Unfinished Houses

During Laura’s illness I subscribed to Tricycle magazine’s Daily Dharma, a quote from Buddhist writings and teachings that would come by email each morning. Many of those emails were striking for their relevance to what was going on at the moment, including the quote from the Dalai Lama that arrived the morning she died.  Laura’s life exemplified that teaching: one can be spiritual without being religious.

A recent Daily Dharma included a quote from Philip Simmons’ Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life.  It wasn’t the quote so much that caught my attention as the title of Simmons’ book.  “Learning to fall” is precisely one of the practical applications of the philosophical speculations I have been developing since Laura’s death.  One Sunday afternoon when Laura and I were rushing with Kathleen Wright to get to the opera on time, I tripped on one of the many cracks in Philadelphia sidewalks.  I struggled so hard to stay upright that I actually tore my hamstring.  I would have avoided extreme pain and weeks of physical therapy if I had just let go and rolled into the fall.

Some months after that incident I heard a workers compensation expert talk about risk factors in on-the-job injuries.  She reported that many injuries sustained during falls are caused by what people do to avoid or to stop the fall.  As Simmons writes, actors, athletes, and practitioners “of the martial arts learn to fall, as do dancers and rock climbers.”  The rest of us “learn to do it badly.”

In the fourth chapter of his book Simmons meditates on the “unfinished houses” that people in the “north woods” of New Hampshire tend to live in.  “So we leave drywall unpainted, closets without doors, windows without trim.  We live for years with plywood subfloors over which someday we fully intend to install the wideboard oak of our dreams.”

As Simmons went on, I realized that the “unfinished houses” in my life are all the writing projects I have started but never finished.  I have a file drawer full of notes for poems, plays, novels, and nonfiction that have never gone beyond those scribbles.  In New Hampshire, according to Simmons, “whether our houses are finished or not, most of us have a drawer somewhere with sketches of various rooms and outbuildings yet to be constructed.”

As Anne Mei and I prepare to light the yahrzeit candle this evening for the fourth time after Laura’s passing, one of the lessons Simmons draws seems especially fitting. “Still, most of us most of the time, and all of us some of the time, live in houses that remind us of the many ways in which life has turned out to be not quite what we had in mind.” (his italics)

I have started this blog so that the reflections I began during Laura’s illness and which I have been developing over the last four years, so that they do not become another file in a drawer.  Writing a blog is like living in an unfinished house.  It is one way we live in and open up what has been built so far and what we continue to build, one way to share them with loves and friends, old and new.

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