’t think it’s entirely true that I can make my life what I want. But it would help if I stopped making demands on myself that distort who I really am and what I’m really called to do.

After five days of silence and solitude, many of the demands that hung over me when I came out here have lightened or lifted. Since I’ve done little this week to meet those demands, the lesson seems clear: they were mostly the inventions of an agitated mind. Now that my mind has quieted, its “illusory demands” have vaporized, and I feel a deeper peace.

I remember a story my businessman dad told me about how he dealt with pressure. In his office, he had a desk with five drawers. He’d put today’s mail in the bottom drawer, after moving yesterday’s mail up to the next drawer, and so on. He’d open letters only after they had made it to the top drawer. By that time, he said, half the problems people wrote him about had taken care of themselves, and the other half were less demanding than if he’d read the letters the moment they arrived! As Black Elk said to the children in his tribe when he told a teaching story:

“Whether it happened that way, I do not know. But if you think about it, you will see that it is true.”

Of course, the curse called email did not exist in Dad’s day. Still, his story points the way: make five folders for my email, and use them as Dad said he used his desk drawers. In certain respects, you can make the life you want!

Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016

(Parker Palmer)

On this last full day of my retreat, I’m still meditating on the opening line of the January 13 entry in A Year With Thomas Merton:

“There is one thing I must do here at my woodshed hermitage... and that is to prepare for my death. But that means a preparation in gentleness...”

What a great leap — from death to gentleness! So different from Dylan Thomas’s famous advice:

“Do not go gentle into that good night...
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

When I was 35, raging seemed right. But at 77, it’s Thomas Merton, not Dylan Thomas, who speaks to me.

The prospect of death — heightened by winter’s dark and cold, by solitude, silence, and age — makes it clear that my calling is to be gentle with the many expressions of life, old and new, that must be handled with care if they are to survive and thrive.

Sometimes, of course, that means becoming fierce in confronting the enemies of gentleness. If that’s a contradiction, so be it! As Merton said in The Sign of Jonas:

“I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”

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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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Thank you. Your reflections were just what I needed to read about right at this moment. The poem from Rumi was particularly helpful.

I hope the week was good to you. Thank you again.
Libby Fife

As ever, our dear brother Parker's gifts of deep insight, authenticity, humility and humor bring hope, encouragement, clarity-and a smile. Thank you for this on a cold winter morning.

Thank you. This is very helpful. Just slowing down to read it made a little retreat for me before I begin my telecommuting work day. I have work to do on letting go. This helps: “Empty your own boat as you cross the river of the world.”

As a writer, I spend a great deal of time in solitude. It's necessary for my work, a burden and a blessing all at the same time. I loved reading your reflection on solitude, and sympathize with your feeling that sometimes you are your "best friend," sometimes your "worst enemy." It's heartening to me to know I'm not alone in these struggles. Thanks for leading the way and sharing your journey.

as always insights sudden and startling as a finch on my 12th floor balcony--and always a tenderness to match his honesty. parker has been one of my long-distance teachers for many years now, and i always look forward to his reflections.

I found Notes from a Week scrolling through FB with my coffee morning routine, and I stopped to read wondering if any insights had occurred in such self imposed solitude were any different from my own since widow hood brought it to my life as an unwelcomed guest... and now I am in relationship with myself as you commented on who would show up on a given day... I enjoy the gentlewoman more and more and she comes more often... and as Merton observed, "I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.".... thankyou (smiling)

This is lovely, Marcelete.

From a fellow Merton fan- thank you for your beautiful words!

2 AM waking regret is the crust we discarded from the life we missed

So nice to hear I'm not the only one the 2AM waking regrets. Although, I've been calling them"self-loathing attacks." I'll be wishing you all peace the next time my mind needs to shed this cr...ust in the middle of the night!

Thank you Parker Palmer for such a rich nourishing serving of wisdom to contemplate. Much gratitude.

This is the first time I've come across this site, and your beautifully chosen words and reflections really spoke to me. The pictures and quotes also resonated with me - I'm going through a similar period of solitude (despite living in an urban metropolis). I guess it's the time of year! Lovely to know that there are people all around the world who are feeling the same way..



