One year ends/another begins

Barely a week into December and already my thoughts are turning to the New Year. Can’t say I feel its approach with a sense of the promise I was counting on. But a certain resolve has crept in. Never one to rush time, I can’t help seeing the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year as packaged and pressure-sealed—even as I relish time spent with family and friends in the spirit of it all. Short of a humbug frame of mind, the waning days of 2016 have me wanting them gone. ASAP.

One of the many lasting impressions I took away from a Toni Morrison/Paris Review interview I first read many years ago was the discovery that she wakes before dawn to start her writing. A habit begun out of necessity when her children were young gave rise to a ritual: a cup of coffee made while it’s still dark and sipped as she watches the light come. “Light is the signal in the transition,” she says. “It’s not being in the light. It’s being there before it arrives.”

Until you do that—watch the light arrive—even once, night and day are entities unto themselves (i.e., you look up at the night sky, stars twinkling/ you wake up and they’re gone). All it takes is one all-nighter to grasp the subtlety, light gradually encroaching, for it to dawn on you—the stars never really disappear, they’re simply outshone by a far brighter one.

Metaphor aside, we are our own stars, the constellations we belong to a mix of circumstance and choice. I was a daughter when my parents were alive. I am a sister/sister-in-law/cousin/aunt/wife/mother/friend/writer. The unconscious, in all its wisdom and mystery, gives me no room to deliberate in rattling off these roles of mine. If the whole truly is greater than the sum of my parts, it’s that singular one (last in the list, with neither least nor best qualifiers) that allows me to step outside of my own story, stand back/observe/try to make sense of the world.

Again, the inimitable Toni Morrison to the rescue. The time is Christmas 2004, and in the very first paragraphs of an essay that appeared in the 150th anniversary of The Nation, she writes of an “extremely dark mood” precipitated by the reelection of George W. Bush. She has trouble writing, feels almost paralyzed, something she’s never before experienced. A friend insists no no no, times of dread are exactly when artists need to get to work, after which she writes:

“I felt foolish the rest of the morning, especially when I recalled the artists who had done their work in gulags, prison cells, hospital beds; who did their work while hounded, exiled, reviled, pilloried. And those who were executed.”

The wisdom of the greats indeed feeds me.

It was the 7th of December, 1993, that Toni Morrison delivered her utterly eloquent lecture/speech on accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature. The heart of it is a parable of sorts that speaks to the complexities of language and the consequences of its manipulation when we don’t pay attention to what we’re really hearing/reading. Elections, alas, are won on the bastardization of language. On the 10th of December, 2016, a master of more than language will not be there to deliver his acceptance speech. We can speculate forever on Dylan’s silence and evasiveness, but truth be known, his words are needed more than ever. Can’t ask for much more than Patti Smith as a pinch hitter of sorts. Turns out she’ll be singing a song of his at the ceremony.

I’m writing as day gives way to night and a different light, deferential in a way, fills the sky. If I seem to be channeling my literary/music heroes, it’s out of need, not grandiosity.img_4876 The freshness of winter—trees stripped of leaves, a touch of snow on the lawn—is the starkest reminder I have that there’s no hiding from oneself and regeneration is a given. Climate change naysayers may never see the forest for the trees.img_4874

Bruce Springsteen, in his very telling memoir, writes, “In all psychological wars, it’s never over, there’s just this day, this time, and a hesitant belief in your own ability to change. It is not an arena where the unsure should go looking for absolutes and there are no permanent victories. It is about a living change, filled with the insecurities, the chaos, of our own personalities, and is always one step up, two steps back.”

“The year 2017 may be a time for some stepping back, doing things a little differently. For one thing, no more news—real, fake, Facebook, or otherwise—until I’ve had a (reasonably) productive work morning. For a time I tried clearing the fluff out first—check email, say hello on Facebook, read the headline news—and there’s something to be said for that strategy. Except when what passes through a newsfeed clouds my brain, messes with the synapses. (Just seeing the face of he who shall remain nameless makes me physically ill.)

img_4882A tree is uprooted, it falls against another that keeps it from completely tumbling. Hermits are a rare breed but they do exist. More of us, thankfully, fall into the “No man is an island” trope given to us by the great metaphysical poet John Donne. If there’s any hope these days, it’s in the broader view, more encompassing. For all the disappointment, I remind myself that it took a wise woman to remind us it takes a village.

Pink Sneakers—that’s a metaphor, right?

Sara's sneakerWe live in a culture that glorifies the same things it trivializes.  Back in May 2010, Vanity Fair ran a profile of Christian Louboutin, “The Godfather of Sole.” No surprise to see the roster of rock stars and royalty for whom a pair of his artful shoes is pocket change. Danielle Steele, according to the article, has 6,000 pairs.  That Toni Morrison owns (at least) one pair brought a big smile to this writer’s heart.

From Cinderella’s glass slipper to Dorothy’s ruby red pair, shoes are nothing if not symbolic of everything from the psychological and historical to the erotic and obsessive.  In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim tells of those not-for-popular-consumption versions of Cinderella  in which the stepsisters engage in foot mutilation, hoping to make the shoe fit. These days we have foot surgeons.  I don’t know any women who would go to the extremes of shortening a toe or two, but bunion surgery is something more than one friend of mine has had or contemplates.

More to the point, a man engaged in an 11-hour filibuster would have to be wearing some pretty fancy (out-of-character) footwear for it to garner any attention at all and, even then, it would not hold a candle to what the pair of pink sneakers worn by Wendy Davis has come to embody. Yes, we pay a great deal of attention to what women in the public eye wear.  We home in on the pearl necklace, the tailored jacket, the pin on a lapel.  Image is everything. We play down what remains hidden. Tweeting about pink sneakers is sexier than tweeting about the back brace Senator Davis wore so she wouldn’t have to lean on anything as she stood her ground.

God really is in the details. A pair of shoes says as much about the woman wearing them as it does about the world in which she lives.  What makes this story such a timeless one (albeit with a 21st century spin) is the way it meshes the political with the personal and turns a pair of sneakers into a symbol of solidarity for pro-choice supporters. Within days of Wendy Davis’s extraordinary filibuster, those pink running shoes (Mizuno Wave Rider 16) became the best-selling shoes on Amazon. (Never mind that Mizuno President Robert Puccini is an RNC supporter). Even if the mock reviews on Amazon try a little too hard, who can resist the obvious allusions shoes give rise to: comfortable ones like these truly are made for walking. Easy to picture thousands of women kicking ass in them, standing up for a right as inalienable as it gets.  Or pounding the pavement for their hero if she makes that leap into the Texas gubernatorial race.  So pretty in pink.

Once upon a time, as an ancient tale about the origin of shoes goes, there was a princess who stubbed her toe on a root sticking out of the ground while she was walking.  To keep this from happening to anyone else in the kingdom, the princess wanted the prime minister to issue an edict declaring that all roads be paved in leather. The savvy prime minister knew there was nothing the king wouldn’t do for his daughter so he came up with a plan that would satisfy the princess without bankrupting the kingdom, namely, cutting and shaping pieces of leather that could be fitted to the foot.

And so it was—form and function laced into the fashioning of shoes, sensible ones at that. It’s a curious, rich, fascinating story that shoes can tell, one worthy of a museum. If you build it they will come, and, indeed they do to the Bata Shoe Museum in downtown Toronto. There’s no old woman living inside of this stylized shoebox made of limestone, glass, and steel and designed by Raymond Moriyama, but it is a treasure trove of footwear through the ages. Its most recent exhibition just happens to explore the rise of sneaker culture.