…mind over matter mind over mattermindovermattermindovermatter...
I didn’t know exactly what it meant, but I knew that the mantra seemed well equipped to help me press my feet forward with my chin up. With any success, I would break into a trot before dinner time. If I had really considered the ordeal, mind over matter would tell me to put on a damn pair of shoes and ride my bike or sidewalk chalk the kid equivalent of cave paintings over the abundance of concrete that rolled between the family compound yards. But instead, I found myself practicing for the inevitable hostage situation I would one day find myself in, and– thanks to my early diligence– get out of myself.
It was a movie or a book or a comment taken out of context between adults or, likely, a lunch table know-it-all who tipped me off: the first thing taken from a hostage is his shoes. I was alert to the information, but blase. It wasn’t my strong sense of security in the world mostly being a good place, or the fact that I had the secret service protection of a divine creator that kept me cool. I had spent more nights than I had years predicting my future entanglement with danger, where a prominent foreign leader or a years-on-the-lam Chicago mobster zero in on one blonde-headed Western Pennsylvanian girl as the precise victim who, with her teary brown doe eyes, could twist and play the heartstrings of people on a national scale, resulting in a bad man winning a ransom of more emeralds than 30 horses could carry. Thankfully for the world, however, these masked-gun-slinging-illegal-treasure-seeking schmucks will have preyed on the wrong 9-year-old, what with my carefully planned mind games and keen-escape-route-finding eye and– if necessary, in a real pinch– my powerful tactic of stealing his gun when he accidentally falls asleep to the smooth sounds of my lullaby medley. After my successful escape and the turning over of one of the world’s most infamous villains, Mr. President would award me and my family half of the emeralds they had to conjure for the ransom, and however many puppies I asked for.
The plan, of course, was flawless. Kindly pardon my lack of crippling fear in light of this new trivia. It was going to take a much bigger wrench than a couple of missing shoes to knock into my hostage escape know-how.
Maybe for some lesser experienced adolescent, being barefoot and afraid would be cause to reconsider their precise exit from captivity. But for me, barefooted-ness was practically an inherited gene. My mother was regularly pointed out by members of our church to first time visitors in post-Sunday-morning services as the-one-without-any-shoes. She could be caught hustling from one Sunday school room to another, panty hose lined feet pattering around the red, thick carpet, searching for the simple closed-toed’s she’d abandoned two hours back in favor of freedom. The message was clear: shoes were for suckers, and mine could be found strewn about with clasps wrenched open in a hustle to run faster and quieter on the third story balcony than my clunky foot-covered pals.
My secret woods witching gave me practice on forest floors and tall grasses, fancying myself a psychic; but my third eye blazed like my Christian conscience, and I promptly returned the shoes to my feet and my apologies to the Lord upon return from these barefooted expeditions. The huntress-meets-medicine-woman allotted my stamina for cold, as the freezing stream water of the Allegheny River tributary at the foot of our cabin’s property ran across my feet, the thick silty mud oozing between my toes. I turned rocks slowly from the stream bed, with the least amount of watery rustle, calling on the stillness of my ancient sisters to hold my blue-ing feet down for a few more moments until I spotted the awaited crayfish and scooped it up triumphant into the white 5 gallon bucket.
The bottoms of my un-sandled dogs burned until they calloused in the summer months, as I passed from warm white concrete to the boiling tar of black asphalt on an errand from my mother to my grandmother’s house in back of the compound. There was also the option to avoid the asphalt and take on the damp, maple-shaded grass of Great Aunt Mildred’s yard in between, but the easier route came at the price of a treacherous 20 foot stretch of thick, gray gravel. At this point in my barefooted expertise, I was accustomed to the smooth stones of garden beds and the wide rough tops of granite and sandstone, but the cool-cut edges of the gravel ranging from pea to walnut size, replaced before each winter, was an arena I avoided when I couldn’t stand to chicken out with shoes.
One afternoon, while taking the chance on the sharp gray lagoon for the satisfaction of plush green ease, my legs buckling with the jaggedness of the rocks occasional poking into the arch of my feet, it occurred to me: my captors will of course surround the house with gravel. Why hadn’t I thought of it earlier? All those country farmhouses and below ground prisons and strip malls where terrible things usually happen are always surrounded with gravel. My current rate of 10 steps in 20 seconds wouldn’t suffice– I’d be a goner.
No more pussyfooting for me. …mindovermattermindovermatter… and I was practicing the nightly ritual of gravel walking with the sturdy dedication of any paranoid survivalist. The spastic flail of my arms in reaction to sharp edges on my feet gradually subsided, and within a week I had advanced to a general stoicism as I trudged across the rocks upright and with full, natural motion. The soles of my feet grew thicker, and my stride faster. I began to consider a step into fire walking as a potential career path in case circus acrobat/animal handler didn’t work out. One thing was certain: no mobster was going to keep me hostage for long.
When my mastery of walking over rocks eventually gave way to my obsession with learning my parents exact signature in the event that they might be murdered and I would have to feign their written consent on school permission slips until I could figure out whodunit so that I and my siblings would not somehow be framed, my ability to jaunt from one surface to a varied other came naturally, with no grimace, and with little thought to whether it would be a useful skill should I ever be captured. In fact, I wasn’t so sure I’d be captured, anymore. At least not by anyone important enough to gain national recognition.
I became properly obsessed with shoes post college, in deference to my gender stereotype, and have spent most of my adult life wearing them. I am fastened in and secure for every heels-or-flats occasion. It is when a summer day permits a quick run to the mailbox and back, the first step to the grass gives me the sensation that I’ve missed something. The tenderness of my feet is a little alarming– all that training just to be another soft soled, hard hearted victim to an imagination held hostage, and miles of gravel to set it free.