Unshod: Journal Reflections from Study Trip to Washington DC
Part I – Sunday
Let me begin by telling you about my shoes. They’re new shoes. I bought them at the mall. You must understand, I loathe the mall and I loathe shopping. So, the first way Chapman University’s Holocaust Art and Writing Contest excursion to Washington DC brought me to “new places” was the trip to the dreaded mall.
At the mall, I went to every conceivable shoe shop looking for stylish AND comfortable shoes, a combination which – like the color of my children’s chewing gum – seemingly does not exist in nature. However, at the end of my disgruntlement, I finally found a pair at the Naturalizer store that met both requirements. Actually, I found two pairs there: a high-heeled pair and a low-heeled pair. The high-heeled pair was more comfortable and ON SALE. The words ON SALE, for a tyrannical miser like myself, are the two primary words in the English language. The low-heeled pair, however more practical for a prolonged walking tour of a buzzing metropolis, was ultimately NOT ON SALE.
So there I was in the middle of the mall (which I loathe) facing a most excruciating conundrum, the one conundrum in fact, that most defines my personality. How do I choose between practicality and cheapness, the two most dominant traits in my life? How do I make this selection? Could I choose one child over another? Could I separate my muscles from my bones?
So I closed my eyes and chose the high-heeled shoes. No, wait! The low-heeled shoes. No, wait! The high-heeled. Oh dammit, I’ll take both.
GASP! WHAT? BOTH?! I can’t spend $95 on two pairs of shoes when I only need one! The waste, the sinfulness, the shameless spinelessness! The entire drive home from the mall, I curse myself, wallowing in tortured self-deprecation. Finally, I convince myself that upon arriving home I would simply choose ONE pair and return the other.
Packing day. The time has come again to choose. Instead, I forestall the selection. I confidently pack the how-heeled shoes in the suitcase, and decide to wear the high-heeled shoes on the plane. Time ticks away on departure morning: the kids are up and dressed by 6:30, the suitcase is packed tight, my husband is looking for his keys, and I hustle barefoot through the house with a last minute concern for minutiae. I slip my feet into the high-heeled shoes and my arms into my denim jacket, and I rustle the bags out to the car. The kids are buckled up, the trunk is shut, my husband turns the key in the ignition, and … WAIT!
Inexplicably, I run back into the house, chuck off the high-heeled shoes by the front door, run upstairs to grab my old beat up sandals and back out to the car, slam the door, and speed away.
The high-heeled shoes are left inside the front entry, one upended, one skewn sideways, abandoned in the empty house, unselected, as the cat noiselessly patters toward them for a sympathetic sniff.
Part II – Monday
We made a mental note that we had left off at the shoes. We didn’t have enough time that first day at the USHMM to finish the third floor. We had snuck stealthily back up after lunch to complete the Auschwitz section. I thought that at least we’d finished the third floor with perfect timing at 1:17, as we had to be at the bus by 1:25. The small group of the six of us had to race downstairs to meet the larger group. We crossed the bridge, looking for a shortcut exit, and instead found ourselves in the hall of shoes. Someone said aloud, “Okay, the shoes. Remember when we come back on Wednesday, we left off at the shoes.” We raced forward.
But I pause: I am paralyzed by the smell of the shoes.
Really?! How could a smell still emanate from the shoes? The unmistakable smell of leather shoes. HOW how how does that clearly identifiable smell still linger? What cellular makeup in the shoes is still living that emits that smell? HOW how how can these shoes, these multitudinous shoes, these universally small, these universally clumsy, universally dirt brown leather shoes – meant to represent the piles of beloveds – how how HOW could the smell still persist? After all these years, all these tears, all these miles traveled, all the hands that touched them, crafted them, shod them, plucked them, chucked them, found them, gathered them, shuffled them, passed them, and then loving and tenderly placed them right here.
It’s the smell of shrivel and curvature. As if the leather, having lost its occupant, lost its will, and became introverted and silent.
It’s the smell of dust and hacking cough.
It’s the smell of my grandfather’s musty ancient schoolbooks that no one wants to shelve anymore, and that the booksellers have deemed valueless.
