When I was just learning how to walk, my feet would spread out so much that I just couldn’t manage without special shoes made from hardened leather hide. So my parents got a pair, and as soon as I learned how to walk in them, they were never put on my feet again. A few years later, my mother gave them to me to put on my doll’s feet, and she told me that they were the shoes I learned to walk in. Still being just a child at the time, it didn’t occur to me what a profound piece of my history had just been placed in my hands. I jammed my doll’s feet into them, and when I got tired of playing, the doll and the shoes went into a box somewhere and disappeared forever. Somewhere along the way, I discovered that if I had not learned how to walk in those little white hard leather shoes, I might have learned how to walk with braces on my legs instead. This somehow made me resent the very shoes that gave me the ability to walk without them. I didn’t want to engage with my vulnerability. I simply wanted to take for granted the fact that I had the ability to stand and walk unassisted.
I used that ability to walk enormous distances to and from school, alone. The closer I walked towards school, the further I separated myself from those shoes — along with all the other things that had to do with vulnerability and that I didn’t want to face in my natal home. Things I had put away in boxes, sealed in the dark, and done everything I could to distance myself from. Things that would always be there, no matter how much time and distance separated us.
One of those things was poverty, and all the shame that I had to bear on account of it. Poverty followed me to school, even though I tried to leave it at home where none of my classmates could find out about it. My daily walk to and from school was 45 minutes without snow and even longer with it. The year I was in grade six and the snow came, we “couldn’t afford” winter boots (you’d have to understand my parents and their relationship with money to fully appreciate why I second-guess this). I had grown right out of mine the year before, so my 45-minute walk took me an hour in a pair of cross-trainers. My parents were mad because I was ruining my runners, but what other choice did I have? That’s about when my home room teacher noticed. She brought a pair of boots to school and put them on my feet. That made my parents mad too, but this time, I just couldn’t care more about what they said than how profound my teacher’s gift was to me. After a couple of weeks, I finally stopped feeling ashamed and embarrassed that she helped me when my own parents wouldn’t. I stopped letting them make me feel like I had wronged them somehow.
The day eventually came that I could at last make a demand for a pair of leather boots, and to my dismay, I distinctively recall the first pair was definitely not made of leather. I became very sad when all the buffed leather finish gradually cracked off — not just one, but two pair — revealing a textured thermoplastic shell beneath. I had to wear sneakers again for days in ankle-deep snow, in the beginning of the Winter that year, while we searched for something to replace the second pair of boots. We finally found a pair of knee-length black leather zip-ups that were actually leather this time. The following year was also the first time I had black leather knee-length lace-ups. I learned that year how much it would cost at a minimum, to keep my feet warm and dry in shin-deep snow. I would repeat the decision my parents made, two years later, when I acquired my first credit card. That wouldn’t last long, though. I didn’t know when I was picking them out that I was about to become homeless for the first time.
Fast forward through more shin-deep snow and inadequate footwear for years, and here I am now, about to learn how to put shoes on my own feet for the rest of my days. I don’t think the woman who is teaching me how to make moccasins quite knows how profound and intimate this skill-sharing will be for me, in light of many years of cold, wet feet and damp socks. I don’t even think I have the vocabulary to express exactly how far I was taken aback when she told me she would teach me to make my own moccasins. But when she told me that she will keep teaching me so that I can give this gift to other people as well, I was stunned. Speechless. I stammered out a few words before I cut myself off again so she could continue to speak about what else she can do with a leather hide and a needle.
My mind has been flooding with possibilities since she traced a stencil of each of my feet. And so much more so than when my mother taught me how to read the instructions that come with patterns after showing me how to thread a machine. To the woman about to teach me to make my first pair of moccasins, this is a spiritual practice. I will take it equally to heart.