When I was in my early twenties, I lived in a cabin outside of Boulder, Colorado, with some friends. One of my roommates loved animals and was the owner of a wolf — technically 15/16 wolf — and a ferret. Also noteworthy was the personality of the animal owner, a woman who was eternally willing to run Lady Macbeth’s lines in the shadowed corners of her poorly lit personal drama. That was a memorable stage of my life.
It was also when I decided to learn to bake bread. There I was, at 8000 feet of elevation, trying to befriend yeast. A few inedible, brick-hard loaves resulted from hours of labor, and I allowed that I was not cut out to be a bread baker.
Other people had figured it out. It was not that the task was impossible. It was just that I needed someone’s example and expertise if I ever hoped to pull anything out of the oven besides a steel-toed boot covered with a dusting of flour.
Earlier in life, in my tween or early teen years, our church arranged to have a bus transport people interested in cross-country skiing to some trails an hour distant. United by love for Jesus, respect for the liturgy, a sense of Christian community, and a belief that strapping sticks to the feet qualified as a good time, a busload of parishioners made the trip.
My sister and I were on the bus that day, hoping to learn about this thing called skiing. When the bus arrived at the trailhead, the outdoor enthusiasts hopped off, clipped into their equipment, and skied towards the tree line. My sister and I, having never experienced cross-country skis before, were left gaping at their retreating forms, leaning wobbily on our poles, with no idea what to do or how to move our bodies. For 20 minutes, we attempted to slide, glide, hoist, propel, and grapple our way up the small berm at the edge of the parking lot so that we could get to the system of trails.
Eventually, young, frustrated, and having learned an important lesson about being part of a Christian community, we gave up. It took us 10 minutes to figure out how to remove the skis from our feet, but once we did, we skulked back to the bus and sat there, moping, for the rest of the afternoon until everyone returned — glowing and exhilarated from their time under God’s Big Sky.
With the assistance and direction of someone who understood cross-country skiing, that afternoon would have played out very differently for us — which, in turn, could have changed a lot of significant things for me, a big girl who didn’t think sports were for her.
When I was 24, I was driving the 10 hours from Billings, Montana, to Moscow, Idaho — something people in the West call “a quick jaunt” — when, just as I was cresting Lookout Pass, a red light came to life on my dashboard. A red light on the dashboard has the ability to change the rhythm of my heartbeat. It can make me whisper, my voice both a challenge and a comfort, “Hey, Car, don’t you understand that you are supposed to give and give and give and never ask anything in return?”
By myself, with little money, needing to be in Moscow the next morning for the start of assistantship training for graduate school, I felt panicky. It was 4 PM on a Sunday. In addition to the red light on the dashboard, which I would blithely ignore as long as possible, I also was noticing a lessening of power in the engine. I would push on the gas, and it wouldn’t respond with oomph. That, I could not ignore.
If ever there was a moment for me to turn down “Steady On” by Shawn Colvin and replace her dulcet tones with a string of forcefully gnashed expletives, this was it.
Mentally gaming out the options, I decided to pull off at the next exit and see if any service stations happened to be open. I pulled into the first gas station I spotted; inside was the poster version of an Idaho woman who worked behind a gas station counter, from her appliquéd sweatshirt to the crispness of her bangs. Quickly, I filled her in on my situation.
“Oh, honey,” she commiserated, “this is a fine kettle of fish. Everything’s closed around here on Sundays, so you might need to grab a motel for the night and see if you can’t get it fixed tomorrow.”
No tears actually hit my cheeks. However, my woebegone puppy dog eyes penetrated the teddy bear appliqué, and her heart was moved. “Garsh, let me just see if we can’t do something for you,” she said, looking over her shoulder towards a back room. Surprising me, she called out “Jango! Come out here and see if you can help this woman. She’s in a pinch.”
Emerging from the back room was a 110-pound man, at least 4 pounds of which was facial hair. His entire vibe communicated: I ate the mushrooms at a Creedence Clearwater Revival concert. This was definitely someone who had set a burning cigarette or two onto the edge of the open hood of a car while he fiddled around with the engine. This was definitely someone for whom a red light on the dashboard was whoa, dude, nothing to get riled about.
After the sweatshirt woman explained my circumstances to Jango, he said he’d be happy to take a look and see if there was anything he could do to restore some pep to my Honda. Popping the hood, lighting a cigarette, setting it on the edge of the car, he dove in.
A few minutes later, he stood in front of me, dragging deeply on his Marlboro. “Your alternator’s gone out. Once that light came on your dashboard, your battery stopped charging, so in not too long, your car won’t drive anymore at all until the alternator is running again.”
I stood silently, my mouth moving like a beta fish nibbling crumbs from the surface of the aquarium water.
Continuing, Jango offered, “I could probably jerry-rig something for you today that might get you over to Moscow, but you’ll want to get a real fix as soon as possible.”
Then he dove back under the hood, cigarette dangling from two fingers this time, an empty Mountain Dew can serving as ashtray. While he tinkered with the engine, appliqué lady and I chatted — our talk ranging from car repairs to gas station customers to the concept of graduate school — and in no time at all, Jango popped up, stretched his back, and jumped into the driver’s seat. Turning the key, he started the car; leaving it idling, he looked under the hood and then at me. “We’ll just let this run for a bit,” he said, “and get your battery charged up. It’ll keep charging as you’re driving, too. But definitely, once you’re settled in Moscow, you need to take this into a real garage. See, the thing I did to your car? It’s not something that any licensed place could ever do. It’s just a temporary patch that I fashioned out of supplies at hand.”
