When my daughters were younger they had in their shared bedroom a dollhouse that their uncle constructed and I finished. It now sits in the garage, its furnishings packed into a plastic tub. The sturdy, yet whimsical wooden abode has star-shaped attic windows and is painted in cheery colors. A clothesline and sandbox sit outside on the heavy scalloped base. Bright paper flowers line the exterior walls, and rugs cut from thick pieces of wool felt used to soften the decoupaged wood-plank interior floors. Some of the furniture was handmade by my brother and upholstered by me. I placed a few wooden bats and friendly ghosts on the attic walls. The home’s original inhabitants were members of a sweet wooden family with yarn hair and soft, homey clothes.
One night some years ago, as I settled in to the girls’ room for our bedtime story routine, I glanced at the dollhouse. All was in neat order, yet in a rather startling parody of urban sprawl and disappearing farmland, that roundheaded family had been displaced by Polly Pockets. A whole brigade of tiny, rubber-clothed, big-haired girlwomen had assumed residence in the folksy home that would have satisfied Rudolph Steiner. The Pollies were all tucked in the attic, sharing two plastic IKEA dollhouse beds. The house was nearly empty otherwise except for footwear: yellow boots and a pair of miniature turquoise blue heels in the kitchen. They stood there, some of the few to escape the hungry vacuum cleaner that ate so much stray Polly footwear, neatly lined up for Pollies to put on the next morning. Nowhere in evidence was the wood spool butter churn or the tiny speckled enamel dishes.
Change is good. Often. Usually. Sometimes. We should all have so many opportunities to grow, explore, and evolve. Change is also really, really hard because with it comes loss, disappointment, endings, new challenges, new fears, and regrets. With these young folks we raise, we set out with so many intentions and ideals and at certain points have to choose between saying, “NO! THIS IS HOW IT’S GOING TO BE!!” or “Oh, so, this is how it’s going to be.” With all things Polly Pockets, Land Before Time, and American Girl Dolls, I chose the latter. This was not necessarily easy. There was a lot of internal kicking and screaming on my part as I let go of visions of beeswax, faceless dolls, and simple wooden toys. Polly Pockets were only a step away from Bratz dolls – highly sexualized and intentionally misspelled. And the entire Land Before Time franchise had Cretaceous and Jurassic dinosaurs frolicking together. And those sweet, whiter than white, plucky American Girls? Well, they represented, and continue to represent, such a narrow way of being an actual American girl.
I entered into family life, both marriage and parenting, with ideals and plans. I was determined and purposeful as to what sort of family we would form, what sort of partnership we would have, and how I would raise my children with regard to food, media, toys, time in nature, clothing fibers, and so on. And then it all began with such momentum that I felt at constant terminal velocity. I was suddenly, unexpectedly pregnant. It was a Wednesday in the middle of the school week and I peed on about five test sticks before believing the results. I was already nearly through my first trimester and during the following seven months of pregnancy we made and changed many plans, and then we had a baby girl. I had discovered that my marriage was not the partner adventure I thought it would be. I soon discovered financial responsibilities beyond my planning, long teaching days, pumping breast milk in bathroom stalls, crying unexpectedly, and finding myself in unwanted competitive urban preschool discussions. Eventually, those plans resulted in a move from Chicago, another baby girl, and finally an overdue divorce. Change is good.
After my divorce from the girls’ dad, I committed to a small post-divorce rental home. We had half of a duplex within walking distance of the school where I taught and the girls learned. Our neighbors were most certainly not ideal and our space was limited but it worked – well. Our pets were happy with our small yard, and my cleaning time was limited by the square footage. As far as upkeep, I didn’t have to mow, make repairs, clean gutters, or do any of the other things that home ownership requires and for which I utterly lacked time, money, and energy. Sometimes I longed for a house and then I pictured the girls and myself huddled in the last room standing, probably the bathroom, as the house fell down around us for lack of time, money, and skill. So, renters we would be until the kids were big enough to effectively push a mower and wield a wrench.
