Listening to Life: A Gratitude Letter to Parker Palmer

Caryn Aviv
May 21, 2014
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woman riding bike colorado

I’m trying to figure out new ways to write what’s inside, and connect with other people through that writing. Transitioning from the academic voice I learned to speak in my twenties and move towards a more emotionally vulnerable and intimate vocabulary in my forties feels terrifying and exhilarating.

One of the first papers I wrote in 1994 for graduate school was a proposed qualitative sociological study of the first generation of women rabbis. I found it a few years ago while purging some old files, and have kept it on my desk since rediscovering it.

The voice in this paper sounds like an enthusiastic novice who’s excited to acquire all sorts of new tools and language:

In the opening paragraph I’m trying to convince you, dear reader, of my credentials as an authoritative knower. Here I am awkwardly trying out different stock academic phrases. I’m convincing you that what I propose to study is deeply important and will fill a crucial gap in our knowledge. Later, I’m stringing together many clauses in the hopes of sounding highly theoretical and sophisticated. In conclusion, I make grandiose claims about what we know and don’t know, and how this study will extend our knowledge about gender, Judaism, occupations, and the sociology of religion.

Oy. Re-reading this twenty years later makes me simultaneously wince and smile with compassion.

Fast forward to 18 years later. I’m out for an early morning bike ride. The sun is inching up over the Eastern Plains, spilling a soft mauve light onto the snow that blankets the higher peaks of the Rockies to the west. Empty streets, air smelling of pine trees and freshly cut grass: riding a bike at sunrise, in high summer in Colorado induces gratitude and awe.

I’m riding a lot that summer to muddle through a crossroads: whether to leave the academy and pursue the rabbinate, or stay in the slog and make peace with my lot. Some of this struggle is economic and structural, but much of it concerns emerging spiritual and creative yearnings to write differently and have new and interesting conversations with a broader group of people.

Like many others, I internalized the punishing and unrelenting pressure to publish academic research, in a voice that felt alienating and imperious. Since graduate school in the mid-1990s, I listened closely to admonitions to avoid ‘me-search,’ and to excise the personal voice in writing. After more than a decade of reading and writing journal articles filled with dense jargon, I felt like the whole enterprise was becoming a bit of a boring chore. Sometimes what came out of my mouth in ordinary conversation sounded like the voice of those articles – impersonal and a bit smug. Not satisfying.

Thankfully, I had been talking with a friend who was also debating whether to stay or leave (she ultimately left, too). She suggested that I read Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. That book changed my life for the better. In it, Parkercourageously revealed some deep truths about writing, depression, creativity, vocation, and the search for meaning. I could no longer ignore the yawningestrangement from the self that academic writing encouraged, and an inner yearning to write freely about so many other things than academic concerns.

Out on that glorious morning bike ride, a revelation: “Wait a minute! Forget about studying women rabbis, I want to be a woman rabbi!” I almost fell over on my bike with happiness. And a few minutes later, another: “Wow, wait a minute! If I leave and become a rabbi, I’m going to have to figure out a new way to write. WOO HOO!” Hallelujah, indeed.

I’m still figuring it all out, an enthusiastic novice once again. But it feels better. Thank you, Parker Palmer, for being in the world and writing from your own difficult experiences.

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Caryn Aviv is Associate Director/Jewish Educator with Judaism Your Way in Denver, CO. Caryn taught Jewish Studies at various universities for ten years, and has published widely in the areas of contemporary Jewish culture, gender and sexuality in Judaism, and Israel Studies. In her voluminous spare time, she's an aspirational vegan yogini and is studying for rabbinical ordination through ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

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