When I’m visiting the underworld and the way seems long and dark, I need a new metaphor.

The wisdom of Parker Palmer often helps me.

Sharing a hymnbook at my Goshen College inauguration, April 5, 1997.

Parker Palmer singing at my Goshen College inauguration, April 5, 1997.  He has a lovely voice. 🙂 Goshen News photo.

 As I struggled with mountains of memorabilia in the cellar last week,

searching for inspiration while mildew and mold wafted in the air,

I was thinking of Persephone, Demeter, Orpheus, and Dante.

Descending into the underworld is a classic mythological theme.

Those heroic images didn’t seem quite right for this task, however.

That’s when I remembered Parker Palmer’s phrase

“the work before the work.”

based on his study of “The Woodcarver” by Chuang Tzu.

I went back to the poem itself, and found the woodcarver’s explanation

for how he created a beautiful bell tower:

My own collected thoughts
Encountered the hidden potential in the wood:
From this live encounter came the work

I am holding this thought, and collecting other thoughts, as I

enjoy a summer of travel, renewing relationships,

and returning to the box(es) in the basement.

I will travel to The Home Place of my memoir,

One of two sycamore trees that shade the old farmhouse of my youth.

One of two massive sycamore trees that shade the old farmhouse of my youth. now Forgotten Seasons Bed and Breakfast.

Like the wood carver, I will look at each tree in that special place

looking for hidden potential

asking for a live encounter.

Has a new metaphor transformed any of your tasks? How do you return from the underworld? I want to collect as many thoughts as possible!

Shirley Showalter


  1. Laurie Buchanan on July 1, 2015 at 11:29 am

    Shirley — I like “the work before the work.” That’s a good one! Similar to how the wisdom of Parker Palmer helps you…

    …the wisdom of Len Buchanan (husband) helps me. As you know, Len is a pilot. Oftentimes he lets Even (our son) or me take the yoke when in flight and takes the opportunity to do a bit of instructing.

    One of the gauges on the dash helps a pilot to keep the wings level. However, Len instructs, “Don’t chase the needle.” In doing so, you can initiate a nosedive.

    His words of wisdom, “Don’t chase the needle,” come to the surface when I’m seemingly stuck in my writing. That’s when I lift my eyes and look at the horizon to get a fresh perspective.

    • shirleyhs on July 1, 2015 at 11:42 am

      How I love a pithy metaphor from the real world of work. This is a great one, Laurie. Thank you for starting our discussion with “don’t chase the needle.” What a great metaphor for a writer.

      I just allowed my eyes to move from the screen to the scene outside my window. I’m getting up now to walk right out into it! Please pass along my gratitude to Len.

  2. Marian Beaman on July 1, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    A few weeks ago I listened to Parker Palmer give a commencement address on YouTube. Whether it was a new one or one that’s been archived I don’t remember. What I do remember is that he got the students laughing with him as he remarked, “There may be snow on the roof but there’s still a fire in the furnace!” I’ll let that stand as my metaphor contribution for today.

    I sense a tone of gratitude as you anticipate time to hold, collect, enjoy, and renew.

    Yes, gratitude – a meaningful mindset during perplexing times. Great post, Shirley!

    • shirleyhs on July 1, 2015 at 2:35 pm

      You hit the nail on the head, Marian. Transformation often results in humor, especially when Parker’s around. I took the note below from the website that is linked to his name above.

      And you are right about the tone. I think I might come back from Portland ready to really tackle those picture, slides, and letters.

      A Note from Parker: Some Thoughts About Legacy

      I’m at an age where people have begun to ask me what I want my legacy to be. I always say, “It’s not my legacy—it’s ours.” It’s a shared legacy created by the folks who design and offer Courage & Renewal programs and the folks who participate in them.

      As a writer, I’ve always wanted to “put wheels” on my ideas so people can make use of them. For the past twenty years, I’ve partnered with the Center for Courage & Renewal to do exactly that. Together we’ve created vehicles for people to ride those ideas toward life-giving destinations—inner as well as outer destinations. Our programs have allowed many people in many walks of life to develop visions and take actions that make our world a better place.

      I’ve always believed that the Center’s success should be measured by its ability to attract competent, committed, caring people who are doing work that serves the human possibility. That’s exactly the kind of people we’ve attracted. So by my lights, we’ve succeeded!

      And what about my writing? In my office, there are two bookcases with three shelves each. They are packed to the max with books I’ve written in various editions and translations; books for which I’ve written forewords or chapters; and periodicals for which I’ve written articles. That’s a lot of words! But for me, those words—sitting there inert on the page and shelf—are not the legacy.

      A legacy is a living thing. What’s important to me is the way people have taken my words into their own lives in their own way—and then carried all of that into communities, institutions and the larger society. Without the deep, long-term partnership I’ve had with the Center for Courage & Renewal, none of that would have happened on the scale it has. I’m forever grateful for this gift of colleagues, friends and fellow travelers.