It’s the smell of an old woman’s tattered sweater over shoulders hunched, protecting herself from the merciless boney wind.
It’s the smell of things misplaced, and then when found, unneeded.
Unlike the smell, we couldn’t linger. We raced forward, late for the bus.
Part III – Tuesday
I am sitting with my friend of 17 years, Christine, at the wine bar Bistro Leptic, sipping cool Pinot Gris and nibbling snobby shards of silky cheese. Ted, the casually debonair sommelier, has seated us in cupped wicker chairs with mismatched throw pillows that provide more ambiance than back support. The painting on the wall above us, a colorful canvas showcasing the backs of three little pigs with curly-cue tails, half mocks and half invites conversation both light and half-lit.
Christine, with great excitement, is telling me about the dream she had last night, because she has dreamed, finally, in Arabic. Christine, single, 40, world-wise, and the object of my vicarious envy, has spent the last year in DC learning Arabic as an employee of the State Department. I have not seen her this relaxed since her return from her one-year stint in Pakistan, and we are joking about the range (or dearth) of romantic opportunities that might present itself in her upcoming assignment in Tunisia. Hence, the reason she has spent last year learning Arabic. And hence, her excitement about this dream.
She begins, “Okay, so in my dream, I was all dressed up for this dinner event for work,” she recounts, “in the cutest red dress and little black sequiney cardigan, and I’m walking to the hotel when I look down and realize I’m wearing these terrible awful chunky boots like I had to wear in Pakistan. And so I have to clop back to my apartment building to change my shoes. But the doorman (who in my dream is suddenly Pakistani and holding an Uzi) won’t let me pass, because he doesn’t recognize me in my cute dress, and by the way, he certainly doesn’t approve. But I’m telling him I have to get back into my apartment to change my shoes! I can’t possibly go to dinner in these shoes! But of course, I’m speaking Arabic so he doesn’t understand me. So finally, I tell him I’ll give him my boots if he lets me pass. And then he laughs, suddenly understanding Arabic, and takes my boots and lets me pass,” she finishes breathlessly. “And the whole time, I was dreaming – I was thinking – in Arabic!”
“But here’s the real funny part,” and now she giggles a little, like we used to 17 years ago, before kids and the acceptance of our mediocrity, when our hair was shinier and our poor decisions not so damaging. “The next day, I told my Arabic instructor about the dream, and she blushed and shook her head, which, of course, totally piqued my interest. And I’m like, ‘What? What is it?’ and she says, ‘Nothing, nothing.’ And I said, ‘No… it’s something! What is it? You can’t just snicker like that and say nothing; you’re committed now. What is it?’ And my instructor says, ‘Well, in Arab countries, shoes are like a symbol of … um, you know, power. And sometimes, like, sexual power.’”
Now Christine is giggling hard, because Ted has poured us both two rather generous glasses of wine, and because she is 40. “So what do you think it all means?” She asks rhetorically.
And I, realizing that after 17 years, she is not beyond hoping, smile broadly and tell her, “I think you may be taking a big step into your future.”
Christine laughs at that, “I just hope I don’t have to kick down any doors! I don’t want to ruin a good pair of shoes!”
Part IV – Wednesday
In Frank L. Baum’s book, the shoes are silver. In the 1939 movie, the creators changed them to ruby slippers in order to take advantage of the Technicolor film process. In the Gregory Maguire novel, the shoes are silver at first, and become iridescent when Frex enhances them with Turtle Heart’s magical glass-blown baubles. Glinda gives them special powers that allow the armless Nessarose to stand, literally and figuratively, on her own. In the stage production, the shoes at first are merely the object of Elphaba’s envy when silver, but become magically healing and empowering when turned ruby red by her enchantment. Either way, the shoes symbolize Elphaba’s disenfranchisement from her father’s love, and ultimately, society. Ironically, Glinda’s maturation in the stage production is also portrayed through her attachment to shoes. Her comic admonishment to Elphaba in the last scene, “I mean, come on. They’re just shoes! Let it go!” contrasts sharply with the way she worships her fabulous shoe collection (quite adorably, I might add) in Act I.
