his novel Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese tells
the traditional African story of Abu Kassem, a miserly Bagdad
merchant who, for many years, wore tattered and torn slippersóobjects
of derision to those around him. Eventually he himself got
tired of his slippers. But every time he tried to throw them
out, they came back to him, bringing trouble.
He threw them out the window, they landed on the head of pregnant
woman who miscarried and Kassem landed in jail. Another time
he tossed them in the canal where they choked off the main
drain and caused flooding. Once more Abu Kassem was sent to
jail. No matter what he did, he couldnít get rid of those
ugly, unwanted slippers. The more time he spent trying to
get rid of them, the more they devilled him.
After recounting this story, one of the characters in the
book observes that everybody has their own pair of unwanted,
order to start to get rid of your slippers, you have to admit
they are yours, and if you do, then they will get rid of themselves.
. . .Ē
key to your happiness is to own your slippers, own who you
are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you
have and own the ones you donít. If you keep saying your slippers
arenít yours, then youíll die searching, youíll die bitter,
always feeling you were promised more. Not only our actions,
but also our omissions become our destiny.Ē
Perhaps what I liked best about Cutting for Stone was
that it was a sprawling, complex story about fractured families,
manufactured families, individual ambition, loss, prowess
Thatís quite an arresting array of unlikely themes and creates
a narrative that takes place in varying locations, populated
by fully-fleshed out characters. Verghese, himself a doctor,
knows people, inside and out.
Which is why the humanity in his writing opens the readerís
mind to the possibility that there really might be happiness
or purpose to discover in the messy business of being alive.
The key to your happiness is to own your slippers.
That almost moralistic caveat has stayed with me in the days
since Iíve finished reading Cutting for Stone.
Perhaps itís because Iím living in a familiar, but still strange
placeóthe hallowed island part of Cape Ann, north of Bostonóand
only living here for a short time, but Iíve been moved to
try to discover what my slippers are and how to own them.
Certainly Iím not distracted in this work. I donít 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 four
consecutive Sundaysóand not as a paid worship leader, but
as person in the pew. Still, Iím 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
And so the question looms: What are my slippers? How can I
own what Iím not sure I have?
Are my slippers my shabby sense of self-worth? Or are they
my over-blown sense of 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 not being a better mother? Or a compensatory
defense that tells me Iíve 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 Iíd 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 lifeóin my case,
my life. But we all have slippers weíd 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 werenít as the beings
we romance ourselves into thinking we are.
Still, I donít think anybody has ever loved me because I fooled
them into thinking Iím someone other than who I am. (Iíve
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, Ďa walking shadow that struts and frets
his hour upon the stage.í But life is what we have. And our