The Red Shoes, Living a “Handmade Life”

A new drawing

Yesterday afternoon, I was sitting on our front porch reading Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ interpretation of the fairy tale The Red Shoes,  in her book Women Who Run With The Wolves, and I stared to get this uncomfortable creepy feeling.  My first instinct was to put the book down and do some gardening.  Basically run away.   But I decided to sit it out.  To try and understand why I was feeling what I was.

Do you know the story?  Again, like with Bluebeard, there are many different versions and interpretations, but this is the one that made me shudder because it touched something deep inside me.   And not something solely from the past, something that I’ve been carrying around with me  since I can remember, something I thought I knew.

The story of The Red Shoes goes like this…

There’s a poor, motherless girl who spends her days scouring the woods from morning till night for food to eat.  She had no shoes, but over time saved scraps of leather and eventually made herself a pair of red shoes.  One day an old lady in a gilded carriage comes and asks the girl to live with her.  She gives the girl food and clothes, but the girl now has to live by the old lady’s rules.  She has to dress a certain way and behave a certain way and no longer has her freedom.  Then the old lady burns the girl’s hand made shoes and takes her to the shoemaker to get  a new pair of shoes. The girl is upset because she loved the shoes she made but at the shoemakers sees a pair of shiny red shoes and buys them.   When she wears the shoes to church, people are horrified, and a man puts a spell on them. The girl finds that while she’s wearing the shoes, she can’t stop dancing.  Then she discovers that she can’t take the shoes off.  The Old lady dies and the girl dances her way across the countryside and back home again where she see’s a man with an ax and begs him to cut her feet off so she can stop dancing.  The shoes and her feet dance away and she spends the rest of her life crippled,  trying to make a living in the service of other people and never again wishes for red shoes.

The Red Shoes, like the Bluebeard story, is one of those that has always intrigued and horrified me.  But I could never really grasp it’s meaning.  Even when I first read Estes version of it 20 years ago, I didn’t get it.  But yesterday, I understood it in a very personal way.  Because it’s my story.  I lived it.

In my first marriage,  I gave up my creative life, my “handmade life” as Estes calls it, for what I thought was security.  I gave my life away, because I was too afraid to live it.  I was afraid to take responsibility for myself, to try, to fail, to succeed. I fell into the trap of the promise of an easy life.  The idea that someone else would take care of me.  But at the time I thought I was self-sufficient and independent.  I never would have admitted that this is what I was really looking for.  I rejected the idea when  I saw it in the relationship between my parents.  When they taught me it was how to live – that I needed someone to take care of me, to make my life easy, if only I gave up what I wanted for myself.

Instead of looking inside myself, discovering my own  way to live,  I looked outside, for the easy way.  And of course it isn’t really easy, because that life requires that you give your freedom, your soul away.

But the thing that made me feel creepy, as I read the story yesterday, was not in the past.   I knew I had changed when I got divorced 7 years ago.  I took my life back, found my creativity again, found real love, and started taking responsibility for and living my own life for the first time.   And even though I am now living the life I want to, I realized there’s still a part of me that desires  the easy life.

Because the creative life isn’t easy.   I work a lot and make very little money.  It’s unpredictable and not secure.  There’s always the balance of making what I want and making what I know I can sell.  There are no regular paychecks or paid vacations or sick days.

Reading The Red Shoes made me see that the desire for the easy life  still lives inside of me and that’s why I got that creepy feeling.  I  didn’t want to admit that it’s still a part of me.  Sometimes, on bad days, I still want someone to take care of me. I also know that that I’ll never let that happen. Sometimes, that frightens me, like right now, as I write this.

But  acknowledging it, being honest with myself about it, made me really understand for the first time, that the creative life I’ve chosen to live doesn’t have the kind of security that my mother wanted for me and I thought I wanted for myself.

And there’s something liberating in that.   In not having to worry that I should have more, or what many other people have.  That this is my choice and I’ll figure life out.  Not in the way I was taught, or my parents did, but in my own way. I can take care of myself.  I’ll live my own “handmade” life.

That’s why the story is so disturbing to me.

I don’t want it to be true

11 thoughts on “The Red Shoes, Living a “Handmade Life”

  1. Ahh, the wonderful freedom of we self-employed! Free of regular paychecks, paid vacation and sick leave, free of unemployment compensation, free of disability insurance, free to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. . . Sheer bliss!

    But you can’t beat the commute — about 30 seconds flat in my case. And such wonderful co-workers: birds and butterflies, horses and donkeys, faithful canine companions. And a pretty darn good employee cafeteria, if I do say so.

  2. I’ve always taken the story as a version of my inability to conform. Even when I appear normal, or seem like the nice girl, there’s a rebel child in me that cannot follow norms. I feel dirty when I lie to myself and try to hard to hide her. I will never take my red shoes off. I can’t. I have an old poem I wrote called Red Shoes and Ash. The story hits home for me.

  3. Your honesty, with yourself, and others, is inspiring. There must be a kernel of the desire for an easy life in all of us. We are, after all, human. I relate it to when life really throws everything it’s got at you, or when you’re sick – I tend to think, for a second, I wish my Mom could help, or deal with this. The fact is, rationally I do NOT want my mother involved, at all. It’s that childish dream and longing for how we wish things had been. And, it’s obviously still there. We’re made up of a cocktail of different desires, emotions, and life experiences. That’s what makes us who we are. I believe the most important thing is to realize this, as you so eloquently just put into words. Thank you for stirring things up, and making us think!

  4. Such an honest and introspective interpretation of the story. I can relate and understand. Your last paragraph is a powerful conclusion. Worry is fear, and fear is paralyzing, crippling. It is good to learn from the lives of those who have gone before us; but it’s challenging to leave behind the parts that are not meant for us. Thanks for sharing. Facing down these recurring thoughts and feelings is liberating.

  5. Oh, Maria! I love your insights into this story and how it applies to your life!! Did ALL our mothers want a SAFE life for us?!? My mother’s life was not safe, not easy; and she desperately desired that we girls have what she did not. But as you know so well, the safe, easy life is neither. Annie

  6. My parents lived harsh lives growing up (Depression era) & wanted my sisters & me to have “security.” To me, the only true security is being able to take care of myself & living independently. You are fortunate to be able to live your life as an artist, difficult as that may often be. Wishing joy & many adventures ahead!

  7. Thanks again Maria. I really chewed on your words in this post. You have brought me light where there was none in an aspect of my relationship with my daughter. Now I can understand a piece of her that I never understood. You are the balls. 🙂

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