Okay, enough with the literary analysis. Or maybe not. Because now I’m wondering why Frank L. Baum chose shoes as a symbol of power. Why shoes? Some literary criticism suggests the shoes are a sexual symbol, but I don’t buy it. Baum’s original novel remains, after all, a children’s fantasy story of good and evil, of sin and redemption, of appearance and reality, and of journey and understanding.
In contrast, however, Wicked, is, at its core, a love story. A love story between two women. Not romantic love, of course, but feminine affection, the kind of which is known between friends who have known each other for say, 17 years. Their love endures societal accusations, evolution of character, and romantic victories and losses. And sacrifice. Yes, it is a love story about quiet, unspoken, self-sacrifice.
So then: what about this idea? What if shoes are powerful because they take us on our journey? We don’t simply walk barefoot; we walk protected. The collective consciousness of our experiences protects us along our journey. And what if shoes guided us further, helped us to travel farther distances than we otherwise would? Perhaps the power of our shoes – whether shriveled leather or iridescent silver – lies in our endurance, our enduring journey. The last thing I do every morning, before stepping out the front door and into my day, is put on my shoes. And then I begin my daily journey – for better or worse, for bad or for good.
Perhaps, and this may be a bit tongue in cheek now, perhaps Glinda’s right. Perhaps we should worship our shoes, or … handle them gently, or … at the very least, find the magic in them.
Part V – Thursday
In Arlington, the rows of the etched stone markers stretch down and away, longer than history. I am unknown here.
To honor the beloved dead, I stand unshod.
Part VI – More Than and Long After
Come here a minute. Come here. Here, hold my hand. I want you to take a moment and stand in my shoes. That’s right, right here. Now, slip them on. My shoes. Good. How does that feel? All right? Good. Now, hold my two hands and face me. Good. Now, I want you to take few steps forward in my shoes – Don’t worry, you won’t trip; I’ve got you. I’m holding your hands. I’ll be walking backward while you’re walking forward, each step. I’ve got you; I won’t take my eyes off you. Good. A few steps forward now. Good, good. I want to show you something.
This is the candle you lit for me. See? Here it is. Do you remember? It’s flickering still, after all this time. Its little light is one small spark in the darkness, like a firefly on a sweet June night. A few more steps forward now. That’s it. Good. I want to show you something more.
This is the stone you etched for me. See here? Well, it was for me, but it was for all of us, wasn’t it? Yes. Yes, it was. Now step over here, over here. That’s it. You’re doing better already, I can tell. You’re more sure on your feet. How are my shoes? They fit fine, yes? Yes, I think so, too.
Come here now, over here. Here is the monument you raised for me, for us. Here it is. See how sturdy it stands? How definite? You could climb to the top and look down on me. It’s so high, so solid. At the top, it would be like defying gravity, wouldn’t it? Yes? Yes, I think so, too.
Very good, now, a few steps more now. You don’t even need me to hold your hands anymore, you’re doing so well in those shoes. You’re walking forward on your own now. Don’t worry, I’ll still protect you. A few steps more, over here. That’s it. These are the children you taught for me, for us. These are the children you held once, spoke kindly to once, sat for hours once to tell our story. These are the children who listened. They remember, see? This generation remembers because of you. They were watching your every step, really. They didn’t realize you walked in my shoes.
Now, before I go, I need to tell you a secret. A secret about these shoes. They’re yours now, you know; you can have them. They were always yours anyway, really. Come now, come closer to me, because it’s almost time for me to go, and I want to tell you this one last secret. Here it is. These shoes, they tell a story. It’s a love story. That’s the secret. It’s a love story between two women, between two men, between two children. Pick any two; it doesn’t matter. These shoes, they tell how they loved each other. How they endured together. How they protected each other. How they quietly sacrificed for one another. How they loved each other more than life, more than death, more than and long after the extinguished flame, the broken stone, the buildings razed, the voices silenced. More than and long after all of these.
These shoes tell a love story. You will wear them now, all the days of your life. They will protect you so that you may endure, so that your love may endure.
There now, you know the secret. And I must go. You don’t need me anymore, because you are standing tall in those shoes. I am so proud of you. You have done so much. So much change for the better, and change for good. For all of us. For memory. For love.