Working With Heart

Imagine what a harmonious world it could be if every single person, both young and old, shared a little of what he is good at doing.   (Quincey Jones)


Sister Mary Theresa: a pale, beautiful face framed by a white wimple.  Her hands, long-fingered and powdery clean, clasped her wooden rosary beads as she swished down the aisles. Her gauzy black veil brushed our desks as she ensured that we were earnestly penciling our letters neatly into the blue-lined spaces of our coarse yellow paper.

We loved Sister Mary Theresa, and when she stood in front of the room and told us to be diligent, we listened.  Work hard, she told us, and learn about your gifts.  Even someone who is six years old might discover her vocation.  And maybe, and Sister’s face would shine when she said this, MAYBE, there’s even a child in here–or two!- who has a religious vocation. Maybe, among us, there is a future priest!  Or a future nun!

Ah, my heart leapt, and I knew that was me, that I was destined for a life of sacrifice and prayer. I read the life of the Little Flower, and decided that nothing would do but to join a cloistered order of Carmelite nuns.  I wrote to them and declared my intentions.  They sent me flyers and literature and good advice: Wait a bit and explore all your options.

The next year, I had a lay teacher and the Beatles came to America, and I realized that I was REALLY intended to be a rock star. I wrote to the Beatles, too, but I never heard back from them regarding my future employment.  And a passing year and an impatient family bore the truth down upon me: to be a musician one needs some kind of musical ability.

So there I was, aged eight, without a clue, knowing only that I was destined neither to be a bride of Christ nor a female rock icon.  But I knew deep in my deepest knowing that I was destined for something: that I had skills and gifts and talents waiting to be discovered…that there was a vocation out there waiting for me.  There was a Pam-shaped niche, just waiting for me to grow up and fill it.

I embraced Sister Mary Theresa’s concept of vocation.


We all know people who are in the absolutely wrong jobs.

There’s the teacher (not the norm–there are great heroes in the ranks of teachers!) who chose the field because it was steady and paid decently, and she could be home when the kids were home. She is using the lessons plans she designed for her math class 15 years ago. Math hasn’t changed in that time; why should the way she does her work?  She grades one class’s papers while another is slogging along, completing that day’s assignment, at their desks.  She always gives quick written feedback, but she often ignores the raised hands and puzzled faces in front of her.  In the teachers’ lounge, she is bitter about cell phones and tattoos and rudeness and administrative decisions. She regularly refers to her high school students as ‘little shits.’  She can tell you exactly how many days there are until summer vacation.

There’s the worker in reception who regards the people he is meant to serve as a gross imposition on his time.

There’s the exhausted doctor whose mind is only on her watercolors.

There’s the government worker who plods along at his job for forty years, racking up the retirement dollars doing work he hates.  He and the wife are saving for their retirement, squirreling away money for a little retirement place in Florida.  He dies the week after he retires, from a massive heartache that explodes with no warning.  His kids, grown now, remember him falling asleep in his lounge chair after dinner, cigarette burning down to a nub.  He was always tired, always, remote, always a little bit sad. Not me, each vows. That will not be me.


But there are the others, too–the people who seem made for their position, who, no matter what it is that they do, elevate the role to that of a true vocation.

There’s the adjunct math instructor dancing in the hallway because a struggling student has finally grasped the concept of derivatives.  The classroom ceiling cracked open, a beam of glowing light poured through on the student’s head, and she dropped her pen and looked up at him in wonder.

“I get it!” she said.  “I GET it!!!”

That’s it, he thinks; this is the job I’m meant to be doing.


There is the woman who has waited tables at the same family restaurant for thirty years.  She has her regulars, and she knows exactly what they want.  She knows the kids’ names and where they are in school and she serves each customer a heaping helping of personal interest along with the scrambled eggs. She makes strangers feel welcome; her quick eyes assess their state–tired, in need of comfort, confused or perplexed, excited to be visiting, here for a reason that involves bad news.  She knows when to suggest a soothing bowl of hot soup and when to grab a brochure of local sites and recommend a trip to the wildlife sanctuary or the sculpture park.

She quells the rude without offending and she reaches for crying babies and she makes sure the coffee cups are never, ever empty.  She can’t think of another job that would give her the same joy.  This kind of serving–well, it’s her vocation.


There is…

…The haircutter who makes sure every client leaves feeling as if she looks her absolute best.

