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 retrowaste.com
Lyrics: Nancy Sinatra – These Boots Are Made For Walking Lyrics | MetroLyrics