I’ve been searching for decades for an elusive shoe, the one that will end my desire for all other shoes. As I eagerly await a new, in-transit prospect, I have an Amazon-Prime-Delivery-moment to reflect on the nature and history of the quest.
I have a pronounced allergy to excess. A visceral objection to material encumbrance. Moreover, a nagging, consumerism-inspired anxiety created in the dissonance between the multiplicity of options and the dearth of satisfactions. I’m afraid my journey has now yielded excess instead of the desired monastic efficiency required to “think about other things.” Not that I am entirely so high-minded. I am aesthetically drawn to the ascetic. My fashion taste being in the ballpark of post-apocalyptic barbarian and Diane-Keaton-joined-a-cult. (An ex once described that ballpark as the “elegant retiree”, this before the advent of menocore.) “That’s a wicked woman”, a friend’s child remarked upon seeing me in an old opera coat of my mother’s with a $2, satin, Chinatown dragon hat.)
This ideal shoe must be practical, serving a range of weather, supporting varied occasions, and functioning in different walking conditions. While all of these pose unique challenge, I’ll wager that the topline to hem relationship presents the make-or-break situation, one with elaborately specific exigencies for each person. It’s a moving target because these shoes must work with a variety of pants, skirts, and dresses.
My memories of the incipient quest take me to grade school, where sneakers sufficed. Not to say that the type of sneaker was not a consideration, but once that decision was made, it was truly the shoe for most of living. The narrow range of situational requirements in that time of life eases the task. I had a pair of pale blue, Converse high tops that lasted through quite a bit of 5th grade. At some point near the end of high school, I moved on to black low top Converse, which I revisited again 15 years later in graduate school. A mistake I’ve now made too many times, alas, those shoes do not have arch support.
Several years ago in graduate school, I committed to a pair of black, mid-calf, motorcycle boots from J.Crew. (At the time, I also wanted the sweater to end all sweaters and jackets, a tall order. I ended up with a grey, cocoon shaped cardigan, which that same ex with a knack for sartorial nomenclature coined my “Romulan” sweater. I don’t think Romulans actually wore sweaters, but if you take a sidelong approach to imagination, you kind of get the idea.) I still have the boots, several soles later. My dog, Petey, once ate through the buckled straps and I had those repaired, too. On the last trip to the cobbler, a strap was lost and they again face sole repair. So I’ve come to terms with my waning enthusiasm for them. I consider throwing them away, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to do it. My perspective on their topline to hem relationship has changed over time (or maybe my body has changed), while they have stayed the same. A classic growing-apart.
The ugly sneaker seems to fit the bill for many, but I’m not there. All I see is “trend” in flashing neon. I imagine commuters changing out of these kinds of sneakers once they get to work, a kind of reverse Mr. Rogers. The comfortable shoes get you where you’re going, but the right pair is waiting for you when you get there. They’re forever relegated as the means in a troubling ends-justify-the-means scenario.
Included in the list of contenders, sitting at the back of my closet: Birkenstock London, Dankso Maria, Clarks Wallabee, a pair of dusty-colored monochrome, Maison Martin Margiela high-top sneakers. A leopard bootie from Boden and perhaps surprisingly a pair of Nike slides are clear front runners. I love my LL Bean winter boots, but the shearling makes them prohibitive most times of year. WIth all of these options, I still struggle to find the right pair on any given day.
When my new Doc Martens arrive tomorrow, I know that, as yet another pair of shoes, they won’t have the capacity to end the chronic nature of consumer desire. I’d like to believe that fulfilling my list of impossible requirements was possible. However, here’s a new kind of wager. These new boots will help me be the person I want to be by dressing like I already am. If it’s wise to dress for the job you want, “like the boss” as it were, then I’d like to think of my best self as that boss. In my case, since the boss is that ascetic-loving, Inner-Worldly mystic living in the awareness of abundance, she doesn’t think about shoes– she’s moved on to other things.
