In Abraham Verghese’s novel, Cutting for Stone, the miserly, mythical Baghad merchant, Abu Kassem, wore tattered and torn slippers—objects of derision to himself and those around him—for many, many years. One day, he decides to get rid of them. And he tries to. Over and over. But each time he does, they return. And they bring trouble every time, real trouble:
He throws them out the window, they land on the head of a pregnant woman who miscarries. He tosses them in the canal and they choke off the main drain and cause flooding. The more time he spends trying to get rid of his tattered and and torn slippers, the more they return to devil him.
Finally, a wise person tells him, “In order to start to get rid of your slippers, you have to first admit they are yours, Then, if you do, they will get rid of themselves. If you keep saying your slippers aren’t yours, then you’ll die searching, you’ll die bitter, always feeling you were promised more. The key to your happiness is to own your slippers."
The key to happiness is to own your own slippers.
That almost moralistic caveat has stayed with me in the days since I’ve finished reading Cutting for Stone. Perhaps it’s because I’m living in a familiar, but still strange place—the hallowed island part of Cape Ann, north of Boston—and only living here for a few months, but I’ve been moved to try to discover what my slippers are and how I might come to own them.
Certainly I’m not distracted in this exploratory work. I don’t know anybody out here--though I seem to have short conversations in the coffee shop I visit and have actually found myself in church (yes, of course a theologically-progressive one!) for multiple consecutive Sundays—and not as a paid worship leader, but as person in the pew. Still, I’m not distracted by the everyday routines of home: the appointments, the obligations, the commerce of family and social life are far removed from my simple routine here.
And so the question looms: What are my slippers? How can I own what I’m not sure I have?
Are my slippers my shabby sense of self-worth? Or are they an over-blown sense of my own talent? Are they my shame at not being smarter than I am? Or are they my ambitious desire to acquire knowledge the way some people acquire cars?
Are they my guilt at failing people who have counted on me? Or are they a compensatory defense that tells me I’ve been at least just good enough? Are they my irrational fears? Or the cold comfort that my fears are not irrational?
Are they all of these things? If so I’d need a special closet to hold all those pairs of unwanted, bedeviling slippers.
Well, maybe I do.
But all those slippers tell the story of a life—in my case, my life. But we all have slippers we’d rather not own or have to build a special closet for. And all of those pairs come laden with personal narratives that reveal us as vulnerable, sometimes stupid, sometimes wounded, sometimes wounding.
We are as much the beings we wish we weren’t as the beings we romance ourselves into thinking we are.
Still, I don’t think anybody has ever loved me because I fooled them into thinking I’m someone other than who I am. (I’ve probably tried hard, though!)
I think that is at the heart of Cutting for Stone. Happiness may or may not be possible. And life may be, as Shakespeare said, ‘a walking shadow that struts and frets his hour upon the stage.’ But life is what we have. And our very own beguiling, bedeviling slippers.