By Margaret Payne
Every fall, along about November, when winds begin to buffet my brain and scatter its leaves like gold shimmer, I make a trip off-island after long absence from the mainland and buy something stupid. Last year, it was a $36 spatula; this year it was a pair of boots the price of which I cannot bear to name. Last year, I wrote 5000-word mea culpa to ease the guilt of the spatula purchase. This year, the ante has been upped, so I am reading deeply into Jungian psychology to discover where my journey of individuation was stalled and projected onto the “Magical Other” of shoes.
As Jung describes, it makes perfect sense that we cannot know our unconscious, cannot know what compels us to make choices contrary to our best interests. Since we cannot know what we cannot know, we only get hints of the unconscious when dreadful symptoms arise (the Visa statement) or by examining the unconscious as it appears to us in dreams or complexes. I think my boot purchase is more symptomatic than dreamy or complex. Not to say that I had not been dreaming of boots for two weeks prior to the purchase, even spent an hour or two on my laptop exploring the fantasy lands of Zappos and Nordstrom shoes, but these were waking dreams, so not, by Jung’s definition, unconscious. I did, actually, NEED a pair of SENSIBLE BOOTS to protect my feet from the cold and wet of winter, but my obsession with boots went much deeper than practicality. My obsession put on a mask, weights, and flippers and dove blithely into the abyss of pathology.
Jung lamented, speaking of our search for genuine fulfillment, that “we all walk in shoes too small for us.” By this, he meant that we do not become fully individuated, we do not become all that our soul, our psyche, longs for us to be. Wounded by the Sturm und Drang of life, we retreat and settle for less. Our psyche, deeply offended by our retreat, seeks relief or rebellion in anesthetizing or seductive behaviors. We drink, we drug, we gamble, we sex, we shop, we overeat, we Facebook, we TV when we should be out searching for bigger shoes! I commend myself that I was on the right search; I just failed to honor the metaphor.
So I ferried off to the mainland and drove directly to a trendy little shoe store in a trendy little neighborhood in the university town of Bellingham, Washington, and home I returned the next afternoon with boots that I really didn’t like. If I had found boots I liked, I would not be writing this apologia. If I had found boots I liked, I’d be writing an apotheosis to my boots. The right boots would have made all the difference. In the right boots I would be strutting like Nancy Sinatra. But I got the wrong boots, and these wrong boots are exacting a considerable emotional toll. As a result of wrong boots, my journey toward individuation has gone horribly astray. Because I settled for shoes too small, I can barely look at my boots. Because I settled for ugly AND expensive boots, guilt has blackened my waking moments and sullied my sleep. My boots have become an albatross about my neck, a constant reminder of my pathology. There is no escape except to wear the boots, wear them until they hang from my feet in tatters, until I can feel the bitter cold of winter through their thinning soles, wear them as I wander the earth, telling my story, wear them in stumbling, bumbling penance for my failure of character.
Not to say that I did not lie awake half the night considering other options, such as cancelling the whole sad affair by returning the boots FOR A FULL REFUND and the consequent erasure of guilt and memory. However, the trendy little store at which I bought the boots was not Zappos or Nordstrom, but rather, as the small print on the sales slip read “a small, locally owned business” that “cannot give cash or credit card refunds.” I was as fixed in my failure as the Ancient Mariner.
Ever the penitent, I wore my boots to work on Monday, determined to make the best of a bad situation. However, when I arrived at work, not one person, male or female, remarked upon my new boots. I noticed a couple of surreptitious looks at my feet, but no one said, “What great boots, Margaret! Where did you get them?” So I was confirmed in my suspicion that my boots were, indeed, ugly, and that I had made a horrible mistake in purchasing them. At 5:00 p.m., humbled, I hobbled home in the gathering darkness when, lo and behold, a quarter of a mile down the road, as I approached my driveway, the heel of the right boot fell off. Was this a symbol? A way out? Both? Jung would know.
This was not the first time a heel had fallen off my right boot. In 1973, on the occasion of my then-boyfriend’s (later husband and father of my children) fifth high-school reunion at a western-themed dance hall on a highway leading from Tacoma WA to the majestic, nearly three-mile high, Mt. Rainier, a heel fell off another right-foot boot. Different from the ugly boots I had just purchased, these boots were worthy of an apotheosis. These boots were platform boots purchased in San Francisco, city of love, city of acid-induced enlightenment, city of everything our hippy hopes aspired for the world. I was very proud of my platform boots. Grace Slick would have been proud of my boots. In the parking lot of the western-themed dance hall outside Tacoma, my boyfriend, soon-to-be husband, said, “Try this!” and offered me some organic mescaline, the first and only hallucinogenic substance I ever ingested. Almost immediately, I began to see things. At the entrance to the hall, the cops’ faces really did turn into pigs’ faces. Inside, the faces of dozens of people I did not know similarly melted into other faces. The next couple of hours were a swirling mess, but I distinctly remember the worst moment of the night, when the three-inch heel of my right platform boot fell off and I found myself having to walk on tip-toes to maintain my already precarious balance. I remember believing, I mean REALLY BELIEVING as only a hallucinogen can make you believe, that my boots were out to get me, that my boots had wrecked not just the party but my entire life. I was having a really bad time.
