A marathon is not just a long run, but an established distance set at 26.2 miles, a significant effort, the training for which occupies mind and body for weeks and especially weekends before the event. To a non-runner, a marathon is a profound waste of time and energy that could be dedicated to anything else, or merely sitting on the couch. To a runner, being able to say “I ran a marathon” is shorthand that she takes it seriously. What makes this pointless accomplishment possible is constantly “falling forward.” Running, for the human body, is falling. The body leans a bit forward, propelling the weight ahead. Each step is catching a fall. I have applied the notion of “falling forward” to other tasks as well when completion of the whole is hard to visualize.
I have run three marathons now, in a way, each one starting with a slow plodding around a tiny park near my Capitol Hill house as an alternative to becoming one with my furniture. At first, I could manage a running pace only halfway around the park and walked the other half. Repeating that scheme, I gradually increased the proportion of running to walking. It was a slow process, but it became easier and easier to get out of the house, and catching my fall, step after step, led to crossing the finish lines at races of ten kilometers, then of five miles, then of marathons.
When a big idea looms, facing the small choices and elements is confounding; the primacy and the sequence of steps are like stubbing a toe, halting all movement. I say, “fall forward.” The first step, any staggering foot forward, might lead in the right direction. It is “falling,” because it feels accidental, involuntary, unsafe; “forward,” because it seems to be in the right direction, leading to somewhere you eventually want to go.
Apart from recipes in a cookbook, projects and goals do not come with complete instructions that can be replicated by anyone for good results. I think of “falling forward” for renovating a house, planting a garden, reconnecting with an old friend when the outcome is not clear; when an urge or sentiment says to jump in, but not how or why.
With a friend, I have taken on the ungainly project of renovating a decrepit house, in need of all kinds of work, in a town a couple of hours’ drive away. The project is overwhelming. It is hard to know not just what needs to be done, but what first and what follows after that. Does it first need a new roof, to protect the whole mess, or is the weak floor so dangerous that it must be replaced first? Would cleaning up the garden and walkway for next season help to make it more inviting and give hope to the coming transition?
Relying on the “falling forward” standard, I planted bulbs last fall. Hardly of critical importance, but for the small amount of money and a few hours of time, the rewards were huge. Flowers did not insulate the house or fix the floor, but they took nothing away from those projects, and in the spring, made them easier to face. They were not the end of the race, but they were at least “falling forward.”
When the desire is there but the ultimate goal is daunting, taking action with the first positive step may lead to something of significance. Contemplating the final goal – the marathon, the new house, the lush garden, the published novel – is overwhelming. Falling forward is easy.