Baby shoes. Oh, God, baby shoes– the thing I have been avoiding assiduously ever since age nine, when I decided that baby-having was not for me. Not. For. Me. People would say, Strange little girl, you will grow out of this! Baby shoes go with motherhood, and motherhood is what little girls grow up and aspire to. And even though, physically, I was only four and a half or five feet tall, I could feel the hugeness of my NO extend its roots down through the basement ping-pong tables, through stacks of old suitcases, through roughly-disturbed earth, through mole-holes and shrew-holes into bedrock, down through layers and layers of ancient time to
I’m not sure I was believed, then, but I’m pretty sure this whole no-saying was a little spooky for some adults. What to do with a female child whose NO negates so many of the yeses she’s supposed to gravitate towards? I was at the same time giving some yeses. Yes, I’ll learn to read, to write, though I’ll insist on handwriting one-quarter the scale you require. But no to baby shoes. No to baby dolls. No to wishing to be anyone’s baby, soon replaced by another baby, and another.
It’s true I sometimes refer to my two large furry monsters as offspring, but all the times we’ve tried velcroing shoes to their paws – to help heal wounds – have been chewing, spazzing, swamp-shoe-drowning fiascoes. Chloe’s original set of four is now down to one, and Elliott’s larger, more recent set has maybe two. That’s it. No baby shoes for my offspring. Barefoot and not-pregnant, for all of us.
I don’t have anything against other people’s baby shoes, within reason. It took me four months to locate a pair of grey leather booties with smiling diplodocuses on them for my dear friend’s little daughter. When I found them, I knew: Yes! These! I had come to the pharmacy with my father in search of cancer-support drugs for my mother, and these baby shoes surprised me with their clear perfection.
You aren’t supposed to say anything, these days, about how many babies it might be wise for any one person to have. Just like you aren’t supposed to say anything about military spending, or how public support for the town golf course basically adds up to the opposite of the vagina tax women pay on everything from haircuts to jeans to paychecks. Babies are meant to be surrounded by a veil of nothing-to-say-here, unless of course they’re unborn, in which case many people will have a lot to say.
My NO to baby shoes started firmly in the domain of the personal: I did not want to be tethered to a small person. I did not want the mother-role as I saw it performed by the women around me. I saw, felt, breathed the rage my mother experienced at having to go everywhere with us, when my dad could scarcely be corralled to bring his talk-radio-infused Volvo to afternoon school-pick up. I knew we were a weight. I knew we were an impediment. I knew she loved us, and I knew she raged at having to be with us. Nothing like that for me, thanks.
But then I grew up in an era where world population started exploding. One year, in social studies class, the right answer was three billion, and then the next there were four. I wasn’t such a scientifically-oriented kid, but even so, I could tell this meant trouble. Where would everyone fit? What would we eat? What would we do? What would so many more of us mean for all the other creatures, who so often made more sense to me than humans did? Baby shoes started to seem like a sinister cover-up for a global disaster in the making. Quit it, everyone! I wanted to yell. Quit it, Southern girls talking about your weddings-to-be, and the names of your children-to-be. The world is on fire with baby shoes, and you’re just making it worse.
Living in New Hampshire and Vermont, as I do, means living at some distance from the fire. Our populations are aging and shrinking, while our forests are expanding. Or something close to that. We have water; we have land; I can go any number of wildish public places all around my house to loose my dogs and let them run free. I go back to Atlanta, though, where I grew up, and it’s immediately clear that the whole place is on fire with traffic, with heat, with new housing and shops and megamarkets everywhere. All of which are ways of not-saying: on fire with baby shoes. Places I once knew as deserted, open, wild, are now endowed with big parking lots, if they exist at all. Quick trips across town to the movies are now sluggish odysseys down vexed rivers of big, impatient cars with the windows rolled up.
The city is on fire.
The roads are on fire.
The houses are on fire.
The world is on fire with baby shoes.
Little pink ones and blue ones with fire-trucks on them.
The world is on fire with aging-not-dying.
The birds are disappearing.
The butterflies are disappearing.
The bees are disappearing.
Our patience with one another is wearing thin.
If you see all of being as conscious, as I do, and believe in diversity of being as essential, as I do, then what is happening now can only be described as abomination. Grinding up the mountains and forests and villages and workers and young lives and old lives and black and brown and poor lives into one kind of food to feed the wide-open mouths of new white babies is no kind of way to live.
Yesterday I spent time I probably could have done something else with, responding to a white Christian conservative, who had exclaimed piteously that all he and his political ilk are doing is fighting a defensive war to be allowed to raise their families in peace. In peace? What peace? When your baby shoes require mass incarceration, endless war, atrocities at the border, and the destruction of public lands for private gain, peace is not what you bring. I wrote what I could. I did not say, but should have, that white American humans with their baby shoes are some of the most dangerous animals ever to roam the planet, all under the guise of being righteously cuddly and protective. Give me a velociraptor any day.
I have no memory of the baby shoes I may have worn, except maybe the idea that my grandmother may have knit or crocheted some for me. I was cared for well enough, as a child, to survive, to find NO, to open my eyes and heart to the wholeness of this world.
Let us know how many babies is enough.
Let us know we can say NO.
Let us not forget the babies of other creatures.
Let us not fucking eat the babies of other creatures, especially without acknowledging that that is what we do.
Gray leather baby shoes with green leather diplodocuses on them. One sweet, chubby, smiling daughter, long-desired, much-adored. A YES radiating throughout many lives. May all children be so received and so treasured. And may we not forget that other ways of YES, other ways of treasuring are open to us. I have given birth to no one, and yet I love, and yet am free.
The shelves in our mud room are lined with Timothy’s and my large-person shoes: sandals, muck boots, hiking boots, sneakers. It is enough, as I knew it would be, age nine, refusing baby dolls, pretty-lady dolls, and mother-play.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.
108 Names of Now