We may not have had a house but we did have a home. I improved our little abode with paint and a few other things. I embarked on the painting right after school let out for the year, trying to get things done before heading up to Michigan for a family visit. The Southern Indiana summer heat can come early and that year followed an extended period of spring rains that left our small property a lush, dense jungle. I had seriously considered entertaining a friend’s goats for a day or two to clear back some brush. A few of my painting nights were steamy. Late one sweltering evening after the girls were tucked in, I tackled the high kitchen walls that sloped to a skylit cathedral above the cabinets. My painting clothes were filthy so I decided to go without. My older daughter came out for a drink of water to find her naked mother standing on the kitchen counter, listening to a book on CD, drinking wine from a jelly jar, and turning the walls into a the color of a milky latte. I did not envy her startling view. The next day some family friends were over and she shared with them her late night shock. One friend joked that I should have just painted a bikini on, illustrating by swiping his arm as though rolling a roller once across his chest and once across his pelvis. We all laughed. I realized at that moment that in the not-too-distant past I could have pulled that off as a cute, sexy solution. In that moment though, tired, saddled with a few extra pounds and breasts that had been employed in feeding my babes’ bodies and brains for two three-year stretches . . Me in the buff with a roller was reminiscent of my mother in the eighties, doing Richard Simmons’ “Sweatin to the Oldies” in her underwear. Change is good.
Like Polly Pockets, I like boots. I always have. I used to wear a lot of boots. These days, however, my boot wearing habits have been severely curtailed by my rheumatoid arthritis stricken feet. My most recent shoe purchase was yet another pair of super comfortable rubber clogs. They are so unattractive, yet so comfortable. Still, many years of waitressing, teaching, hiking, and otherwise taking on the world honed my love of substantial footwear. I am also a child of the seventies, 1970 to be precise, and I grew up surrounded by boots: platform, leather, lace, fringe, and the classic Frye. My mother has often related a story about one of the SDS leaders on her college campus and a pair of Frye boots. I think the point of the story was twofold: A poor young mom who was a college student and dental assistant for a handsy dentist was trying to maintain fighting the good fight while dealing with diapers, bedtimes, peanut butter sandwiches, and sexual harassment encountered an unencumbered white male anti-war leader that told her to free herself from conventional trappings. This while she was pushing a baby in one stroller and wearing another and he was parading around in pricey boots with an air of privilege unique to his race, gender, and class.
There are many theories about what our footwear says about us. With boots, the statement is modified by the style of boot. Height of boot and height of heel can differentiate between secure and insecure, confident or aggressive, thoughtful leader or brash taker of charge. Pointed toe or round toe, comfortable or uncomfortable, attention getting or functional? What it means depends on who is assessing you based on your footwear. Nikki Minaj’s outrageous boots mean she needs attention while Lady Gaga’s improbable footwear makes her zen. Ankle boots might mean you are fun or aggressive. All of this I learned on the internet.
One thing seems true, boots are false bravado. That’s fair. Kiss can tell you that. When Joyce Carol Oates wrote her perfectly discomfiting short story, “Where are You Going Where Have you Been?” she put the story’s creepy antagonist, Arnold Friend, in boots. He stuffs his boots with rags to boost his slight height, even though it makes him walk like Jack Sparrow. According to Oates, the story was inspired by a Life magazine story about the serial killer Charles Schmid (The Pied Piper of Tucson), who, like Friend, was an older man that preyed on adolescent girls. Oates dedicated the story to Bob Dylan, citing the influence of his haunting song, “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” Despite Oates’s explanation of her own work, one cannot read the story and not think of Dylan himself in the role of Friend. A pied piper himself, the slight-statured Dylan also lifted himself in heels. Just as the predatory Friend circled around the teens, Dylan hung on to Woody Guthrie until he could find his own hangers on and then he ate all the meat out of Joan Baez’s stew.