Now, forty years later, when I am almost old enough for Medicare, I have another pair of boots from which the right heel has fallen that I really believe, I MEAN REALLY BELIEVE, are wrecking my life. But this time I have not dropped mescaline, and I am not at a western-themed dance hall for a high-school reunion that is not my own (contributing factors for the earlier distress), so I have only myself to blame for the current, boot-induced nightmare. The heel-falling-off pattern is a sign that the proper reparation to my wounded psyche is to find the historical causes, and thus relief, from a compulsion to buy boots.
I had dinner with my friend Andrea last night. She made a wonderful Mullagatawny soup, garnished with ground cashews and chopped cilantro. But before we ate, my ego subdued by a rich, round “Cab,” I confessed my sad story of the boots. Before I was finished, Andrea confessed that she, too, had a shoe story. In September, Andrea had travelled to Vancouver BC with her sister, who was visiting from California. Before long, Andrea and her sister found their way to the Gastown neighborhood and the small shop of John Fluevog, hand crafter of exquisite shoes. After cringing at the prices, then capitulating to the beautiful-as-a-sculpture shoes, Andrea came home with not one but two pair of Fluevogs. On Orcas Island, where the typical footwear is Birkies and Danskos, Andrea’s shoes reside, not on her feet, but on the carpeted floor of her closet in the pretty little sarcophagi of shoe boxes, inside which the shoes are wrapped like Egyptian queens in soft muslin bags (complete with pale-blue drawstrings) upon which are printed, “Always hold on to the truth. Don’t let others sway your heart. .. Never waver in your love or faith; in all you do, please wear our shoes.” On the soles of the shoes is embossed the message, “Wherever you go, give thanks.” And on a pretty piece of paper laid ever so carefully on top of the soft muslin bag, John Fluevog and his shoemakers wrote to Andrea : “We truly hope your new shoes will share your special occasions, magical dates, and glorious daily triumphs…while tirelessly enhancing your obvious awesomeness. Congratulations on being an official Fleuvoger.“ Talk about shoes as the “Magical Other! Fluevoger shoes offer a shoe-high AND a helping hand along the journey to individuation for a mere $300 a pair!
As the unconscious remains unknown to us, Jung suggests we look at patterns to see if we can find some clue to our pathology. When I feel ______ (fill in the blank: powerless, ugly, rejected, rebellious, empty…), I buy boots that I can’t afford whose heels fall off. I could try behavior modification to eliminate this compulsion—replace buying boots with, say, eating carrot and celery sticks–but that is not the depth analysis Jung wants of us. Jung insists we do the deep work, that we look into our families of origin, that we consider former relationships, thwarted desires, the historical wounds that cause consciously irrational but psycho“logical” behaviors. I didn’t receive all the nurturing I wanted from my mother. She was distracted by the death of her mother when she was pregnant with me, by the illness of my father, by the requirement to work. My father was so sick with TB that he could not care for her or me. At 10 months of age, I had to go live with my great-grandparents. In the 5th grade, I got paddled for talking too much. In the 8th grade, I wasn’t voted cheerleader. At 18, the young man to whom I lost my virginity dumped me while I was dreamily writing his last name after my first name on college-ruled paper. My next boyfriend wanted to be a priest. The father of my children was alcoholic. I was a single mother trying to raise three school-age children and earn a living while searching for true love, etc., etc. Fifty years ago, Tilly Olsen wrote this story in the beautiful and profound “I Stand Here Ironing.” Or consider my friend Andrea. At 19, she spent seven months in a full body cast after a horrible accident; two weeks after she was cut from the cast, her beloved father (who, incidentally, owned a Buster Brown shoe store) dropped dead; her first husband, the father of her young daughter and the love of her life, was killed by lightning while she was sitting right next to him! Andrea describes her life experience as “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” Stuff happens! We buy shoes! And if we substitute shoes for the search for “Magical Other “person who we believe will heal our wounds by offering nurturance, safe harbor, and completion, only to discover that he or she is ALSO A WOUNDED PERSON, and, therefore, doomed to disappoint us, blame us, reject us, and perhaps even die on us, $300 for shoes seems like a bargain.
