On Shoes and Grief

Shoes by Vincent van Gogh, 1888

Shoes by Vincent van Gogh, 1888

My favorite sneakers are falling apart, and I can’t bear to let them go. The outsole is dangling; the toe cap has come unattached; the stitching and laces are discolored beyond repair. I’ve worn these shoes nearly every day for the past year. It feels arbitrary to mark now, right now, as the current moment in which their state has become unfit for continued use. And if they truly are unfit, what do I do with them — toss them in the trash?

“No one throws away / his shoes,” goes the 1969 poem “The Shoes” by Galway Kinnel. “The feet / have to die out of them / to be free.”

There’s a grief that comes with the end of the lifespan of a pair of shoes. My Reeboks have dulled from white to grey; they have torn at the seams and flattened under my weight. They’re like a mirror and a prophecy, showing me how I’ve aged since I’ve purchased them, and how I’ll keep aging until I die. It’s morbid and melodramatic, I know. But they’re my shoes—like an extension of my body. “The feet / have to die out of them / to be free.”

A lot of poets anthropomorphize their shoes, lending them life. Charles Simic’s “My Shoes” begins, “Shoes, secret face of my inner life: / Two gaping toothless mouths.” Or “The Shoes” by Brent Pallas, which describes the arrival of a new pair, “When they first came / their mouths agape / their bodies shining.” And then there’s Francisco X. Alarcón’s “Ode to My Shoes,” the first three stanzas of which go:

my shoes
all night
under my bed

they stretch
and loosen
their laces

wide open
they fall asleep
and dream
of walking

Oh god, my shoes are tired — they sleep and when they sleep they dream. To throw them away feels like a small death, a terrible loss.

When Joan Didion’s husband John Gregory Dunne died suddenly, there was a lot to do. There was calling the family, planning the funeral, contacting the obituary writer at the New York Times. Then it was time to donate his clothes. Dunne had a large closet, and Didion knew every item in it as if it were her own. She writes in her book The Year of Magical Thinking that she couldn’t touch the suit and the shirts and the jackets, “but I thought I could handle what remained of the shoes, a start.”

Then she stopped in her tracks and realized: “I could not give away the rest of his shoes. . . [H]e would need shoes if he was to return.”

Later, a doctor phoned to inquire about whether or not Didion would like to donate Dunne’s organs. Her first instinct was to say no. “How could he come back if they took his organs, how could he come back if he had no shoes?”

On HBO’s The Leftovers, a sudden rapturous event saw 2% of the world’s population disappear. Grace Playford of Australia was at the grocery store when it happened. “The register girl vanished right in front of me,” she says. “She was holding my box of Weet-Bix. Took it with her.”

Grace knew immediately what had happened. “The Rapture,” she calls it. When she arrived home, she found six Bibles in a nice, neat row at the local chapel — one bible for her husband, and one for each of her five children. She felt peace when she saw the Bibles. “I felt so blessed because God showed me; he gave me confirmation shat my family now sat by his side.”

Until two years later, when she received a phone call. Remains had been found on her property. “The remains of children. Just bones. Bleached in the sun.”

They had been lost in the desert, searching. “They had no way of knowing if I was ever coming home or if I had simply vanished like their father had.” Grace had never even thought to search for them — “I thought they had gone, you see? Gone with everyone else.”

But the remains yielded more questions than answers. “When they found their bodies,” Grace recalls, “it was clear that they’d been walking for quite some time. But their shoes were missing.”

“They weren’t here at the house, they weren’t with the kids. I’ve covered the ground in between a hundred times. Looked through every pair donated to charity inside a hundred kilometers. . . . Their shoes were missing.”

After a Jewish person is buried, mourners return home — ideally to the home of the deceased — and sit shiva for seven days. During the shiva week, mourners observe certain rules to respect the dead. Mourners are denied the comfort of wearing leather shoes, which are regarded as especially comfortable in Jewish tradition. This is symbolic of “personal mortification and a disregard of vanity and comfort, in order better to concentrate on the deeper meaning of life.” Wearing cloth slippers, socks, or going barefoot is “a sign of being humbled by loss.”  

My shoes sit quietly in the corner of my bedroom. They’ll remain there for as long as I need them to. To throw them away feels like a small death, a terrible loss.

Sophia Stewart