Need and Solitude

Philip E. Simmons, 45, died Saturday, July 27, at his home in Center Sandwich, NH, with family and friends by his side.

By Paul Statt '78

"Who could have expected, after all, that in my early 40s I would be living a sort of gentleman's retirement in the country, with time to read philosophy, raise chickens, and supervise my children's piano practice? Each morning, I watch the sun rise, a little later and a little farther south yet filling my house with light. Hoar frost glitters in the fields. My wife makes coffee, my children make their beds. Who could complain? And yet these are hardly the terms under which I hoped to receive such a bounty. I'm in a chair with wheels. I can no longer raise my arms in joy."
— From Learning to Fall (2002), By Philip Simmons '80

In 1992, Philip Simmons, Ph.D. (University of Michigan), M.F.A. (Washington University) and A.B. (Amherst 1980), 35 years old, an English professor on the tenure track at Lake Forest College in Illinois, a published writer of short fiction and criticism, partner and husband of sculptor and painter Kathryn Field, and proud father of two healthy children, designed and built a house on land near his parents' former vacation home in Center Sandwich, New Hampshire.

To get to Simmons's place you drive past Squam Lake—where Henry Fonda filmed On Golden Pond, the Oscar-winning 1981 film about age and loss in the midst of idyllic scenery. You see one 18th-century center chimney Cape after another. The trim homes of the affluent "flatlanders" who came for summer, liked the lake and stayed, are starkly white in the December sunshine. People who were born here and never had the chance to leave live in ramshackle faded-to-gray Capes with chipped paint and rusting Toyotas and busted TV sets in the yards. The houses of the poor are handsome, their good lines intact. Midday, midweek, in December, you don't see many of the thousand or so people who live in this 600-acre town. A woman is walking a golden retriever.

In Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, his latest book, a collection of 12 personal essays about accepting loss, Simmons writes of Center Sandwich: "You feel as though you're driving into a museum." It's the simple life that appeals to so many of us, if we choose it. We forget that the people who built these simple white Capes had no choice. They built small because they had little, and the center chimney kept the place warm and moored against the winter winds off the nearby White Mountains. They did not choose the simple life; they were simply living.

The Simmons home is no Cape, but a contemporary post-and-beam—all exposed rafters and warm wooden floors with floor-to-ceiling windows to catch what little light December in New Hampshire offers. Kathryn built a barn-like studio spacious enough for a sculptor. Searching like many writers for that golden mean between loneliness and distraction, Philip constructed a snug, one-room retreat at the edge of the woods, where he could write within earshot of his home and within view of the mountains he climbed with his family.

"It had always been a childhood dream of mine to live here," Simmons says now. "We finished the house just before Christmas in '92. In May I built my cabin. In June I was diagnosed with ALS. There I was sitting in my cabin in the woods, thinking, you son of a bitch, you'd better get well."

He did not get well, and likely won't. ALS is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a chronic, progressive disease marked by gradual degeneration of the nerves that control voluntary muscle movement. Once known as "Lou Gehrig's Disease," it weakens the muscles until they atrophy and it usually results in death, no matter what an ironman you are.

Simmons, a handsome bearded man with sparkling blue eyes, sitting in a wheelchair he can control with a fingertip, speaks slowly, choosing words and images carefully. "The house was a commitment of passion and heart," he says, "but as it turned out this was the life raft we needed." You mark the cadence and breathiness of his speech; it forces you to pay attention, like the whisper of a clever schoolteacher that magically stills an unruly class. The disease is taking the wind out of his lungs. When we meet in the morning he's strong and cheerful. By lunchtime he's worn out. Every breath is an effort, and Simmons isn't wasting any.

"We came here full-time in '99. My parents came here 16 years ago." Phil knew as a child that "this was my spiritual home. A couple of people I've known since childhood with similar stories ended up here—their parents had summer homes and they chose to live here permanently. Two of our best friends here are natives," he hastens to add—Center Sandwich is a place where a "native" means born here; birth nearby, in a Concord hospital, is suspect.

Kathryn Field lends a hand.

"It's a rural community. There's a buffer around us. At the end of the day, or at any time of day, people can retreat to their place and do as they please. Everyone who lives here treasures that. People choose to live here first and then find a way to make a living."

This is mostly an intentional community, people who came together in Center Sandwich partly because they liked to be alone. "It gives a community a different feeling when people have chosen the place first," Simmons says, "a kind of commitment and passion for the place—less transience."

Tom Theil, a local music entrepreneur, agrees. "People here are here because they want to be here." Theil is one of a group of 35 people who call themselves FOPAK, or the Friends of Philip and Kathryn, a "care circle" that helps the Simmons family deal with the day-to-day difficulties of living with ALS: putting Simmons to bed, fixing dinner, washing dishes, walking the dog—"just about anything," Thiel says.