…The coach, industrial foreman by day, who inspires kids to stretch, to grow, to push themselves and find out just what they are capable of doing.

…The guidance counselor who plants and harvests dreams.

…The stay at home mom who juggles diapers and library trips and dirty clothes and satisfying dinners day in and day out and makes her life look like a gift.

…The factory owner who knows the names of each of his 200 employees.  He spends at least one day, every two weeks, on the factory floor.  He asks about the kid who applied for a scholarship; he wants to know if the mother-in-law is out of the hospital. His people love him and love working for him.  His business withstands pressures that sink other enterprises.

These ones have found the work that makes their souls sing.

Maybe–although I don’t completely buy this–there’s not a mystical niche that was created for each of us before we were born.  But each of us has our own special formula of gifts and leanings, weaknesses and blind spots, abilities and potential. Tapping those particular talents and attributes taps into happiness.

So a young man we know, Noah, who has a pretty severe development disability, is happily employed at a family-owned diner.  Noah’s job coach realized that he was meticulous and orderly and loved to organize things into neat bundles.  So Noah does the job the wait staffers at the diner hate to do: he wraps silverware into linen napkins and places them in a big plastic bin. Noah never puts an even vaguely dirty fork into a pristine napkin.  He will set aside any piece of silverware that has the slightest hint of residue, and when he is done with his napkin rolling, he will take the suspect pieces back to the kitchen and wash them by hand.  He greets regular customers, his face lighting up; his joy is part of the warmth that draws them back to that diner three or four times a week.

Noah has found his niche, his calling.  (Oh, the wisdom of that job coach!)

So a young woman who loves working with kids, who just wants to help kids find their own niches, takes some social work classes while she is remediating her GPA: she needs a 2.75 to get into the education program.  But a funny thing happens. She falls in love with social work.  Knowing that it is a gritty, demanding field, and knowing that she will never make top pay, she plunges into a wholly unexpected course of study.  She loves her internship.  She gets a job at an inner-city children’s program and earns her MSW in the nooks and crannies of time.

She sees pain and heartache and often is called on to offer comfort.  But she sees, too, gleaming moments of triumph.  And she knows that this–this work, this exhausting and consuming work,–is what she is meant to do.

Self-knowledge is not taught in schools, but it should, maybe, be our first and continuous learning–its blossoming our ultimate goal. It is painful to see the unemployed woman, tender and slow and patient, talk about wanting to work in a fast-paced, high pressure office,–the exact kind of environment that will ignore her skills and sap her energy.  It is frustrating to see the child, awkward and clumsy but gifted with artistic skills, talk about his only consuming passion: to be a fast-moving, dexterous professional basketball star. And it is annoying to work with the real estate broker who goes through the motions, checking his text messages when he could be pointing out the possibilities.

There are tests that show our aptitudes and our communications styles, free tests that we can take, and then wrestle with the knowledge unpeeled by the results. {See links at the end for a couple of examples.}

There are the things that people say to us, offhand remarks–Nobody bakes pies like you do, Carrie! or,–Whenever I want to build something, Calvin, I come to you for help planning.

There is the thread revealed by the journals we keep: Look at how many times in the past six months, Frieda thinks, I wrote about repurposing! Perhaps the clues are there, bread crumbs on the trail, waiting to be picked up.

What happened to Sister Mary Theresa, that beautiful young nun in the early 1960’s? Not many years later, the mysterious habits morphed into practical polyester suits, the swishing veils into pill box hats with short, bouncing plackets. Many, many nuns in those turbulent times tied up their sensible oxford shoes and marched out of the convent into secular life, into marriages and relationships and public schools and not-for-profit management.

I wonder if Sister Mary Theresa found, in those years of discovery, that her definition of vocation underwent a change. Because that’s a possibility, too–that the job that fits exactly when we’re 20 is not the right fit when we are 32.  That our vocation can grow and change as we do.

A constant awareness, I think, must be maintained.

Imagine, though, what life would be like if we encouraged and  cultivated that kind of self-knowledge. Imagine a world where everyone picked up the bread crumbs.

Imagine a world where every person was engaged in work that made their heart sing.


Some free online  inventories:

Find your strengths:

What’s your communications style?

