Learning How to Fall

Falling Man by Max Beckmann (Wikimedia Commons)



Does gravity have commitment issues? For months on end, it grounds and steadies us, then at the least topple, it sucks us off balance. Classic ambivalence, I would say.

Drunks and babies fall softly because they are not arrogant. The rest of us fall hard—in love, off the wagon, from glory—and fall so often, you would think we would learn how.

“Always try to turn and fall on your shoulder,” a physical therapist told me after I smashed face-first into the pavement. “If you try to use your hands to break your fall, you’ll probably sprain your wrists.”

I had not managed to use anything to break my fall. It was the fault, like the previous two, of my dog. Okay, of me, too, because I forgot just how alluring a squirrel can be. Louie saw one and lunged without warning, and I, busy daydreaming about my own squirrels, was caught off guard.

The fall before that one was on black ice, when the previous dog thought it would be fun to pick up the pace. The fall after the squirrel was on a football field, with the next dog. He was brand new, and I wanted to test his willingness to come on recall. He ran back at top speed— smack into me, a flying tackle.

I yelled, then wept a little because it really hurt, then laughed. He was looking down at me with the furrowed brow of a dog who is not quite sure what just happened. And that is exactly how it feels to fall. The world turns upside down, and for a moment, you are dazed. You have lost your bearings, that colloquial term for knowing where you are and what you do next.

A bearing is a little mechanical part that “constrains relative motion to only the desired motion,” and I am not sure mine have ever functioned all that well. What I need is what John Muir had. Climbing Mount Ritter in the Sierra, the naturalist made it halfway up and “was suddenly brought to a dead stop, with arms outspread, clinging close to the face of the rock, unable to move hand or foot either up or down. My doom appeared fixed. I must fall.”

That frozen, horrified moment that recurs in nightmares and catastrophes. He could see ahead: “There would be a moment of bewilderment, and then a lifeless rumble down the one general precipice to the glacier below. When this final danger flashed upon me, I became nerve-shaken for the first time since setting foot in the mountain, and my mind seemed to fill with a stifling smoke. But this terrible eclipse lasted only a moment, when life blazed forth again with preternatural clearness.”

Was it the stop-motion clarity adrenaline brings, or something larger and more mysterious? “I seemed suddenly to become possessed of a new sense. The other self—Instinct, or Guardian Angel—call it what you will—came forward and assumed control. Then my trembling muscles became firm again, and every rift and flaw in the rock was seen as through a microscope. My limbs moved with a possessiveness and precision with which I seemed to have nothing at all to do. Had I been borne aloft upon winds, my deliverance could not have been more complete.”

This is how I want to die.

What is death, anyway, but a deliverance, a final letting go? You are falling out of the world. Unless you fancy suicide, your last fall will be one more accident, untimed and outside your control. All falls are losses of control, even falling asleep. Parents worry that kids will “fall in with the wrong crowd” and stop thinking for themselves. “Don’t fall for it!” people warn when scammers try to take us over. Even falling into step is a choice to give up choosing.

The first fall, for Christians, was from paradise—funny, how humans always imagine the ideal as elevated and our flaws as bringing us down. Every fall since Genesis—every fall from power, every fall from grace—has been a humbling reminder of fragility and, by implication, mortality.

Watching someone on a tightrope, even with a safety net below, I hold my breath until my heart punches my lungs. The act is meant to be entertaining, but the metaphor is too apt. The walker is courting one of those falls the rest of us will do anything to avoid.

On the roof of a tall building, a perverse vertigo takes hold of me: my worry is not that I will fall accidentally, but that I will, with no desire to do so, jump.

Life’s first falls are different. In retrospect, there is a sweetness about them. I remember Mom blowing hard on the Mercurochrome between drags on her cigarette, making sure the stuff did not sting. She would root around for a bandage just the right size (the fun ones not yet having been invented), then kiss it to make it better. A superstition I only later learned was true. (Love heals.)

But take a minute to relive those first tricycle collisions and tree plummets, and they turn darker. The jolt, the ground rising to whack you, a bike or branch or kid crashing down on top of you. That torn, bleeding trudge back to the house, like a soldier crossing the desert. The fascination, then, of the scrape itself, that bright red cross-hatch scarring the skin—a triumph of sorts, like being blooded. And then the obsessive fun of watching the scab grow thick and brown, crunchy and fun to pick, soggy after a bath….

Years later, you fall even harder, but for someone. Can you spin and land on your shoulder? Because this is the biggest trust fall of all. You lean back and lose your balance altogether, delirious with joy—but unable to know if the other person will catch you or drop you.

Somebody will catch you, even if it is just your best friend bringing red wine, chocolate fudge, and tissues.

In my twenties, that happened a lot. But my only literal fall was down to vanity: strappy red sandals whose high heel broke on marble steps, sending me tumbling. In my thirties, I ruined a wedding by losing my footing as I carried a bride’s train down a steep and sharply curved Victorian staircase.

The scariest falls come toward the end, which is when we heathens fall to our knees again to hedge our bets. All those whispers when somebody old breaks a hip, how ominous that is—which I doubt is even true anymore. But companies play on our terror. “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” is one of the waking nightmares their commercials induce, the old woman’s voice helpless and shaky.

I shudder every time, scared not of falling to my death but of falling alone. Nobody there to catch me, laugh ruefully with me, kiss it and make it better.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.