You might ask why I recently found myself walking barefoot the six blocks to my home, at night, in late winter. I’d realized too late that I left my shoes in the baby’s room at my daughter’s house just as she was beginning the bedtime routine, and retrieving them would disrupt that process. But I had to go home. My daughter’s shoes were too small for me, her husband’s too big, and I hadn’t worn socks. So I did a quick calculation – not too cold, no snow on the ground, not too far. Sure, I could make it. So I set off in the dark – barefoot.
Here’s what I didn’t expect – those six blocks became an adventure.
Immediately I realized that my notion of sidewalks was flawed. These were not the smooth, creamy surfaces of my imagination; no, these sidewalks were spiky and prickly, studded with a million uneven pebbles. Yikes! This was painful! So I quickly veered into lawns, where the grass, after a rainy day, was still wet. While most houses had lawns, some didn’t, so I found myself leaping from sidewalk to mulch to lawn over and over again, trying to find the least painful surface.
When was the last time I walked barefoot on grass? I couldn’t remember the last time. Doing so brought back childhood memories of summer evenings dashing through yards with my neighborhood gang. I had loved that time of day, hovering on the edge of a dark scary night, yet knowing we wouldn’t hover too long, because soon our moms would be calling us home. I felt once again the wildness, the freedom of childhood.
But there’s another thing about walking on people’s lawns in the dark: it feels vaguely criminal. I’m a 71-year-old woman and it’s been a long time since I broke the law. And now I was trespassing! It felt pretty good.
There were other challenges, too. Some people were out walking, and I had to cross a big street. What did I look like? I was an old woman walking barefoot at night. I looked homeless, that’s what. And I felt a bit homeless as well. It didn’t feel bad. My inner raggedy self seemed to step forward, the self that connects with homeless old women everywhere, that feels not so different from them. There’s something fierce about this raggedy self, fierce and scary, and I felt empowered, feeling this toughness. Would I scare people? Maybe. That felt just fine.
The sidewalks felt especially prickly the last few blocks, and I worried. What if, when I got home, the soles of my feet were covered with blood? What if I bled to death? But when I got home and turned on the light, there was no blood, not even dirt. The soles of my feet looked sturdy and strong. Actually, my feet looked pretty young. They looked ready to do it again. I was proud.
It wasn’t until I woke in the middle of the night that I remembered – feet had been a theme in my day. Earlier that morning, I’d seen a photo that was haunting, harshly compelling. It showed a morgue, with the camera focused on the bare feet of the dead. There they were, lifeless, some angled in strange positions, and though I couldn’t touch them, these feet looked very cold. I hadn’t thought about this photo during my six-block walk, but thinking about it that night took my breath away.
The simple act of not wearing shoes on a cold winter night turned out to be thrilling. What was it about that barefoot journey that made me feel so deeply alive? Perhaps it was feeling like a child again, with a child’s sense of freedom and wonder. Perhaps it was because my escapade, which could have turned out very badly, ended up instead as a victory. But a victory for who? Perhaps for old women everywhere, who may still have a surprise or two up their sleeves. And more than anything, the power of this adventure might be the jarring juxtaposition of the cold still feet in that photo with my own strong, moving feet, my realization that both kinds of feet are mine, the strong ones in the present and the cold, still ones not that far in the future. In my best moments, this sober truth helps me live better.
I’m glad I risked going barefoot on a cold winter night. I’d do it again. Want to join me?