Click to access CommunicationsStyleInventory.pdf


Vocation, Vocation, Vocation

They hadn’t been to church in over a year,–so long that their church of tentative choice had a new minister, for heaven’s sake–but something nudged her that Sunday.  Her husband reluctantly put the New York Times aside and accompanied her, although she assured him it wasn’t necessary. But it was good, they both felt, to see friendly faces; and the cadence of the liturgy, the swell of the organ, the smell of the candles, soothed and inspired.

After the opening prayer, the children were called to the front, and a talented mom shared an abbreviated story of Jonah. The small heads leaned forward avidly.  Refusing to do what you’re told!  Trapped in the belly of the beast! VOMITED out and repentantly, belatedly obedient. Now there was a story.

The pastor, in his sermon, took up the thread of Jonah. “Let’s talk,” he said, “about answering God’s call.  What’s God calling you to do?”

She almost laughed out loud.  She was 63 years old–63!–and suddenly it seemed like the concept of vocation was stalking her.

A little child–a blond, solemn boy of maybe three and a half, four years–in the pew three rows ahead, was playing with a wooden Johnny Jump Up toy, his back to the altar, staring, unseeing, right at her.  She closed her eyes to concentrate better on the pastor’s words, but the wooden click-clacking intruded.  It sounded familiar, she thought; it conjured a long-forgotten sound. It was the sound that wooden rosary beads made as the Sisters of Saint Joseph navigated her grade school classrooms.

In third grade it had been Sister Mary Agnes who rustled and clacked up and down the aisles of the Perpetual Life schoolroom, placing thick packets of official-looking paperwork on each child’s desk. Some of the nuns were rough or stern or abrupt; Sister Mary Agnes was quiet, kind, encouraging.

When she reached forward eagerly to read the instructions, Sister put a gentle hand on her head and urged her to wait.  They would discover this together, as a class.

And it was something to discover.  This packet, Sister told them, was an APTITUDE inventory.  The questions it contained would cleverly worm their ways into each child’s special core of being, winnowing out and revealing the talents and leanings each child had.  Revealing vocations–God’s special call to each one. For each, Sister Agnes assured the third graders, had a special call.  It was their lives’ work to discern what that call was.  Sister searched the faces of her charges, her eyes, lashless behind un-rimmed spectacles, were hopeful but realistic; some, she said, might even have the special vocation for the religious life.  Although, Sister acknowledged sadly, that call seemed to come less and less, these days.

It was 1960.

The children took up their sharpened number two pencils–each had a spare, just in case; there would be no talking, no asking a neighbor for help if a pencil point broke during this exercise.  Take your time, admonished Sister.  Give honest, thoughtful answers.  The results we’ll receive could truly plant the seeds that shape your lives!

At last she could begin.  What interesting questions,–things like, If I had free time, I would choose to…a.) play kickball b.) read a book c.) play with my dog d.) take a walk. Oh, that was hard–would there be friends over?  Would her father be able to play in the yard with them?  Or would it be during a rainy summer afternoon when chores were taken care of and the house was quiet? No questions were allowed, and she wasn’t sure if she could just choose a scenario.

What would be the most likely thing? she asked herself.  She thoughtfully, carefully, bubbled in her answer and moved on to the next question.  They were all like that, boundary-less; she had to decide what the background was to respond.  The room was silent save for the scratching of pencils as the children blacked in their answers. They considered the questions–these little bundles of words that might magically change their lives–for two full hours. When Sister picked up each packet and carefully stacked them on her desk, the children were ready for lunch, ready to run out onto the courtyard and stretch their stiff and twitchy legs.

It was two long weeks before the results came in.  She’d walk home from school, in the interim, imagining what hers might say.  Something interesting, she hoped–maybe something ladies didn’t usually do–like exploring or being a white-coated, beaker-wielding, scientist.  She was a little worried about the whole religious thing; in first grade, when she had Sister Mary Theresa, who was young and beautiful with finely arched eyebrows and porcelain pale skin–Sister MT was what she thought of when she heard the term, “A bride of Christ,”– she had been sure she had the Call.  She wrote to different groups of sisters–orders, her mother called them,–and got responses with glossy brochures and programs of study, picture of missions, letters admonishing her to pray very hard for her vocation.

She also, that year, wrote to the New York Yankees and got autographed flyers from Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford.  But she wasn’t going to be a baseball player.

And she was pretty sure she wouldn’t be a nun, either.  But, she thought uneasily, what if the Results said she should?  Could she run away from God?  Look what Sister said had happened to Jonah when he tried that little trick.

