I entered my longest relationship to date in June of 2009, when I was just 16. I was abroad for the first time with a music program that took high school students to Europe for a few weeks and we were in the small, almost jokingly Disney-like German town of Dinkelsbuhl. We had the day to wander and explore the town before our outdoor concert that night, in which very gracious townspeople came out to hear a bunch of semi-talented kids from the East Coast of America pluck, toot, and plink our way through some all-American tunes (I remember the theme from Bridge on the River Kwai with a particular fondness). One of the tour directors had given us a tip that day: a pharmacy and health store in town sold Birkenstocks for amazing prices, the real thing–they’re considered a “health” shoe in Germany, are made there, and are therefore exceptionally cheaper than in the United States. Also, this was before Birks became cool again (more on that later).
As a youngster who had grown up in a town where horrible teenage trends of the day certainly reigned supreme–though were always a few months behind my cousins in New Jersey–my closest encounter with Birkenstocks were probably in some sort of movie or documentary I watched about Woodstock because I thought I was cool and rebellious and into “old” music or something like that. Birkenstocks? Clunky, ugly hippie shoes. My mother never would have approved.
Therefore, I walked into the pharmacy and knew I had to have some. It’s been said (no one has ever said this, I’m making it up) that the greatest things in our life find their way to us, we do not find our way to them. I don’t remember much about being in that pharmacy, and there’s truly no rationale behind my having purchased these sandals–they were wildly out of tune with the pseudo-“edgy” style I was trying out at the time and I hadn’t even given them a thought before the director mentioned them that day. I have no idea what was going through my head, other than the word of the divine being that had far more foresight than I, because before I knew it, I was walking out of that store with a classic brown leather pair of hippie sandals. Like teenagers across a crowded high school dance floor, fate brought me and this pair together.
I have no memory of wearing these shoes for the rest of high school, other than the time I tried to wear them with a dress, and my mom (as predicted) said they were ugly and didn’t go with the dress (again…little did she know the Madewell-driven BIRK REVOLUTION THAT WAS COMING).
My Birks and I started dating in high school, but we got really serious in college, when I realized that they were the only sandals I could wear that supported my flat feet and didn’t leave me with an entire day of neck, back, and hip pain that even a few hours without proper foot support could cause. They were supportive, they looked cool (or I thought they did, at least), they added a lovely crunchy vibe to even lazy simple leggings and sweatshirt, they were a throwback to the vintage days I love so much, they could even be worn with socks when my toes were cold! Socks and stocks change lives, people. Gold. Solid gold. Throughout college, my Birks were on my feet as soon as it got warm enough to wear them. On the first day of spring, while everyone ran around waiting in line for an hour just to get a thing of Rita’s Italian Ice that would have cost them a mere $3 on a normal day, with NO line, I stepped outside of my dorm, breathed in the air, and thought: Yes. It’s Birks season.
They accompanied me around the world–when I went abroad to South Africa, my Birks came with me. They backpacked around New Zealand with me. Long flight? Gotta have those Birks on, man. Driving? Duh, what else would I wear? Europe: obviously wearing those Birks. I even bought my Birks a sibling pair in Germany last summer, this time a more “formal” style, as I like to call it, with the T-strap between the toes. My business Birkenstocks, if you will.
There’s the history, but here’s the thing: My Birkenstocks are a spiritually significant item in my life. They actually hold pieces of my spirituality in them, and I mean this without jest and without irony.
I’ve learned a lot in the past year, but one of the most important things I’ve learned is that spirituality can absolutely have physicality–things can have value and can be important to us not just for sentimental reasons, but something much deeper than that. Items can be our soul’s connection to the divine, its entry point to the wild, wonderful spiritual beyond.
I grew up steeped in a Catholicism where objects involved in the ritual of the Church were important, but beyond that, I wasn’t taught by my teachers or priests to see the spiritual in much of anything else–much less a pair of ratchet-ass sandals that could really stand to be replaced. But as I’ve learned more about spirituality–and much of this can be attributed to my year as a JV–I’ve learned to ask the important questions: What can be “spiritual”? Who defines what can be considered a sacred object?
Why not something that has literally walked with me through my life for the past six years?
My shoes have supported me as I’ve roamed the planet, they’ve cushioned my feet from rocks and anything sharp while simultaneously getting coated in dust, rain, and muck–a reminder that though I can protect my feet and myself from harm, getting them a little dirty, getting a little hurt, is a good thing. I’ve traveled alone quite a bit, but my one constant companion were these (I say “these” because they’re on my feet right now) damn shoes. “Made in Germany” means they’re impossibly sturdy and solid, the leather resisting tears and rips that my clumsy stumbling should have inflicted on the poor things.
They’ve walked on the red dust of southern Africa, they’ve rested on the bottom of a low-riding canoe in water shared with hippos in the Okavango Delta. They’ve plodded around campgrounds on the slopes of Mt. Hood during the dizzying, intoxicating highs of summer. They’ve stood on the wildflower-dotted shores of lakes in New Zealand. They’ve filled with sand on the beaches of my childhood to which I now return older and maybe a little bit wiser, with a much deeper appreciation for the infinite mystery of the sea.
When I slip on these Birkenstocks in the morning or at any point along throughout my day, I feel a connection to something spiritual. The experiences that have shaped me are funneled through these things. These soles hold all of that grace, that loneliness, that excitement and curiosity. With my flat feet that severely restrict my shoe options (anyone with flat feet will understand that the stress this causes is not an exaggeration–when everyone else gets to wear cute Toms or sandals everywhere, I have to wear shoes that can fit my arch supports), I know that these shoes with support me. The ease of slipping them on allows me to get up and go at a moment’s notice, to be ready for whatever adventure comes my way or task needs my attention. This ease equally allows me to kick them off, normally in public places (coffee shops, libraries, etc) and sink into the space, walk around barefoot, let my freak flag fly.
This relationship is serious, and it’s committed. You know that question “What would you grab in a fire?” My Birks are always in the top 5. They’ve the greatest purchase I’ve ever made, and beyond the sentimental value–dammit, there’s something spiritual about these lumps of leather that have since shaped exclusively to my feet. However, shoes are mortal, and these ones are getting pretty ratchet. They somehow seem to be permanently smelly, and the soles have a solid crust of dirt that just won’t seem to go away. The leather’s starting to crack. Maybe, in the future, the time will come to invest in another pair. But in the meantime, I will love these things to their death. Wearing them is a way in which I connect to the spiritual, connect to the joys and struggles that come with strolling, running, dancing, and sometimes limping along the pathways of this world. The daily is spiritual. Daily life is spiritual.
To the shoes that have supported me and been with me throughout the past six years of the adventurous and the mundane: I love you.
Also, the damn things are hip now. How the hell did that even happen?