The Buddha was asked, “What do you and your disciples practice?” and he replied, “We sit, we walk, we eat.” The questioner continued, “But sir, everyone sits, walks, and eats.” The Buddha told him, “When we sit, we know we are sitting. When we walk, we know we are walking. When we eat, we know we are eating.”
–Thich Nhat Hanh*
I think about shoes a fair amount. I don’t collect them like Imelda Marcos, the Philippine dictator’s wife, did. I don’t have room nor do I really follow this year’s shoes or clothes or handbags. But in my calculus, shoes are a little different than the average consumer possession. My shoes have to fit me well and comfortably (my feet are narrow), they can’t be made by teenagers in Asia who don’t make very much money for their work, and I prefer nonleather because I’m a vegetarian. I will also confess to some vague fashionista sensibility, albeit Quakerly; I avoid sensible shoes that proclaim just how dowdy and eco-friendly they are.
I always look around carefully when I need a new pair, and have over time become flexible. It’s hard to find nonleather shoes that meet the other two criteria, despite diligent hunting. I recently took an ethics course at the seminary I attend, which has turned out to be very useful for everyday life. Through it I learned how to analyze what good things were at issue (all three of these criteria) and what my choices were (leather or cloth, more or less affordable), weigh all that, and then choose.
I took the course at a graduate school away from my home, and for my trip I brought along three pairs of shoes: boots (the day I left the snow and cold were so awful they closed the interstate); flats (pretty, practical, and made of expensive leather); walking shoes.
The walking shoes belonged to my late older sister, Barbara. When we sorted through the clothes she left (and she didn’t have many pairs of shoes either), I had a clear memory of these on her feet as she came to my house for a holiday dinner. The shoes made me imagine her being alive and able to walk into my house again. So I took a few pairs of shoes and shirts to keep her close to me in a sense and to walk a mile in her shoes. Literally. They were free, they were made of cloth and quite gently used, and they were comfortable. Perfect. I snagged them, cried the first time I put them on, replaced the flimsy black laces with neon pink ones, and wore them.
They’ve held up well, and I’ve walked miles in her shoes through several seasons, a few different cities, and a couple seminary courses. Most recently I wore them while studying in Puerto Rico. I figured they would be good hiking shoes for El Yunque National Forest, lighter to pack, and an irrational yet convenient way of bringing her along to share the adventure. El Yunque is the only tropical rain forest in the US forest system. It rains a lot (an average of 120 inches a year), and so the ground is usually wet, and mucky-muddy at its wettest. I liked the feeling of nimbleness the shoes gave me on sometimes slick paths. But they weren’t the best choice to negotiate off-path diversions – let me see, what is THAT flower? – unless I was willing to risk treading in the mire.
Lured by exotic blooms, I eventually succumbed to temptation and plunged in to the mud to inspect the flora more closely. The shoes may be ruined, I reasoned, but why not sacrifice them to the gods of El Yunque, one of whom is Yuracan, the god of hurricanes. At journey’s end, the mud clung stubbornly to my shoes, and I decided to bring them home to see if they could be saved by diligent cleaning. To my surprise, they cleaned up well, and now await new destinations.
Have I baptized them in mud and made them mine? At what point do memories fade or mutate? Do these shoes remind me of my sister? The mud and flowers of a tropical rain forest? Or are they just shoes, with neither memory nor meaning attached?
I have done walking meditation in the style of the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh around my neighborhood and at a Buddhist retreat. You wouldn’t think it could possibly be challenging to put one foot in front of the other, step after step, something people have a lifetime’s experience of doing. But walking with conscious awareness is different and can be difficult.
Breathing in, I breathe in memories;
Breathing out, I let go.
Breathing in, my sister walks with me;
Breathing out, she is with the communion of saints.
Breathing in, I can remember the blooms of a rain forest;
Breathing out, I see the sidewalk beneath my feet.
Breathing in, I walk to a destination;
Breathing out, I walk with God.
*Source: The Long Road Turns to Joy: A Guide to Walking Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh. (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1996