This piece is part of the #52essays2017 challenge where I will share one essay a week in 2017. To learn more about this challenge or to participate, check out writer Vanessa Martir’s website and post about it.
I’ve had a busy week, which means that even though my too-long toenail ripped an annoying hole through a favorite pair of tights on Monday, it is now Thursday night and I am just remembering to get around to cutting them. I’m in a hurry, as usual, and I’m trying to do this without sitting down. My impatience strikes again. I can’t see very well as I balance over the counter with one leg over the sink. So, of course, I end up making a raggedly cut in the nail, which flies off in the direction of the bath mat. That toenail will not be retrieved and thrown away, by the way. That’s what vacuum cleaners are for.
Toenails. A heck of a place to start an essay from!
What architecture is it that keeps us upright and ambulatory on these two relatively tiny structures? I remember reading in an anatomy book that the phalanges and the metatarsals of the feet share similarities to Egyptian pyramids. Epic, ancient, still standing. My humble, sandaled feet walked me through the grit at Giza to stand beneath the massive stones of the pyramids last fall. In the shadow of history, my feet were dirty with the dust of Cairo, tired from the obligations of tourism. Althea, my roommate, was on crutches that day with a fractured tibia.
Two years ago, visiting my father after a year away, the first thing he asked me after we got home, was if I would do him a favor. I always had a long list of favors when I got to my Dad’s place, but this was different. He wanted me to trim his toenails. He had gained a lot of weight and certain common things had become more difficult. His nails were long past due for the trim and he looked away as I removed his socks. He told me he was ashamed to ask anyone but his daughters to do this task. I felt disgusted and honored, both. I was terrified I would hurt him as I cut the thick nails. He thanked me when I finished and we went out to eat. No… My feet will not always be strong. I will not always be healthy. I may need to ask someone for help. Ask them to sit at my feet. Ask them not to judge.
My feet seem older than me, wiser, more weathered than the rest of my body. They have been miraculous at times. These weirdly familiar and yet alien-looking feet. Forget how they look, and think of what they have done! At one point they were an essential component of the dance technique I was learning, the foot was a key source of strength to master, containing power, that with practice, could be harnessed and focused. How complex dancing feet are, as the bones and muscles assert themselves, stretched to new lengths in the effort to express emotion through the point of a toe.
Oh, to jete! The French word means “to throw”. The freedom of that truly grand gesture. The most fun I ever had as a dancer. Finally getting the okay from the serious Madame Viola who said, yes, ma chere, you may try it tomorrow. And I lined up with the other girls, to leap through space from one foot to the other, arcing a trajectory through the air. All of our toes encased in wraps, powdered and primed, hiding the sinewy brute of the foot within satin slippers.
The explosion of a jump. Velocity related to the precise articulation of each joint. The mechanics of energy as it gathers, collects, and then releases through the extension of leg launching the dancer into flight. You can push the earth away with your arms, but without wings to extend, only the feet can make you fly. Our legs sprung and our feet were magic, becoming invisible as our legs shot out into the air in a perfect straight line pointing always to the future. Defying, just for a moment, the truth of gravity.
I had to keep a close eye on my toenails as a dancer. And later, they were a common topic of conversation and commiseration when I became a long-distance hiker and met others on their own foot-bourn journeys. They had a saying when I was learning to ride horses, “no foot, no horse”. This was meant to remind you that you must always, always, look after the health of the horse’s leg first and foremost. But the same phrase went through my mind after the first ten miles of the Appalachian Trail. If I hike too far and stumble, I will go lame just like a horse. No foot, no hiker. I wanted badly to walk all 2,167 miles of the trail. But I needed to remember that my mind wasn’t going to carry me there without my feet.
These unsightly and gnarled toes and arches impress me with their abilities. So beyond what I would have thought possible. They have bled, blistered, burnt in the sun. Calloused over, nearly before my eyes, I watched them toughen. Skin molting off in layers. Swelling. To see my feet after a week on the trail was to see the truest version of what I was becoming as I walked steps that became miles. Miles that took me across states. The real story was in the feet. There was a narrative in the pattern of the purple veins, the pops of joints cracking first thing in the morning, even the smell of them. Pain, yes. Oh the pounding of the miles on these feet! My ugly, painful, proud identity. My ugly, painful, proud feat of walking from Georgia to Maine. My ugly, painful, proud toenails.
My own impossible two feet.
The bathroom lightbulb flickers and goes out as I finish and throw the clippers in the drawer. It was dimmer in here than normal. Just like that, the task is finished. Just another routine in a long sequence of days. Time and toenails.
And now I need to remember to buy some lightbulbs.