Mr. Palmer thank you so much for sharing your sojourn with me/us. I have chosen solitude as my chosen way of life; mostly because of my mental health and also because it is the preferred method.
I have often struggled with people who ask me 'how can you spend so much time alone' and you my unknown friend have provided the answer here: “Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people — it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.”
Thank you. May you continue on the road of the longest journey known..the journey of self. Much love. OxoxoX

Don't know why the Dylan Thomas quote came to my mind this morning. It was a few hours before I read this. We are revolving planets around the same sun, shining on one another. Thanks for this warmth on this wintry day.

Thank you for your wise and beautiful words...and to paraphrase Merton, at the sight of your photograph I had a competitive thought but I did not write it down.

i drink too much and think too much and yearn to have faith.

To have faith is to have confidence God loves you.......have confidence...let yourself be worthy.

Faith is knowing God loves you......have are worthy.

I read this with an open heart. In my right hand was a bowl of soup that I had made, I've no one to share the soup with, no one but the ghost who arrive at my little home on the hill in the wintery woods. In silence so much shows up. And sometimes it shows up online. Thank you.

How happy I am to read your "Notes" today! This quote, especially--from the book I read long ago--are helpful as I am about to be artist-in-residence for 8 weeks at Pendle Hill: “Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people — it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.” To write in retreat, I will need both this presence and the reminder from these "Notes" that I am entering a process that requires openness to the me who shows up. (If you have other advice don't hesitate to send it, though Pendle Hill today is very different from when you were there. I know already that I planned enough writing for a year, and will settle for what happens with daily worship, great food and warm hospitality.)

Than you for sharing some of your week with us. You've motivated me to unpack my copy of A Year With Thomas Merton, an old friend and guide, and to be alert to opportunities to laugh.

Sounds like a sabbath for body, mind and soul. What struck me most was your words on spiritual striving. Hello, my name is Gay and I'm a spiritual strive-a-holic! Spiritual materialism, a Buddhist teacher might tell us. Breathing in, breathing out. I'd write more, but I need to arrange MY next retreat!

How appealing this is, a retreat in the woods in a cabin. Wonderful that you distilled reflections from each day and shared them. Inspires me to get back to Thomas Merton, too. Thank you for this.

I am an artist of sorts..a painter at most. Much of my time is spend looking for the picture in process. I have found that the picture will introduce itself after the silence of the room is felt in my spirit. Truly a joy. I begin every day with a reading from Thomas Merton.
In his writing I find direction for the day! Thank you for you journal in retreat.


I really enjoyed reading this more than I can express. I too took a few days to be alone between Christmas and New Years to gather some thoughts and assess my self worth. It was a soul cleansing 4 days of being out in the country on a friends farm away from everything. Thank you for sharing .

Luther Sikes

You have warmed my heart again Parker...sharing your journey into wholeness through solitude. Peace to you !


The purpose of life’s reflections has no more meaning than to entertain, to bore, to learn from and

perhaps to move from the past to the future. As life filled with these nuances of time and place that

make us richer or poorer, morally bankrupt thrown up on the shores of others’ lives or put away like a

deposit in a bank account to be drawn against or down; we make choices! Captured in a moment of

melancholy years ago the words then are not unlike writers of today chronicling life’s ebbs and flows.

For as long as I can remember, the anticipation associated with Friday night Saturday was almost

better than whatever went on. At the wonderful age of forty four and now seventy two I lie here on

the couch of my little cottage all snuggled in the sea and stare through the frost to the outside and

debate just how to endure this time again. In a flash I am transported back to my youth, that is both a

good and curious event. I search in the eaves of the attic of my mind when all was right with the world

and rock and roll was young.

I have interrupted this piece for almost twenty eight years and yet nothing much has changed. I face

the prospect once again of being alone, of facing Friday nights and Saturdays. Will they be ever the

same, ever the conquests of time to be mounted or rued for their now empty solitude upon which to

brood and think lowly of? This question will be lived out both in the chambers of my mind and the

reality of an emptiness born of loss, born on the wings of life being transitory and shameless.

So was it when I was six or was it seven that Fridays became that important day in the week? The first

Friday night sleepover was a momentous occasion. I was but of all of six when my mother dropped

me off at a friend’s house. He lived in a totally different surrounding to mine, filled with adventure and

men who never wore a coat and tie. The coal yard where he grew up with his mom, brother,

grandmothers, aunts and uncles, cousins and muscular coalmen of another time fill my memories to

this day. I awoke on a Saturday morning to the smell of the wood cook stove, coal dust, and feint

outlines of antlers on the walls and gruff men who chewed with their mouths open while talking of the

most recent hunt or tales of Babe Ruth coming from the oldest of the men.

