Our star essayist finds a following
When we asked the essayist Philip Simmons to join the UU World masthead as a contributing editor last fall, little did we know that he was on his way to being a celebrity.
When Phil passed through Boston a few weeks ago, fulfilling an invitation to speak at Harvard Medical School, a crew from National Public Radio was shadowing him, gathering material for a profile that All Things Considered was scheduled to have aired by now.
What got NPR's attention is Learning to Fall, a book of 12 of Phil's essays, half of which have appeared in UU World, including the title essay. Phil is dying, slowly, of ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease, which is how he came to explore the meaning of illness, how he came to gain insight about falling, how he came to write his essays,
how he came to be asked to join the distinguished Harvard panel on "What Is Healing?" His hard-earned wisdom has also attracted a documentary maker who is working on a film about Phil for use in medical schools, plus several radio and newspaper interviewers and lots of other speaking engagements.
Phil, now 43, was an English professor when he was diagnosed eight
years ago with a disease that tends to be fatal two to five years
after its symptoms appear. He is a slender man with thinning dark
hair and an easy grin who gets around in a motorized wheelchair. Using
voice-recognition computer software, he is finishing a novel called
Rattlesnake Ridge, which he characterizes as "involving the immortal
themes of literature: love, death, and real estate."
Phil came to Unitarian Universalism in 1994, when his children were
three and five and asking questions about God -- and he was coming to
grips with his illness and asking similar questions. All the essays
that have appeared in UU World, and in his book, began life
as sermons, and he is still writing sermons. Usually he preaches these
days at the Starr King UU Fellowship in Plymouth, New Hampshire, not
far from his home in the wonderfully named hamlet of Center Sandwich,
but invitations to preach are proliferating.
Phil's literary agent elicited interest in his essay collection from
major publishers, but getting a book into print can take a long time
and Phil didn't want to take any chances. So he published it himself
through a company called Xlibris, and is promoting it himself in his
public appearances and radio interviews and on his Web site, www.learningtofall.com.
Sales after three months exceeded 2,500 copies, and Phil reports that
they continue strong. (It's available through the UUA Bookstore, 1-800-215-9076.)
Phil's essays invariably attract luminous letters from readers. We
have plans to publish two more essays from his book, so stay tuned
not only to the radio to hear about Phil but also to these pages.