I was with the wife of a patient earlier today, talking about life, love, illness, aging, death and dying. A resilient and resolute woman born in Italy and raised during the war, her stories drew me in. She was short in stature. Her marriage was long and her stories grand. As she spoke, she was inviting, gentle and seemingly larger than life.
At one point, remarking about how handsome her husband was when they first met, she said, “We have a saying where I come from, ‘Every shoe becomes a slipper.”
We chuckled but her words echoed within me long after the visit was over. I’ve heard and said many shoe idioms and phrases: If the shoe fits, wear it; she’s a goody two shoes; walk a mile in someone’s shoes; waiting for the other shoe to drop and the like. But this one stirred up something within me. It invited me to reflect on the nature of life and living.
Every shoe becomes a slipper.
As a woman with long and wide feet, I know how hard it is to find shoes that fit. I’m not proud to admit it, but there have been many times when I have purchased shoes that were far too tight. I also know the joy and relief when shoes that were once tight become comfortable. When they feel as if they were made for you. When your stride becomes sure and steady. And given how hard I can be on shoes, I also know what it’s like when worn and comfortable shoes become well worn to the point where no amount of shoe polish will make a difference. Even a trip to the cobbler for shoe repair would be in vain. They will never be what they were.
I had a pair of tan leather and snakeskin Maryjane shoes that I loved. When I saw them, I knew immediately that I had to have them. Sitting in the window of Tano shoe store at the Cross County Mall in Yonkers, NY, I imagined them with skirts and dresses, jeans and slacks. They were conservative in style and edgy in print. They were perfect for me. When I saw them, I was visiting my parents home in NY. At the time I was a struggling graduate student at Howard University. Struggling. This matters to the story because when I entered the store, I picked the shoes up and saw the $120.00 price tag. My struggling self was not deterred. I tried the shoes on in the largest size the store carried and they were tight. Foot squeezed in and price tag way beyond my budget, I remained determined to purchase the shoes. So I did. I wore them that night to a lounge in NYC with friends. They were cute and uncomfortable. This was 1999. Over time, they became comfortable and remained my favorite pair of shoes. I wore those shoes several days a week for years on end. I took them to the cobbler countless times to have the sole repaired. They moved with me from Maryland (where I was living while at Howard), to New York for my first real job as a photography teacher at the Rye Country Day School, to my first year as a seminarian at the Theological School at Drew University. I can remember the last time I took them to the cobbler. The leather was worn. Threads were coming from the seams. The imprint of my foot was recognizable. And the sole was beyond repair. Their days were numbered. Really, it appeared their days were over.
But I couldn’t let them go. So these beloved shoes went from being used to put my best foot forward to being worn to take out the trash or run down to the car to grab something that I’d left behind. These once dancing shoes, teaching shoes, standing flat footed and preaching shoes became what my grandmother would call “house shoes.”
Every shoe becomes a slipper.
And isn’t that how our lives are if we a blessed with long life. We start out young and fresh, vibrant and healthy, moving through life with confidence and ease. And then we have experiences that stretch us, season us, and strengthen us to not only live into the joys, but face the challenges and obstacles that come our way. We feel heartache. We deal with the grief that comes from losing loved ones. We face hardships at home or our places of employment. We raise children in an uncertain world. We wrestle with the very present societal ills all around us in education, healthcare, housing, employment and other systems that should be life giving for all. We care for aging parents. We live in bodies that ache us and sometimes manage multiple illnesses and disease. Our skin wrinkles and we shrink and lose our faculties. We gain wisdom and knowledge from our lived experience, but that seems to be about the only thing we gain. Once confident, we become dependent and feel inadequate. We go from being needed and useful, to feeling like a burden confined to our homes or a facility.
Every shoe becomes a slipper.
But not all is lost. What I experienced with those tan and snakeskin Mary Janes and what I heard from my patient’s wife is that shoes that become slippers are beloved, still worthy of care, still useful in their own way. Shoes that become slippers don’t walk everywhere, but they inhabit intimate spaces where not many can be. They are not easily discarded. It was evident with that wife that she loved her husband as much, if not more, than she loved him the first day they met. Comfortable love. Intimate love. Enduring love. Well worn love. And that love was going to keep her by his side for as long as he has breath in his body.
So I invite you, Dear Reader, whatever stage of life you are in, to number your days, to embrace where you are, and to see your worth as a child of God—whether young and energetic or seasoned and slowed down, you are beloved, worthy of care, and have value to add to the lives of those you encounter.
Gracious God, help us to be present where we are, as we are. Teach us to number our days, to accept each day as a gift, and to trust you in the living of our days. And as the years go by, open our eyes to the beauty and wisdom that comes with age. Give us courage to accept the limitations of our bodies and minds as we age. And grant us your grace all the days of our lives. In Jesus name, Amen.