Each of us has a first Friday night Saturday that has acted as a catalyst for our forever wondering

what we are going to be doing on the next set of days called Friday night Saturday.

Mondays as little kids we would all gather by the steps on the way into class to share what we did. By

Tuesday the adventures grew in proportion to the time away from them, a slight exaggeration here

and there always was fun than the reality of a trip with mom to the grocery store. By the age of ten,

the trap line we checked on a crackling cold winter’s Saturday morning always was said to have

remnants of mink or some other equally exotic animal by the time Tuesday story telling got under

way. On Wednesday plans were hatched to recapture that adventure, that spirit of being a boy, a

man, a risk taker, a survivor, that excitement of life. By Thursday recess all you could talk about was

tomorrow. Friday came and the adventure began all over with the planning, the bragging and the

secrets that boys shared in equal proportion to the girls.

All through elementary school if I wasn’t at someone’s house, my Friday night Saturday was shaped by

my older brothers’ sports. Fall was football. Pep rallies were something I could not attend but always

asked about and could hear off in the distance in that we lived close to the playing fields. Hot dogs

and beans seemed like the staple of the evening. Saturday always gave way to chores and marching

bands and more hot dogs and a game which propelled me to excitement to expanding excitement,

some of which I still carry into sporting events today. Winter was basketball and long Friday night

rides in the back seats of cars with scratchy upholstery and the bellicose sounds of adults second

guessing the coach and stands filled with screaming bodies of young and old alike. Saturdays of winter

found me and a friend headed to the movies. (A great old vaudeville theatre now equipped with

newsreels and 10 cent popcorn.) The three plus miles were filled with more adventures than you could

imagine. Dennis the Menace would have been proud. I can remember one character building Saturday

when I went off with my brothers and walking home in the dusk they ran off and left me. A dog bit me

and my brothers were grounded for some un-relinquishing amount of time.

Spring Saturdays perhaps were the best to look forward to as there were railroad tracks to explore,

old trestles to cross perched high above a roaring river, large tracts of woods and Civil War industrial

ruins. The games and make believe world that came from the constant sunrise to sunset adventure

always left me eager to capture the next day and make it last and last.

They came and went with such rapidity that suddenly I was an adolescent and now the pep rallies

were mine to attend, the dances, the unhealthy and drunken open houses and places to hang out. To

my mother’s query; “Where are you going?” “Nowhere.” “What are you going to do?” “Nothing.”

Forever I’m sure my mother knew that her youngest was up against time and that his need to be was

more important than her need to know and control and thus she let me go.

The stories on Monday and Tuesday at school were little changed in tone form elementary school

days, the exaggeration probably about the same. The only thing that was added was sex. Sometimes

only hinted at or left to the imagination, other time bragged about. At first it was just among the boys

but as the months turned into years, girls joined our conversations where they were part of every

weekend story.

Friday night Saturday took on a whole new level of excitement with the advent of the license and a

car. I had worked long and hard over years to own a car. That independence and celebrated rite of

passage made Friday night, date night! The time took on a new meaning. The emotions developed in

the back seat of a 51 Ford convertible all tricked out with a chopped top, louvered hood, nosed and

decked and a custom paint job carried the next say and the time for exploration and adventure gave

way to experimentation and love. Those days and nights seemed to drag with pain and beauty mixed

forever in the nostalgia of the fifties and sixties. Carhops and drag races, James Dean with Elvis, the

only thing that was happening was life.

College came fast on the heels of groping in the dark on a Friday night. Times became suddenly more

formal and seemingly more important. Small southern colleges were no less preppy than their

northern counterparts. Blazers and wingtips polished to a shine were for Friday night Frat parties and

the back seat of a car was traded for the “Pit.” Saturdays always ushered in the unexpected trips to

the lake or fishing up some creek in the Smokey Mountains, but never were the days more predictable

than they were in 1st grade. Nothing changed, the time demands placed on those days just seemed to

swallow huge amounts of energy.

