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by Philip Simmons
Bantam Doubleday Dell, 2002
Review by April Chase on Oct 4th 2002

Learning to Fall

Learning To Fall is an exceptional book for a couple of reasons. It's one of the rare few independently published books to be picked up by a major publisher - not really so remarkable in this case, based on the quality of the writing. Also, this book is just plain good. Simmons, diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease at age thirty-five, offers his well-written and moving insight into a topic most people would prefer to ignore: we're all dying.

"For me, knowing that my days are numbered has meant the chance to ask with new urgency the sorts of questions most of us avoid: everything from "What is my life's true purpose?" to "Should I reorganize my closets?" What I've learned from asking them is that a fuller consciousness of my own mortality has been my best guide to being more fully alive," he writes.

He calls this work, the painful process of learning to live a finite life, learning to fall.

When we learn to fall, we learn that only by letting go our grip on all that we ordinarily find most precious - our achievements, our plans, our loved ones, our very selves - can we find, ultimately, the most profound freedom.

The twelve essays gathered here were written over several years, and chronicle the slow progress of his illness. In the first essays, he is still working as an English professor; later, he is forced to leave his job, as growing disability confines him to a wheelchair, and slowly robs him of strength and motion. The seasons change, his kids grow up, the world moves on, and he gets sicker. As he examines each topic, each mini-lesson in loss, he (and vicariously, us) gains a deeper understanding of mankind's role on the planet. His growing acceptance of his strengths, weaknesses and the foibles that make him uniquely him is illuminating, thought-provoking and ultimately, liberating.

It could be quite painful to read this book, if it were not for Simmons's light-hearted, witty style. After all, the subject matter has been fodder for many a tearjerker, and it's a rare person who can really get down and dirty with the idea of their own mortality and not come out at least a little misty-eyed. But he sprinkles jokes and funny stories throughout the text, and uses lessons from many sources, including Buddha and the I Ching, the poetry of Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot, and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The resulting mix has a lyrical flow and tranquil, down-home quality that leaves the reader with gentle sorrow, rather than heartbreak.

As far as what he expects when this life is done, Simmons writes: "I don't know what, if anything, follows this life. Certain scenarios are appealing: reunion with my childhood pets, all-night jam sessions with Jerry Garcia, reincarnation as a basset hound. But none of that may come to pass. I don't mean to discount belief in an afterlife or in reincarnation, or the comfort and moral discipline such beliefs can provide. But these are matters of faith, not knowledge in the scientific or rational sense, and as such are better left to the individual conscience."

For the sake of an excellent and inspiring writer, I hope that his pleasant scenarios may have been true. Simmons was given five years to live when doctors first diagnosed his illness. He beat the odds considerably, living almost ten years. He passed away September 14, 2002. Tell Jerry Garcia "hi" for me, Phil.


© 2002 April Chase



April Chase.


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