In her iconic book Women Who Run With the Wolves Clarissa Pinkola Estés explores the fairy tale of the Red Shoes, originally told by Danish poet and author Hans Christian Andersen and first published 1845 as ‘De røde sko’.
Here is my version of the story.
The Red Shoes Revisited
Once upon a time there was a motherless child with nothing in the world to her name but a pair of hand-made red shoes that she crafted from scraps of fabric she found while wandering through the streets. She loved the shoes more than anything. One day, an old woman in a gilded carriage saw the girl on the street and, taking pity on her, she offered to adopt the girl and take her to live in her mansion where she would want for nothing ever again. The girl went with her and was overwhelmed by the splendour of the mansion. Her clothes and her beloved red shoes were taken from her, and she was dressed in apparel chosen for her by the old woman. When the girl asked after her shoes, she learnt that they had been burned with the garbage and this hurt her deeply. The old woman took her to a cobbler to have a new pair of black shoes made that would be suitable for church. With the help of the cobbler the girl tricked the old woman, who was nearly blind, into buying her a pair of scandalous red shoes instead – shoes that had gleamed evilly at her from the cobbler’s shelves and with which she had become immediately transfixed. The girl wore the shoes to church and the disapproving congregation informed the old, half-blind woman of what her foster-child had done. The old woman ordered her to remove the shoes at once and never to wear them again, but on the way to the carriage they were met by a soldier with red hair and a red beard who tapped the soles of the shoes, which then began to dance a jig all on their own. Outraged, the old woman had her driver carry the girl to the carriage and the offending footwear was removed forthwith and subsequently stowed away ineffectually on a top shelf, from which they could leer down tantalisingly at the girl. Not long after, the old woman became ill and took to her deathbed. The girl stole the shoes and, once she had put them on, they promptly began to dance her. They danced her out the front door, down the street, out of town, into the dark woods, through thorny brush and icy river, and across stony crags to the ragged cliffs at the edge of the world and then back again just in time to dance her past the old woman’s funeral procession. Upon reaching the gate of a sacred burial ground, a spirit forbade her from entering and foretold that the girl would be danced by the red shoes until all the flesh had fallen off her bones. On and on the girl was danced, eyes rolled back in horror, until she passed an executioner and begged him to chop off her feet. Thunk and thunk again went the executioner’s axe and off the shoes danced into the horizon, severed feet and all. The girl lived as a cripple until the end of her days, dependent on the kindness of others.
Estés explores the fairy tale as a metaphor for giving up the hand-made, wild, and authentic life symbolised by the shoes the girl made herself for a too-proper life that lacks vitality symbolised by her stepping into a gilded carriage, wearing clothes chosen by another, and being in awe of the finery of the mansion. Though at first it seemed like a good gig, soon the girl began to lust after something more vivacious, more like the spirit of the original shoes. This led her to fall for the trap of the diabolical red shoes and made her susceptible to the tricks of the unredeemed aspect of the psyche, the natural predator that desires the total destruction of the inner life (the soldier with the red beard who taps the soles of the shoes and sets them dancing). The horrifying conclusion of the tale implies that once this dance-to-the-death has begun only a terrible sacrifice can stop it from consuming the girl entirely.
The story is an archetypal pattern that has played out recently in my life. My hand-made life consisted of all sorts of strange bits and bobs – fire-dancing with a circus troupe, writing ridiculous event reviews, sober tripping-out listening to IDM on my headphones and doing album write-ups, scrounging for editing work, writing short stories for a tiny publisher, writing grandiose blog posts and networking with other dreampunks using my words as my social currency, attending night school to learn German, reading the international news and speculating about market responses, entertaining obsessions with transhumanism and cryptocurrencies and broadcasting my ideas to thousands of readers or having my peers amusingly eviscerate them around a table during early morning copy review sessions. I lived hand to mouth, feasted upon Maggi 2 Minute Noodles, cheap coffee, deep chats, and red wine and I chain-smoked with mad poets until the wee hours of the morning. I was a magnificent train wreck of a girl, subsisting but barely outpacing my toxic anxiety.
The chance came to change all that. I took a steady, well-paid job and for a long time it was good. I learned to stand, to walk, to jump and finally to run in the kind of shoes that draw looks, the kind of shoes that give you bunions and begin to dance you to the cliffs at the edge of the world. I gained momentum, gained digits on my payslip, gained policies, professional credibility and a credit record. I gained certifications and work experience. I gained a deep and pervasive sense of grief that chased me from my bed to my car to my desk and to a locked cubicle in the ladies’ bathroom where I could weep in silence, longing for my beloved hand-made red shoes, which were burned with the trash.