He remembers his first meeting with Simmons at a First Night celebration in Center Sandwich, where "Phil was singing the blues." FOPAK member Derek Marshall, potter and friend, adds that "a lot of self-employed people, people who are creative," settle in Center Sandwich. Shaw Smith, a high school biology teacher who lives in nearby Moultonborough, says, "We don't take the idea of community for granted here." Derek Marshall adds, "It's like an unwritten insurance policy in this town."

It's New Hampshire, for sure, but a sign next to the one-barn Sandwich Fair Grounds advertises "Cia's Piano and Voice Studio." This community supports music teachers as well as students. This is where the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen was founded in 1931, one of the first artisans' cooperatives in the country. When the general store faced bankruptcy a few years back, local businesspeople pooled talents and resources to build the Endeavor Café, a place to get a sandwich at lunchtime, pick up your mail, or buy milk or some local produce (limited to garlic in December.) People here find work that makes it possible to stay. A writer who craves solitude should be right at home.

"The connection that really matters with my writing is with an audience rather than with other writers." The essays in Learning to Fall "all originated as talks—they were written for an occasion, for an audience. The writing in that sense occurs in a community."

Simmons gave up formal teaching as his disease progressed. Many Sundays he's a lay preacher in one of the white-spired churches that used to be the figurative as well as geographical centers of these villages. Smith recalls,"Last spring I took my mom—a devout agnostic—to hear Phil preach in Wonalancent," a nearby village, "and she said, 'That's not like anything I ever heard before. It had the truest sense of the spring.'" Smith sums up the Simmons philosophy as "heartful, soulful engagement between everyone in the community." It may sound corny, but Smith is a man who bathes Simmons and tucks him into bed some nights and still can say, "we [FOPAK] get a lot more out of it than he does."

Simmons compares the Center Sandwich community to Amherst College. "I went to a small liberal arts college," he says, "and now live in a town with about the same population." Lake Forest College, where he taught, is also about the same size: 1,200 students. "It seems to be the right size for a community—in between 1,000 and 1,500 people," he says. "You can at least maintain the illusion that you know everyone—it may not be true, but you could if you wanted to."

In rural New Hampshire, where the state motto is "Live Free or Die," you build strong community connections on the bedrock of individual independence. "When you meet someone you don't know here," Simmons says, "the first question you ask is, where do you live? You place people literally and geographically, but also in a web of relationships—of responsibility and accountability. You know you're going to see people and deal with people in multiple contexts.

"A general feature of a healthy community," he says, "is that relationships are not one-sided. Ideally, you have more than one strand of relationship—church, school, post office—so if you're not getting along in one sphere, you may still be in others. I preach. I started a local arts foundation, The Yeoman's Fund for the Arts." Simmons, who majored in physics and English at Amherst, used to teach science to a group of home-schooled children. Smith, who's on sabbatical from Wonalancent High School, teaches biology.

Simmons feels the weight of his paradoxical need for others to help him maintain his independence. The only sadness you see in this cheerful man in a wheelchair comes when he talks about the difficulty of living a writer's life when you can't pick up a pencil and chew it, when you need help to take a book from a shelf. "Writing is the most solitary thing I can imagine doing," he sighs. "That's been its attraction. I crave that intense solitude. Writing is a job you get to do all by yourself—it's not teamwork and it's not assembly-line work. But it's this allegiance to writing that has made me dependent on others. I'm lucky that this solitary activity ends up enmeshing me in the community."

"My trap," he says with a wry grin, "is that I need people—yet I want them to go away." Simmons thanks his wife, his family and all the communities for his good fortune. "It takes a village to care for me," he laughs. His sense of humor helps.

Friends and neighbors calling themselves FOPAK—Friends of Philip and Kathryn—are there to help.

Thiel remembers that it is often laughter that helps an independent sort like Simmons ask for help. "Phil said, 'Hey, I'm a very private person, but I need to get this done.'" "This" might be almost anything. The FOPAK members feel they helped write Learning to Fall. "The book is entirely his own," Smith, the biology teacher, insists, "but it's like a seed, a seed that we're all around him tending. That seed is rooted in us."

His friends tell the story of the night Simmons, who reads the audiobook himself, needed to record the singing of some spring peepers. The story's characters include bugs, eyerolling teenagers and a man in a wheelchair; the setting is a swamp on a dark spring night when no frogs sang. "Couldn't we change it so we need a recording of mosquitoes?" Thiel remembers asking. They laugh in the re-telling. Later Thiel admits, "You know, one of the reasons we all got together to do this for Phil and Kathryn was they threw such good parties." Shaw Smith says they all hoped they would do the same for anybody who fell sick, "but it really helps that they were such good friends." "The great threat when you're in need," says Simmons, "is isolation. Nurture your relationships," he advises.

