Poor Columba Bush: On top of the doubtlessly-endless-hassle it must be to have your husband effectively running for president when you are known as a “low key sort,” it’s even worse to have Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post go digging through your disclosure forms to find out that—as goes the stock phrase that has now been repeated over and over like a bad penny—you “took out a loan to buy $42,311.70 worth of jewelry on a single day” in 2000. As well as to bring up, yet again, the old story about how you were held by customs officials, coming back from Paris, for lying about how much shopping you did, because you were trying to hide the $19,000 bill from your husband.
Despite my general tendency to describe myself in Dorothy Day-ish terms (religiously traditional; politically left, at least in my now most longstanding incarnation), I’m not being sarcastic about Columba here: I honestly think about how violating it would be to have my most intimate and comforting forms of consumption paraded before the polis—as though someone were reading my junior high school diary over a public address system. For the clothes and the jewels with which we array ourselves are a testament more to dreams and fancies than to the mere realities of sociology and weather.
I’ve been thinking about Columba in particular lately because there’s a dress I want to buy—which would be perfect for midnight services at Pascha, perhaps with a pale blue pashmina thrown over top in deference to the spring night cold. It is modest—not baal te’shuva frum-type modest—but also sleek. Sparkles, but not slutty. Traditional, yet modern.
There’s just one thing: The dress costs $680.
One of the oddities of my life is that for about half the people I know, there would be nothing inherently remarkable about buying a pricey dress. I have multiple female relatives who have done just that, who would easily buy a pair of $500 Ferragamo shoes, although they would perhaps cloak their enthusiasm under a bit of Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell silence—or point to all the knit tops made by Bangladeshi children they’d bought at Target for $9.99 as evidence of their thrift.
The other half of the people I know would not only be horrified, but would call my ethical judgment—and for that matter, my sanity—into question. Among the parent communities of which I’m a part (neighborhood, school, etc.), there’s a perceptible reverse snobbery: One cannot compliment any article of clothing, of parent or child, without being told that it was “really cheap,” secondhand—was even, in fact, purchased at Value Village on “half-off” Thursdays.
The interesting thing is that these two factions do not align neatly into contemporary political categories—a fact I happen to love. Some of the folks I know who are most committed, ideologically, to “the free market system” are the ones who recycle clothes and turn their thermostats down low (Thrift!). At the same time, I also have plenty of friends of the Social Democratic persuasion, who’d have no problem socializing just about everything and frown on, say, mini-mansions, who have a passion for wearing their Manolo Blahnik shoes to the seminar at the Center for American Progress (Quality!).I am somewhere in the middle here.
It is also true that in the metropolitan area in which I live—where two twenty-seven-year-old lawyers can, if they went to the “right” schools, easily make a combined salary of $450,000 a year—there’s the phenomenon whereby material tastes and expectations creep upward, based solely on one’s being surrounded by an affluent cohort.
Especially if you do not have any regular contact with anyone whose horizon of expectations might not be as lofty.
Around the time I opened the catalog and saw the $680 dress, I also happened to be volunteering at a kids’ event, and, in the course of conversation with another mother, learned that after months of arduous work and complicated scheduling, she had finished a vocational school program and had finally gotten a job at a retail pharmacy chain—the first “real” higher education she had attained, and the first job for which she’d had to earn a credential.
This was not someone being profiled on NPR or the NewsHour. This single mother was laboring with me at this event as an equal, not as an object of charity. A regular acquaintance, almost—though, sadly, not quite a friend.
She mentioned that having the job was great, but she didn’t like the two-hour daily ride on the Washington Metrobus to get to the store where she’d been assigned. That was not counting the days she had to get a ride, so she could go to dialysis.
St. Basil the Great said, “When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”
I burned with shame, then, thinking about what uses $680 might have for her. And it was a cleansing, curative shame. I felt, in that moment, how frivolous I truly was.
I can’t promise I won’t ever succumb to the desire to spend outrageously. But in the dark reaches of the night, the heart of recognition, I will know what I am doing.
A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered.”