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The other day I walked into my 15-year-old’s room. She was sitting on the bed reading “Harry Potter” in one hand and playing Dragonvale on her iPod Touch with the other. I don’t know why that shocked me. More often than not she’s sitting in front of the television, nose to the Nintendo as if she were watching Criminal Minds with the top of her head. Double duty with electronics is one thing, that I’ve learned to accept. But a book. We’re talking literature here. Maybe it wouldn’t’ve seemed quite so abrasive if she were reading it on, say, a Kindle. But this was J.K. Rowling, papered and bound – and in hardcover no less!
Here’s the thing. Our mothers never “multi-tasked.” They just got it done. Whatever needed doing, they up and did it, juggling twelve things at once without needing a medal or a label to pin it on. If there was a problem they talked to you, they didn’t text it. If they needed something they ran to the store, they didn’t shop online. And when you had something to say, they gave your their attention – in person! Remember the term “one-on-one”? When did we replace it with facetime?
I worry about the world we’re building, not just the problems we’re passing on, but the way we’re allowing them to be dealt with – or not. It’s quicker to type a message on your phone than it is to weather an actual conversation. It’s less taxing to half-watch a television show when you can break up the drama with a little DS action. And it requires less imagination to read a book when you can edit in level 3 of Jetpack Joyride. But it’s all so less fulfilling, at least for those of us who would rather hug a friend than like them on facebook.
What scares me I guess is not so much losing contact with others, but losing contact with ourselves. Who are we when we can’t look into someone else’s eyes to see some small portion of existence beyond our own? To glimpse in the most fundamental way, our place in this world, because all of us have one. Something there is that doesn’t love a text. And I – I took the road less tweeted, and that has made all the difference.
When I was the same age as my eighth-grade daughter, I wrote my first poem. It began, “At fourteen and a half years old I find it hard when I am told …” and concluded with, “… in middle age they’re in a bind and take it out on me.” I’m sure I thought I hit the nail on the insightful head. (Though I recall my mother asking at the time, “Can’t you write something positive?” and me thinking, “Huh?”)
This week all across Florida children in grades 3 through 35 (I believe that’s what grade I’m in now) are subject to the dreaded state-administered FCAT tests. While it’s the kids who actually sit for them, for parents watching the culmination of months of grueling study, it feels like a week of trial by academic fire as well.
The first such test this year was the writing FCAT, a subject near and dear to my heart, and I was not going in, via child-proxy or no, unprepared. That morning I cooked up a mess o’ blueberry pancakes, my daughter’s favorite and sat smiling at she lobbed them down. I didn’t want my delicate flower to wither on the way to school on her usual bus so I drove her, we’re talking 6:15 in the bleary-eyed morning, all the way across town. My angel slept the whole time, her head mashed against the window, and in my every effort not to disturb her, I even lowered the volume on Springsteen, my version of quiet in the car.
When we arrived at school, I puckered up, all my words of wisdom, encouragement and overbearing assurance on the ready, and was about to send my splendid little soldier into the standardized testing fray, when her car door flew open. I watched as she all but dropped and rolled onto the asphalt, slammed the car door shut and was gone. As I witnessed her slight, brooding figure recede into a whole nation of slight brooding figures, I almost smiled. I said, almost. You’d think she would’ve been a little more sensitive. After all, it was the FCAT’s. I could’ve used a hug.
Later that day, when I picked her up after school, she informed me the writing FCAT was, of course, No Big Deal. (To her!) She then proceeded to recount a conversation she had had with her favorite teacher that day, about how I had made her an awesome breakfast that morning and after driving her all the way to school, had given her an awesome hug (huh?) after which she sprang from the car with an awesome smile on her face (double HUH?) which she carried with her the rest of her awesome day. And the whole time she’s telling me this, I’m thinking, Who were you hugging this morning and where was I?
They say reality is perception. I think I was pretty much on the money when I was fourteen and half, though I’m ready to revise that poem now: In adolescence they’re in a bind and take it out on – here we go again! And to think I lowered Bruce.
I used to work with kids in care. This was twenty years ago when I was still living in New York. They gave me the position of recreation therapist though I had no claims on either part of that title. My job was basically to entertain the children in the live-in facility in which they were sequestered on Long Island. Most of the residents, boys between the ages of 8 to 18 years old, were from some of the most distressed neighborhoods of New York City: East New York, Bedford Stuyvesant, Harlem, you get the picture. They were sent there not because of anything they did, but because their parents were either offenders, users, incompetent or what I thought to be among the most heart-breaking reasons, just not interested in being parents.
I was the campus anomaly. For all appearances, and you know what they’re worth, I didn’t belong there. I thought the kids would have a hard time with me being different but they didn’t. The staff didn’t talk to me for six months, a fact that took my good intentions by surprise, but kids are kids. They didn’t care.
One day I was sitting in the common room and one of the littler boys sat down next to me. He must’ve heard me mention that I’d lived in Jerusalem for a few years. Jerusalem was at that time, and remains to this day, the city of my heart, my true home. And when I talk about Jerusalem, as you can see, I don’t hold back. I don’t remember what I said, but I do know that whenever I talked about myself to the kids and staff alike, it was a little like a Martian translating her last trip down the Milky Way. I got a lot of blank stares, vacant smiles. The connections I made there were seldom based on where I had been, but where these kids were coming from.