Maybe she could be a writer, and maybe she could draw pictures for children’s books. Maybe there was a job for her she’d never even dreamed of.

The day the results arrived, she hurried home; Sister said to open them with a parent when there was time to sit and discuss. She hoped her mother would be ready.

Luck ran her way. Her mother, tall and thin, with a long mop of glossy auburn hair, was languidly running the feather duster around the French windows that enclosed the staircase; she stopped to look at the packet.

Oh, it was exciting, the moment before knowing!  She held her breath, sitting at the big formal dining room table, as her mother slit open the big envelope, pulled out a stack of papers, and took a long pull on her Lucky Strike.  Then she flipped open the official letter.

There was a pause,–ah, a breathless, fraught moment. And then her mother snorted.

“For Christ’s sake,” she said.  “Just like your brother!  They think all the kids outside the city are hicks!”

Her mother slapped the paper down on the table, where she could see it. “Your scores indicate,” read the printed form, “that    FARMING    would be a good match for your aptitudes and skills.”

“Farming!” she gasped, looking at her mother in despair.

Her mother laughed and reached a long, slender hand over to ruffle her hair. “You’re no farmer, kiddo,” she said. “You don’t like dirt and you don’t like animals.  You’re gonna have to figure it out yourself, just like the rest of us.”

Oh, it was disappointing.  But the concept that she had a vocation, a special role to play, never really left her.  She tried on different roles all the way through school–for a long while, she was captivated by the idea of working in a shoe store (oh, the leathery, promising smell of new shoes! And the happy faces of children picking out a wonderful new pair!)  Her brother pointed out, though, that she would have to touch stinky feet, maybe even diseased feet.

She set that idea aside, picking up new ones–waitress, nurse, rock and roll diva.  Reporter.  Designer.  Artist.

She still had no idea when she got to college so, loving books and enjoying writing and research, she took an English degree.  An advisor told her vaguely that employers cherished the ability to communicate. Those words were not entirely true, she found when she started shlepping her degree around, looking for work.  She worked for a dentist, training in the office to be an assistant, holding the suction, helping people to spit.

She liked the hours; the money was decent. But, oh, she was bored.  She went back to school for her master’s, and she vowed that she would figure out what she should be doing, only determined, in those Seventies days of exhilarating feminism, that she would neither teach nor type for a living.

And she wound up, of course, doing both–there she was, aged 26, in a middle school language arts classroom, coaxing seventh graders to write thoughtful essays, enticing them to read an abbreviated form of the Odyssey, a modernized version of Romeo and Juliet.  During breaks, she typed graduate school theses for extra money.

She hated herself for it, but she loved teaching.  She moved and married, moved again, and in each place she found a little bit better job, but always in the education field, always involved with students. She took time off to have her daughter.  Teaching, she liked to say, stalked her.  Jobs came and found her, even when she wasn’t ready to be found.  She moved from classroom to administration, and from middle school to high school.

Although she didn’t track it down, didn’t figure it out, she realized somewhat belatedly, that education was, for her, a vocation.She moved, finally, to the College level, and now, here she was: the Dean.

That was the pinnacle, and she thought suddenly, as the pastor’s thoughtful words sank like rainwater into the thirsty soil of her soul, that she was done.  Sixty three.  THIS career: over. Time to move on.

She laughed a little and her husband looked at her a little oddly, gave her a mild stink-eye, and she wondered where the pastor had gone with his sermon–oh, was she laughing, maybe, at the description of ultimate sacrifice?  She coughed lightly, patted her husband’s arm, returned to a contemplation of the pastor’s words.

Until she started thinking about the workshop she’d gone to recently that talked about continuous growth: sometimes, the speaker said, we need to make a drastic change, move to a new field entirely.  That week she’d picked up a book about ‘finding your hedgehog’ at the library–the hedgehog being that thing that one is really, ultimately, meant to do.  TED talks popped up on the subject of vocation; her daily devotionals urged her to discernment.

Sixty three! she reminded herself, standing there in the church she’d been neglecting, a smear of yellow light from the amber glass in the window staining her cheek. A little old for new careers, new choices, don’t You think?

As if in response, excitement leapt in her stomach. Finding something new. Something completely and surprisingly different.  What IS it? she thought.  She grinned at her husband, who tried to look at her in mature disapproval, but caught in the rays, he grinned right back.

