As children, we were fascinated by the miniature. We loved baby ducks, baby bunnies, baby dolls, and, of course, babies. Maybe it is because the small thing was closer to our own size, maybe we felt less threatened around something smaller than ourselves. When it came to toys, my favorites were my Easy-Bake Oven and a kid-sized doll house built by my mother and sister for me for Christmas one year, complete with brick exterior (ok, wallpaper) and garden (ok, plastic trees). It was a canvas for the fantasies of my eight-year-old imagination.
“Toys literally prefigure the world of adult functions, and obviously cannot but prepare the child to accept them all,” says French cultural critic Roland Barthes in his fascinating (and small) collection of essays, Mythologies. Boys practice being workers and soldiers with little trucks and guns, girls learn how to be homemakers with little kitchens and dolls. Our toys are society’s way of “training” us to live the lives we are expected to live. Mini-brainwashing you might call it. I get that. It makes sense that this part of our lives is formed by a higher percentage of “nurture” over “nature”. These days, boys play with dolls and girls with guns, but there’s still a strong magnetic pull for each gender to their “accepted” toys, and still, their accepted roles.
Whether or not my toys trained me to be the person I am, I’m not sure, but that dollhouse was the best present I ever had. It was almost more important than Barbie, its single inhabitant. Barbie lived alone, you see, because in my mind, this two room apartment was too small for a couple, and Barbie was in her early thirties, a career girl. This was 1973, and I grew up Mormon. Everything in my life pointed me towards marriage and babies. Then why did this toy not do its job? Maybe, as with many women of my generation, a myriad choices took me different directions. Or maybe I re-interpreted the message of the dollhouse to fit my own dreams.
It began life as a large wooden trunk-like box that had held my brothers’ train sets. Turned on its end and remodeled with a board added to separate the space, the box had a large lid/door that opened to reveal two rooms. The top room my mother had decorated as a bedroom, and the bottom was the little living room and kitchen. The top of the box wasn’t forgotten, and was laid with little toy trees and a small Astroturf lawn and Lilliputian park bench, too small for Barbie, really, but adorable. It was a rooftop garden. The whole thing was clad with human-sized brick contact paper and had a neo-Classical front door with columns, windows and long black shutters made from cardstock glued in place. This was a brownstone, or some other turn of the century apartment building, and it wasn’t a family home. Therefore, Barbie had to be single. My real-life family home was a 1962-built redwood-sided (Yes, REAL old-growth redwood from Northern California) ranch-style house in the post-war suburbs of Spokane Washington, roiling with my four brothers and two sisters who all shared rooms, clothes, shoes, toys, arguments and laughter. Barbie lived blissfully alone in her tidy little pied-de-terre. It was small, it was beautiful. It was hers.
And it was mine. I remember imagining myself in two rooms, and loving the idea of having everything I owned in one place.
A table, a chair. A few books. One pot, one bowl, one spoon. A stone. A beautiful shell.
But we outgrow these things, right? We grow up and enter society, and go to college, and read French philosophers and get jobs and work hard to buy that 800, 1,200, then 3,000 square foot home with the perfectly green yard smelling of fertilizer and the three bedrooms smelling of 2.5 children. The problem was, I never really wanted that. Maybe because I was a “spare” kid. There was the heir – in my family’s case – there were six – and seven years later, there was me. My parents told me that when I was a baby, the other kids read an article about how to make your child a genius, so the kids wanted to experiment. They heeded the article, never putting me in a playpen, which was the style of the day, but letting me roll and roam freely. I was a product of a two-parent family, plus six proxies. Who knows? I think they created a bit of a monster, myself, but nevertheless, I was of a different generation than they. The very last Baby Boomer, (born the last day of the last year of the Baby Boom, December 31, 1964) with the attitude that I could do anything. I could sell the tiny Red Velvet Cakes I made in my Easy-Bake Oven to my brothers for five cents a piece, I could move to New York City and live in a 300-square-foot penthouse apartment and have a fabulous career. Which is kind of what I did. Kind of.
Well, I went to too much school, lived in San Francisco and London and Houston. I got married twice, but it never really took, and I had a potential career in the world of the InterWebs, making a more-than-decent living. But here I am at 49, living on a small island with a great boyfriend (who also doesn’t want to get married) and a tiny career as a writer, happy as a clam in a tiny clamshell, and happiest when I can pare down to fewer possessions and set up my nest in the small nook of a tree.
I wonder how many of us are like that? How many of us grew up practicing our lives on small toys, which seemed comforting and safe, and then let our lives and houses get out of control, too big for our bodies and our psyches and our nerves?And then, as we listen to ourselves – to the original child in us – we start to reel it in, to desire fewer possessions but more freedom?
Another French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, wrote in his fabulous book The Poetics of Space, of our fascination with the miniscule domiciles of nature – shells, nests, and hollowed-out trees, and the small spaces of our childhood imagination – corners, closets, hiding places: “The house grows in proportion to the body that inhabits it.” He isn’t talking only about physical size, but emotional size. A tiny house grows with the love and joy the person living there brings to it. In contrast, vastness can evokeloneliness – for me, and for many, I think. But he sees the two sides as necessary for completeness:
Sometimes the house of the future is better built, lighter and larger than all the houses of the past, so that the image of the dream house is opposed to that of the childhood home… Maybe it is a good thing for us to keep a few dreams of a house that we shall live in later, always later, so much later, in fact, that we shall not have time to achieve it. For a house that was final, one that stood in symmetrical relation to the house we were born in, would lead to thoughts—serious, sad thoughts—and not to dreams. It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.
I have never seen an idea so manifest in reality than the story I saw in a recent documentary film, The Queen of Versailles. In 2007, billionaire Time-Share King David Siegel and his wife Jacqueline, at the height of their wealth, designed and began to build the largest home in America, a 90,000 square foot replica of the Versailles Palace, complete with swimming pool, bowling alley, health spa, 30 bathrooms and 10 kitchens. Et cetera, et cetera. It was a modern-day Hearst San Simeon. No, beyond that. A dream house beyond dreams. A modern day Citizen Kane’s Xanadu.
In the meantime, the bottom falls out of the market, and the bottom falls out of the Siegels’ life. Still, with impending foreclosure, Siegel vows to finish the place, which is now a vast languishing carapace of a castle, more ruin than royal. As Bachelard says, if this “home” is ever finished, it will be the place of “serious, sad thoughts,” of nightmares, no longer dreams.
More and more people, especially after the economic downturn, have begun to reevaluate their living situations, their half-empty 3,000 square foot homes miles from the closest grocery outlet. We hear of people attempting – whether by choice or necessity – to bring their lives in line with the changing realities of our “Twilight of the Giants” culture. Others are throwing off the bigger-is-better idea, simplifying their lives for environmental reasons, hoping to consume less and thereby create a more sustainable planet. But I think a part of it we might not recognize is the fact that a smaller house, fewer possessions and a simpler life is what we want, not only what we need. I think I’m a part of a whole culture of people that are romanced by our memories of a simpler life, even if it was never ours.
“Memories of the outside world will never have the same tonality as those of home and, by recalling these memories, we add to our store of dreams; we are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.”
The small toys and spaces of our childhood did their work, sent us out into the world to become its citizens, but the memory of them never left, and remain something we value. We’ve gained a heck of a lot in the past 100 years – monetarily, technologically and culturally. But I think as a culture we are realizing that we’ve also lost much of the poetry of the past in the clouds of complexities of our world, and that finding a smaller place to dream, a simpler way to live, may be one thing that helps to save us from ourselves.