There is a movement, as in circles of a purgatory, from the detective to the monk. It is both a natural progression, but also a spiritual progression involving certain practices using a series of ropes and strings. The movement, which might be understood as a progression, or even an ascension, requires the proper movement of these ropes and strings involving the dexterity and coordination of an athlete combined with the precision and vision of a craftsman. The detective learns to identify clues and to collect them. He begins organizing them, using the ropes, tying one to another in an appropriate sequence to create a tool, like a net that may slowly hold all of the clues. It will account for them, that is why the order and sense must be present, leaving no space too large for things to fall through or too small for things to become pinched.
When I fell in love it was by the ocean, but not in a warm place. There were trees and moss and grey weathered decking. I was doing simple tasks with my hands like crocheting and making nets. In order to make nets one must tie a serious of knots and connect them. Like a wall with images and names, bits of button or cloth pinned up in clear plastic sleeves or bags, old hairnets and cigar boxes, an ashtray from a rest stop in Alabama – all clues that a detective collects and then connects with marker or pieces of red string, connecting until something comes together that can be used to catch other things. To hold other things. Maybe fish. A shape of time.
The future, it is like pure spirit, no encumbrances like body, pressing down and deforming the truth. The good detective, the one on the ascending path, has learned that eye witness testimony is either unreliable or exactly as true as anything else in the past, meaning not nearly as true as the future. It is this realization, among others, that incites the detective to ascend towards the monk. Moving from a series of clues that reveal a story to no clues, pure story. There is no language in the future, language has always been the currency of falsehood.
The detective moves towards the monk. The ropes once used for tying nets are now just turned and turned, no knots. He begins to learn his witnesses cannot be trusted, perhaps through malice, but more often by nature. As with making nets by the ocean, double dutch moves ropes in a rhythm, but unlike the detective, who ties the series of knots, who closes the loop to contain things, the double dutch ropes keep moving. They are never tied off; they never stop. This is why the detective introduces (again) double dutch to New York City. I will go there.
When you sense what is invisible, or what is different than you sensed before, a different kind of substance, it may be considered an illness. Like deafness or blindness, a diminution of certain senses that allows others, now enhanced, to come to the forefront. This substance that I sense is between the other stuff. Between the people and the words and the chairs. It is what lets the double dutch jumpers know the moment to jump into the swinging ropes, it is not only where the ropes are but where they aren’t and this is never static, so what is it they are waiting for? What are they accustoming themselves to as they rock back and forth judging the moment. Sensing the moment. Falling in love. Sensing the movement of space and substance and accommodating oneself to that rhythm, first inside feeling that particular fullness and lacking that is that other person. It is a rhythm that you must match before you can jump in. It feels good to be home in that way, to find a movement that is yours, even if it looks different than you thought it might.
I started seeing things differently. Only the word seeing no longer seemed like the correct word. I have heard people talk about the spaces in between things. The illusory spaces and the idea that even in what we think of as discrete bodies there is more space than substance. In this way people can imagine the physicality of interconnectedness, as well of course as disconnectedness. I’m afraid once I invoke the language of the space-in-between, it concedes too much to the concept that there is in-between, somehow as primary, or in-fact. As if the point were made by banging a hand on a wooden table, only further confusing the issue by emphasizing the wrong senses, materiality, violence, the concrete.
I watch the girls playing double dutch. Two swing the ropes, connected not through ropes but through rhythm. And the one girl readying to jump in. She rocks back and forth, one might say waiting for her moment. She is not waiting. She is preparing. She is becoming part of the rhythm, taking on some part of the motion and adding her own.
I am seeing the rhythms that are entered into. The ones that match our own, so we can most easily move with and through them. It is seeing what isn’t there. It is learning to see what is not visible, like background. Like female.
Steve Reinke @spreinke
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” – Maya Angelou
Despite having written much over the past couple of years about a devastating turn in my life, I have not shared that writing. My body has decided on this opportunity to demonstrate a marked indifference to the compulsive clamoring of the mind’s narrative. The body insists upon trauma and it’s own temporal mandates: I am not healed.
