On the front page of the Globe and Mail newspaper today (02.11.2022) there was an image that hit me very hard. A large photo of perfectly paired shoes. These were the shoes of the people in Korea who died by trampling at the large Halloween celebration in Seoul. New and old shoes which belonged to men, women, children, young and old. Somehow looking at the shoes made me more aware of the disaster than seeing pictures of the event on television. The use of shoes as a memorial and reminder has a significant meaning for me, and perhaps for many others. Recently in Vancouver, the steps of the Art Gallery were covered by children’s shoes to commemorate the discovery of unmarked graves where indigenous children who died in residential schools in Canada were buried. To the indignation and horror of the indigenous population and all the country’s citizens, there are more remains being found.
Actual piles of shoes, and pictures of piles of shoes, are displayed at Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem Holocaust Remembrance Museum. Perhaps, being a survivor myself, that image stayed with me and symbolized for me mass atrocities and tragic death. The visceral feeling of pain and constriction that I felt, brought after it a feeling of anger. How could human beings disregard human life. There is a song which we used to sing with our children “put yourself in the other person’s shoes”. I tried finding it on YouTube, but found only versions which were unfamiliar to me. The message was the same, but the tune was different. It means, how would you walk and act in the other person’s situation. I would not like to put myself in any of the victim’s shoes in the pictures. Neither would I like to be in the shoes of the perpetrators.
Shoes are inanimate objects. And yet the silent visual image may affect us even harder than some of the horrors we see daily on the news. We get desensitized by the constant barrage of images and sound. I imagine that this is the reason the photo hit me so hard. I was looking at the picture and thinking to myself, the shoes look almost as if they were not worn much. If they were put on the curb, would anyone pick them up to wear? Some cultures have a superstition about using dead people’s shoes, or even hand me down shoes. Perhaps it is because in many poor families the younger children often inherit their older siblings’ shoes, and rarely get new shoes.
There were other pictures I remember, of a large number of shoes, that came to symbolize affluence and frivolous expenditure. Those were Imelda Marcos’ shoes. Therese Reyes, a journalist, writes “As a girl growing up in the Philippines, the first thing I knew about our infamous First Lady Imelda Marcos, is that she owned 3,000 pairs of shoes. I could not imagine how this looked, because the combined number of footwears in our house among a family of four did not even go past 50. I only rotate between four pairs, at most”. For nations where many go barefoot, such a display of riches and selfishness creates resentment. The multitude of shoes became a rallying image for the outbreak of a national revolution which toppled the Marcos regime.
My husband claims that I have too many shoes. That I do not really need more shoes, but can be tempted to add to my shoe collection whenever I see some shoes that tickle my fancy. There is some truth in that. I need a strong will power to restrain myself. I also know the root of this affliction. I was born with a dislocated hip at a time when there were no simple means for early detection. The treatment was a full year in a cast from hip to foot. It started when I was one year old, and the cast was changed every 3 months. Today, infant’s legs are routinely measured, and if one is longer, the baby is diapered in a way that allows the hip to fix itself. In my case, even though I was able to walk, one leg was always a bit shorter than the other, so I always had to have my shoes fixed to accommodate the difference. My shoes were ugly in my eyes. They were never like the other kids’ shoes, and sandals were bulky and looked clumsy. I was in my late 40s when I underwent hip replacement surgery and finally was able to wear any store-bought shoes. The first outing I did, with my husband pushing me in a wheelchair, was to the best fancy shoe store in the area. I bought 3 pairs of good-looking expensive shoes!
I am much more sensible today, and tend to keep shoes until they fall apart. I no longer wear high heels, and gave away many that were in excellent condition. I am still tempted by funky colorful ones. I look for bargains, so that I can justify to myself buying 2-3 pairs. After my third hip operation I tend to go for more sensible shoes, but am not willing to give up great looks. I am a bit embarrassed to indulge myself when there are people suffering floods, famine, war and poverty. Yet I know that depriving myself is not going to change the world. I do not believe that we change anything by depriving ourself. I am aware and care. I would very much want to go to Korea and use my therapy skills to lend a hand and relieve some suffering. I would very much want to assist in areas of natural disaster caused by the latest hurricanes, or in war zones. If I only was even 20 years younger. I learned to be realistic and sensible about the way I can contribute to lessen the suffering in the world. Perhaps the younger therapists I interact with, supervise, inspire and inform, are the ones who will take on the tasks I no longer am able to physically perform. They will put on good heavy boots that will allow them to walk even into muddy places, to administer compassion.
It is somewhat of a miracle that we interact and see each other on the screen, learn, teach, connect, create communities. It is a great part of my life today. I can sit with my comfortable slippers, and you will not see, since only my face, and perhaps my upper body are visible. Still, I miss the mess of shoes, boots and different footwear which are traditionally left inside the door when you gather for a party or just a visit in Canada. My door remains open wherever I am, and the kettle is on. Come in and take off your shoes, or leave them on if it will make you happy!