The 3:30 Project is a collaborative blog by three life long friends: Maggie, Mary Margaret and Jillian. Now that summer has officially arrived, the time for kicking off your shoes and feeling the grass between your toes, we bring you stories of going barefoot!
When I look at my bare feet, I think of my mother.
It seems to me that 90% of what it means to be a woman you learn by the time you’re three years old. You learn it from your mother, just from looking at her and watching her move and listening to her tones.
I studied my mother. I watched her curl her hair, I noticed the blackness of her mascara-ed eyelashes and the redness of her lipsticked lips. I touched her smooth, shaved legs. The thing that captivated me perhaps most of all was her bright, colorful, beautiful, perfect toenails. They were different shades of pink and red all the time, from neutral to bold, sometimes flecked with gold. Her toenails were never bare. In my memory, they were never even chipped.
As I grew into a teenager, I realized how much discipline and attention it takes to pull off the consistent, daily performance of femininity – the hair, the hair products, the hair removal, the creams and pumices, the makeup and the nail polish. I realized that my mother has that kind of discipline and attention, and I realized that I will never have that. And I decided it wasn’t something I wanted for myself anyway – I don’t want to fret about a perfect appearance, I want to leave my mind free for other thoughts.
Now, when summertime arrives, I paint my toenails like I’m supposed to and then I forget all about it. I just go about my life, to work or to church or to Fourth of July picnics, with my toes peeking out, blissfully unaware of the weeks-old polish flaking away.
But occasionally I see my toenails with the polish halfway eroded and I think to myself, That is shameful. And then I smile, because it reminds me of something so old and universal. Something about the way a little girl looks at her mother, something about the innumerable things that you learn just from watching her. And something about that part of you that, despite all the growing up and changing and rejecting and discovering, will always wish you could be just a little bit more like her.
I have organized a large part of my life around my desire to not wear shoes. As a Martial Arts instructor, I teach all of my classes in bare feet; in my home, I don’t wear shoes; and, in between, I try to wear sandals as much as possible. Since I live in Florida, this is socially and seasonably acceptable.
One side effect of my barefoot lifestyle is that I spend a LOT of time vacuuming and mopping. Every day our training floor must be vacuumed (sometimes twice), and at least once a week we clean and sanitize the mat. A fellow instructor once told my husband and me that “when you clean the mat you clean your soul.”
At the time I thought he had gone off the deep end.
But with time, I have come to appreciate that lifting the dust, dirt and grime off the mat and being constantly vigilant about foot fungus is good for my soul (pun intended).
I find that the daily ritual of vacuuming the mat very soothing. I’ll listen to a podcast, strap one of my daughters on our baby back pack, and the white noise of the vacuum cleaner will lull her to sleep. It’s a peaceful, cuddly weightlifting exercise.
Having grown up in the church, I have heard at least 30 sermons (probably more) on the The Last Supper and particularly the moment when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Most of the sermons emphasize how humbling this was because the disciples probably had disgusting feet – they walked everywhere, lived in a desert climate, had no running water, etc. But it wasn’t until I began my daily practice of cleaning up after other’s people’s feet that these sermon illustrations really hit home, and I have come to appreciate how much dirt people pick up and leave behind with their feet, but also how nice it is to clean away the dirt you pick up every day.
I feel like my feet probably look a lot like the disciples’ feet – calloused ,and by the end of most days, they’re pretty dirty. But they’re also tough – I can walk across most surfaces unprotected by sock or shoe. In my baptism, my head was sprinkled with water, symbolizing the washing away of sin, but nothing feels cleaner to me than having my feet cleaned and clearing away the dust and dirt from the day.
There is so much that comes at us every day. So many stories to hear, so many issues to care about, so many things that taking a few minutes to clear away the the grime and leaving your sole fresh and refreshed can be good for your spirit and your sole.
The first thing I do when I walk into my apartment? Take off my shoes. Aside from the sanitary benefits of not wearing New York City pavement-pounders all over my floors, removing my shoes is my signal to myself that I’m home. I instantly feel more comfortable and like myself when I’ve achieved foot freedom- Closest to my natural state of being. If I could safely go barefoot more places, I would. But you know, glass and dog poop, so freedom has its limits.
The human spectrum of reaction to the uncovered foot, ranging from lust to disgust is expansive, but whether you loathe or delight in toes, to me there’s something so visceral and immediate about the uncovered foot’s connection to memories. The physical sense of the ground, temperatures and textures, earthen or manmade, wet or dry, solid or crumbling surfaces—these feelings come yoked to my recollections as if I could feel their matter beneath my toes once more. Being barefoot seems to make my sense of place more immediately and firmly etched into mind. Smell, taste and sound connect more intimately to my emotional memory—how I felt in a moment—but the feel of a place is under my feet. For instance:
The lacquered wooden beams and pebbly mats of every yoga studio I’ve ever entered. No wonder yoga has been my favorite form of physical activity for over a decade, since it’s rather unique in being safely practiced sans footwear. I feel most grounded in my own physical self on my mat, digging my toes down, acknowledging gravity and the connection from toe to ball, to heel, to every other part of my body.
Cool, smooth, richly ornamented carpets of the mosques I visited in the Middle East. As my head was covered, so were my feet uncovered to respect these spaces. Thinking of leaving my shoes in small cubby holes by the door to tiptoe lightly across the rugs, threadbare from the thousands that came before me to visit and pray at these sights, instantly brings me back to the year I spent in East Jerusalem, and traveling in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Egypt.
Cool, hard stone floors of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. I’ve long loved the annual Maundy Thursday practice of foot washing in my congregation. We wash and are washed, literally touching the bare feet of people we only casually know. If you aren’t a pedicurist, you’d probably never do this, and for me, I’ve found it to be a palpable reminder of the kind of humility Jesus calls us to. If he could wash the dust covered feet of His Disciples, surely we can at least bring ourselves to pour some water over the foot of an elderly choir director, finding some holiness in humbleness.
Shorelines: mud, grits, pebbles, sand, stones, debris. Many places I’ve been blessed to visit- in Italy, the Middle East, East and West Coasts– had some body of water, affording the chance to step directly into the soil and water of the land. This can be a perilous pursuit. Jetty rocks are often sharp, creatures in the sand may pinch or sting, icy water may cause your toes to numb, but allowing no barrier between you and Mother Nature invites a fullness of experience impossible with barriers of rubber, leather or canvas blocking the way.
Is this perhaps the heart of what I’m trying to say about going barefoot? I long to get everything out of the way to be more consciously present? In yoga, the “chakras” describe locations where energy flows in, out, and around the body. While I don’t attach spiritual significance to this per se, I enjoy this mental exercise of visualizing energy. I feel corny verbalizing this, but I think I’m so eager to take my shoes off because of my internal sense that it brings authenticity to my experience of that place. I’m ready to kick off my shoes, seeking sensation of the inward and outward flow of energy through my foot chakras, rooted under the balls of each foot. Maybe I’m striving, hoping to soak in the energy and memory of places through my toes and legs, up, up, up, through torso and heart center, all the way to my brain and inner eye where it can lodge and dwell as memories of unique and singular places and moments where my feet once found themselves.