Sometimes, on the other hand, the head knows what the heart still refuses to metabolize. The disjunction between the knowledge that true sanction lies within, and the invincible and contraindicated desire to share, causes me shame. I’ve failed to reconcile these internal mechanics, limping around like a simulated human from some dystopian future, not yet able to integrate different parts, to achieve credible likeness through human fluidity.
As I attempt to parse this conflict, shame emerges, thematic. The more I consider my reluctance to share, the memories of shameful experiences proliferate. Feelings of shame have been, for me, less terrifying than an alternative where those closest to me could not be counted on for comfort or connection. I have learned not to trust my own emotions, and have been unable to use them as a compass for living. I preferred the thought that I was the cause of my own distress,that my abnormality, my wrong-ness was to blame for feeling so alone.
After my divorce, there were people who never spoke to me again. One, a man I’d known for almost 15 years, someone I’d invited into my home after his own divorce when he needed a place to rebuild. The same man who delivered a reading from Wendell Berry at my wedding: “Marriage is a perilous and fearful effort, it seems to me… . It creates pain that it is the only cure for.” A particularized problem so complex and inextricable from our selves, so inexorable as to produce countless impasses for the imagination (the human tool possessed most fully of infinitude) that to evade that rhizomatic nest is simply to bury that self along with epigenetic hopes for future peace.
I thought back to one of the final exchanges I had with this man. He spent the night at the house I shared with my then-husband. He, firmly middle-aged, had recently started seeing a woman considerably younger than himself, a pattern that unfolded in the typical manner: he grew older, the women stayed the same age. This particular woman had apparently been through a series of sexual traumas, a topic he broached with us, his close friends, in a serious and avuncular tone. He, in his consummate sensitivity and gentleness would save her from this history. His manner approached fetishistic – he the guide to this young woman, a savior from the damage of sexual predators past. (Attempting to disavow any connection to a gendered power dynamic, he self-described as lesbian.) He elaborated tales of this young woman’s trauma, which, although undoubtedly trauma, he characterized as assault: In high school, she had given a blow job she did not want to give to a young man because he was “popular”, “black”, and “on the football team.”
Admittedly, I was rather blunt in my attack of this disclosure. Insensitive.
Lest the description of my dismay topple into the well-worn grooves the media and cultural discussion have handed us in order to properly analyze and divide over this kind of story, I’ve searched for the impasse. I’ll proffer a suggestion at bypass: There is the culture, or community, on the one hand, and individuals, on the other. #MeToo has taken highly personal stories and reflected them into a cultural narrative. We have not recognized that the equation, from one to many, is unidirectional. While appropriate to generalize from a pool of specifics, not so to reflect the general back onto an individual. We expand culture by adding elaborately specific stories, not by taking the average of those stories and waging it on the imagination of those who’ve yet to create their own.
In the case of #MeToo, the culture has given us two possible reactions to individual stories. On the one hand, you can blame the individual (she was drunk, she wore the wrong clothing, was too subtle, too unsubtle) and on the other, you can validate the victim (it was not her fault). Ostensibly different, there is common ground: Women are always victimized. If not by some outside force, then by the narrative that invokes her personal, often ethical, failure.
There is actually a third, and most powerful option: Just keep telling stories. True stories are like the body, like the heart, they demonstrate, in aggregate, that same indifference to the compulsions of analysis, in favor of something a lot more resistant to digestion. True stories quite literally don’t make sense in the way we like to think of it, unless we omit the nagging suspicions and fleeting glances that would never hold up in court. Making these omissions too shameful to report. They destroy our coherence, and women, most especially, are rendered powerless through an image of incoherence.
I suggested to my friend that a woman whose history was scarred by repeated incidents of unwanted sexual encounters hinging upon murky wagers of sexuality bore some self-examination. Perhaps the more accurate language would have been: “Your story about these events scares me in it’s implications about my own ability to consent, and therefore, the possibility of any personal integrity or cultural agency.”
