“Do not come any closer. Take off your sandals,
for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Exodus 3: 5
I loved it, even though I was always stubbing my toes. All summer long my big toes, painted bright orange with Mercurochrome, were recovering from some new assault. I stopped my play long enough to howl and go inside for a band aid, which always fell off and turned up later in the sandbox or on the kitchen floor.
I went everywhere barefoot. Rides in the car with the ribbed, rubber mats on the floor, to the A & P, where the linoleum was slick and a little sticky, to the Dime Store where the oiled floor was smooth and fragrant, and you could watch the cashews riding a little merry go round under a heat lamp and buy them warm and salty. I sprinted over the hot blacktop parking lot to place my order for a chocolate dipped cone at the Dairy Queen. Creeping over sharp edged dirt clods in the garden, hobbling over rocks in the alley, running up and down the streets and walks and through dew drenched grass, I picked up information about the world through the soles of my feet.
I used my bare feet to climb up the playground slide, perch on the jungle gym, and entertain my friends by picking up pencils with my toes. At my neighbor, Mrs. Wendel’s house, I sat on chair swinging my feet in the air and eating a cookie. I found Nancy Drew mysteries at the public library with its cool polished floors and lovely smell of books. In winter I toasted my tootsies over the oil furnace grate. Summers I challenged my brother to contests over who could hold his bare foot on an ice cube the longest.
Out at Grandpa’s in the country, I stepped carefully around the chicken droppings. I was acquainted with the slimy feel of the stuff between my toes. I ambled through my world digging my feet in warm beach sand, kicking up the soft talcum puff of dirt roads, splashing in creeks, slipping on mossy rocks, and screaming to discover that the strips of gooey mud clinging to my feet turned out to be leeches.
Off I would go, banging my toes against uneven sidewalk, where tree roots heaved the concrete into toe catching traps for children and the elderly. I caught my toes on furniture, had them run over with tricycles, wheel barrows and stomped on by my brother. (He will deny this.) There was the occasional sickening goo of dog manure and the large disgusting toad, who had a habit of taking a snooze in the cool of the evening just outside the back door. I checked the bottom of my foot for warts for weeks after that encounter.
Other hazards included stickers, splinters, bee stings, broken glass, and the horror of my mother, a rusty nail. The Rusty Nail loomed nearly as dangerous as polio or a communist in my childhood. Once, running across a dock to leap in the lake, I caught a dock cleat between two toes. I played and swam all day. In the evening mom took me to Doc Jackson’s office where he cleaned out the debris between my toes and gave me a shot.
I even fought with my feet. My brother and I staged what we called feet-foot battles on the couch in the living room. We were trapped on a cliff with a thousand foot drop off and had enough food for only one of us to live for a year. We also had broken our arms in this scenario, so we had to fight for our survival with our feet and kick the other into oblivion.
When a trip required shoes, I usually couldn’t find them. I remember when mom finally put her properly shod foot down.
“Put your shoes on! You can’t go uptown barefoot.”
“Why not, Mom?”
“Because old men spit on the sidewalks.”
Well, that did give me pause. Uptown there were no signs that said No shoes. No shirts. No service. I do recall signs with dripping blue icicles and the invitation, Come in. It’s cool inside! To this day even though she has had air conditioning for years, my mother’s idea of a special treat is going out somewhere for a “cool drink,” which means lemonade or Seven Up.
I go barefoot much less these days. Arthritis has set into the joint of one of my toes. Something called Morton’s neuroma led me to the purchase of orthotic insoles.
I don’t know if my distaste for shoes had anything to do with my love for God, though the Holy One does seem to have a preference for a bare foot. When God told Moses to remove his sandals before the burning bush, he didn’t say take off your hat or your cloak or your tunic. Removing shoes is a sign of respect inmany faiths. Perhaps God is asking us to put nothing between our naked selves and the holy ground of God’s being. No pricy Manolo, Gucci, or Louis Vuitton’s, butrather, the simple and sometimes stinky vulnerability of a bare foot is what pleases the Lord.
You can pick up an amazing amount of information through the soles of your feet. They also hold countless memories. Maybe buried in our DNA is a holiness sensing device, which only works when we take off our shoes.
Holiness demands honesty and simplicity. Pretense, denial, deceit, and anything I might put on to cover up the truth of my own weakness and deep need must be removed, as we move closer to holiness. There are so many things we can put between ourselves and direct contact with the holiness of God on this good earth. God’s partiality for a bare foot over a resume wipes away any illusions that my worth is related to my bank account, or accomplishments. Maybe God is only a sucker for a well turned ankle, but I think it is our childlike, barefoot vulnerability and humility which he can’t resist.
I miss those barefoot days. I think I was closer to something essential, earthy and real. These days I walk back and forth in sensible shoes in the ivory tower of my head, rather than trod the messy ecstasy of the naked sole.
I do go out, weather permitting, without shoes to pick up my morning paper. I feel the rough walk under my feet and the wet grass between my toes. I look at the sky, the birds. I say:
Good Morning, Lord.
Help me this day to take off
whatever I try to put on
and your wondrous love.