Boots on the ground


In first grade, I coveted Heidi Bernasek’s boots. Shiny, crinkly, white patent leather, lace-up knee boots. I remember seeing them as we lined up on the playground, waiting to be ushered into school. We all knew what go-go boots were, but I’d never seen anything like them on anyone I knew, much less someone my own age.

Like me, Heidi was blonde, but she was tall and beautiful in some way that I was not. In our class picture, she is standing in the back row, beaming. I am in the front, scowling. She would go on to be a Las Vegas showgirl, while I would go on to be a librarian. After sharing my admiration of her boots with my mother, I ended up with my own pair, eventually, but they were not white. They were black, and although I was grateful to have them I knew they were lesser than Heidi’s. I didn’t wear them much, probably not because they were lesser, but because they just weren’t me.

I was more of a sneaker girl.


For a brief time in college, I lived in a sorority. It was a “good” house, meaning that most of its members were pretty and rich and smart and accomplished, and I was accepted into it only because a good friend from high school was already a member. I was smart and attractive enough, but I was neither rich nor particularly accomplished.

I fell in love with a boy who lived in the fraternity across the street. He was not really a frat boy, any more than I was really a sorority girl. I suspect that was a large part of our bond. Late in the fall of our first year together, Seattle was slammed by the kind of snowfall we get only occasionally in the northwest. Having no snow boots, I slipped around in my regular shoes, feet wet and freezing, and coveted the kind of footware I saw on the feet of my sisters.

Finally, I broke down and headed to the Nordstrom store on University Avenue with a newly acquired credit card to buy a pair of boots I couldn’t pay cash for. The relief I felt, slipping my feet into those fleece-lined boots!  I didn’t share with anyone except my boyfriend what they meant to me and how I felt about not being able to simply purchase this near-necessity that everyone else I lived with seemed to take for granted.

Six years later, when that boyfriend and I were divorcing, those boots were long gone. What wasn’t gone was the debt on that credit card, which we’d used to purchase a bookcase, too many pizzas, a sofa, a dog. I didn’t really understand then how you end up paying much more than an item is worth when you make only the minimum payment each month. I hate to think how much I really paid for those boots–and everything else I bought with credit that I couldn’t actually afford.


When my daughter was a freshman in high school, she wanted a pair of Doc Marten’s boots. When I found a great pair at a thrift store that December, I bought them for a Christmas present.

She loved them but rarely wore them. “I just don’t think I can pull them off,” she’d say when I’d suggest them for some outfit. I sensed that the boots were aspirational, about something she wanted to be more than something she was. “I think I’ll wear them more in college,” she’d say.

I ended up wearing them more than she did. I liked that they were a little bit sassy, especially for someone like me–a middle-aged, suburban mom. I’d wear them and feel like maybe I wasn’t the stale white-bread person I suspected I’d become. Still, even I have hardly worn them for the past year.

When my daughter left for college last August, she didn’t take the boots with her.



Last summer, my friend Lisa and I made plans to attend an event headlined by a famous blogger/social activist whose work I admire. She would be joined by a small but diverse group of women, and their message would be about transforming the world through love. Lisa and I were down with that, so we bought tickets and put it on our calendars.

By the time we met in mid-September for the event, I wasn’t as excited about it as I’d been in July. I was feeling uneasy about the presidential election and what it was revealing about us. I had recently come off an intensive, two-week training on leading for equity, and my thoughts and ideas about how I need to show up in the world were changing.

Dressing for the evening, I selected my black heeled ankle boots. Not because they meant anything or had anything to do with my election anxieties, but because they looked good with my outfit. Before the show Lisa and I tried to catch a bite to eat at a happy hour across from the theater, but it was packed with women who all looked a lot like us. White. Middle-class. Middle-aged. Women who had taken care with their appearance and could afford both tickets to such an event and wine and appetizers at an upscale restaurant beforehand. The bar was so packed we couldn’t get in, so we ate at an inexpensive Chinese place a few blocks away. It wasn’t packed, and no one in there looked like us.

