Wednesday, January 20, 2010


"Do not look at where you fell; look at where you tripped."  When I first read this West African proverb in preparation for teaching the topic of proverbs and griots to my 9th grade students, I chuckled.  For those who know me well, they also know that I am not graceful, despite my 15 years of training in dance.  My students are so familiar with my movements in the halls and classrooms that they proactively pull power strips out of my path. They voluntarily offer to help carry things for me if they sense that juggling a laptop, a folder, a thick textbook, a bottle of water, keys, and a cup of coffee down a flight of stairs might not end well.  They are unfazed by my tendency to, while turning a corner, mistake the amount of space between the wall and my usually fast-paced stride and smack right into it.  They smile, "Oh Northie." And they keep going too.

I trip a lot.  And run into people, walls, things with thorns.  And I drop stuff - wine glasses, stacks of papers, bags of groceries. So much so that I rarely get flustered now, though it's often brought to my attention by my friends, or a student, or my husband, who sweetly cautions "watch your head," when I exit the car and then grimaces with affection as I proceed to look up and smack my forehead. I've become accustomed to just continue walking, on my own tilted, meandering axis.  It has taken a long while to get to this place. I vividly remember one angst-ridden summer evening in the Easton park as a teenager, when I tearfully confronted the object of my affections.  I was no longer the object of his.  After moments of silence, I decided to do what any person who watches John Hughes' films does: exit stage left, tearfully, with brisk, confident footsteps and my head held high.  I didn't see the sizable tree roots that grabbed at my ankles as I stormed off (they were probably whispering "festina lente": make haste slowly).  Unfortunately, at fifteen my brain was still developing and my coltish thoughts consisted of little else than "Take one last LOOK at what you're missing!"  And I flew face-forward into a belly flop with all the grace of a manatee. In that humbling and humiliating moment, I realized something: I land HERE. THERE, in my moment of hubris, is where I tripped up. And also, OUCH. Ouch, my body. Ouch, my heart. OUCH.

So I come by this grace thing with years of well-honed practice and fine-tuning of my skills.  I can slip on a banana peel in the subway (seriously, it HAS happened), skid a full 10 feet, with arms all akimbo in front of a rush hour crowd, and stay upright.  I can slide down a flight of stairs on my rear, and jump up as if I'd just completed a gold-medal worthy Olympic performance.  I can trip over absolutely nothing, arrive at my destination perhaps a little faster for the stumble, and resume writing on the chalkboard.  Gravity: it is my friend and my foe. At least it's somewhat predictable.

My best friend Gaby started using the term "man-down" in reference to my peculiar grace.  It may have been after watching me race across our college campus, only to step on the hem of my right pant leg, soar through the air as if I were catching a touchdown, and land on my shoulder. People clapped.  It IS indeed possible to pretty much ruin not one but three articles of clothing in about twenty seconds.   Because she is also a member of the "function in disaster, finish in style" club, Gaby and I walk in sync, in this, among many other ways. We have since college, a chapter in our lives that included a truly memorable spectacle of two bouncy students, one of whom slipped, tripping the other, and then tumbling over one another down the very steep hill to the dining hall.  I should mention here that neither of us drank during most of our college years (we were part of the Coffee House crowd), and also that it was lunchtime and the sun was shining brightly on us as we picked leaves out of our hair, our ears, our clothes. Gaby and I run into one another walking down a street, we drop things in rhythm, and we pick them up in unison.  

We pick one another up too.

At some point, "man-down" shifted to metaphorically signal a distress call. "Man-down," I sent in an email. "My heart is hurting," I would say when she immediately rang.  "Man-down, BF. MAN-DOWN," she proclaimed in her strong poet's voice, and I knew that her spirit had stumbled, and was now struggling to grasp onto a moment when the world would just stop spinning for one blessed second.  It is some sort of salve to have this in someone.  It is a strange form of magic to know that emotionally, you can trip in so many terrific ways, and that the fall can be close to earth-shattering, and that there your friend is, with her ebullient gait, flying with flailing limbs over unforeseen curbs and running into stop signs with you. 

We have had our fair share of man-down moments in the 18 years of knowing one another. Living on separate coasts, we can't walk to and from the Coffee House together anymore, and we cannot always be there to lend a familiar hand after an untimely stumble.  But I still can feel when she is hurting, and it twitches at my limbs as I take care to walk down stairs in the morning, avoiding dog toys and things that go bump at sunrise.  And I wonder where she is tripping, and how to break her fall.  And how to be the person who catches the football, who lands the triple sow-cow, and scoops up her dear friend's heart, putting it together again with all the experience and know-how of an ace in the art of tripping. 

"Been there," we say to one another in time-honored words of comfort.  "Man-down."

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