Foot Fetishes and Objective Correlatives

I don’t much like feet, but it’s hard to get around without them. These days, my bunions bark at me when I try on shoes with heels over two inches, shoes without arch support, shoes that bind across the inside joint. (In other words, most footwear I might fancy.)

But my much maligned metatarsals do not explain why shoes are on my mind. Earlier this month I learned a new word while attending my second residency at Bennington MFA Writing Seminars: objective correlative. Lisa Doublestein defined it in her graduate lecture as “a symbolic article used to provide explicit rather than implicit access to emotion in art.” An objective correlative offers a shortcut to the feeling the author wants to convey — connecting readers, stories and characters. An objective correlative says it without saying it.

Objects, I realized, are my way in: objects lead to memories, and memories lead to feelings. My mind — racing to the next thing and the thing after that — rarely stops to consider feeling. But objects, real or imagined, can pull me to a stop.

When I looked back at what I’ve written over the past six months, I was astonished to recognize a recurring thread.

First I wrote about walking with my father:

“Remember to pick up your left foot, Dad, I reminded him as we proceeded. I listened for the telltale scrape of his left shoe brushing the sidewalk. A year after his stroke, he still had to think to swing his left leg all the way forward and strike with the heel.

Then I described “the puddle of his feet, seemingly devoid of bones.”

This past week, I wrote about how he ministered to his shoes:

Every weekend—Sundays I think—my father would assemble his kit: a brown towel, an old nylon stocking, Aqua Velva aftershave, thin rags coated in polish, two horsehair brushes (one for brown, one for black), shoe black, and several cans of Kiwi shoe polish—cordovan brown, black, and clear.

On the floor in front of him he lined up his shoes—at least two pair and sometimes three. His shoes were of high quality, leather that would last, in enduring styles: wing tips, I remember, with thick soles. After laying the brown towel across one knee, he began his standard operating procedure: remove laces, wipe with damp towel, twist open lid of brown or black shoe polish, apply thin coat with previously used cloth, set aside to cure. Repeat with mate. Returning to the first shoe: buff the tongue, inside, heel, outside and toe with the brush matching the shoe polish; repeat application of polish; when ready, buff: swipe shoe with aftershave to harden the polish. Then: rest shoe on the cloth-covered thigh, heel toward the belly, grasp nylon with two hands roughly 18 inches apart, see-saw across the nose of the shoe. If necessary, tidy up soles with shoe black.

I wrote about the shoes he was reduced to wearing in very old age:

He hadn’t polished his shoes for at least ten years before he died, having exchanged his oxfords for sensible shoes, most recently black Brooks Addiction Walkers. Their wide soles helped stabilize his balance, or in the manufacturer’s promotional language, their “energy-returning MoGo midsole cushioning… provides study support mile after mile by supporting low arches and keeping pronation under control.” I replaced them every six months, inserting the orthotic that shoved his collapsed arch — (the left or the right? how could I forget?) — into a shape resembling a normal foot.

When I met with the Academics Officer at Officer Candidate School in conjunction with research I’m doing, he told me they can tell something about a recruit’s commitment from the way he or she selects his boots on day one. Footwear, again.

I remember how my father loved to recount how his flat feet almost barred him from consideration by the Marines… how my mother was inordinately proud of her shapely feet (a former I. Magnin shoe model)… how my father rubbed my mother’s feet at night. She had bunions just like mine.

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