Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Please Remove Your Shoes: An In-depth Look at the Barefoot Truth
You show up at someones house to visit and you notice shoes piled outside the door. This may seem curious, until children come running up to greet you and let you know in the same sentence as their greeting, to please remove your shoes. It may seem radical, but this is a shoe-free house. I discovered this foot loose and fancy free lifestyle when I was going to baby playgroups, and noticed that many of the other mamas had shoe shelves outside and no shoes allowed inside. With little people crawling around on the floor putting everything in their mouth, this was one of the best home policies I had ever heard of. I quickly implemented this idea and discovered that I loved it! No more mud and leaves tracked in or strange smelling bits of who knows what. No more frequent floor cleanings! Now came the tricky part of getting other people on board. The etiquette of shoe removal is surprisingly delicate. How does one express to family and friends that shoes need to come off while maintaining warm hospitality and an atmosphere of welcome? I decided to ask a few fellow barefoot friends to share their wisdom on the matter.
To Remove Shoes or Not to Remove Shoes? That is the Question.
I always liked to take my shoes off indoors. Being barefoot always felt more comfortable and a little more grounded to the earth. I think that having two babies crawling around on the floor and the added influence of friends homes led to this being implemented as a house rule. I asked my friend, Merrily, and she said her reason was dirt. It is so easy to simply remove shoes, and it takes forever to sweep up or scrub dirt. She remembers her mother always telling the kids to take off their shoes, and that gradually, they began doing this as adults. Other people's homes were an influence for her, and she observed that it is more and more the norm to remove shoes. My friend Tamara said she had kept shoes off at the door since she was 18 and was influenced by a few Japanese roommates, and noted the change of energy from the outside world coupled with less cleaning as her reasons. It seems to come down to dirt and leaving the outside world outside. Possibly there is something in there too about respecting the inhabitants of the home by making less cleaning work for them. And then there's always dog poop. Everyone wants to leave that outside.
Kids and Their Shoes are So Easily Parted
Some may find the news surprising that children are often much more cooperative in shoe-removal situations than adults. My children, for example, have always lived in a home where no shoes are allowed. I have rarely needed to give them a reminder. They automatically tell their friends who come over. It sounds like this is an announcement most children give guests readily, the trick being getting them to do it politely. My friend Min Yi reported that since her children started doing this at a young age, having shoes off indoors means comfort. They associate shoes on with going into the outside world. She reminds them of the importance of this every time she sweeps by commenting on the dirt and leaves and asking where they might have come from. Her oldest child has expressed discomfort at feeling little bits of things under his feet, and she reminds him that by taking off shoes, we keep those "little things" from coming inside. As a fellow sensitive-footed person, (this and my awesome broom are why I sweep so often) I can certainly relate.
Shoes With a Home of Their Own
Closets. Mud rooms. Shoe shelves. I have seen varied and creative shoe storage set-ups. We always seem to have a shoe shelf right inside or outside the door. Min Yi's family has an enclosed mud room before her front door. Tamara has a mat inside delineating a clear boundary, with a shoe shelf beside it. Another friend, Rebecca, has a cozy covered front porch surrounded by flower beds and roses with inviting, cushioned wicker chairs to sit on, a little rug, and of course a shoe shelf. How could you not want to take off your shoes here? The most organized system I encountered was reported by Merrily who's family recently finished up a remodel of their front entry way. "We have a front entry with a closet. In the closet are most of our shoes and jackets but lined up in a neat row outside the closet are the shoes we use most, 1-2 pairs per person. One day we will have cubbies to put them in. Just like we take on and off our coats, we take on and off our shoes. We do have a bench in the entry so you can sit comfortably while putting on your shoes. We also have rubber bottomed slippers for inside use if you want warmer feet. They can go outside briefly for short, clean tasks like checking the mail (delivered to our front porch.)" I like this system. I'm envisioning our own entry/mud room in the future with some sort of bench and hooks for coats, baskets for hats and a spot for hiking sticks. As much as I love the organized methods, I should also point out that the more shoes piled around the front doormat, no matter how disarrayed their state, the clearer the message is conveyed that shoes need to be left there amongst their footwear friends.
Ask, and Ye Shall Receive Their Shoes
Now comes the tricky part. How do you let everyone know without sounding inhospitable or unreasonable? A well-placed sign often comes in handy to break the ice. I've had several. My current one is a clay plaque from Barbarian Studio at Eugene's Saturday Market. In the past I've made handwritten ones on cardboard. It's always handy when your children let folks know. This is great in situations where it feels awkward to bring it up. Min Yi said that she generally says it often, but has had those times where she was embarrassed to say something. Merrily doesn't let people know at all, and says it's a non-issue. Most people either take off their shoes automatically or ask if they need to. Her reply is always "if they are clean, you can keep them on, but we take off our shoes in this house." Tamara said she is flexible with company and relies on the sign on her door combined with her children pointing it out, and she doesn't remind folks unless they are staying awhile. I try to be flexible. Often guests ask or remove their shoes automatically. Sometimes I bring it up (to my husband more often than not), and I have on occasion had people refuse. It can certainly be a touchy subject of discussion in some instances. Right up there with politics and religion.
Exceptions to the Shoe Rules
How do we decide when to break the rules? When our floor is already dirty and needs to be cleaned soon? Tamara said there are those folks who have a hard time physically with shoe removal, and some of her relatives bring indoor shoes along when they visit. Running back in for something and lace-up boots for working are her exceptions to the rule. Merrily said that they check to make sure shoes are clean if they are worn inside, usually in the case of dress shoes for something fancy. When going in and out from packing for a trip or unloading groceries, they leave them on. She clarified that this is for adults, and kids are not given as much freedom. Min Yi only remembered two times people had worn shoes in her house. Once was someone with uneven legs who needed the shoes for support, and another was a person carrying a heavy load. I let the rules fly out the window when I am absolutely certain mass sweeping and mopping are happening within the next few hours. Other than that, I can rely on my husband and his work boots to test the rules regularly.
Good Shoes Gone Bad (When Shoes Leave Scars)
Sometimes there are instances where indoor shoe wearing crosses over from being inconvenient to downright nightmarish. Merrily shared a story about the construction workers who went up and down their carpeted stairs in work boots and destroyed their floor. She couldn't ask them to take off their boots while they were working, but did ask them to step on the plastic covering laid out to protect the floor. Unfortunately, the plastic would be pushed out of the way by the next day, and tracks would be all over the house. They asked the construction workers to clean up after themselves, but this was not very successful.
Everyday Solutions for our Shoes
To wrap things up, I thought I might offer some helpful ideas for various scenarios. For activities such as unloading groceries, carrying in firewood, or unpacking the car, piling everything on the porch or front steps and then removing shoes and carrying it all in from there works well. For working out in the yard, we often ask whoever is still inside the house to hand us things we need when we come to the door, like water, a tool, etc. Merrily bought slip on garden shoes and rubber boots for easy removal when working out in the yard. I've gone the same route for my kids and myself with rubber boots in the winter and sandals in the summer. The indoor shoes for visitors or chilly winter evenings are another great solution. We have some relatives who now bring indoor shoes along when they visit and the kids have wool slippers. A cooperation aspect was brought up by Min Yi who said that if the whole family can hold the shoe agreement and the kids are on board, other people are a piece of cake. She said it helps to be a team about this agreement, and having family meetings to discuss what we like about certain rules, what we don't and who it's serving so that all have input and can be heard is important. This way the family can mutually agree to rules or not and be creative with new ones.
Thank you Merrily, Tamara, and Min Yi for offering your experiences and sharing your family shoe rules!