People vs. Things

 A Milly for the new millennium.

A Milly for the new millennium.

One afternoon a few weeks ago, I spotted my five-year-old walking around the house with a pair of scissors in her hand.  If you live with small people, you will understand the fear this cast into my heart.  I asked her what she was up to and she mumbled something that sounded plausible and harmless.  I eyed her suspiciously, directing her to return the scissors to their home, pronto.

Cut to half an hour later.  I'm in her bedroom and spy, with my little eye, strands of brown yarn toppling out of the small garbage bin in the corner.  I make a move to investigate, the knowledge of what I'm seeing starting to sink in.  I've realized why that yarn looks so familiar, and begin to hunt around for its original owner.  I find her hidden under a pile of her stuffed friends.

My daughter had taken the liberty of giving one of her sister's dolls a hair cut.  Not just any doll, though.  The doll that had been mine as a child.  My beloved Milly.  One of the only souvenirs of my childhood.

I sat there in shock, a host of emotions coursing through me.  I felt tears well up.  I felt anger rise.  And then, I realized that this was a moment designed for me to practice what I preach.

I am not a fan of stuff.  Clutter makes me anxious and I don't really do well with receiving gifts, truth be told (there are lots of reasons for this, but I won't delve into my personal psychology today).  Lately, I've been on a mission to let go of things and live a simpler life focused on the people I love and our experiences together.  I am very inspired by the movement toward minimalism, and in the last few years I have donated and sold countless things, trading the physical and mental space they require for more serenity.  Along the way, I've been trying to espouse these values to my daughters.  We are by no means toy-less around here, but we talk a lot about how quality is better than quantity, how experiences and relationships are more important than things, and how, while it's lovely to have things we enjoy, at the end of the day, happiness isn't store-bought.

This lesson gets a thorough re-telling any time something breaks around here.  When a toy breaks, I express my sympathy for the disappointment my girls feel, but I emphasize that that is what toys do, they break, that things are things and what is most important is that we have not broken.  I think I even said something once about how when a balloon pops, it is fulfilling its destiny (note to self: children's book idea). 

That was all well and good.  Until it was my thing that broke.

So there I sat, with a shorn and forlorn Milly in my lap, and it was then I realized that the sadness my daughters feel when a toy breaks is not for the loss of the thing at all: what they are really mourning is the loss of the experience.  They were having so much fun, and now that fun is over, and even if the toy is still functional, they are grieving the loss of the experience 'just that way', with everything in place as it was when the fun began.  Change is hard.  Whoa Nelly, do I know about that.  For my part, I think the loss of Milly's hair, the loss of her being just the way she has been for 30+ years, called up the hurt I feel about the loss of my childhood, touched a place of long-dormant pain about the loss of the experience of being with my family at that time, during the happier times anyway.

I called my daughter to me.  She knew that the jig was up.  With a calm that I rather impressed myself with, I explained to her that what she had done was wrong, that Milly meant a lot to her sister and me, and that it hurt our feelings that she cut Milly's hair without permission.  While a thing is just a thing, it is still wrong and disrespectful to cause harm to someone else's property, and I wanted to be sure that she understood that and apologized.  I suspected that her curiosity about what it would be like to cut a doll's hair had gotten the better of her, which she confirmed, and so we discussed how she could explore that in appropriate ways.  And then apologies were uttered and we hugged it out, and moved on with our day. 

What I didn't admit to my daughter is that mixed up with the sadness and anger that bubbled up in me was a feeling of awe: Milly actually kind of rocks a mohawk.  Okay, I'll say it, she looks amazing.  I wish I could pull off that look.

I suppose change can be good.