In college I took a semester of letterpress printing.
My instructor, having spent much of his life picking perfect fonts and dealing with tiny pieces of lettering, was a design-obsessed, DIY kind of guy. He required us to lay out our homework assignments in InDesign, rather than type them in Word, so that even our reading notes became projects worthy of printing as posters.
One night in December, we were both in the shop working late—me to finish my end-of-semester project (poems printed on the backs of paper dolls) and he to work on a batch of hand-printed holiday greeting cards—when he told me about the Christmas gift he and his wife were building for their four-year-old daughter. It was a homemade puppet theater, with stitched red velvet curtains and rotating backdrops, built from scratch, each puppet with a delicately painted face and hand-sewn clothes.
Every year, he told me as he pounded the metal typeface into place with a wooden hammer, they handmade one gift for their daughter. That was her Christmas. No plastic pieces lying across the rug. No puzzling over Made-in-China instruction manuals written in broken English. No worries about lead-poisoning or leaking batteries. It was simple, and so heartfelt, and amazed me.
I imagine the way she might have exclaimed when she saw it on Christmas morning, and how I hope she explored each crevice and detail of the theater, her entire world absorbed into the 3 x 4 feet of its plywood walls, the hundreds of possible stories and acts that it would draw out of her over the years.
In this article that I just wrote for elephant journal, I write about the Buddhist concept of yun, or wealth. During this holiday season, the messages I encounter seem to be either overly obsessed with accumulating things, or completely adverse to any material possessions at all. But, true to its moniker as “the middle path,” Buddhism (or at least my take on it) tells us that it doesn’t really matter whether we have things or not. What matters is how we relate to them, how our things make us feel.
What I fail to mention in this article are the few Christmas gifts that I remember quite vividly—a guinea pig one year, named Oreo. My first laptop computer, when I was in high school. I remember the guitar that my mom gave to my dad, and how it made him start playing again.
But mostly, I remember the pink and purple dollhouse that my parents assembled from a kit—sneaking off to our neighbor’s basement to work on it, since I had a reputation for snooping and ruining surprises. It was wall-papered and furnished, with battery-powered electricity and a tiny garden hose glued below the kitchen window, just like the house that I grew up in.
Even now, I love thinking about how my parents snuck around to finish the dollhouse, how they made me close my eyes until I was standing face-to-face with it in our kitchen on Christmas morning. This reminds me that things have the power not only to convey generosity and surprise, but to create a world.
The dollhouse, much like the puppet theater my instructor was building for his daughter, was the kind of gift that a girl could live into.