The first snowstorm of the winter came belatedly today to the Washington, D.C. area where I live, and got me thinking about metaphor. I woke up this morning and looked to see if the storm really had come as predicted, found it pouring down outside my window, and thought the sky looked like a sheet of grey paper. In that moment, the snow itself was thin as sawdust, spilling through the tree in my front yard. So I thought – metaphors. Metaphors are a writer’s most vital tool, fueling description and the themes that give stories meaning. I’ve always thought metaphor is humanity’s most vital tool too, because without the ability to compare one thing to the next (and I’m using metaphor in the largest sense of the word, here) we wouldn’t be able to think abstractly. The first user of metaphor was the first human being as we, I think, would recognize one, because metaphor is the source of language. Putting symbols to physical things is a baby step toward metaphor, and the next step is thinking about things we can’t see, and giving names to them. To take an example, if you know about a mother and child relationship, because you’ve experienced it, and you know about families, because you live in one, a more abstract step is to see other human beings you are not related to as part of the family of humanity, and treat them accordingly, creating rules about what you can and can’t do, say, to a traveler you’re welcoming into your home. And that’s the beginning of law and civilization. Without metaphor, we’d all be stuck inside the boundaries of each moment – what we could see, touch, taste, smell and hear. Metaphor flings open the doors to the universe (another metaphor – see?) So that’s my snow day thought. And now, as I write this, the snow has thickened, and my sawdust image has to give way to feathers.
We spent this past Thanksgiving with close friends in New Jersey, and some of the kids ventured out into the wilds, by which I mean the mall on Black Friday. Alongside the great deals and the tales of massive crowds, they came home with pictures, and one in particular (above), really caught my eye. It’s an American flag made out of gym shoes.
Shoes have a peculiar power as metaphor. There are, of course, Dorothy’s ruby slippers and Cinderella’s glass ones, which, with their magical properties, take the ordinary or impoverished heroine home, or to the castle, depending on her deepest desires. But shoes as metaphor have been around much longer even than that in both legend and history. According to one rabbinic tradition, when the biblical Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, they bought shoes with the proceeds. And the prophet Amos rails against injustice with a similar reference: “Because they have sold for silver those whose cause was just, and the needy for a pair of shoes” (Amos, 2:6) At the burning bush, God tells Moses to remove his shoes, for he’s standing on holy ground. And then there are the hideous photographs of piles of shoes at Auschwitz, stripped from those on their way to the gas chamber. Shoes can represent disgusting excess, as they did when it was made known that Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines, had 2700 pairs of them, or they can symbolize our disconnect from nature, as it does for the new generation of barefoot runners out there.
So what does the flag of shoes mean? Is it a symbol of American materialism? Even the flag is now made of shoes? Or does it communicate inclusiveness? Everyone in this country should have access to the bounty that shoes represent? I’d venture to say they meant it as the second, but it’s probably a little of the first, too.
Fascinating what a pile of sneakers can conjure up.