If you were a pretty young woman who, for whatever reason, could only own one pair of shoes, what kind of shoes would they be? Stiletto heels? Sandals? Work boots? A variation of this question, and its relationship to how we really live our lives, popped into my mind recently as I was walking to the coffee shop.
I live in Irvine, California, and work in Laguna Beach which is a modern Shangri-La. It’s a resort town, it’s wealthy, it’s in Southern California, it has art galleries, restaurants and beautiful beaches all wrapped up in nearly perfect, year-round weather. Because it was originally an artists’ colony and is still a bit hard to reach (only two roads in and out of town), it also retains some funky charm with a smattering of older homes, genuine artists and middle-age hippies. But don’t let any of that fool you, its still nothing if not a place for the functionally rich.
My office, though completely unimpressive, is nonetheless only 150 yards from the beach. I’m part of the functionally rich. On a normal day, I walk to the local Starbucks right after moving my car in the late morning so that I don’t get a parking ticket. With coffee as an incentive, I’m averaging only one ticket every 7 or 8 weeks.
On a recent walk toward the promise of a strong cup of coffee, I glanced in the window of a women’s clothing boutique. There were three mannequins in the window each displaying very short, very sexy little dresses. I think they were knits but can’t say for sure because I just glanced as I kept on walking. What I can say was that even on the headless mannequins the dresses were “hot” and evocative of some leggy 20 year old of the type photographed at Hollywood parties and seen by normal people on E! That was certainly the shop owner’s intent.
For some reason, probably attributable to my life with women (a wonderful wife and two early 30’s daughters), my next thought was of shoes. Specifically, “what shoes would go with those dresses?” (How embarrassing, I sound like a metrosexual.) The obvious answer was a vision of strappy, high heeled sandals.
My second thought was a bit more unusual. As it happens, I’ve been re-reading Wendell Berry. For those who don’t know, Berry is a long-time writer, teacher and local farmer in Henry County, Kentucky, who passionately believes in the importance of sustainable agriculture and healthy rural communities as an appropriate expression of a genuine Christian life. In his view, it is a life characterized by good work, local economics, fidelity, frugality and reverence for both people and place. I have read a great deal of what Berry has written over the years and have been both challenged and blessed. My only real struggle with his work has been how to apply it to my very urban life.
One of Berry’s favorite themes is the weakness inherent in being merely a consumer of modern agricultural products. He argues, I believe correctly, that people who can not feed themselves are ultimately not free. And truly, that’s us. While we might be productive in our work, when it comes to eating we are quintessentially consumers. We are Blanche DuBois. We are completely dependent on the kindness of strangers to produce, package and deliver food to our door.
That brings me back to the cute short dresses that I saw in the window and the question of shoes. My second thought was, “which shoes would you wear if you were trying to grow even a small portion of your own food?” And for that matter, what clothes would you wear? It surely wouldn’t be a short knit dress or high heels of any kind but more likely, regular jeans, a comfortable shirt, a hat for shade and boots – strong, comfortable, supportive work boots.
But then I have to ask myself, who would I notice walking down the street, the leggy young woman oozing sexuality in a short, sexy dress or the sensible gal in the working jeans and boots? And, truth be told, toward which end of that spectrum have I encouraged my wife and daughters over the years? Unfortunately, I’m as much an impractical and coddled consumer at the end of the day as the girls I imagine in the short knit dresses and heels. And most of us aren’t worth a tinker’s dam at feeding ourselves or doing any thing else that is essential for our daily lives apart from paying for those things with money.
If the world continues as it is now, with vast wealth and an abundance of agricultural products brought to us daily from around the world as the inexpensive result of petroleum based agriculture, well and good. Our women can spend all of their free time dressing for beauty and we can spend our free time looking at them. But if we ever again need to plant a carrot to eat a carrot, we are going to wish we had chosen to spend more time working with our hands, learning domestic arts and breaking in a good pair of work boots.