What do you do when you’re diagnosed with cancer?
In my case, the choice was easy. I bought a pair of $600 shoes from J. Crew.
The reasons might not be what you’d expect. It’s common for people who are diagnosed with a potentially fatal illness to experience an adrenaline-charged freak out. Faced with death, they attach themselves to sports cars, expensive jewelry, top-shelf iPads, whatever. The theory is that they are clinging to the shiny objects of this world in an attempt to turn away from, and delay, the world to come.
In my view, there are problems with this theory — in fact, I would say that the reality is exactly the opposite. In my case, there wasn’t a major freak out. A mild one, to be sure, but not a major one. I had been feeling lousy for a couple years when I was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2008. And it came as a relief. I wasn’t depressed, didn’t have Lyme disease, low blood pressure or arthritis, any of the things I had suspected. It was the big ‘C.’ But it was the most treatable form of the big ‘C’ — I was quickly told that I had a very “non-aggressive, slow-moving” form of the disease. It had a name, and could be treated, and treated successfully. There was no need to buy a Porsche. There really wasn’t a need to talk or write about it either — I hate the entire sappy, manipulative and suffer-porn aspect of having cancer. The only disease where the sufferer is gifted with more bogus virtue and Absolute Moral Authority is AIDS.
But then I found myself desiring a pair of shoes — specifically, the “Alden for J. Crew cap toe cordovan boots.” The description made it sound like making a pair of these things was like constructing a small bridge. These aren’t shoes, or boots, they’re “a handcrafter masterpiece in genuine shell cordovan leather by Alden (est. 1884), an icon of old school American shoemaking.” The shoes are “vegetable tanned for six months” and boast Alden’s “famed Goodyear welt.” They looked absolutely gorgeous — a deep, almost maroon shade of brown. The back of the boot drew up elegantly from the heel, like the curve of a voluptuous woman.
I had to have them.
The thing was, I’m a journalist. A freelance journalist. I can live on $600 for approximately eight years.
I went online and ordered the shoes.
I won’t go into the slow, ravishing seduction of the day they arrived. Or the first time I wore them. A gentleman doesn’t discuss such things. I will say that as well as being a beautiful companion, my Alden’s — made in the USA! — are a strong, supportive one.
One of the first things I noticed after putting them on is that pebbles, sand, and other street debris are easily crushed in a pair of shoes this grand. After the winter snows in Washington, the sidewalks have a nasty top layer of sand, street cleaner, pebbles and miscellaneous gunk. Walking down the street, my boots made a sound similar to that of a kid eating a bowl of corn flakes. There was a thick yet comfortable layer between me and the street. The shoes also hugged my feet and ankles like a dream. I soon realized that I had probably saved money in the long run. These shoes were guaranteed for life; I could send them back to Alden for resoling anytime. Instead of spending $100 every couple years for new shoes, I’d never have to buy another pair.
Although, now I’m kind of craving the Alden long wing blucher oxfords (where do they come up with these names?)
Looking lovingly at my masterpieces of podiatric art, I realized that when people are diagnosed with scary diseases, they don’t buy cool stuff to deny or flee from the afterlife. We buy the stuff, I think, because it gives us a hint of the afterlife. In my tradition, the Catholic tradition, we believe in what the late Fr. Thomas Dubay called “the evidential power of beauty.” We believe that beautiful things — whether a full moon, a symphony, or a nurse helping a patient — herald heaven. They point to the perfection of God. We don’t buy the stuff to run away from, but to run towards.
Although I should not have been, I was amazed recently when I came across a review of the movie “Of Gods and Men” by Anthony Lane in the New Yorker. It tells the story of a group of Algerian monks who are murdered by Muslim extremists. When they know they are going to die, the monks take it with quiet grace. This baffles Lane:
Why…should [the monks] seem neither defeated nor destroyed? Perhaps because [director Xavier] Beauvois has used his film to honor their glad resilience and the pattern of their days — broken, typically, by Brother Luc, who, as the end draws nigh, opens two bottles of wine, at dinner, and, in place of the customary spiritual readings, puts on a recording of “Swan Lake.” I’m not sure I believe the scene, yet the belief that it enshrines feels true; the monks are saying farewell to worldly things, drinking deep of passing joys.
In fact, the monks may not be saying farewell to passing joys at all. They may be enjoying a foretaste of indescribable joys to come. It’s also surprising, although at this point it shouldn’t be, that a journalist can have such depthless ignorance about Christianity. Yes, a group of monks enjoying wine at a last supper. What were they thinking? If I had been one of them, I would have gone down, as they say, with my boots on.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.