      My personal legacy? I’d like it to be one of good humor, good will and generosity. I’d like it to be said that we had a lot of laughs, we extended a lot of kindness, and we built an abundant storehouse of heart-and-soul resources that anyone can draw on. I can’t imagine a better legacy than that.

  3. Richard Gilbert on July 1, 2015 at 1:44 pm

    Sometimes I say I can’t get to the work for the work.

    But I like how his phrase has so many meanings in it. The work before the work could be the work it took to make The Work. Or it could be the groundwork before getting to the other work of making The Work.

    When in doubt, though, read.

  4. shirleyhs on July 1, 2015 at 2:39 pm

    Ha, Richard. Thanks for the chuckle. You are right about the resonance of the phrase. You would love the poem “The Woodcarver,” I think. It’s hot linked above under its name.

    Your observation led to another: I’ve noticed that many academics talk to each other about their “work” meaning research and writing. One of the many things I enjoy about your incredible blog is that you consider teaching itself to be a big part of the work.

  5. April Yamasaki on July 2, 2015 at 9:55 am

    Hi Shirley – thanks for a thought-provoking post, and for adding even more value in the comments with the Parker Palmer quote on a legacy as a living thing. Thank you. In The Woodcarver poem, I am struck by the intensity of “my own collected thought” refined by fasting and setting aside other “trifles” and any thoughts of criticism. The woodcarver was focused and well prepared for his “live encounter.”

    • shirleyhs on July 2, 2015 at 11:45 am

      April, you bring your deep inner self and pastoral experience to this poem. Yes, in this poem the secret to spiritual awakening in life and in art seems to be an active discipline without judgment of self and others and with no attachment to a specific outcome. I don’t pretend to have this focus yet, but it was very helpful to think the work I am doing now is part of preparing for the work to come, whatever that is.

  6. Joan on July 2, 2015 at 10:31 am

    Oh what wonderful thoughts to start my day. There is always “work before the work.” When we begin to see the work to be done before we begin the work, things become clearer and when the work process begins there is some ease.

    Like the woodcutter seeing the potential within the wood, the writer sits before a blank page or her box of material, staring and looking for the potential within the box and white space of the page.

  7. shirleyhs on July 2, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    Lovely sentence, Joan. “Like the woodcutter seeing the potential within the wood, the writer sits before a blank page or her box of material, staring and looking for the potential within the box and white space of the page.”

    Yes! I haven’t got to that stage yet, and I like that you widened the scope from writer to artist. That’s what happens with this metaphor. New possibilities arise!

  8. Viola Stahl on July 2, 2015 at 2:49 pm

    Shirley, thank you for the effort you put into your blogs. Prof. Morris Yoder, my pre-nursing science teacher at Hesston College in his last lecture before relinquishing us to LaJunta Mennonite School of Nursing; “Find joy in the routine task” has challenged me.

    • shirleyhs on July 2, 2015 at 3:02 pm

      Viola, welcome to the comment section of this blog. So glad to know that you find Magical Memoir Moments helpful. I love your story about finding joy in routine tasks. That’s exactly what I need to remember. That phrase about “relinquishing” students made me smile. I’ll bet you have relinquished many others to serve also.

  9. Tracy Lee Karner on July 3, 2015 at 2:48 pm

    I love this post and the conversation, Shirley. It’s stirring too much in me to be able to put into words. But I wanted to let you know you reached, and moved me. <3

    • shirleyhs on July 8, 2015 at 12:21 pm

      Thank you, Tracy. As you know, these words are music to the writer’s ear. May you continue to experience the inner call stirred here. And I look forward to hearing more in some way.

  10. Marylin Warner on July 4, 2015 at 5:05 pm

    One of my favorite interim professors–a retired Brethren minister’s wife–taught our writing class about doing the work before the work, and even before that work, too, and then also following up with the work after the work seems finished.
    Excellent post, Shirley.

    • shirleyhs on July 8, 2015 at 12:25 pm

      I suspect that professor might have read Parker Palmer or heard him speak, but Parker himself would be quick to deflect focus on the source but rather speak to the Source, experienced in both silence and community.

      I like the addition of doing the work after the work seems finished. That’s a beautiful thought when one is in transition. The old work is not done yet. It’s last work is to lead to new work. I love that thought. Thank you so much, Marylin!

  11. Kathleen Pooler on July 7, 2015 at 4:26 pm

    Shirley, this reminds me that the “story-behind -the-story” is as intriguing as the story itself.May your time of renewal and summer travel bring you new perspectives as you search for your story. As far as metaphor, I think of Michelangelo’s vision of the sculpture,The Pieta, from a slab of marble. It’s there as we keep working our way into it. That elusive box-in- the-basement is just waiting for you to shape it into a masterpiece!

  12. shirleyhs on July 8, 2015 at 12:27 pm

    You have the gift of encouragement, Kathleen, and the audacity to compare my basement project to the Pieta. Well, why not? At least I can look at the boxes and piles in a new way, and that’s the whole point. Thanks, friend!

Leave a Comment