A thirty-five year old English professor (and brilliant writer) diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease) is told he has less than five years to live. Nine years later he publishes a series of 12 personal essays that chronicle his remarkable journey from diagnosis ("Getting Up in the Morning") to being mindful, "cultivating the eternal present" ("Living at the Edge"). He shares with us the interim of conundrums, spirituality, and the quotidian by reflecting on his New Hampshire life: Unfinished Houses, Wild Things, Mud Season, Winter Mind.

In almost every essay Simmons reflects on the rewards of "mystical seeing". We all have "within us this capacity for wonder, 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." (p. 152) "Most of us have found that a line of poetry or scripture, a passage of music, the turning of a leaf in sunlight, or the sight of a child splashing in a stream can suddenly become a doorway through which, as William James writes, ’the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, steals into our hearts and thrills them.’" (p. 101)


These essays evolved from a series of talks the author gave at the North Shore Unitarian Church of Deerfield, Ill. Initially unable to find a publisher, Simmons offered the book on the Internet.

Make no mistake: Simmons is no Pollyanna. He takes us into the mud--"the pleasure of self-pity, which for most of us ranks between bowling and sex" (p. 80)--and into the complexities of putting theory into practice. For example, how we yearn to be with our loved ones: "Only when we get there do we remember that it’s the people we live with we are most desperate to avoid. Funny how I can miss my wife terribly all day until the moment I walk in the house." (p. 69)

Before his death, Simmons created on-line reading group guides that are particularly helpful for facilitators of support groups. This book should be required reading for all mortals, not just for those in healthcare, or those living with serious and life-limiting illnesses. (What but time and vanity separates us from them, anyhow?) It is interesting to compare this book with Tuesdays with Morrie (see this database), in which the central figure is also dying of ALS and reflecting on his life.


Dr Simmons was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters degree by his alma mater, Amherst College for "confronting the very palpable evidence of his own mortality."



Place Published

New York



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