Except this one time. The boy sat down next to me, waited for my full attention and proudly placed a book in my hands. Then he gave me a great smile, one of those beauts from the inside out. I looked down. On the book’s gravelly surface was inscribed in gold, “Jerusalem Bible.” To look at this boy’s face just then, you would’ve thought he had handed me the moon. It didn’t matter that that Bible was not my Bible, that it did not represent even a shred of relevance to the spiritual side of Jerusalem that I knew so well and treasured. Because the gift wasn’t the book he had handed me. The gift was purely and simply his intention to stand there in my shoes. And as wholly and utterly off base as that little boy was was, he somehow succeeded brilliantly.
This morning my 10-year-old son was describing what was apparently an unusually large iguana that had made its way through a fence during recess. With a good deal of exhilaration he proceeded to describe this lost reptilian soul who sounded positively gargantuan. He then punctuated this schoolyard bulletin with a declaration that fell more like a punch line. Eyes wide, arms even wider, he exploded, “He was five feet long!”
A five-foot-long iguana on Lincoln Street. I wasn’t convinced. I said, I doubt he was actually five feet. “That would make him as long as I am tall.”
“No, Mom!” My son’s exasperation was unchecked. “Not in your feet – in mine!”
Boy, he told me. In his feet. How else would you measure an iguana? I had to turn away when he said it, I didn’t want him to think I was laughing at him when I was really laughing at myself. What’s wrong with us that we measure everything with the same tired yardstick? Why is everything set in inches, ounces, dollars, all rolled into the same predictable equations we think will balance our lives but never do? Why don’t we ever measure anything in our own feet? Why do we hold ourselves up the world, instead of holding the world up to us, the way children do?
The rest of the way to school we were silent, listening to the music of the radio, listening to ourselves. When I checked the rear view mirror, I could see my son dreaming out the window. He was smiling. I think the rest of the day, I never really got out of that car. Even sitting through meetings at work, rushing the pasta aisle of the supermarket, walking the dogs. I had a piece of my son’s smile on my face all day, thanks to a five-foot-long iguana.
When my Aunt Bertha passed away some ten years ago, my cousin, her daughter, handed me a box. It wasn’t a formal inheritance, but it wasn’t a formality either. My real grandmother had died when I was five and over the years I think Aunt Bertha had tried to fill in for my Nanny, who was her older sister.
Aunt Bertha was a good friend to my mother. And throughout her life she remained a presence in mine, popping up to nudge me with cautions and praise and when I moved away, news of my parents (though I talked to them far more than I did her). Somehow her, “I spoke to mother – everything’s okay,” always delivered with as much gravity as it was certainty, never failed to make me smile, if not chuckle out loud. There was no news Aunt Bertha wasn’t made to deliver and when there was no news, she delivered that too.
But if you ever needed a role model for a woman who embraced life, who never sat for a moment (rumor has it when she hosted my parents, my mother awoke at five in the morning to find her outside sweeping the street), who came into her own at a time when women were told to take a back seat – apparently whoever came up with that never rode with her – my Aunt Bertha would do in a pinch. And then some.
A few years before we lost her, I was directing a film festival. Aunt Bertha showed up for opening night in a perfect pair of purple spiked heels. The woman was already well in to her 70′s. And let me tell you, no one in that packed ballroom, and I mean no one, out shown Aunt Bertha that night. For some reason, I was never so proud of her. Or tickled by her. How do we know these things, anyway? I knew she wore those crazy purple pumps for me. And that was perfect too because I was feeling very purple that night.
When she passed away, my cousin handed me a box. Inside were her perfect purple spikes. I can’t wear them, Aunt Bertha was a diminutive size 5. But all told, those shoes will always fit me perfectly.
Some five years ago, a little more, we were in Ukraine in a town an hour west of Kiev adopting our daughter and son. They were living in two separate orphanages or internats as they were called.
Every afternoon my husband and I would travel between the two and every day after lunch when we arrived at our son’s dormitory, roused from his nap he would scramble out of his miniature bed, toy-like and set in a rows straight out of Madeline. He would don a pair of denim overalls too big for his lanky four-year-old body. All knees – and I worried that, wondering if rickets was only for pirates – he would end the ritual by hastily fastening a pair of what appeared to be foam rubber shoes over his stockinged feet. It didn’t matter whether he fastened them or not. They always fell off.
I used to watch this ritual with a combination of amusement and fascination. I grew up with my first pair of baby shoes bronzed and on display. My son never knew that kind of familial folk art. Up until we arrived on the scene, he had little knowledge of anything familial. All he had was his sister, our daughter, who with her goodness kept him alive. For all I knew, he never had real shoes to that point.
That was the first time, sitting there watching our son struggle with what was left of two Velcro clasps, that I had the thought, kids need shoes. You hear it your whole life. Children are starving in some part of the world. Poverty. Natural disaster. War. The reasons don’t matter to the children. They just need shoes. I think that was the first time it hit me. The first time I had that thought. Standing there with my new son, in his little foam rubber soles. Kids needs shoes.