Last spring, my husband Jeff found that walking to work barefoot helped his knee problems. Once he built up callouses, walking on city sidewalks was no problem. One day as he was walking a pair of teenage girls, perhaps Brazilian or Cape Verdean, shouted, "Where are your shoes?"
"They're at home," he answered.
"Aren't you ashamed?" they asked.
This story still stuns me. Jeff and I grew up in situations where going barefoot was a marker of summer relaxation, not poverty. But to these girls, who had perhaps grown up in places where not everyone had shoes, going voluntarily barefoot was crazy.
People have told me, "You obviously didn't grow up poor." It's true - I might not want to live on a small budget if I had always had to do it. In a way, it's easier for Jeff and me to live simply because for us it's always been a choice, not a necessity. We grew up knowing that our parents could provide for all our needs, so we don't have a built-in fear of deprivation.
Here's the thing: you don't have to care about the same status markers other people do. Other people can be ashamed about secondhand clothes or whatever they want, but they can't choose what you feel ashamed of.
I know this confirms me as a total sap, but I love Dolly Parton's song "Coat of Many Colors." She describes her classmates' scorn for the coat her mother had pieced together from rags:
And I couldn't understand it
For I felt I was rich
And I told them of the love
My momma sewed in every stitch
And I told them all the story
Momma told me while she sewed
And how my coat of many colors
Was worth more than all their clothes.
Although Parton is now a multimillionaire, she really did grow up in a mountain cabin with no plumbing or electricity, and the coat story is apparently true. I find her message - that family love mattered more to her happiness than material goods - an important one.