I think of shoes as being fairly inanimate, and in the best case, controlled by my wishes. I want you on: you are on. I want you off: you are off. But then, the thing that I've been joking about for years actually happens. You know: the thing where, after some Upper Valley shoes-off buddhist-yoga kind of an event, you come out, and someone else has walked off with your black clogs, leaving some other Goldilocks-unfamiliar, ill-fitting pair in their wake. That thing.
I come out of tai chi class, and find a pair of wide, scuffed, potato-like shoes, also in size 42, lurking roughly where mine had been. I am aware of outrage and disbelief, as well as some obscure sense of shame. How could this person not have noticed that the shoes on their feet were Mine - broken in by my long feet, waterproofed by my fingers? What is it about me - permissive? vague? - that encourages people to walk off with my shoes? My friend suggests I wear my flimsy canvas tai chi slippers, leaving the mystery pair at the dojo, with a note. I wear ankle boots for the rest of the day.
A message comes from a fellow-student, saying my clogs have gone to Burlington, and had an intense time with a friend of hers. She didn't notice the switch until bedtime. My shoes are back in the dojo. The shoes have traveled without me, giving me time to settle into basic plenitude. Nothing missing. Goldilocks' worries eased down and laid to rest.
Someone else is wearing my tai chi slippers, even though my name is on the soles, with little hearts. That someone is standing next to me in class, and she's wearing my shoes because someone else took hers. Walk a mile in someone else's shoes takes on a whole new meaning when they are wondering where the fuck their shoes went.
Once in the middle of the night, my friend Maguelonne and I borrow a pedal-boat off the beach in Sainte Maxime, and paddle across the bay to Saint Tropez. Maguelonne, whose hash-smoking is more thorough than my novice efforts, becomes convinced that there is a man swimming under the boat. I become convinced that freaking out is no way to navigate dark waters, and convince Maguelonne to start pedaling again. Flap-flap. Flap-flap. We orient to the Quai d'Honneur, the front row dock where people display their yachts for general awe-striking. Two seventeen-year-olds in a borrowed pedal-boat notch themselves neatly between the v-shaped hulls of two floating palaces. The palace crews throw down ropes, and we lash ourselves gamely to our hulking neighbors.
Against all odds, we've made it across the dark sea & over the dark diver & against the current that some other night might have swept us off to Corsica. Victory! Time to dance. But our sandals linger in the sand on the other side of the bay, and without shoes, none of the boîtes de nuit want anything to do with us. No one wants to give us their shoes, so in the orange streetlight, we talk passersby into giving us their socks. But strangers' socks do not make these two weird lady pirates more attractive in the eyes of French bouncers. We two weary ones give up the struggle, and paddle home temperately in the soggy socks of our adventures.
Oh, dark harbor, night ocean!
My shoes went to Burlington, my shoes went to my friend's bed, and the shoes I am wearing in their absence cannot in any true sense be said to be mine at all, having grown on the back and belly of some Australian sheep with plans of her own for that very skin.
French for clog is sabot, same as a horse's hooves. What is the relationship between sabot and sabotage? Some terrible thing armies did to the feet of one another's horses. Some factory worker throwing her wooden shoes into the cogs, bringing the line to a shuddering halt.
I wonder where my shoes went without me? is also I wonder if it's possible to stop settling for the ease of rapine? I bring three pairs of shoes in for repair: my husband's buffalo-boots, coming unglued; my winter boots, down at the heel; and my Krishna-skin boots, too tight at the instep. Together, these repairs easily add up to some cheap new pair, but I find I can't throw away leather anymore. I want to wear shoes till they can't be mended anymore with new bits or cannibalized components. I want to observe the whole span of a skin's life after its animal maker has been killed.
Same for down. Where do the feathers go, once the birds are gone? I want to be aware of each night curled under birds' wings and breasts. I want to break the spell of the new.
Where does our attention go, when it's not on our shoes? To nervous acquisition, and perfection. To endless email. To searching out the next pair of shoes, and to the dynamics that make Hanover the Zappos-buyingest town in the country. Give me new shoes, new stuff, but not new mud to walk upon.
Feeling into the soles of the feet, I have no need for new anything. The shoes can go wherever they like, but the feet are right here, on the earth, grounded and inalienable, until this old skin too goes somewhere no one can describe.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.