Four years went by without notice and suddenly I was a legal adult, (21) with all the incumbent

mainstream responsibilities. I had not only escaped the notable pitfalls of Friday night Saturday, I was

still alive, no one was pregnant (At least that I know of), I was not an alcoholic and by 22 had

vanquished the war in Vietnam. One more time, I was so lucky to be alive with a future, a college

degree and hope all in front of me.

By 23 I was married and Friday Saturday became ever more predictable. Early on with little money

and not much to do, McDonald’s became the evening out. Saturdays brought work of a different kind

and although the environs changed over the years, those times in the week brought a shaping of adult

behaviors that I would never have thought about as a child. Involved in the life of others and

consumed by so much family, sponsoring youth groups, coaching, children and all of a sudden Friday

Saturday seemed like a sponge always filled. The sponge it seems got rung out on Monday at work. I

was amazed at how others viewed their Friday night Saturday. Many of my peers were poor users of

time when they were young and as adults they became abusers of time and those around them. The

workaholic’s took second jobs, the drinkers drank and many just shrank behind their blinds to await


Now I’m 44 divorced, being a single parent to a teenager, renting and wondering if Friday night

Saturday still hold the mystique and spontaneity of youth. I am challenged every seven days to

rekindle my excitement for this special time of the week. Living in a classical New England sea coast

village sprinkled with bars and pubs, the city lights beckon.

I enter the bar, it could be any bar anywhere and it probably is, but in this instance it isn’t any bar, it is

here. It is now, it is twenty plus years since my manhood in terms of legal reality took me through its

doors. This pub, or gin mill or just plain watering hole has both a nostalgic aerie as well as a role of

keeper of secrets.

The transition from piano bar when I first at 21 to rock and roll arena came quickly with the advent of

the seventies when bars with live and salty music, cheap beer and college girls were much more

popular than piano bars. The sing alongs of musical show tunes bellowed out by aging baritones from

whiskeyed patrons from the cottages by the shore gave way to drinking college and working folk

alike. (I didn’t go then, what married and two kids) The music, volleyball down back and a growing

sense of community when there wasn’t one became legend. Perhaps this sense of community is where

on any given Friday night I survey something in disarray. The patron’s behaviors have surrendered to

this Friday night predictability.

On any given nigh of a summers’ Friday night, the fishermen, teachers, bankers, tradesmen and

students gather in spirit to share a tonal experience and observe one another. I suggest only that the

music is a pretense to gather and share. Surely nothing was wrong or is wrong, but I see a gathering

of the faithful for twenty years, who caught in a time warp live for today, share the night with

whomever, where ever and have lost the clarity of mind to dream and build a better world. A sharing

of drink turns to ten and the high of twenty years ago with three bucks has become a twenty thousand

dollar a year habit that sucks the dreams from the lonely and carries the professional through the next


Friday nights in the 51 Ford were a “touch me hold me” time, but today in this setting, it seems they

add “watch me, but never know me.” My fascination with this surrender of human potential is one of

unquenchable thirst. For months when I was first out again after more than twenty years of

predictability, I struggle with watching from afar. Recently I have found my way back into the

periphery, declining the lines snorted out back; I sip my “Lite” and watch. The smoke of patrons’ lungs

hangs like dimpled moss spreading thickly to my clothing and still I watch and am amused.

So now Friday night is food and Saturday is music till the frost comes. Winter afternoons come early

and the men gather early to wonder what became of their day. By Friday’s end the women of whom

these men once belonged are beset by stress and wonder.

Forty four and the frost on the panes grow whiter with the declining temperature. The surf swells the

marsh to a broadness and Friday Night Saturday stand out like the tide, they wait for no one and take

no prisoners alive.

It is twenty eight years on and the memory of time passed washes over me to make way for newness.

To cleanse and make whole my life, Friday nights and Saturdays will now be very different.

In what seems like a heartbeat of time, twenty five years of weekend nights spent in the company of

others, spent in the cradled arms of a wife now gone from view was a short sprint through life.

Chronicling time is both fascinating and an object lesson is making history real through words.

Yesterday, as a 60 year-old master of social work student, I started my first internship at a domestic violence Crisis Shelter. I've been pondering the meaning of what I've seen in my first two days, and this set of reflections is helping me to fill in some of the gaps in my thinking. Mercy, grace, compassion, and expecting/perceiving an empty boat. Thank you. I hope I can bring joyous laughter to lighten the loads of all I meet in the Shelter.