The service moved toward its conclusion; music swelled. She thought about moving forward, too; she would pick up her Julia Cameron book and start doing her morning pages, walking meditation, artist’s dates. She would pray for discernment.  She would go to the women’s workshop her cousin had been urging her to attend. Something’s coming, she realized: a change, a lift, a whole new role.

They shook the new pastor’s hand, affirmed that they would see him next week, stood and talked with friends for a moment, leaning on their car in the parking lot. They climbed in the car–his car, the Sunday car, a long, sleek sedan–and drove home.

She stared out the window at houses with lovely gardens, fluttering ‘Welcome’ flags, planters burgeoning with beautiful blooms. She didn’t know what the next step was, only that there would be one, and it would be exciting.

But–she thought of the tiny terrace on their condo, with the dead flowers in their expensive container pots, and she knew this one thing for sure: Farming still wasn’t her answer.

Selling Shoes

Cindi and JoAnna disappear, giggling,–two sprightly, well-intentioned girls, one all corners and angles, the other all dimples and curves.  They are hard workers; they’ll bend their mousse-ed and gel-ed heads over the inventory; they’ll stack and fill empty spaces; they’ll tick off the re-order lists. They’ll clean the break room table and empty the trash bins.

They just don’t want to work with whatever troublesome customer lurks behind me. I turn with a smile, and then I understand.  This is a truly obese man; he fills the bulk of the bench, and his hands rest on the tiny spaces left on either side; he leans forward.  His huge belly, netted in a rust-colored  t-shirt, spills from a shiny blue windbreaker.  His legs jiggle in baggy khaki clown pants.  Worn, enormous sneakers sit by his feet on the floor.

He has patchy hair that might have once been red, and jowls, and there are deep circles under his eyes.  He looks, I think, like a forlorn, unhappy, overweight basset hound.

I make sure my smile doesn’t falter, and he relaxes.

“Hel-LOOO,” he says, and I welcome him, ask him what he’d like to look at tonight.

He explains that he really needs new sneakers, and I examine the old ones, ask if the size was good, and then disappear for a moment into the back room, where two busy young ladies avoid meeting my eyes.  We have a few customers with feet this size and width, and I keep their options together on a corner shelf.  These are folks who’ve been in store after store where they’re told, by aghast clerks, “No, we don’t carry THAT size.”  Their backs prickle with embarrassment and they try to leave the stores unseen, knowing their girth makes that impossible. They are always on view.

I take three styles out with me, a standard white, a grey and white mesh-type style, and a shiny neon orange pair.

“Well, the orange is OUT,” he says; “too bold for me!  But I don’t know; what do you think about the others?”

“Well,” I say, “I think you should try them.”  I pull my little stool over, and I take one big shoe out of the box, dig the tissue out of the toe, open the laces wide and pull up the tongue.  Gently, I lift his enormous foot; the white athletic sock is soaked with sweat, and the foot is rank.  He probably, I think, can’t reach down to wash them well.

I slide the shoe–this is the white one–onto his foot, and I lace it up with a flourish, tie it snugly, and invite him to stand.  He does, and wiggles his toes.  I look at him questioningly; he nods, pleased.

“Let’s try the left shoe,” I say, and he sticks out his big left foot and starts to talk. He tells me that he’s new to town; his wife’s a CPA, and they moved for her job, and the kids like their new school, but he’s not so sure of this place.  He’s never made friends easily. “Well–LOOK at me!” he snorts.  He’s been subbing at the high school; the kids there are brutal, though, he says.

We talk about teaching–biology is his field,–as I tie up the other shoe and send him down the aisle for a test drive.  He comes back, grinning.

“They feel good.”

“Well, don’t be hasty,” I admonish.  “Let’s try the grey pair.”

He nods, delighted, and I remove the white shoes, repeat the lace-up ritual with the grey.

And all the while he talks, telling me about his kids (his son’s at the age where his dad’s size embarrasses him; his daughter still thinks Pop is the greatest), his wife, who works too hard; he’s always felt bad that she’s the bread-winner. Somehow he just never could land the real job, education be damned.

I tell him about a GED program I know of that is always looking for science tutors.  I take his boxes to the counter; delighted with the concept of having a choice, he can’t decide, and so takes both. Surreptitiously, I use my hand sanitizer. I ring up his shoes, swipe his credit card and note his name–Elvin Weill–, and write down my friend Ellery’s number at the GED center.  He grabs his bag and stops and opens his mouth, but can’t think of what to say.  He quivers a little.

“Good night, Mr. Weill,” I say.

His mouth works.

“The kids at the high school,” he says, “call me ‘Mr. Whale.'”

He pulls his bag higher, toward his chest, grimacing. “Well.  Good night!”

And he is out the door with a huffing swoosh.


 My mother took me to the shoe store once a year, and we bought sturdy oxfords. She had always been told that oxfords shaped the feet of a child better than anything else.  Mr.  Pakliter, who owned the store, and always insisted on waiting on us himself–“I’LL get THESE ladies,” he’d say to the clerk who would smile at us and bow away,– told me to call him Mr. P.  And he agreed with my mom, but he said we could take practicality too far. 

She would have me in black lace ups that looked orthopedic, that looked, my brothers always used to mock, like they came from the store where the holy sisters bought their shoes. Mr. P. would measure my foot carefully, length and width.  Then he’d bring those black shoes out, along with two or three other pairs, softer shoes with firm support but a little bit more panache, and we’d solemnly try each pair on.  He would ask me how they felt, Mr. P. would, and make me walk up and down the aisle.

He’d press my toes inside the shoes and have my mother do the same.  Now these, he’d say of a soft brown shoe with a silky lace–almost a ribbon–, have a little bit more give, maybe better for a child who’s growing all the time.

Of the black ones, he’d say, I’m not sure I like where her toes land here, and he’d wink at me.  It was years later that I realized he switched boxes, bringing the ugly pair a half size smaller so we could frown at their awkward fit.

After the solemn chore of choosing the exact right pair of shoes that would last me a whole school year and become my scuffy play shoes the following summer, Mr. Pakliter would send me to the Treasure Box while Mom settled up at the counter.  I always chose a book–Bobbsey Twins or Cherry Ames or Nancy Drew.  I went home and put my new shoes on and sat on my bed and read my new book, every once in a while peeking at my lovely new shoes, squeaky clean, the only time they’d ever be allowed on my crisp, clean bedspread.

The shoe store was a magic place.


JoAnna snorts. “Honey Boo-Boo reborn!” she warns, as she and Cindi once again beat a retreat.  A round, worn mother with a round, bouncing girl are circling the children’s shoes.  The child is picking shoes off the counter and giggling; she slaps one back down in the wrong place and hops three times, then moves on to another victim.  The mother follows, remonstrating, low-voiced.  I smile and swoop down.

“Hmmm, who’s looking for shoes today?” I ask, and the child, chirrups, “Me!” and she picks up a sneaker which flashes when it moves and slaps it on the counter, and giggles as the lights zip and extinguish.  She is maybe eight years old, too old, really, for such antics to be cute, and the mother flushes.  She sighs and murmurs.  I make my arms into mama bird wings; I usher them to seats.

As I remove the child’s shoe, I talk to her, ask her about her favorite things.  She tells me that she likes to dance, and I picture her, an awkward, sturdy block, earthbound among airy, limber floaters.  I grab the measurement panel, and have her step down, make her do both feet–“Did you know,” I ask her, “that sometimes our feet don’t match?  Sometimes Rightie is one size and Leftie is another?”

She ponders this and giggles, gentling down, and I turn to the mom.  “What will the new shoes be for?” I ask, and she tells me for school, maybe a little for dress up.  So we want something sturdy but girlie.  I go back for the mary janes, nice support, but pretty.

The child looks at them worriedly; she wants, I know, splash and flash, cheap slip on shoes that match her friends’.  But she needs a sturdy shoe.

I pull a package of glittery raised decals from my pocket.  “Now these shoes,” I say, “come with these.  They’re removable, so you can change the color, put them in different places, or, if you want serious shoes one day, you can leave them off altogether.”

She can’t resist; she leans in to see the pretty, sticky baubles, and I feel Mom relax.  “What do you think, Evie?” she asks, and the child crows, “Yes!  I want these!”

I send her off to the Treasure Box, to pick a little treasure chest of her own to keep her decals in.  She skips away, and I turn to the mom, with her worn down air and her worn down shoes, and I gently tell her about the buy one, get one half off sale I’ve just made up.  They leave hand-in-hand.  Mom is wearing a sassy new pair of Saucony sneaks, bouncing a little as she walks.  The child carries her new shoes in a special bag with handles.


