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Learning to Fall

“Lead me from the unreal to the real.”

—Hindu invocation

A lot of people have already written about Tom Nattell’s passing. I don’t want to add anything superfluous. I knew Tom, but not enough to say anything comforting to those who knew him deeply and well.

Still, I am drawn to honor a fellow sojourner whose calling was to use words not so much in order to make sense of life as to simply and richly sense life. And in that spirit, this is for Tom:

There are all these ancient holiday rituals whose purposes are to petition winter’s darkness for the return of spring’s light and greening: St. Lucia’s crown of candles, Twelfth Night bonfires—even the exploding sky of New Year fireworks is a ritual for summoning newness.

Feb. 2 is about a lot more than Phil and his shadow side.

It’s been celebrated in lots of different ways for many centuries. Feb. 2 is Candlemas, the day people would bring their newly-poured tapers to the churches so that the light they shed would be a blessed one.

In Celtic spirituality it is Imbolc, observing the quarter turn of the year. Imbolc is the time to celebrate Brigid. Her fire was said to temper and transform, so she became the guiding spirit for poets and smiths and healers, all of them involved in the tempering and transforming of one thing into another.

And since Brigid’s fire warmed the earth and released the frozen waters, she was also the goddess of holy wells, of fertility and renewal.

In Christianized Ireland, Brigid herself was transformed into a saint and she was invoked to protect and preserve any number of household things, including the cows:

Brigid to keep them, to watch them, to tend them,

On ben, in glen on plain.

In ancient Greece this day was associated with Persephone’s return from the underworld to her mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest. So when Persephone rose from Hades, another season of planting was at hand.

Compared to all that, Punxsutawney Phil seems like a lame agent.

It doesn’t take a rodent to tell an upstate New Yorker there will be six more weeks of winter.

But without Punxsutawney Phil we would not have Groundhog Day.

It’s a romantic comedy, but Groundhog Day is also a pretty good fable about summoning illumination, about renewing the clueless (so ably played by Bill Murray). And most of us are clueless at one time or another—or maybe even most of the time.

The plot is simple:

A wiseass, narcissistic weatherman, Steve, and a TV crew are sent to the wilds of Punxsutawney to cover Groundhog Day. It’s bad enough to be there, but worse, they get stranded indefinitely by a blizzard: stuck inside Punxsutawney with the Pittsburgh blues again.

But that’s what begins the pattern of the second chance. The third chance. The umpteenth chance.

Steve and the crew wake up each morning and it’s Groundhog Day every day. Each morning Steve hears the same lame song on the radio. He steps in the same potholes full of icy soup. He has the same conversations with strangers. And each night he strikes out with his heart’s desire, Andie MacDowell’s character.

He can’t get it right.

Which is no surprise because he just doesn’t see that he’s doing anything wrong. He’s his own jinx.

But the grace of the movie is precisely that every day is Groundhog Day. Steve gets to try again and again to get it right—without any kind of guru other the sheer repetition of the experience.

By the end of the movie Steve gets the girl and they get out of Punxsutawney, of course. You wouldn’t want it any other way.

But even so, the movie is different from your standard romantic comedy. Because it’s not about “all’s well that ends well.” It’s about all’s well that finally starts well.

I’ve always cringed at that fake pearl that passes for insight: You have to keep repeating your mistakes until you find a way to correct them. And if you don’t are you dead in the water?

It’s just a platitude guided by a negative presupposition that puts all the emphasis on correction. And none of it on discovery.

Correction is always a whiner. It doesn’t matter who is doing the correcting—your partner, your parent, your own ruthless inner critic—nothing is more paralyzing that being told how unbalanced you are.

Whereas finding your balance is something entirely different. When you’re finding your balance you’re in your own body. You’re moving your own muscles.

I sometimes think about that Japanese proverb, “I fall down nine times. I get up ten.”

There’s a lot of overlooked grace in that pattern of falling and getting up to try it all over again. A second chance, an umpteenth chance. The balance you manage is more important than the balance you lose.

There is a picture of my daughter, Madeleine, taking her first steps. Her dad shot the picture; in the photo I’m behind Madeleine, my arms open as if I’ve released a bird, my mouth so wide you can see all my silver.

And Madeleine looks like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters—a little girl hidden in pillows of diaper and sweatshirt and sweatpants. Her arms are outstretched, her whole face is a smile.

Nobody had told her how not to walk.

All we had ever done was walk alongside of her.

I’m going to forget all about Punxsutawney Phil and six more weeks of winter. We know it’s here anyway.

Instead I’m going to think about the six thousand, or sixty thousand chances—or however many more there may be—to find grace in falling down and grace in getting up until there is no more need to get up again.

—Jo Page

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