Thank you for this beautiful post. So much to think about, the glimmer of realisations before they break through the surface, the musings and reflections that can only come to us when we create this kind of space. I loved this journal.

Thank you, dear Parker, for these gifts from your shared solitude. Rumi and Merton and all the others you gathered in with you were company of wide blessing!

Early morning
in my bathrobe
sitting at my desk
looking at the peaceful, snow-dusted landscape to the south
listening to the road sounds right behind me to the north
this may be all I do today
thank you ...

Your journal refocused this day ( I had been preoccupied with rsp's etc) I am instructor at a university where I teach prospective drama in education students how to teach drama in a meaningful way.............I refer to your book The Courage to Teach frequently.In class we take time to reflect on who we are and what we know of life and what we do not know :).Hopefully these students will take away the necessity to take time to "know thyself" in order to be effective with their own students. Bless you and thank you for your wisdom and being a principal guide for me as a teacher .

I am sitting at my kitchen table in Vermont where the temperature outside is 7 degrees. Your words warm my heart, Parker, and bring a smile to my face. Thank you for sharing in community a taste of what solitude means to you (Jujyfruits aside). The Merton quotes are particularly poignant for me right now and I appreciate how humor is always a welcomed guest. I recently interviewed my neighbor down the road because I knew he was studying at Gethsemani when Merton's body was brought back to the States. My neighbor (also named Thomas) was called in for advice because his family owned a funeral home and he grew up in 'the business'. The Trappists apparently didn't know how deep to dig a whole for a coffin because the dead were normally buried directly in the ground. Thomas laughed as he recalled the story of the monks scratching their heads over the grave. Neighbor Tom also shared a really funny story about during the moon landing how the monks at Gethsemani voted by paper ballot whether or not to bring in a TV to watch the momentous event. Apparently, there was a rather high ranking leader in the community who stuffed the "Yes" box with ballots and so they did end up bringing it in! I thought you would get a smile out of these snippets too. May all the shadows and light you encounter today be kind to you my friend. With gratitude, Tara

Thank You Palmer,
“There is one thing I must do here at my woodshed hermitage... and that is to prepare for my death. But that means a preparation in gentleness" I noticed my entire body Paused, relaxed, and is resonating with the truth and beauty of this statement. So much gratitude

Thank you, Parker Palmer, for this beautifully written and illustrated reflection on your mid-winter retreat. Nature and solitude is such a simple remedy to quiet the mind ; to reset the relentless clock of daily life.

Thank you Parker - I'm going to find a copy of Thomas Merton's book and start a little reflecting each morning.

Thank you for sharing this contemplative time in your life. I currently live north of where you stayed, in a mid sized community in Manitoba. At this time of the year appreciate a reminder of the solitude and magic of this season. I have started following some of your work because your were referenced in a book I am using on caring curriculum development. Your philosophy around education systems deeply resonates with me. There is a gift in knowing there is a possibility of making a difference with every encounter I have.

I didn't think it possible to identify more with your words and spirit until reading of the Jujyfruits binge. What a blessing for you to share your vulnerability and humanity with us.

What a blessing you are to your brothers and sisters across the globe, Parker! Thank you.

Dear Parker - Thank you for these reflections. They have greatly changed my attitude about the many hours that I spend alone! Without realization on my part, I rather frequently am "the on retreat" right here in my own cozy apartment! My thoughts and meditations are not necessarily futile and crazy imaginings!!

I'm reading your piece and the reflections of others in Northern Virginia, "preparing" for the "biggest blizzard since 1929." I love "snow days" when the outside world shuts down and I can be in retreat from the world, secure in my home to focus on the things that are too often pushed aside by day to day responsibilities. I have selected my two books for the weekend---one novel and one spiritual reflections. I hope for about 12 hours without power so I can light every candle in the house.

Thank you for sharing your solitudes with us!

Happiness to know we are both reading Merton's daily meditations. It's like looking at the same moon.