Lisa and I found our seats in the filled auditorium just before the event began.  As the speakers talked about the power of love to fight hate, I could feel something in my core saying, “yes, but…” The presentation was too slick, and I was reminded that the whole show was supposed to be in lieu of the blogger’s book launch.

When they had us all fill out a canned template to help us write a personal mission statement that would tap into our best talents and desires, my “yes, but” shifted into “Really?” When the first speaker shared a moving personal story about reconciliation with the man who killed her uncle in a post-9/11 hate crime, I found myself thinking, “Yes, OK, of course good–but it just doesn’t seem like enough.” When, right before intermission, recognition of a woman for her volunteer work was a thinly disguised commercial for an insurance company, Lisa and I were done.

We went back across the street to the now-nearly-empty restaurant bar and ordered whiskey. We dissected why none of it felt right to us.

“I just don’t see that making a personal mission statement is really going to do anything that matters,” I said. “I think we are in a time that calls for more than simply loving each other and doing good works. This feels like some thing that all of us privileged, liberal white women in Portland can attend and feel good about and feel like we’re actually doing something to make a difference–but we’re not.”

On my way back to the car, I turned my ankle and stumbled, the way I almost always do when I’m wearing those boots with a heel.



Last Wednesday, the day after the election, I stood in front of my closet, wondering what to wear. What would be fitting, on a day such as this? I thought of the students in the school where I work, many of them living in poverty. About half are white, and about half are people of color. We have students who are Muslim, students who are immigrants, students who are refugees. What did I want to communicate to all of them?

I reached for my black jeans, a black shirt, a black sweater. I did  not want to make a difficult situation harder, but I also did not want to communicate that the day was business as usual by dressing as if it were. I wanted to wear something that would broadcast my alliances. Something that would say that I am in mourning over what my country has come to, something that would demonstrate the grief I feel about the price so many of my countrymen are willing to pay to get what they feel they need.

At the bottom of the closet I saw my daughter’s Doc Martens. I wondered, again, how she was doing, 3,000 miles away from me, in Washington, DC. I thought about how we’d hoped we might attend, together, the inauguration of the first woman president of the United States. I thought about her and about the young women who are her friends, so many of whom live in the intersection of race and gender and have so much more to lose than she and I do. I thought about what it will mean to her and to them, that our country elected a man who bragged about his ability to grab women by the pussy because of his power and position.

As I reached for my daughter’s boots, which suddenly seemed the only right choice for the day, the music that always plays in my head switched to Nancy Sinatra.

Nancy of the white go-go boots. Nancy of the song that says, I am not going to take it any more. The song that says, one of these days I’m gonna walk all over you.



Before the election, I went boot shopping. I had a pair of brown ankle boots, but they weren’t made out of leather and they were cracking and falling apart.

The boots I fell immediately in love with were expensive. They cost more than any pair of shoes I’ve ever bought.

“Those are Wolverine 1,000 Mile boots,” the salesperson told me, assuming I would know the significance of the brand. “They’ll last the rest of your life if you care for them properly,” she added.

“Rest of your life” has a different meaning to me today than it did when I coveted my first pair of boots back in first grade. I thought of all the things I’ve wanted and bought and discarded in my life.

“I wonder if I’ll like them that long,” I said. I’ve already traveled more years than I likely have left to go, but there could still be a fair number to walk through.

“Well, they aren’t necessarily stylish,” she admitted. “They are classic, though. They are almost beyond style, and good for someone who isn’t about trends,” she said, looking at me. I could see her wondering a bit uneasily if I was offended at her implication that I am without style. I wasn’t. They are the kind of boots a sneaker girl would wear.

“They are made in the US,” she added. “It’s hard to find that today.”

Yes, it is. And yes, that’s part of why they are so expensive. It’s part of why, a week later, after thinking about how I want to spend my money, I went back and bought the boots, the only pair of footware I’ll buy this season.

We have to put our money where our mouths are, I thought, handing over my debit (not credit) card. I’d rather buy one good pair of boots that will last years than keep buying cheap, imported crap that hurts our environment and our economy. It costs more upfront, but not in the long run.