I am not blind or unfeeling to the traumatic effect of such encounters, nor to the deep rooted structural inequity eroding the foundation on which all sexual encounters are predicated, however, I shudder to recast all regretful sexual encounters as assault. I do not know where the self resides in that narrative. The self that is the consciousness of thoughts and feelings, not their subject. I shudder at the implicit bias: the explicit designation of the perpetrator as “black” in the retelling of this story.
Should we outlaw sex between men and women? After all, we are so far from social equality, the existing power differential does not admit consent in any case.
My now ex-husband used to joke, “all heterosexual sex is rape.” Just one in a series of memories provoking waves of shame as I flinchingly contemplate my complicity.
My friend’s account of his young girlfriend’s story was pre-#MeToo. There was no cultural resurgence of Monica Lewinsky and Caitlin Moran had not yet written How to Tell the Bad Men From the Good Men; there was no conversation around Aziz Ansari’s behavior or that of his accuser. (A conversation which simply vacillates between the two aforementioned channels of prescribed thought: blame the victim or validate the victim.)
I should give a bit of context: the nature of conversations with this friend tended to the personal, but always through an intellectual lens, often making use of books or various theories to consider the topic at hand. Our conversations were explicit, probing, critical, contemplative, speculative, abstract, analytical. They weren’t shy. It’s likely I would not have suggested my qualms at the accounting had it been told by the woman herself, and I’m sure the first-hand account would’ve differed from the retelling. I did not know her, nor would I want to hurt her, blame her, or denigrate her experience. My observations reside now, as then, at the level of using these personal stories to contemplate my own integrity, my own consciousness, my own ability to consent. Hearing her stories (admittedly secondhand and through the mouthpiece of a new, male lover), my stomach immediately turned at the implications. Myself being the figure standing in for all of those implicated by the cultural exigencies created in these private mythologies. After all, we tend to tell stories that sound like the ones we already know. We can’t see things that we’ve never seen before. In these tales, we find palliatives for difficult feelings and we’re taught that our feelings are our truth. They’re not. They are metabolic flotsam to be witnessed for transience. We’re not comfortable living with mystery, and quite often agency treads too closely to responsibility to inspire our full enthusiasm.
This friend took a liberty in telling his girlfriend’s story. He was appalled at my reaction and vowed to protect his girlfriend from me. He would never bring her around me. I was dangerous in my cruelty. He would fix her with his compassion and would tailor his love-making strategy to her recovery.
I apologized profusely. I felt ashamed.
This man stopped speaking to me after my divorce. He preferred the friendship of my ex-husband. This makes a bit more sense in light of the details. Suffice it to say, my middle-aged husband also found a young woman to analyze, encouraging her to share her erotic dreams so that he could examine them. Let’s not forget, too, I am cruel. And insensitive.
During this same time period, my young friend who would become my husband’s second wife, was engaged. She was quite aimless at the time, floating from barista job to bartender job, fantasizing about being a midwife, but mostly creating drama in her romantic relationships to avoid facing the deadening ennui. She would break up, get back together, muse on the boredom once things had settled into a routine, shake things back up again with suggestions of moving in together, or moving out, or drunkenly kissing other men at bars. Generally, provoking feelings to mask the malaise and avoiding the work that would create meaning. In one such fit of impulsivity, she convinced her boyfriend to marry her. He was complacent, too, and agreed on one condition. They would not be married “for real.” They would not file paperwork. They argued: “It’s only a piece of paper.”
Her engagement announcement was met by a small group of friends with some measure of surprise. As the conversation tended towards diffusing the awkward reaction, she managed to back peddle away from anything that looked like an engagement or subsequent marriage. As it turned out the promise would culminate in a potluck dance party in her own honor, affording the opportunity to dress up and be center of attention under fraudulent pretenses while not actually committing to anything.
I suggested she take a closer look at what she meant by marriage, that perhaps there was more at stake in the piece of paper than she thought, in invoking the sanction and support of a community. After all, I told her, gay people are fighting too hard to get married so you can have your sham wedding.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m more in the “ban marriage for everyone” camp, than a subscriber to the “marriage equality” oxymoron, but what can I say, I find words meaningful, alchemical even. It’s another case of the complex boundaries between individual cases and the larger culture. Ultimately, a case of connectivity, perhaps of meaning at all.