Dear Parker,
I think I am called to do at least a weekend mini retreat,since it took me several days to reply to your wonderful column!
I trust you had a rich week,just looking at that Log cabin was like a invitation for me,to make time away,of course with favorite writers also present.
I love your choices of Merton and Rumi!
I read right now againThomas Merton,s writings on nature: when the trees say nothing,a lovely little book.
I think we all struggle with finding the balance between feeling out of touch with myself when I am either with others or by myself.
So ,my deep gratitude to you once again for reminding us through your deeply honest sharing,that it is through solitude that
I can move deeper toward wholeness and into healing.
Much peace to you.

What an incredible gift of spirit and self, Parker. You're leading the way, only a few years ahead, and giving us a pathway of words and wisdom, to follow into the final stages of life. Your own revealing observations combined with perfectly selected passages from favorite teachers is a gift to treasure and return to often. Blessings on your journey, dear friend of the heart.

Hi Parker, where is this place in WI? I was an exchange student in WI long ago and I have a place in Cornell, WI that I have acquired to be close to my host family and to winter. I don't live in WI now and the winters of Seattle WA are very different to what I experienced there. That house is waiting now to be sold and reading your notes make me give it a second thought... I pause because I remember the purpose of giving myself some winter, every winter.Thank you.

After reading these journal entries , part of a poem I wrote over 40 years ago came to mind. (At the time, I was influenced heavily by G. M. Hopkins) .
Breathe in me gone under for a winter, Spirit,
in deep darkness I sip and sing
for a wold wearied time to wait....

Thank you so much for this. You take the retreat time seriously -- but not yourself. What a wonderful balance! It's an inspiration, thank you. Lovely to hear your voice in it, too.

Your writing is beautiful and your insights wise. There are too many good quotes to ponder that I'd have to rewrite everything you wrote. A particular quote that caught my attention immediately is "The deal is to do whatever is needful and within reach, no matter how ordinary it is or whether I’m likely to do it well." I only realized recently, at the age of 70, that I've mostly lived my life according to that adage. Possibly because I was reared in an old fashioned Baptist Church and studied the Bible as a child, the scripture, "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might" has almost been a mantra to me. The pictures accompanying your text are beautiful. What a wonderful privilege to spend a week in solitude in such a beautiful place.

Oh, my goodness. You have just described my current ten-day "retreat" on a Wisconsin dairy farm caring for my friend's many horses, many barn cats, and an extraordinary list outdoor tasks- all in -18 degree temps. It has been a chilly journey of extremes, from joy and gratitude for breathtaking beauty of the winter countryside, to fury over frozen water, uncompromising beasts, ridiculous regrets, 2 a.m. insanity, and an inability to accomplish "real" work. It's now day nine, and remarkably I've arrived at, "Thank you!" Your reflections have brightened my way from grumble to grace. Wishing you every blessing, Mary

Thank you very much Parker! for summarizing such a broad variety of relevant reflections as well as for sharing all those crossed references from admirable authors like you. I plan to re-read tomorrow in the midst of the Northeast snow storm. By the way, I borrowed your cardinal picture to illustrate the complimentary monthly newsletter with the corresponding mention to you and this article as the source. Best in this New Year! Antonio Estrada

Sharing your retreat and thoughts, Palmer, was balm for my soul. Thank you for this quiet adventure into solitude.

I am taking today as a kind of sabbath - and I read your words at the beginning of it- just what I needed/wanted. Thank you for sharing that week with us.

Thank you for your human reflections. I, too, find Merton to be an incredible friend who can calm me into peacefulness. I so appreciate you and that you have truly let your life speak.

Beautiful, a true gift to me. Thank you Parker, from a contemporary in time. You touched me with your simple powerful truths and wonderings. Thank you. Journey on....

Thank you, Parker, for your wonderful words. As I head into an unplanned weekend of solitude, this was exactly what I needed to hear. What stood out the most for me was awareness of the "illusory demands" from an "agitated mind." and the Merton quote about not trying to be contemplative, but just letting myself and my actions unfold in the moment.
In gratitude,

As an "older person" recently retired to rural and northern Wisconsin home your words strike a clear note. There have been some struggles and your words and choices of quotes are most beneficial. Had read Merton many years ago and remembered liking him but had forgotten what he actually had to say. Thank you for bringing him back to life! Have been writing a "Morning walk" - a paragraph of observations made on our ( me and the dog ) morning walks - which i have shred with a small group of friends and family. Thanks again.

