Learning to Fall ... Again and Again

David and I enjoy reading books together before bedtime. I read four or five pages out loud and then he reads four or five pages ... usually until the next page break. Interestingly most, if not all, of our joint reading experience involves books that I have already read sometime in the past. (How else will I know David will enjoy the story?)

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but after a few years you can re-read a book and enjoy it all over again. You probably remember the gist of the narrative and there may be a few vivid passages that you know are coming, but as you re-read them, they strike you again as amazing. But it’s still like a new experience for you – enjoyable or horrifying and sort-of novel at the same time. Have you ever had that experience and wondered about it – how something you have tucked away in your memory can still seem fresh a second or third time?

As I have noted in my books and other blogs, reading itself is an imaginative experience. You have the words on the page before you, but you bring to the reading your past and current life – and probably your imagined future – as you engage with the story and the author behind the text. The act of re-reading is a new, creative experience because you are in a new place and, in a sense, a different person, as you move through the years. Now, when I read Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities or David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars (which we are reading now), each story takes on new meaning, colored by the lens of my current world and creating new meaning in the process.

This brings me to Philip Simmons’ book, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life. I recently hunted my copy down, finding it tucked away in my “gift closet” where I stock books and other things that I think others might enjoy. And there the book was, in a stack of others to share with friends and parishioners. I sat down and started reading it for probably the second or third time, finding new meaning colored by my current situation.

Now I’m going to be brief here, sparing the details, so please bear with me for a bit. As I told my St. Martin’s Church parishioners, during our recent trip to Cincinnati and Indiana to visit my family, I fought with a suitcase and the suitcase won! We both landed in the parking lot of the Residence Inn Cincinnati Airport, me flat on my back and suitcase proudly intact. To make a long story short, after returning home and seeing an orthopedist, I learned that I have a hairline fracture of my right pelvic bone and am walking with a cane for the next four weeks or so – after which the doc says all will resolve and I’ll be good as new.

Too add color to this little setback, I’m Priest Associate at St. Martin's and currently – as I was during that trip – on duty as Priest-in-Charge for six weeks while the Rector is on Sabbatical. I am normally a very active person, priding myself on being fit. So this sudden, temporary disability and sense of confinement goes against my grain, reminding me of my vulnerability as a human being. As Anna Quindlen notes in her book, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake:

We work out, lift weights, stay in shape. But nevertheless, we age. And things happen. Grandparents die, parents die, good friends die, sickness happens. Then one day, something bad also befalls us and we join the ranks of those who suffer loss, who drop through that trap door that has swallowed those before us. We then become amazed. Not by our own strength, but by that indomitable ability to slog through adversity. Which looks like strength from the outside and just feels like every day when it’s happening to you. And the older we get, the better we get at this. (p. 91)

Which brings me back to Simmons and finding new meaning in my own life as I re-read his story.

I first read Learning to Fall as my husband and I were headed out of town for a conference in a retreat-like setting in New York state. I devoured the book, and as we were headed home back to Indiana, I learned from the NPR station were listening to in the car that Simmons had just died. I felt that I had lost a friend.

Simmons was just 35 years old and an associate professor of English at Lake Forest College in Illinois, where he taught literature and creative writing for nine years before being diagnosed with ALS – also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was told he had less than five years to live, but in fact he lived about nine years beyond his diagnosis. He retired to New Hampshire to be near his parents, moving his wife and three kids and making his home there till he died. And being a writer, he wrote this brilliant book of essays, tracing his illness and meaning-making in the process until the end. As he said somewhere early in the book, his life shifted from climbing mountains to, on a good day, wheeling his chair to the end of his driveway to pick up mail. Allow me to let Simmons have the last words here as I share his wisdom for us all:

At its deepest levels life is not a problem but a mystery ... problems are to be solved, true mysteries are not. Personally, I wish I could have learned this lesson more easily – without, perhaps, having to give up my tennis game. But each of us finds his or her own way to mystery. At one time or another, each of us confronts an experience so powerful, bewildering, joyous, or terrifying that all our efforts to see it as a “problem” are futile. Each of us is brought to the cliff’s edge.

We are all – all of us – falling. We are all, now, this moment in the midst of that descent, fallen from heights that may now seem only a dimly remembered dream, falling toward a depth we can only imagine, glimpsed beneath the water’s surface shimmer. And so let us pray that if we are falling from grace, dear God let us also fall with grace, to grace. If we are falling toward pain and weakness, let us also fall toward sweetness and strength. If we are falling toward death, let us also fall toward life. (pp. 8, 12)

Simmons ends his opening chapter with a bit of wisdom that has a familiar ring to it – wisdom that fits with the mystery that we humans live with and know in our hearts. He concludes that you and I should not wait for the tragedies that will come in our lives to start appreciating the little things that happen every day. Stop and smell the roses or honeysuckle or whatever is before you now. “Or at least for goodness’ sake stop and watch a rainstorm the next time you see one.” And finally, of course, count your blessings. Appreciate all that you do have, and what you’ve been blessed with, instead of moaning about what you don’t have or have lost. Life is a mystery with Goodness at its core.

Amen, brothers and sisters! Food for thought!

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Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.