I did not blend in in high school. That’s not to say that I was left out – I wasn’t. I circled my way around in friends, and was involved in all sorts of things. What I mean to say is that I stood out – I was different. This was mostly my own doing. Somewhere along the line it became easier to be different than to be the same. Don’t laud me with praise for clinging to some ideal, upholding some sense of integrity, because that wasn’t it. Mostly, I was busy trying on all sorts of hats, and figuring out which one I liked best. I was following the beat to my own drum, with a rhythm that kept changing.
I may have been known for a few things, including my choice of footwear. Sometimes it was just the mismatching socks worn with a pair of kicks, but often it was the hand painted canvas shoes that drew some attention. Most memorable, and treasured, for me is the pair of colorfully flowered Doc Martens that reached half way up my calf and tied with one blue and one green lace. They were just tough enough, softened with floral femininity. These shoes became a trademark. No one else had these shoes, and I wore them loudly, with everything.
Another thing that remains faithful in my memory of high school is skiing. Our school, thought not particularly close to any mountains, yet was always offering ski trips, big and small. I saved up my babysitting dollars, and my friends and I sat on those buses, as they navigated tight turns on small mountains roads, more often than not. Not a lot makes any one of these trips stand alone, and looking back now they are hazy years of getting my ski legs and buttressing my courage to aim myself down black diamonds ever larger in size and challenge.
After a long afternoon of the round and round of chair lifts and ski runs, thighs tight and cheeks tingling with a hot-cold, I trudged back inside the ski lodge, thunking my way to the locker room, in the robotic movements dictated by ski boots. The warm, wet air from inside that ski lodge softened my nose, and snot oozed its way from my nose to my upper lip. My friends and I, always looking to pinch a penny, cheap in the way teenagers are, refused to fork up the buck fifty or whatever it was for a bright orange key and a locker. Instead, as was our habit, we hoisted our bags of day clothes on top of the locker bays. Now, coming off the mountain, ready for a comfy sweatshirt and walkable shoes for my feet, I swung my ski bag back down off the ledge. I noticed it almost immediately: my boots, my floral Doc Martens, are weighty shoes. They lend heft to a bag that is otherwise filled with cotton clothes. But this bag had no heft, not anymore. My shoes were gone.
What followed next was a mess of tears, histrionics of teenage proportion. I came home on that bus deflated, still walking like a ski robot. I felt like someone had stolen a part of me. These weren’t just an expensive pair of Nikes. To me, these boots were one of a kind, and so much of how I understood myself was wrapped up in those shoes. Some other person was going to wear those shoes, now. Out there, in that great world, someone else was walking around in my size 6 floral Doc Martens.
At home, I expected an earful about being responsible. I was certain that I this was going to be one of those life lessons, a teaching moment about making choices and respecting my belongings. If I had just put my coins in the locker, shoved my bag in and locked it up tight, then I would still have my beloved boots. I braced myself for the lecture, and though heart sick, understood I would get no sympathy.
I did learn a life lesson that day, but it wasn’t the one I expected. The words are vague, the specifics unclear, but the lesson I learned that day was about grace. Pure, undeserving, grace. You see, I didn’t get the lecture; I didn’t get the “I told you so,” or the “you should know better.” What I got was a new pair of boots: another brightly colored pair of floral Doc Martens, paid for entirely by my parents, and lovingly gifted to me, for no other reason than they loved me, and understood my hurt.
Some might accuse my parents of missing a crucial lesson, causing me to be still more careless. Some might accuse me of being a bit too attached to the finer things of this world, and missing the point, ’cause after all stuff is just stuff. I will tell you this: that other stuff is in there, too, but what I learned that day was a far greater lesson.
Recently, I dug through the bottom of my closet and pulled out my boots. The flowers are worn away on the toes, the leather forever creased around the ankles, but they are comfortable in a way that only 15 year old shoes can be. Though they are not the most convenient shoe for this running-out-the-door-with-three-small-ones-in-tow-mama, I’ve been taking the time to lace them up, threaded to one hole less than the top, wrap that lace around the ankle before securing it with a double knot, just like I did in high school. These boots have attitude, even now.
And these boots are a physical reminder to me, too, of the grace that I have received, the grace that I can so freely give. Just like when my sister is hanging out with our kids, and is doling out Smarties, untwisting the crinkly plastic with the kids circled ’round, and she reaches out to place a few into each hand. The Eldest, his eyes betraying his desire and disappointment, as he tells his aunt truthfully: “But I didn’t eat a good dinner.” As she deposits a few Smarties in his palm, he is learning about that same abundant grace.
Folks, none of us is deserving. I’m wearing my boots and passing out Smarties of grace.