I was bent into all sorts of unnatural shapes by this deranged dance, and I lost integrity as a spiritual structure. Ennui ensued, and mindless spending. I slept all afternoon after work each day and all weekend. I gained 10 kilograms and a few hundred milligrams of antidepressants in my daily diet. I could not stop the weeping, and eventually I felt like my soul was drying out. It showed first on my skin and then I began to dwindle and disappear – I didn’t fit into my clothes anymore and no matter how many more I bought nothing could cover up that I was a shade of my former self. I was a skeleton in dancing shoes.
Newton's first law of motion – sometimes referred to as the law of inertia – is often stated as follows: An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.
There is no doubt in my mind that should I not have been forced to quit my job by our emigration, something more dramatic and bloodier would have provided an unbalanced force with which the deathly dance could be terminated. Luckily for me, I found a forced unemployment in the period following our landing in the new country.
Nothing had prepared me for the feeling of that dull thud as I hit the floor and finally came to a rest. My first instinct, of course, was to look around for that pair of severed feet and their demonic Armanis. I sent dozens of CVs to companies who could offer me another opportunity to gain some podiatric trauma. I saw myself as particularly suited to jobs I would hate and that would drain the life from me while giving me the chance to push myself into shapes of myself that bore little resemblance to the ecstatic trance-dancer wild woman whirling fire and drinking wine with poets. It took me a while to realise that I no longer had those feet; I was at rest and would remain at rest until another unbalanced force acted upon me and set me in motion again.
It took me even longer to realise the most important part: I needed to rest. Why? Because I had endured a soul-famine and was susceptible to becoming trapped again by choosing the first thing to come along that seemed to promise a verdant inner life. The predator of the psyche was on the prowl again, but this time I would have a chance to study him. Resting, I would need to learn to hunt the hunter from the air, to anticipate his every move.
What would he use to lure me into the gilded carriage? This time, if he tried anything, I was going to roast that mother fucker. Right from the comfort of my resting place.
Far from idly lying about (except for those much-needed long afternoon naps), I have used this time to reassess and to gain some understanding of the forces, outer and inner, which conspired against me and to gather psychic, emotional, and intellectual resources for the journey ahead. I engaged in a few failed experiments – the shotgun CV approach being one – and was driven into an existential frenzy by the apparently insurmountable incongruity of my inner desire for career fulfilment of mythic proportions and the emerging reality of this new labour market. No thunder clap from heaven announcing my “Calling” was forthcoming no matter how much I waited around for something to feel ‘just right’.
Some of the resources I have drawn upon include Slavoj Žižek’s YouTube channel, re-readings of Women Who Run With the Wolves and The Shaman’s Body (by Arnold Mindell), talks by Arne Naess on Deep Ecology, George Monbiot’s Guardian column and ideas on neoliberalism and rewilding as well as his book Feral, Wesleyan University’s Coursera course entitled ‘Changing the World’, the School of Life’s YouTube series on Critical Social Theory, the Birkbeck University of London’s reading list and course description of the MSc in Global Environmental Politics and Policy, and most recently the School of Life’s book A Job to Love. There have also been many, many conversations, movement meditations, yoga sessions, series binges, outings in London, attempts at networking, journaling sessions, window shopping excursions, hours spent on developing my Dreaming with Wolves web page and offering as well as reinterpreting my CV, and hundreds of pensive cups of coffee.
All this has coalesced into an evolving understanding of the limitations of individual interpretations of what provides meaning and how to live a good life. Firstly, recognition of deep patterning seems indispensable to progress. A desire to hunt altered states of consciousness and search them for power and healing is a shaman-apprentice’s basic requirement. Making a vow never again to lose a battle with one’s ally, the nagual, is the only deal one need enter with oneself and sometimes, counter-intuitively, it might involve secularising and robbing the ally of its specialness by relating failure to normal, human problems and statistical probabilities.
One’s real destiny may be much smaller than first imagined and it is alright to remove some cruel and unrealistic expectations of oneself. Nevertheless, I have a sense of where spirit is moving towards. In this there is also a deep recognition that there will always be frustration and that all my capacity will never be utilised consistently. I utilise it sufficiently if I love well, nourish my family, keep a tidy home, bring home an income that secures my future and the future of those I love, and if I move and dance like a howling, shapeshifting wild woman many moons per month. I utilise it exceptionally if I can express wildness either through words or movement, and share wildness with others in some way.
Perhaps the trap of the gilded carriage is simply the trap of thinking that any one thing will secure a verdant inner life. Anything offering to be everything is nothing more than snake oil.
In the process of becoming wild again, of regaining the hand-made life, the unwary may be fooled by the promise of a shortcut but the well-rested are alert to the truth: only the patient gathering of bones in the desert of the psyche can reawaken the Wild Woman.
From the 16 Meditations for Deranged Workaholics series.