The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Fall


December 11, 2014

Fall. It is my last day in the desert, last day of teaching, and I am on my way from a discussion of a book by a poet about his dead son, a book with which I identified so strongly when I read it in September (first book of the fall) that I might be said to have fallen under its spell. My reckless boy, the poet calls his child, a phrase I often use in regard to my child, safe (for this moment, anyway) in his apartment in Koreatown, trying to put distance (good thing? bad thing?) between himself and his disorder, his disease. I will see him tonight, if I can just get out of here, which is why I’m rushing, lost in my head, not watching the ground in front of me. The older I become, the more I worry about falling: cliché, I know but no less true for being so. I step gingerly in the bathroom, brace myself when coming out of the shower, look for disruptions in the sidewalk, broken edges of the curb. Partly, this has to do with Rae, her Vasovagal; I have seen what falling can portend. But even more, a kind of growing cautiousness, the sense that I am no longer invincible. (The illusion: That I ever was.) All the same, here I am, striding along a concrete path, parking lot to my right, some family I do not know packing their Land Rover, when my left foot hits a patch of … what? banana? oatmeal? something viscous, slippery as an oil slick, and my leg is sliding out from underneath me, shoe skidding across the surface of the walkway as if I were wearing skates. Briefly, I almost catch myself, arms out like a tightrope walker’s, but balance falls away. I topple forward, put my hands flat for protection; the weight of my body slams me to the ground. Knee first, then palms, hitting hard, slap that echoes up my arms. The momentum pushes my jaw into the ground—a glancing blow, but I can feel it, as if someone has caught me with a wild punch. Sore, aching, I lie there for a moment, roughly pull myself upright. The family looks at me, gauging the severity of the situation, and I regard myself through their eyes. Gray, slow to stand, brushing off the pain from where my knee has struck. This is not the way I see myself, never the way I see myself, and yet I have been brought up short here, and with witnesses no less. Are you all right? the mother asks. Fine, I say, just a little bit embarrassed. She laughs, as if to be reassuring. Happens to all of us, she replies.

Fall. There are seventy-two definitions, verb phrases, and idioms listed at, including: a falling from an erect position, as to the ground: to have a bad fall. This is not my favorite, and not only because I can still feel a slight soreness on the underside of my jaw, on the surface of my knee. What I like: the Fall, (sometimes lowercase) Theology. the lapse of human beings into a state of natural or innate sinfulness through the sin of Adam and Eve. Less so: to collapse, as through weakness, damage, poor construction, or the like; topple or sink. I could play this game all day, listing meanings, classifications, word play, anything to distract myself. This is why I enjoy language, for the clarity it seems to offer, right before that clarity falls away. When you get down to it, I consider my fall a kind of failure, a collapsing of the image I want to enact in the world. Image? Yes, of inviolability, self-sufficiency, a brushing of the hands. I want to hold myself apart, to keep my distance, expose my fears, my doubts, my weakness only when I want to, when it allows me something—the ability to make a point, a kind of sympathy that I can mete out as I choose. Control again, always control … and yet in the act of falling, I am reminded (as if I needed the reminding) that this too is illusion, fantasy. I am falling right now, adrift in this essay, not quite sure what I want to say. Do I want to tell you that it is the end of autumn, leaves down, ground strewn with their detritus, organic matter crumbled into dust? It’s a fitting metaphor, I suppose, although I am not looking for metaphoric intervention: I am only looking to remain upright. Do I want to say that my first reaction is to blame the children (whose children? any children) who have been running the grounds here the last few days? I am teaching at a hotel where, on the weekends, families take advantage of the off-season rates and let their kids splash in the pool. Kids are notorious agents of chaos, just ask any parent, strewing a different sort of detritus: food, effluvia. This was my first thought when I went down, that I had slipped on the residue of yesterday’s snack, yesterday’s tantrum, that I was paying the price for somebody else’s negligence.

