LEARNING TO FALL
By Liz David
I was six years old when my family moved to a two-family home on Athelstane Road in Newton Center. A few years later, my Father bought me a blue and white Schwinn two-wheeler. I learned to ride quickly, never fell, and was allowed to ride all over the neighborhood, including all the way into town.
Over the years, Barry and I rode bikes locally as well as on the streets and trails of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. After we built a summer home on the South Shore, we and our children all biked the Cape Cod Canal. By then, I had taken up jogging and spent much of my time running and preparing for running events like the then Bonne Bell 10K for Women now sponsored by Tuft’s Health Care. My bicycle took a back seat.
At 80, I decided to take up biking again. At the bike shop, I insisted that it had to be one that was small enough and with a seat low enough that I could put my feet on the ground when I stopped. We bought a state-of-the-art Trek bike. Helmet and all, I rode up and down the driveway. Then, we drove the bike to Lincoln Sudbury High School where I rode around the parking lot until I thought I was comfortable.
But, since then, my beautiful bike has been sitting in the shed. Why? I’M AFRAID OF FALLING! At age 81, our orders are clear: DON’T FALL.
And yet, on a more serious note, I realized that being afraid to fall doesn’t preclude learning to fall.
Philip Simmons, in his book, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, describes how he thought he had to learn the art of dying after he was diagnosed with ALS at the age of 35. What he really ended up learning was the art of living until his death ten years later at 45.
The book is written, in his words, “with the urgency of a man whose days are numbered.”
Simmons writes, in the context of dealing with loss, “Life, after all, is a terminal condition. Each individual soul is, as the poet William Butler Yeats says, “fastened to a dying animal.” We’re all engaged in the business of dying, whether consciously or not, slowly or not.”
Simmons writes that the work of learning to live richly in the face of loss, such as we elders experience every day, whether consciously or not, is the work that he calls “learning to fall.”
He states that his book’s central theme is “born out of a paradox: that we deal most fruitfully with loss by accepting the fact that we will one day lose everything.”
Here are some quotes from his book that move me as I hope they move you.
“Think of falling as a figure of speech. We fall on our faces, we fall for a joke, we fall for someone, we fall in love. We fall from ego, we fall from our carefully constructed identities, our reputations, our precious selves. We fall from ambition, we fall from grasping, we fall, at least temporarily, from reason. And what do we fall into? We fall into passion, into terror, into unreasoning joy. We fall into humility, into compassion, into emptiness, into oneness with forces larger than ourselves, into oneness with others whom we realize are likewise falling. We fall, at last, into the presence of the sacred, into godliness, into mystery, into our better, diviner natures.”
“In the act of letting go of our lives, we return more fully to them.”
“As I see it, we know we’re fully grown up when we stop trying to fix people. All we can really do for people is love them and treat them with kindness.”
“If we can’t laugh, we can’t properly be serious.”
“Life is both more or less than we hoped for, both more comic and tragic than we knew. Comedy ends in happiness, while tragedy yields wisdom.”
“We have all suffered, and will suffer, our own falls. The fall from youthful ideals, the waning of physical strength, the failure of a cherished hope, the loss of our near and dear, the fall into injury or sickness, and late or soon, the fall to our certain ends. We have no choice but to fall and little say as to the time or the means.”
“In fact, I would have it that in the way of our falling we have the opportunity to express our essential humanity.”
“When we learn to fall we learn to accept the vulnerability that is our human endowment, the cost of walking upright on the earth.”
SWITCHING GEARS AGAIN
In the final chapter of Simmons’ book, he takes us even farther. “We all have within us this capacity for wonder,” he says, “this ability to break the bonds of ordinary awareness and sense that, though our lives are fleeting and transitory, we are part of something larger, eternal and unchanging.”
“You see, we really are all in this together. There are times when the fact that we are in different bodies, or have lived in different centuries, or that some of us have died while others live on or are yet to be born, seems a trivial difference compared to what unites us and abides. Our journey takes us to suffering and sorrow, but there is a way through suffering to something like redemption, something like joy, to that larger version of ourselves that lives outside of time.”
TRAIL’S END: The last paragraph of the last chapter includes this passage…
“Some of us go willingly to the edge, some of us are driven to it, some of us find ourselves there by grace. But all of us get there at some time in our lives, when through the gateway of the present moment we glimpse something beyond. And when we do, may we open ourselves to wonder, may we surrender to the mystery that passes understanding, may we find ourselves at the threshold of this eternal life.”
So, I’ve decided that, at my age, it’s time to let go of trying to ride my bike and risk falling–physically. Instead, paying attention to the words of wisdom that Phillip Simmons has to offer, I’ve committed myself to something much more important: “learning to fall” into the life I have left.
Metta, Elizabeth David
My passion is to help others to gain deeper understanding of themselves and the changes, losses, gains, and glories of aging. So, “grow old along with me–the best is yet to be.”
Share your comments with Liz–and fellow BOLLI members–below.