So yes, boots may be dishonest. They may be hopeful. They may be armor. My boots may be as obvious as the boots of Arnold Friend and Bob Dylan but they are also as badass as the boots of Kathleen Cleaver and Bernardine Dohrn, which were not dishonest. They were both sexy and militant. They placed the feet of the wearers firmly in the counterculture without giving way to the gentle and ineffective bare feet of the hippies. Bare feet dance in the mud. Boots can march.
My Frye motorcycle boots were my favorite footwear for many years. I bought them on an ebay auction and I loved them for their sheer ass-kicking attitude. When the hour at which you swing your legs out of bed, often negotiating the tangled limbs of a sleeping child, is exceptionally early, and the hour at which you submit to the same bed, often gingerly crawling over a sleeping child, is unreasonably late, your feet need some solid lift in-between. When you spend long days caring for so many others’ children, parenting your own young children, walking dogs, and otherwise taking care of business, your footing needs to be firm. When you are holding tenuously, yet grippingly, to control over life while surrendering to the ever-changing dynamics of classroom and home, you need firm-footing. Steel toes are good too. I loved good hiking boots, Blundstones, my red cowgirl boots, My grey suede boots that I swiped from my sister, and my shearling lined boots that lace up and make me feel like I should be wearing my old corduroy pants and listening to Fleetwood Mac while riding around in a Chevy van. Boots give heft to my feet while rooting me to the ground. They push back against the Earth and they are a little bit of everyday armor. Boots are made for walking so if you have them on, you are always up for whatever you may walk into. Like a Pollie all snuggled with her sister dolls in some sort of sapphic sleepover, you are ready to roll out of the attic, lace up those boots, and take on the world. None of this may be what you planned but all of it is what you have and it is glorious.
One day years ago our amorphous playgroup of similar-minded parents was playing at one of our local parks. In some circles, I was the weird hippie mom. In this circle, I was the conventional career mom. Everything is relative. In all circles I was an immodest mom with naked children so I didn’t bat an eye at the potty training child who was running around sans pants. Suddenly, the pantsless little boy had to poop. His mother realized his sudden stillness and semi-crouch too late so she considerately put her hand beneath his bottom, catching his little pile so as not to pollute the park. All of the moms came to a shared pause, watching the moment. I quickly offered the baby wipes I had in my car. I was already up, boots on pavement, moving toward the parking lot for a plastic bag and wipes. I was a career mom. I did work outside the home while raising little people. I was a cloth diaper mom at home; a homemade wipe mom at home. By this time though, I had a second baby and so as to never repeat a particular drive-inn movie experience that involved watching Finding Nemo and affixing a pillowcase from the snuggle pile in the car onto my daughter after she quickly polluted the available cloth diapers and wipes and then watching the rest of the movie in a car that smelled like an outhouse, I unapologetically carried portable and easy provisions. The mom with the handful of shit cocked her head and asked thoughtfully, “what brand?”
“Excuse me? Oh, Target, unscented.”
She was thoughtful again, her upward facing shit-bearing palm like some sort of yoga mudra. “No thanks.”
I resumed playing with my kids. The other moms were uncomfortable and embarrassed and many of them talked to me later, concerned for my feelings. They assured me that they would have accepted my toxic wipes. To be clear, it seemed universally accepted that the wipes were a bit offensive. I suppose they were. I get it. But we make choices regarding our compromises and these wipes were one of mine. Still, you know what’s really toxic? Shit. It’s what our bodies expel. It carries all the diseases and infections. If you give me a choice between palm full of shit and Target wipe, I will take Target wipe every day. And if you give me a choice between the Pollies so lovingly cared for over the little wooden people I wanted my girls to love, I will always choose the sincere whims of their true hearts.
Those yellow boots so garishly footholed in the tender kitchen of the dollhouse were placed there with love and those improbably proportioned toe walkers sleeping in the attic were going to get up and slide them on and face the world – whatever it brings.