I swore to myself and slammed the refrigerator door in the middle of my dessert selection process. I forgot to feed the pigs. It was getting dark and starting to rain. I tossed aside my daily sandals, rain in mind, and grabbed my old Sperrys from the back of the closet. I pulled them on as I hopped out the door and headed for the wooded path to the pen. My bare feet slide into the leather shoes – instantly, a wave of familiarity flooded through me.
My Sperrys are old and falling apart: the soles are smooth with use, the leather wearing, the stitching has even unraveled on one of them. To be honest they aren’t even real Sperrys. I never wanted boat shoes, but when my Birkenstocks fell apart the Goodwill Sperry mimics in our spare closet were my only immediate option. The shoes have been loved despite my aversion toward them.
The next two years of my life are etched in their wear and tear – winters and summers both. I never did buy new shoes. When I went to Tanzania I regretfully closeted them. Bringing them wasn’t practical. Six months later, hurrying to do chores, I slipped them on absentmindedly. Unknowingly, I slipped on more than shoes. I slipped on a version of myself I had forgotten – a self from six months ago that I suddenly understood is no longer me.
Senses have a way of stirring up old memories you forget you have. Usually it is smell that triggers mine; every person, place and thing has a specific aroma I will always remember. But when I slipped my Sperrys on I experienced the same sensation through touch: my feet tingled with an acute awareness long forgotten. The memory I conjured wasn’t a thought, perception or attitude. It was the memory of a feeling. I simply relived how it felt to be me before I went abroad; a mixture of anxiety, insecurity, pride and love.
When I got back to America I wrote a multitude of journal entries, spent hours reflecting, experienced countless epiphanies – all that normal cultural transition stuff. Yet, it took a pair of shoes for me to understand. My Sperrys showed me exactly how Africa changed me: for just a few seconds I became who I had been, as a result I learned who I have become.