Fall. Here is my favorite reading of the word: to have its proper place: The accent falls on the last syllable. There is a beauty in that, a symmetry. It remakes the whole idea of fall, not as a careening or a tumbling, but as a stately inevitability, as if it had been there all along. We are always falling, all the time, under the sway of one another, in and out of love. Oh God, I fell for you, Patti Smith sings at the end of “Dancing Barefoot,” and if I now think of that line in terms of romantic love, I once heard it entirely through the filter of prayer, of invocation, as if it were God she had fallen for. As to why this is, I cannot tell you, although it is true I yearn for the ineffable. I am suspended, caught between longing for something larger and my bedrock existential sense that this is all there is. Or no, not all but maybe all we can apprehend, these small engagements, these random interactions, these blind steps in the face of mystery. Who knows what is coming when even the most uneventful walk can end in a fall? This is not the first time I have gone down; in March, at the height of my son’s troubles, I misstepped off a curb on lower Fairfax, below the freeway overpass, running to catch a bus, car in the shop after I’d rear-ended someone on Arroyo Parkway in Pasadena, my fault entirely, distracted and texting, another intercession of the real. The bus was pulling from the bus stop and I was reaching for it, intent on pounding the glass of the accordion door. A step, another, and then it felt as if I were flying … or no, plunging is the better word. One second, I was running, the next horizontal, as if (to borrow a phrase) the ground had fallen away. I remember confusion but also the most piercing sort of clarity: aware of the bus a foot over, two feet over, aware that if I landed in the wrong place, it could (would) roll over me. And yet, was it intention or luck that I fell against the lip of the sidewalk, that I slid towards, and not away from the curb? Lying there, in the dirt of the street, watching the back wheel of the bus pass not six inches from my head, I felt not relief but utter panic, terror at what had been averted, at how close to the edge I had come. I played it out in my head for weeks, thrilling at the jolt of adrenaline each time I imagined falling the other direction. Perhaps, this is the source of my worry; my hands were bruised and bloodied for days. But if I’d like to say that it was that sense of clarity, of awareness (roll away from the bus, keep myself from the churning tires) that protected me, I know that it was sheer luck, good fortune, that my life did not end there, crushed under the back wheels of Metro’s Fairfax local, in the gutter beneath the 10.

Fall. An hour or so after I go down on the path, I am at the final lunch with faculty and students, when I feel a fluttering heat rise up inside my chest and head. It’s like a dizziness but not exactly, more a flush, as if all my pores have opened at once. I’ve been pushing—to get packed, to get checked out—and this is the first chance I’ve had to sit down since I fell. Briefly, I lay my hands flat on the table: an easy gesture, subtle, so no one will know. I don’t want to slip out of this chair, to have to lie down, don’t want the attention, a different sort of fluttering. Once, a year or two ago, I experienced a similar sensation in a café with a friend, while having a mid-morning cappuccino; I hadn’t been able to sleep the night before, and all at once, it was as if time was bearing down on me like a train. I gasped for breath, consciousness clawing, rat-like, at the back of my skull, trying to dig its way out. Before my friend could notice, reality fell back into place. The same, I’m hoping, will happen here, if I can just be left alone to breathe. I inhale, slowly, hold it for a moment, exhale. My skin feels light with perspiration, and I am wondering about the drive to Los Angeles, how or whether I will manage it, when a friend deposits her nine-month-old daughter in my lap. I like this baby, you might say I have fallen for her, but this, I want to say, is not the time. And yet, when is the time? Is it ever right? Or are we always making adjustments as we go? No matter, she is in my arms and I must rise to the occasion, I no longer have the luxury of weakness, frailty. I remember this in regard to my own kids, the idea that now I had a greater responsibility. No more thoughts of death (ha), no more dereliction; whatever else might happen, I had an obligation to take care of them. Just you and me, Charlotte, I whisper, and the baby looks at me as if she’s actually considering what I’ve said. I slip one arm under her butt and another around her back, smile into the blueness of her eyes. Such a serious gaze: It makes me take another breath and will myself to focus, and as I do, the lightness dissipates. No chaos here, no detritus or effluvia, just a rising sensation of calm. To subside or abate, reads one of the definitions on Here is another: to envelop or come as if by dropping, as stillness or night. I will not know that until later, until I have returned the baby to her mother and said my goodbyes to faculty and students, driven the two hours home. My adrenaline is ebbing, knee stiffening slightly, palms sore where I have fallen, swollen and red. I rest them gently on the steering wheel, navigate the traffic, keep my attention on the road. Fall to, fall in, fall under, fall all over oneself—all of these refer to where I am.

David L. Ulin is book critic, and former book editor, of the Los Angeles Times. He is the author, most recently, of The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time. More from this author →