Simmons doesn't advise much. If you're looking for Learning to Fall in your bookstore it might be in the religion section—he leans on Job and the Dalai Lama for support—or in philosophy—Marcus Aurelius says that life is learning to die and there's an end on it. If you find Simmons's book among the self-help books, ask that it be moved.

"The ideal is the vita mixta," Simmons says. "The life of solitude and the life of the community do support each other." Augustine was a saint, after all, and he had to confess he was sometimes tempted to flee from the world into the desert, so he advised the vita mixta—some solitude, some society, some contemplation, some action—as the best compromise.

Even in his illness, Simmons has found that middle way. "My family is central to it," he says. "My ideal day is two or three hours to myself. The writing has gone well. The kids get home from school or whatever. My wife's making dinner. Aaron is practicing the piano. Amelia is doing her Latin declensions."

In Deep Surfaces, his 1997 criticism of American postmodernism (which William Pritchard praised in the Winter 1999 Amherst), Simmons wrote that the sad folks who populate the short stories of "low postmodernists" Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver and Bobbie Ann Mason face troubles that share "a random, terroristic, externalized quality: they are dangers imposed willy-nilly on hapless victims. Far from strong-willed, these are the sort of characters to whom life just 'happens.'" "Characters whose lives seem driven by unlucky accidents." Their responses: "silent stoicism," "petty violence," "oddball humor" or "withering irony," depending on the writer.

Of Carver's characters in particular, Simmons wrote, they "are often made speechless by loss, failure, and occasionally by wonder." Carver's art displays "an essential humility in the face of life's changes." Asked about his own stories, published in Ploughshares, Playboy and The Massachusetts Review, Simmons says he hopes they show some "emotional generosity" even if "they were heavily ironic." Simmons shows that loss, failure and wonder may all be one.

"I still agree with Merleau-Ponty that irony is a moral obligation—I mean, one is morally obliged to see everything from more than one vantage point," he says. "That difference between points of view is what perspective is. One definition of fanaticism is lack of irony. Humor directed at oneself requires a stepping aside and seeing oneself. As I've gotten sicker, I've gotten funnier. Healing begins with failure and ends with laughter. Laughter is a sign of healing."

Rolling across a dry abandoned pasture on his afternoon "walk," talking about literature, Simmons says his writing was shaped by reading Henry James, Hemingway, Nabokov, Faulkner. "The thing I admire about DeLillo," he replies to a question about modern fiction, "is that he writes about the bleakest, the darkest part of human nature, and yet he's funny as hell." Simmons pauses. "I haven't been reading much fiction in recent years, mostly philosophy and religion."

He stops to watch a fighter jet scream overhead. "It must be a guy thing," he says. He expresses some reservations about the war in Afghanistan,"but isn't the equipment cool?" On September 12, he recalls, "I'm standing with my son at the window. There are no planes overhead, all is quiet and still and beautiful, and he says, 'I'm glad we live in a state that's not valuable.'" Simmons seems to relish the humor, the paradox and the true irony in his son's notion that what is without worth is, for that very reason, worthy.

Dusk comes early in December. Simmons rolls home. His wife is out running miles of dirt road with a friend. (Shaw Smith marvels at their marriage: "They have a relationship that goes beyond being husband and wife.") The kids are still at school. FOPAK won't be in until later. Simmons and a nurse sit at the window, watching the cloudless sky turn a darker blue.

Simmons's mood seems to mirror the fading sunset. We're talking about the meaning of life. He doesn't know what it is. "We're all having these questions brought to our door whether we like them or not," Simmons says. "The changes that I've gone through are just a more intense version of the 'turn' that most people go through at this time of their lives."

David Spadafora, the recently retired president of Lake Forest College, remembers Simmons as "one of the few humanists I know who understands, and is willing to say to his colleagues and others, that the real importance of the humanities has less to do with skills we teach (writing, critical reading, analytical thinking and the like) and more to do with the big questions we ought to ask over and over again." He says, "If we as humanists paid more attention to that side of things, our communities would be a good deal stronger, too."

Shaw Smith recommends the old road through Sandwich Notch. "Sandwich Notch is really a series of failed communities," he says. This hardscrabble dirt road was once a major thoroughfare, the way 19th-century farmers got their goods to markets in Portsmouth and Portland, Maine. Of a settlement of 30 or 40 houses in the notch, three schools, a sawmill, a gristmill, today only a single badly painted Cape remains. Cellar-holes pock the forest. Seen historically, even in the gloaming in this shadowy notch, there seems to be hope. One community passes away, and another comes.

Photos: Dan Habib