It’s amazing how you can be told the same thing over and over again, by a variety of people (occasionally even by fate/the universe/the powers that be at large), and the message refuses to sink in, until one day, the right person in the exact right situation tells you and TA-DA! Dust falls from certain levers and gears in your brain a missing link grinds on. A new history of a new you is born.*
There are actually two stories here.
First is the story of my feet. I used to go barefoot most of the time. Then I started running daily, often without socks on. In short, my feet get used and the bottoms have always resembled Frodo’s after that whole LOTR-journey thing. It’s a callused wonderland down there, almost scaled in nature. I basically have an extra foot in terms of skin. Sometimes, my big toe doesn’t fit into a shoe very well because the callus sticking off it is so smooshed out. Pedicurists laugh and are forever telling me their pumice stone will do very little to shave down some of the “cushioning.” My brother makes Toejam comments and tells me not to put my feet on the furniture (which granted, might be a function of him being him and not my calluses). Friends have blanched at the sight of my feet, inquiring inquisitively and a little disgustedly if they hurt. More filterless individuals mention my feet aren’t particularly attractive.
One evening, Megan noticed me jimmying a weird blister that looked like it was going to go callus in the bathroom and said, “You know, on crew team we used to cut those off.” I looked up with a skeptical gaze. “Yeah, you just take nail clippers and snip the edges. You can do it to your calluses too. Keeps your feet looking a little more foot-like.” I returned to looking downward, rubbing my finger over my toes as she walked back into the hotel room.
* * * * * * * * *
The second story is about me as a person. While out with my friend, Brian, enjoying food trucks and dancing, I had received an inappropriate text message from one piece of my past, and a manipulative text from another past piece. (Double dose of wanna-be-drama-for-your-llama texting indeed.) Unable to mask my perplexed emotions, I wound up talking to Brian about the situations, wondering how to deal with these people that seem to be continually showing up and making me feel guilty and badly for how we came to be history.
Brian listened, took a sip of beer, and leaned back offering nothing in return for a few minutes. He watched the salsa dancers and I watched his face, unsure as to if he wasn’t terribly interested in the subject or if he was lost in thought. “I just think you have to live for yourself,” he finally said. “You’re putting so much energy into worrying about these other people, and trying to change their reactions and their experiences. But all you can do is change what you do. They’re looking for a reaction at any cost, by any means necessary, because it validates their behavior. This doesn’t make them bad people; it just makes them immature. If you want it to stop, you have to stop it. You have to realize that in this situation, you have the power.”
I made a She-Ra joke immediately as a defense mechanism. Obviously, Brian had a pretty serious point.
* * * * * * * * *
I kept starting at my feet, digging my nails into the calluses as hard as humanly possible. No matter how hard I stabbed, on the pads or the toes or the heels, I felt nothing. Not pain. Not pleasure. It was as though my feet were a little bit dead. It was impossible to imagine anything different. I did nothing with my feet at that moment.**
Later, with Megan in her bed and me in mine, I kept brushing my hand over my toes and that irritating blister. Sleep wasn’t an option, my brain was rocking and rolling and the blister irking me as I imagined it becoming a callus, another rough mound dotting my toe’s landscape. After digging clippers out of the floral make-up bag I traveled with, I put the toilet lid down and perched upon it, lifting up my foot and poked my toes with my sharpest nail. At this point, with all that natural protection, it’s not like trying clipping could hurt.
* * * * * * * * *
“I guess I’m just trying to not hurt anyone,” I said tentatively. “It feels like it would be mean to not respond.” Brian stared at me. “Or, now that I say that out loud, it makes me sound like someone who has set up poor boundaries with certain people because otherwise it feels as though wasted time with them in the first place.”
And that’s when Brian said what so many people have said to me: “You are not responsible for anyone else’s feelings.” This phrase had been stated by counselors, best friends, my favorite teacher Kathy, probably both my parents and my sibling and strangers. I’m certain fate has again and again told me as much in her own, quiet way, too. Brian’s voice startled me awake from a dream I didn’t realize I was living in, one in which I was hurting myself. And darn it, I didn’t want to do that anymore.
Much as I trying to live for myself, putting my needs first and foremost while still caring for others, I wasn’t doing a very good job of it. In trying to protect myself while being kind to others, I’d gone too far in the wrong direction, barricading myself somewhere I didn’t want to, or need to, be. In trying to do the right thing, I walked smack into the road to hell all paved up with good intentions.
Brian pulled me up and we boogied to the bongos.
* * * * * * * * *
What I didn’t know about my feet could fill Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. As I started cutting through the calluses, which were at least an eighth of an inch thick, I discovered that my feet could indeed feel. Fresh skin below the calluses was like newborn mice, pink and confused by how air rushes upon you, filling up the space and resting against you. The more I snipped, the more my feet felt. For hours I stripped my feet down layer by layer, looking for the truth of who I was. My feet, my real feet, were mesmerizing. Nothing like what I imagined or remembered, but real.
Megan woke up for a glass of water and gawked at me, but I wasn’t sure how to explain that I had to do this right now. That I had to know what I was made of, what I really was instead of hiding, instead of showing the buffer between me and the world. I wanted to experience the ground, my shoes, the rug the way they were meant to be experienced instead of the more comfortable way.
Exposed. Tender. Real. Whatever was uncovered was more interesting and more expressive than the calluses.
“Just don’t hurt yourself,” Megs said sleepily. “I need you to be able to walk tomorrow.”
* * * * * * * * *
We don’t always remember what we’re made of. For any number of reasons we build up literal or figurative walls that protect us from what is real, and the trade off is that we wind up hidden from ourselves. We forget what is behind those walls, sometimes to the point that what we really are becomes frail and new again. It takes a fresh perspective to crack those walls, conviction to break them completely, and courage to keep them down.
*No, this will not be a story about a tiger with a birthday cake; rather, a message came roaring through loud and clear (though if it had come with frosting I would have liked it even more!).
**Besides maybe tickle them and make myself laugh, which is a rather bizarre skill to have acquired in my life.