What was Jango’s fix? He had taken the tab from the top of the Mountain Dew can and attached it to the alternator by way of grease magic and a sprinkling of dandruff, thus creating some sort of essential connection that was beyond my Jane Austen-reading ken. Suddenly, Mr. Darcy didn’t seem like such a hero after all — because hell if that cravat-wearing fop had it in him to cement the doohickey onto the whatserfuzzit and make a thing go.
As I drove away from the gas station, I considered Jango’s skill versus my ineptitude. Before I would be able to do any sort of car repair, much less an ad hoc one I jimmied on the spot, I would need years of training, classes, and shots of Everclear. For me to ever learn what he knew, I would require extended guidance.
At this point, if your eyes are rolling around in your head, your palms are itching to slap me, and you’re barking at your screen, “Jocelyn, I thought this was a post about shoes,” then good.
Here’s the thing: this is a story about shoe shopping, but it is a story about so much more. That’s why I had to relate those other vignettes first; that’s why you had to submit to an extended preamble.
Sure, I recently gamboled through a supremely wonderful afternoon of shopping at a store where the shoes are whimsical, funky, exquisitely made, and expensive. I recently pirouetted through a couple hours of giddy joy in a Fluevog storefront, hours during which my stomach jumped with excitement, and my hands petted all the leather in a fifteen-foot radius.
During those shopping hours, there was a much bigger story at play — the next installment in a lifetime of comprehending how much I don’t know and how much I would like to know — of understanding that I can either sulk on the bus nibbling on a loaf of Wonder Bread, or I can tune into the aspirational examples that surround me and try to figure some things out.
As I tried on a pair after pair of delicious shoes in the Fluevog store, I wasn’t mastering yeast, and I wasn’t learning how to ski, and I wasn’t tinkering with an alternator.
Rather, as the recipient of thoughtful gifts, I was absorbing the nuances of generosity.
I was in that store because I have a best friend, a confederate since age 18, who, knowing I had both a surgery and a birthday coming up, did some considering. She thought about who I am, what makes me happy, what she had seen me squeal about, and how she might apply her observations to gently play a role in bringing me joy.
I was in that store because I have a husband, my boon companion for 17 years, who, to celebrate my birthday, did some considering. He thought about what spills out of my closet, what makes me dance for no reason, what gets me talking so that I have to wipe spittle off my lips when I’m done, and how he might apply his observations to gently play a role in bringing me joy.
Without those examples of thoughtful gift giving, I would never have been in that store having the time of my life. I would never have stood surrounded by chic displays of shoes, feeling understood and embraced and loved. Without those examples, I would never have learned an essential lesson of gifting: a good present is not simply about getting something for someone (“It was on sale!” “I hope she’ll like it!” “I didn’t need it anymore!” “Who doesn’t need curtains?” “It’s a noble cause!” “Well, I know he likes games, so…”).
Nope. An excellent gift is an affirmation, a connection, a heart-moving message that assures, “I see you.”
Currently, I am okay as a gift giver, but I’m not great. I have a lot of room to improve, to learn how to think through who the recipient really is, to challenge myself to explore what would bring someone else pleasure and not just what would “do the job.”
For sure, as I tried on multiple pairs, I was straight up loving the shoes. However, underneath all the lacing and prancing and admiring, I was storing away a memory: this is what it feels like to be given the perfect gift.
For me, the perfect gift was tactile, active, and spread out over stages. I had to get in there, try some things on, weigh some choices.
For me, the perfect gift required mulling and culling and ahhhing.
Eventually, I narrowed it down to three pairs.
At that point, I needed an assist. My friend Kirsten had driven me to the store, served as photographer, and been my metaphorical hand holder as we spun around in circles, giggling and getting dizzy.
She was sitting on the floor, grinning at me, wholly enjoying the afternoon. Torn, I said to her, “I think the two-tone ones with the steampunk heel feel like ‘me,’ and I did send you a picture of them during the faculty meeting yesterday when I was bored. So they feel right. But I really love the aqua ones and the paisley ones with the cool ‘hoof’ heel.”
Kirsten wisely pointed out that I wear a lot of black and grey, so the paisley shoes would work into that nicely.
“Okay, then,” I told her, “it’s either the two-tone ones or the paisley ones…”
Her face breaking in half with a smile, Kirsten said, “Oh, no, pal. You’re getting them both.”
I stared at her, silently, my mouth moving like a beta fish nibbling crumbs from the surface of the aquarium water.
“Yea, you’re getting two pairs. I’m buying you a pair, too. Consider it a down payment on editing Virginia’s next translated novel,” she joked.
As is my way, I burst into tears.
This day, which had already been the perfect gift from two people who consistently demonstrate how to live generously, had just become bigger. The lesson I was learning widened. In her willingness to run with a moment, make dreams possible, and turn great into glorious, Kirsten was teaching me, too.
In a state of shock, vaguely in need of a nap or a shot of Everclear, I headed to the counter to check out. I handed over my gift certificates. Kirsten handed over her credit card.
When we walked out of the store, my heart was full of joy.
No doubt, the shoes had me over the moon.
But more than the shoes. It was the people. The gifts that they are in my life. The example they set for me.
At the end of it all, what I really hope is this:
if I am fortunate enough to keep learning lessons for decades to come, maybe one day I’ll bake some bread or fix an alternator wearing these: