Book Club

Red Shoes Story: Do Not Normalize The Abnormal (What Is Neither Nurturing Nor Sensible)

“Red Shoes” story

Once there was a poor motherless child who had no shoes. But the child saved cloth scraps whenever she found them and over time sewed herself a pair of red shoes. They were crude but she loved them. They made her feel rich even though her days were spent gathering food in the thorny woods until far past dark.

Once day as she trudged down the road in her rugs and her shoes, a gilded carriage pulled up beside her. Inside was an old woman who told her she was going to take her home and treat her as her own little daughter. So the wealthy old woman’s house they went, and the child’s hair was cleaned and combed. She was given pure white undergarments and a fine wool dress and stockings and shiny black shoes. When the child asked about her old clothes, and especially her red shoes, the old woman said that the clothes were so filthy, and the shoes so ridiculous, that she had thrown them into the fire, where they were burnt to ashes.

The child was very sad, for even with all the riches surrounding her, the humble red shoes made by her own hands had given her the greatest happiness. Now, she was made to sit still all the time, to walk without skipping, and not to speak unless spoken to. However, a secret fire began to burn in her heart and she continued to yearn for her old red shoes more than anything.

The child was old enough to be confirmed on The Day of The Innocents. The old lady took her to an old crippled shoemaker to have special shoes made for the occasion. In the shoemaker’s case there stood a pair of red shoes made of the finest leather. The shoes were finer than fine, they practically glowed. So even though red shoes were scandalous for church, the child, who chose only with her hungry heart, picked the red shoes. The old lady’s eye sight was so poor that she did not even see the color of the shoes and so paid for them. The old shoemaker winked at the child and wrapped the shoes up.

The next day the church members were agog over the shoes on the child’s feet. The red shoes shone like burnished apples, like hearts, like red – washed plums. Everyone stared: even the icons on the walls, even the status stared disapprovingly at her shoes. But the child loved the shoes all the more. So when the pontiff intoned, the choir hummed, the organ plumped, the child thought nothing more beautiful than her red shoes.

By the end of the day the old lady had been informed about her ward’s red shoes. “Never, never wear those red shoes again!” the old woman threatened. But the next Sunday, the child couldn’t help but chose the red shoes over the black ones when going to the church service as usual.

At the door to the church was an old soldier with his arms in sling. He wore a little jacket and had a red beard. He bowed and asked permission to brush the dust from the child’s shoes. The child put out her foot, and he tapped the soles of her shoes with a little wig-a-jig-jig song that made the soles of her feet itch. “Remember to stay for the dance”, he smiled and winked at her.

Again everyone looked askance at girl’s red shoes. But she so loved the shoes that were so bright like crimson, bright like raspberries, bright like pomegranates, that she could hardly think of anything else, hardly hear the service at all. So busy she was turning her feet this way and that way, admiring her red shoes, that she forgot to sing.

As she and the old woman left the church, the injured soldier called out: “What beautiful dancing shoes!” His words made a gird take a few little twirls right there and then. But once her feet had begun to move, they could not stop, and she danced through the flower beds and around the corner of the church until it seemed she had lost complete control of herself. She did a gavotte and then waltzed herself through the fields across the way.

The old woman’s coachman jumped up from his bench and ran after the girl, picked her up and carried her back to the carriage, but the girl’s feet in red shoes kept on dancing in the air as though they were still on the ground. The old woman and the coachman tugged and pulled, trying to pry the red shoes off. It was such a sight, all hats askew and kicking legs, but at last the child’s feet were calmed.

Back home, the old woman slammed the red shoes down high on the shelf and warned the girl never to touch them again. But the girl could not help looking up at them and longing for them. To her, they were still the beautiful things on the face of the earth.

Not long after, as fate would have it, the old lady became bedridden. As soon as her doctor left, the girl crept into the room where the red shoes were kept. At first she glanced at the shelf where the shoes stood. He glance became a gaze and a gaze became a powerful desire, so much so that the girl took the shoes from the shelf and fastened them on, feeling it would do no harm. But as soon as they touched her heels and toes, she was overcome by the urge to dance.

And so out the door she danced, and then down the steps, first in the gavotte, and then a csardaz and then in a big daring waltz turns in rapid succession. The girls was in her glory and did not realize that she was in trouble until she wanted to dance to the left and the shoes insisted on dancing to the right. When she wanted to dance around, the shoes insisted on dancing straight ahead. And as the shoes danced the girl, rather than the other way around, they danced her right down the road, through the muddy fields, and out into the dark and gloomy forest.

There against the trees stood the old soldier with red beard, his hand in a sling, and dressed in his little jacket. “Oh my,” he said, “what beautiful dancing shoes”. Terrified, she tried to pull the shoes off but as much as she tried the shoes stayed fast. She hopped on one foot and then on the other trying to take shoes off, but her one foot on the ground kept on dancing even so, and her other foot in hand did its part of the dance as well.

And so dance, and dance, and dance, she did. Over the highest hills and through valleys, in the rain and in the snow, she danced. She danced in the darkest night and through sunrise and she was still dancing in the twilight as well. But it was not good dancing. It was terrible dancing, and there was no rest for her.

She danced into a church yard and there a spirit of dread would not let her enter. The spirit pronounced those words over her: “You shall dance in your red shoes until you become like a wrath, like a ghost, until your skin hangs from your bones, till there is nothing left of you but entrails dancing. You shall dance door to door through all villages and you shall strike each door three times and when people peer out they will see you and fear your fate themselves. Dance red shoes, you shall dance”.

The girl begged for mercy, but before she could plead further, her red shoes carried her away. Over the briars she danced, through the streams, over the hedge groves and on and on, dancing, still dancing till she come to her old home and there were mourners. The old woman who had taken her in had died. Yet, even so, she danced by, and dance she did, as dance she must. In abject exhaustion and horror, she danced into a forest where the town’s executioner lived. And an ax on his wall began to tremble as soon as it sensed her coming near.

“Please”, she begged as she danced by his door. “Please cut off my shoes to free me from this horrid fate”. And the executioner cut through the straps of the shoes with an ax. But the shoes still stayed on her feet. And so she cried to him that her life was worth nothing and that he could cut off her feet. So he cut off her feet. And the red shoes with the feet in them kept on dancing through the forest and over the hill and out of sight. And now the girl was a poor cripple, and had to find her own way in the world as a servant to others, and she never, ever again wished for red shoes again.


Faking It, Trying to be Good, Normalizing the Abnormal

As the tale goes on, the girl is chastised for wearing the red shoes to the church. Now, though she gazes up at the red shoes on the shelf, she does not touch them. She has, to this point, tried going without her soul – life; that did not work. Next, she tried sneaking a dual life; that did not work either. Now, the last – ditch stand, she “tries to be good”.

The problem with “being good” to the extreme is that it does not resolve the underlying shadow issue, and again, it will rise like a tsunami, like a giant tidal wave, and rush down, destroying everything in its path. In “being good”, a woman closes her eyes to everything obdurate, distorted, or damaged around her, and just “tries to live with it”. Her attempt to accept this abnormal state further injures her instincts to react, point out, change, make impact on what is not right, what is not just.

Anne Sexton wrote about the fairy tale “Red Shoes” in a poem:

I stand in the ring

In the dead city

And tie on the red shoes

They are not mine.

They are my mother’s

Her mother’s before.

Handed down like a heirloom

But hidden like shameful letters

The house and the street where they belong

Are hidden and all the women, too,

Are hidden…


Trying to be good, orderly and compliant in the face of the inner or outer peril in order to hide a critical psychic or real – life situation de-souls a woman. It cuts her from her knowing; it cuts her from her ability to act. Like the child in the tale, who does not object out loud, who tries to hide her starvation, who tries to make it seem as though  nothing is burning in her, modern women have the same disorder, normalizing the abnormal. This disorder is rampant among cultures. Normalizing the abnormal causes the spirit, which would normally leap to correct the situation, to instead sink into ennui, complacency, and eventually, like the old woman, into blindness.

There is an important study that gives insight into women’s loss of self – protective instinct. In early 1960s, scientists conduced animal experiments to determine something about “flight instinct” in humans. In one experiment they wired half the bottom of a large cage, so that a dog placed in a cage would receive a shock each time it placed a foot on the right side. The dog quickly learned to stay on the left side of the cage.

Next, left side of the cage was wired for the same purpose and the right side was safe from shock. The dog re-oriented quickly and learned to stay on the right side of the cage. Then the entire floor of the cage was wired to give random shocks, so that no matter where on the floor the dog lay or stood in would eventually receive a shock. The dog acted confused at first and then it panicked. Finally, the dog gave up and lay down receiving shocks as they came, no longer trying to escape them or outsmart them.

But the experiment was not over. Next , the cage door was opened.

The scientists expected the dog to rush out, but it did not flee. Even though it could vacate at will, the dog lay there being randomly shocked. From this, scientists speculated that when a creature is exposed to violence, it will tend to adapt to that disturbance, so that when violence ceases or the creature is allowed its freedom, the healthy instinct to flee is hugely diminished and the creature stays put instead.

In terms of the wildish nature of women, it is this normalizing of violence, and what scientists termed “learned helplessness”, that influences women to not only stay with drunken mates, abusive employers, and groups that exploit and harness them but causes them to feel unable to rise up to support the things they believe in with all their hearts: their art, their loves, their lifestyles, their politics.

The normalizing of the abnormal even when it is clear evidence that it is to one’s own detriment to do so applies to battering of the physical, emotional, creative, spiritual, and instinctive natures. Women face this issue any time they are stunned into doing anything less than defending their soul – lives from invasive projections, cultural, psychic, or otherwise.

Psychically, we become used to shocks aimed at our wild natures. We adapt to violence against the psyche’s knowing nature. We try to be good while normalizing the abnormal. As a result, we lose our power to flee. We lose our power to lobby for the elements of soul and life we find most valuable. When we are obsessed with the red shoes, all kinds of important personal, cultural and environmental matters fall by the sideways.

There is such loss of meaning when one gives up life made by hand that all manner of injuries to psyche, nature, culture, family, and so forth are then allowed to occur. The harm to nature is concomitant with the stunning of the psyches of humans. They are not and cannot be seen as separate from one another. When one group talks about how wrong the wild is, and the other group argues that the wild has been wronged, something isdrastically wrong. In the instinctive psyche, the Wild Woman looks out on the forest and sees a home for herself and all humans. Yet others may look at the same forest and imagine it barren of trees and their pockets bursting with money. These represent serious splits in the ability to live and let live so that all can live.

When I was a child in 1950s, in the early days of industrial disgrace against the earth, an oil barge sank in the Chicago Basin of Lake Michigan. After a day at the beach, mothers scrubbed their little children with the same fervor they usually reserved for scrubbing wooden floors, for their children were stained with oil globs.

The oil wreck oozed a goo that travelled in great sheets like floating islands as long and wide as city blocks. When these collided with jetties, they broke into gobbets, and sank into a sand and drifted into shore under the waves. For years swimmers could not swim without being covered with black muck. Children building castles would suddenly scoop up a handful of rubbery oil. Lovers could no longer roll in the sand. Dogs, birds, water life, and people all suffered. I remember feeling like my cathedral has been bombed.

Injury to instinct, normalizing the abnormal, is what allowed mothers to wipe the stains of that oil spill, and later, the further sins of factories, refineries, and smelters, off their little children, their laundry, the insides of their loved one as best as they could. While confused and worried, the women effectively cut away their rightful rage. Not all but most had become used to not being able to intervene in shocking events. There were formidable punishments for breaking the silence, for fleeing the cage, for pointing put wrongs, for demanding change.

We can see from similar events that have occurred over our lifetimes that when women do not speak, when not enough people speak, the voice of the Wild Woman becomes silent, and therefore the world becomes silent of the natural and wild too. Silent, eventually, of wolf, of bear, of raptors, etc. Silent of singing and dancing and creations. Silent of loving, repairing, and holding. Bereft of clear air and water and the voices of consciousness.

But back in those times, and too often today, even though women were infused with yarning for the wild freedom, they continued outwardly to run SOS on porcelain, using caustic cleaners, staying, as Sylvia Plath put it, “tied to their Bendix washing machines”. There they washed and rinsed their clothes in water too hot for human touch and dreamt of a different world. When the instincts are injured, humans will normalize the assault after assault, act of injustice and destruction toward themselves, their offspring, their loved ones, their land, and even their Gods.

This normalizing of the shocking and abusive is refused by repairing injured instincts. As instinct is repaired, the integral wild nature returns. Instead of dancing into the forest in the red shoes until all life becomes tortured and meaningless, we can return to the handmade life, the wholly mindful life, re- make our own shoes, walk our walk, talk our talk.

While it is true that there is much to learn by dissolving one’s projections (you are mean, you hurt me) and looking at how we are mean to ourselves, how we hurt ourselves, this should definitely not be the end of the inquiry.

The trap within the trap is thinking that everything is solved by dissolving the projections and finding consciousness in ourselves. This is sometimes true and sometimes not. Rather than this either / or paradigm – it is either something is amiss out there or something awry with us – it is more useful to use an and / and model: Here is the internal issue and here is an external issue. This and / and paradigm supports women to question the status quo with confidence, and to not only look at themselves but also at the world that is accidentally, unconsciously, or maliciously pressuring them. The and / and paradigm is not meant to be used as a blaming model, a blaming of self or others. It is rather a way of weighting and judging accountability, both inner and outer, and what needs to be changed, applied for, and adumbrated. It stops fragmentation when a woman seeks to mend all within her reach, neither slighting her own needs nor turning away the world.


“Women Who Run With the Wolves”


Thanks for reading,


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