When the Shoe Fits

Unseasonably warm weather inspired me to dig my sandals out of the closet, put them on and take the dog for a walk.

Unlike my first pair of flip flops, which existed merely to make a percussive smack whenever I trod on a linoleum tile floor, these sandals have soles that mold themselves  around my feet. They adjust to me.

But, because I hadn’t worn them in a while, I was more aware of them now than I was at the end of last summer, when I had grown accustomed to them occupying the space between myself and most things below.

Or do they? Having recently read about Zen koans–paradoxical statements or questions that defy rational closure–I moved slowly into a blustery spring morning and–

After I noticed the grass sparkling with dew

After I wished I could step gently on the gleaming sunlight reflecting on the small pond, and follow that glistening path to a magical place

After I picked up the dog’s environmental contribution

I came up with a koan that began as a question: when does a shoe fit?

Does it fit when we put it on? “When” suggests a specific moment, and we can presume that fit changes over time. We can also agree that the shoe should fit when we are in a store (my second job was selling shoes) and one pair feels the best on our feet. So why is it that we will walk out with a pair that doesn’t feel best, but pleases us in other ways? The price must also fit. Or maybe we’re weary from trying on so many pairs that we just grab what’s closest?

We’ve all owned shoes that fit better when, after a few days or weeks, they’re “broken in.” What about those shoes that fit so are no longer aware of the shoe as we walk, run or stand still as we imagine all that is above us?

A quick, easy and insufficient (from a Zen point of view) answer to “when does a shoe fit” would be, “that all depends by what you mean by ‘fit.'” For example, if fit can be understood as equivalent to a fixed standard, one can measure the size of a foot and find a shoe that has been made to conform to that size. Assuming the manufacturer is competent, the shoe will match the size.

But, as so many of us have discovered, the standards manufacturers use to fit feet vary somewhat. I’ve found shoes made by one brand fit more reliably than shoes by another.

Does the fit have something to do with function? An athletic shoe that conforms to a size could be inappropriate at formal, workplace and recreational occasions in that it may fit, but it won’t make you fit in.

Then there is style. Some people will acquire a shoe, a piece of clothing, a car, a house, a mate–because they like the way he, she or it, appears. Appearance may transcend style when the object fulfills a cherished fantasy. Think of those elderly males who adorn themselves with “trophy” brides, or  the enormous suburban palazzo that borrows the architectural motifs of English country houses but sits on a half acre of lawn too close to a major road and costs too much to heat? Or that growling muscle car that might tear up a racetrack, stuck in traffic, and costing more to maintain and repair than the owner may afford.

We all have made accommodations for people, places and things that don’t quite fit–I’ve seen people putting band-aids on their feet or adding foam inserts to shoes that obviously rubbing them the wrong way. We have also made great changes to replace those that don’t fit, with something that might. Does “fitness,” then, mean a state of being in which accommodations, or replacements, are not necessary?

Philosophizing on material goods can seem precious on a bright spring morning with a dog tugging at the leash. One may not see the dark clouds coming in, promising rain that will be felt differently in sandals than waterproof boots..

I don’t have an answer, but I’m grateful that I can ask the question.




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