Curious to discover if anyone has written seriously about the pathology of shoe addiction, for certainly my and Andrea’s experiences were not isolated events, I googled “women’s shoe addiction” and found several interesting websites. Alas, none were scholarly. One website offered a quiz to help you determine if you are addicted: “How many [pairs of] shoes do you own?” Ten or so. “What’s the average amount you spend on shoes?” $50-$200. “You’ve got a pair of heels that make you look great, but they give you blisters. Do you wear them on your hot dinner date?” When I was younger. “You just got a gift certificate for a pedicure– What color do you paint your toenails?” I don’t do “mannies” or “peddies.” “You’ve had a long week at work—and you hit the bar with some girlfriends Friday afternoon. What’s the first drink you order?” What does this question have to do with shoes? Another website presented an analysis of shoe addiction, comparing shoe lust to “love at first sight.” Indeed. Still another encouraged compulsive shoe buyers to “acknowledge the purpose of your addiction. Does buying shoes numb you to the reality of your dull suburban life?” You bet they do. But the most useful website, written by Scheng 1 in Singapore, offered a cure for shoe problems with five simple tips:
1. Make an inventory of your shoes.
2. Sell some of your shoes. “Most of us have some pairs of unlucky shoes. For example, the pair of high heel shoes that almost make you roll down the stairs. You know that you will never wear that again.”
3. “Wear out some shoes. Use a pedometer to motivate you to walk more. The more steps you take in a day, the faster the shoes wear out.”
4. Avoid the shoe department for a few weeks.
5. “Stop reading the fashion magazine. You fall in love with the picture of the shoes, and not the shoes itself.”
Thanks to Jung and Scheng, I believe have my shoe issue under control. I am back on the path to individuation. Yesterday, I called the trendy little shoe store in Bellingham, and a very nice woman with a nifty Brit accent explained that, because of the heel incident, I could return the boots for credit or replacement. “We will make it right for you.” Thank you, blessed woman! So this morning I packed my ugly boots back in their shoe box, where they belong, wrapped the box in brown paper, and secured it with perhaps more packing tape than was necessary. Then I set the box near the door, ready for a trip to the post office and across the water to the mainland, where this sad story began. I will not receive a refund for the boots, so I will still have to contend with the Visa statement, but I will receive a store credit that will allow me an opportunity to make yet another misstep. And best of all, I WILL NOT HAVE TO LOOK AT THE BOOTS! Furthermore, before I called the shoe store about the return, I went to see my banker about refinancing my house. If I borrow some extra dollars I can eliminate the VISA debt. I probably won’t live long enough to pay off the mortgage, but because of my serious work with Jung, (Plan A) in a year or two I will be so fully individuated that I will attract another fully individuated person to help me with the mortgage, or (Plan B) in the event of my untimely death, my children will inherit the mortgage, yet another wounding by a mother who had a little problem with shoes, among other things.
I prefer to end my little reflection not with Jung’s “shadow” stuff– those aspects of ourselves that make us uncomfortable– but to draw from the myths that Jung used to explain our psyche so effectively. Before the modern age, myths served to guide us on our journey through life. Myths told us who we were and where we came from, where we were going and, better yet, how to get there. They even told us why it all mattered. Nowadays, in the absence of these grand cultural maps, we have to make it up.
I draw you to that remarkable myth, the Old Testament of the Bible, and the beautiful Song of Solomon, an apotheosis to the “Magical Other” if there ever was one. A young woman, a princess, sings of her beloved, a shepherd… a king perhaps, who has stirred her desire and awakened her imagination. She describes his hair as a flock of goats that appear from Mount Gilead, his teeth as a flock of sheep that are even shorn, his neck as the tower of David, “builded for an armoury,” his breasts like two young roes that are twins, feeding among the lilies. In response, the shepherd/king sings back to the princess, complimenting her with a remarkable image, “How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince’s daughter!” How beautiful are thy feet with shoes! Imagine the princess’s feet –pretty little toes, an instep that rises like an invitation, a sculpted heel, leather woven around her ankles and protecting her soles. On the strength of this singular, beautiful image I offer that our problem is not shoes. Or even the compulsion to buy shoes. Our problem is just ugly shoes, shoes that give us blisters or make us roll down the stairs, shoes whose heels fall off, shoes that inspire us to paint our toenails black and order tacky drinks, shoes for which no one says, “What great shoes! Where did you get them?” Jung was right. Our task is to individuate, to grow conscious enough and whole enough to search for and find stunningly beautiful shoes that perfectly fit our feet and our scarred but still vital psyches.
Copyright Payne 2011