Barefoot

A bare foot in grass. “I felt things — entirely pleasant things — I’d never felt before.”

I’m jealous of one of my neighbors. A younger guy, in the shallow end of his twenties, I’d guess, with long black hair that flows across his face and streams behind him in the breeze like a watercolor painting. Bright, easy smile. I see him walking down our street every afternoon, usually in a worn t-shirt and jeans. His dog trots along beside him, curious nose aloft, ears swiveling and scanning, the leash a careless, dangling thread between collar and wrist. Both of them are barefoot.

This is a bit striking in our neighborhood, a middle-class, white-collar, suburban cul-de-sac, right in the middle of the American East coast. Our road is narrow and paved, with gravel-covered shoulders. Despite the lack of sidewalks, there are many walkers and many dogs to be seen, but their feet are always sneaker-clad. Perhaps the occasional flip-flop, in the oppressive depths of mid-July, but that’s as far as anyone else seems to be willing to go around here.

My neighbor, however, remains uniquely barefoot and seems perfectly content to stay that way. He moves with grace and silence through the roadside grass or across the tarmac. He doesn’t talk on his phone. He walks alone with his dog. He raises a hand to neighbors and passing cars in a gesture that is equal parts waive and abhayamudra. He is a mote of calm in a world of rushing traffic and flickering screens.

I find myself wanting to follow his example. There must be some connection he’s feeling here to the road and land and plants and sky that I’m missing. I’ve been a devotee of sneakers all my life and have never gone outside without them. I’m the kind of person who wears sneakers at the pool. On the beach sand. On my back porch. Consequently, the bottoms of my feet are as soft as the skin on my cheeks.

Last fall, as August faded to September, the autumn rains restored the grass from its brittle, midsummer-drought brown to a softer green that looked inviting. One evening, when I needed to take the trash out, I decided to give it a try. I grabbed the recycling bin and stepped straight out the kitchen door, barefoot.

Taking my first steps beyond the threshold, I felt as vulnerable and hesitant as if my feet were made of styrofoam. Any stray twig or thorn or sharp rock or — I dunno — aggressive spider could surely tear them to shreds. I could imagine cuts, blisters, gangrene, infections, trench foot, horrific oozing gore. Months in rehab. Silly fool, he’d never walk again.

But I was spared. No thorns, no rocks. The aggressive spiders appeared to be preoccupied elsewhere. Instead, I felt things — entirely pleasant things! — I’d never really felt before. The sun and a light breeze, warm on the tops of my feet. The slightly soft, ridged grain of the wood on the steps of my deck. The smooth pavers on the walk. And the grass. I felt the grass blades — each one of them! — give way, soft as carpet, cool and alive. Living thing touching living things. This felt good. Walking around my yard barefoot felt good. Maybe, walking around my neighborhood barefoot would also feel good? I don’t know, I’m not brave enough to try that yet; but my neighbor, that handsome oracle, is surely on to something.

In fact, I’m realizing that perpetually wearing shoes has in some ways made me afraid of being barefoot. My shoes’ constant presence has always seemed to reinforce the idea in my head that my natural feet were not up to the task of roaming the Earth. The world is full of things that made rubber outsoles a necessity, no doubt; walking long distances over rough surfaces and sharp rocks without shoes is an extremely bad time for most people.

But it makes me wonder: is it always the case that our feet are inadequate, or is it the environments we build for ourselves? Grass, as I’m discovered, is lovely to walk on and it grows all over. Whenever more than a handful of humans are gathered together, however, we like to build roads. We especially like to make paved roads. Tar-and-chip, cobblestones, concrete, and asphalt: all unforgiving surfaces that are mostly great for wheels but mostly terrible for bare feet. Why do we build environments for ourselves that are, in this way, hostile to our own bodies?