This blog is right on. Parker, Thank you for taking the time to share.

Thank you Parker Palmer, for sharing your vulnerabilities while spending time in the woods. Reading your notes has helped guide my self to continue this journey of healing that has been thrust upon me physically. Finding more solitude than I want, (be careful what you wish for) your words remind me of its true gift, despite the loneliness that filters in sometimes. I especially appreciate the message from Rumi, trusting from "beyond" and opening to the direction it offers. I'm now delighting in the idea of new opportunities as I rest in gratitude! Thank you.

I dicovered you a while ago...20 or so years...and your writing touched me. Now, another opportunity...I too am 77 and living in a little adobe house with my husband in a pueblo in Mexico accompanying those who are ill and not wealthy. It is the blessing of my old age that after years of "trying" to be a missioner and then a "contemplative" I just let Reality do me, live me ,and work me and let the mystery unfold...I still have all the character faults I ever had plus a few more messengers from beyond and I still get ego prints on stuff but it is good knowing all is being handled in Love...I felt this in your diary too...thank you...

"Solitude means being fully present with yourself, whether or not you are with other people." Wow, this resonates with me, as I feel that I have traveled a journey that has brought me to a contentment with solitude, whether alone or with others; to embracing solitude as a dear friend. Also thank you for sharing that winter can be a reminder of 'being gentle with the expressions of life'. Being snowed in for 3 days has given me time to slow down and think on these, and that is a good thing!

Thank you Parker, for sharing your wonderful meanderings with us through this 'On Being' Column on facebook. I read every one of your thoughtful written expressions, and share them with my friends.

Much appreciation,

What a refreshing and inspiring read on the second day of this East Coast Snow Storm. I'm headed to my own journal now.

Your humor is so seamlessly sprinkled among deep insight and truth - it reminds me of what you write about in your book about an undivided life. I'm finding that my darkest moments are always balanced by equally humorous, calming moments when I am open to the darkness. I like that all of it is present in this piece. Thank you for your courageous and thoughtful voice. Your writing has helped me attend to my darkest fears in a way that has been both terrifying and also a huge catalyst for personal growth. It's uncomfortable, but I feel a change taking place. I thank you.


I am most fortunate to have in the lower level of our home (a crypt, as it were) a little chapel from which I start most days. I, too, have a copy of the Merton journal and, along with the day's offerings from the Office and the Lectionary, I read Fr. Merton's entry for the day. Both his meditations and yours give me hope, for they come from an undefended, open-hearted place, a home where I long to live the whole day through, though the challenges of the ensuing hours often induce a kind of amnesia, and I may end the day "regretting the forgetting" of the peace the dark, silent hours of pre-dawn contemplation have given me. And I, too, can wake up at that hour that Merton describes somewhere as a place "where love is impossible and the heart has turned to stone." It's then that that I begin to experience the blessings of helplessness before the great Mercy of God and to open myself to a new day. Thank you for writing so honestly and vulnerably. You encourage all of us to do the same.

Thank you for being an elder who reminds me to seek myself with eyes of reverence and gentleness so I may connect with all beings with reverence, gentleness and compassion. Your words have always been my guide. Stay wonderful, Parker! Be well.

As always, Parker's words open so many memories of being on two of his seasonal retreats in North Carolina. There is a Parker Palmer poem on winter which I relate to and has helped me face the "winters" in my life. It is not my un favorite season as it used to be but a time to learn and reflect as the past four days have been with the winter storms of snow and ice. I learned a long time ago the difference between loneliness and solitude which brought insight to my life. Thank you Parker for your words of wisdom and sharing them with others. Your retreats have had such an impact on my life- and my spiritual journey.

Thank you for your honest account of time alone with your thoughts and prompting teachers...I am reminded that "solitude" comes from the Greek "solitudo" meaning "nature"...I take that to help me understand how natural it is to remove oneself from the mainstream and sit quietly in soulful conversation there. xo

Having just been the nurse/caregiver/witness for my brother-in-laws slow release into deaths arms, I concur that gentleness is vital but also courage. Just like they say, "growing old ain't for sissies", for most dying is not either. He resisted at first and then after a couple of days said, "I'm just going to try to be comfortable and accept my fate". Then I saw him make that noble effort. I have nothing but admiration for those of us who can let go. Your retreat is a good start. The letting go of our thoughts that distort reality, our delusions, is the practice that helps us along this path I believe.

Dear Parker,
Thank you for sharing your solitary retreat readings and reflections and making it possible for us to join you on your journey vicariously and so initiate our own reflections. As always, I love your mix of insight, humor and honesty, and I took comfort in your thoughts about gentleness with others and self. Thank you ... and peace.

Your reflections are very meaningful to me at this time in my life, 65, when I am waking up with what I should have, could have, would have done differently thoughts. How can I get past these thoughts to truly forgive myself for the mistakes I made in my life? I still have moments of such regret even after making amends to anyone I felt I harmed with my actions. And though I know that I did the best I could with what I knew at the time and stopped making those mistakes as I learned, the thoughts come and I am back in that dark place once again.
I would appreciate any insights on what would help me to forgive myself and move forward with my life!

Wow- this was beautiful! So many great nuggets of wisdom to reflect and ponder. I reread each quote a few times. Thank you for sharing your experience!

Thank you for sharing your reflections and wisdom. Especially the gentleness.

You speak directly to my heart, Parker. Your words make the days a little brighter. I'm so grateful.

Thank you for sharing. I am reading your book Let Your Life Speak. The pictures of the woods are just the way I pictured them when I was writing in my notebook. I long to be in those winter woods. God is showing me who I really am. Take care of yourself, Parker.

This mini-journal came to me from one of our Oblates and came at just the right time for me. In March I will travel to Weston Priory in Vermont for a month long quiet retreat. I am enjoying a year without community responsibility after 8 years as the elected leader of my Benedictine community. Next year I will complete the only other role I have - as president of the Conference of Benedictine Prioresses. I am learning slowly and sometimes arduously how to be more present to my self instead of mainly to all the responsibilities I have assumed in my life. I truly appreciate your reflections. Gratefully, Patsy

I like what you wrote very much. But, in my life, I feel that peace is like the missing items in my house, elusive
if I look for it Missing items are waiting to spring out at me when I am NOT looking for them, as they have in the past. To continue searching for said items only leads to frustration, which I am no longer willing to participate in. I will just go on in the knowledge that Eventually what is missing will surface or not. I hope peace is one of the missing items in my life to
surface. It would be most welcome.

This is a work of art for me. Magnificent, and just what I need to read....I am saving it, and printing it out....too bad I can't commit it to memory, but I can with a summary of your thoughts....thank you for taking the time to write it all I said, just what I needed.


thank you! What precious gifts, easing this contraction called Life!!! Many Heartfelt Thanks!!!!

I am often bemused by how solitary life can be, even in the presence of others. This can lead to loneliness, but is not necessarily the same... Facing an Iowa winter blizzard, perhaps we will be nudged toward contemplation by a natural solitude!

Just what I needed to read this morning. So grateful for this post!

A dear friend sent me this article in response to me telling him some troubles i am going through, specifically regarding being okay in my own skin, not needed validation in my life from a lover. Im glad i took the time to read this. My solution has not worked well for me, its been a hard lesson to learn. I must stop putting unrealistic expectations on myself, and try my very best to be humble and brave. Laughter helps

Thanks Parker

it is so easy to prepare to go over to the other side,I have been so happy and at peace for the last few years. Guess I was getting ready before I know it. My world is growing,only because I become more open to all the love that was always there.All the beautiful people in my life, my children are the beats of my heart, my husband and I are more in love than ever.Can not thank you all enough for being with me in this life,I'm one lucky woman. SEE YOU ON THE OTHER SIDE.

Oh my. One often thinks one is alone, and then is graced to randomly stumble upon a parallel universe. Thanks.

On a Sunday morning when i just don't feel like going to church ('first time in many years!) the above along with a Tim Keller sermon suffices.

Thank you so much for sharing your inward journey on your retreat. Your experience and shared thoughts are so helpful-to know someone else out there feels the same things as I......,,makes me feel whole. Thank you!

I saved this post back in January and just read it. Thank you. I loved your reflections and quotes and photos. Especially yours about "Solitude does not necessarily mean..." and Merton's "I am thrown into contradiction..." I will be sharing them, adding them to my journal, and reading more of your work. Much love to you on your journey.