Who among us does not yearn for a more perfect world? Who does not harbor idealizations of how the world might be, while longing to create that world externally?
It’s our nature to want to exert control over external circumstances, in order to align them with the inner vision we have. A quick mental tour through history, states, governments, and religions reveals again and again the result of this outsized longing. Do they succeed, our worldly manifestations of these inner ideals and longings? In part, yes. They do last for a bit. But also, no. The other side of humanity takes over as systems break down, people dissolve into argument, quarrel, and disperse.
This longing also knows a smaller expression, addressing not worlds or communities, but our own lives. We long to create externally what we envision internally. The less we can control, the more creatively we seek a channel of control to maintain psychological equilibrium. And, at times, this can go far, toward obsessions and compulsions.
Those most prone to obsessive-compulsive behavior are children and adolescents, who possess very little agency over their external life. School, rules, bedtime, the onward march of order form a sort of tyranny, against which they rebel by controlling their microcosms at close reach. As a very hands-on mother of a six-year-old and three-year-old, I observe this daily at a very close remove.
I was just such an obsessive-compulsive child. The frequent moves of my early years demanded that I form my personality to be nimble and ready to adapt to the new house, classroom, school, town of the year. I started at my fourth new school the fall I entered the sixth grade, when I was ten. I had become skilled at meeting people quickly, staking out my social territory, determining who was a safe new friend, and who was crazy and best left to their own devices on the playground. It was a matter of survival, and I wanted to thrive.
My obsessive-compulsive behavior of childhood expressed itself in pathetic rituals, such as using my hair bush to perfectly groom the fringe of the circular yellow rug on my bedroom floor, or knowing at any moment the value of all the loose change in the house, down to the penny.
However, I also had an aesthetic streak, and found my ultimate refuge of safety and order in my wooden dollhouse. My father made it for me from a kit, one early Christmas; my interior-design minded mother glued wrapping paper that featured a huge magenta and orange floral pattern as wallpaper on the small walls of its four rooms. At least one of the rooms had wall-to-wall, orange, fake fur carpet. There was tiny furniture. A few dolls, but the small human figurines were of little consequence to me. I wanted to imagine myself in this house. I did not need the dolls.
My dollhouse moved with us. Each time we moved, as well as during periods of relative stability, I could be found in my makeshift workshop, renovating and redecorating the dollhouse. I made furniture out of balsa wood, using an X-acto knife, staining and sanding the pieces to get them just right. I rolled out new rug from fake fur, and painted the walls, and re-wallpapered the rooms with new wrapping paper as I felt like it. I made tiny art and hung it on the walls of the downstairs living room. I sewed tiny hand towels and frayed the fabric to imitate the fringe of our real towels. I purchased tiny dishes with my allowance, or received such notions for Christmas. And the little dollhouse received a holiday treatment for Christmas and Easter. This went on for years. It was far and away my favorite toy.
Our last move of my childhood in 1984, combined with a growing awareness, relegated the little wooden dollhouse to a corner, where it later became a memory. I can close my eyes and remember the joy I felt at being absorbed on my own in a creative task that had no end, just a general goal to preserve in myself, for a bit, this suspended feeling of safety, and the pleasure of having my own small world to manipulate at will into a locus amoenus.
It gives me considerable joy today to see my daughter, now 3, play with her small Peppa Pig plastic starter dollhouse, placing the stairs and the furniture, putting Mamma Pig in the bath, George and his dinosaur on the top bunk bed, Daddy Pig on the couch. An American in Italy, straddled between cultures at home and at school, I intuit both her feelings and her response to process through play, as I did.
I didn’t see my dollhouse for years. It probably was stored somewhere. Long after, in my twenties, I read about the nomadic Tuareg tribe of Africa. A people without a state, they carry with them small silver miniatures of their domestic items, to keep present at all times the totemic comfort of a home that does not change, but remains ever-present and welcoming. I felt a chill of recognition as I read – that was me, that is why I was doing that with my dollhouse all those years. The subconscious wisdom of the seven-year-old reaches beyond Campbellian understanding into the collective Oversoul of survival. My coping strategy was in fact a cultural value for an entire people on a different continent!
This ability to carry a feeling of being at home with me, no matter where I am, has served me well, through five countries, fourteen cities, seventeen languages; some by choice, some out of necessity. Fortunately, I have grown beyond the OCD of my childhood, and look with empathy on that little girl of my past, who so struggled to make sense of the constant changes. My home is in my heart, and with my family, and with a few small totems that are easily packed and transported. It was such a relief to jettison in Oklahoma in 2016 all the material items that held no totemic value for me. Our house was literally perched above a basement that filled with things, given to us by others on their way out. To purge that minor landfill and make room for expansive feelings of security and my small treasures was a highlight of that year. Rather than being controlled by my belongings, I was controlling them.
Italians get out their seasonal version of the dollhouse each year around Christmas. They take it very seriously. What we call a creche in the US (merci, France), they call a presepe. The presepi are everywhere, bearing witness to the idealized world we all carry within us. They are in store windows, restaurants, school, and of course, churches.
|Presepe, Piazza del Duomo, ristorante|
We make a point to visit places with presipi of note, because they are lovely, and also, they give a major bang for the buck when you have kids in tow. Of course, for me personally, they speak to my historic dollhouse fetish and metaphor.
Monasteries and places of pilgrimage, such as the Santuario di San Michele Arcangelo in Gargano, Puglia, or the Abbazia di Monte Oliveta Maggiore in Siena, put out truly breathtaking presepi, complete with elements of running water and sunny skies that fade continuously into a star-studded ceiling and back, animated figurines busy at their agricultural tasks.
On Sunday, Eleanor and I were admiring the presepe in Dreoni on Via Cavour, where a diminutive shepherd’s arm endless ran along the back of a
tiny sheep with a gleaming pair of miniature metal shears.
“Che cosa fa lui, Eleanor, alla peccora,” I asked her, pointing to the small shepherd. (What is he doing?)
“Tagliare i capelli,” she answered right away. (Cutting the hair.)
The children attend a semi-private Catholic school, and presepi are everywhere, on every floor and in every classroom, the largest one in the foyer. The foyer presepe is huge and has running water.
|Presepe, nell’androne di I Scolopi|
The one on Victor’s floor is considerably more rustic, and amusing.
Each presepe represents a way we wish the world might be, could be – a place of rest, and hope, where what we need may not be easily found at first, but embraces us when we find it.
I hope all of you find your totemic place, not just at the holidays with various representations of holy people, saints, and animals, but throughout the year as we bob through our months, seemingly unmoored. Create the image and set your mind to it. Do not rely on external circumstances for daily reassurance – if it comes that way, fine. But the days that it doesn’t, a tiny dollhouse or a presepe might be just the thing.
This made me nostalgic and wistful. I love the idea of carrying around a totem representing that which cannot be carried.
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