I’m an asshole, it’s a theme. She cried, of course she did. She pouted and insisted, indignantly and self-righteously that her perspective was well-considered. I was being elitist with my ideas about what a wedding should be. Not everyone must be so rigid in relation to ideas. She sobbed.
Here’s the refrain: I apologized profusely. I felt ashamed.
Please indulge my addition of the final chapter to that engagement: It fell apart when she, after months of sending her sex dreams to my husband, staying up with him late at night, decided to put his penis in her mouth while I was out of town.
Remember when I apologized to her for second guessing the triviality with which she faced her engagement? I suppose she proved her case. She instantiated a reality simultaneously selfish and nihilistic.
I’d made a fundamental mistake in these cases. I took these conversations to be about ideas, to be the general case. I wasn’t sensitive to the reality that most people don’t want to test their personal stories against some Kantian imperative. Everything tends to get a little too not-in-my-backyard feeling when we have to consider a reality where we live with others, truly connected to others. After all what is the American self if not exceptional?
Let me tell you about one more friend. She and her husband are still in touch with my ex-husband, although admittedly they’re not so fond of him. Or rather, they describe him as self-serving, duplicitous, and deeply narcissistic. However, they know that according to popular culture you shouldn’t have to take sides in a divorce. In fact, it is much more deserving of dignity to be able to remain a kind of neutral party. This husband, he’s never thought much of me. He once wrote a short story depicting me (thinly veiled of course, only animals don’t invoke plausible deniability) as a cruel woman, albeit in a position of power, who would “spit” at her assistants and who demeaned her husband with her “roving eye.” He once gave me a book titled something like, Decor for Dictators. It made him “think of me”. I don’t behave as he thinks a woman should. I saw my friend, this man’s wife, recently and I told her I’d be interested in her thoughts on some articles I was reading about #MeToo and #TimesUp. She characteristically wrinkled her nose, “I don’t know what I’ll think about that. I’m pretty regressive when it comes to these issues”, she warned. When I shared my writing with her about the dissolution of my marriage, she was conspicuously quiet. I felt ashamed.
When people show you who they are, believe them.
Self-publishing my stories feels like another form of shame. As if the stories represent something abhorrent about me, something defective. It feels as though these kind of stories need authoritative sanction, an aegis.
In the early days of my pregnancy, I spent a lot of time imagining how to dress my soon-to-be son. By the time he was born, I had carefully selected clothing for his first six months of life. The thought of raising a boy considering the political events of the past year inspired questions. Some days, it sounded outright alarms.
In the same way that we have strong associations with certain smells, I also have very strong associations with certain fabrics and patterns from my childhood. My wish for my son was that, if he remembered his early clothing at all, the memory would be a gorgeous underpinning, a depth of time, like a mossy undergrowth in an old forest or a well-loved storybook. His memories, carefully tended pictures, a kind of redolent imagery. I wanted my son’s clothes to be part of a beautiful, intentional life. I also wanted to resist the violence of binary conventions.
I’ve been on an evolving quest, man-repelling for baby boys, only, in this case, repelling his future-man in favor of his future. As soon as I took to the baby registry, the perils emerged: my son was headed for the major leagues or the military. He also had his choice of sanctioned interests: trucks, cars, dinosaurs, outer space, and superheros.
Certain companies pay lip-service to egalitarian dressing. They mostly make ‘boy-things’ cool for girls, most especially things conferring economic advantage, STEM for babies. This strategy emphasizes the importance to creating an accessible iconography, defining a range of interests and assigning them to our children. This ideology, geared towards creating egalitarian economic producers, is often just undermined by the aesthetics of the garments. For example, frilly, pink dresses decorated with spaceships. Sure it’s important that girls can like science, but that is certainly a separate concern from considering the fundamental disparities between the sexes. Is it important that they are still girls? After all, what are girls and boys if these simple assignations, given at birth, disappear? In the words of J.D. Salinger in a conversation from Franny and Zooey: ” . . . all legitimate religious study must lead to unlearning the differences, the illusory differences, between boys and girls, animals and stones, day and night, heat and cold.”