I was acutely aware that not everyone has the means to make such a choice.



In the days since the election, I–like so many of us–have been thinking long and hard about what its result means, where we are and what is really happening. I have been thinking about boots and what they’re used for, and our economy, and cultural war, and who is walking over whom and how they’re doing it.

The Nancy Sinatra song playing on repeat in my head saddens and angers and embarrasses me, much as my country does right now. I’ve watched the video of her and her back-up dancers prancing around in spiky-heeled boots and short skirts and know that men in the ’60s must have seen her song as a joke, not as any statement of strength. She’s still playing their game, even as she appears to be denouncing it, which is evident in the trump card she plays in the final verse: she’s found another man who is her “new box of matches.”

Still, I can’t help wanting to reclaim the first few verses of her song and turn it into some anthem for our country:

You keep lying when you oughta be truthin’
And you keep losin’ when you oughta not bet
You keep samin’ when you oughta be a-changin’
Now what’s right is right, but you ain’t been right yet

For how many of us have the systems of our country been treating us in the same way cheating men treat their women?  And for how long? What compromises and bargains have we made to stay in the relationship, hoping it will get better, that we’ll eventually get the kind of love we’ve been promised?

War these days–the way many of us think of it in the US–is not war the way it was when last fought on our soil, in the Civil War. It’s not horses and muskets. It’s drones. It’s bombs we drop from above. It’s troops whose members belong to only a small number of our families. It’s something that happens somewhere else, and many of us are OK with the idea of fighting our enemies as long as we don’t have to put boots on the ground.

Maybe war is actually closer than we think, and we just don’t recognize it because it (like so many things these days) is changing so rapidly we don’t see it for what it is. If war has changed–if we are fighting each other in not just a cultural war, but also the kind of conflict that every war is over–resources and who will control them–and the rules of engagement are changing from what they’ve always been, then I have been complacent and complicit. It is I who have been samin’ when I need to be a-changin’.

I have been flying over head, removed from the real action, thinking that it was enough just to do good work in the public sector and be a responsible consumer and love others who cross my path. Thinking that it was somehow enough to engage in conversation on social media and drop my link bombs and vote my conscience.

It has become clear to me that what is required now is something different.

I need to get my boots on the ground.


Go-go boots image via
Lyrics: Nancy Sinatra – These Boots Are Made For Walking Lyrics | MetroLyrics


21 thoughts on “Boots on the ground

  1. Hillary says:

    Rita – I love who you are and was you bring to the world. This, your latest piece, is a big part of why. Way to go, Mama. See you on the ground.

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, Hillary. You know it’s the Mama part of me that keeps me at it. Let’s figure out where to meet so we can fight the good fights together.

  2. Wendy says:

    I don’t know why it has taken me so long to let you know how much I love reading your blogs. I’ve been casually lurking with appreciation ever since you published ‘The Play of Light and Dark’ (which I bought in support). Even though our paths haven’t crossed in decades, I enjoy hearing your voice through your writing. Many topics have touched me deeply where I have laughed, smiled and even teared up. For this, I thank you.

  3. Shannon says:

    Well, we’ve established over the years that you’re a contemplater. 😉 That’s one of the great things about you. I’m glad you’re following your instincts to get involved the way your heart and mind are urging you to. I also urge you to not underestimate what you’ve already done. Doing good work in the public sector, being a responsible consumer, loving others who cross your path, engaging in conversation, and voting your conscience… you may not feel those things are enough for you anymore, but they matter. They do matter. Half of this country did not vote at all. A lot of people don’t take time to engage in conversation, or engage at all, others who cross their path, let alone love them or attempt to understand them. Real, true, investigated, engaged empathy is a powerful thing, even on the scale of one person you meet on the street. Because when that one person feels understood, even by just one other person, that changes their life in small ways that ripples to other people. Some folks may call that outlook naive, but I believe it with every fiber of my being and it’s all I have and it’s what I cling to. All I’m trying to say is, you’re already making a difference, Rita, and I know you will continue to make a difference in whatever way you choose to focus your efforts going forward. PS. This was a very well-written piece. So was your last one, but I’ve been too busy trying to keep my oxygen mask on my own life, I didn’t comment last time. 🙂
    Shannon recently posted…Quick Sticks: Remember The Mustard, Forget The MustardMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Oh yeah, you nailed me: contemplator. I’ll own that. 🙂

