She put the red shoes on, thinking there was no harm in that either; and then she went to the ball; and commenced to dance… She danced, and was obliged to dance, far out into the dark wood…She was frightened, and wanted to throw the red shoes away; but they stuck fast. She tore off her stockings, but the shoes had grown fast to her feet. She danced and was obliged to go on dancing over field and meadow, in rain and sunshine, by night and by day-but by night it was most horrible. She danced out into the open churchyard; but the dead there did not dance….She danced, and was obliged to go on dancing through the dark night. The shoes bore her away over thorns and stumps till she was all torn and bleeding; she danced away over the heath to a lonely little house. Here, she knew, lived the executioner; and she tapped with her finger at the window and said:”Come out, come out! I cannot come in, for I must dance.” And the executioner said: “I don’t suppose you know who I am. I strike off the heads of the wicked, and I notice that my axe is tingling to do so.””Don’t cut off my head!” said Karen, “for then I could not repent of my sin. But cut off my feet with the red shoes.”

– Hans Christian Andersen, The Red Shoes, 1845

I want to go back (hop sideways on the spiral) to that thing about skin-shedding. Because every action has its opposite: if we shed skins, then we must have put them on in the first place. We manky old adults have a lot of extra, surfeit, skin, I believe. And sometimes we work deliberately to acquire it, sometimes we put it on without even realising.

Let me explain what I mean by these skins we put on. They’re like coats for different kinds of weather, to help the intrinsic You deal with the world outside. For example (I can only think of these two just now), there is:

  • Defensive skin for reactive defence, for armour, to stop yourself being hurt again (I was “too” kind, “too” trusting, “too” hopeful)
  • Costume skin for outward appearances, to seem like a particular creature to others (I want them to think I am “beautiful”, “foxy”, “confident”, “a winner”).

Now, you know I’m talking metaphorically here, about layers, but it applies just as well without the metaphor: our skin is our barrier to the world outside and we use it like that, to say stuff about ourselves (listen to how some tattoo artists talk about their work, helping others to undergo a Shamanistic transformation, expressing their inner selves through their outer skin, or look at how important tanning or skin-lightening is to some people).

Now, both those ways of applying layers of skin (defensive and costume/masking) are reactive, would you agree? But of course, layers, skins – our use of them should, if we’re gonna be healthy about it, be proactive. We should be in control of it and use external layers positively: to protect our innards, to keep ourselves together, to allow us to cohere, to be an individual. The same stuff through a different lens; the same perceptible outcomes with a different intent. This is truly liminal, in many senses.

The thing is, you can forget you’re wearing them. The armour and the costume become you (how very David Lynch); organically, the once-external skin begins to inhere, to become you, and so to alter you. We are, after all (at least in part) the summation of our experiences. And if you forget you’re wearing them, then have you lost a little bit of your own consciousness, of where you began? Who’s dominant – you or the new skin? It’s like the tale of the red shoes (without the Christian and anti-fun didacticism)- at first when the little girl put them on she danced and danced so happily – but they cleaved to her feet and she could not take them off; she danced and danced until she begged to have her feet amputated. [He seems to have had a thing about feet, and motion, that chap; the little mermaid surrenders her tail – her USP – for feet, so she can get her man, but every step is agony. For him, I’d suggest, feet are a metaphor for free will and/or its surrender.]

And if we forget the skins we’re wearing, we can become numb: the costume or the armour is so thick, it takes quite a lot to pierce it, to reach the “real” you, to reach the core. Because the skins never really become completely part of you. You know those times when you’re not sure what you really feel? Whether you really want something or just think you do? That you’re not sure whether it’s you or your pride that’s hurt? Whether you’re annoyed or think that you ought to appear annoyed? That’s the difference between you and the acquired skins.

And how did we get here today? The inner imp took me by surprise this morning and she had a little cry, like a child does when it’s sad, just as it laughs when it’s happy. And I remembered all those childhood times when we were so deeply saddened (or perhaps it was just me) when the world seemed as though it was going to end and we cried, by ourselves. And then everything came alright in the end and we realised we weren’t gods, and the world would not rise or fall on our tears and our fears. So the crying, just like that, without an “adult” context, let me know that I really did feel those things, unequivocally; that it wasn’t about the layers – they’d gone or been pierced. Which got me thinking…

Joseph Campbell, brilliant mythologist and anthropologist, said, “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. The old skin has to be shed before the new one can come.”


ps – If you liked this, go see Skinning Up / Skinned Knees posting of 14 Oct 08.