She looked at me from across the group of women and said, “What do you know, you have red shoes.”
Initially, I was taken aback. I was caught off guard, unsure of the reason for her hostility. I was not yet able to fully grasp all that she was attempting to convey to me through her angry comment.
She was a participant in a women’s group that I was facilitating in my role as a clinical counsellor at the local Family Resource Centre. The Ministry of Children and Families had mandated that each woman had to attend the parenting group. Every single one of them had had their children apprehended because of some form of major neglect or abuse that had been occurring within their families. And they were now attempting to redeem their stories, because they desperately wanted to have their children returned to them.
Although these women had diverse backgrounds and stories, the majority were native women who came from the remote reserves that surrounded the small northern town where my husband, my three young sons, and I were living at the time.
These northern reserves can be extremely isolated and have had a history that includes struggles with poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, violence, abuse and trauma.
In contrast, I grew up in a white, privileged family, in a well to do area of Calgary. Although I cannot claim that my family of origin was perfect or my upbringing totally ideal – I can say that I was raised in an environment of enrichment, abundance, opportunities, and possibilities and hope. My siblings and I were raised to believe that all doors were open to us and that we could accomplish anything that we put our minds to as long as we just worked hard enough. And for the majority of my life – these privileges continued to exist.
And I had red shoes.
Which symbolized something very significant to the women in that group.
The red shoes reflected all the privileges that they had never been offered or had ever experienced.
But that morning, as the group paused and we took the time to explore and tease out the thoughts and feelings behind her comment, I began to comprehend all that my red shoes were shouting. And not just to her, but to the group as a whole.
For them the red shoes reflected the richness of an unknown world. The shoes spoke of possibilities and opportunities that did not exist for them. The shoes spoke of such extravagance it highlighted their poverty and lack of resources.
And those red shoes spoke of a financial security, safety and comfort, that I alone in that room, had had the privilege of walking in – every single day of my life.
Those beautiful women – who had faced incredible challenges and struggles every single day of their lives – shared how they could barely scrape enough money together to purchase even one single pair of shoes.
And that they could not even fathom owning more than one pair of shoes.
Let alone a red pair of shoes.
Our conversation was healing. Not just for them. But healing for me too.
I was humbled by their observations and comments. And I was grateful that they were willing to sincerely open their hearts and invite me to cross the bridge that allowed all of us to sense and experience each other’s realities and stories.
For the first time I entered a world that up to that day my red shoes and I had never walked in. Stories that I had not yet had the capacity to grasp or understand. And likewise, they were invited into my experiences, that while privileged, have had obvious and harmful limitations too.
But it is in moments such as these – where there is the opportunity for the heartfelt, open, and genuine sharing of our truths and stories – that new learning and insights become possible. Where hearts can be softened and deeper appreciations fostered.
It is only when we are able to walk in each other’s shoes, and begin to see each other’s lives in real and honest ways, that hearts can be transformed.
These women were good teachers. I never again wore those red shoes when I was counselling in that community. I grew in my capacity to meet others where they were at and I became better at seeing the world through their eyes and unique experiences.
Over the years, her insightful, life-changing comments about my decision to wear red shoes in a room with others who only owned one scuffed-up, well-worn pair, has remained deeply embedded in my heart.
I continue to understand that every decision I make – including the shoes that I choose to buy and to wear – reveals my story and my heart and my theology.
Every word and action and choice speaks loudly about our personal stories and beliefs, and the way ours heart are orientated towards others.
We are all called to be caring and sensitive and loving. Called to seek and to ensure that others feel seen and heard and understood and deeply appreciated.