Friday, July 20, 2012

The Barefoot Connection

After a morning meditation, I start down the path to the beach and the first thing I feel is the sandy earth on my bare feet. As I approach the water, the sand is just sand, unmixed with dirt, and then wet sand and then cool water. The world is coming alive through the nerve endings on the unmediated soles of my feet and I touch an ancient way of knowing, the way humans felt the contours of the land and water for millennium before the shoe was invented. Such a pleasure to be mostly barefoot for ten days, interrupted only by flip-flops on too-hot sand and Tivas for the town.

I’ve often told the story of the life-changing moment when Avon Gillespie, my Orff-mentor-to-be, arrived as guest teacher in my college class and opened the door to the life that was meant for me. What was the first thing he did? Motion to us all to take off our shoes. A simple gesture with profound implications. “This is how you will prepare for the magic to come. Begin by freeing your feet and your Spirit may follow” the unspoken message he gave us. In later years, he sometimes titled his workshop “The Barefoot Connection.” Many Orff classes continue with this tradition, but in these days of Smart-boards and insane lawyers preying on the Culture of Fear, many don’t. There was a school in Texas that outlawed kids being barefoot in class for fear of spreading Planter’s warts. (Just as many Texas schools banned playing recorders for fear of spreading AIDS.)

Avon and I were clearly on the same page. As an emerging hippie, I already was experimenting with toughening my feet to walk all sorts of places and the next summer traveling with my college choir, I was walking through the streets of Europe mostly shoeless. One amusing moment was trying to enter the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and being stopped by the guard, who pointed disapprovingly, “No shoes, no entrance.” Behind him was a painting of Jesus and the 12 disciples walking barefoot. I pointed, he looked and smiled—but still didn’t let me in. (You can see a photo of me from that time, complete with the long-hairded, bearded, Jesus look: )

Back when I began teaching at The San Francisco School in 1975, no one wore shoes indoors. It was a combination of an old Asian/ European custom and an effort to spare the school’s carpets. Kids in those pre-velcro days really learned to tie their shoes! Failure to do so meant most of their outdoor recess was spent struggling with footwear. Though that practice has long since ended, our music classes continue barefoot (or in socks). Movement in clunky shoes is like playing piano with gloves on and it gives a tone of intimacy and connection when all, including the teacher, are shoeless. Indeed, the last vestige of my hippy years is when in-between classes, I venture down the halls to the kitchen still barefoot. I’m sure some health inspector or administrator embarrassed by prospective parents passing me may call me to account for this soon, but I plan to enjoy it while I can.

Turns out that most of the things I care about have included taking off your shoes—Orff classes, Zen meditation, body music, sitting down to play Balinese gamelan or Ghanaian xylophone, Chinese foot massage. Sometimes I play jazz piano shoeless and have heard that Bobby McFerrin often conducted the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra barefoot. It really does create a different feeling in the body, a different tone in the social atmosphere, a different connection to the place you are, be it on sand, dirt, stones, wood floor, marble, rug, carpet. Even Gerard Manley Hopkins, a staid Anglican priest-poet, knew that a shoed civilization was losing contact with our Mother Earth and thus, the subsequent disconnection and alienation from our source.

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod and
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod…

And so we finally arrived at the end of 10 days of shoeless bliss and drove down to Ann Arbor. The 100-degree- plus heat wave I had heard about had just broken and the temperature plummeted to the 60’s. So I put on shoes and socks to go to dinner and how strange it felt. “What are these big weights on my feet? I’m a prisoner inside a leathered jail!” Of course, after five minutes, it all felt familiar again.

But the next time you feel out-of-sorts, estranged from your Source, an uncomfortable guest in the house of this Earth, may I recommend a barefoot walk on a beach? It may not solve all your angst, but it’s a good start.

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