Knowing Which Way Is Up

I remember laughing like a drain the first time it happened.  I was at school, training to become an Alexander Technique teacher.  One of the trainers was giving me a ‘turn’ and I was doing some movement or other.  Most likely getting into or out of a chair (that’s what we do most of the time!)  In other words: bending or straightening my knees and lowering or raising my head and back in space.  It could have been anything.  And suddenly my teacher pointed at the ceiling and said ‘This way is up.’  I thought that was the funniest thing I had heard in a good long while.

It had long been a familiar term of criticism in my family, that someone was too stupid to know which way was up.  My mother had another, usually spoken in German: ‘too stupid to knock over a bucket of water’.  Or, also in German: ‘More stupid than the police allows’.  Note that we had a great number of ways for describing people’s stupidity.  Not much time for praise.  Nor for descriptions of anything we or anyone else was doing from the neck down.  Not much about the body being athletic or graceful or strong.  Not much either about the heart. About being kind or generous.

Clever, clever, clever, that was the thing.  Being good in school, having a witty retort.  But careful, because there was also always ‘too clever by half’ and ‘being a smart aleck’, which could get you in trouble: a sharp word, punishment or smack.  We were on a knife edge.

But the reason that I could barely control the laughter was the recognition that, yes, the teacher was quite right.  To my own astonishment, I had indeed forgotten which way was up.

I was reminded of this today as I sat on a bench, putting on my socks after I had been in the swimming pool.  I am ashamed to say that I have become so obese and unfit that putting on my socks is no mean feat.  As I struggled to do so without appearing to have difficulty, for some reason I remembered to remember which way was up.  Another laugh of recognition, because it is so delicious what a remarkable and surprising different that simple thought can make.  I invite you to try it sometime.

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Florence Feynman

I am a middle aged, middle class woman, thinking.

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