I started working at 14, and saved my babysitting money to buy shoes.  To think of having a wardrobe of shoes, not just one sturdy pair to last year-round: that was riches to me.  For what I’d pay for one pair at Mr. Pakliter’s, I could get five pairs at the big box store, and so I bought sandals and platforms and shiny heels with toes that pointed. 

They hurt my feet.  The first time I walked home from school in the heels, I got four blisters and broke the cheap strap; I took to rescuing my gym shoes from their locker so I could wear them home after a long school day of suffering for fashion.  I graduated from babysitting to a supermarket job, and started saving for college.  I set aside all my extra cash for my impractical shoe collection, which grew and grew. 

In college, I fell off my four inch platforms more than once at beer blasts, once hurting my ankle to the point of needing crutches for a month.  My friends and I laughed: what we endure to allure, we moaned.  I walked across the stage to accept my diploma in three inch stilettos, praying I wouldn’t, like a girl 100 or so graduates ahead of me, skitter on the four steps leading down. 

I got my first teaching job in a town five miles from my parents’ home, and the capable, care-worn principal advised me, when she invited me in to talk about the year ahead, to get some sturdy comfortable shoes.  She was not impressed by the strappy black sandals that elevated my height by three inches.  She said wryly that she didn’t think I’d have to worry–I’m 5’11”–about any of my fifth graders being taller than I am.

I went back to Mr. Pakliter’s. 

A smiling clerk came to help me, but,–“I’ll take care of THIS lady, Gayle!” he said, and Mr. Pakliter ushered me to a seat.  I left with two pairs of shoes, low heels, comfortable toes, sturdy but feminine, too.  I did not go to the Treasure Box, but at the check out, Mr. P. threw a couple packs of stickers into my bag. “For grading papers,” he said.  “I know the kids love stickers, and I know you’ll be spending your own money on things like that.”

My last customer of the day is Mrs. Drew, who is 89; I know this, because each time she comes in she tells me.  She drives her huge white Caddie to the handicapped space–she sits tilted forward so she can peer over the wheel. I think to myself that her kids are going to have to deal with the driving situation sometime soon.  She opens the door and waits, carefully assessing traffic before she totters over to the store.

And, again, Cindi and JoAnna disappear.  Mrs. Drew will fire her opening gambit: “I’ve just been to the hairdresser,” she might say (and sure enough, her fine white hair is beautifully styled). “They couldn’t believe I’m 89 years old!

“Well, you have a vibrant spirit,” I always respond, and then she tells me about her children–her daughter in town, her son on the coast–before we slip the ballet dancer’s flat off her right foot and talk about what she needs.

Her feet are tiny, bent and painful, toes twisted and overlapping and pointing to the side.  I ease her into gentle shoes, soft white walking shoes, comfy cushioned slip-ons, steering far clear of those black lace-ups that would make her think, “Old age.  Old people’s shoes.”

Her size doesn’t change, and with her feather-weight, she barely puts any wear on her  shoes, but she comes in every six months, and she buys two pairs for the changing seasons, following the rules of ‘Wear white after Memorial Day weekend, never after Labor Day.’ The purchase of shoes is, I know, a connection to younger, more vital days, a warding off of the limits of age that, when she is home and struggling to heat her luncheon soup, she can’t deny.

I slide a pair of funny, fuzzy bright socks into her bag and tell her to wear them with her walking shoes–“That’ll show those kids!” I say, and she cackles a little, waving a hand briskly, heading out to her armored tank for the short ride home.


Cindi and JoAnna emerge, giggling, swiping dust from their smocks–they’ve been cleaning in the store room,–and they tell me they don’t know how I do it.

“How can you hold those feet in your hands and smile,” asks Cindi, “when they’re so stinky and…oh, just ick???”

I smile and say something frothy.  They can’t understand that this is my dream job, my retirement vocation.  Mr. Pakliter has long since retired, of course, and his daughter Wendy owns the store.  She likes my volume of sales; I like the light evening hours.

And I like paying it forward.  I hold those smelly feet in my hands without flinching; I measure and nod; I listen, and I bring out a pair of shoes that says to someone, “I heard you.”

There are so many people who feel invisible.  There are so many ways to bring them into focus.  A shoe store, a supermarket, a doctor’s waiting room: a nod, a shoulder pat, a question about the weather.  The remembered name of a precious pup. Disbelief at an age revealed. Many ways.

My teaching days are done.  For now, I sell shoes.