      And thank you for the support and validation. I agree with you that engaged empathy is a powerful thing. It might be one of the most important things. It might be the only thing that can take us to a better new place. What’s clear to me, though, is that we’re on our way there, whether we want to go or not. And so I think more is called for now, from each of us who can give more. And I can.

      I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve been needing the oxygen mask. Sending you love.

  4. Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    I love this so much.
    I am not in a position to buy those Wolverine boots at this point in my life.
    And that scares me.
    But when I walk around, no one can tell that we are struggling unless I tell them.
    I have so many black, Asian, gay and lesbian friends and hearing the fear in their voices makes my heart hurt.
    I actually cried watching the local news the following day because many ethic groups within Chicago are “bracing” for January.
    For our new leader.

    Think I might hit up Goodwill this week and look for some boots.
    Kari Wagner Hoban recently posted…How to Create a Funky Sidebar Bio with Pic MonkeyMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I don’t know that I really am, either. I am this month. Maybe for the rest of this school year. But that will change by next fall. That’s part of the acute awareness I mentioned.

      I think many of us are struggling more than others know. I get the worries of the white working class/middle class because I’m living them. I think a lot of us struggle not to let them show. I know I look like the “liberal elite” on the outside–and in some ways I am–but it’s more of a veneer.

      I, too, am bracing for January. Last week, I was bracing for Wednesday (regardless of which way it went). Now, I’m bracing for January. New boots are definitely in order.

  5. Marian says:

    There’s just SO much in this post, Rita…

    I’ll start by “thanking you” for putting that song into my head. I’m trying to shoo it out with some Leonard Cohen but the boots are proving stronger than Hallelujah 😉 .

    I would love to hear more about what — in practical terms — you mean by boots on the ground. (When you decide, that is.) I don’t mean to put you on the spot; I ask because this is something I struggle with on a near daily basis: how best to live while doing the least harm and the most good, and how (is it even possible for me, a white suburban SAHM?) to effect change on a larger scale. I do agree 100% with what Shannon said in her comment; our small actions are VERY important (specifically, with regard to the expensive boots — I believe every single purchase we make constitutes a vote) and we mustn’t lose sight of that or allow that to be belittled. Because I’m in Canada (and our racial tensions are, for now, minimal compared to the US), my thoughts post-election are mostly of the environmental concerns a Trump presidency will pose. I strongly believe that climate change is the number one issue facing us today, something the US military concurs with — but how to get both Trump and the “left-behind” white males to see that there is a connection between the steaks they’re so masculinely grilling up on their BBQs and the Syrian refugees who are knocking on their door … that stumps me. And so I’m left feeling simultaneously galvanised — I will redouble my efforts to do every little thing I possibly can — and utterly disheartened and despairing — how can I possibly compensate for inaction by millions of others?

    I SO understand why you walked out of that event, Rita. I too have little patience for slick “feel-good” word salad that lacks action and true meaning. Heck, I can’t even manage to make myself go to a PTA meeting and sit there with all the other suburban moms (where I keenly feel I don’t fit in, and where my suggestions are deemed too extreme); give me my concrete work in the library where I KNOW I’m making a difference.
    Marian recently posted…Serendipitous GardeningMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Hi Marian,
      I hope it was clear that I was speaking only for myself. For the most part. I’m just realizing that there is more I can do, and I think I’m in a place to be able to do more. That would not have been true even a year ago. As you know, I’ve struggled with feelings of futility when considering the magnitude of some problems and the negligible impact my efforts are so often likely to have. I haven’t figured any of this out. I just know that we are in a perilous time. Trump’s announcement today that one of his top staffers will be a white supremacist who’s been frighteningly effective in building a following? A year ago something like that was as unthinkable as…oh, I don’t know–Trump becoming president. This is the thing, for me: Catastrophe so rarely happens in an instant. It happens incrementally. I fear we are like the frog in the slowly warming pot who doesn’t realize he’s cooked until it is too late to jump out. (Which applies to our environmental as well as political situation.)

