Green chair in living room

On Rereading “When Things Fall Apart”

When rereading “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chödrön, I was struck by this: “It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown.”

The sentence could have been written specifically for me and my current state of mind. I was about to get up and look for my notebook to copy the words, but I hesitated.

The first time I read “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times” was the overwhelming year my mother died, my marriage ended, and I quit my job. The year before, life had seemed dull and stagnant. Then everything came undone. Chödrön’s writing helped. Since then, I’ve recommended her book to at least a dozen friends going through their own difficult times.

On that first reading, I copied passages that seemed pertinent—anything to help me through those bad days and impossible nights. I copied phrases, sentences, whole pages—my hand moving a blue pen across the lined white pages of my notebook.

I was ready to confront fear rather than run away from it—to experience grief and loneliness. This advice was so opposite to how I’d lived my life, I felt if I didn’t write it down, I’d soon forget it. I wanted to etch the text in memory, incorporate it completely.

I read every morning—poetry, or essays, or some Buddhist book. I sit with a book in the green leather chair, one of the few items I asked for in the divorce. If I come across words worth keeping, I get out of the comfortable chair to look for a pen and notebook. The quote has to be compelling enough to overcome the effort of getting up. Often, on second thought, it isn’t. I’ll take another sip of coffee, stay in the chair, and keep reading.

When I go out in the world, I usually take a notebook. If I find myself without one, I’ll take notes on my phone, though reluctantly. Despite everything luring us to screens, to me there’s still something preferable about ink on paper. It exists in a way a cursor never will—more fragile in some ways, more durable in others.

The quotes I copy are unlikely to be read until the notebook is finished—weeks or months later. Rereading the record of my own words mixed in with select words of others reveals the sameness of my concerns from notebook to notebook, year to year to year. What seems recent is, in fact, well established. The insight I had this morning is last year’s forgotten epiphany.

Rereading Chödrön’s words feels like I’m listening to a cherished aunt retell a story I know by heart but still need to hear.

There’s comfort in being reminded of what I’ve come to believe and sometimes put into practice. Old notebook in a box in the basement. Coffee and the green chair. Me, still fearful, still interested in the same things: how to turn towards the difficult; how words can be a way to courage.