I have often wondered about shoes. Not their styles, or colours, of course -I am indifferent to fashion- but rather about the protection they afford. The benefits they offer. Although I no doubt toddled around the floors barefoot when I was too young to know any better, and even if I nowadays relish the feel of grassy lawns or sandy beaches on the unshod skin of my tender feet, I am still on guard, lest I feel too much.
Feet are like that, though: pampered and protected from the world beneath them. On them sits the heavy responsibility of moving through the world; on them resides the ability to investigate what hides around the corner or what lives beyond the hill ahead. On them rests the weight of being.
I suppose I could have treated them differently from the start, eschewed (sorry) their comfort at least wherever society did not mandate their use, but I saw things differently then –felt things differently then. There are likely reasons why evolution gifted us with soles as sensitive as fingers; in our ape days -our chimp days- it was no doubt a valuable resource in our daily arboreal quest for food and mates, but times moves on. Gravel exists, broken glass and thorns adorn our paths, asphalt heats up like the barbecues we often use; it is the ground on which we move; it is not a tree world, anymore.
And yet, sometimes I wish it had been different. Sometimes I yearn to caress the ground beneath me like a face, but I realize I have left it too late. It would be painful now. But I can dream, and hunt for stories of those who have lived life differently -or at least, like me, have had adventuresome thoughts. Life lived in imaginative worlds is, after all, why we read.
I stumbled, quite by accident, upon an essay by a fellow traveller who had considered the zeitgeist of shoes with far more intellectual rigour than I could ever have hoped to achieve. Randy Laist is professor of English at Goodwin University in East Hartford, Connecticut, and his essay, entitled What do shoes do? immediately attracted my long-dormant curiosity on the subject: https://aeon.co/essays/why-shoes-act-as-a-symbolic-foundation-for-human-identity
He, too, was forced to confront the existential crisis of hope meeting reality: ‘My feet, blissfully shoeless, arrive at the curb to meet a jagged expanse of sun-baked asphalt, gravelly pebbles and the remnants of smashed beer bottles.’ It is a challenge we would all face in an unshod world -an unfair choice. But there is no doubt we have left something valuable behind. ‘As Shantideva, the 8th-century Buddhist monk observed, with the leather soles of just my shoes, it is as though I covered the whole earth in leather.’
And as Laist adds, ‘This leather planet, the world created by shoes, is different from the barefoot world: detached, abstracted, insulated. It is a world less concerned with the topography of the ground and less attentive to its objects and textures. It is ‘duller’ and less ‘sensitive’. At the same time, this artificialised condition releases me from the grip of my physical circumstances and lets me ‘transcend’ the physical world toward my own desires… The most fundamental thing about my shoes is not the way they look or what they do, but how they affect my mobility, my freedom and, therefore, my being. They act, even if at a subconscious level, as the literal foundation for my understanding of myself, specifically as that understanding informs my sense of where I can go – what kinds of projects are within my sphere of possible futures.’ The choice nowadays is, in essence, a Hobson’s choice.
‘The shoe, one of the oldest forms of human technology, is the prototype for all other technologies, a catch-all term for instruments and procedures that allow us to break ‘the surly bonds of earth’ and proceed into unnatural or unwelcoming environments.’ Laist then waxes even more poetic. ‘Vehicles such as cars, boats and rocket ships are like shoes writ large. Spacesuits, hazmat suits and vaccines are like whole-body shoes. The media of language and art can also be thought of as technologies in this sense; like shoes, they also separate us from direct experience to provide us with a new, ‘heightened’ reality.’
I like that thought -that I have perhaps, only traded worlds: one movie theatre for another. My son, in the way of most very young children, saw that from the start, of course. And yet, I wonder if he was seeing a different movie from me, even if I still feature in it. It was a very much less complicated life when he was young, and I still remember one incident as if it was yesterday.
Michael used to watch me, study my every move, and then try to copy it. I’d noticed, for example, that when he prowled the back yard behind the house, he grasped his hands behind his back like me as if he was considering something important. And if I happened to be wearing a hat that day, he wanted his, too. Our children are us in more than genetics.
I used to sit on the porch overlooking the lawn when he was out there, but since it was an old wooden structure, and rough enough to have splinters, I usually wore shoes. This frustrated him, I could tell -he liked to run around on the grass without shoes or socks- and I remember he asked me about it one day.
“Daddy,” he asked, standing on the lawn next to the porch, “You said you liked to walk on the grass in your bare feet…”
I smiled and nodded. “I’m not on the grass right now, Michael.”
He kind of nodded his head as he thought about my answer for a moment. “But you could be…”
I smiled again. “I’m afraid I might get splinters when I stepped back on the porch, if I had bare feet though.”
He tilted his head at that, clearly puzzled. “What’s a spinter, daddy?”
I had to chuckle. “A splinter is a little piece that pokes out of the wood and sticks into your skin.”
“Does it hurt…?”
“Well,” -I didn’t want to frighten him about the porch- “sometimes, I guess, but you have to pull it out of your skin before it goes in even further.”
I could tell by his face that he was processing the information inside somewhere. “Is that why we always wear shoes on the sidewalk and stuff?”
How do you explain societal customs to a 4 year old? “The skin on your feet is pretty sensitive, don’t you think?” He nodded, trusting I wouldn’t try to fool him about that. “And you don’t know what else you might also have to walk over, do you?”
He thought about it some more. So far it seemed to make sense to him. “So you have to guard your skin, Daddy?” He wasn’t really asking, I don’t think -just working his way through the idea. Then he raised his head to look straight at me. “But my feet like the feel of the grass and it’s soft…”
He walked away from me with his hands behind his back. There was a lot of thinking to do, obviously.
That afternoon after we had lunch, I told him he could play out in the yard again, and I would be out on the porch in in a few minutes.
“Maybe we can play catch, Daddy?” he asked, hopefully.
I nodded and went to look for a big ball we could throw around. When I came out, I sat down on the edge of the porch and removed my shoes and socks to make him happy. But I didn’t see him at first –I suppose he was playing in the bushes at the end of the lawn. “Michael,” I shouted. “I thought you wanted to play catch…”
He suddenly emerged from behind a tree at one corner of the yard, wearing his thick red winter socks. “I’m ready to play catch now, Daddy,” he said, running over to the porch.
I have to say I must have stared at his socks, because his face broke into a broad smile when he noticed my surprise.
“Whadya think, Daddy? Good idea, eh?” Then he noticed I was barefoot. “You don’t have to take everything off to feel the grass, you know…” he said, staring at my feet. “I’ve got my soft shoes on…”
Michael never stops teaching me things.