Finally: Plant a flag: pink or blue.
Screenshot of Search for Baby Boy Clothes
Screenshot of Search for Baby Girl Clothes
I’m not blind to all of the yellows and pale greens out there, but frankly, that feels like a form of tokenism. Black, white, grey, and brown seem like better choices for color neutrality, although far from a solution. I would like to strive towards a future reality where there are no distinctions in dress between men and women, Until then, dressing my son in girl’s clothes isn’t an answer.
I’m wary of my own hang-ups: the unconscious expressions of my hopes and fears. Although there’s no way of relinquishing my ego completely, I try taking time to observe my son, as well as my gut reactions. For example: I usually cringe a bit when someone refers to a boy as a “little man.” It feels a bit like fulfilling a prophecy we might reconsider wanting filled. We tend raise our boys to be the kind of men that we are used to seeing. Unfortunately, that is a nurture we have clearly come to regret. As Simone de Beauvoir describes the being of women as “what they have become” instead of “what they are”, so too with men. Children are not little adults. At some point our choices will determine identity and I would like to choose wisely. To this end, I have a provisional set of guidelines:
- Avoid text and overt iconography. Perhaps, it’s the explicitness that chafes. A foreclosing on the complexity that seems our birthright. Additionally, I have no interest in becoming an unpaid brand ambassador.
3. Mix & Match Color and Pattern: Combine traditionally gendered colors and themes, or choose those with weaker gender associations. All-over patterns are better than single images. Avoid ready-made sets. Select items that work together for more flexibility.
4. Use abstract designs and nature or animal themes.
5 . Simplicity Always Works. Pattern, color and minimalism are not mutually exclusive.
I once read that Andy Warhol was “[making] the world safe for Andy.” Through some mysterious alchemy, showing the world to itself, reflecting it, making oneself simultaneously part-of and apart-from. A mechanism for individuation. I hope that as my son moves through life, his individuality is complex and that he becomes aware of its fragility and contingency, but that he can become inspired and curious about it’s beauty. Small choices made towards complexity increase safety and destroy illusory differences.
DREAMLIFE: A collection of women’s dreams, recorded and then translated here as part of the Female Background metabolism. A way in, a way out.
We were cleaning up our property which was like a crossroads where you see strangers in a campgrounds. My former neighbor was walking her dog near the perimeter and I wanted to say hello, but I also wanted to not be seen, to just watch her. She was older but still had the same walk and the same hairstyle, the same glasses and smile, walking her dog as she had ten years ago. Once she passes out of my eyesight I get back to the task of cleaning. The yard has not only been untended, it’s has been an active dumpsite of domestic waste. Drugs and kitchen utensils are the first targets and we are making progress, but there is so much to get rid of and I am sweating now, but I’m not tired of doing it. I’m still not sure what I’m looking for in this mess. There is an auditorium stage that appears to my far right opposite to where I was watching my neighbor walk her dog. It’s light oak and I’m drawn to it, so I walk towards it. I get closer and I see discarded odds and ends that look like I might save something. There’s a kids’ sand shovel without its bucket. My two year old might use it even though I don’t think it’s hers and when I get closer I grab that shovel, but its covered in dust and something sticky so I immediately put it back down. All of my friends and family are helping me clean up at this stage and it’s going more quickly than I can approve or disapprove of discarding, one by one, the items. So I’m a little worried that they’re just getting rid of things that I want to keep. I reach for and look at a stack of papers on the stage because they have foreign stamps and it looks like I have kept them for a long time. At first I, when I open envelopes, I see they contain letters and they’re letters my ex-husband and I wrote to one another other when I was his college student, but then I look closer. They seem to change. They’re the divorce papers and I wonder if it is all over and if this is actually my MeToo moment and I wonder what’s left for my daughter.