Obsessing over Shoes: Gaining self-knowledge through packing

This post is the second in our England 2015 series.

About four months before our trip — on January 5, to be precise — we bought our plane tickets. “Hooray!” we rejoiced. “It’s really happening!” And I immediately became preoccupied with the questions of what to pack.
Ironing in England.
I never iron at home, but I did in England. (That shirt really needed it.)

I began by researching capsule wardrobes for travel. I read blogs about packing. But my compulsive energy found its laser-focus on the issue of shoes. Which shoes should I bring? Which shoes are comfortable, stylish, appropriate for the weather, and easy to pack? Maybe I need more shoes! Different shoes! I read about wildly expensive Tieks — what some call the perfect travel flat — and splurged for my birthday, only to find them intolerably uncomfortable and destined to be returned. (So sad! They were adorable.) I think I ordered and returned half a dozen pairs of ballet flats in search of one that would be both perfectly comfortable and perfectly attractive.

While spending all of this time studying and shopping and planning my packing strategy, I knew in the deep recesses of my mind that my concern was not really about the clothes or the shoes. I do have some vanity, but the amount of energy I was throwing into this was way beyond my standard level of care about my personal appearance. Something else had been activated in my subconscious. I recognized a tendency I have of focusing a lot of energy on a relatively small problem when I’m worried about something much bigger. My quest for the perfect shoe wasn’t ultimately about beauty or practicality. My best guess is that it had something to do with presenting myself authentically — being 100% Ann Boyd in England.

Here are the facts: I work from home. I homeschool our kids. I stay at home a lot. So, although I don’t wear sweats all day, my daily uniform is much more “casual-cozy” than “smart-respectable.” I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to clean up my act in the clothes arena (I do leave the house on occasion, and I usually can present myself tidily), but the shoes were tricky. I wear Dansko clogs almost all day long — I have a pair exclusively dedicated as house shoes. This practice serves me well for clomping around our little bungalow, but they are not practical for distance walking. When I work out, I am usually running or jumping around to a Jillian Michaels exercise video, and so I wear some kind of athletic shoes. I needed something in between, something nice enough to not inspire gauche-American stereotyping, but something sensible enough that would allow me to walk several miles in a day.

On the London Eye.
Disguising ourselves as somewhat-respectable-looking Americans on the London Eye.

International travel has the curious ability to alter a person’s perspective, to remind us of our relative smallness in the world. In the same way that star-gazing makes me feel tiny, traveling abroad reminds me of how big the world is and what a small place I have in it. This is a good thing, and it is one of the gifts we hoped to offer to our children through the trip. The prospect of traveling to a new culture was making me acutely self-conscious of my image, both as a representative of Americans and as my unique self. I needed to center myself, to get to a place where my internal self-image matched my external appearance.

Thus began my quest to find a pair of shoes that would coordinate with my soul.

Standing on the prime meridian.
Here we are in Greenwich, with one foot in each hemisphere at the Prime meridian: sneaker-clad and unapologetic.

Four months and countless UPS deliveries later, I landed tentatively in a place of equilibrium. I never did find a pair of red ballet flats that I liked. I did however find some excellent footwear — a pair of shoes and a pair of boots — that served me well in style and comfort all through the trip. I followed the advice I had read and assembled a collection of items that suited me well, for the most part. I packed a few mistakes (a jean jacket that I never wore) but also some winners (a red scarf that I wore practically everywhere). It all balanced out in the end.

Read the next post in our England 2015 series: Departure: The journey from crazy to calm.

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