      While I don’t know exactly what a different approach will look like for me, I know part of it is greater engagement, even when it is uncomfortable. And it is often uncomfortable for me. I’m an introvert, and I grew up learning how to avoid conflict as a survival skill. Have already been working on leaning in on this, and plan to double-down my efforts. I hope you might consider going back to those PTA meetings. They might need to hear what you have to say. And they might not the first or second or tenth time, but maybe after the eleventh you’ll see some shifting. And in the meantime, there’s the library. 🙂

      • Marian says:

        Thank you for explaining, Rita. I did take your words as a “call to (metaphorical) arms” (as others, I think, did as well). I think this is a good (and necessary!) thing and I don’t think you should “pull your punch” by saying you were speaking only for yourself.

        I’m also an introvert. And I grew up treading quietly, making myself as small as possible, in order to avoid yet more conflict. My voice shakes when I speak my (contrary) mind. My stomach churns and I feel physically ill. Sometimes I am incapable of coherence because my brain shuts down at the slightest whiff of pressure. And all day yesterday, after posting my comment here, I thought, “What a cop-out, to remove myself from those PTA meetings simply because they’re uncomfortable.”

        I’m glad you’re in a better place now, Rita, and will work to use your very talented voice for greater engagement, to get people thinking, to (hopefully) cause change. (My 18-year-old son recognised the Nazi-like sentiments very early on in all this; it’s truly horrific to contemplate what may be coming.) I am struggling with using my writing voice (on my blog) and am feeling utterly hands-tied right now. I am deeply, deeply worried for our young generation and how they must be viewing/interpreting all these events. I feel it’s a gamble, whether they will be galvanised by our words, or sink into despair. Our small community had three youth suicides this summer/fall. And farther off (and yet even closer to home) my best friend’s 20-year-old daughter made an attempt in October. I haven’t been able to tell my own daughter about this last one. She is going through a terrible time right now. Like her mother, she is an idealist and a deep-thinker. And when Trump was elected her first words were “So we’re not going to solve climate change, are we?”. Because she reads my blog I am trying my best to regain a positive footing, even while knowing in my heart that that too is a cop-out, that I am writing fluff, and that what is desperately needed now is brutal and unapologetic truth.
        Marian recently posted…Serendipitous GardeningMy Profile

        • Rita says:

          Two clarifications:
          1. I’m not in a better place. A different one, sort of, but not better.
          2. I am speaking only for myself–but of course I hope to bring others along with me in some capacity. We all have different abilities and resources. As writer Kelly Diels so beautifully articulated, time is a feminist issue, and we don’t all have the same amount of it–particularly those doing the bulk of child-raising. We are not all neurologically the same; what it takes for one person to knock on doors is different from what it takes another to perform the same action. I hope we’ll all find ways to contribute as we can, without judgement of each other. We can never really know everything about why someone is making the choices they are.

          My own perspective on youth and this mess is messy. I feel horribly guilty about the world they are growing into. Again, I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer. (There rarely is. I guess because people don’t come in one size.) I think that truth is always the best thing–truth told with compassion, from a place of love. Truth connects us. Sometimes the connection is hard, but it’s still connection. I think isolation, feeling alone in despair, is much harder. I’m guessing that if you share your truth with your children, it will be OK if it’s your whole truth. Sending you love.

          • Marian says:

            As is nearly always the case, your response has provided a catalyst for yet more discussion … but I will stop here. Thank you for providing a welcoming space for me to share what I suspect (know!) is often a belaboured web of thoughts and ideas. Sending you love as well, Rita.
            Marian recently posted…Serendipitous GardeningMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Maybe? I like protests with a clear, concrete objective. And diverse. Went to a meeting last weekend and every woman in the room was white. I think that’s a problem.

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