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Our local art gallery exhibited a case filled with white, stiletto-heel shoes, made from paper. They fascinated me. I went back several times to look at them, spurning the nearby displays of rich tapestries and embroideries, bold ceramics and delicate landscapes. I was aware of the other exhibits, but all I focused on were the shoes. They made me think, irresistibly, of Swan Lake; their feathery, ethereal appearance seemed perfect for expressing doomed femininity.

Paper Shoes, by Kay Sexton
"Paper Shoes"
by Kay Sexton

It became obvious—on my third or fourth return to the case that afternoon—that women like me were not supposed to act like this. Had I been a bright, giggly, multi-pierced art student, or a moody, skinny, high-strung new media executive, it would have been okay. My paper shoe obsession would have been, if not acceptable, at least translatable into behavior that had meaning. But I was a forty-year-old woman with a pre-teen son in tow, dog hairs on my trousers, and a plastic raincoat folded over my arm. Such a woman obviously had no meaningful relationship with paper shoes. The museum receptionist watched me with what surely was open suspicion. When I returned the final time, she must have alerted the curator, who was hanging around by the entrance, pretending to be absorbed in the biography of a young artist who had produced some very muddy self-portraits.

What did they expect me to do? Run amok with my rain hat? Yell at my son that if he ever came home with a girl wearing white stilettos, I would disown him? Steal the paper shoes?

Would it have made any difference if I had taken the curator to one side and whispered in his somewhat apprehensive ear, "Don't worry, I'm a writer"?

I doubt it.

It took me an age to work out what paper shoes were good for. I knew they were compelling and beautiful because they haunted me for months, appearing on the edges of my vision like a migraine warning designed by Jimmy Choo. But I didn't know what they meant to me: what were they good for? Slowly, very slowly, my mind churned that question until I established that I did not mean good for; I meant fit for. Changing the question delivered the answer. I suddenly realized what paper shoes were fit for. They were fit for wearing in fire and water. Not literally, of course, although I can see a certain perverse suitability. But, metaphorically, it's what we do when we write, or paint, or sculpt, or whatever it is that we do when we create.

There are scores of ways we can distance ourselves from creativity. We can use novel writing software, or digitally enhanced images, or studio mixing systems the size of compact cars. But when it comes down to it—if we are to make anything of value to ourselves—we must walk through fire and water in paper shoes. In shoes that will burn from our feet in seconds or dissolve in minutes during the flood. We walk in shoes that wear through before we travel out of sight of home. We can call those paper shoes talent, or desire, or greed, or aptitude, but whatever we call them, they are gone in an eye-blink, and then what we are left with is ourselves, and the ground beneath our bare feet. It's the journey we make then that turns us into artists.

I thought that was it—insight enough from one image. But no. The paper shoes stayed in my brain, refusing to be put in the category of "fit for inspiration" that I smugly thought I'd given them. Eventually I realized my mistake. It's not just artists who wear paper shoes. Parents wear them when each new child arrives. Whenever we invite people for dinner or volunteer for community work, we put on our paper shoes. Each time we come up with a new idea at work, we stand there waiting for the wet squelch of apathy or the scorching pain of sarcasm to strike our pretty footwear into shreds.

The old proverb about "walking a mile in the shoes of another" is fine for learning, but we need a different metaphor for the experience of creating. For me, paper shoes say it all. I set out full of glory, tottering on my lovely constructions like a Swan Princess, and I end up with tatters around my naked toes, feeling every stub and puddle on the way. If I didn't have paper shoes I'd never start those journeys, but losing my shoes along the way is what makes me human.

Kay SextonBIO: Kay Sexton has an overdeveloped work ethic and a fig tree in her garden. She finds it hard to reconcile the two. In the past twelve months she has been published by E2K, Literary Potpourri, MiPo, Pierian Springs,, Smokelong Quarterly, The Sidewalk's End, Thought Magazine, Wired Art for Wired Hearts and Yankee Pot Roast. The fig tree is also flourishing.
Email Kay at:

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